Of Iron Men And A Wooden Ship    

Originally Titled "Nostalgia"

By John Hutchins

 

Back when rocks were soft and 255 cutters plied the seas, the PONTCHARTRAIN came due for its quarterly gunnery exercises. Most of the 83 boat fleet in the 11th CG District had been retired, and until the boats could be disposed of, they were moored along the Mole at the Long Beach Naval Station.

On the evening of the day before our gunnery drills, we got underway, and just off the Mole, picked up a tow from one of the forty boats from the CG base. It was an 83' that had either a sprung plank or a leaking through-hull fitting in the bow. It had to be pumped regularly and frequently by the crew of the 40 footer, and was becoming a liability and (according to the Base Commander) a waste of time. This leaky old darling was to become our target.

It had been prepared by the 40 boat crew by leaving all the below deck water tight doors open, the caps off the empty fuel tanks, the hatches to the engine room were open, and the covers off the lazarettes. We towed all night, and around breakfast time we arrived at the naval gunnery range. After chow, we cast off the tow, went to GQ, and stood off the required distance to begin our first run with the 5"/38 cannon.

I had drawn talker duties from the bridge to CIC, so I was treated to a front row seat. We bore in on the old girl, and at the proper range the 5", under the control of the fire control team, opened fire. There were geysers of water all over the Pacific Ocean, but none close enough to even wet the deck of our target. We finished, and stood off again for the second run; this time with the turret in local control.

The second run was better than the first, with some of the fire getting close enough to be considered "constructive hits" if you fudged a little bit. It had been over 24 hours since the 83' had been pumped, and it's quite possible that one of the closer shots dislodged the fitting, or the plank, because when the run was finished, she was noticeably down by the bow.

We stood off again, this time for the 40-mm to have a go. Again, the first run was under the direction of the fire control team, and all we did was scare fish. Nothing got anywhere near the target. On the last run, under local control, we closed to practically point-blank range, and one of the rounds hit the boat square in the middle of the transom. It was a BLP round, and the damage was limited.

By this time, the 83 boat was well and truly down by the bow. Her foredeck was awash to the spray shields, but the main deck aft of the pilothouse, was bone dry. The Captain listened to, and rejected several suggestions for sinking her, and after standing down from GQ, he dispatched a motor launch with a couple of Gunner's Mates aboard carrying a pound or so of C4.

They set the charge against the forward bulkhead of the engine room, sand bagged it, and then backed slowly away from the 83 boat and returned to the PONCHARTRAIN trailing the detonator wires. Once on deck, they connected the wires to the detonator, and turned the handle. There was an audible pop, and a small bit of turbulence could be seen in the water on the starboard side of the hull, roughly amidships.

Nothing appeared to be happening at first, but bit by bit, the angle of the hull grew steeper, and less and less of the grand old lady could be seen above the water. Finally, the masthead went under, and the boat, nearly vertical in the water, finally slipped away and sank.

I couldn't help contrasting what an unchallenged pounding she took, with what a scrappy crew like ours could have done under similar circumstances. We still might have been sunk, but we would have been able to give a good accounting, and severely wound any larger aggressor. I'm proud to have been part of the tradition of Iron Men and wooden ships in a service that is loaded with its share of such traditions.

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