New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions.
-Mark Twain-

My new years resolution is the same every year and I always keep it. It is "I resolve to make no New Years resolution". -tom swaim-

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Old Fools Journal: Deaths Solemn Presence is a Heavy Load

This is not a picture of this particular event but is of another time in the same position performing the same duties. It is taken outside the same hatch where I witnessed the event described below. If you look closely you can see a jet approaching very close to the rear of the carrier. The pilot is only minutes from a shower or a split second from death.

In the two cruises I made to the far east there were two unfortunate events that affected every man on every ship in our group from the admiral on down to the lowest seaman deuce. This is an account of one of those events.

I have avoided thinking about this over the years and only doing so when I would happen on to these photos. Looking at them takes me back fifty years in an instant and I once again get that awful feeling in my stomach and that lingering empty feeling of despair that we all felt aboard the ships. Signing up with the Veterans Administration years ago didn't help because in the interview there were questions about what I'd seen and done and these events came to light and I was asked to talk about them. I brushed it off but the interviewer thought I should talk to the shrink. That was back when it was suddenly discovered what everyone but the government knew and that is when "people go off to war they are forever changed" and some of them don't handle it so well. I didn't see the shrink.

We all had heard the rumors of the electricians mate that used his whole body to check for voltage and suddenly became well done or the fireman (engine room crew) that fell down a ladder (stairs) and broke his neck. That didn't bother us anymore than hearing of a car wreck. They were tragic but this was different. This was up close and to every man aboard personal. Fate had no right to tread on us or one of ours.

I witnessed this particular event from start to the less than satisfactory finish. I had stepped out onto the starboard deck to go forward as was customary when the weather was calm. It's much faster and the fresh air is good. We were chasing an aircraft carrier during aircraft recovery and we were in their port quarter. The carrier was in full clear view. I watched as the pilot made his approach saw him touch down on the deck and almost instantly plunge over the side about a quarter of the way back on the port bow. It made one large splash and that was it. It was if the airplane had never existed.
The smoke flares went into the water immediately and the helicopters that were ever present during aircraft recovery were right on top of it. Unfortunately there was nothing to be on top of. From all appearances that aircraft had never existed. As you can see from the photo the sea was calm with a light wind.

There was such a emotional mixture of feeling and thoughts ,that now I recognize as near panic, caused by an unexpected instantly recognizable tragedy that I could do nothing about. The shock was like getting hit with a bucket of ice water. I ducked back below to fetch my camera and set off for the radio shack. I new that the shit was hitting the fan already and that maybe I could be of some help.Look in the upper right corner and you will see two groups of four fighters.
Click on the photos to make bigger.

As we maneuvered around the area night was coming and we were finding airplane parts. The nose cone was the largest piece we recovered. The pilots helmet, the aircraft log books and various odds and ends were all we had after searching day and night for 48 hours. In fact night was like day with parachute flares making the night into day. No man stepped out on deck without searching the sea. I don't think anyone slept.
Then it was over and despair set in. Everyone knew, of course, from the beginning that we would not find the pilot but there was always the ever present hope.

There was a lot of silent contemplation, there was a good deal of hushed conversation and then finally acceptance.

I can tell you that every man felt guilty, that everyman gave everything he could muster and not one of these common sailors went away from this event untouched.


Shadowmoss said...

Working with the Military, especially in my prior post, I knew that these guys I saw every day at work were deploying and in danger. We lost a helecopter on a training mission while I was there, but it was from a different battalion so I didn't know the guys, but the ones I worked with did, and talked about the lost soldiers as friends and brothers in arms. It is sobering to have that side brought to front of your mind, even though it is there in the back always.

Thank you for your service.

Gwen Buchanan said...

I can well understand why this would stay with you.. it is the knowledge that there was nothing you could do to fix the situation.. a helplessness ... so fast and it can all be over.. quite a shock to the system.. makes us realize how minuscule we all are in the grand scheme of things..
reminds me of when I look up into a dark starry night sky and realize the sheer utter vastness of it all .. I feel tinier and less important than a grain of sand.

Steven Cain said...

That's rough.

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