Bordelon in a Sand Storm

 

The names and dates may be a little vague, but the memory of this night will be with me forever.

 

It was early in 1965, I believe. I was still only 17 years old and onboard for just a couple of months, when the Busy Bee went on yet another Med Cruise. I was a QMSN, from Brooklyn NY, and I was so green I was still puking up from seasickness at this point in my navy hitch.

 

The C.O was A.D Thompson and the Exec was Cmdr. Placchi.  My boss was QM1 Merle Johnson.

 

We had been detached from our squadron in the Med to make a Good Will cruise, alone, down the east coast of Africa. If you were there, you'll remember it was a sailors dream: no commodore around to please, steaming at 5 knots in the beautiful, calm Indian Ocean, 5 section duty, shorts and tee shirts, and sunbathing was the order of the day. We visited places like Aden, Aden Protectorate; Eritrea, Ethiopia; Djibouti, French Somaliland; Mombassa, Kenya. Many of these places have different names now. It was an exotic adventure I'll never forget.  But it didn't start out so hot.

 

We had just gone thru part of the Suez Canal and were in the middle of Lake Said, where ships had to stop and do the necessary paperwork and such for the Egyptian government. We were tied up bow to stern (at anchor in the middle of the lake) to another US Destroyer (???) that we were relieving on this mission, to do paperwork and exchange information. We had lines across to them, and a brow connected between us, with bumpers to keep us from brushing up against each other in the usually calm, placid lake. The other ship was coming back from New Zealand, the last stop on their good will cruise, and headed back into the Med. I remember there were stories about how many guys jumped their ship and went AWOL or deserted to stay in NZ and marry beautiful and very open-minded women they had met there. But I digress.

 

So, it's the middle of the night. It was beautiful: calm seas, a warm breeze, and starlit sky as black as ink; with the sand dunes of the Sahara all around the horizon on the lakes shores.  I am on anchor watch, alone on the bridge, reading a book under the red night-light of the chart desk, listening to the Rolling Stones on a Brit radio station on my transistor radio.  In the peaceful quiet of 3AM, I take my bearings every 30 minutes, like a good QM, and plot our position on the chart in the anchorage circle we are assigned to. We barely moved all night and never once even bumped the other ship. It's pretty boring, but the Stones are keeping me awake.

 

So I do a reading around 3:15 AM and notice we have moved a little bit for the first time. I look at the anemometer (is that what it was called?) and note that the wind speed had picked up to about 10+ knots. No big deal. I decide to do 15 minute bearings to be safe. Sure enough I can feel the wind picking up, see little whitecaps on the waves, and on the next reading we are at 15+ knots and the two ships are starting to swing around the anchor. I'm a little concerned so I start doing continuous bearings. This is not good, I figure out real quick. The wind is now up to 20 knots and we are close to dragging anchor and moving out of the anchorage.  I call down to the messenger on deck and tell him to go wake up my boss QM1 Johnson. By the time I get off the phone, all hell is breaking loose.

 

The wind had picked up to 30 knots. Wave height is like 2 feet and we are banging up against the other ship as we start to swing wildly around the anchor, then drag outside the anchorage. Out on the wing of the bridge the visibility is deteriorating and I can feel sand stinging my cheeks. I didn't know it at the time (hey, I'm from Brooklyn!) but we we're in the middle of a desert sandstorm that was blowing across the lake surrounded by the Sahara desert.

 

Johnson woke up the OD, who woke up Captain Thompson, and next thing I know the bridge is full of people and the Captain is setting Sea Detail. I believe, (and sorry if I'm wrong, Al) the Captain was in his skivvies, or close to it. His first concern was to get underway and get us away from the other ship because we are bouncing and banging all over the place.

 

The crew is scrambling everywhere in the pitch black. It's about 3:30 in the middle of the night and the wind is howling at 40 + knots and is like sandpaper in your face. The deck hands are frantically casting off lines when, suddenly, one of the lines just parted with a loud POP I'll never forget. Captain Thompson gets on the radio and has made contact with the other ship; when all of a sudden the other ship starts to pull up its anchor just as we cast off the last line and are backing down (full) to pull away from them.

 

Now I gotta tell you, Al Thompson was the coolest, calmest, most professional and competent commander I have ever served with (I went thru 3 C.O.s on the Bee in three and a half years), but when that other guy stopped pulling up his anchor about midway up the hull, just high enough to rip a hole thru our hull as we were sliding alongside them backwards at full speed, well, he let out a string of obscenities into the radio that got everybody's attention, and I'm sure got the other Captains attention as well.

 

We all held our breath as we backed down. We could hear and feel their anchor scraping the hull. It was nerve shattering to say the least. Finally, we cleared the other ship and got underway in the lake. It was bedlam in the lake, with huge tankers and ships moving in every direction everywhere you looked. It took some very alert and professional sailors, in every division, to keep us from collisions and groundings for the next 2 hours. I don't know about anyone else but I never did get any sleep that night. And 42 years later, I remember that night like it was yesterday.

 

I don't quite remember, but I think they did break the hull, and we had to get it fixed in Aden, at the British shipyard there, before we continued on the trip.

 

To those of you who were on board that night, to the radiomen who connected us up to the other ship in seconds, to the snipes who got us up and running full speed in about 5 minutes, to the deck guys who braved the sand and the wind and the danger to cast off those lines, to the radar and sonar and us quartermaster guys who plotted us to safety¬¶.and most of all to Al Thompson, who kept his cool under fire and did exactly all the right things to prevent what could have been a huge disaster:  that 17, now 59, year old kid from Brooklyn who had the training and the good sense to do his job and do it right,  says: Thanks Mates!!  Thanks for the memories!! What a team we were, eh?

 

Mike "Mickey" Cuomo

QM2 June 66-Oct 67

Manorville, NY