Not long ago, my grandson asked me to show him a picture of the ship I served on as a very junior naval reserve officer from August, 1953 to February, 1955. I pulled my I phone out of my pocket and typed in USS Vermilion, AKA 107, expecting to see a picture like the one above:
Vermilion was part of the amphibious fleet. She was a freighter carrying 24 landing craft topside and cargo such as jeeps and trucks below decks, which, anchored off the target beach, we unloaded into the landing crafts. We deck officers would then scramble down the embarkation nets, jump into one of the landing craft and lead the way into the beach. This was practice war, not war for real. The Korean war had ended just before I entered the navy.
As the phone warmed up, I wondered if Vermillion had been de-commissioned, maybe even scrapped.
Instead, a video started playing of the ship with its superstructure stripped off, huge square holes cut into its sides, about to be sunk, re-purposed as an artificial reef, to support aquatic life off the coast of South Carolina. I know very well this is an appropriate use for all those tons of metal, but I was struck with an unexpected surge of grief and a feeling that this was terribly wrong. Without her superstructure, she was humiliated, like the traitorous women shorn of their hair and made to walk naked in the streets at the liberation of Vichy France. What kind of reward was this for her faithful service?
Sailors, whether naval or civilian, live on ships. They don’t go to work. They work from home. Now what was once my home, and that of 150 others, was headed for the bottom of an ocean. I thought of the houses on the banks of rivers, drowned when the rivers were dammed to make reservoirs. Are they still houses? If not, what are they now, under all that water?
I began to understand that what grieved me most of all was that Vermillion’s death was death by sinking. Every naval officer, standing watches on the bridge, focuses on seeing to it that sinking doesn’t happen. This is especially true when steaming in formation, which is most of the time. Vermillion was over 400 feet long, with only one propeller and was therefore not very maneuverable. Reversing the propeller at “Emergency Full,” caused the ship to shudder and shake, but it would be almost a mile before her forward motion stopped. If I remember correctly, her turning circle was 2000 yards, but in formation, we steamed 1000 yards apart. A recipe for collisions.
Serving in the Combat Information Center, otherwise known as C.I.C – and also, sometimes, as “Christ, I’m confused!” – I made a mistake that almost caused a collision one night on the 4am to 8am watch. We had just received two orders to be carried out at once: a change of course for the whole formation of many ships and a change of position within that formation. I recommended turning left at standard speed, forgetting that another ship was positioned behind us and to our left – on the port quarter in Navy speak. The officer of the deck took my advice and ordered a left turn, and then I realized my mistake and rushed to the bridge. By then, the officer of the deck had also realized the mistake and had ordered back emergency full and hard right rudder. Vermillion continued turning left and going forward for what seemed like hours while everything shuddered and shook. Indeed, compared to an automobile accident, it did take forever. Our standard speed was 12 knots. The two ships got so close to each other the water between frothed up in spray. Standing on the port wing of the bridge, I could have shaken hands with the skipper of the other ship standing on the starboard wing of his ship. The collision siren on both ships screamed as crewmen leaped out of their bunks. Then the two ships stopped sliding toward each other, running parallel at first, then moving clearly away.
And then Vermillion’s captain took me aside and yelled at me for 45 minutes. I had nothing to say.
Watching the video, my grandson and I saw huge billowing flames and smoke burst out of the Vermillion. Explosives had been planted in her to speed her death. She started to slide under the surface, stern first, her bow pointing toward the sky and slowly disappeared, leaving fountains of water and spray on the surface as air escaped upward out of her. And then she was gone.
And then another video came on. In praise of the virtues of vacationing in South Carolina where the scuba diving is quite special. Fishes, striped bass among them, calmly swimming along the deck , while a singer sings about jumping right in and then no other than John Denver sings about Carolina on his mind. I was especially entranced by a close up of the huge winch for the anchor chain, while he, who is no longer with us, sang on.
I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail. In the fall of 1954, we were sent up the Chesapeake Bay to shelter from a hurricane. The wind was so fierce that, in spite of using both anchors and steaming ahead one third speed, we dragged anchor for several miles. When the storm subsided, we brought both anchors up. The starboard anchor, which is the one that is always dropped, had a thick coil of wire wrapped around it. I sent for a member of the repair division to cut through that wire with a blow torch. Just as he started, I warned him to be careful not to burn a hole in the shackle that holds the chain to the anchor. “What did you say?” he asked turning his head to me, away from his job and burning a hole in the shackle. For the next six months, every time the captain ordered me to drop the starboard anchor, I dropped the port anchor. He never noticed. If he had, he would have yelled at me again – but not for 45 minutes.
My grandson was fascinated by the videos and John Denver’s singing. He might take up scuba diving someday. But, after I put this link in here, so you can watch the videos for yourself, I will never look at it again. the sinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUfmb8R_iqs
The singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEzR-6vm8Ig
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