Oct 23

The WEST-PAC Cruise From Hell

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 12:01 AM

By

USS Ranger (CV-61) departing San Diego, California (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

USS Ranger (CV-61) departing San Diego, California (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

I enlisted in the U.S. Navy on my 17th birthday. Within four months I finished basic training, graduated from data processing school and reported aboard the USS Ranger (CV-61), an aircraft carrier home ported out of San Diego, California.

The ship was scheduled to deploy on a Western Pacific cruise (WEST-PAC). The “itinerary” included 12 fantastic port calls. It was so impressive that one would have thought that I was stationed aboard the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, instead of an aircraft carrier. On the fateful day of 15 July 1983, it was time for the ship to depart. The ship pulled out, the sun was shining and it was an exceptionally beautiful day, even for San Diego. Everyone was looking forward to the “best WEST-PAC ever”. All of the hype about our “itinerary” even enticed some old salty dogs to extend their tour for a year just to hit the liberty ports.

The demeanor changed the second we cleared the harbor and headed due south when we were supposed to be steaming due west. It was a day or two before the captain told us we were needed off of the coast of Central America in support of national interests. The fun began only three days into the “best WEST-PAC ever” when we collided with the USS Wichita (AOR-1) during refueling operations.

When the announcement came across the 1-MC (the ship’s general announcing system) that we collided with another ship, we were instructed to man our battle stations. Normally the standard blurb over the 1-MC was “General Quarters, General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations. The flow of traffic is up and forward on the starboard side, down and aft on the port”. This is an efficient way to get over 5,000 men to their battle stations in less than 6 minutes. After hundreds of drills, the flow of traffic becomes second nature. However, for this particular General Quarters (GQ) we were instructed to avoid the starboard side of the ship. It would be impossible for me to try and explain how comical it was trying to get 5,000 men to their battle stations using only the port side of the ship. Ladders on board the ship are only wide enough for one way traffic and there was a bottle neck at every port-side ladder. I think the Ranger listed an extra degree or so to the port-side when all 5,000 men ran to that side.

It was well over 30 minutes before the voice on the 1-MC reported from damage control central that the crew was battle ready and all shipboard hatches were secured. There was a small fire that was quickly extinguished, a portion of the starboard flight deck cat walk was ripped from the ship, and there were punctures to the skin of the ship above the water line. There was also minor damage to the ships refueling equipment. The worst of the damage was to one of the four aircraft elevators. It was out of commission for the remainder of the deployment.

It was exactly a month later when we experienced our first fatality. A sailor was blown off of the ship by jet exhaust and subsequently drowned before being rescued. After 30 days of non-stop flight operations, this sailor got complacent around the aircraft and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We still had a job to do and the battle group continued to operate off the Central American coast for over 45 days before being summoned to the Indian Ocean, more affectionately known as the “IO”. Iran was threatening to escalate the war with Iraq by restricting access to the Persian Gulf our mission quickly pivoted to ensuring the shipping lanes stayed open.

We then steamed due west and only slowed long enough to make a very brief port visit in Hawaii and the Philippines, just long enough to take on stores. There were rumors going around the ship that we would not be hitting any ports once we got on station. Each day was just like the one before, hot, humid and the same chores that needed done today were the exact jobs we did the day before.

While underway, the crew is split up between the day shifters and the night shifters, each pulling a twelve hour shift with thirty minutes or so turnover time between shifts. There were no weekends or holidays. The day of the week is almost irrelevant while underway and on station. This was not what I had expected out of the Navy when I joined just a year earlier. But then again, how was I supposed to know that I had volunteered for what even the Vietnam Vets were calling the cruise from hell.

Well, I guess it was not all that bad. The other guys in the division looked out for me as if I were their little brother. One thing that I learned from being out there in the IO is the guys you work with every day eventually become your brothers. Yep, life on a ship at sea was for the most part, an exercise in routine repetition. Every day that is, except for Wednesday, 2 November 1983.

On this particular day we mid shifters gave turnover to the oncoming watch relatively quickly. After eating a very large breakfast, I started to make my way to the berthing area to watch a movie. As I was walking through the hangar bay, I noticed that we had another ship alongside of ours and fuel lines were passed from it to us. I didn’t think too much of the refueling at the time. It was over three months since our refueling collision with the Wichita. The frequency of the refueling operations to feed the thirsty F-14 Tomcats including replenishment of ships fuel oil for our Main Machinery Rooms, once again became a matter of routine repetition.

The USS Ranger simultaneously receives fuel and supplies from the USS Sacramento (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

The USS Ranger simultaneously receives fuel and supplies from the USS Sacramento
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Unfortunately, this tedious routine of underway refueling operations led to the complacency of one of our crew members. On an aircraft carrier there are various fuel tanks scattered throughout the ship. To check the fuel levels a sailor will drop a weighted measuring stick down into each tank until it hits bottom and then roll the measuring stick back up to see where the fuel level is for that tank. On this particular day, one of my shipmates got complacent. After taking his readings, he neglected to properly return the sounding cap to the tank. If the tank is being filled and the sounding cap is not secured to the tank, fuel oil will over flow the tank into that space. This particular tank was located directly below the number four main machinery room (4-MMR) boilers.

It was about fifteen minutes before ten in the morning when I finally made it back to my berthing and was patiently waiting for the movie to start. As we waited, I began to notice a strong fuel smell. Everyone else in the room did as well. Immediately following the smell, there came an announcement from the 1-MC, which said “Major fuel oil leak, major fuel oil leak, major fuel oil leak in four main machinery room. Belay the Nucleus fire party”. The Nucleus fire party is a group of firemen on board who normally take care of minor fires, flooding and fuel oil leaks. If there were a major fire or flooding, it would be up to all hands to contain the situation.

Everyone in the berthing area thought the Nucleus fire party was going to evacuate us from this part of the ship and we would all miss the movie. It could not have been five minutes later when the voice on the 1-MC came across again. This time the announcer was very frantic as he said “Fire, fire, fire. Fire in four main machinery room (4-MMR). All hands stand clear of all decks, ladders and passageways.” At that moment my fears of missing the movie took a drastic change. Before I could move, the irritating voice came back. The aggravating voice shouted over the 1-MC “General quarters, general quarters. The fire is out of control. All hands man your battles stations.”

When I reached my GQ station, located on the flight deck, we were instructed to go down to the hangar bay to help fight the fire. My heart instantly hit the floor with grief. The last thing that I wanted to do was to wander around in pitch black darkness with a fire hose, an oxygen breathing apparatus (OBA), and a coal miner’s looking helmet with a flash light on top.

As the fire raced through the 4-MMR, it ravaged everything in its path including the electrical systems for that area of the ship. When the lights went out below decks, we were stranded in total darkness. Even in areas where the lights were still operational, the thick black smoke from the JP5 fire was rolling down the passageways like a large steam roller, enveloping everything in its path.

Fire on the USS Ranger on 2 November 1983 (Courtesy of Carlos C. Castellanos via NavSource)

Fire on the USS Ranger on 2 November 1983 (Courtesy of Carlos C. Castellanos via NavSource)

Under normal circumstances, the ships in our battle group would place themselves around the carrier in a protective pattern. When I looked out of the hanger bay doors, I noticed the other ships decided to steam away from us as if they were expecting us to explode. This intensified the panic level I was experiencing. I became very worried about an explosion that might penetrate the hull of the ship, or even the intense heat from the fire burning through the ship’s hull. I believed that if this were to happen in a space as big as a main machinery room, that the ship could go down in minutes. I also imagined the ship sinking and 5,000 sailors trying to swim away from it all at the same time. It even crossed my mind that if the ship was to sink, all 85,000 tons of it, the whirlpool created would probably pull down any swimmers within several hundred feet of the ship. In the midst of my panic, for a split second, I entertained the idea of just jumping overboard and taking my chances in the Indian Ocean. I never thought that my destiny was to die on this ship shortly after joining the Navy.

Just then, my friend Pete and his repair locker arrived. I think my panic would have gotten the best of me if Pete had not arrived when he did. He suggested that we get closer to the repair party that was suiting up to go down into the main space to fight the fire. I reluctantly agreed, but only because I wanted to stay close to someone that I knew and trusted. As we made our way through the hanger bay we saw the ship’s chaplin. He was yelling at a few of the Marines to take six bodies that had been removed from the space, put them somewhere out of the way, cover them up and then to stand guard over them. I did not know who these guys were, but I found out afterwards they were in the space during the explosion. So far, no one had died while fighting the fire.

Luckily Pete and I were given the job of suiting and re-suiting the more experienced fire fighters on board with fresh OBA devices. We were tasked with hauling five gallon plastic bottles of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) from the flight deck to the hanger deck. AFFF is used to fight fuel oil fires and is supposed to be mixed, with 96% water. Apparently someone was mixing it wrong or we just simply used all that we had because our helicopters was bringing the AFFF from other ships in our battle group over to our flight deck. I was relieved that I did not have to fight the fire directly. That thought inspired me to work even harder.

It took several hours to extinguish the fire. At least thirty five people were treated for smoke inhalation, second degree burns and other injuries. The group Pete and I worked in re-suited over 300 people with OBA’s and restocked countless containers of AFFF to the sprinkler system. I could not believe how much my fears subsided once I actually started to be involved in the process of fighting the fire. But I am still glad that I did not have to go down into the main machinery room.

The galley was closed for over two days after the fire due to the heavy smoke damage. I went down into the destroyed main space sometime after the fire and what I saw shocked me. The four inch reinforced steel bulkheads were warped and bowed so badly that when we eventually returned to the states they were completely replaced. Most of the deck plates used for flooring in the main space melted and fell through the floor into the bilges making traversing the main space a scene straight out of ninja warriors.

Two of the ships eight boilers, one propulsion engine and related equipment, an evaporator for making fresh water, turbo generators, air conditioning equipment and other miscellaneous water and fuel pumps were destroyed. The ship was operating at half capacity. Regardless of how badly damaged the ship and crew’s morale were, we still had a mission to do. We went on to set a new record for the most continuous days at sea for a conventional aircraft carrier – 121 days without hitting port.

We spent an additional four months at sea after the accident in the 4-MMR space. The ship and crew completed the mission. The biggest lesson learned on the cruise was that no matter how routine and boring a job may seem, do not allow the boredom of a routine “day in and day out job”, make you complacent, especially because the lives of your fellow sailors depend on you.

When we finally returned to our homeport, seven and a half months later, it was the 29th day of February. Although the “best WEST-PAC ever” turned into the WEST-PAC from hell, when I look back on it, what I remember the most are the good times and the friendships that were made. I did not know it then, but that Wednesday, the 2nd day of November in 1983, was the day that I learned to face my fears in a new way. The only options that any of us has to choose from in the face of adversity is fight, flight or fright. If this life throws you a curve ball fight it until the end. Regardless of the outcome, at least then you can hold your head high knowing you gave it your all.

 
 
 
  • docpauldc

    Great article! Bravo Zulu Robert!

  • Jim Shaffer

    Well written Bloomfield! Remember me Zippy (DPSN Shaffer)? Chief Bueno had no idea what a favor he did me! Would love to get caught up. Write if you’d like – [email protected]

  • Jim Shaffer

    Best recounting I have heard of that cruise, in particular the main space fire. I was in the same division as Bloomfield. I remember running to my GQ station and on the way I bounded through a water tight door and my head caught the upper edge of it my feet went out from under me and it took a few minutes for me to regain consciousness. When I did I was as bleeding profusely from a 2 inch gash gash along the hairline. Since sickbay was literally right on top of the fire they sent me to an emergency firstaid station where I got stitches without anesthetic of any kind. From there they sent me to the hangar bay where I was told to stay out of the way. While there I saw the first of the engineers they brought up and tried to revive. They had the same portable suction units I’d used in volunteer ambulance I served in back home and they were trying to clear his lungs so they could try to resuscitate him. His lungs were full of fire fighting foam. I knew right then it wasn’t the fire or smoke that killed him. A tough way to die to be sure. That cruise was more than I could take.