It was a dark night and the sea was raging

Seas were running 70 feet and even in the dark of night we could see glimmers of light as the typhoon whipped spray from the tops of wave crests and they were bathed in the occasional moonlight that escaped the cloud cover.

kitty-hawk-cva-63-1967-ships-insigniaIt was July 1969 and from the navigation bridge of the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, CVA-63, even the might of the 90,000 ton carrier with its cargo that included 5,000 sailors and marines was yielding to the mighty force of the typhoon.

The ‘Hawk had  been at anchor in Hong Kong harbor with at least 3,000 of its 5,000 men ashore enjoying a well-deserved R&R of six days or so.

Sailors had dispersed throughout Hong Kong whether seeking inexpensive (but finely tailored) clothes, sight-seeing or exploring for wine, women and song. The ship had departed San Diego on New Year’s Eve 1968 and on Jan 1 was enroute to Pearl Harbor.yankee_station_location_1

By Jan 25 we were on Yankee Station off of Viet Nam so the R&R was a hit!

We still had a day left in Hong Kong. That’s when the news came. Typhoon Viola had been well out beyond the Philippine Sea in the Pacific but now had turned and was headed straight for Taiwan and the Northern tip of the Philippine Islands and … toward Hong Kong. Now the last place an aircraft carrier needs to be in heavy weather is in a harbor. No amount of anchoring could guarantee that an anchor might not drag, or lose its hold entirely, possibly allowing the ship to be run aground in the harbor and — no doubt — wiping out everything in its path.

Viola has been described this way:

Large Super Typhoon Viola, which formed on July 22 east of the Philippines, brushed northern Luzon with winds of 150 mph on the 26th. It continued to the northwest, and weakened due to lack of inflow. Viola hit southeastern China as a minimal typhoon on the 28th, and dissipated the next day. The typhoon caused 11 deaths, with 17 missing. (emphasis added)

From AbsoluteAstronomy.com via http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/1969_Pacific_typhoon_season accessed Feb 28, 2009.

The call went out for all hands to return to the ship. All 3,000+ of them who were now scattered all over Hong Kong and Kowloon. Navy Shore Patrol scooped sailors off of the streets and out of bars and brothels.   It was July 27, 1969 when we got underway.

As one of several underway Officers of the Deck (what is an Officer of the Deck?), it happened I had the watch that dark night as we sought to escape the wrath of the storm. My recollection is that we simply slipped out to the South China Sea between Hong Kong and the island of Taiwan and headed South. We were running downwind with two “cans” in company — those were the escort destroyers who had ported with us in Hong Kong. Off our port beam was another carrier with her two destroyers and we were all running before the 70 foot seas.

We were fortunate on the carrier with its 1081 foot length and 275 foot beam amidships. We were pitching into the wave troughs and rolling about 10 degrees side-to-side, but the destroyers would disappear from sight in the troughs and were rolling 30-50 degrees side-to-side. They were frequently scribing a 90 degree arc as they rolled from left to right and back again. We were lucky, they were miserable.

I had the evening watch, 8 to midnight. We were some hours into my watch when the radio-telephone barked and aroused us from the monotony of watching the bow dip into the approaching wave with “green” water occasionally breaking over the bow. USS KITTY HAWK (CV 63)

Back to the radio in a moment, but you need to appreciate the fact that the bow on the carrier is 90 feet off the water.

The term “green” water refers to enough water to have the green look of the deep sea — in other words, a LOT of water!

Our aft lookout had informed the bridge that he thought he saw an extra red mastlight astern of us. We could sometimes see more of the destroyers, but often we could only identify their red lights at the very top of the mast. But this was yet another light. Again the lookout called up to the bridge and this time he was certain that from the rolling, deep swells shrouded by driving rain and blowing spray, he could see a ship gaining on our group from astern, coming up between us and the other carrier which was about 500 yards off our port beam.

Radar was of no use as the “sea return” was such that all surface contact images were obliterated. We could not confirm the lookout’s report.

The radio call started with our tactical callsign “Pawtucket.” But that was the last normal part of the call.  Even over the howling wind surrounding the glass-enclosed bridge some 135 feet above the water line, the speaker blared “Pawtucket, this is the U.S.S.R. Cerchenko (making up the name as I don’t recall it). You know us as the Russian trawler. We are approaching you from astern.”  The voice on the other end – identifying as a Russian – was in perfect, unbroken midwestern English. “We request to steam in company with you during the storm” the English/Russian voice continued. In perfect English, using our tactical callsign, I had an enemy ship (it was still the “cold” war, remember) trying to talk to me!

What the &^#%^& I thought! What now? I’m in charge of this ship and it’s 5,000 men, it’s the middle of the night, there is nothing in my training about this scenario and the Captain is sound asleep in his at-sea cabin.  This so-called “trawler” was the electronic surveillance vessel that shadowed ships on Yankee Station. They would not only collect electronic intelligence but also harassed with such capers as trying to cross our bow as we started flight operations, in violation of the international rules of the road.

“Quartermaster” I called to the sailor across the bridge, “please wake the Captain.” The Captain instructed me to have the trawler continue and to take station directly on our port beam, midway between the two carriers. He was unconcerned because, as dictated by the traditions at sea, any ship and its sailors will come to the aid of another. Those trawlers were not large vessels and she sought, and received from the United States Navy, the safety of company during the storm.

“USSR Cerchenko this is the USS Kitty Hawk, please take station on our port beam between the two carriers and keep station on us” I reported back to the trawler. And there she stayed for, as I recall, a couple of days until the weather abated. You see, the storm was chasing us so we stayed in it for a long while. We kept an eye on her, and she on the ‘Hawk.  Later, as luck would have it, I was back on the bridge when I took the final call.  “Kitty Hawk, this is USSR Cerchenko. Thank you very much. Request permission to depart company.” So here, again in perfect English, this Russian is requesting permission to leave? Like she needed it. But that was the polite thing to do in the context, and once again I picked up the black plastic handset to the radio circuit, pushed the button, and said simply “permission granted.”

The upshot of that was that had the trawler been a US Navy ship we would have tactical command of that ship while it is part of our formation so I guess I can claim that for a short while, I had tactical command of a Russian ship!  🙂

It was an interesting episode. Interesting about our two countries — the United States and Russia — in that the usual adversarial encounter of the electronic surveillance they conducted on us off of Yankee Station was set aside in the context of the potential jeopardy of the seas; and interesting about the humans involved to conduct that simple event with genuine interest for the other as if it were a daily occurrence.

Here is the Hong Kong harbor — while it appears protected, it would be a dangerous harbor for a carrier to be caught in.

hongkong