1977

Collision at Sea
Meeting A Hero
Legacy Submariner Dons Third Generation Family Dolphins

 

Collision at Sea

By Colonel David T. Williams USMCR(Ret), USNA ‘77

“Suddenly the gravity of the situation engulfed me and the sound of the ship’s collision alarm brought me back to the moment…”

It was August of 1976 and just another Midshipman Cruise to get through.  At least this time we were First Class midshipmen assigned to officer’s quarters, in addition we ate and stood watch duty with officers.  The nice part of this cruise was that there were only 6 First Class Midshipmen assigned and it was a Fast Frigate FF-1047, the USS Voge.  Their names were Robert Girard, Corey Glab, Clifford Krcha, Michael Kuhn, Richard Thayer, and myself, David Williams.

This cruise was the capstone of the Leadership Program for midshipmen to view the Navy Life from the eyes of an officer.  When we first arrived we were given the standard “What to do in an emergency” briefing which consisted mainly of “muster on the bridge and keep out of the way.”  No big deal, we knew we were a distraction from the ships normal routine and so we did our best to not be noticed.  We had the normal routine of spending time on the bridge, in the Combat Information Center, and of course no cruise is complete without spending time in the engine compartment. 

For a couple of weeks the USS Voge has been tasked with passively following a Russian Echo II nuclear powered submarine around the Mediterranean Sea.  Sort of cat and mouse tactics were the USS Voge listens for the noises that the submarine gives off and we follow it around.

On 28 August 1976 at approximately 1700 I was up in the Commanders Stateroom finishing up a bible study that members of the crew had been holding.  I proceeded down to my locker in the Operations Quarters and got my camera out so I could take pictures of the Russian submarine that had been spotted off our port side.  This was the Russian Echo II we had been passively trailing for the previous two weeks.  The submarine was breached, meaning that its upper structure, called a sail, was out of the water but the bulk of the boat was just under the sea surface.  When I got outside I took a series of pictures as I made my way aft.  The submarine appeared to be paralling our course.  I stopped about halfway down the hanger deck and stood watching the submarine, hoping it might get closer so I could get some better pictures of it.  No sooner had the thought crossed my mind when the submarine started to turn towards us again. I went completely aft and stood by the port bollards to take some more pictures. The submarine continued to turn toward the ship, and looked as if it was going to pull up alongside. I was thinking that this was just great!    There must have been over sixty men watching the submarine from the flight deck.

The submarine turn one last time toward us, now as if to cross astern of the ship, but as the submarine came closer and closer, less than 40 feet, it straightened out and rammed us approximately midway down the flight deck.  The initial hit caused the ship to list to port about 15 degrees, and then it was as if the submarine hit us again and we rolled to starboard about 20 degrees.  I thought for sure the Lamps Helicopter chained to the flight deck was going to topple over.  The sub dove and continued underneath the ship.  As it slid underneath is damaged our single screw and the USS Voge was dead in the water.

Suddenly the gravity of the situation engulfed me and the sound of the ship’s collision alarm brought me back to the moment. By now general quarters had been sounded and men were rushing everywhere.   My first thought was to put my camera back in my locker but just as I got to the hatch it was secured, so I made my way to the bridge.

Once on the bridge I donned my life jacket and was told to be a lookout.  About 1745-1800 the submarine made an appearance, bearing 185 degrees relative, but only briefly.  Then about 5-10 minutes later the submarine came up again, this time, significant structural damage to the submarines sail was apparent.  Some smoke was seen and the submarine submerged.  The submarine made a couple more brief appearances but sunset came on and things quieted down.

Later that evening all the midshipmen were asked to assemble in the Officers Mess.   It was explained that an investigation would be initiated and that all of us would be required to give written statements as to what we saw and experienced.  One of the Officers stated that any photos taken would be invaluable to the investigation.  For a split second I was ready to give my film cartridge to the officer, but it occurred to me that if I did there was a really good chance I would never see those pictures again. I figured they would become classified and one or two might show up on an Admirals wall someday;  and since it was my own private camera and film, there was no legal reason I had to turn it over.  So I did not. 

After returning to the Naval Academy I took my film to the Mid Store and had it developed.  They were color slides.  When I saw how they came out I made a series of 8X10 Color prints of the whole sequence of events for my personal collection.  It was about 2 months after the incident when I showed the pictures to my Company Officer, who in turn asked to show them to another Company Officer who happen to be a Submariner.  The second Company Officer asked me if he could show them to some folks in Washington DC, and I gave him permission.  The next thing I know the US Naval Photographic Institute is asking me if they can keep the original slides.  I said, “yes under one condition; that I receive a duplicate copy of the slides.”  They agreed and I thought that was the end of it until three of my photos showed up on the front page of the NAVY TIMES, April 4, 1977.  I even had a by line “Photos by Midn. First David T. Williams”

So I suppose the moral of the story is: Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.

 

Meeting a Hero

By CAPT Andy Wilson '77, USNR (Ret.)

In this age of media-manufactured “heroes,” it’s still easy to spot the genuine article. They’re the ones who don’t say much, don’t draw attention to themselves, who lead by example. Such a hero was VADM John Duncan Bulkeley ’33. He commanded PT boats in enemy-occupied Philippine waters, reconnoitered Utah Beach before the Normandy invasion, and faced down Castro as Guantanamo commander. Remaining on active duty until he was 77, John Bulkeley epitomized the fighting sailor.

I had the good fortune to meet VADM Bulkeley once. The encounter was brief, but it confirmed the meaning of “hero.”

Growing up in the ‘60s as a naval officer’s son, my heroes included the World War II legends. At the top of the pantheon was John Bulkeley. President Kennedy’s PT-109 saga sparked my interest in the mahogany-hulled boats that took on the Imperial Japanese Navy. I was inspired by Bulkeley’s leadership of  PT operations in Manila Bay in early 1942, culminating with the evacuation of Douglas MacArthur and his family from besieged Corregidor.

There was also a personal connection. My father, Bob Wilson ‘48A, had known then-CDR Bulkeley as the Academy model club representative in 1946-47. The midshipmen idolized the maverick war hero who had outsmarted and outfought foes on two fronts.

It’s now January 1978. As an ensign fresh out of the Academy, I was shopping at the Naval Station San Diego exchange when I noticed a white-headed two-star admiral. He wasn’t wearing a nametag, but his four ribbons told me more than letters on plastic ever could. Five white stars on a light blue field ─ Medal of Honor. Underneath were the Navy Cross, Army Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. I had a pretty good idea who was standing next to me. In absolute awe, probably trembling, I managed to mumble a few words.

“Admiral Bulkeley?”

“Yes?”

“Sir, you’ve been one of my heroes all my life!” (That’s actually what came out.)

The hero shook my hand, smiled, and replied, “Well, thank you, son. But then again, you haven’t lived a very long life!”

I then offered, “My dad was in the Academy model club when you were officer rep. He has some great stories about you.”

Was I being too forward? Not to worry. Bulkeley laughed and responded, “I’ll bet he does.” The twinkle in his eye made the legend an even more admirable human being to me.

My hopes of talking PT boats were sunk when the admiral’s aide reminded him of his tight schedule. As I watched the warrior leave the store, I realized I had learned more  about leadership in five minutes than in four years at the Academy.

I think back often to that Saturday morning when I met a hero. I had shaken the hand that clasped Franklin Roosevelt’s at the Medal of Honor presentation. I had looked into the eyes that stared down enemy warships from a wooden-hulled boat’s cockpit. And, most profoundly, I had discovered the indomitable heart of a man who had never taken himself too seriously, who had kept his perspective, even when idolized by a nation. This was a hero worthy of emulation.

The admiral lives on in USS Bulkeley (DDG-84). May his spirit guide that fine ship as he touched a young ensign many years ago.

 

Legacy Submariner Dons Third Generation Family Dolphins

By Brad McDonald, ‘77 

Being awarded a warfare specialty pin is a distinguished moment in the life of any sailor.  My son, LTJG Tyler McDonald, USNA ’05, recently completed his submarine qualification process and was awarded his gold dolphins aboard USS BREMERTON (SSN698) in December 2007. On hand to present and pin on his dolphins was RADM John Bird, USNA ’77, Deputy Commander US Pacific Fleet.  John and I have been friends since Plebe Chemistry and he has known Tyler since he was a baby. Thus, it was especially nice to have John do the honors.

The dolphins that John pinned on Tyler were first pinned on my father, Ewing R. (Mickey) McDonald, USNA ’49, aboard USS CARP (SS338) in Yokosuka, Japan, in December 1952. Dad and the dolphins continued in submarines, serving aboard CUTLASS, RAZORBACK, and RONQUIL. He eventually commanded USS SENNET (SS408) in Charleston, S.C., from 1962-64. A highlight of my childhood was riding on the bridge of SENNET one Saturday morning, as the ship cruised down the Cooper River.  I got to sit in the “Captain’s chair,” watching my Dad give orders to line handlers and the OOD as I enjoyed a constant stream of donuts and chocolate milk from the stewards. I remember thinking, “This is the life!” and I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a submarine captain. 

The dolphins’ next tour of duty began when I qualified aboard USS PINTADO (SSN672) in January 1980. We were in Subic Bay, Philippines when my CO, Jack (Mad Dog) McDonald, USNA ’63, did the honors.  There were FIVE of us junior officers ready to qualify at the same time. We had to get a final checkout from Milo Daughters, USNA ‘63, CO QUEENFISH (SSN651), which was tied up alongside PINTADO. This checkout took place at the Submarine Sanctuary on the base at Subic. As we left PINTADO and headed to our much feared meeting with Milo, our XO, Gus Gustavson, USNA ’65,  inspired great confidence  as he stood at the brow and presented each one of us a TDU (trash) weight, remarking that we would need it as we were such lightweights. Milo puffed heavily on his massive cigar, sipped his drink, told sea stories for a couple of hours, and then declared to Jack that we were ready.
  
Mike McBride, USNA ’56, COMSUBGRU SEVEN, joined Jack in pinning on our dolphins in the ship’s wardroom. We all chipped in some money for a party and Jack matched our contributions. We invited the crews of GRAYBACK (SS574) and QUEENFISH to join in the big party. The event took place at Tom Toms, a submarine bar in Olongapo. In those days it was still fashionable to tack on a newly qualified man’s dolphins. I think every man in all three crews had a go at me.

Following my submarine qualification ceremony, the gold fish served aboard VON STEUBEN, STURGEON, GRAYLING, and eventually L. MENDEL RIVERS (SSN686). As Captain of RIVERS, it was my privilege to pin dolphins on a lot of sailors. At every pinning ceremony, I reiterated that of all the devices and insignia I had worn on my uniform, nothing meant more to me than my submarine dolphins. 

These family dolphins, now on their third tour, are with Tyler aboard BREMERTON. His CO, Thomas Zwolfer, USNA ’88, was standing by as John Bird did the pinning honors aboard BREMERTON in Pearl Harbor. A lot of seawater has passed around those fish.  They’ve seen WESPAC, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, every nook and cranny of the Med and the Caribbean and most every part of the Atlantic; they circumnavigated South America on a UNITAS cruise in 1963, visited every continent save Antarctica, and have been to more than 20 countries and 40 ports; they hold Golden Shellback and Order of the Ditch status; and they have cruised on diesel as well as nuclear power.  They are engraved on the back with “ERMcD 1952” and BNMcD 1980.”  I don’t know what the future holds for these third generation family dolphins, but as my dad always says, “The best is yet to come!” 

 

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