Sea Stories from the Mighty “I”

Late ‘77 to early ‘78

By R. L. Schmidt


I was sorry to hear that the Ingham, also known as the Mighty “I”, was retired, but I was glad to hear she’ll now be a floating museum. Not fast, but a good riding ship, way better than the 378's I served on after her. Ingham has a long history to her, and here’s my little chunk of it.

A Deckie on the Mighty “I”

A deckie’s life on the Ingham basically revolved around two things: standing watches, and painting. I figure I slung enough paint while I was there to personally repaint the ship two or three times, stem to stern.  An exaggeration? Not by much. One warm day I and another SA worked from the camels next to the pier, and also from a floating stage to repaint 3/4 of the hull all by ourselves. We even had food and drink passed down to us as it was easier than going back aboard.

Once, ‘cause I exhibited an artistic flair, I got stuck with the job of making big stencils for the CG shield on the racing stripes, then sitting in a bosun’s chair painting the damn things.

Ever tried painting in snow? Virginia doesn’t get a whole lot of the white stuff, but when it does, it DON’T mess around. A few of us were down on the camels trying to roll out a coat of white on the hull when the snow began. And it kept right on coming. My chief, BMC Dan Munroe, says “ keep on painting.” Well, even he had to admit enough was enough when the paint tray had enough snow in it that the roller froze up solid.

Then there was the time we were going to the Azalea Festival. Just back from patrol, rust leaking everywhere down the white paint, and we have one week to make her pretty again. No time to chip, wire brush, or needle gun, then blue death, red lead, and top coat. Chip and wire brush the very worst, slap paint on the rest of it. ALL of it. Egads.

And I almost forgot the time we chipped a hole in the ship. Yup, you heard me right. Working from the camels (again) on the starboard side we chipped a hole right through the hull. It was located inside a DC locker, right where the deck and bulkhead (hull) came together. A little cut and weld by the DC’s and we kept on painting.

Watches were very neat sometimes, especially to a 17 year old kid who’s been nowhere before now. Standing up on the flying bridge in all kinds of weather, sometimes eating salt spray from the bow, was a kick in the shorts. Fog watch, though, was the absolute pits. Nothing to see but gray from up there, constantly walking a beat around the QM shack so you don’t miss anything. And the fog horn. (EXPLETIVE!!!). Fortunately, you got a half second warning hiss as the horn came up to pressure before sounding.  Time your walking wrong and you’d end up directly in front of it when it goes off. Rattle the fillings in your teeth it did.

Helm watch was a bear in stormy weather. Constantly throwing that big wooden rimmed brass wheel around trying to stay on course. Sometimes it was hard rudders all watch, just trying to stay “close” to the course. By the end of it, you were definitely ready for chow and some sack time.


Ingham at Night

Underway is the Only Way (my aching arse!)

The North Atlantic, up around Martha’s Vineyard, George’s Banks, and Nova Scotia, can be beautiful in the extreme. I had my first taste of “smooth sailing” up there, the sea flat as glass and visibility to forever. That was also where I saw my first “green flash” as the sun set below the edge of the world. But a lot of the time the North Atlantic was just flat out nasty.

Fortunately, the Ingham was a good ride most of the time. She’d lay over easy, then up to vertical, and over the other way. A  roll you could time to a nicety when walking the decks, green plastic coffee cup in hand. But sometimes, well, it got really interesting.

My pit was in the portside forward berthing area, bottom bunk of the freestanding ones in the middle of the compartment. One night, seas are running really high, and we’re making just enough turns on the screws to keep her bow-on to the waves. You’d feel the THUMP as we stuffed the bow under, then the shuddering as she came back up. Not so bad until they piped “prepare to come about” 

That one wave must have caught us square on the beam. Ingham rolled hard and fast to starboard, catching more than a couple folk by surprise. One of those was a cook whose pit I could see from between my braced legs. He was propelled out of his pit and into the bulkhead, followed by a CO2 extinguisher that had come off its stanchion.  He was OK, if shaken a bit. I went after that extinguisher before the valve got snapped off and it became a missile.

I corralled the extinguisher and crawled over to the stanchion with it. Managed to get  the valve on the hook just as Ingham rolled again. I’m hanging on to the stanchion with my left hand, trying to keep the extinguisher from coming off again with my right. Took a couple tries to get the restraining cable clipped in properly again. Gets MY vote for an E ticket ride!

Smallboat ops and boarding parties are part of the game. Well, on one patrol we managed to break the hulls on BOTH smallboats. We’d had them rigged out and fendered so we didn’t have to keep playing with those damned hand-cranked davits. Turned out to be a bad idea. Between thumping against the hull when rigged out and during launch/retrieval both boats developed leaks. We patched them up, but two weeks into the patrol we were screwed. Both had long cracks and damage that only  time in the shop at Portsmouth was going to fix. We went home early.

Speaking of those davits.... We’d had a request for a medevac from a fishing boat, Polish I think. One of the crew had taken a header and was in a bad way. So, we get the portside smallboat rigged out and ready for launch. I happen to glance past the aircastle and here comes the fishing boat, its big black hull about THIRTY FEET off the port bow and coming on. The bosun 1st is yelling ,”GET IT IN! GET IT IN!”, and working in relay we set a new world’s record for cranking in a smallboat davit. What the skipper of the fishing boat was thinking we’ll never know.

And then there were the Russians. I hated ‘em at the time, but now I can just feel sorry for them. Small fleets of ill-kempt, nasty smelling rust-buckets, along with their processing ships which stank even worse, and the ubiquitous “minder” ship, a spy trawler or tug. Ohhhh yeahhhhh .... watching them watching us watching them. Peeping out ol’ Ivan through the binocs and giving him the one finger salute, and getting a suitable reply back.

One morning I’m standing on the starboard bridge wing when GM1 Dudley ambles over to share a smoke and shoot the breeze. I point out the “tug” off our starboard side, with its small forest of antennas on the wheelhouse and mast. I also pointed out the suspicious “thing” atop the after mast wrapped in a tarp. We figured it was either a 12.7mm machine gun or a 20mm cannon.  Guess they didn’t want any of their comrades getting the idea of running for it. Just fun and games in the North Atlantic, Cold War style.

Search and Rescue

Some of this part is a little blurry, so anybody else that was there during this time can correct me if they want. After the first couple of patrols they all kind of ran together in my mind. One in particular does stand out, though. Nasty weather, working port & starboard for a week, and 7 SAR calls in 7 days.

For those of you that never had the “pleasure” of working port & starboard let me tell SUCKS! The main impression I retain of that week is one of great fatigue. At the end of that week, right after breakfast, port & starboard was cancelled, and deck force got the day off except for watchstanders. Myself, and two other young fools, ended up passed out on the fantail until someone came around, kicked us awake, and sent us to our pits.

I don’t remember what all of the SAR calls were during that time, but I do remember one very clearly. Seas were rough, but not horrible, typical North Atlantic. The radio room reported picking up the signal from an EPIRB, so we get dispatched to find it. Back and forth across a small section of ocean until we spot it. No debris or survivors, just the orange beacon bobbing in the waves. We put over the cargo net and SN John DeBaun (or was it BM3 Varner?) in his dry suit tries to snag it while clinging to the net. I think he finally had to swim out and get it. Anyway, we get the thing aboard and call in the serial number. Turns out it had washed overboard during the storm from a fisherman. The boat itself was safe.

The rest of the week was more of the same. Every day a SAR call. Can’t remember if that was the patrol with the Spanish fishing boat or not. This fisherman had bumped its nose rather hard against a tanker during the night. When we saw it there was a good 10 feet or so of the bow mashed flat, and two injured from falls during the collision. We got them heloed back to shore.

And then there was the NOAA buoy. Got the call that a weather buoy had snapped its anchor chain and was drifting loose. Our orders were to find it, and sink it before someone ran it over in the dark. No little buoy this one. A red floating platform, maybe 20 feet across, with a mast and antennas on it.

We pull up about 100 yards from it and the GM’s unlimber one of the 20mm’s from the armory.  BOW BOW BOW BOW BOW BOW BOW!!!!! Kinda pretty watching those tracers skip off the water and disappear in the distance...... Did we sink it? Hell no! Couldn’t get the rounds to hit low enough to pop the flotation chambers. If you ask me a couple BL&P’s from the 5" would have done it nicely, but who asks a deckie’s opinion? We ended up towing the thing back to Portsmouth where it sat tied to the pier for awhile. The last I saw of it was in the buoy graveyard on the base.

The other truly memorable SAR came right at the end of a patrol. If I remember right we were close to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay when we were told to turn around. An HH-52 had gone down at sea. The crew had already been rescued, but we had to babysit this bird until it could be picked up.

When we get there we find the helo is being kept afloat with flotation collars. For those of you that don’t know the HH-52, when new, it was amphibious. Over time, and lots of air hours they slowly became leaky, and if you put one down on water it would turn turtle and sink.

So there we are, cutting lazy doughnuts in the ocean through that day and night, placing bets on when this thing would swamp and sink so we could go home. Even had more than one person volunteer to swim over and give it a little help on its way.

Finally a Sikorsky Skycrane comes out to airlift the wreck back to shore. An impressive bird, the Skycrane. Looks like a dragonfly on super steroids hovering there on those huge rotor blades.

John Boy goes over to the downed helo and climbs on top to hook up the cable to the salvage ring on the rotor hub. He’s miserable, getting hammered by the propwash from the skycrane, and trying not to fall off. It takes maybe twenty minutes before he can hook up and clear off.

The Sikorsky takes the strain, rotor blades arcing upwards as the weight comes on. A cheer goes up as the HH-52 clears the water and starts toward shore. But....... we can’t go home yet. The Sikorsky hits bingo fuel well clear of shore and has to drop the 52 back in the water. Dammit! More lazy doughnuts in the ocean. Next day the Sikorsky is back, hooks up no trouble, and hauls the bent bird ashore. Hooray! Now let’s get in to port. I NEED A BEER!

Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ALL bad. Sometimes the weather got so rough we couldn’t do boardings, so the skipper would point us toward Cape Cod. Once there, we’d drop the hook and wait it out, sometimes we even got in a little fishing. But, every silver lining has its dark cloud. And on one patrol, I got a turn in the chain locker.

Faking down chain as it comes into the locker using the grab hooks is one of the worst details I have ever pulled in the Coast Guard. The chain locker is dark and cold, the links under your feet sucking the heat right out through your boots. Remember I mentioned Cape Cod? Well, the bottom there is a gray, stinking ooze that smells like any beach at low tide times 100.

The first few fathoms of chain were fine as they hadn’t been on the bottom. Then the nasty stuff started coming in. It was everywhere, and it got to the point where my hands were so slimy I couldn’t use the grab iron any more. Wrestling all those heavy links by hand just got me covered in gunk. I called up to the foc’sle to see if they could clean this crap off before sending it down to us. The answer came back, “We ARE hosing it off!”. Jeez. You know those lightweight jackets we were issued in boot for spring and fall? Mine was so covered in that stinking goo that there was NO way I was putting that in with my laundry. I wadded it up and threw it in the trash. My shirt and pants got stripped off, thrown in the shower, and at least rinsed a bit.

Snapshots and Good Times

Here’s a few bits and pieces I recall from back then, of no particular importance other than that I was there 

The night I had quarterdeck watch and Taney was coming in to the pier deadstick. I ran through the ship banging doors and making noise trying to get everyone up & out should Taney hit us. They did. Not hard, but they got us. Wasn’t the first time Taney had broken down, but I won’t go there.

The day that Mohican’s engine room caught fire at the pier. Helping to lug P-250 pumps off the Ingham should they be needed at the Mo. Looking at the stern of Mohican the next day, paint all burnt and peeling  down to the waterline.

The time I goofed and didn’t secure the painter on the floating stage correctly. Made the grab too late and off it went. Had to launch Ing2 to get it back. Oops 

Driving in the snow with Ben Crowell in his van. Pulling people out of ditches, and cutting lots of doughnuts. Virginians don’t know NUTHIN about driving in snow.

Streaking while underway. <grin> Yup, armed only with watch cap and a pair of socks to keep the teak splinters out of my feet I streaked the deck of Ingham one night . One full turn about the deck from the port aircastle, round the fantail, up the starboard side to the bow, past the 5" mount, and back to the hatch. And of course those arseholes wouldn’t let me back in!

Learning what the “purple dick” is. I still laugh about that one.  

The first time I saw dolphins playing in the bow wave.

The first time I saw a whale spouting.

The phosphorescent wake we’d trail behind us at night.

Water so clear and blue that you could lean over the aft rail and watch the screws turning.  

And finally, my departure. Tradition had it that a deckie who was departing the ship gets chucked off the bow at the pier. Varner, John Boy, Bumpy, et al., thanks for the sendoff to ET school! I miss you guys.



R. L. Schmidt became an ET2 before he was discharged from the Coast Guard

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