1, 1972 , at the beginning of the midwatch, I was relieved
from my watch on the #2 Emergency Diesel Generator by EN2 Bob
Boston. That evening had been one of routine gun fire
support off the coast of Vietnam. Routine because we had settled
into a relative sense of security and had not suffered a major incident
with a large number of casualties since the beginning of our tour.
But any casualty is a major loss for those who remain behind to mourn their
loved ones, and we had two before this date, James
Joseph Sansone and Steven
Michael Brumfield. And so we felt somewhat lucky and blessed.
I stayed a while to talk to Boston as I sensed he wanted some company.
At about 1:00 AM, he asked me to go after some drinks with the usual phrase,
"I buy, you fly." I accepted for the sake of a free drink and a bit
of good conversation.
The canteen amidships on the 01 Level was closed by now, but
the coke machines just outside were kept always full. As I got the
drinks from the machine we were lending fire support, and one of the 8"
guns seemed to fire on Vietnam. But almost immediately the general
quarters alarm began to sound. (It is strange, but I don't
seem to remember the GQ alarm at any time other than this and our intrusion
into Haiphong Harbor, even though we had many exercises where we trained
I began to hurry back to the generator's engine room. But when
I saw other sailors going to their battle stations, I realized that I had
to go to mine, somewhere in the vicinity of gun turret #2.
As I ran forward, I saw many men running in my direction in a cloud
of orange, reddish haze that I couldn't identify. I saw some of the
men stumble and fall as they tried to clear the door openings. I
saw some of them run head-on into electrical boxes mounted on the bulkheads.
I couldn't tell what was going on, and I remember thinking that the reddish
cloud, glistening in the lights, looked beautiful. Eventually I was
engulfed in the smoke and I learned what those men were going through.
At the first full breath of that smoke, my lungs shut down, my throat and
nose burned and I felt as if a hand full of sand had been thrown directly
into my eyes. I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't
think. I heard someone yell, "stay low!" and I obeyed. I was
relieved to find some fresh air to get into my lungs. And as I retreated,
almost at a crawl, I heard a hatch open and someone said "up here!".
From a crouched position, I was able to get some idea of what was going
on around me, and it was then that I heard someone mention that there had
been an explosion somewhere up forward. Some of the smoke rushed
out the hatch and I was able to guide some men up the hatch, but that lasted
for a minute or two before I was overcome by the smoke once again and I
had to go up and out the hatch myself.
What happens next is a graphic description of what I saw and what
I heard and what I felt and what I smelled. It is an experience I will
never forget. It represents the harsh reality of what it means to go to
Topside, I gathered myself together and I learned that an explosion
had happened inside Gun Turret #2. It was obvious that I was not
going to make it to my battle station just below Turret #2. So I
went forward, and I saw men on the catwalks and just outside the gun turret.
The men were forming a work detail headed by a Chief Petty Officer whose
name I don't recall. As I got closer, I saw men with OBAs
(Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) and asbestos gloves. A decision was
made to open the door and go in. Water poured out as the turret's
door was opened. The area was very hot and humid, and a strange odor
as of something burning emanated from witin the gun turret. I had
never in my life smelled that before. The men with the OBAs went
in to assess the damage and after several minutes they emerged and they
let the Chief know that no one was alive inside. A verbal analysis of the
situation inside was given and a plan was made to remove the bodies of
those who died inside Gun Turret #2. I remember someone saying there
We formed a manline, those of us who were there. I didn't hear
anyone complain. In fact, I only heard the Chief and maybe two other
men speak. It was almost surreal, the smoke, the lights, the night,
the time, and the ships that had come to assist, steaming at a distance.
I had seen war movies that resembled this scene. At times I can only
remember that night in black and white, yet other times it seems like an
old monochrome picture. My senses were distorted.
But the time came to bring out the dead. Army blankets were
brought to the front. Some of the men went in and began to carry
the bodies to the door where others outside helped to place them on the
blankets. Each of the bodies was then handed down the line to the
main deck. As one of the men attempted to take hold of a dead sailor's
arm, the skin pealed back. I had lost all emotion at that time, and
as a saw the dead sailor's pinkish, whitish flesh, I also saw his disfigured
face, but I recognized him. He was a black sailor that I had seen
often in the mess hall. And I thought to myself, black and white
men are all the same color under the skin. As another body was being
carried out, one of the carriers
dropped him on one side and a gasp went out from us, and the Chief said,
"don't worry, you can't hurt him anymore". Strange, but that had
a reassuring effect on me, as I had never before had to deal with death
so closely. I suppose that at that time, I could have pulled myself
out of the line and gone to sit somewhere in the fantail where there was
more fresh and clean air to breathe.
One by one, the bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue to be identified
and pronounced dead. I came to realize that what I smelled that night
was burned flesh. The taste stayed in my mouth for many months and
several years after. And even now, in my mind, I can still see and
hear and feel and smell and taste that night, October 1, 1972.