(As written by James Allison)
I reported aboard ORLECK in August 1958. I had just returned from a nine month cruise to the Western Pacific on the USS ROANOKE (CL-1456), a light cruiser of the WORCESTER Class.
Up until now, I had seen only a few destroyers up close. On occasion we would refuel one at sea, or high line mail or movies to them. I had seen them on radar when they would screen our formation. I knew what they were, but never dreamed that I would ever have to live on one.
When we returned from WESTPAC in April of 1958 I received orders to report to ORLECK in San Diego, and learned that ROANOKE would be put out of commission later that year. I took leave in July, and went home to San Antonio and my Natalie and I were married. We went on to San Diego and found an apartment and I reported in to the receiving station. The ORLECK was not to return from WESTPAC for several weeks so I would have a little shore duty for this period. Natalie and I quickly found new friends in the apartments around us. Next door was a Navy couple from the aircraft carrier LEXINGTON.
One morning the big news was trouble in Lebanon, and ships in San Diego were all getting under way. My next door neighbor left with LEXINGTON the next day and it turned out that he would not return for several months. His wife, like so many other Navy wives was stranded in San Diego. I spent the next week end making repairs to her car so that she could return to Oklahoma.
I had waited for ORLECK at the receiving station on the destroyer base in San Diego for about 5 weeks. Being a seaman, I had spent some time mess cooking, and some time working at the base dispensary. I got that job (dispensary) because I could read music and type. I don’t know what one has to do with the other, but that was the two questions that I was asked that got me the job. It didn’t make any difference to me. I was off of mess cooking. Odd thing though, my new job had me polishing the floors and ambulance every day. That old ’51 Cadillac ambulance had been polished so much, you could see the primer in several places. I could never figure out what typing and reading music had to do with polishing floors and shining ambulances. But again, who cares. It was an easy job, and I could polish on that old Cadillac Ambulance all afternoon without ever working up a sweat. I was glad to see ORLECK come into port in August that year. That receiving station duty and shining that ambulance was just starting to get old.
The tide must have been out when I carried my sea bag aboard. Her deck was even with the pier. What a shock. I never dreamed that men could live so close. The whole Operations Department lived in a small compartment under the mess decks. The bunks were three and four high, with just one locker to a man. How could I put all my stuff in only one locker? Well, I soon learned how to live on this ship, and really liked it much better than I had that big cruiser. Maybe it was because it was more like living in a small town, and our trips out to sea were somewhat more exciting. I felt more a part of the ship.
I was on ORLECK from about August 1958, until about December 1959, and was promoted to Radarman 3rd Class while aboard. I was on ORLECK in the yards at Hunters Point in San Francisco, and when we unloaded her ammunition at Port Chicago north of San Francisco. I remember one typhoon, and the time we spent on the Taiwan Patrol. We searched for an airliner that had crashed in the Philippine Sea. We also picked up the survivors of a mid-air collision of two S2V”s from the carrier LEXINGTON. We failed to rescue the pilot of a jet that crashed on take off from a carrier.
These sea stories are real, and maybe embellished somewhat, but are correct to the best of my memory. The order of events and the dates are missing from my memory, but the dates and details can be found in the deck logs of ORLECK.
The earliest, possibly only of interest to me, was when we were unloading the explosives and ammunition from ORLECK in preparation for going into dry dock in Hunters Point. The day was April 17, 1958. An “all hands” working party was busy unloading the ships magazines one piece at a time. As I walked down the starboard side of the ship with the 5 inch projectile in my arms, I saw the duty radio operator walking up the deck towards me with a big smile on his face. I had a hunch that turned out to be right. He delivered the radio message that announced the birth of my first and only son, James Allison Jr. at the Methodist hospital in Dallas, Texas. I think that I still have that “Radiogram”.
The ship went to yards from there, and into a dry dock at Hunters Point. They closed the gates behind us, and pumped the water out leaving us high and dry. A huge carrier was in the dry dock beside us, I’m pretty sure it was the USS LEXINGTON. She was like a huge shadow above us the whole time. While we were in the yards, the crew scraped every speck of paint off ORLECK, and gave her new paint from stem to stern. I wish I could remember how many thousands of pound of paint that we scraped from ORLECK. It was a lot, the number 6000 pounds comes to mind.
We had barracks to sleep in, but a lot of us chose to stay on the ship, and sleep where we could. I never spent a night in the barracks. Each night I would drag my mattress to some place that was reasonable, and bunk there for the night. For the most part, the ship was in shambles. Welders all over. Paint being scraped everywhere. Wires hanging. To me it looked like a complete rebuild.
I was to learn something about following instruction here, something that I would never forget. I was assigned to a civil service welder as a fire watch, and I was told to wear my dark goggles at all times, which I did for quite a while. The temperature was hot, and the goggles were uncomfortable. I decided that I would remove them and simply not look at the arc from the welders rod. It worked fine, with no discomfort to my eyes the entire day. That evening after dinner, I noticed a feeling like sand in my eyes, and this feeling grew into a discomfort, and then deep pain. Aside from the pain, I couldn’t see at all. One of my shipmates, I think it was Paul E. McClure RD3 that took me to sick bay on the base for treatment. Well to make a long story short, I recovered within a few days, and my eyes were as sharp as ever, but after that you couldn’t have taken my dark goggles from my eyes when I was on fire watch.
We left the Yards, did a shakedown off San Francisco, and returned to San Diego, where we operated a lot in the area of San Clemente, Santa Catalina, and the islands off the coast of Southern California. We did a lot of anti-submarine exercises, I really liked chasing those subs, mainly because we always won.
Our cruise to WESTPAC that year was somewhat exciting to me, the ship was involved in a lot of exercises. The previous cruise, I understand ORLECK had an atomic bomb dropped near her. This cruise would be a bore to the “Salts” that had been on her during the A Bomb that cruise. I think that James Kurts was one of those men. As I recall, Paul McClure had been on board the James R CRAIG DD-885 during this atomic test, and was sent to ORLECK after their return to the states.
We were acting as “plane guard” for the USS LEXINGTON and were stationed the usual 2000 yards off the starboard bow of the carrier, somewhere in the Sea of Japan, maybe a hundred miles or so off the coast. There were two aircraft in the air, but no big landing exercises were in progress. We were routinely tracking two S2V aircraft about 40 miles ahead of us. The two aircraft flew together on the radar, showing a single contact. This was nothing unusual. It was pretty routine for aircraft to fly over each other, which would temporarily show a single contact. This contact turned out to act a little different, as it showed an emergency IFF signal on the radar. This was somewhat serious, especially when seconds later the contacts disappeared from the screen altogether. This had only one meaning. The S2V’s collided in mid-air. ORLECK, immediately headed for the site of the collision at full speed, running somewhere near 34 knots. This put our arrival time to the scene of the collision somewhere near an hour and fifteen minutes. Aircraft from LEXINGTON were launched to survey the area. The reports were not good, considerable debris was reported, and a small boat was sighted in the area. Meanwhile, ORLECK was running top speed, vibrations coming from every corner of the ship. She was giving all she had for the rescue of the crews of the two aircraft.
It was not unusual for Japanese fishermen to routinely use our emergency frequencies for their conversations at sea and this day was no different. We started hearing one of these Japanese boats trying to raise someone on the emergency frequency. It was somewhat bothersome, since we needed this frequency to be clear at this critical time.
The chatter was continuous, until someone in CIC noticed that he thought he heard the fisherman say LEXINGTON. With the deep Japanese accent, and LEXINGTON being said between other Japanese words, it had been hidden. The quality of his transmission, and the squawking of our speakers didn’t help things. We began to hear and understand. He was saying; “LEXINGTON, LEXINGTON, LEXINGTON, come in, do you hear me?” or something to that effect, but in Japanese. We notified LEXINGTON and they spoke to the fisherman, while we headed for the fishing boat. We learned that they had picked up two fliers that had bailed out, but knew nothing of the other two men. We intercepted the Japanese boat, and took the two fliers on board. We quickly loaded a few gallons of ice cream, sacks of flour and sugar into their boat, as a sort of traditional thank you for the rescue before continuing on to the crash site.
When we arrived on the scene, I had never seen anything like it. Debris as far as the eye could see. Foam, aircraft parts, even a wheel with the inflated tire still intact. I recall that we found at least one helmet, and a considerable number of aircraft parts that would identify the aircraft. Almost everybody was topside, on the main deck, higher up on the O1 level, and even higher to find a good vantage point to help in the search. No clue of the other two fliers were found. On the second day we gave up on the search, and returned to normal operations.
ORLECK was called to the Philippine Sea to help in the search of a military airliner (MATS) that was missing, and had crashed into the sea while enroute to Clarke AFB in the Philippines. We searched a 100 yard grid for several days, never finding anything. A large number of other ships were involved. I never knew the results of the search.
One other time, we were on “plane guard” station, 2000 yards off the starboard bow of some carrier. The carrier was launching aircraft. One of the Aircraft had a “flameout” on take off, and crashed into the sea, just ahead of the carrier. The carrier moving at around 25 knots rammed into the aircraft and it hung up on the ships bow, being plowed through the water for several miles. The carrier knew that the plane had crashed, however did not know that it was now hung up on her bow. The officers on the bridge of ORLECK reported to the carrier of the situation, the carrier responded and stopped her engines. As she slowed, the aircraft slid from her bow, and sank into the debths of the sea. On ORLECK, the exact position of carrier was plotted on the DRT in CIC. the carrier moved off and we went to the exact position to see what we could do. We found a large stream of air bubbles coming up from the bottom of the sea, presumably from the aircraft at the bottom. ORLECK put the bubbles close off the starboard side, and maintained this position for a long period of time by using her engines to maintain the station. It seems to me that they were watching for a body to surface, which it never did.
I was not on watch, but had been in CIC during the entire time. Donald Evans, another Radarman and I had gone out on the O1 level, just outside of CIC, and sat against the “hedgehog” locker door and watched the air coming up to the surface. The ship was rolling heavy, due to our position relative to the sea, and there was a big crash inside the door that we were sitting against each time the ship would roll.
Now, being Radarmen, and knowing nothing about Hedgehogs, except that they were explosive, quickly decided to find a better place to sit to watch the operation. I seriously doubt that we were in any danger, but we thought that it couldn’t hurt anything to move to another part of the ship.
We stayed in this position for a number of hours, but soon realized that the flier was not going to surface. The depth of the water made it impossible to recover the body, so we left the area, and the airman in his tomb far beneath the sea.
ORLECK spent several weeks on the Taiwan Patrol between Taiwan, and Communist China. Quemoy, and Matsu had been shelled from the Chinese mainland for some months. There was a great fear that the Communist Chinese would attack Taiwan if it were not for the presence of the United States Navy. Our mission was to report aircraft flying from China to the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, where ready F-86 Saber Jets were waiting to intercept and engage any Chinese MIG’s that would fly out over the Straits of Formosa. We watched for Communist shipping, and kept the Chinese Navy at bay. The crew was awarded the “Armed Forces Expeditionary Service” medal for this patrol.
In 1958, there was no weather satellite to report such things as typhoons, and hurricanes. Weather stations, and ships at sea were the prime source of the worlds weather information. Often you could be in a storm before you had a report of it.
We were at sea on the Taiwan Patrol, when we had word of a typhoon moving north up the coast of China, heading for Taiwan. ORLECK was due to refuel in Kaohsiung Taiwan. It was decided to go into port to refuel, and get back out to sea before the typhoon arrived. The good new is, that we got into port, and quickly refueled. The bad news was, the typhoon began to arrive sooner than expected. As we finished refueling, we immediately began to get under way. The high winds kept us from being able to get away from the pier. Since there were no tug boats available, we were doomed to ride out the typhoon tied up to the pier. When taps were sounded that evening, the winds were strong, and had us firmly against the pier, and the bay was pretty rough. In my bunk it seems as if we were at sea with the pitching of the ship. I was awakened for the mid watch, (midnight to 4 AM). The typhoon was about half over, the winds had changed and the ship was being blown away from the pier. I checked the Bow Lines that held the ship secure to the pier. They were tighter than I had ever seen from the stress. For most of that watch, I stood on the downwind side of Mount 51 to protect myself from the wind.
When morning came, the typhoon had gone, and everything was normal again. I don’t think that there was much, if any, damage to the ship. I don’t know how that typhoon was rated, or if it ever had a name, but she did put up a big blow, and made for a pretty exciting night.
Having been raised in Texas, and knowing nothing about the world’s situation at the time, our visits to Kaohsiung were especially interesting. I never got past the Navy Exchange or PX on the military base there. Many of the buildings had anti aircraft guns on the roof. They looked like they meant business. I always felt that Taiwan was a nice place to visit, but no place to live.
When ORLECK would make high speed runs for extended periods, the crew would run out of water. The engines would use all that was being made by the evaporators. The solution was to cut off the showers, and allow drinking water only during certain hours all over the ship, and water in the engine room anytime if you wanted to go there to get it. Once we had not showered for a couple of days, and the whole crew was getting pretty ripe. They allowed each of us a total of 30 seconds of water. The Master of Arms turned the water on and off, and used a stopwatch to see that you didn’t get cheated out of a little water. You got about 6 or 7 seconds of water and used this to soap down, and scrub, the remaining 23 or 24 seconds to rinse off. The air quality improved immediately below decks.