Saturday, March 16, 2013

U.S.S. Vulcan (AR-5)

At 4:30 PM, Saturday, February 15, 1969, Electronics Technician Third Class Mickey Cheatham arrived at the Army Terminal located just south down Hampton Blvd from the Naval Operations Base (N.O.B.) in Norfolk, Virginia. I had completed over a year of electronics training and was arriving for my first duty station aboard the U.S.S. Vulcan, AR-5.

The Vulcan was the first of its class – Vulcan class – a Navy Repair ship. Repair ships were part of a larger group of ships called by the generic term of “Tenders.” These support ships had evolved from original designs developed before World War I to provide provisions, fuel, and repair services to ships deployed around the world.

Moored at the Hampton Roads Army Terminal, Norfolk, VA., circa Mid-1950s with ships alongside.

By the time of the Second World War, fueling and provisions was handled by specialized supply ships, leaving Destroyer Tenders, Submarine Tenders, and Repair Ships the function of maintaining and repairing the fleet. The range of services available from these floating repair shops went from heavy-duty machine work and hull repair to sophisticated electronics maintenance and even fixing watch, clocks, and typewriters.

The Vulcan (AR-5) is the third U.S. Navy vessel to bear the name of the Roman god of fire, metalworking, and craftsmanship. Vulcan was launched on December 14, 1940 just about a year after keel was laid down in mid-December 1939 by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey. Mrs. James Forrestal, wife of the Undersecretary of the Navy, was the ship's sponsor.

Six months later, on June 16, 1941 USS Vulcan was commissioned with Lieutenant Commander P. G. Hale, USN, listed as the ship's first commanding officer. Captain R. W. Mathewson, the guest speaker for the commissioning ceremony designated the new repair ship and her crew to be the "craftsman, forger, and healer of wounded floating warriors of the Navy."

When I first joined the Navy, I chose a program called the “Advanced Electronics Enlistment.” I agreed to extend my four-year enlistment by two additional years, and the Navy agreed to send me to nearly two years of advanced electronics training. After the completion of boot camp, Basic Electricity and Electronics School, Electronic Technician “A” School, Electronic Technician (Radio) “C” School, and Electronic Instrument Calibration School (at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado) plus a couple of long leaves to return home, I was finally arriving at my permanent duty station.

Underway near Philadelphia Navy Yard, 21 August 1941, two months after completion.

I had been trained at the Colorado school in the specialty of electronic test equipment calibration. Out of a Navy electronics school class of about 60, typically 2 are chosen to attend the Air Force training. One advantage of being a calibration specialist was your choice of duty stations. Most calibration labs were either at shore facilities or on Tenders that rarely put to sea. Although ships like the Vulcan were designed to travel with the fleet, in peace time they usually were tied to the pier and ships in need of repair and maintenance would be docked along side for two to six weeks of repair “availability.”

As a Calibration Technician, duty on such a ship was considered “sea duty,” yet only went on short cruises about twice a year. So it was really more like “shore duty.”

The Navy would chose candidates for Calibration school based on grades in “A” school. I graduated top in my class (like most Calibration Technicians) and was given the opportunity to attend the special school in the Rocky Mountain West.

After her shakedown cruise, Vulcan served as repair ship in Hvalfjordur, Iceland, arriving there in September 1941. At this time, British and American destroyers were screening merchant convoys, representing a vital sea link between North America and war-ravaged Europe. Weeks before Pearl Harbor and our entry into World War II, American destroyers were attacked by German U-boats while on patrol. On October 17, USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed, suffering thirty-three casualties. Returning to the American anchorage under her own power, Kearny was positioned alongside Vulcan for repairs. Two weeks later, on October 31, USS Reuben James (DD-245) was sunk by a Nazi marauder. Eventually, some of the wounded from both of the destroyers were cared for in Vulcan's sickbay.

By Christmas 1941, Kearny was ready to return to the United States for further work. In recognition of the fine job performed by Vulcan's crew, Admiral E. J. King sent a letter saying, "the successful accomplishment of this feat of repairs merits the sincere appreciation of all, and is an inspiration to those in the Naval service ashore who are building and repairing units of the fleet."

Since it was the weekend, I was assigned a space in the berthing area and spent the rest of the weekend aboard. Berthing on most Navy ships for enlisted are large areas filled with bunks, usually stacked two to five high. I was assigned a bunk on the ground level (or “deck” as the Navy referred to it.) The bunk lifted up and, underneath the mattress, was my locker or storage area for all my gear. It wasn’t a five-star hotel by any means.

Underway near Norfolk Navy Yard, 10 June 1942, wearing pattern camouflage.

The berthing area was in the aft part of the ship and further aft was the “head” area, Navy talk for the bathroom. There were rows of steel sinks with spring loaded hot and cold faucets. That assured that no water was wasted as fresh water on a ship at sea is produced by the “evaps” which boiled away the salt to produce pure water. There was always a limited supply, especially on a ship that was over twenty years old when I arrived.

Next to the sink area were rows of toilets. They used salt water, so it didn’t matter how often you flushed. However, unlike a public restroom, these toilets were not in individual stalls. They were lined up like soldiers at parade rest and there was zero privacy. So you could have a spirited conversation with eye contact while sitting on the toilet. There were also urinals since this was before women were deployed on war ships. The head was definitely the “men’s room.”

Vulcan remained in Iceland until April 1942. She left on the 26th and one of her escorts was Kearny. Arriving in Boston on May 2, Kearny blinked a grateful message to Vulcan: "Thanks for all you did." Vulcan's brief dry-dock period was interrupted in late May. The destroyer-tender USS Prairie (AD-15), then berthed in Argentia, Newfoundland, had suffered extensive damage when a fire from an alongside ship spread to the tender. As a result, Vulcan was called upon to relieve Prairie. Vulcan served as repair ship in Argentia until November 14. Commissioned in August 1940, Prairie is today based in San Diego and is the only active ship in the Navy older than Vulcan.

In mid-November, Vulcan returned to Hvaljordur and relieved USS Melville (AD-2), a Destroyer Tender, from her repair assignment. On April 6, 1943 Vulcan left Iceland for Hampton Roads, but set a course via Londonderry, Northern Ireland, because of the German submarine danger.

Just forward of the berthing area was a large sheet metal shop. I was awoken early Sunday morning to the sound of the sixteen-foot “brake.” That’s a machine used to bend sheet metal. It had a horizontal jaw about sixteen feet long that clamped the metal and then a large plate would move up bending the metal along the clamp edge. The clamp was hydraulically powered and closed with a big thump. Someone was working on the weekend, and I arose to the serenade of steel clamping.

At anchor in the Mare Island Channel, circa 1942

I headed forward, through the sheet metal shop and into a large central area of the ship. This was the main machine shop. It was open for three stories above and over 100 feet long. In this area machinists would manufacture and repair large parts. There was a turret lathe that had a jaw that could hold a cylinder over six feet across. There was also a long shaper with a 24-foot bed to plane long pieces of metal.

Nearby was a forge for casting metal and above a fine machine shop that could manufacture gears for clocks and other precision instruments. There was nothing too big or too small for the Vulcan to repair or replace. I later learned that sometimes we would have a ship alongside in a floating dry dock, cut the ship in two, and then use one of our two cranes to remove a motor or engine as big as a locomotive and replace it if necessary. Then Vulcan crew would weld the ship back together.

The first few weeks I was on board Vulcan we had the Palm Beach alongside. She was the sister ship of the USS Pueblo which had been captured by the North Koreans. We were adding armor and armament to the Palm. Typical military closing the barn door after the horses had escaped. But that kind of heavy work was part of our mission.

I finally arrived at the galley, which was in the middle of breakfast service. With hundreds of sailors on board, there was quite a selection from hot or cold cereal to eggs, meat, and potatoes, to fresh fruit and bakery goods. You could get eggs cooked to order or just select some items off the steam table. There was juice and milk and plenty of coffee. In those days you could smoke at your table, although the “smoking lamp” would be out if we were loading fuel or explosives.

Following an outfitting period in Norfolk, Vulcan arrived in French Algeria on June 27, 1943. First based in the capital city of Algiers, Vulcan supported the Sicilian invasion as head of Task Force 87 Train, a collection of twelve auxiliary vessels. On August 4, a Vulcan rescue and assistance team came to the aid of HMS Arrow, a British ammunition ship that had caught fire in the harbor. Three Vulcan sailors received Navy and Marine Corps Medals for their heroic efforts. During one German air raid on the port, Vulcan gunners were credited with downing a Junker-88 dive-bomber.

In October 1943, Vulcan sailed west for Oran and berthed in nearby Mers-el-Kebir, the principal French naval facility. While there, Vulcan supported the Sardinian, Corsican, Anzio, and southern France invasions. As Admiral H. D. Hewitt's flagship (Commander, North African Waters), Vulcan hosted Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Clark.

On Monday I reported to my division, R-4, Electronics and Instrument repair. I was assigned to department 67B, Electronic Calibration. There was the Electronics Repair Shop, 67A, and the other departments in our division serviced watches and clocks as well as typewriters. Later we added a mechanical calibration lab that was literally a room hoisted onto the top deck and welded in place. Unlike the steel construction of the ship, this added space was all aluminum. The technicians in that lab were part of the R-5 division if my memory serves me.

Underway, near Norfolk Navy Yard, 10 January 1945

There were five repair divisions on board, R-1 to R-5. Some where all machinists shaping and repairing metal while some were enginemen, rebuilding and repairing motors. There was a shop to fix electric motors and another to fix boilers and steam lines. The Vulcan had pattern makers who could create intricate wooden models used to build molds that were used to cast new parts, and there really wasn’t any problem a ship could encounter in peace or war that the Vulcan couldn’t fix.

I had a friend that was a pattern maker and sometimes I’d call him a carpenter. He’d retaliate by calling me an electrician. In fact, pattern makers were a skill above cabinetmaker. No one could work so precisely with wood. There were a lot of very skilled crafts on board the Vulcan and I met a lot of great and talented guys during my time on board.

In addition we had a usual ships company of seamen and deck hands, radar and radio operators, quartermasters who navigated the ship, cooks and bakers and laundry personnel as well as yeoman who performed clerk functions for the 1200 sailors aboard. We had a ships laundry, a ships store, and even a soda fountain that the Navy called a “geedunk” for reasons that were never clear to me.

Vulcan left Algeria in November 1944. After repairs and outfitting, Vulcan departed Norfolk in mid-January of 1945. Arriving off Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on February 9, Vulcan later shifted to the Florida Island and Tulagi Island area (fifteen miles north of Guadalcanal) for repair duty. After a brief stay in Noumea, New Caledonia, Vulcan transferred to Ulithi Atoll, Service Squadron TEN's famous "Overhaul Center of the Pacific." While at Ulithi, Vulcan workers were dispatched to anchored ships in need of maintenance and received USS Biloxi (CL-80) and USS Hinsdale (APA-120) alongside to repair damage suffered from kamikaze attacks.

In May 1945, Vulcan moved to Leyte Gulf, Philippines, where she received USS Randolph (CV-15), USS New Mexico (BB-40), USS Block Island II (CVE-106), and USS Rocky Mount (AGC-3) for alongside repairs.

I soon met my shipmates, many of whom I spent the next four years with. All the men in the Calibration Lab had the same training at Lowry AFB that I had. The one exception was an Electrician who calibrated the meters that were submitted to us. We had a special test board that could provide voltage, current, and all the other signals that these on-board meters would measure. They were removed from the control panels on ships along side and sent to us to test and adjust. We’d add a sticker indicating that they had been calibrated and the Navy had a schedule for all these instruments stating how often they needed to be serviced.

The guy that calibrated the meters was Eddie Williams. He used to do a perfect imitation of George Carlin as the "Hippy Dippy Weather Man." That was Carlin before he got so political. Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end.

Moored pierside, NOB Norfolk, VA., with two destroyers alongside to port, circa early 1950s. Also visible in this photo are USS Randall (APA-224) moored at Pier 4, a heavy cruiser astern of USS Vulcan and in the far distance USS Hornet CVA-12).

The calibration lab had very precisely controlled environment, both the temperature and humidity, as well as special voltage regulation to assure good power. This was the age of vacuum tube equipment, so the lab had an air conditioner about the size of a Volkswagen that kept us all cool, even when cruising the tropics. We used to put cans of soda into the vents and they were kept as cool as a refrigerator thanks to the constant stream of conditioned air.

One of the characteristics we would test and adjust was “frequency.” Having a stable source of a given frequency to calibrate radios and other gear was essential. The Navy built precision oscillators that would maintain a constant frequency for these adjustments. They were battery powered so they never stopped. We would calibrate these instruments using sophisticated equipment and chart recorders. Amongst the equipment was a mechanical clock that read out like an automobile odometer. Now it kept perfect time. That is, it ran at exactly 10 MHz and divided that frequency down to exactly one cycle per second. However, keeping good time and having the correct time are two different things.

If the clock was not set correctly in the first place, then the time would not be perfect. We just used it to calibrate oscillators, so the exact time was not important. I used to set it to my Timex. When Captains or Admirals would tour the lab, they would often set their wristwatches to our digital clock since it looked so fancy and impressive. I think they were just setting their Bulova Accutrons to my $10 Timex!!

Following Japan's-surrender, Vulcan steamed to Buckner Bay, Okinawa. She not only offered her wide array of repair services, but also on 28 September, led seventeen merchant ships from the harbor to avoid damage from an approaching typhoon.

Vulcan served on occupation duty in Japan from October 1945 until March 1946. After spending a few days in Pearl Harbor, Vulcan transited the Panama Canal and returned to the United States.

At first I lived aboard the ship. We had four-section duty. That meant that every four days you had to remain on board the ship, perform cleaning details, and stand watches. The other three days was like a regular job. After you finished work at 5:00 PM, you were free to leave the ship and return the next morning.

At one point, for reasons I don’t recall, Woody and I started working a second shift. I think we were on a special assignment and needed to be in the lab alone to finish the work. So we would start work when the regular crew quit. We had a couple of air mattresses to sleep on. (Woody insisted that the plural of mattress was mattri.) We could have slept in the berthing area, but there were no alarm clocks on a ship, and the lights went on at 6:00 AM and revile was sounded. You weren’t allowed to “sleep in.” So Woody and I would sleep on the benches in the lab and only get up when the day crew arrived around 8:00. Then we’d head for the beach and sleep in our cars or on the sand or just lounge around off ship until we went to work at 5:00 PM.

After several months, I joined up with Woody and another roommate and we rented a house in Norfolk. I lived in that house for nearly four years and about six different roommates as some would leave and others would move in. Other than the days you had duty or the rare cruises, it was like a 9 to 5 job, except it started at 7:00 AM and we wore funny clothes.

Newport, Rhode Island served as Vulcan's homeport for about eight years until the tender was transferred to Norfolk in February 1954. While in Newport, Vulcan's crew was actively involved with the civilian community and the ship's athletic teams were always among the city's best.

In late 1962, Vulcan participated in the Cuban Quarantine operation by providing repair services to the ships manning the naval blockade (November 3-29).

In October 1963, on her way home following the completion of a training cruise, Vulcan rescued a 41-ft. yawl named " Northern Light, " carrying three crewmen. Standing by the stricken craft through the night, Vulcan towed the yawl to Little Creek the next morning.

Then, in April of 1970, president Richard M. Nixon nominated Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to be Chief of Naval Operations. Zumwalt quickly moved to eliminate all the “mickey mouse” and “chicken sh*t” rules that had proliferated the modern Navy. He allowed beards, standardized the rules for length of hair, and allowed sailors like us to wear our dungarees home. Before that we would have to dress in our blues or dress whites to commute to the ship, then change to our work clothes called dungarees, and at quitting time, reverse the process. He allowed us to travel home in dungarees, and even stop to get gas or groceries. That really made things a lot more convenient.

The house we rented was originally rented by our friend, Roy Parker. Roy was married. He had originally served three or four years in the Navy as a Signalman. He got out and played guitar in bands. He was one of the better guitarists I’ve ever met. I have a lot of his music recorded, but they are what I call “ambient recordings.” That means I set up the recorder somewhere in the room, and just ran it. So it is not mixed well.

In his second tour with the Navy, he had trained as an Electronics Technician and worked in the Electronics Repair department. He had a Hammond B-3 and taught his wife to play bass. When I showed up at his house, he would let me play the Hammond and he went back to the guitar playing my Gibson. He was a Jimi Hendrix fan and did an excellent “Little Wing.” We had a lot of fun jamming with him. My friend, David Woodman (Woody) would play guitar along with Roy, and all we were missing was drums.

These patches were worn on the shoulder of a Vulcan sailor's uniform.

After Roy got out of the Navy and moved on, Woody and I rented the house on 8240 McCloy Rd. that was Roy and Marilyn’s. The rent was only $100 a month and we all chipped in for utilities and food. The owner was some lady down in Florida and she had a friend that managed the rental and lived in Virginia Beach. At first she was a little apprehensive to rent to Woody and me, but she did it and was never sorry.

We always had a third roommate, although he wasn’t on the lease. At first it was Woody and Dan McDonald or “Mac.” We soon found another lead guitarist in Pete Roderiguiz and had a number of drummers playing with us over the years. I bought a Magnavox Organ to provide keyboards and later bought a Vox Jaguar. I had my Gibson Firebird and Woody played a Gretsch semiaccoustic and a Hagstrom bass.

Another shipmate, Bob Peyre-Ferry, was an excellent trumpet player. We also had a singer, but I just can't remember his name. He was the best singer I ever played with and we had a lot of fun playing what we called "beach music," as in "Virginia Beach." It was sort of white soul, although our drummer was black.

I had a Fender Deluxe Reverb and Woody had a Fender Showman with a custom cabinet with two-fifteen inchers. Pete played a Fender strat. Those were fun times and plenty of buddies from the ship would come over for parties. When Mac got out,we added Fred Gardner as a roommate. He was an Electrician who had taken Eddie William's place in the Cal Lab.

After Woody transferred to Orlando and Fred got out of the Navy, I lived with Mike Bott and Mark Foreman.

Along with the rest of the Vulcan-class repair ships and their contemporaries, the Dixie-class destroyer tenders and Fulton-class submarine tenders, had their original battery of 5" guns removed in the 1970s and replaced by a minimal 20-mm armament.

Finally, when I got out of the Navy, I painted the entire house and turned it back to the realtor. She was very happy with us, primarily because we always paid the rent on time and never called her to fix anything. That’s good, because if she had come by and saw the living room filled with motorcycles, she might not have like us so much.

Vulcan again performed rescue duties in March 1964 when she came to the aid of USS Antares (AKS-33) and helped extinguish an uncontrolled fire that was raging in the supply ship's No. 3 hold. In late 1964, Vulcan participated in NATO exercise "Teamwork" and then proceeded to take part in "Steel Spike I," the largest amphibious exercise since the end of World War II.

In May 1965, Vulcan served as flagship for a mobile logistic support group and provided repair support to units of the fleet engaged in the Dominican Republic intervention. President Johnson eventually ordered 30,000 U.S. troops to maintain order in the Caribbean nation.

Among the many ships serviced in 1967 was USS Liberty (AGTR-5), which was later accidentally attacked by Israeli planes and gunboats during the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Vulcan remained in Norfolk during the Vietnam years, she repaired many vessels that were transferred for duty with the Pacific Fleet.

Although the Vulcan remained a nearly permanent fixture in Norfolk, about twice a year we’d go for a two to four-week cruise. We had to maintain sea-readiness and keep the crew trained, so these periodic cruises were required. When we were at sea, the Calibration Lab was shut down. So it was a pleasure cruise for us.

I don’t recall all our ports of call. I remember the first cruise I was on was to Bermuda. We went to Puerto Rico a couple of times, Jamaica also a couple. We took one cruise up to Nova Scotia and several trips to Ft. Lauderdale, either on the way to the Caribbean, or just to turn around and return.

Vulcan on station in Guantanamo Bay or GTMO.

A common destination was Cuba. We’d visit Guantanamo Bay and practice war games. GTMO wasn’t much of a liberty port since the only women were the wives of the sailors stationed there. We did have a good time snorkeling and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.

One time I was snorkeling and I surfaced and noticed that every single swimmer was out of the water. They were all standing on a small concrete pier as crowded as a New York subway. I realized I was the only one in the water and swam as fast as I’ve ever swum to that pier and literally jumped out of the water.

I was told someone had seen a Barracuda. I don’t know if those are dangerous or not, but apparently everyone thought so. That was the closest call I ever had swimming in the ocean other than the time I got into some very shallow water on a coral reef. I tried to turn around and was rubbing the coral, which is like sandpaper only worse. I sort of “back-pedaled” out of shallow area with only a few scrapes. However, later, those scratches itched like the dickens.

In late 1975, Vulcan paid a working visit to Cartagena, Colombia, where she tended three ex-U.S. Navy destroyers of that nation's navy. Not only did Vulcan repair the vessels, but her crew also provided valuable training to their Colombian counterparts.

A comprehensive overhaul lasting nine months was completed in 1976. Gone were the ship's four five-inch guns. In 1977, while returning from underway training, Vulcan was called upon to assist a Portuguese destroyer named Coutinho. Alongside, Vulcan provided emergency boiler feedwater to the Coutinho.

GTMO was a training base. From that port we’d go out to sea and play war games, although they were pretty serious. We’d have referees or judges or whatever you would call them on board and we’d go through practice drills to measure our readiness.

Note the wooden decks. Very unique and "old school."

My general quarters station was “Aft Auxiliary Transmitter Room Two.” We had a radio room filled with communications gear just aft of the bridge. My duty station was a little room near the fantail that had one transmitter. The idea was that, if the main radio room was destroyed, then the aft transmitter would be back-up. There were three or four of us stationed there. My job was to repair the equipment if needed. There was a radioman to operate the radio and a couple of others for communications with CIC, the Combat Information Center. The “talker” used voice-operated phones.

If you’ve seen an old WWII movie, these phones were a microphone on a harness in front of the face and a pair of earphones. The talker would press a button on the microphone and the whole thing worked by the electricity generated in the carbon powder phones; very reliable as long as the wire to the bridge was in tact.

Vulcan preparing to refuel at sea. Note the five-inch gun turet.

We would go back to the room when “general quarters, man your battle stations” was sounded on the P.A. We’d button the top button on our shirt and stuff our pant cuffs into our socks. That was to protect us from nuclear fallout. I’m not sure just how effective that would be!

What would usually happen during the war games is that a referee would come back and enter our space. He’d tell us we were just hit by a shell and we were all dead. So we could pull our pants out of our socks and “smoke ‘em if we got ‘em.” Being dead was the best part of a war game.

Since our talker was dead, obviously he couldn’t answer the regular call from CIC. So, pretty soon they’d send back a damage control party to check on us. There wasn’t much equipment in that little room, but one item was a “shorting bar.” That’s a long hook made of copper connected to a handle made of some kind of insulator. There was a heavy copper strap that was about three feet long ending in a big clip.

Vulcan docked at the pier in Puerto Rico.

This hook was used to discharge the power supply capacitors in the transmitter if you were going to work on it. Even after you shut off power, these capacitors could store a pretty powerful shock, so the procedure was to connect the hook to ground and then touch the tops of all the caps to discharge them. This was really important in powerful equipment like a radar transmitter, but a radio could store a pretty good charge too.

We were trained to use the hook, without connecting the ground, to pull a sailor off a hot wire. If someone was in contact with high voltage, and you touched them, you’d get shocked too. So you were suppose to use the hook to safely clear the wire or just yank the guy off the juice. We were also trained on cleaning up electronic tubes with radioactive materials too. We were definitely the best-trained Navy in the world.

A popular product produced on the Vulcan were ships plaques. The molds were hand carved and metal disks were cast.

Anyway, getting back to the war games, after a while a repair party would be sent out to check on our condition. Now the referee would usually draw a circle in the floor – or as we called it in the Navy: the deck – to simulate a hole blown in it. He’d also hang a cable from the ceiling to act as a hot wire.

When the party arrived, the lights would all be out, but they had battle lamps, which are like flash lights. They had to move the cable using the hook I described and not step in the hole. Otherwise they were dead too. Often the referee would have one of us lie on a cable and wiggle like we were being shocked. The party had to jerk the guy off the cable without touching him and administer mouth-to-mouth – simulated.

I remember one time this big guy yanked this sailor off the cable so hard he flew against the wall – only, in the Navy, we called them “bulkheads.”

The Electronics Calibration logo was hand carved into the floor of the Calibration Lab.

Part of the exercise always included an abandon ship drill. Everyone would go to their lifeboats with their floatation gear on. The crew in Aft Transmitter Room didn’t have to do that. That’s because we were supposed to wait for the Captain. He would be the last to leave the ship. His last duty was to come to our room and send the final message listing all the equipment and secret documents that had been destroyed before departing. After the captain sent that message, I was supposed to destroy the transmitter so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.

These transmitters were built like a file cabinet. Each draw opened up so you could work on the components. They were made of heavy steel and I had a big axe that I was supposed to finish off the transmitter with, and then run to the Captain’s boat and depart. So the Captain was not the last person to depart the abandoned ship … I WAS!!!

Now I’m a loyal sailor as gung-ho as anybody, but I’m glad I didn’t have to ever do that for real. The idea of leaving the ship AFTER the Captain and only after I’d wrecked the gear was not really very appealing to me.

Navy Times, July 4, 1983

USS VULCAN — Commissioned only months before the United States was thrust into World War II, the repair ship recently celebrated her 42nd anniversary.

The ship has had a long and storied career, participating in World War II and the quarantine of Cuba, as well as many exercise and routine repair tasks. She earned a battle star in support of the invasion of southern France in late summer of 1944.

And in November 1978, she became the first Navy vessel since hospital ship Sanctuary to have women officers and enlisted personnel assigned as members of the ship's company.

Vulcan recently completed an extensive overhaul and was back to performing new worthy events. Following completion of a five-week post-overhaul refresher training visit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the ship came across a small boat in distress. The boat had been without power for three days.

Chief Machinist's Mate Lee Plummer and Engineman Second Michael Fink discovered a worn flange coupling between the engine and propeller shaft. The engine was American-made, and a replacement part was quickly located by Plummer.

Soon the boat was on its way again, with the some added provisions from the crew.

I remember one cruise down to Florida that we encountered bad weather off of Georgia. It was not a problem for us. We were a pretty big ship.

Class & type: Vulcan-class repair ship
Displacement: 12,911 long tons (13,118 t)
Length: 530 ft (160 m) Beam: 73 ft 4 in (22.35 m)
Draft: 19 ft (5.8 m) Speed: 19.2 knots (35.6 km/h; 22.1 mph)
Complement: 1,297
Armament:
• 4 × 5 in (130 mm) guns
• 4 × .50 caliber machine guns

With nearly 1,000 sailors aboard, we were making about ten knots into the heavy weather. We came upon a small sailing vessel struggling with the high seas. We signaled them both by radio and light and eventually got a response. They said they were OK. However, shortly after that encounter, we turned and went back and rescued the crew as the little boat was in trouble.

We rode bad seas pretty well. Since the Calibration Lab was air-conditioned and about mid-ships, we rocked and rolled less than most aboard and in these high seas. The mess deck was usually deserted as most were settling for saltine crackers. I love the swaying of the ship and always had a good appetite.

Vulcan at anchor in Kingston Harbor. Shot from the "liberty gig" on the way to shore.

After I got out of the Navy I used to go fishing in small boats off the coast of Washington State and I remember a trip where my dad and the other fisherman were all sick. Only the captain, his wife and myself enjoyed the fish we’d caught. One secret is to stay on deck and breathe the fresh air. Avoid the inside and diesel fumes. Just a few years ago Linda and I were on a fishing boat in Hawaii and again we were about the only ones not sick. I guess I just was born with “sea legs.”

When we’d arrive in Ft. Lauderdale, a bunch of us would usually rent a motel room for the weekend and have a good time of it. I remember one time Woody and I went to a bar called the “Bachelors Three.” that was owned by Joe Namath and a couple of other football players. The pretty waitress brought our drinks and said she’s start a tab.

We had several drinks and were ready to leave, but our waitress was nowhere to be found. After waiting over ten minutes we decided we would just go. We walked out and she chased us down in the parking lot. Now we were so embarrassed we gave her a twenty and told her to keep the change. I think our bill was only $10, so she got a good tip. (Drinks weren’t as expensive back then. I suspect a bar drink was probably $1.50. I used to drink “Rusty Nails,” which is Scotch and Drambuie.)

Navy Times, July 18, 1983

Vulcan, the second oldest ship on active duty in the Navy, recently celebrated her 42nd birthday and unveiled the ship's new logo, which shows a female sailor and the god Vulcan at an anvil.

Illustrator Draftsmen Third Alexander Bostic and Erick Murray made the design after the ship's skipper, Capt. James E. McConville came up with the idea. Seaman Sandra Kendall of the ships 1st division, was the model.

A highlight of the three-day birthday celebration at Norfolk was a visit by Lucius (Ken) Kennedy, a retired CPO who served aboard Vulcan in 1941-42 and had not been back since.

The repair ship has about 100 women among the crew of 700 and helped initiate the Women in Navy Ships (WINS) program in November 1978.

By a matter of hours, Vulcan became the first non-hospital ship in the Navy to receive women officers on November 1, 1978. The first contingents of enlisted women arrived in December 1978 and January 1979. Vulcan's first point-to-point cruise with women took place in February 1979, with a trip to Earle, New Jersey. In September 1979, Vulcan left Norfolk for the Navy's first Mediterranean cruise with a mixed crew. A pioneer in the Women in Navy Ships (WINS) program, female sailors now make up one-seventh of the crew.

The new ship's plaque after the Vulcan became the first "man of war" to have female crew.

Besides music (and we played a lot of music on McCloy road, some of it live and some of it recorded), our gang was into motorcycles. Most everyone we knew had one. Woody found a nice Harley chopper that he bought. It was a big 74 ci Harley with extended fork.

I was about to extend my enlistment and receive a bonus. I had signed a contract with the Navy that if they gave me this extra schooling, I’d extend to six years. At the end of a four-year service I had to sign up for two more. The good news was that I got a bonus for reenlisting. Electronic Technicians were in short supply and there was a large bonus for re-upping … even if you had already agreed to do it. I don’t recall the exact amount, but it was in the neighborhood of $5,000. Now realize that, back then, a brand new car cost less than that. So it was sort of like getting $20,000 to $30,000 in today’s money. Woody had been in about six months longer than me, so he got his bonus before me. He agreed to loan me $500 and I found a nice 1965 Triumph 650 that I bought. I paid him back a few months later when I got my bonus.

I remember one of our buddies that spotted a used Harley Sportster in the classifieds. We all drove down to the address, but the owner was still at work. We waited until he got home, took one look at the bike, and said, “We’ll take it.” About that time another guy showed up and said he’d pay an extra $200 if the owner would sell it to him. The owner said, “No, he’d already made a deal with us.” Glad he had some integrity.

We all started working on our bikes, customizing them and painting and adding custom parts. If the landlord had come by, she might not have appreciated seeing the living room full of motorcycle half assembled. We used to hang gas tanks on the clothesline in back and spray paint them. We ended up customizing a lot of bikes.

My roommate, Fred Gardner, traded in his Yamaha 350 for a big Harley dresser with windshield, saddlebags, floorboards, and a giant seat. We used to ride down to Nags Head near Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. You may have heard of Kitty Hawk. A couple of bicycle mechanics made it famous a few years before us.

Vulcan was the first US warship in which women were deployed. She left Norfolk Virginia in September 1979 for the Navy's first Med deployment with a mixed crew, and is seen here at Barcelona, Spain, 23 December 1979; at the time, the presence of women aboard a warship was odd enough to attract the attention of the news media.

My other passion was camping. I had a buddy from Texas, Mike Desnoyer. He bought a nice new Ford pickup and we’d take it camping and had a great time in the woods. Once we made squirrel stew out of a fresh road kill and drank a lot of beer in those woods. I would lie under the stars and plan what I’d do once I got out of the Navy. I was going to go back to Colorado, get a bicycle and a canoe, and spend my time in the mountains fishing and camping.

I had bought a 1973 Dodge Maxi-van and we would all drive up to Shenandoah National park and camp. You could “rent” camping gear from the Navy, only there was no charge. We would get these nice tents made by Winchester. On one trip a bear attacked our camping site and tore up one of the tents. I took it back to the Navy place and explained what had happened.

They said that they got a good price for the tents since they bought in bulk and charged me $20 for the lost tent. I think it must have been worth $100 or more. So, on our next trip, when we got back, I told them another bear attack had occurred and here was my $20 for the tent. Now I had a tent. I’m not sure if that was stealing or not. I was young and not as moral as I am today. Sorry USN, but you did get reimbursed.

A good friend and camping buddies, Joe Eden and his wife Pat, rented a very nice house a few blocks from our house. Best of all, his house had a two car garage. Soon we were painting the motorcycles inside his garage. We had a good time at Joe and Pat’s, and at other friends who lived on the beach. We were a very close group that spent all our time together just enjoying the company and the freedom that only comes to twenty-somethings at the beginning of their lives before families and responsibility. It was a special and magical time and I remain very close to my Navy friends to this day.

I had originally reported to the Vulcan as a Third Class Petty Office or E-4. In the Navy promotions were based primarily on knowledge in your rate – what you did – your skills. You had to complete some correspondence courses and take an exam for promotion. The Navy used the results of the exam in a formula that included years in the Navy, time in rate, awards and medals and your annual performance scores. But most important was your score on the promotion exams and whether the Navy needed the higher rating. Electronic Technicians were in such demand that anyone that made a minimum score on the exams and had adequate time in rate was promoted.

In a normal, four-year career, you would make it to Second Class or E-5. Since almost all the ETs were in for six years, most of us made First Class or E-6 before our time was over. I think I was promoted shortly after reenlisting. So I got out of the Navy as a First Class Electronics Technician. I had three stripes on my arm representing “First Class” with a little atom indicating I was an “ET.” I had a single stripe on my sleeve for my first four years of service. I had two medals. The first was the “National Defense” award for volunteering during a time of war and a “Good Conduct” medal for never being caught doing anything wrong. I figured you got a medal every four years, so if I stayed in for twenty, I’d probably have five.

I’m just kidding. I was never in combat and that’s really where you earn your medals. I loaned mine to a friend of my son to wear with a Halloween costume about twenty-five years ago and never got them back. Doesn’t matter. This was the height of the Vietnam War, and I feel lucky I wasn’t directly involved. I could have ended up there, although most Navy were off shore in the relative safety of a ship at sea. I did have shipmates who had been in the middle of the conflict. Some were on small boats that cruised the rivers in Vietnam and got shot at plenty. The First Class who was in charge of the ET shop had been with a group of Seals that went on patrol in the jungle. His job was to maintain their radio. He had some hairy stories to tell, but I was pretty glad that I didn’t have any combat episodes to relate. It’s no fun when some enemy is trying to kill you, and I have great respect for those that served in the war. My little service was more like a regular job that was at an office that just happened to be painted gray and floated on the water.

Moored at pier 9, Naval Station, Norfolk, 29 June 1992. Vulcan had returned to Norfolk following deployment in the Persian Gulf area during "Operation Desert Storm". Astern of Vulcan lies the amphibious transport dock USS Nashville (LPD-13) while on the opposite side of the pier across from Vulcan is an Iwo Jima-class (LPH) Amphibious Assault Ship (Helicopter).

My final weekend we had a three-day party at a house on the beach. I had a case of steaks I got from the ship’s cook in payment for some lights I had built for him. So we spent the entire weekend celebrating and partying and eating steaks. Somebody came by with a ski boat and took us water skiing just off the beach. At one point the cops showed up because a nearby parent thought his underage daughter was at our party. Everyone told the cops it was my party, but I said I didn’t know anything about it. They left, and – fortunately – the cops never came back. I never saw an underage girl, but who knows. The party was outdoors on the beach, and there were people walking in off the street. I have no idea who all was there!

In September 1980, Vulcan deployed to the North Atlantic to participate in NATO exercise " Teamwork 80 " which included ships from the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and West Germany. Vulcan completed an extensive overhaul of thirteen months in mid-February 1983. Captain J. E. McConville, the ship's thirty-fourth commanding officer, guided Vulcan to a successful completion of the difficult overhaul and subsequent refresher training. In May 1983, while en route to Florida from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Vulcan assisted a Haitian refugee boat, the "Rose Carida," adrift without power for three days.

Port visits to St. John's, New Brunswick and Earle, N.J., were made in the first half of 1984. On October 1, Vulcan left for Diego Garcia, where she is scheduled to relieve USS Yosemite, another World War II-era vessel. Vulcan resumed her Norfolk duties in mid-1985. She was decommissioned in 1991.

Finally my six years with the Navy were up. I had checked into a transfer to true shore duty once I had three years on the Vulcan, but the only duty available was New London, Connecticut, and I would have to extend my enlistment another year. So I stayed with the Vulcan to the very end of my time.

I got an early out, about three months early, to attend college in Montana, but I never enrolled. The last few weeks were pretty intense with celebrations held at our house and at friends out on Willoughby Spit, a narrow strip of land and beach. We would frequent many of the watering holes along Ocean View Avenue from the amusement park to the Jolly Roger.

Once Woody and I were in a bar somewhere along Ocean View and Woody told me that the girl at the bar with some guy was married, and not to the guy she was with. I said so what, happens all the time with the husband at sea. Woody said that it was special because the husband had just walked in the door and he had a gun. We made a quick retreat to the head, but no shots rang out, so we soon returned to our beer.

One of our favorite watering holes was a place called “Brads.” They had pretty waitresses, good service, and a juke box. You could only get beer and wine in a bar in Norfolk, no hard liquor. Woody and I would get off work, and then lay down for a couple of hours nap before hitting the bars at around 9 or 10. We’d drink a few beers and end up closing the place at midnight – early bar closing in Norfolk. Then we’d hit the Waffle House for steak and eggs and be in bed by 1 or 2.

The next day we were bright eyed while others who had spent the night in the bars were still pretty wasted. A man has to know his limitations, and Woody and I had a pretty good system down. I knew a few shipmates that had serious problems with alcohol. Fortunately, we kept a balance of work / life. We rode motorcycles and you had to keep a fairly clear head to keep that head connected to your shoulders.

The USS Vulcan was the first of a class of repair ships called the Vulcan Class. The Vulcans were modern purpose-build repair ships completed in 1941-1944. They were equipped with booms of up to 20 ton capacity, allowing them to do heavy repair work. Some of these units were still in commission at the time of the Gulf War of 1991. The Vulcan, AR-5, outlasted the Ajax, AR-6, decommissioned in 1989; the Hector, AR-7, also decommissioned in 1989; and the Jason, AR-8, decommissioned in 1995. The Jason had been refit and designated as a heavy-hull repair ship, ARH-8.

I remember my final celebration with just a few very close friends. We spent the night in Virginia Beach partying. After I got out of the Navy, I stuck around for a week or so to finish cleaning up and painting the house before I loaded up my yellow van and headed west. The day after the final party saw me headed for civilian life.

I had purchased the Dodge van in order to haul my motorcycle home. I then sold the motorcycle to pay for the van! I also sold my Gibson Firebird to have cash for the trip home. That’s the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I sold it for $700. I had only paid $300 for it originally, but it was ten years old by then and worth a lot more. I also sold some guitar amps and both of my organs. The guy who bought the organs never paid me. Oh well, that’s life.

I loaded up my van – it was empty except for the two seats in front, and headed west. It took me about four days to make it to Montana. I picked up my brother in Billings and headed for Lewistown. I spent a few days there before heading to Spokane, Washington where my parents lived.

That was the end of my Navy career. I had enlisted on the “90-day delayed enlistment” and got out about three months early on a college discharge. So I had a full six years and received my Honorable Discharge on my last day aboard ship. I had grown a beard, which was allowed by the new “Zumwalt” rules. I proceeded to shave off the beard leaving only a mustache. That was May of 1973. I have not shaved that mustache since. I’ve had a few beards and a fu manchu mustache or at least a cowboy version of that, and even a Van Dyke. These day’s I’m modeling the Frank Zappa look. I’ve even returned to the black horn rim glasses I wore in high school for that Bill Halley face. For several years during and after the Navy I was into “plastic rimmed aviation glasses.”

Under tow in Hampton Roads (Norfolk, VA. is in the background), 19 December 2006, while being moved from the James River National Defense Reserve Fleet to the breakers yard, Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC, Chesapeake, VA. for scrapping.

As soon as I got out of the Navy, I grew my hair long. These days, I try to keep what little hair I have left down around my shoulders, although I’ll never be that “bald guy with a pony tail.” I’m just trying to keep my freak flag waving.

Linda has never seen me without a mustache … and she never will!! She says that, after I’ve passed, she’ll have the mortician shave me and have an open casket service. Well, in that case, I’m not dying. That’ll teach her.

Vulcan was decommissioned on 30 September 1991, struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 28 July 1992 and laid up in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. She was transferred to the Maritime Administration on 1 February 1999, for lay up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet on the James River, Fort Eustis, Virginia. On 9 November 2006 the contract was awarded to Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC, Chesapeake, Virginia, for her scrapping, and she was towed to the shipbreakers on 19 December 2006.

And thus ends a storied career for a great gray lady.

Vulcan at the ship breakers yard, Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC, Chesapeake, VA. for scrapping, circa February 2008.

This is my best recollection of people, places, and dates. Any corrections would be appreciate. Thanks for reading.

11 comments:

  1. always wondered what happened after I left Norfolk, you filled in the blanks with much more than I could ever have remembered. Enjoyed the blog and the motorcycle pic with you in it is still my fav.

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  2. I was on the Vulcan Med Cruise SEP 1979 - MAR 1980 - we hit Genoa, Naples and other ports...
    Is there a Vulcan reunion or association

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    1. There are several groups of Vulcan shipmates on the web and sometimes talk of a reunion. Here's a couple on Facebook:

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/vulcanvets/

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/ussvulcanar5/

      There are also several Navy ship and Military web sites with Vulcan information:

      https://www.lib.odu.edu/specialcollections/manuscripts/vulcan.htm

      http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/25/2505.htm

      http://navysite.de/crewlist/commandlist.php?commandid=945

      http://www.hullnumber.com/crew1.php?cm=AR-5

      http://www.military.com/HomePage/UnitPageListEvents/1,13512,201911,00.html

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. It was a very good post indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in my lunch time. Will surely come and visit this blog more often. Thanks for sharing. www.acs-advancedcooling.com

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  5. Thank you for the post. I was an IC in R3 Division and my shop was the motion picture projector and meter repair/calibration space just around the corner from your ET shop. This was from Oct 1962 to Sep 1964.

    We shared a common internal bulkhead. My meter shop was on the corner of the midship passageway on the port side. When I went back to visit Vulcan for the De-commissioning party I visited her and hoped to visit my old stomping ground but it had been confiscated by the ET's. It was then part of what I think was the Crypto repair shop. Would that have been the same shop you worked in?

    I had an EM working for me in that shop and when we repaired a projector we would show a movie to check it out. We would open the hatch and show the movie on the aft bulkhead. The Officers pantry just happened to be across the midship passageway and the pantry had a porthole looking into our hatch. On more than one occasion the porthole would open and we would be given cake and ice cream from the pantry. I was also tagged on several occasions to show movies in the wardroom.

    Was aboard Vulcan for the Cuban Missile Crisis and the rescue of the "Northern Light" and for the USS Antares fire; that was a scary time at sea. We also went to Gitmo to supply water to the base for a few days after Admiral Bulkeley cut the water line from Cuba to the base. This was just after the missile crisis. I believe it was because their old evaps ship had a problem, but not really sure.

    Thanks again for the post; it brought back lots of memories.
    Don,
    Former IC2 USNR

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    1. The Cal Lab was just aft of the ET shop. Further aft was the typewriter and clock repair. (I think I have the direction, "aft," correct, not 100% certain.

      I don't know when the electronic cal lab was built. We had the meter repair board in that cal lab. At some point between '69 and about '71 a mechanical cal lab was added to the superstructure above our lab. It was a prefab enclosure made of aluminum that was hoisted onto the top deck and welded in place. I think it was in division R5.

      Good memories, even if some of them are a bit fuzzy. Thanks for the comments.

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  6. We had a fantastic crew 1979-1980. Our Med Cruse was epic and so was the storm on our way home.

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  7. Nice story. So much familiar. I reported aboard Vulcan, March-1974 as a PHAN, fresh out of A-school in Pensacola. The photo lab was adjacent to what we called "Mircs Lab," where you worked. I lived on Little Bay St in Willoughby Spit briefly, then moved downtown to Bute St in Ghent. Got out in Aug-1977.

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