My Life Aboard Ship
By Steven R. Butler, Ph.D. (former PR3, VS-24)
My Job Aboard Ship
My job aboard ship was the same as on land--to repair and maintain the flight suits and helmets used by pilots and enlisted aircrewmen, as well as the parachutes and life rafts we all hoped they would never have to use. Along with the other parachute riggers and AMEs, I worked in a long narrow compartment at the stern end of the ship, located two or three levels above the fantail and just below the end of the flight deck, where we could easily hear the noise the airplanes made as they landed only a few feet above our heads. We called this compartment the parachute loft or just "paraloft" for short, although that designation more accurately applied to the two-level tall compartment immediately beneath us, where parachutes, after being washed, were hung out to dry. (This compartment was also used to store a few metal coffins that we also hoped would never have to be used. The first time I saw them there, it creeped me out.) It sometimes occurred to me that if one of the planes ever came in a little low and hit the end of the ship instead of the deck, it would almost certainly result not only in the deaths of the crew but all the occupants of the paraloft as well. I tried not to think about that though.
Dominating the center of the paraloft, and taking up most of this entirely windowless space, was a long, waist-high metal packing table on which parachutes were unpacked, inspected and re-packed. Life rafts, both personal and aircraft sized, were also unpacked, inspected, and re-packed on the packing table. Several large storage compartments with metal doors lined the interior bulkhead. The exterior bulkhead, through which if there had been any portholes we could have seen the fantail below, was lined with one or more desks where paperwork could be processed and shelves that provided additional workspace. We also had one or two sewing machines and a few tall stools and regular metal desk chairs upon which to sit. On the port side bulkhead there was a sink and water faucets. Just about everything in the room was painted gray, except the sewing machines, which were black.
In August, to brighten our workspace a little, I began using some enamel paint, the type used for plastic model kits (or paint that were similar), to reproduce small versions of the national flags of each the countries we visited on one of the locker doors. Below each flag I painted the dates of our visit to that particular country. Each flag probably measured about 3 or 4 inches wide by 5 or 6 inches long. On the same or a different locker door, I also painted flags and dates corresponding to the countries our squadron had visited during the 1969 cruise aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown and identified them as such. I wish now that I had photographed these doors. I have also occasionally wondered if when the Intrepid was decommissioned only a year or so later, the paintings were left intact and if they could therefore still be seen today. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to go to New York City to visit the Intrepid, which is now a permanent Air-Sea-Space museum, to see for myself.
Of course we also worked up on the flight deck from time to time. In between "flight ops," when the airplanes were secured to the deck, was the time when we would replace a life raft or parachutes, which had to be done according to a strict rotation timetable. This necessitated entering the cockpit and cabin of the S-2E "Trackers" our squadron flew or climbing up on top of the wings and fuselage to get to the spot on top where the big salt-water activated life rafts were stored.
Maintaining flight helmets was pretty straightforward. Generally, all we had to do was clean the visors and replace any padding that was coming loose inside. We also decorated the helmets with reflective tape of various colors, according the taste of the individual pilot or crewmember. This was one of the few tasks that I actually enjoyed doing. None of our squadron's planes flew high enough to necessitate the use of oxygen masks but the A-4 Skyhawk pilots did. Sometimes, even though they were from a different squadron, I would clean those out for them upon request and replace the filters, a skill I had acquired during the time I was stationed in Florida with a land-based attack squadron. We also tested the masks, attaching them to an oxygen tank we kept in the loft; to be sure they were functioning properly.
At sea, we worked twelve-hour shifts. To occupy our spare time we played cards (21 was my favorite game; I never did learn to play Poker), wrote letters, or listened to and recorded music. To save room aboard ship (we had only small lockers in which to store our personal gear), I had long ago given up buying records and by this time had mostly cassette tapes. Whenever one of my buddies bought a new record album that I liked, I would record it. I did buy a few records, from time to time, but not many.
See My Favorite Record Albums of the 1971 Cruise of Intrepid
At Sea in the Baltic (May 14-21)
After leaving Plymouth, Intrepid entered the English Channel. From there, the ship transited the North Sea, sailing up around the northern tip of Jutland (the peninsula that comprises the largest part of Denmark) and passing through the Kattegat to become either the "first carrier to conduct flight operations in the eastern Baltic," or the first U.S. carrier in the Baltic since World War II. I also read somewhere else that Intrepid was the first American "warship" of any kind to operate in the Baltic. In any case, our presence in that body of water, which the Soviets considered their private domain, reportedly made them very nervous. At this time, three destroyers accompanied us-the U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy (DD-850), the U.S.S. Taussig (DE-1030), and the U.S.S. Hartley (DE-1029).
For five days we operated in an large expanse of water bounded more or less on the west by the Danish island of Bornholm, on the north by the Swedish island of Gotland, on the south by the coasts of East Germany and Poland, and on the east by the coasts of Latvia and Lithuania, which were then both part of the Soviet Union. At one point, we came within 20 miles of the Latvian coast. I believe someone told me we came within either 20 miles or 200 miles of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) but he was surely wrong. Judging by the operations map that was printed on the inside cover of our cruise book, we never came closer than 500 miles from Leningrad, and that is "as the crow flies." As a ship sails, it was probably further. Even so, it was undoubtedly a lot closer than the Soviets would have liked.
For perhaps the only time during this cruise, and largely because of our unusual operating area, I took some interest in our activities, although as always I had no clue as to precisely where we were at any given time. According to official Navy records, "Soviet surface, subsurface an air surveillance was considerable" during this period. This was certainly true. Although I obviously could not see any submarines, there were almost always Soviet "fishing trawlers" (intelligence gathering ships) as well as military vessels of all types lurking nearby to keep an eye on us, just as there were nearly everywhere we went. The occasional presence of patrol boats flying the East German and Polish flags enabled us know when we were close to the shores of those particular countries.
Once, at some point during the cruise, a Soviet trawler came so close to our port (left) side that we could make out the facial features of its crew, who crowded their decks to have a look at us. Of course, we did the same. As they passed us, traveling from bow to fantail, I was standing with some friends somewhere near the stern, probably on the catwalk just below the flight deck or perhaps a little lower down. In any event, as the Soviet vessel came within sight, the men of the Intrepid shouted and waved and made a variety of hand gestures that must have surely confused the Russians. Some sailors, like me, presented the two-fingered "V" or peace sign that was popular in those days. Others showed our Russian counterparts "the finger," or "the bird," as that unfriendly middle-fingered gesture is also known. I was surprised that there appeared to be no reaction at all from the Russians, who just stood there on deck and stared back at us with blank expressions.
One of the most dramatic moments of the cruise came one day in the Baltic when a Soviet Kamov Ka-25 helicopter, either operating from shore or from one of the cruisers that constantly tailed us, "buzzed" our flight deck from stern to bow, just above the tops of our parked aircraft, like an angry hornet. I happened to be on the flight deck at the time, or standing in one of the catwalks beside it, and saw this happen with my own eyes. It was hard to mistake the big red star on the sides of the helicopter's three tails, its squat fuselage, and twin rotors, which made a very loud noise and appeared to be rotating in opposite directions. It was the most unusual helicopter I had ever seen. I was also taken aback by the Soviets' boldness but I learned later that such maneuvers were not unusual. It was all a part of that dangerous and provocative "cat and mouse" game that both navies played with one another throughout the Cold War. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me at the time this overflight occurred, but someone did and a photo of this aircraft, or one like it, later appeared in the ship's cruise book.
During these five days, one of HS-11's helicopters flew from the deck of the Intrepid to the Danish island of Bornholm, to bring Guilford Dudley--the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, aboard for a visit. I heard later that this seemingly innocent occurrence led the Soviets to lodge a protest with our government, because some sort of treaty or international agreement had declared Bornholm completely off-limits to military activity. The Russians charged that when our helicopter landed there, this action technically violated the treaty or agreement. I learned more than three decades later that during this cruise the Intrepid also violated a treaty with Denmark regarding nuclear weapons.
Admiral Kierkegaard of the Swedish Navy and other Swedish dignitaries, for whom "an ASW demonstration was performed," also visited the Intrepid during operations in the Baltic and at various other points during the cruise, several other "distinguished guests" came aboard for short visits. These included Norwegian Minister of Defense A. J. Fostervall, West German Minister of Defense (and future West German president) Helmut Schmidt, Vice-Admiral V.P. Depoix of the U.S. Second Fleet, "Dennis the Menace" cartoonist Hank Ketchum, Vice Admiral Robert L. Townsend-Commander of the Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, P.K. Crowe-U.S. Ambassador to Norway, Rear Admiral H. S. Skjong of the Royal Norwegian Navy, a Mr. Clark Mays, Brigadier General D. E. Stout of the U.S. Air Force, and dozen or so Playboy "Bunnies" from the London Playboy Club. I don't remember seeing any of these people, however, probably because I was either working or on liberty or leave when they came aboard and also because their being aboard had nothing directly to do with me.
The Day We Nearly Sank
On the afternoon of Thursday, May 27, 1971, the Intrepid was passing through the English Channel, near Folkestone, when it veered into a "shipping graveyard," an area where the hulls and superstructures of sunken ships lie out of sight just beneath the surface of the water, posing a hazard to shipping. Entering this spot could have resulted in disaster. If the Intrepid, which had a deep draught of 23 feet, had torn a hole in its side or bottom, it would almost certainly have sank and become a danger to shipping herself. Fortunately, the British coast guard was alert that day and fired three rocket flares into the sky, which alerted our helmsman to the danger.
Because I was on night duty during this period, I was either asleep or trying to sleep in my "rack," when suddenly I (and all my sleeping shipmates) was awakened by a tremendous shuddering as the ship tilted violently and abruptly to one side. For what seemed like several minutes the entire vessel creaked and groaned ominously, while inch-thick steel bulkheads popped like flexible sheets of metal, making loud booming noises. Then just as quickly as it had begun, the shuddering stopped and the ship leveled out. Naturally, everyone aboard immediately wondered what in the hell had happened, but at that point no one (except the helmsman) had any idea.
In fact, for a few days following this seemingly mysterious occurrence, no one aboard the Intrepid had a clue until some of the men began getting letters from friends and relatives, containing newspaper clippings. It was then that we learned what had happened. What shocked and surprised us was not that our own captain had kept us in the dark but also that the U.S. Navy, according to the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers, denied the British coast guard's report!
Read a report of this incident in the Dallas Morning News.
Passing Through the Straits of Gibraltar
Our passage through the Straits of Gibraltar four days after we nearly sank in the English Channel was also memorable but for much better reasons. As a result of having duty from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., I was awake of course, and standing on the flight deck with some friends, when we entered the Straits at dawn on Monday, May 31, 1971. It was a beautiful morning, either cloudless or nearly so. On one side of us was Europe and on the other, Africa. As the sun rose in the east, the direction in which we were traveling, it made the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which were visible on our starboard or right side, glow with an eye-catching golden hue. On the port or left side, we could clearly see the rocky southern coast of Spain.
As we stood there in the early morning breeze, drinking in this magnificent scene, Captain Williams or some other officer announced over the ship's public address system that we would be passing the Rock of Gibraltar very soon and said that we should all be looking out for the Prudential Insurance Company sign on its side. Most of the crew knew this was a joke. The Prudential Insurance Company used the Rock of Gibraltar for its corporate logo but we certainly didn't expect to see a sign on the actual rock, except for one of the guys in our group, who kept staring through a pair of binoculars and complaining, quite seriously, that he just couldn't see it! We just let him make a fool of himself until the ship drew closer to Gibraltar. At last, we couldn't stand it anymore, and began laughing. It was only then that he realized what a sucker he had been.
We Lose a Chopper
On July 30, the day after we left Copenhagen, one of the ship's helicopters, belonging to HS-11, crashed into the North Sea. As quickly as it could, the Intrepid moved to the crash site, where the crew was found relatively unharmed, waiting in a large life raft with the abandoned chopper resting on its side in the water, its cargo hatch wide open.
I watched from one of the catwalks as the crew was rescued, but when divers wearing wetsuits went into the water to try to attach cables to the helicopter, so that it could be hoisted to the flight deck with the ship's crane, the men had trouble doing their work. In the meantime, the cargo hatch remained open and with each succeeding wave, the chopper filled with seawater until at length, it slowly sank beneath the surface from the weight of all the water inside it and then disappeared altogether.
While all this was going on, some Soviet ships lay at a distance from the Intrepid, curiously keeping an eye on the proceedings.
I Become a Blue Nose
For four days, following our stay at Greenock, Scotland, the Intrepid took part in ASW exercises in the Norwegian Sea with the newly commissioned nuclear powered submarine Bluefish (SSN-675) and the much older diesel powered Sirago (SS-485) as well as any "Soviet vessels of opportunity" that we happened to encounter. On August 14, although I don't remember being aware of it at the time, we crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time, which entitled everyone aboard ship to be designated a "Blue Nose." All crewmembers later received decorative certificates attesting to this fact, signed by the captain of the ship. (I still have my certificate, framed and hanging on the wall of my home office.) During this period, we actually made "a number of transits across the Arctic Circle."
Although a "Blue Nose" is the northerly version of a "Shellback" (a sailor who has crossed the Equator), there was no equivalent ceremony to mark the event, probably because it was too cold outside for such an event and also probably because our pilots and aircrew were too busy looking for Soviet subs.
I don't know how many subs our aircraft found but I do know that the Russians found us. In a letter to my wife, dated Thursday, August 12--the day we left port, I mentioned that I had recently been out on the fantail of the ship as two Soviet "Bear" bombers flew low overhead, followed by some of the Intrepid's A-4 Skyhawks, "which looked like gnats compared to the size of the Russian planes."