CHAPTER 16

1952 - 55

ALASKA AND MORE EXPERIENCES IN USS PATAPSCO

Shemya is an island near the western end of the Aleutian chain. The Air Force had a full service air base located on Shemya until appropriation redistribution caused it to be closed in the early 1950's.

It was also used as a refueling base for commercial aircraft flying from the US to Japan. (This was a half dozen years before jet aircraft began transoceanic flights).

I used to wonder why a ship going from San Francisco to Tokyo would run into heavy fog off Alaska. It was not until I learned "great circle" navigation that I learned why. To be self-taught get a piece of thread two feet long and a globe of the world. Put one end of the thread on San Francisco and another on Tokyo. Roll the thread until it is the tightest on the earth's surface. You may be surprised to see that instead of going west toward Hawaii you go over the top of he world 1600 miles north of Hawaii.

In the 1500s Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator devised a paper chart to simplify plotting course lines for ships to follow when crossing the ocean. To understand the chart imagine you have the land masses of the earth painted on a balloon like a globe.

Cut the balloon from pole to pole across the Atlantic Ocean. Stretch it until you have a rectangle and tack down the four corners. Because Greenland is near the top of the world it has to be stretched quite a bit. Because Australia is near the equator it is stretched very little. So the geography books we used in school shows Greenland larger that Australia when in fact Australia is four times the size of Greenland. At one time the Air Force banned Mercator maps on any base. They did not want their personnel to think the closest distances to Moscow from the US are the east coast when in fact they are Cheyenne, Wyoming and the Dakotas. So Shemya is strategically located near the great circle route to Japan.

When the Air Force closed the base (later reopened) they left shiploads of aviation fuel behind. We were given the task of transporting it to Attu and Adak on opposite ends of the Aleutian chain.

The Air Force had blasted away the rocks along the shore and built a small pier for ships to dock. Storms, called williwaws in Alaska, had broken and washed away two thirds of the pier.

I studied the charts. My challenge was to dock the empty ship at a pier one-third the ship's length without crashing into the rocks at the shore line or at edge of the blasted out channel.

I felt my chances were less than a hundred to one to dock successfully. I spent a long night thinking of the options. Since a Navy Captain is forbidden to subject his ship to hazards including stranding it on rocks or shoals one option was to refuse the mission which would not be the brightest move for my career.

I pictured myself in the worst scenario. I would try to land alongside the pier but be unsuccessful and "strand" the ship on the rocks. It would take a lot of time, money and effort for the Navy to refloat and repair the ship. I would be court martialed but probably not be kicked out of the Navy. I would probably be fined and have an adverse notation placed in my file which would prevent being given major responsibility in the future. But the most important thing in the world, relationships, would still be a part of my life. I would still have the love and support of my wife and children and friends. So it boiled down to , not if, but how?

The bow of the ship was reinforced steel and pretty tough. I sent some line handlers ashore in our whaleboat. I explained the plan to the officers and crew so they would not be surprised at the upcoming collision. I had decided to approach the pier at 8 knots and bury the bow of the ship in the end of the pier. The line handlers would secure the bow line to the pier. We would then put out a stern line to keep the stern from being blown across the channel on to the rocks. Then we would back down and bring the ship alongside with the mooring lines.

We headed toward the pier. I told the helmsman to steer for the center of the end of the pier. I warned the crew to stand by for collision. As we approached the pier I backed down the engines to lessen the impact. I noticed the ship was drifting to the left and might just clear the pier. We glided alongside and into our berth just clearing the side of the pier by inches. It was the best landing I ever made. I regretted having revealed my plan. The officers and crew would have given me credit for being a master shiphandler. Ship captains are called on to dock ships in many challenging situations as evidenced by the dents in the ship's sides and the ribs sticking out from scraping the sides of the pier. Our conclusion, like that of aviators, is that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

The international waters off Alaska belong to the Russians as well as all nations including the US. Sometimes during the night we pick up a fast moving target on radar heading directly toward us.

I concluded they were Russian Torpedo Boats practicing torpedo runs on us. It was like in the Mediterranean where Russian ships liked to play chicken" with our ships. During the cold war Russian destroyers would join our Aircraft Carrier task forces and operate as though they were a part of the formation.

Ordinarily a ship captain is preoccupied with keeping water under the hull of his ship and making sure it never makes contact with anything but sea water. But in the situation described above some of the admirals would designate a destroyer to be a pusher. The American ship would place rope "fenders" along the sides and go along side the Russian destroyer and push it out of the formation.

Back to Alaska the torpedo boats would approach on the starboard side of my ship and although I had the right of way they were daring me to yield the right of way.

In the "night order book", an order book prepared for the Officer of the Deck's guidance when the captain goes to sleep, I instructed him to sound General Quarters, which gets the ship manned and ready to fight, when a high speed target approaching us came within five miles.

It was my intention to fire a warning shot from one of our 3 inch 50 caliber guns when it came within a mile of us. Based on World War II and the cold war I believed that weakness invited aggression and I would not be the "chicken" who gave up first.

Some of my officers were disturbed that we might cause an "international incident." I decided I should notify the Operations Officer of the Alaskan Frontier Commander of my intentions.

He was more shook up than my officers. He warned me that I was on my own and that if I caused an international incident it was without the authorization or approval of that command. I learned a lesson. I had a lot of help when it came to the specifications for painting the ship, but when it comes down to the risk of being a hero or a scapegoat, the responsibility for the outcome often passes down the line to person taking the risk.

One my first trip to Adak, I was amazed at the beauty of the snowy mountains particularly the majestic 20,300 foot high Mount McKinley.

I overheard a man from the Naval Base complaining about the bad weather. I pointed out the beauty of the scenery and the warmth of the sun. His response, " I have been here 8 months. This is the first time I have seen Mt. McKinley". Perhaps he exaggerated. Every Alaskan citizen I know will testify that the purchase of Alaska from Russia by Secretary of State, Seward for $7,200.000, (about 2 cents per acre) was one of the wise moves made by the government even though at the time skeptics called Alaska "Sewards Icebox."

In the ocean around the Hawaiian Islands there is a lot of deep water and canyons and mountains. The part of the ocean to the north of the big island of Hawaii has not been very thoroughly charted. A University of Southern California professor, Dr. K.O. Emery got permission to do further charting. We were assigned to help him. The only instrument we had was an electronic Fathometer, which continually shows the depth of the water underneath the ship.

We went to the north end of the big Island at a predetermined location to start the survey. For one week my farming experience came in handy. We covered the ocean like we were plowing the north 80.

For one week in heavy seas we would cruise 10 miles north, make a left turn and come back to the island, make a right turn and repeat he process. We never saw the results of the professor's work but he sent us the college article on the research project.. After completing the week we took him to Hilo to fly back to California.

If he located any significant mountains I hope he did not give an exact location. We were making those turns day and night in heavy seas and not always sure exactly where we were. This was before Global Positioning Satellites were in space to give travelers their exact position on the earth.

All rights reserved

James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail jimmorena@aol.com

May be reproduced for entertainment
or educational purposes but not for
commercial purposes.



Click here to go to the Stories Index
Click here to go to the main USS West Virginia page

Copyright 2000-2020 James W. Downing and USSWestVirginia.org. All rights reserved.