Thursday, October 28, 2021
Oct. 28, 2021

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Everybody Has a Story: Close call on Navy survey ship


When I graduated from high school I was subject to the draft. Even though the Korean War was winding down, the draft was still in effect.

I have always called myself a draft dodger. To prevent being drafted, you either went to a college with a course for military officers training or joined a military reserve. I decided to go to a college with Navy officer training, but college turned out to be a lot tougher than high school, which I did pretty well in. I promptly flunked out, so when I got the invitation in the mail to report for the draft, I joined the Navy.

I had decided a long time before that I would rather drown after a good night’s sleep and a good meal than die in a foxhole after a week or so of neither.

I was sent to San Diego to boot camp and on to Boiler Tender “A” School, Great Lakes, to learn how to run a boiler. There were three of us in my boilerman class that would be assigned to ships, while the rest of the class were sailors who were sent to the school and would return after graduation.

The three of us were given our choice of three ships according to our grades and my grades were the best, so I got my first choice. I asked some of the sailors what they would do, and made my choice. 

My ship turned out to be an old World War II metal mine sweeper that had been converted several times since the war and used for several things, including as a supply ship for seaplanes. Now it was a survey ship, used to measure water depths and generate maps of coastlines. If the U.S. ever needed to land troops ashore, they would know where to go.

We eventually made three trips to Turkey to survey the coast. We had a shot across the bow one night as I guess we went too far into Greek territory. I was asleep and was told about it the next morning. We also made one trip to the Arctic Circle to carry an underwater demolition team (later called Navy SEALs) whose job was setting dynamite charges against the beach, so we could later land heavy equipment to set up the Distant Early Warning Line, a series of radar stations scanning for bombers or missiles coming over the Arctic Circle. I won an award on that trip and became a second-class petty officer.

But before all that, we sailed from Norfolk, Va., to our home port in Brooklyn, N.Y. My boss and I started overhauling an evaporator that had been neglected for quite some time. We got it to produce more water than it was designed for. Our responsibility was to boil saltwater and condense the steam into distilled water for heating, cooking, drinking, showering, engine cooling and anything else you need freshwater for.

The propulsion was diesel-electric. We had two 1,000-horsepower diesels and a variety of smaller diesel engine generators. The ship needed a lot of maintenance so we limped from Norfolk to New York and put in for dry dock at a private shipyard on Staten Island. We finally got the word to come over to Brooklyn.

I was in the aft engine room. We disconnected from shore and pulled away with one of the engine generators furnishing all our electricity. About a third of the crew was aboard, as the rest were on leave, including the captain.

We got out into the middle of the East River when that one little engine generator quit. Everything shut down. The engine room went dark and quiet. I had no idea what had happened, but I decided to get heck out of there. I went topside where a sailor said we were just floating down the river, under no control.

I began to get really concerned, as did the whole crew. The East River is busy with traffic — barges, ferries, recreation traffic. Remember how busy that river was when airline pilot Sully Sullenberger emergency landed there? 

I felt helpless as there was not a thing I could do but hope we didn’t hit anything and nothing hit us.

I’m not sure how long we floated down the river. Someone went down with a hand pump to get hydraulics pressure to the rudder so the wheelhouse could steer. This helped straighten us out.

I always thought our engine man should have been given an award. He was working with a flashlight in a very stressful situation. He was smart and skilled, and got one of the engine generators going.

We all thought we must have had some divine help.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.