by Pat Dingle
I stood watch on every duty station OI division (Operations Intelligence) had during my nearly four years there. At first, as a 17 year old right out of boot camp, I had upright chart boards and soon wrote backwards. Sound power phones connecting most of us including the bridge turned out to be the easiest to master; push the little button down and talk. Radar screen blips and perhaps some of the more involved electronic countermeasure equipment (spying) took much more hands on training. I learned from sr. radarmen, all Petty Officers up to and including Chief Petty Officers of which we had several. The intricate ways and means of accurately interpreting those little "returns" or objects on the radar screen, each one representing something afloat or flying. For a break and/or to get me out of the way, they'd assign me to to the 07 level as a lookout. During that first West-Pac tour of 1964-65 shortly after reporting aboard everything was so new and exciting to me but soon I did have duty stations that seemed a bit more interesting then others or at least had the potential to be.
If I were to now pick one station in CIC to call my own I'd have to say it would be the emergency long range air search radar. We had four radar stations in the "air section" of CIC vs. three in the "surface section". The watch officers had one of each. Three were side by side and manned for normal routine operations i.e.. our flights, civilian airliners etc. and one radar located eight feet away from the others up on a little pedestal. It was used only for aircraft emergencies and had a radio signal direction finder above the radar screen used to pickup a mayday and you'd turn the dial to get a bearing on the radio signal. The radio telephone headset there was tuned in to an emergency net used by American pilots, all branches, who were hit by enemy fire or any other emergency. When we left Long Beach in late 1964 not one of us could conceive there would ever be a need for that station hence no special training. Operation Rolling Thunder in Feb. 1965 changed all that, slowly at first. We were on station far north of the DMZ weeks before the air war began. War teaches you to get it right the first time.
Another reason I liked the air radars is that you could "see" for hundreds of miles in every direction from the Yorktown, further if the atmospherics were right. So much depended on weather conditions, very frustrating at times. I vividly recall tracking Chinese jets (Chi-Coms) well north of the Chinese/North Vietnam border and North Vietnamese jets all around Hanoi daily those times we were well north in the Gulf of Tonkin. The air section or "air picture" as we liked to refer to it, would plot most if not all contacts on large upright Plexiglas charts located directly behind the individual radar stations. One chart per station, one seaman per chart connected to the man on the scope via sound powered phones. There was just enough room to squeeze between the chart and the bulkhead. Anyway, the air picture gave us, the CIC watch officers, the Captain on the bridge and the Admiral in the next room the "big picture" as to what and where, course and speed of anything flying while they're still a long ways out. Everyone is considered a bogey unless/until proven otherwise. Most often that proof would come in the form of IFF (Identification-Friend-or Foe) on all American aircraft. It's a device on the plane that sends out a signal capable of being picked up by radar. The IFF signal could even be greatly enlarged by the experienced radar operator and the individual code of that aircraft read. We seldom had a need to do that though. They were either ours or theirs and that's all we wanted to know.
One early morning well north of the DMZ, perhaps 0400 or so, absolutely nothing going on anywhere, I was sitting on the emergency radarscope, radio headset on listening to the low constant static, watching the sweep of the radar antenna going around and around and around, about 360 degrees a minute, drinking coffee and smoking non-filtered camel cigarettes trying my best to stay awake in the dark of CIC when I heard "Mayday, Mayday" loud and clear in my headset. I looked at my screen to a cloudy area over North Vietnam and saw a very faint emergency IFF signal emerge. I immediately marked the spot, read the degree and distance in miles from the Yorktown, shouted out to the entire room "Mayday-Emergency IFF" kicking everyone in gear, reached up to take hold of the voice radio direction finder to tune into the pilot if he can call again to confirm data and all this at once in one sure motion. Those across the room marked the aircraft's location on charts and waited for each report from me. I too waited what seemed like a long time, at least a full sweep on my scope. Then I heard the pilot again. I can hear him now as I type this. In what I can only describe as a resigned, almost bored sounding sing-song, high to low voice the pilot calmly broadcast "Mayday mayday mayday........Mayday mayday mayday........mayday may................ That was it. No more sounds, signals or radar returns. He fell from the night sky, crashing into the jungle below and died.
I heard, saw, many more pilots shot down during those years, some we rescued too. I may write about those rescues one day. This story was about but one moment in time on watch in CIC. One that will stay with me forever.