In my early twenties, I served on the U.S.S. Collett for three years in the Pacific Ocean. When I was at sea on the Collett, I was always fascinated to be topside during an un-rep (an “underway replenishment.) A fueling un-rep, or more simply “refueling,” was the most exciting and the most common un-rep. But there were other kinds of un-reps too. Un-reps were always done while the ships were moving side-by-side on the ocean, often out of sight of land.
A fleet oiler, a big wide slow supply ship, would be in the center of a ring of destroyers, and often alongside an aircraft carrier, a huge fast warship that towered over the oiler. One by one, the thirsty destroyers would be called in alongside to replenish their fuel. A destroyer would smartly leave its station in the ring to come alongside the oiler, while the refueled destroyer would promptly take its place in the ring.
As a deckhand, I took part in many un-reps. Uniform of the day included dungarees, long-sleeve blue workshirt, blue baseball cap, and an orange life jacket. In my assigned station on deck, I could see the oiler nearby and the wild raging terrible blue torrent of saltwater racing between the two gray ships. This torrent was partly the result of the water moving past the bows of the ships and then being forced to go through the narrow strait of the ships side-by-side.
A fueling un-rep begins with a light line thrown by hand from one ship to the other, and then a heavy line is tied to the light line. At the end of this process, two heavy lines tie the ships across the water. One of the heavy lines holds the weight of the fuel hose; the other is used to pull the hose over to the destroyer. We usually refueled from two hoses at the same time, using two teams. Sometimes, after my team had finished refueling, we were released from our stations and could get a better vantage point to watch the oiler and our other team. It was exciting to watch these great ships, plowing through the ocean, a softball-throw away from each other, and only a small mistake away from crashing together. I could feel the tension in myself and see it in others during refueling.
One time, perhaps in 1962, the crew was told to report to un-rep stations. As we began to walk to our stations, the ship executed a routine sharp starboard turn toward the oiler. Suddenly, the collision alarm sounded because our rudders were stuck so we were in danger of ramming the oiler. We now ran on the double to our collision stations.
One tall skinny quiet guy had been onboard the Collett during an actual collision a couple of years earlier. Understandably filled with terror from that experience, he flew to his collision station. Leaping through the open mess hall door, he jumped over the bottom coaming. However, he forgot to duck his head, and, being over six feet tall, he smacked his forehead on the top coaming and knocked himself out. Shortly after he hit the deck, steering control was regained and the collision alarm was canceled. Several shipmates gathered around Snake, and were talking about how to help him, when he regained consciousness. He was helped to sickbay, and was pronounced unhurt. Thereafter, he was subject to bad Al Capp jokes about how he, like Li'l' Abner, was lucky that the injury was to his head.
Another incident took place on Wednesday, January 16, 1963, according to my letter to my mother that she saved all these years. The wind was brisk and the sea was rough. After my team had been dismissed from our un-rep stations we went to the main deck where the BMC Art Corriea ordered us to immediately lend a hand to the other team who were still struggling to get the fuel hose onboard. We could see that the deck and the bottoms of our shipmates' dungarees were wet from water that had splashed up from between the ships. This was not going to be pretty. The water between the two ships was really raging. We quickly grabbed on to the large line. I was right behind Henry Earl Milliner. While we listened to the orders -- now "heave," now "give way,” we kept our eyes on the raging water.
Within a few minutes, two waves about one foot high came rolling down the deck. Several of us got our shoes and pants soaked amid shouting and hollering. Suddenly a giant wave came cascading down the deck, waist high, angrily racing at us. I hung on to the line as hard as I could. Even with my fear grip, it wasn't enough. The torrent of water tore me away, and I was underwater, tumbling uncontrollably toward the rear of the ship.
For a moment, I thought I was washed over the side. But then I was thrown against a bulkhead and I felt the ladder to the torpedo deck. Desperately, I grabbed that ladder. I was still underwater but nothing could pull me from that ladder.
I was wrong, I couldn't hold on. I was swept away again, and still underwater. Now I knew I was overboard. Many thoughts flashed through my mind. Perhaps the most important was the often heard "If you fall over the side, immediately swim away from the ship, otherwise the ship's screws will cut you to pieces." These twin propellers extended beyond the sides of the ship, just forward of the rudders. But to know which direction to swim, I had to know where the ship was. As I tumbled in the raging water, I didn't have a clue.
As suddenly as the giant wave had come, it now receded. I was still onboard but next to the snaking, under the lifeline at the edge of the deck.
Quickly looking around, I saw that six of us were in the snaking or hanging on to a lifeline. We scrambled away from the side of the ship. One sailor, still balancing with his hip on top of a lifeline stanchion, was grabbed by two shipmates and lifted off to safety. (Where you there, do you remember?)
Three of us were injured. The Chief told us to report to sickbay. Since I had only cuts and abrasions to my left hand, I made my way thankfully to the end of the sickbay line.
My adventure left me shaken for a few days, and with a renewed respect for the great forces in nature. I still love to watch storms and see great waves thunder against the shore, but I want to do it at a safe distance.