by Pat Dingle, OI, RD-3 1964-68
I have very fond memories of the USS Yorktown while underway, serving aboard from 1964 to 1968 during three West -Pac tours and one magic carpet run to the Philippines to bring back shot up aircraft. I was able to experience all the sea duty available during those years, the start of the Vietnam War, thus all of the Yorktown's last war. I have very distinct memories of each and every body of water we steamed through and many of the events that took place in each of them. We steamed through the Pacific, going and coming, the South China Sea, for air-sea rescues, Gulf of Tonkin, for air-sea rescues and also the last time the Yorktown ever came under attack by enemy forces foolish enough to come out to attack us, Philippine Sea, for ports of call and replenishment. Sea of Japan, as we were the closest and most immediate military response to North Korea's attacking/capturing the USS Pueblo. Truth be told, I still hold a grudge to this day on that one and regrets for all the pilots I heard in my headset or saw on my radarscope that I couldn't help and who died over Vietnam. It was wondrous times to have just turned 17 years old and serve through the day before one's 21st birthday. I wouldn't have missed it for the world and, thankfully, didn't.
I suppose I should start with the going before getting to those foreign waters and all the unknowns they offered to sailors. Leaving Long Beach and pier E behind with the small crowd of wives, families and girlfriends waving, some crying, was something I remember but not knowing any I was assigned duty on one of the many OI division sea watch stations while the few leaving those behind were able to stand at a rail to waive back. The further out to sea we were the more knots we made until we were steaming at 20 or more. Shortly our four destroyer escorts came into formation with us about 500 yards off our beams as we headed south/southwest to land our aircraft from their bases near San Diego. CIC could activate our long range radars once we were about a hundred miles out from land. Didn't want to interfere with the civilians television programs. I did but seaman didn't have a say in that nor much of anything. Once all our aircraft were aboard the task group headed west and all the drills began as part of the ships routine. Those included take offs and landings, fire, man over board, and the one that raises the hair on the back of my neck to this day, general quarters. Only later, not in home waters, did the bos'en mate add "This is not a drill, This is not a drill".
We didn't know there would be a war about to start in Vietnam the first time we headed westward in late 1964 for duty with the 7th fleet. But those are stories for another time. Now I'd like to remember but a few of those days at sea as I often do in the comfort of my den, not unlike old sailors everywhere. It's good to be an old sailor whose gone to sea as a young man. It's even better to have served aboard an aircraft carrier instead of a tin can or some other smaller vessel in all the seas and oceans we steamed. And, contrary to the old myth perpetuated by destroyer sailors, we in carriers did in fact require sea-legs at times in heavy seas and no, we couldn't shoot pool at all times while underway. If there was a pool table aboard the Yorktown I never saw it. Getting over there was half the fun and this first one was the most fun of three I'll write about. Anyone who served aboard will remember what I'm about to try to describe.
It was way out in about the middle of the vast deep blue pacific ocean where the gentle rolling swells turned into rolling hills of water 50-60 feet high and on the other side, deep valleys running generally north and south meaning each of our to and from foreign shores meant the Yorktown and escorts would steam up the huge swells lifting the ship's bow so high out of the water we couldn't see the horizon until we crested and then started sliding deep down the other side. I always enjoyed that area of the pacific best if I were on duty as a forward lookout up on the 07 level. From there I could see the destroyer escorts bobbing and weaving, twisting and turning as they'd go nearly out of sight underwater only to shoot upward and go nose first down the other side of the crest. At least the Yorktown was so long and heavy we'd plow through the the upper portion of the wave then nosedive. If the waves were timed just right the Yorktown's bow would hit the very base of the next giant swell and the ship would shudder and pause in our forward motion as we plowed forward. Many a time I saw a 20 foot high wall of solid green water come over the bow and wash over the flight deck, saltwater spay reaching so high up as to get us lookouts wet. The crew was always restricted from being out on the decks and catwalks during those times so as not to be washed overboard. And without fail when that happened and the ship shuddered, thirty guys on CIC sound powered phones would report we just hit a very big rock. Without fail, each time, maybe just minutes apart, didn't matter, we thought that was a very funny thing to report. I still do. The guys in CIC couldn't leave their coffee cups on the radar scopes for fear they'd fall off and many times they did, spilling coffee on our rubber coated deck. It happened to me more then a few times. That would happen everywhere throughout the ship and food trays on the mess deck would slid off the tables if not held tightly with one hand. I nearly lost mine more then once too. Guys would lose their balance and bump into bulkheads or whatever else was the closest immovable steel. Sailors, other then salts, would puke, forego chow for a day and really be miserable. The one thing we all had in common while transitioning that area of the Pacific? We all were glad we weren't aboard our tin can escorts. If we didn't hit the "rock", steaming forward through these giant swells, high up above on the 07 always reminded me of riding my horse back home in the Las Vegas desert. Traveling forward at a gentle steady lope, rider and horse in rhythm as one, mile after mile over rough terrain well mounted on a good saddle and horse. And so it was too on the Yorktown when I soon had my sea legs.
Another sea of note was the South China Sea with it's Gulf of Tonkin and the warm shallower waters with different shades of blue to turquoise. I guess the few things I remember best are it was hot and you never stopped sweating. Taking a two minute shower felt good but it was impossible to dry off. You slept on thin a wet mattress. You wore a wet blue work shirt or T-shirt, unless you had lookout duty, then we'd be stripped to the waist and only our pants were damp. The humidity there was the worst, highest, I've ever experienced in my life. Our sleeping quarters right under the hanger deck had air forced through it as I imagined all quarters did, but that just blew warm to hot air about. The only place we could cool off was in CIC, major air conditioners blowing in there 24/7 but that was for all the electronic equipment, not us mere sailors. I really enjoyed the times we'd probe far north into the gulf nearer to Hanoi in 1965. I was able to track all the military jets as well as those flying in southern China. Not ours, theirs. The light blue waters of the Gulf of Tonkin were much calmer then all the action in CIC.
This sea also had a lot of life swimming in it, things like flying fish, porpoises (or dolphins) sharks, jellyfish, seaweed, and scattered debris like wooden beams, boxes and such floating about, thrown overboard by some unknown vessel. I always liked to think I was seeing elements of a shipwreck and who knows, perhaps on occasion I did. We'd also see fishing boats or junks now and then, especially if we were steaming not too far out from the coastline. I recall the time it was the lookouts who first detected a small craft, not our radars. That surprise threw our task group into an immediate course change to avoid having this unidentified boat in our midst. Imagine the shock folks in that boat suffered when U.S. Navy war ships bore down on them, including a huge aircraft carrier. I wouldn't be surprised if some old Vietnamese fisherman is telling that story as I write about it. All in all, the South China Sea was a good, interesting sea and I like steaming in it. The war was over the horizon.
I hated the Sea of Japan off the North Korea coast in winter then and don't really care too much for it now. It was by far the most miserable experience at sea I had ever gone through, both mentally and physically. January 1968 wasn't only hard on me, it seemed everything was coming to an end or unglued. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, North Korean forces fired on and captured the U.S.S. Pueblo, the Yorktown begun what was to be her last tour of duty in Vietnam, a division Master Chief Petty Officer who didn't like 3rd Class PO short-timers, my first (and last) eight month tour working undercover narcotics with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the cultural revolution well under way back in the States, and if that wasn't enough, my four year enlistment aboard the Yorktown was coming to a close. But this is about that damn cold sea in winter, and the opportunities it handed the OI division Chief.
Within about twenty four hours of the Pueblo's capture we and our escorts were on station at sea outside the port where our ship had been towed, ready for anything but what happened. No one aboard the Yorktown had clothes issued for extreme cold and the blizzards we ran into. Our pea coats and 'weather gear" were fine for winter in Japan but there we'd be out on liberty therefore warm indoors. Not so off North Korea. I don't know about the other divisions aboard but OI was kept at our general quarters stations the entire time we were there, about two months. Needless to say, the situation was tense. North Korean air bases were approx. five minutes flight time away from us. Are we about to attack them? They attack us? Oh, we'd be rotated a bit after the first few days but the conditions in CIC were anything but routine, even for general quarters. At least there was all the hot coffee one could possibly drink in CIC. We had our own 30-40 cup coffee maker and refilled it often. We'd send someone down below for sandwiches anytime we wanted to and we used the officers head down the inboard passageway anyway. None of these amenities was available to the lookouts up on the small steel enclosed 010 level. That's where I was relegated most of the two months off Korea. At the time I chocked it up to politics between the new Chief and I, not my freelance ability and mentality that served me so well up until now. Now I'm serving time in Siberia. At the time I was senior 3rd class PO in OI div. along with several buddies but I was due to be discharged first in only few months time. The Chief, in his wisdom, assigned me to supervise the lookouts during this emergency so I'd be up topside and out of his thinning grey hair. There were only a few new guys in CIC during this time so we were manned with about 20 very experienced 3rd, 2nd and 1st class Petty Officer radarmen. Now, in hindsight, I would have done the same as the Chief.
There was seldom a day on the 07 when we could see the horizon due to low grey clouds and mist. The waters were also a grey color, I guess because it was so cold. The temp. stayed at or below freezing and so did we. I'd regularly rotate one of my six lookouts by taking his place and send him down below to the air conditioned CIC to warm up and bring back hot coffee for the rest of us. In the time it took him to climb all the ladders back up to the 07 or O10 the coffee would be cool but it was still warmer then our hands or throats and felt great in both. We stayed diligent in our duty as lookouts by scanning the distance with binoculars, I made sure of that, but as I recall we never saw anything worth reporting via our sound powered phones. Nor did our radars pick up enemy jets taking off from their bases turn out over water and toward us. The North Koreans were very careful in that they didn't provoke an all out shooting war. But we didn't know that at the time. We all kept a very watchful eye out for any sign of enemy action. It's hard to watch for enemy action when you open the small steel cover of one of several small oval slit portholes in the steel bulkhead to look out and you're immediately pelted with blowing snow. It stings your eyes, you can't see ten feet outside anyway, you shut the port cover and slid down to the deck and sit along with the entire forward and aft lookout watch crew, backs to the bulkhead, legs outstretched, in this small steel enclosure just under the radar antennas high above the flight deck. Everyone shivering in the extreme cold, one man wearing the sound powered phone headset to respond "forward eye" and "aft eye" to the "lookouts report" every fifteen minutes from one of us in CIC. The record reflects we were diligently looking out. I started out by saying I hated the Sea of Japan in winter and now you know why. It's not for salty short timer sailors from the desert nor any human I'd care to meet. We'd sit there telling each other sea stories and jokes and then we'd all grunt a humor response even though the joke was repeated from a hour ago. Moral was very low here and everywhere aboard ship at this point. One new guy never said a word and nothing we did could draw him out. He just sat there with owl eyes lost in his own world. He was about eighteen or nineteen, very intelligent, educated and I knew he couldn't cut it. Not long afterward he was flown off the ship never to be seen again. That happened to three or four guys in OI who "went to the zoo" during my four years. They couldn't hack the pressure in CIC and lost it. The Navy's not for everyone and they were discharged.
If there wasn't blowing snow we'd sometimes go down to the 07 just for a change of scenery. It was weird to see the Yorktown's flight deck and aircraft covered with snow. Air crews were out there shoveling snow off just incase we had to launch planes but that seldom happened while on station there. We too tried to move snow off our deck space but we didn't have any shovels, only brooms or mops and they were useless. They were also the only tools I was ever taught to use. I'd go on down to CIC just to keep informed of all the intelligence at our finger tips. I knew of the Tet Offensive underway and the fact all of our attack carrier groups in Vietnam were ordered north to Korea to join us. I'm trying to keep this to the sea and weather, not the Pueblo "Incident" as it was later labeled. Maybe at another time.
I knew when the three carriers groups were arriving. It was the usual cold low cloudy, heavy wet misty day with visibility about a mile out. I was watching through my binoculars to the starboard quarter at the gray wall over the sea when the USS Enterprise slowly steamed through that wall coming our way. It was a sight to behold. She was so huge and with that unique box shaped superstructure, like nothing I've ever seen before. The Enterprise slid through the water down our starboard side and close enough, about a half mile or less, so I could see our nuclear carrier and all her attack aircraft in detail. If I weren't so loyal to the Yorktown I might have developed an inferiority complex. THAT was a warship. The Yorktown and Enterprise steamed past each other that day off the coast of North Korea and within minutes each disappeared in the heavy cold mist, steaming forward to carry out her missions as ordered. A memorable event never to be repeated. Even in a sea I had no use for, moments and events occurred that are fond memories that will stay with me to the end. I think that is true with any sailor who served aboard the USS Yorktown from 1943 to the final decommissioning. And of course this is just as true for any ship, we were sailors after all.