USS Enterrprise, CVN-65, sails on final deployment

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Beam me up, Scotty. Not quite the same as this one that sailed the oceans on nuclear power. Quite the coincidence of name and missions: one a starship and the other the epitome of US Naval prowess. Aircraft carriers required five years to build so vastly complex are they. A friend put himself through Hampden-Sydney College working for four summers in the paint department in the Newport News Shipyard. He painted the same aircraft carrier each of those four summers!

Although her final voyage began in Norfolk, Virginia, the Big E was home-ported on the West Coast for most of her life, including a stint at the Alameda Naval Shipyard in Oakland, California. So was I and so was the USS Wiltsie, DD 716, my first ship. The year was 1975 and one week the Enterprise and the Wiltsie shared the same pier. Please imagine the comparative sizes of our two warships. If you’re in a hurry, just know that the Wiltsie could have sat on the flight deck of the Enterprise with room to spare or maybe even to launch planes. The Wiltsie was 390 feet long and the Enterprise is 1,100+ feet long, a factor of 3x amongst friends. In addition to its complement of 5,000 sailors, airmen and marines, the Enterprise, powered by two nuclear reactors, required its own fire department including trucks and other related emergency vehicles. Fires on an aircraft carrier are vicious occurrences and an aircraft is a floating repository of ammunition, aircraft and aviation fuel, all in well coordinated, seemingly chaotic motion. Get the set-up?!

One afternoon, about 1600 or 4pm, I stood the quarterdeck watch with a couple of sailors. Our purpose was to screen those boarding and departing Wiltsi as a ship’s in-port routine is a normally quiet one. Most of the crew and officers were ashore with their families or just off of the ship. About 5pm, we heard the fire alarm aboard the Enterprise which is loud and long. After all, it must be heard at sea amidst the noise of aircraft launchings. A component of a fire alarm on a nuclear capable ship is for the Marine detachment to secure the ship meaning no one comes aboard and no one leaves. From the fantail (rear) of the Wiltsie, our mighty quarterdeck watch observed Marines taking their stations in full combat gear with ATE Helmet. The width of the pier that separated us might have been 30 yards. It is worth noting that the highest point of our destroyer, the radar units and radio antenna, barely reached the level of the flight deck of the Enterprise. This means that we had to look up with strained necks to see the action on their deck.

Within a very few minutes, the lime or fluorescent green fire trucks of the Big E came charging down its flight deck. These vehicles looked small on that large ship. We didn’t see smoke or fire and wondered if theirs was a fire drill or an actual alarm. We felt like spectators with front row seats. I instructed the Petty Officer of the Watch to log the alarm on the Enterprise and to be observant of related activity on the pier. What else could we do?!

An important element of in-port security is the duty section’s, those who remain aboard overnight, capability to prevent fires and flooding. The duty section Engineering Duty Officer is responsible of mustering, training and keeping honest his fire team. Although every ship tries its best to develop proper in-port fire-fighting teams, there is only so much that one can expect of a complement of mess cooks, sonar men, boatswain mates and boiler technicians. Prevention is, indeed, the preferred course of action.

Which is why I was surprised that pleasant afternoon in Alameda as we peered at the scrambling fire trucks on the flight deck of our enormous sister ship to hear to my unobserved right side, “request permission to go ashore, sir.” I turned to see our full-time Damage Control Assistant and present Engineering Duty Office, Ensign Bill Dunn, rigged in his fire-fighting gear as were 4 or 5 other crew members of our Wiltsie. I remember that one held a extinguisher suitable for smothering oil and gas fires; another was outfitted in an OBA, an apparatus for breathing in smoke-filled environments.

I presume that I would have said something like, “where are you going, Dunn?” To which, I am certain of his reply: “to render assistance to the Enterprise, Sir, as is required of the ship’s in-port security manual.”

The Petty Officer of the Watch and I gazed up at the Enterprise, noting the particularly the well-armed Marines on their quarterdeck and at intervals across the side of the ship facing us- we could still hear the fire trucks – and I suggested that we first call the Enterprise before rushing our team over without invitation. “Aye, Sir,” was his reply. He informed me that his team would stand-down near their equipment locker awaiting further instructions.

We waited several minutes, allowing the Enterprise to return to order, and then dismissed Ensign Dunn’s team from stand-by. I speculate even these many years later what would have been the reception aboard CVN-65 of the five firefighters from the USS Wiltsie. Had it not been for those sincere-looking Marines, I was tempted to find out.