From the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor.

Excerpts From: “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”

A story about Navy destroyers being deployed from the U.S. Second Fleet, bound for Vietnam in 1972.

My ship’s passage, USS Rich (DD 820) from Norfolk, Virginia to Vietnam was making progress, after our day spent transiting the Panama Canal our ship would be back underway the next morning, bound next for Pearl Harbor. On October 21, the canal transit had taken over eight hours, so the ship moored at the Rodman Naval Station docks at about 1600 that afternoon. At 1000 the next morning, the ship got underway from the Rodman Naval Station dock. Once the ship was fair in the outbound channel, it proceeded to pass under the Pan-American bridge (The Bridge of the Americas) and headed outbound to the Gulf of Panama, and then on to the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

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Aerial view of Rodman Naval Station, Panama Canal zone*
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Pan-American bridge, “The Bridge of the Americas.”*

The passage distance of close to 4,700 nautical miles lay ahead of us from the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor. This distance was approaching the upper limit of the ship’s fuel/cruising range capability. It was going to take a little over 12 days of steaming for the ship to travel that distance at an overall speed of advance (SOA) of 16 knots.

That afternoon and evening the ship made the passage through the Gulf of Panama, making its way into the Eastern Pacific Ocean. By the next day, it became apparent to many of us that the waters in the Eastern Pacific Ocean were much different from those found in the Atlantic. Here the ocean seemed smooth, with small sea waves and long ocean swells. It became common to sight marine life such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and different species of sharks. For a number of days, the weather was great, with plenty of sunlight, azure blue skies, light winds, and calm seas.

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My ship, USS Rich (DD 820) a Gearing (FRAM I) class destoyer. USN Photo – Public Domain.

The ship’s crew fell into the underway routine on the long passage to Hawaii. The weather and seas stayed calm as the ship cleared the west coast of Mexico well south of the Baja peninsula. According to the passage plan, the ship’s courses were steered to direct the ship toward the Hawaiian Islands. Each morning, the deck crew would work at clearing the decks of the dead flying fish that had landed on the weather decks and died during the night. The first three or four days of the passage, the ship steamed near the coast along the Central American countries. During daylight hours, particularly along the coasts of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the various volcanic mountains could be clearly viewed in the distance. This area along Central American isthmus was sometimes called the “Ring of Fire” for the 29 volcanoes found ranging from Guatemala to Panama.

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Approximation of passage route for USS Rich from the Panama Canal to Hawaii.

For me, each day standing my watches on the bridge as the QMOW helped me learn more about ship navigation, ship control, weather, and meteorology. My proficiency in accurately fixing the ship’s position by visual compass bearings, surface radar, and Loran continued to improve. A lot of my spare time was spent studying the practical use of celestial navigation and astronomy. I had perfected tasks such as finding the true wind speed and direction from the apparent wind speed and direction. Apparent wind speed and direction were created by the ship’s forward movement and had to be converted to true wind speed and direction using vectoring solutions.

The ship regularly conducted various emergency drills each week. During man overboard (MOB) drills, I began to learn how to plot out the ship’s MOB maneuvers using Maneuvering Boards, and advised the conning officer of estimated bearing and range to the point of the MOB. Other emergency drills, which required the ship to go to GQ, provided opportunities to gain more time and proficiency in steering the ship as the GQ helmsman.

When the ship was at Watch Condition III, with watch rotations being four hours on, off eight hours, once per week, every watch station on board would “dog the watch.” Dogging the watch allowed the crew to rotate through all the watches. In order to do that, it was necessary to split one of the watch periods in half to create an odd number of watches on that day. This allowed the watchstanding crew to shift to a different watch rotation instead of one watch team being forced to stand the mid-watch every night.

Another aspect of a destroyer sailor’s life was all about freshwater, or the lack thereof. All ships generally had to make their own freshwater. Ships with steam propulsion and auxiliary plants typically had at least two distilling units or evaporators that made all of the freshwater for the ship. Basically, seawater was pumped to a distilling unit from a sea chest located in the ship’s underwater hull. Low pressure steam was circulated through tubes in the distilling plant, flashing the seawater surrounding the tubes into vapor. The vapor was cleaned by moisture separators then passed on and condensed from a vapor back into a liquid form called distillate or freshwater.

On the Gearing class destroyers, as with most naval ships, water conservation was practiced at all times while the ship was underway. Shower heads on ships had valves where shower water could be easily turned on and off. The crew could only take Navy showers, where the person ran just enough shower water to get wet, shut off the shower, soaped up, ran enough shower water to rinse off, and done. Crews only took “Hollywood” showers where they could use all the water they wanted when the ship was in-port and receiving freshwater from the pier. USS Rich often was plagued with evaporator operation or mechanical problems, which meant the ship’s freshwater making capacity was sometimes severely reduced. When these evaporator issues occurred, the ship would be put on strict “water hours.”

The priorities for freshwater usage were as follows: (1) Boiler feed water; (2) Cooking and galley; (3) Ship’s laundry; (4) Drinking water; and (5) Head sinks and showers. If there was enough water, shower hours might be practiced where the showers were turned on for only several hours each day, or they might be secured all together. All shower piping valves would be shut and padlocked. Usually, only one of the ship’s officers had the keys to the shower valve padlocks.

It was common for our crew to go days, sometimes several weeks, without showers. On occasion, some crew members would get possession of the shower valve padlock keys and attempt to sneak in a shower, but they almost always got caught. When everyone hadn’t showered for days, body odor in the air became normal. If someone clean walked up, it was immediately noticeable that the person didn’t stink and they were easily caught.

The usual punishment for those who violated water hours or no showers rules was the standing of extra watch hours at the evaporators in the engineering spaces. In Main Control (B-2, forward engine room) and in B-4 after engine room, the evaporators were located close to the main steam condenser and the deaerating feed tank, the hottest places in the space. Air temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit and higher were common. The captain decided how many punishment evaporator watches a violator or violators might have to stand.

It wasn’t just the lack of showering; when the ship’s laundry was also shut down, after a number of days, no one had clean uniforms. We wore our cleanest dirty clothes. Most of us wore our socks and skivvies for as long as we could stand them, then just threw them away. Fortunately, the ship’s store always seemed to carry a good supply of socks and skivvies that were cheaply priced, so at payday, we could replenish fairly inexpensively.

For our uniform dungarees and shirts, the only option was to tie them securely onto a small fiber line, then stream the line over the stern of the ship for about 15 minutes, giving our uniforms a thorough washing in seawater. It was common to find makeshift clotheslines in various spaces around the ship for drying uniforms. Before putting on a dry saltwater-washed uniform, it was a good idea to first shake as much salt as possible out of the cloth.

To help relieve the laundry and uniform issue, uniform standards were relaxed a bit. Since the air temperature was generally warm or hot, it was acceptable for the enlisted crew to do away with the wearing of their dungaree shirts and just wear T-shirts, dungaree pants, boondockers, and a ball cap. Except for when the ship was in port, this became the standard working uniform for most of the deployment.

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Typical rain squall at sea. Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay.

One practice that sometimes would help alleviate the lack of freshwater for showers was finding rain squalls. In the warm Pacific Ocean waters, many afternoons the warm tropical air rising aloft would form cumulonimbus vertical development clouds. In tropical waters, cumulonimbus clouds would sometimes drop tremendous amounts of rainfall, but without the lightning and thunder associated with thunderstorms (i.e., the squall). If the squall line wasn’t too far off of the ship’s intended track, the OOD would call the captain, requesting permission to maneuver into the squall. If the captain granted permission, the OOD would have the word passed over the 1MC announcing throughout the ship, “Now rain squalls are off the starboard bow.”….To read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.

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©2018 George Trowbridge
The stories in these posts and the book; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir,” reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been recreated from memory. Dates, times, and locations were recreated from declassified U.S. Navy records and others. Photographs used are either public domain or owned by the author. Illustrations and maps used were either created by the author or in the public domain. The stories in these posts and the book are solely the opinion of the author and not the publisher, Richter Publishing, LLC.
*Image was found in public domain or it could not be established after reasonable search, that any claim existed to the image. Image used for illustrative purposes only and is not the property of the author. Where ever possible credit for the image is indicated in the caption.

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