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My Love Affair with “Connie” USS Constellation CVA-64

I was transferred to the Connie in 1961, just after the big fire. I am what is known as a plank owner. (A plank owner is a person who is aboard a vessel when commissioned. In the old days when a ship was decommissioned, the original plank owners were given a piece, one of the planks, since they were wooden vessels, of the ship. The new policy includes any person who is aboard a vessel when it is refitted then commissioned as a different type vessel. Since ships are no longer made of wood, the crewmember is given a document proclaiming they are plank owners.)

When I arrived, one late dark evening, it was drizzling raining. As I got out of the taxi, I looked up and I saw stretching over my head the largest ship I had ever seen. The flight deck covered the pier and stretched beyond the taxi as far as I could see in the dim light. I was in no way ready for the gigantic size of this vessel.

I later found the flight deck measured over 4.1 acres and it was made of one and a half inch thick armored steel

During our first shakedown cruise, everything seemed to be going smoothly. We had been running test on the catapults. We didn’t have an airplane to throw around so we used an old Cadillac, the biggest and heaviest one they could find. The catapults didn’t seem to care so it threw the Cadillac a mile and a half out over the ocean. Fastest that car had every run. However, the sudden stop sort of messed it up a bit.

During these tests, we had an oil line rupture. Because it ran alongside a high temperature steam line, it immediately burst into flames. The steam temperature ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. Something you definitely don’t want to use your hand to check to see if it’s hot.

The catapults, in order to launch aircraft, use this super-heated steam to accelerate an aircraft from zero to 160 knots by the time they reach the end of the flight deck, less than 500 feet away. If this speed is not reached, the plane and its crew will crash into the sea. This is not a good thing, as the ship has been known to run over planes when this occurs.

I was in the electrical shop when a sudden ball of black smoke came down the ladder. Panic struck instantly and I realized that most of the men there had not followed the first instruction they had been given. We were all instructed to learn how to get from where we were to any place else on the ship, even in total darkness. I called for them to quiet down and to grab each other’s belt loop and I led them up the ladder and to the nearest exit into the hanger bay.

Once there we got into formation with the electrical gang. I approached the division officer and asked for permission to take a couple men and go check the switchboards to make sure the other men, still on the switchboards, were okay.

He told me to be careful and not to do anything foolish or maybe he said stupid, not sure. He also told me to report to him the condition of the boards and the men. I got a couple of volunteers and off we went. I should have recorded who went with me but now time and age have removed them from my memory.

I took the other two and we preceded to the escape hatches for each generator room and checked each switchboard. One man stayed at the hatch door in case there was a problem and he could notify the electrical officer immediately.

We found all our men to be safe. Surprisingly, and I don’t know why since they were doing what they had been instructed to do. All seemed to be in good spirits and none seemed to be fearful of the imminent danger they might be in. They were following the instructions from Center Control and had remained at their post.

I later learned that the men in the engine room, where the fire started, had remained on station also. Since the control stations were designed to function under this very situation, they were in no great danger, barring an explosion. The real problem was the men in the engine room not being able to reach the control station and safety. One or two of them died within just a few feet of the door.

This was a devastating blow to the ones inside the control station since anyone looking into the engine could have possibly seen them and saved them.
The control rooms were air-conditioned and sound proofed to cut down the noise from the turbo engines and other equipment running in the engine room itself. There was no way for them to hear the men no matter how loud they might have screamed or even if they had been able to bang something on the deck or bulkheads. I must assume there was a very dense layer of black smoke in the engine room, considering the dark black cloud that came down our shop ladder, which would have keep anyone from seeing anyone outside the control room.

Since the ship was only partially crippled, we continued into port. We maintained all eight generators on line because the enginemen switched the steam from the two affected generators to another engine room. The Connie is equipped with four engine rooms and each engine room has two generators, which had the capability of being supplied from any of the other engine rooms.

Then they started accessing the damage and making repairs, I had assumed they would have made adjustments to correct the problem of oil hitting the steam lines again. I later learned that this same problem persisted throughout the history of the Connie and had reoccurred many times.

In the summer of 1962, Connie was ordered to proceed to the Pacific Fleet. We headed for the west coast with a stop at the Jacksonville Naval Station. After refueling and taking on supplies, we got underway.

Once again, we ran into difficulty leaving Jacksonville. On 25 July, we did an all ahead full departure, a sort of “dam the torpedoes, full steam ahead,” thing, and off we went. Well, for a while anyway.

I was standing in the electrical shop at the work bench, just about the same spot I was when the fire started, and suddenly I saw the bulkhead move up and down very rapidly before my eyes. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. Just a few moments later the word came over the ship’s sound system that we had hit something and were returning to the Jacksonville Naval Station.

Rumors and wild speculations about what we had hit started to circulate about the ship. Some said there had been an oil slick and it was rumored we had hit a Russian submarine and others said we had hit an uncharted sandbar. After arriving at the Naval Base, they started checking the ship.

Divers could not find any damage to the hull, other than one tank that had filled with water. They concluded that no damage had occurred that would prevent us from continuing on to San Diego.

The official report said we had apparently hit an uncharted sandbar and it had only done minor damage to the ship. That was no surprise at 25 plus knots, (1.5 miles per hour to a knot) and 75,000 tons of steel; it is pretty hard to stop. To give you some idea of what it is like to stop this much ship, if you are in a boat and we are steaming at flank speed and you are one mile in front of us and we go into all back emergency (reverse), kiss everything goodbye because we are going to run you over.

Upon deployment, we tried to locate the area where we had hit whatever it was, but nothing could be found with the ship’s instruments. The officials soon decided if we had hit a sandbar then we had totally annihilated it. Considering the shaft propellers are 21 feet in diameter with a total of four shafts it isn’t any wonder that we would have put a very large dent in anything we ran over. We then continued on our trip to the west coast.

You’d think we had had enough excitement for this trip but we still had some more coming As we rounded Cape Horn, we came upon a storm of some magnitude. One wave was so high it hit the forward catwalk, which is 120 feet above the water line and bent it. You can see this wasn’t just a little storm but the Connie didn’t care. She knew how to handle them.

Later, during our yard period, I was standing in our electrical compartment when the ship started to vibrate as if we had just gone from all ahead flank to all back emergency. The 7.6 earthquake that hit Seattle, Washington and the surrounding area shook the Connie like it was a rag doll. One day later and we would have just been setting the ship down on the blocks for our overhaul. The Connie would never have survived that since the ship would have gone over on its side. Many would have died in such an incident.

During this yard period, they discovered the reason we wiped the shaft bearing every time we did an all back emergency, was the housing of the bearing had, apparently been ripped from the deck and the weld on one side was broken loose. Once this was repaired we no longer experienced the problem with the bearing.

After our yard period, we returned to San Diego for a short period for air operations so we could get reacquainted with air ops procedures. We once again deployed to the Vietnam arena and our old life started over again.

We had a few incidents on this particular cruise. One occurred when one of the parachute packers made a routine trip with one of the pilots. Regulations required a parachute packer periodically to go up with a parachute that they had packed. I suppose it was to keep them from getting lax in their job.

Well this wasn’t a good day for this particular packer. The jet had a flame out and they had to bail out. The pilots chute opened as it was suppose to, but the packers did not and apparently neither did his secondary, because he plummeted to his death in the ocean.

The next harrowing incident I found out about one morning was that two men had been playing catch with a flare. Seems it went off and killed one of the men.

I was the PPO for the electrical department for a while. We had a thief so the division officer and I decided to set a trap for him. I put some money in a wallet and hung it on the end of my bunk. It stayed there until the dye turned the money purple. I still have the money.

We had a new man come on board and as I reached in to wake him, he swung his fist at me. I was not next to the rack so all he hit was air. I told him he had better not do that the next day or he would be sorry.

He told me that it was a normal reaction when anyone touched him while he slept.

I told him I had a cure for it.

He said he had been that way all his life and no one could cure him.

The next morning I reached in, grabbed his shoulder, and he swung out at me. The garbage can lid I was holding took a solid blow.

The next morning when I reached in and grabbed his shoulder, he slowly opened his eyes and looked up at me I said, “See how easy it is to break a habit.” I never had another problem with him.

We had a second-class IC man who would come in and raise the proverbial around midnight. I told him if he did it again I would have a surprise for him the following morning. He did not take heed of my warning so the next morning I came to his rack, which was a middle bunk; I hit the end of it with my hand. You can imagine the sound of a hand on an aluminum structure and understand how loud it was just above his head.

He rose rapidly, hitting his head on the rack above him. I looked at him and said, “Told you so.”

We had gone into Subic Bay, Philippines to load bombs and other items. I was at the Canteen on the pier when I heard a loud crash. The roar of the crowd on the pier suddenly became as quiet as a tomb. I looked about and the entire pier was stopped, not a soul was even breathing it seemed. I like the others had thought they had dropped one of the bombs and we all were waiting for it to go off.

Nothing happened. One of the forklifts had backed up too close to the edge of the flight deck elevator and had fallen down to the pier. The man driving it was seriously injured but lived. Fortunately, there were no bombs or explosives on the forklift at the time.

I had gone over with a buddy of mine since I didn’t drink I was to help him back to the ship later. One of the girls in the bar came over and asked me to buy her a drink but before I could reply, a fight broke out. I was about to vacate the place when she stepped in front of me and told me not to worry she would protect me. So not to anger her I set back down and when it was over, I gladly bought her that drink.

In our homes, we use what is known as 60 cycle or 60-hertz power to run everything. On the flight deck, we use 400-cycle or 400-hertz power for aircraft. The reason for this is that a motor is only about 1/5 the size of a 60 cycle equivalent motor or other appliance so it saves space and weight.
In an aircraft that weighs in at 29,535 pounds empty and 61,651 pounds loaded, weight becomes a very important issue.

My shop got a called one evening and we were told we were needed on the flight deck, immediately. The Electrical Office and I rushed to the flight deck to see one of the electrical cables shooting, like a roman candle, balls of fire into the night sky. 400-cycle power isn’t like 60 cycles since it seems to ignore the fact that there is a breaker in the line that is designed to trip when this happens, well it is suppose too anyway. We finally got it shut down and found someone had just dropped the cable into the well and one leg of the power had landed on a piece of angle iron and shorted out. Fun times for all. It did make a nice display in the dark of the night with the backdrop of the moonless sky. It was just like the 4th of July with fireworks.

I was in the sick bay one afternoon working on a refrigerator when a call came from the flight deck, “Corpsmen to the flight deck.” The on duty corpsman grabbed his equipment bag, rushed out, and headed for the flight deck.

As one of the other first class and I talked there came another call for a corpsman to the flight deck. He told me the other corpsman probably hadn’t had time to get there so he waited. Then another call came for a corpsman to the flight deck.

By now he figured something serious had happened on the flight deck and more corpsman were needed. He rushed to the flight deck to find the corpsman that had gone up before him was on the elevator and just as it came up on the flight deck a jet swung around and the exhaust had blown the corpsman overboard.

He jumped into the waiting helicopter and they immediately took off to retrieve the corpsman. Fortunately this story has a successful conclusion and the other corpsman was safely rescued and he didn’t have any injuries but came away with a healthy respect for being very careful when taking the elevator to the flight deck. He said he didn’t really deserve the two weeks free vacation but he was not going to turn it down. Oh yes, there are some benefits to being blown off a carrier and taking a 120 foot plunge into the ocean. Not a very safe way to earn one nor is it, to my knowledge, ever been suggested as a way to have two weeks off.

We had returned to San Diego and during flight ops everything was going as usual until one of the jets came in and caught the landing cable, which is one and a half inches in diameter, and it broke.

Ltjg Barnacle heard the cable snap and as he turned, he saw men being struck down. He immediately ran to the area, taking off his belt to use as a tourniquet and ordering others to assist. He and many others assisted the corpsmen in their task of saving the men who had been hit. Due to his and the others assisting those who would have died were saved.

Shortly after all the injured had been evacuated the Captain told the boatswain to set the special sea and anchor detail. When a ship is headed into port, there are certain things that have to be done prior to arrival. This is the function of the special sea and anchor detail to make sure all these function are carried out so we can safely enter port.

We had an Admiral on board and he confronted the Captain as to why he was setting the special sea and anchor detail. He reminded the Captain that we still had one more day of training to do.

The Captain turned to the boatswain and said, “Have the men lower the captain’s gig.”

The Admiral asked, “Why are you lowering the captain’s gig?”

The Captain looked him in the eye and told him, “If you’re staying out here, you are going to need a boat. As for MY ship and MY crew, we’re going home.”

We arrived at the dock in San Diego a short time later and on the pier there were many family members and onlookers with saddened faces and some crying.

These are just a few of the many untold incidents that went on aboard the Connie. Remember the men who have serviced so faithfully in uniform and honor them with all respect because you probably will never know just what they had to endure while serving their country so faithfully.

About the author:

I am retired Navy and retired otherwise except for all the people who think I should still work on computers. I am 76 years old going on 13 or 3, I am not sure which. During my naval career, I wrote manuals on the 400-cycle system aboard the USS Constellation CVA-64. I also have self-published novels and poetry books.

Read more: http://www.myramblings.com

 

bob wood

December 31, 2013 - 9:26pm

4 men killed in 1mm fire. not one or two. I was in 1 aux at the time. and I am also a plank owner.

Larry Nobles

August 8, 2014 - 11:48am

You are correct Bob, I was in After IC when this happened and remember the smoke and actually very little confusion. I am a Plank Owner as well and agree with Larry McMillan's first view of the Connie, mine was the same. She was my first ship out of Service School and I knew I had to salute the Ensign, if I could figure out where it was, or even which end of the ship was which. I served on her until May 62 when I got hit by a subway train, 3 weeks later I was in a high speed boat accident and ended up staying at St Albans for 4 months.

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