USS ORISKANY - A MEMOIR
1965 Aboard the Big "O" off Viet Nam
1. Underway to WestPac 2. Getting to Know You
3. "The Greatest Generation" 4. Shore Patrol
5. The Money Game 6. Pagsanjan Falls
7. Yokosuka 8. The Skipper 9. The Typhoon
10. The Scorecard 11. The Fire
1. Underway to WestPac
At the completion of my one-year tour of duty in Viet Nam
I got a 30-day leave that ended with a flight to Hawaii to catch up with the aircraft carrier Oriskany, which got
underway from its homeport at Naval Air Station North Island, California, on April 5, 1965. I reported aboard the
night before the ship departed from Pearl Harbor and
headed West. By late April we were at Subic Bay in the
Philippines, a large U. S. Navy base (that has since reverted
to Philippine control, along with Clark Air Force Base and
other U. S. military facilities in the Philippines). We spent a
few days at Subic taking on ordnance and stores in prepar-
ation for our first operational period in the South China Sea.
We had undergone daily drills as we crossed the Pacific,
especially "general quarters," to bring the new men aboard,
like me, up to speed in getting to their battle stations when
general quarters was piped over the 1MC public address
system. (The 1MC system went throughout the ship. There
were other systems that were limited to specific areas of the
ship, such as engineering, flight deck, etc.) The following
gives an idea of why getting to one's battle station on time
was not always a simple matter.
Oriskany was an Essex class carrier built during WWII
but not quite completed when the war ended. It was laid up
until shortly before the Korean War began and finally was
commissioned and entered service in 1950. From 1956 to
1959 it underwent an extensive overhaul and modernization,
growing from 30,000 to 45,000 tons. The flight deck was
911 feet long and about 50 feet above the water. If stood on
end, Oriskany would be about the height of an 80+ story
skyscraper. There were seven decks below the flight deck
and four levels in the superstructure above the flight deck.
Within this enormous interior were many hundreds of
compartments, hundreds of doors and hatches (doors are
vertical, hatches are horizontal), a few thousand feet of
passageways, and dozens of ladders (stairwells). To simplify
the hurried movement of well over 4,000 men when general
quarters sounded, the rule was to move forward and up on
the starboard (right) side of the ship and aft and down on the
port side. But if a man was in a compartment, for example,
four decks below the flight deck and his battle station was on
the navigation bridge, there was no single ladder to take him
all the way up to that level. He'd have to go up one ladder two or three decks, then along a passageway to another ladder to go up another deck or two, along another passage-
way, and so on.
2. Getting to Know You
My prior shipboard experience had been on destroyers
for short periods and aboard a destroyer tender. A tender
is a large ship but smaller than a carrier.
I made a point of exploring the ship from fantail to
forecastle (pronounced "folk-suhl"), beginning in my first
days aboard. But even after I'd been aboard more than a year
I had seen fewer than half of all the compartments inside that
floating labyrinth. As incredible as it seems, the newer
carriers, such as USS Harry Truman, have more than twice
the displacement of Oriskany and other Essex class carriers
and Oriskany could be completely hidden behind one of them, they are that much larger.
When general quarters sounded it was announced that
"Condition Zebra will be set in ten minutes" (or maybe less, I don't remember exactly). That meant
all watertight doors and hatches would be closed and dogged
throughout the ship, along with the ventilation system being
shut down and sealed. They could then only be opened with
permission from the bridge (obtained by communication over
the sound-powered phone system, designed to operate even if
the ship lost electrical power). Such permission would only
be given in a bona fide emergency. If you failed to make it all
the way to your battle station before the doors were closed,
you stayed where you were until the word was passed to
secure from general quarters. And then you stood by for a
My job on Oriskany as the senior journalist rating included managing the closed-circuit radio and television
systems. My year at American Forces Radio Saigon proved
valuable in operating these crew entertainment systems. I
had six rated journalists and a couple of seamen who ran the
hobby shop. The equipment in the radio booth was old and
primitive so I persuaded the officer who controlled the ship's
Welfare & Recreation Fund (financed by sales in the ship's
store) to provide enough money for me to go to the Navy
Exchange on the base at Subic and buy a tape recorder, an
8-track cartridge player/recorder and a large selection of
LP records (there were no music tapes or CDs at that time).
I accomodated most musical tastes - pop, rock & roll, jazz,
blues, country & western and classical. I also wrote to some
recording companies and requested free records and got a
nice response from most of them.
I organized the radio operation as much like a commercial
stateside radio station as possible. The entertainment systems gave the crew a taste of home in their off-duty hours.
Each day there were set time periods when a particular genre
of music was featured. Of course, rock & roll and country &
western were the most popular with the crew so they got more air time than the other genres. A couple of my guys,
in spite of having no broadcast training, developed into pretty
good disk jockies. Each time we returned to Subic Bay for a
few days I bought some new records so we could keep our
programming somewhat fresh over the months.
The TV operation was more difficult. The TV "studio" was
really just half of the fairly large compartment that housed the public information office. We only had one camera and
one multi-plexer, a device for capturing the image and sound
off film and transmitting them over television lines. Both the
camera and multi-plexer were old and subject to breakdowns.
I couldn't get money to upgrade the TV equipment and even
if I had it wouldn't have been possible to get new equipment
while deployed overseas.
The movie films we received had often been circulating in
the fleet for some time and weren't always in good condition.
When the film would repeatedly break during a showing of
the movie, we'd get irate phone calls from around the ship.
The radio and TV were the only entertainment available to the crew during our long at-sea periods, which ranged from
30+ days at a stretch to almost 50. I understood the crew's
frustrations but there was nothing I could do.
3. The Greatest Generation
We got underway from Subic Bay in the first week of May,
1965, and launched our first air strikes over Viet Nam on May
8th. Over the next seven months in Southeast Asian waters
Oriskany compiled an outstanding record. Between the April
5th departure from North Island and our December 16th
return: Oriskany spent 210 days at sea; flew 14,700 air
sorties, including over 12,000 combat sorties; dropped almost 10,000 tons of ordnance on Viet Cong targets in South
Viet Nam and on communist North Viet Nam. In addition to
the heavy demands of flight operations, there were 230
"unreps" (underway replenishments) when we brought aboard fuel oil, food, supplies, bombs, rockets, ammunition,
aviation fuel and mail from tankers and other supply ships
steaming alongside. We, in turn, often provided fuel and other stores to our escorting destroyers in the same way.
In the 1990s TV newscaster Tom Brokaw wrote a book he
titled, "The Greatest Generation," in which he claimed the
veterans of World War II surpassed the American armed
forces of any other period of history in dedication and faithful
service to country. It is no disrespect to the valiant men and
women of that war to say Tom Brokaw overstated things. If
he had been aboard Oriskany during 1965, he could not, in
good conscience, have given that title to his book.
During each 30- to 50-day at-sea period, every day was a
work day. There were no weekends or holidays or time off for
anyone. The workday averaged about 18 hours. It was not
uncommon for the men who maintained and repaired the
airplanes, for example, to spend two or three days without
leaving the hangar deck. They would sleep an hour or two on
the wing of a plane, eat cold sandwiches with grimy hands,
then get back to work to meet the impending launch time.
A steel ship steaming on tropical seas, under a blazing sun,
had a normal interior temperature in the mid to high 90s. At
night it might cool off to the high 80s, with humidity close to
100%. We sweat so much that we were under strict orders to
take eight salt tablets a day. There was a salt tablet dispenser
next to every scuttlebutt (drinking fountain). In the boiler
rooms it was even hotter. The only air conditioning on the
ship was in the electronics spaces, to keep the equipment cool, not the men.
With all that sweating, water for showers was not always
available. The ship's evaporators couldn't always make enough fresh water for the steam catapults (for launching
aircraft), the ship's boilers, drinking, cooking and hand and
face washing and have enough left over for more than 4,000
men to take showers. It was called "water hours"when there
was no water for showers. Many men had heat rash under
their arms and in their crotch areas so bad that the skin was
raw and bloody all the time. The best-selling item in the ship's store was Ammen's Medicated Powder. It helped, if
used often and generously, but it wasn't a cure-all.
During the last days of one at-sea period I began to dream,
and day dream, about the base swimming pool at Subic Bay.
As soon as I could get off the ship after we tied up I got on a
base bus to the pool, bought an icy can of Hamms at the
concession stand and plunked down with my legs in the water. For a little while I was utterly content. I stayed in the
pool until until dark, wrinkled and happy.
Remarkably, under these conditions, the crew performed
magnificently, almost to a man. As we got into the rhythm of
Viet Nam operations, disciplinary problems became rare. The norm for a ship with a crew of 4,000+ getting underway
after a few days in port was to have a dozen or more "miss
movement" (fail to be back aboard when the ship sailed).
During that deployment, every time Oriskany got underway
after a port call there were only a few men missing. Some-
times, not a single man missed movement. The men of
Oriskany in 1965 were in no wise less dedicated and faithful
in service to country than Brokaw's "Greatest Generation."
Not all was relentless toil and hardship, though. Oriskany
was the first ship ever to receive a Ney Award while engaged
in combat operations. The Ney Award recognized the ship in
each class (carrier, cruiser, destroyer, tanker, etc.) that did the best job of feeding its crew. And Oriskany fully earned
that award. Despite the limitations imposed by being in a
tropical climate and a war zone (shortage of fresh milk, eggs,
vegetables, etc., weevils in the flour and so on) Oriskany's
cooks did a great job and going to chow was a treat. That's
not true on all Navy ships, not even in peacetime and in
An amusing sidelight to the supply problems was our
reaction to the weevils in the flour and, consequently, in all
our bread and pastry items. At first we tried to pick them out, almost reducing our baked goods into crumbs. But it
wasn't too long before we just said "Oh, to hell with it," and
accepted the cooked weevils as a little extra protein.
4. Shore Patrol
When we just went to Subic Bay for a few days between
line periods it wasn't much of a treat for many of the crew but
there were guys who never got further than Rizal Boulevard
in Olongapo Town, right outside the gate of the Navy base.
Rizal ran about a mile to Rizal Park, where the respectable
part of town began. It was lined with mostly bars and houses
of ill repute, with some tatoo parlors mixed in. There were
also tailor shops specializing in silk jackets embroidered with
tigers or dragons or air squadron emblems on the back. The
jackets were popular gifts for girl friends, little brothers and
buddies back home.
Twice I had to pull shore patrol duty in Olongapo and I
hated it. Playing amateur policeman was no fun anytime or
anywhere but was especially unpleasant in Olongapo. We
patrolled in pairs, a pair about every 100 yards on both sides
of the street, for its entire length. When we got to Rizal Park
we returned on the other side of the street. We were to enter
every third or fourth bar we passed to check out whether the
sailors inside were behaving themselves. But it wasn't really
spelled out what "behaving themselves" meant, other than
not fighting. I saw a little activity in dark corners of some
dimly lit bars that wasn't exactly suitable for family telling,
but I didn't get involved in "cleaning up Dodge." I felt it was
most unfortunate that this Tijuana East developed along a
street named for a great man from Philippines history, a
patriot and martyr.
I also pulled shore patrol duty in Hong Kong. The shore
patrol in Hong Kong was conducted primarily within an area
of several blocks around the Fleet Landing, where the liberty
boats unloaded sailors from ships anchored out in the harbor.
Since Hong Kong was still a British colony at the time, and a
major Royal Navy port, there was a mix of British and
American shore patrol, in pairs, about 100 feet down every
The "action" in Hong Kong was not as down and dirty as in
Olongapo but things could get exciting at times. At one bar
(most of the Hong Kong bars were well lighted, unlike those
in Olongapo) my patrol partner and I were standing in the
back looking around and watching some couples dance. An
American shore patrol officer and an enlisted patrolman came in and stood near us. It was unusual to see an officer
on shore patrol street duty but I saw a few others in Hong
Kong. A very inebriated British sailor took offense to the
presence of the officer. He came close to him and said something along the following lines, "Wot the (bleep) are you doin' ere, Jack? I 'ate you (bleepin') officers. We doan need
no (bleepin') officers in 'ere. Wy doan you stick yer bloody
gold bride up your arse and get the (bleep) out of 'ere?"
I was hoping the Brit wouldn't lay hands on the officer. If
he did my partner and I would be obliged to come to his aid
and there were several more British sailors in the place. And
we couldn't be sure some of the American sailors wouldn't
join forces with their British allies if they saw a chance to get
in a few licks against the hated shore patrol, and an officer
The officer played it cool. He never turned to look at the
Brit or showed that he had heard him. He walked a little
further into the bar, looked around, then turned and walked
unhurriedly to the door and exited. My partner and I went
out behind him. I silently gave the officer credit for handling
the situation well. If he had tried to deal with the disrespect
of the British sailor it could have started a brawl and resulted
in a diplomatic incident. At the same time he didn't beat a
hasty retreat or show himself to be intimidated. Best of all,
he didn't cause me to get beat up.
The incident reminded me of one in Kiel, Germany, when
the destroyer USS Barry made a goodwill visit in 1960. I was
in a bar listening to the band when a British sailor appeared
in the doorway and stood there listening to the music. A
burly German man, either the owner or bouncer, or both, saw
the sailor blocking the door and motioned for him to either
come in or go out. The sailor ignored him. The German went
over to him and said something loudly in German while
waving his hands in a shooing motion. The sailor pushed him backward. The German, now red-faced, came toward the
sailor in a menacing posture. The sailor's foot shot up and
caught the German in the abdomen. The German staggered
back, doubled over in pain. The sailor calmly turned and
strolled down the street. I had seen other displays since then
that told me British sailors were ready to fight at the slightest
provocation. Talking to a couple of British shore patrolmen
in Hong Kong, I learned that they prepared for street duty
accordingly. Besides wearing hobnail boots, they would
sharpen the buckle edges on their web belts and, if things got
hot, would wrap the belt around a hand, leaving about 18
inches hanging loose, and use it like a whip with sharp teeth.
For my second stint as a shore patrolman in Hong Kong I
was assigned to one of the rented ferries that carried our men
back and forth between the ship and Fleet Landing. It was
about two miles out to where Oriskany was anchored in the
outer roadstead. The ferries ran constantly until about mid-
night or 1:00 a.m. when everyone had to be back aboard.
(This was called "Cinderella Liberty".) After about 10:00 p.m. each ferry trip out to the ship became more and more
crowded and the sailors more and more drunk. The last
couple of trips often featured vomiting, passing out and/or,
sometimes, fisticuffs. They only put two shore patrolmen on
each ferry to keep order among upwards of 200 sailors.
We had heard that a few weeks before, when a different
carrier was in Hong Kong, a shore patrolman on a ferry had
tried to break up a fight and got tossed overboard for his
trouble. He was never found. It was rare that anyone who
went into Hong Kong harbor, with its cross-currents, tidal
rips and undertows, was ever seen again.
About 10:30 p.m. I took the shore patrol brassard off my
arm, put my web belt and night stick inside my peacoat and
sat in a far corner of the upper deck. As it happened, there
was no breakdown in good order and discipline on my ferry
that night. But if there had been, I sure as hell didn't intend
to be sacrificed to somebody's bureaucratic mismanagement.
When I didn't have shore patrol duty, I loved Hong Kong.
At that time I thought it had to be the most beautiful city in
the world, claims for Naples, Italy, notwithstanding. But,
uhappily, it has become so grossly overbuilt since then that
it no longer has charm or beauty. I rode the double-decker
buses on several routes from one end to the other and then
back to the city center (of Victoria, the main city). I and some
shipmates went out to Aberdeen and had supper on one of
the wonderful floating restaurants, a delightful experience.
A friend and I had supper in the restaurant atop the best
hotel of the time. Great food and an amazing view. I took the
cable car up to Victoria Peak, where the view across the city
and harbor was so stunning it was hard to believe it was real.
I took a tour to the mainland, what were called the "New
Territories," to visit quaint Chinese villages where every
villager demanded payment to have his or her picture taken.
Even toddlers waddled up with a hand out if they saw a
camera. I loved it all.
5. The Money Game
I learned something fascinating in a conversation with a
British storekeeper. The U. S. was engaged in massive con-
struction projects in Viet Nam at this time - airfields, port
facilities, bridges and other things. These projects required
a huge amount of cement and steel "rebar" (steel rods for
reinforcing concrete structures). Shipping these heavy
materials across the Pacific from the U. S. would be slow and
expensive. So, the U. S. was buying cement and rebar in Hong Kong. But there were no cement factories or steel mills
in Hong Kong. The stuff was coming down the river from Red China. This at the height of the cold war when China and America were bitter enemies, especially in Viet Nam. I
wondered how the Red Guards in China would have felt if
they had known their beloved Mao Tse Tung was selling vast
amounts of cement and rebar to the Americans. And if they
had known, as Mao certainly knew, the materials would be
used to build military facilities in South Viet Nam to support
the war against China's ally, North Viet Nam.
When I was in Viet Nam U. S. servicemen and women were forbidden to exchange dollars for piasters anywhere
except at official exchange sites, where we would get 72
piasters to the dollar. The international exchange rate, in
Asia and the U. S., was about 150 piasters to the dollar. U. S.
military personnel were expected to subsidize the Viet Nam
government out of their own pockets. We were told that if
we exchanged money at the book stores, tailor shops or other
black market locations, we'd be aiding and abetting Red
China by giving her the hard currency she needed for her evil schemes to conquer Asia and then attack America.
The money exchange rule was so ridiculous that virtually
no American in Viet Nam abided by it, including senior
military and civilian officials, who sent their drivers out to
buy piasters for them on the black market. But when a low-
ranking American happened to get caught, as in one of the
periodic sweeps by Vietnamese police against the book stores
and tailor shops, he or she could be court-maritaled in order
to make an example. This at the same time that the U. S. government was handing over tens of millions of
U. S. dollars to the Red Chinese every few months.
I think I was more surprised by the Chinese succumbing
to the lure of capitalist cash than by the duplicity of American
6. Pagsanjan Falls
In order to provide sailors some alternatives to the not very wholesome diversions of Olongapo, the Navy arranged
group tours at low cost to areas away from Subic Bay. One of
my best experiences during those months was an excursion
to Manila and then on to a mountain resort at Pagsanjan Falls. The first day we toured Manila with a guide who had
lived through the Japanese occupation of WWII. At many of
the locations in the city and environs where important events
had taken place, our guide had been a participant or witness.
We stayed overnight in Manila and the next morning were
bused up to the resort on the Pagsanjan Rivcr. The trip took
us through some extremely scenic countryside. The Philip-
pines is one of the most picturesque landscapes imaginable.
From the resort we went in sturdy flat-bottomed canoes,
two visitors and two paddlers per canoe, up the river to the
falls. The lower stretch of river was like something out of the
movies: huge lily pads with big flowers floating on the water;
lush green bluffs rising to 100 feet or higher on both sides;
trees at the edges of the bluffs with branches reaching far out
over the river; vines hanging from the branches all the way
down to the water; orchid-like flowers on the vines. It was
tempting to pluck some of the flowers as we floated by but
that didn't seem right so I just let them brush against my face
as we passed through them.
We came to a stretch of relatively gentle rapids, becoming
more agitated as we proceeded upstream. Several times we
had to get out of the canoe so the paddlers could portage it
over the rocks. Finally, we arrived at a pool about 100 yards
in diameter. The water was churned and turbulent from the
powerful inflow of the falls. The pool was surrounded on
three sides by a horseshoe of rock walls about 15o to 200 feet
high. At one point in the cliff face, about 70 feet up, a stream
of water poured out, as as if from a giant faucet, and
thundered down into the pool. This was where the Pagsanjan
emerged from underground and became a surface river.
The visitors swam and splashed and frolicked in the tur-
bulent pool. If we tried to swim toward the falling stream of
water, we couldn't get closer than about 50 feet because of the force of water flowing outward. When we'd tired our-
selves out in the pool we got back into the canoe and started
downstream, shooting the rapids. The paddlers warned us not to grip the sides of the canoe because we'd be rubbing
against rocks that would take our fingers off. Half a dozen
times I thought we weren't going to make it down in one piece as we hurtled straight toward a looming boulder in our
path. But the paddlers knew what they were doing. At the
last moment they would dig their paddles into the gravel
bottom and swing the canoe broadside and then around the
boulder. As we returned to the lazy flow of the lower river I
decided I really liked running rapids. It was exhilarating.
The only downside of this day was that my canoe mate and
I were among the last few to return to the resort and found the roasted pig had been devoured right down to a few greasy
scraps. We could only scrape up a few veggies, a little rice and a piece of fruit. By the time we debarked from the bus
back at Subic, several hours later, I was ravenous. I managed
to scrounge something from the mess deck.
The best port of call for me was Yokusuka (pronounced
yo-koo-suh-kuh). I finally got to Japan, albeit only for a week. I bought a set of dinnerware and some other small
stuff but my main purchase was a car. There was an agency
on the Navy base where service personnel could order an
American car to be picked up at the factory upon our return
to the states. The prices were a lot lower than from a state-
side dealer because we were buying directly from the factory,
which couldn't be done inside the U. S. I had been saving up
for the deposit for many weeks, since I first heard about the
program. I ordered a 1966 Rambler American sedan, at that
time considered a compact but the size of today's mid-size
I joined a group tour going to Kamakura, to see the giant
Buddha, to Odowara to see a "donjon," a feudal castle, to
Sagami, with the beautiful beaches, and to Lake Hakone, where we took a cable car across an extinct volcanic crater.
It was a wonderful three days.
Yokusuka also had a district serving the same clientele as
Rizal Boulevard in Olongapo but the Japanese operated with
more style and artistry. The bars had spiffy facades and artsy
neon signage. It was only when you read what the signs said
that you realized what the chief business on the street was.
There was the "Shitkicker Bar," featuring country & western
music with a Japanese accent, for example. And the "Fukame
Bar." I didn't at first realize I was pronouncing it wrong.
There were also the tatoo parlors, as on Rizal, but some-
thing I saw only in Yokusuka were the "up one flight" VD
clinics. Another difference in Yokusuka from Hong Kong
or Olangapo was the racial segregation. Certain bars and
bawdy houses catered to black American servicemen and
others only to whites. Once a girl had worked in a bar for
blacks she could never work in a bar for whites. Prejudice
was an ingrained part of Japanese culture and it was readily
extended to black Americans.
We were supposed to get a port call in Australia but it was
cancelled because of operational demands of the air war. The liberty ports were a great experience but they were few and
far between and of brief duration. The at-sea operational
periods were long and arduous.
8. The Skipper
One significant upside to this deployment of Oriskany
was our commanding officer, Captain Bartholomew J.
Connolly III of Brookline, Mass. He was one of the finest
officers I ever encountered in the Navy, a real leader and just
a first-class human being. Interestingly, he had the rugged
features and stern countenance of an unyielding taskmaster.
He was not a softy by any means, but was no martinet. Bart
Connolly was a significant reason why Oriskany performed
exceptionally well with so few disciplinary problems. The
crew didn't fear him, they admired and respected him and
didn't want to let him down.
My first general quarters station on Oriskany was in
Damage Control Central (DCC), where I was the talker on
the sound-powered JA phone circuit. This was the Captain's
command circuit, linking the navigation bridge with other
vital control points around the ship -- Flight Ops, Fire Control, Engineering, Secondary Conn (from where the
Executive Officer would take control of the ship if the bridge
was hit and the Captain killed or incapacitated) and so on.
I was one of several talkers around a large table in DCC. The
others were on circuits within the engineering and damage
control departments. The task of the talkers was to relay to
the Damage Control Officer any information passed by
talkers elsewhere in the ship and, in turn, relay information
from the DCO to specified departments or control points.
I enjoyed having that battle station because on the JA circuit
I could hear all the information being passed to and from the
major control points on the ship. It was like having a ring-side seat when we were engaged in air strikes.
The one thing I didn't like about being in Damage Control
Central during general quarters was its location, five decks
below the main deck (the hangar deck). We were sealed up
near the bottom of the ship, well below the waterline, with all
access hatches dogged shut. In an emergency our only way
out was via an escape scuttle (a vertical ladder inside a steel
tube that went straight up to the hangar deck). The problem
was that guys on the hangar deck had a bad habit of stacking
bomb fins or other materials on top of the escape scuttle
hatch, making it impossible for us to get out if the need arose.
I brought this to the attention of the Damage Control Officer
and he raised hell with the hangar deck petty officers. For a
week or two the hatch would be kept clear. But it never stayed that way. If Oriskany had been sunk, all of us in DCC
would probably have gone down with the ship.
At some point (I don't remember when or why), my battle
station was changed to the navigation bridge as the JA talker.
I was happy to get out of the potential coffin of DCC and to
be right at the center of the action. In addition, there was a
pride factor -- the Captain's phone talker was, quite naturally,
hand picked as a capable and reliable man. It also gave me
the opportunity to observe close-up how an outstanding
captain commands his ship in action.
I had already formed a high opinion of Captain Connolly
prior to becoming his phone talker. That developed from my
experience writing "familygrams" for him. It was common
practice on Navy ships when deployed overseas to send a
periodic newsletter to the family of every man aboard. These
would tell families what the ship was doing, important events
and accomplishments, etc. The first familygram I wrote ran
into a roadblock in the person of the officer whose job was
"Ship's Secretary." He was responsible for all official cor-
respondence coming in and going out. This little man
thought nothing should go the Captain unless he approved
of it. Of course, he butchered my familygram before sending
it on to the Captain. The Captain later handed it to the
Public Information Officer (my boss) when he was on duty
as officer of the deck on the bridge and told him to have it
rewritten. I restored it pretty much to its original form. My
boss said to wait until he would be on watch on the bridge
again the next day and he'd have me bring it to him up there
when the Captain was on the bridge.
The next day I got a call from the Boatswain (pronounced
"bosun") of the Watch to bring the document up. When I
arrived on the bridge my boss, Lt(jg) Walker, moved close to
the Captain's chair and I approached him, saying, loud enough for the Captain to hear, "Here's the rewrite on the
familygram, Mr. Walker." The Captain's reaction was exactly
what we'd hoped for. He turned and reached out his hand.
LT Walker handed him the folder. I stood at the back of the
bridge, out of the way, while the Captain read. He took out
his pen and made a few small changes and then wrote his
initials at the top. He handed the folder to LT Walker but
turned to look at me as he did so and gave a slight nod. I
felt seven feet tall as I left the bridge. We repeated this tactic
with each subsequent familygram and there was nothing the
Ship's Secretary could do about it. But he got back at us on
every other piece of official correspondence we orginated
thereafter. Oh well, c'est la guerre.
When I saw one of the changes the Captain made, my
respect for him went up even more. I had written something
like, "This is one of the finest crews I have had the privilege
to command." He crossed out "one of." That was his con-
sistent attitude. He never was guilty of faint praise and he
recognized what an excellent job his crew was doing.
There was another thing that set Bart Connoly apart from
most ship's captains. While deployed, he set a policy that
whenever we entered port, as soon as the ship was moored,
liberty call was to be piped for all hands not in the duty section or otherwise restricted to the ship, even if it was early
in the day. I heard he got complaints from some department
heads who wanted to keep their men at work until the
regular in-port "secure from ship's work" time of 4:30. But
he didn't change the policy.
A ship's crew will go all-out for a skipper like that. A basic
rule of leadership that not all officers, nor petty officers, seemed to understand, was that if your men know you really
give a damn about them, they'll sail into hell with you.
The brightest jewel in Captain Connolly's crown, as far as
most of the crew was concerned, was added on the day we got underway from Subic Bay and pointed the bow East, toward
home, instead of West, toward the South China Sea. A couple of my guys went to evening chow before me and were really
excited when they returned to the office. "You won't believe
what we got with chow!" they teased. Then they dropped the
bombshell - every man going through the chow line was
being handed a bottle of beer. Actual, honest-to-gosh San
Miguel beer. Of course, those of us who hadn't been to chow
yet didn't believe it but we hurried to the mess deck anyway.
Alcoholic beverages had been prohibited on U. S. Navy ships
since early in the century. A violation of that regulation
could finish a man's career. At the mess deck we discovered
the impossible was really happening. At the end of the steam
tables were big tubs of crushed ice and bottles of beer. Each
man received a bottle, if he wanted it, regardless of whether
he was 21. That evening we would have elected Bart Connolly
president of the U. S., or maybe emperor. It was just the
Captain's way of saying "Thanks" for achieving a level of
combat performance never before equaled by any carrier.
When I got back to the office my boss was there and we
learned the officers had found bottles of wine on the tables in
the wardroom when they went to supper. The junior officers
were as delighted as the enlisted men but I'm sure some of the more senior officers were scandalized. I don't know if
the Captain got permission from higher authority to buy the
crew a round but I wouldn't be surprised to learn he did it on
I was equally impressed after we'd returned to North Island when I heard from a highly credible source this story.
It seems the Navy had decided not to approve a Navy Unit
Commendation for Oriskany because the three carriers that
had returned from Viet Nam operations before us had each
received that award. Our operational performance was
significantly greater that that of our predecessors but the Navy didn't want to set a precedent that every carrier upon
completion of a Viet Nam deployment would receive a
commendation. The Captain was nominated for either the
Distinguished Service Medal or Legion of Merit, I don't recall
which. His citation was approved. According to the report I
heard he informed Pacific Fleet headquarters that he could
not accept his award if the ship's award was denied. This, too,
is not recommended action for an officer who aspires to be
promoted. But we got our Navy Unit Commendation and the
Captain got his medal.
9. The Typhoon
One other event from the Western Pacific should be told
here. As we sailed South from Japan after our Yokusuka port
call, we were intercepted by a typhoon (what hurricanes are
called in the Far East). Our escorting destroyers had to leave
us to seek a course that would avoid the worst of the storm
but we plowed straight ahead. Most of the night we were
taking white water (mostly foam) and sometimes green water
over the bow and down our flight deck. A wave has to be very
big to rise higher than the height of a carrier flight deck.
Oriskany was pitching and yawing in a way familiar to the
crews of destroyers and other smaller ships but rarely felt by
aircraft carrier sailors.
Seasickness is not common on carriers because of their size, but there was lots of it that night. (But not me. I had
spent time on destroyers and a couple other small ships in
the stormy North Atlantic so it was not a new experience for
me.) The flexing and stressing of the ship's hull caused a
crack to open in the bulkhead of a black oil bunker. Oil
escaped into a passageway lined with officers' staterooms
before it was discovered. A crew of shipfitters had to find the
crack and plug it. Then, an engineering gang had to clean up
the oil as best they could. One of them later described the
scene to me.
They were working in a hot, stuffy space and straining to
keep on their feet on the slippery deck as the ship rocked and
rolled. Black oil stinks badly and between the smell and the motion, about half the engineering gang vomited at least
once. Because the vomit was less dense than the oil, it formed puddles on top of the oil, which then slid up and down the passageway as the ship rose and fell. The work
gang did the best they could under trying conditions but the
unfortunate officers had to move in with other officers and
sleep on cots for a while. When we arrived at Subic a civilian
crew made a more permanent repair of the crack and cleaned
up the oil more thoroughly. I heard those staterooms still had a faint stink of black oil months later.
10. The Scorecard
The final score of men lost during our WestPac ops:
eight aircrew killed in action, six missing in action (shot down and not rescued) and one man killed in a hangar bay
accident. The MIAs included our Air Wing Commander,
Commander (later Rear Admiral) James Stockdale, who
spent several years as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam
and was one of the bona fide heroes of that ordeal. He later
ran for Vice President on the ticket with Ross Perot and was
ridiculed by ignorant people who grossly misjudged him.
The most ironic of pilot deaths was that of Air Force Major
R. G. Bell. He was aboard Oriskany as an exchange pilot,
flying an F-8 Crusader jet fighter. It was common practice to
have a few Air Force pilots fly with Navy squadrons and a few
Navy pilots with Air Force squadrons, for cross-training with
the other service's aircraft. Major Bell had flown several
combat missions from Oriskany without coming to harm. One day he had to land at Bien Hoa air base in South Viet Nam for some reason. As he walked from his plane a crowd
of Air Force personnel gathered to look over the unfamiliar
Navy plane. Suddenly, a bomb "cooked off" (exploded when
it wasn't supposed to) on an Air Force plane parked nearby,
setting off other bombs. Major Bell and several Air Force men were killed.
The luckiest pilot on Oriskany that year was LT(jg) Robert
Adams, another F-8 flyer. He was shot down over North
Viet Nam and recovered by a rescue helicopter -- not once,
but twice. Shortly after returning from his second narrow
escape he was rotated back to the states, presumably on the
basis that he had used up more luck than anyone could expect. I had gotten to know him quite well and was glad he
got out with his skin intact. He was a good guy.
On the other side of the score card: Oriskany's embarked
Air Wing 16 earned two Navy Crosses (second only to the
Medal of Honor), five silver stars, seven Purple Hearts (for
being wounded in action), 56 Distinguished Flying Crosses,
120 Navy Commendation Medals and 929 Air Medals.
When we returned to North Island a press release was sent
out to all the media by the public information office of the
Commander Naval Air Forces, Pacific Fleet, heralding the
many and outstanding accomplishments of Oriskany and
Air Wing 16. As fate would have it, a major space flight had
occurred that week and it pushed Oriskany off the media's
radar screens. Only our families knew or cared what we'd
done or that we'd come home. Again, c'est la guerre.
11. The Fire
A few months after I was detached from Oriskany in the
summer of 1966, just before it deployed once more to WestPac, there was a news flash that reported the carrier had
experienced a deadly fire off the coast of Viet Nam, resulting
in several deaths and many injuries. When I finally was able
to get the full details of the disaster, I learned that the fire had begun in a locker on the hangar deck where magnesium
flares were stored. These flares are dropped by parachute so
they'll drift slowly to the ground, illuminating a wide area as
they burn at an extremely high temperature. A crewman had
mishandled a flare and caused it to ignite. He panicked and,
instead of running a few yards onto the starboard sponson to
throw the flare over the side into the water, he dropped it in
the locker and beat a retreat. Within a few minutes the rest
of the flares in the locker were burning, pouring out huge
clouds of toxic smoke. This deadly fog was drawn into the
ship's ventilation system and dispersed throughout the
forward part of the ship.
This flare locker was right by the top of the ladder (stair-
well) from the hangar deck down to two lower decks with
storerooms, work shops and the public information office and
TV studio. All the compartments filled with the toxic smoke,
and everyone in them was killed, including the entire public
information crew. Some of the dead were guys who worked
for me, a couple were new guys who came aboard shortly
before Oriskany deployed. There were more casualties in an
area of officers' staterooms forward and above the hangar deck. One of the best officers I knew in the Navy was among
If I had still been aboard I almost certainly would have been in the public information office to die with my crew. Life can sometimes be cruel but the Oriskany fire was just one of a few incidents during my 20 years in the Navy in which I got a free pass when others did not. Whether karma
or random chance, who can say?
Several years after being decommissioned, the Big "O"
was purposely sunk off Pensacola, Florida, to become a very
popular target for scuba divers. At least it was a better end
for a gallant ship than being turned into razor blades. The
ship's sinking was the subject of a television documentary.
Watching it, I felt like I was seeing the funeral of an old and
See a related story at: Saigon Checkpoint-A Memoir