When I ended part 3 of this series of sea stories I promised I would write about the storm of century. I am again providing the picture of the USS Independence so you will have a visual.
In 1977 I made my last Mediterranean cruise. We departed Norfolk in February to make the 5 day transit across the Atlantic. The Independence was accompanied by 6 other surface ships. My rules of the sea, a group can only go as fast as the slowest ship. For this cruise we had one of the oldest active fuel ships (oilers) with us. On a good day (when fully loaded and she was) she could only maintain 10 – 15 knots (a knot = 1.15 mph), so at best the group of ships would make the crossing at approximately 16.5 mph. This was under ideal conditions, that being smooth’s seas and a following wind.
As we approached departure date, there was a storm brewing in the Atlanta. ComFive ( Commander 5th Naval District) was responsible for giving clearance for the task force to get underway, ComFive had the finest weather forecasters in the business (supposedly). And by direction, our shipboard forecasters were required to defer to ComFive.
The Indy Task Force departed Norfolk under threatening gray skies, as soon as the ship cleared Hampton and made open seas, the flight deck was active landing the compliment of airplanes and helo’s approximately 90 in total. Half the planes were secured to the flight deck, the remainder in the hanger bay. It was hairy watching the last few planes land on board the ship. As big as the Indy was, she was riding the conditions. The gray skies of the morning had turned into a mesh of ugly wet gray skies. It was no longer threatening to rain it was raining very hard. But the squadrons were securely on board.
The radiomen were much more busy than normal. The CO (commanding officer & and our Flag officer for 6th fleet) were in constant communications with ComFive regarding the weather. Everyone was super sensitive to it, and it was getting worst by the minute. Our Oiler, (remember the slowest ship) was also in constant communications with our CO and the Flag. We were not having smooth seas and a following wind, we were pushing directly into hell. The morning of the second day we were pointed directly into the wind. Seas were running 15 – 18 feet, gusts at the 35 – 50 mph range. The Oiler had to reduce speed to 9 knots because of the conditions.
My watch section was on duty when “FLASH” traffic started passing between ComFive and our Flag (Commander 6th Fleet). It was determined that we were headed into a serious storm (by the time we got this message we had been in the serious storm for several hours), and that ComFive would advise the Indy Task Force should and when to make any course corrections. Sitreps (Situation Report) where being sent to ComFive every 30 minutes as the storm worsen. The 6 ships in the task force were screaming at the Indy to change course, but we held fast under direction of ComFive. Twelve hours later my watch section was again on watch, when we received “FLASH” traffic dictating a change in course. Following established procedures we had this message in the hand of the CO and Flag within 90 seconds of receiving subject message. I initialed it when I pulled it off the printer and handed it to Gene, Gene my message handler initialed it marked action CO, and Alfonzo initialed it as before he put it in the air tube to the bridge, and we fired it off to the CO. Total time from the moment the FLASH alarms when off to when it was delivered to the CO 90 seconds. We got a confirmation from the Bridge that the CO was handling the message. It should be noted proudly that the USS Independence had won the Communications Green C in both 1975 and 1976 as the very best communications ship in its’ class. It should also be noted that at that time, no carrier had won 2 consecutive Green “C’s, which meant we had our shit together, and as far as communications goes, there wasn’t a better ship in the fleet.
The problem was by the time ComFive’s weathermen decided we were going into a monumental storm we were already ass deep in the storm. The weather was extreme, gusts of 50-75 mph. The seas were at 50 feet and some waves were 60 or more feet. And the storm got worst. The Task Group was stuck, we could not escape the storm north or south, the storm was way too wide, and we could not put our tail to it. Another significant problem was that our oiler could not make much headway in these seas, laden with fuel it was almost overcome. Waves were breaking above the bridge on board. And she could only make about 5 knots. Navy doctrine mandates that the TG can go no faster than that of the slowest ship. Because the Oiler could only make 5 knots the rest of the ships could only go 5 knots. We rode this storm for 84 hours, the Independence was taking 12 – 15 degree rolls, almost the max for a carrier. The Indy had waves breaking on the bow of the ship and at one point a jet was washed over the side. The tin cans were taking as much as 40 degree rolls. And it was reported that the oiler took a 25 degree roll. Each ship sustained significant damage. The 6 ships in the Task force lost all rafts and small boats to the storm, most of the communications gear (antenna’s and such) were lost to the storm. The Wainwright had her forward mast snapped in half. In most cases (during the height of the storm) only 1 or 2 radiomen were capable of standing watch on their ships.
Here I am including 4 pictures taken from the 09 level of the Independence, before the storm each its’ zenith. I would have you again look at the top of the post to see how high the flight deck is off the water.
In this photo you can see the wave beginning to break onto the flight deck.
In the following photo the bow of the ship is fully engulfed in the wave.