Wednesday afternoon, June 20 1990 started out much like any other day. By the time it ended… everything would be very, very different.
(Author’s note: Please indulge me on this Veteran’s Day, while I tell a story of heroism, one very close to my heart. I apologize in advance for any errors, omissions or typos)
I was assigned to the evening shift (7pm-7am) of a Radar shop on the USS Midway CV-41, a nearly 50 year-old WWII era Aircraft Carrier and the Flag-Ship of the far-east’s 7th fleet. I had just retired to my berthing in a type of bunk we called “coffin lockers” due to the way they were enclosed on all but one side, which had a small curtain for privacy.
As a new guy, at first I found it hard to fall asleep whenever we set sail, and this afternoon was only my second time at sea. Not only was I still trying to get used to working “vampire shift” but there were usually flight operations in progress. Just a few feet above our berthing was the center-line at the end of of the “Angle-Deck”, which is the landing-Strip portion of the flight-deck.
When planes “Trapped” or landed, they came to a stop on the roof directly above our heads with engines at full power in in case they had to “go around” in a missed attempt.
Normally, when a plane traps successfully all you really hear is the muffled roar and whine of twin jet engines on an F/A-18 Hornet or A-6 Intruder, and occasionally the distinctive bark of turbo-props reversing thrust on an E-2C Hawkeye. Here and there someone would drop or drag a set of chains used to secure aircraft with a thud and a jingle.
For the most part though, these sounds were fairly soothing to a gear-head like myself, and eventually one finds the gentle rocking of the ship helped lure you into a deep sleep once you got used to the blood slowly rushing into and out of your head.
Once in a while however, a plane would “bolter” aka miss catching the arresting wires. Then the tranquility was shattered by a few seconds of mayhem as a 100 pound chunk of steel called a “tail-hook” dragged across our roof at over 120 miles per hour, followed by the business end of the jet screaming at full power – mere feet above where we slept.
On my very first day out at sea a few months earlier I had just fallen asleep when the first pilot boltered, and the ensuing racket scared the living bejeezus out of me.
The next thing I knew I was out of my rack standing in the isle of our dimly lit berthing, which had a dark red cast over it by overhead “sleeping” lights. My heart was pounding, and startled to death I yelled “What the @#$%& was THAT?!?!?”
Several of our older shipmates laughed at me, the “boot-camp” new guy, and said “You’ll get used to it kid” then rolled over back to sleep.
Thus I began to filter out the many sounds of an aircraft carrier at sea, still not 100% sure what was supposed to be normal or not as I learned to sleep directly under an airport.
By our 2nd period at sea I had pretty much gotten used to all the noise and was able to sleep right through it. Although, this time I was incredibly excited, because we were en-route to my very first scheduled liberty port in Pusan Korea. While I had been stationed in Japan for quite a few months, I arrived when the ship was at the very end of a “WestPac” deployment and just barely missed out on an entire cruise.
A few months ago we had sailed to the working Naval port of Subic Bay, Philippines – only to have the gate suddenly closed during one of many government coup attempts. I found myself trapped on a US Navy base with an entire exotic country locked away just outside, legendary liberty stories of my dreams were so close, yet still so far.
Thus our upcoming visit to Korea was something I had been looking forward to for a long time.
At the beginning of this cruise we had done some workup exercises, including a few high-speed runs. Our radar system had a direct speed-input feed from the ships gyro and navigation systems, so we got to see just how fast one of these enormous machines can actually go – and it was amazing. We watched the numbers creep up, and up, cheering and exchanging nervous jokes each other at every new figure.
With the ships’ boilers fired up high, the old gal still had some serious spunk left in her.
But the strain of pushing this old warrior to her limits would weigh heavy on our minds for what was about to happen next.
I went to bed that day after staying up the entire night before, in hopes it would help me fall asleep faster -a customary trick for the night shifts. I quickly fell into a deep deep sleep, much more so than I expected. But this time I had some of the strangest dreams… all consisting of the ship being in various states of emergency – catching fire, blowing up, sinking. It was all very odd and vivid.
When my alarm finally went off I woke up, bewildered, exhausted and in a state of confusion. I tried to shake it off and get ready for my evening shift.
The first thing I noticed was that the white overhead lights were on in our berthing, which was unusual, and it was dead quiet. No snoring, no sailors milling about telling sea stories, no one sitting around listening to their walkmans or reading. No one was in the head brushing their teeth or showering. Completely deserted.
I quickly got dressed and ready for my shift, then made my way to evening muster, but every watertight door on the route was shut and dogged-closed. And still the ship was deserted. I was becoming genuinely freaked out.
When I finally arrived to my shop everyone else in the division was there, staring at me like they had seen a ghost. I noticed they were on the sound-powered phones in what we called modified GQ, or General Quarters, a ship’s state of emergency. Somehow because I was new, I had been missed at roll-call for the emergency muster.
Aaaand the ship was on fire.
-At 11:47 am local time while we sailed through the sea of Japan, there was a report of smoke in a storage room for the “Flying Squad” of DC division, our shipboard firefighters. A squad was dispatched to investigate.
-At 12:23 there was an explosion, and around this time general quarters was sounded.
-Exactly 1 hour later at 1:23 a second larger explosion rocked the ship.
The fire was nearly directly below our berthing, and that entire portion of the ship was evacuated, including our berthing. One of our first class petty officers had come through to wake us all up, turned on the lights and yelled at us to get up and get out immediately, report to our GQ stations.
Somehow, I was completely missed. And in my exhaustion from having stayed up so long in an effort to fall asleep, I spent the next several hours dreaming about the ship being on fire instead.
When I showed up for “evening muster”, there were many wide-eyes…
The source of the fire, which I am recanting from a somewhat faded memory and not from an official source, I believe was found to be a pair of jet-fuel and steam pipes that had developed leaks. Steam-pipes on a Navy ship are capable of tremendous pressures and temperatures, so much so that a pinhole leak can cut a man in half. Indeed, the way we were instructed to find leaks, was to wave a broom-handle in front of the suspect area.
When these two leaks mixed in this space – it set up a mixture that would prove to be a fatal time-bomb.
There was suspicion that these leaks may have been related to stresses from our high-speed runs we had just done.
When our ship’s “elite fire fighting team” known as the Flying Squad opened the hatch to investigate the space, the super-heated fuel/steam mixture combined with in-rushing oxygen and instantly exploded, killing several of the first responders.
Rescue teams and additional firefighters were dispatched, and eventually they were able to bring the fire under control. But an official total of 18 shipmates were injured- some critically, and 3 perished, including DC3 Shane Kilgore, MSSN Patrick Johnson, and HTFN Jeffery Vierra.
They risked their lives to save ours – and saved our ship. For that, the rest of us are eternally grateful to the USS Midway’s Flying Squad. It’s a debt we can never repay.
But there is a strange parallel to the story…
When I found out who the casualties were, one name stuck out at me in particular. In my entire naval service I rarely met anyone who had even heard of my home town, let alone actually been there.
Eventually I began to tell people I was from the Tahoe area, a small town near Truckee California between Reno & Sacramento. It was always a treat when someone actually knew of Grass Valley or Nevada City, the latter of which had been a prominent town in California’s gold-rush LONG before a certain large state usurped its name. By and large though, few people had ever heard of it half-way around the world.
HTFN Vierra – Hull-Technician Fireman Jeffery Vierra – was also from Nevada City. Jeff went to school with my sisters and I. Neither of us had a clue the other was aboard this same WWII era warship – stationed in a foreign country half way around the globe from our home…
…that he and his team would be so close to someone from home when they perished was a startling, and tragic coincidence.
I ran across a youtube video a few days ago that brought the whole ordeal rushing back… I have never forgotten the sacrifice they gave for us, and on this Veteran’s day please indulge me as I give a special thanks to a shipmate from my old home town who gave so much – as did those who perished with him, and those who tried to save them.
Fair winds and following seas shipmates, we owe you a debt we can never repay, and one I will never, ever forget.
(CNN video of the disaster, with a young Wolf Blitzer – Kinda annoying with his commentary, but still relevant. It was after all an old ship, and things can and do happen on ANY ship. You train, and deal with it when it happens)