As I’ve noted here before, after serving two years on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in 1970-1971 during the Vietnam War, I was separated from the Navy.
I went on to study journalism at Penn State, but I dropped out due to a lack of money. I took a job as a DOD civilian at the Defense Personnel Support Center in South Philadelphia, but as I was bored and did not see an immediate future as a writer, I re-upped and returned to the Navy in 1974.
Serving on the USS Kitty Hawk two years prior, I had some unique experiences. The aircraft carrier sailed to Southeast Asia for a WESTPAC cruise and served on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam during the final years of the Vietnam War.
We worked long and hard hours while on Yankee Station as our aircraft flew combat air sorties, taking the war to the Communist North. Air combat operations were fast-paced and precarious as the carrier launched and recovered aircraft around the clock.
I had an admin job in the radio communications division, and I served on a Damage Control Team. The teams were called out to fight fires and quell other emergencies. With vast amounts of jet fuel, bombs, missiles and rockets on board, an accident or a fire on a carrier can be a truly deadly affair, which we saw happen on the USS Forrestal and other carriers during the war.
The long Yankee Station line periods were broken up by memorable port of calls to Hong Kong, Sasebo, Japan, and frequent visits to Subic Bay in the Philippines. No one who encountered the bizarre times in the wide-open city of Olongapo will ever forget it.
I certainly have not.
After re-enlisting, I reported to the Norfolk, Virginia naval base to await my orders. I hoped to receive orders to another carrier that would cruise the Mediterranean, or “Med,” but I received orders to the USS Saugus (YTB-780), a Navy harbor tugboat attached to Submarine Squadron 14 (SUPRON 14) at the U.S. nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland.
I went from serving on one of the largest warships in the U.S. Navy to one of the smallest boats.
I reported aboard the tugboat in January of 1974. I regretted immediately my decision to return to the Navy – what the hell was I thinking? I went from a boring but easy job in a comfortable government office to doing hard physical work aboard a Navy tugboat while enduring the wet and cold Scottish winter.
But looking back after all these years, I achieved what I had set out to do, which was to have some interesting travel experiences and a bit of adventure.
During the Cold War years, Submarine Squadron 14, called "Site One," consisted of the USS Canopus, a 644-foot-long ship called a submarine tender, a floating dry dock that could accommodate submarines, and a large barge with a super crane. All were anchored in the middle of the loch.
Submarines reported to Site One from the sea before and after their patrols and tied up to the anchored submarine tender. The submarines received supplies, maintenance and repairs at the floating Navy base. The base also had several small boats that tied up to the barge.
Two of the boats were 100-foot harbor tugboats, which were the workhorses of the bustling naval base.
The crew consisted of a chief petty officer and twelve other enlisted sailors.
The USS Saugus and the USS Natick (YTB 760) towed ships, oil barges, submarines and other craft in, out, and around the site. The tugboats also put out fires and broke up oil slicks. Most days during those two years I was a cold and wet sailor working on the deck of the tugboat at the floating submarine base.
The work was hard, physical and dangerous, but we were proud of our small boat and line-handling skills. Working with the rugged and independent crew on the tugboat felt like I was serving in McHale's Navy, one of my favorite TV shows from my youth.
I worked on deck, stood helm watches while at sea, stood security watches in port, and during my second year onboard I was the boat's supply petty officer.
The Saugus, along with the USS Natick, were often sent to sea to rendezvous with submarines for medivacs, classified missions and transfers of the Commodore and his staff. We would throw over a short brow to the submarine and the Commodore and his staff walked precariously across the brow from the pitching, rolling and bobbing tugboat to the submarine. Once aboard, the submarine submerged.
Under the sea was calm, but it was certainly not calm on the surface. The tugboat then served as a target for the submarine’s torpedoes. In the exercises, the unarmed torpedoes were aimed to pass near us.
After the torpedo passed us, we had to go and retrieve them, which was like someone shooting a gun at you and you then had the further indignity of picking up the shells for the shooter.
Retrieving the torpedoes was not an easy task in winter, as both the tug and the tip of the torpedo bobbed up and down in the rough sea at different intervals. We went to the tug’s fantail and attempted to bring in the torpedo with a thick wire lasso. It often took several attempts before we lassoed the long torpedo.
Once the wire took hold, we used our hydraulic capstan to twirl the line up and in, bringing the torpedo out of the sea into the air, where it swung mightily from the rocking of the boat and the strong winds. We threw another line on the back of the torpedo and with some difficulty, we brought the torpedo to rest on the fantail.
I recall in the summer of 1975 we were ordered to sail to Loch Fyne to pick up a floating torpedo that was spotted by local fishermen. Normally, the fishermen haul in the American torpedo, which had a message on it that read “If found, call U.S. Navy and claim award.” For some reason, the fishermen were not able to retrace this torpedo, but they called the U.S. Navy.
A squadron officer ordered our chief to assemble his crew and head out to Loch Fyne and bring in the torpedo. The chief, whom I nicknamed “Chief Cool,” as he rarely spoke and had a deadpan face much like the silent film comedian Buster Keaton, was not happy with being called out on an early Saturday morning, as he was hung over and thought the mission was a bullshit one.
I had the weekend duty with another deckhand and an engineman, so I was onboard, but the chief called the rest of the crew in.
When everyone reported aboard, the chief told us to get out to Loch Fyne and cruise around, and if we saw the torpedo, haul it in. But don’t look too hard, he added. With that, the chief retired to his cabin and went to sleep.
It was a beautiful sunny and warm day as we entered Loch Fyne. The sea was calm and clear and there was a soft breeze.
Loch Fyne, which means “Loch of the Vine” in Scottish Gaelic, is off the Firth of Clyde and located on the west coast of Argyll, Scotland.
Loch Fyne was teaming with wild life on that summer day. As we cruised along slowly, we saw dolphins, porpoises and various fish in the water. Flocks of seagulls and other birds formed an air force that flew overhead.
We also saw a huge number of large dorsal fins protruding from the water. The dorsal fins belonged to basking sharks, a huge, fierce-looking creature that resembles a great white shark.
The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the world’s second largest shark, but despite its size and looks, the shark is quite docile and passive and eats plankton rather than people. The small-brained creatures are called basking sharks due to their swimming slowly and feeding near the surface, which makes them appear to be “basking” in the sun.
The average basking shark weighs more than ten thousand pounds and grows to about twenty-six feet long.
As we cruised among the many dorsal fins, we were all out on deck snapping photos of the huge sharks. Most of us would later show the photos and neglect to mention that the sharks were harmless.
I don’t know who first had the idea, but someone at the helm in the pilothouse decided to ram one of the sharks. As we were cruising slowly, and the tug’s bow was swathed in rubber, the shark was not harmed. Everyone laughed as the shark dashed away from the tug, and we went on to bump several of the sharks in the loch.
After a bit, most of the crew left the pilothouse, leaving me and a seaman whose name I don’t recall. The seaman decided to turn the tug towards another fin in the loch. I felt the bump as the tug shook from the encounter.
“Oh, shit!” I heard the seaman say.
I looked towards the seaman at the helm and beyond him out of the pilothouses’ starboard window. I saw 50-feet of white underbelly as a huge creature breached the sea just off the tug.
I grabbed the tug’s big wheel and swung it to port sharply. The boat seemed to lift from the water with the maneuver just as a huge wave enveloped the pilothouse as the creature crashed back into the sea.
The seaman stood there in shock. He managed finally to say, “I didn’t know a shark could jump that high out of the water.”
“That wasn’t a shark, you fucking idiot,” I said. “You rammed an orca – a killer whale.”
I knew that an orca could punch a hole in the hull and sink us, so I was happy to see the killer whale swim away from us.
We failed to find the torpedo.
As I noted above, I went back into the Navy seeking more travel experiences and a bit of adventure.
While serving in Scotland for two years, I had some unique adventures in Holy Loch and out in the Irish Sea. And during my time off, I traveled all over the United Kingdom and visited Italy, Spain and France.
I also spent a day at Loch Fyne among basking sharks and a killer whale.
Note: You read my other sea stories, vignettes, humor pieces and short stories via the below link: