Preserving Gearing-Class Heritage
With the December 2005 decommissioning of the ex-USS POWERS (DD-839) in Taiwan, Mexico is now operating the last World War II, American-built steam destroyer in the world. The ex-USS STEINAKER (DD-863), now ARM NEIZAHUALCOYOTL, or “NETZA”, (D-102), was built during World War 11, modernized under the FRAM Mk l program in 1964, and finaily was transferred to Mexico in the early 1980s. We believe she is the oldest American-built steam man of war still operating and the last of the GEARING-class destroyers that operated around the globe.
During the October 2005 Historic Naval Ships Association meeting in Cleveland, I met a gentlemen by the name of Rich Pekelney. He is an avid volunteer aboard the submarine, USS PAMPANITO in San Francisco and has traveled around the world to visit ex-U.S. submarines in operation with foreign navies. Half jokingly, I told Rich Pekelney that he should visit a real ship to document, such as a destroyer. He quickly agreed that it would be fun and interesting to head to Mexico and capture the sights and sounds of this last-of .a-kind ship. Without wasting any time, our request went out to contacts in the U.S. Navy who supported us through the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. By February 2006, our request to visit and document the ex-STEINAKER was approved, and the museum organizations were ready to sail.
Before we get into the heart of the trip, let’s give you all a bit of background. The STEINAKER, a GEARING-class destroyer, was built by the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Staten Island yard and commissioned in May 1945 The ship was converted to a radar picket (DDR) in 1952 and then subsequently underwent a major modernization with her Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) overhaul in 1964. By 1968, the STEINAKER was transferred to the Pacific to participate in naval gunfire support operations off Binh Thuan and Phu Yen provinces; Sea Dragon operations off the coast of North Vietnam to interdict sea-borne infiltration os Communist forces into South Vietnam: and antiaircraft picket duty off the demilitarized zone. She also operated with aircraft carriers conducting strikes against North Vietnam. She received two battle stars for her Vietnam service. In 1968, DD-863 returned to the Atlantic and resumed her normal patrol and exercise operations. In July 1973, she became a reserve training vessel in Baltimore. In February 1982, the STEINAKER was stricken from the U.S. Navy register in Newport, Rhode Island, and transferred to the Mexican navy.
There are many ties between the ex-JOSEPH P. KENNEDY and the NFTZAHUALCOYOT. They were both built by the Bethlehem Steel Company with the same machinery and arrangement of compartments. Both served a majority of their time in the U.S. Atlantic fleet, and both were in the Red Sea in 1967. They share so much in common that after the KENNEDY was retired in 1973, parts were taken from her to be used on the STIENAKER.
Thus, we set out to visit this last operational sister ship of DD-850 to further the effort in the perseveration and documentation of FRAM GEARING- class destroyers. With the very generous cooperation of the Mexican navy, in March of 2006, JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, JR. crew member Mike Angelini, Historic Naval Ships Association director Rich Pekelney, and I visited Manzanillo, Mexico, to film and photograph NETZA. We were joined by a professional film crew from the University of Colima. We were given complete access to the ship and all of her equipment, including the opportunity to take photographs and video.
Anyone who knows me well realizes that I have lived and breathed the KENNEDY since I was 12 years old and started my first field day aboard with my father Mike Angelini. Since that time, this ship, her history, and that of destroyers in general have fascinated me. So you can probably understand the mix of excitement and adrenaline running though these 30 year old veins as we arrived at Logan Airport in Boston to fly to Mexico. Needless to say, I was somewhat “out of control.”
We arrived in Manzanfflo on Monday 20 March 2006 and were met by Cap. Corb. CG Saul Hiram Bandala Garza, the operations officer of ARM NETZAHUALCOYOTL. Captain Bandala was tireless in helping us throughout our trip. We could not have been so successful without his constant help.
Once settled into the hotel, we looked out to see two ex-USN World War 11 yard oilers (YO) on anchor. We immediately felt at home, especially when, in the hotel’s lobby, we spotted a World War II, AUK class minesweeper maneuvering its way through the channel. It was like we were living in a time warp where the USN of old was still in operation, and in fact it was! As happy as I was to see these vessels from a bygone era, I kept hinting that we needed to visit the ex-STEINAKER as soon as we could. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep that night in anticipation of what we would find the next day and actually putting my feet on an operational GEARING-class destroyer
On Tuesday 21 March, we met with Capt. Frag. CG DEM Raul Alberto Paredes Hemandez, commander of the NE1ZA; Captain Bandala and our film director M.C. Miguel Alberto Macias Amador from the University of Colima. We planned the filming and toured the ship.
Our first impression of the ship was that she was an almost unmodified GEARING-class FRAM Mk I ship, complete with all her ship handling, weapon systems, and sensors intact. The exterior of the ship was extremely well preserved with great attention to detail. As we inspected the interior compartments of the NEIZA, we found that much of the original furnishings and equipment in various spaces have been removed and/or modified. Most of the major systems were in place, however, and the arrangements mirrored those of the U.S. Navy.
I felt I was going to have an anxiety attack as I ran around looking at every detail and remnant of her American crew. Much of that still remained including the original Playboy bunny logo painted by the U.S. crew in the 1960s. It was still in the interior communications space.
On Wednesday, 22 March, we had an early meeting with Contraim. CG
DEM, José Máximo Rodriguez Carreón, Chief of Staff of the Pacific Naval Force. We thanked the Mexican navy and discussed the project. After the morning meeting, we returned to the ship. Our first priority for filming was to concentrate on the equipment that cannot be operated in the museum environment. We were trying to capture both the skilled crew’s operation of the equipment as well as the equipment itself. Our principle focus was on the main propulsion (600 lb. steam system) and 5 incb/38 caliber gun operation. Although her antisubmarine warfare equipment is in place, she is now used primarily as a training ship and we were not able to film any antisubmarine warfare equipment in operation.
We stayed in port on Wednesday and concentrated our efforts on capturing the normal operations of the interior spaces of the ship on video and still photographs to be used for restoration reference back aboard our mother ship, the KENNEDY. We hope to be able to create a short video, in documentary form, of the trip as well as provide video and sounds for exhibits aboard the KENNEDY to give our visitors better ways to experience what it was like aboard these ships during their active careers.
On Thursday, 23 March, we arrived early to record the light-off and raising of steam in a boiler. Overnight they had started one boiler. We recorded the entire process of lighting off the second boiler, which took about 2 hours. The process is the same as was done on the first, but with power available they could use the blowers, steam, etc. to speed up the second boiler. These ships were designed to raise steam quickly. We got underway on two boilers.
It was incredible to see the smoke belch from the smoke stacks, feel the heat of the boilers, the vibration of the turbines, and movement of a type of ship we have only experienced as a museum. Although ordinary to the ship’s crew, to Rich Pekelney and me, it was a dream. For my father Mike, however, it was a return to sea on a ship that was identical to his own. Some 33 years after leaving the KENNEDY in 1973, he was back at sea aboard another GEARING and probably will be the last USN destroyer veteran to put to sea aboard one of these ships.
We recorded raising the anchor, engine room operation, responding to bells, the gun turret and gun director movement, raising the whaleboat, and many spaces aboard ship. Filming the 5-inch/38 caliber, dual-mount firing with full loads was something else. It was much louder than expected, and the pure jolt that it gave the ship was amazing. I might admit that my imagination quickly flashed back to thoughts about how these ships fired hundreds of rounds at various targets during the Vietnam War.
We started again early on Friday, 24 March, when we concentrated on filming the ship and her maneuvers underway from a second vessel. We were given the opportunity to ride the ex-STEINAKER or travel on the second craft. Mv father and I didn’t even think twice. We wanted as much sea time on ex-DD-863 as possible. Mike Angelini and I headed out with a film crew on the NETZA, while Rich Pekelney and Miguel followed the NETZA out on a fast-intercept boat The Mexican navy has something like 40 of these Swedish-built boats capable of 45+ knots. We brought our cameras and photographed the NETZA underway from several angles. After two hours, the patrol boat dropped Rich and Miguel off on the NETZA to rejoin the rest of the crew. We continued filming, including raising the king post (used for underway replenishment), a man overboard (OSCAR) drill, damage control, bridge operation, etc.
We continued our filming right up until we arrived in port. The at-sea time on the NETZA was an experience that none of us will ever forget. When we returned to port it was hard to leave the ship. We joked with the officers that
planned to hijack the ship and steam her to Fall River. Eventually we had mercy on our liaison officer and let him return to his family for a few hours.
On Saturday, 26 March, we head up to the University of Colima to look at
the film. We spent six hours rough cutting some of the sequences that will eventually be used in a short video. It was not enough time to edit something presentable, but we were all pleased with the quality of the video. We are hoping to raise some additional funds to return to Colima and create a 25 minute film of the NETZA and her crew.
We are very grateful to the many very generous Mexicans that helped us with this project. We cannot say enough about how good the Mexican navy has been to us and how much we appreciated their help. I would also like to thank Rich Pekelney, Mike Angelini, HNSA, the USS Massachusetts Memorial Committee, and Tm Can Sailors for their interest and support in achieving this once in a lifetime experience. While the NETZA will probably be retired from service in a few short years, she has provided the Mexican and U.S. governments an outstanding legacy of service. Through that ship, we have captured the sights and sounds of an operational GEARING-class destroyer that should dynamically improve the visitor experience aboard our own KENNEDY and other museum destroyers. Though the life of the NETZA will shortly come to a end, she will live on for generations of tourists who visit the JOSEPH P. KENNEDY JR (DD-850) to learn what life at sea was like aboard a combat destroyer. She will always be fondly remembered in our hearts as the USS STEINAKER (DD-863) by the last group of Americans to walk her decks.