The casualty report came from one of the four, then relatively new, Thomaston Class Landing Ships Docks (LSD). The shock from its own five-inch guns caused a lighted florescent light fixture to fall in the Captain’s air-conditioned cabin. Electric sparks ignited papers that were upon the top of a chest of drawers; it rapidly became a conflagration that was quickly extinguished.
But for one aspect the ship could have continued its operations. Restoration of the compartment could have been accomplished by the crew no matter how much time was required. The skipper would have moved into the Executive Officer’s stateroom, the Exec would have displaced the next senior officer, and so on. However, the air that had been forced into the cabin via a vent duct could only exit through a one- by two-foot opening in the top of the bulkhead that separated the skipper’s quarters from an athwart passageway. Thus, for a brief period a tongue of flame, like that of a huge plumber’s torch, blasted from the cabin into the passage and burned through virtually all of the electric cables that served the command and control systems in the pilot house above. Obviously a major repair effort was required.
For reasons that I can only speculate about, the ship was directed to anchor in Lynnhaven Roads off of the Amphibious Base in order to facilitate inspection by the Atlantic Fleet’s Amphibious Force Material Officer and by me, the assistant for steam-propelled vessels. A prudent alternative would have been to direct the LSD to proceed to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard or to a nearby private shipyard per hastily made and conditional arrangements. That would have been my preference.
Since the LSD’s Commanding Officer didn’t know whether or not a formal board of investigation would be assigned and since he probably knew that the findings of such boards are sometimes irrational, he was nervous to say the least. He also knew that the Force Commander’s displeasure would be proportional to the duration of the required repair work. The Commanding Officer was thus anxious to get the repair process started; he even sent his gig ashore for us.
The situation was perfect for the Force Material Officer’s intentions. If he demonstrated that he was doing everything possible in order to achieve quick repair, he might get a letter of commendation from the stressed skipper. Soliciting such letters was his modus operandi whereas, as subsequent events disclosed, his modus vivendi would have been in the Navy’s best interest.
Just minutes before we were to return to the Amphibious Base in the Captain’s gig, a fierce squall suddenly commenced; regardless the determined Captain called away his boat. The gig could not make any headway, not even back to the LSD’s boat boom, and thus retreated into Little Creek Harbor. Then, the Captain, with the determine-to-please Force Material Officer agreeing, sent for the tugboat that was berthed at the nearby Amphibious Base.
The tug was powerful enough to make headway but was pitching and rolling wildly. About fifty-yards off the tug’s skipper, a chief petty officer, bull horned, “Do you really want me to come alongside your accommodation ladder?”
The exasperated LSD skipper, bull horned back, “Yes! What are you waiting for?”
Just as the maneuvering tug was about to touch the accommodation ladder it violently pitched down by its bow, simultaneously yawed beneath the ladder’s lower platform, then pitch up, and tore the ladder from its fastenings just as those of us standing by were about to descend on it. The upper part of the ladder reached a height over our heads, dropped, and then the wreckage dangled limply from its rope stays.
East Coast squalls did not usually last for an hour. Regardless, the determined LSD skipper then directed the tug to approach from aft where it was somewhat sheltered. The Material Officer and I climbed on to the stern gate’s external stiffening and dropped on to the roof of the gyrating tug’s pilot house.
By the time the tug arrived at its pier in the sheltered harbor the storm had abated as quickly as it had started. We then had to arrange for two repair jobs, i.e., restoration of everything that was damaged by the fire and replacement of the accommodation ladder.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo