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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

 I've written about this subject previously. I probably don't have that much to add this time around. It is about a particular day.  Not the most significant day in my life, not even the most significant day from those years when it occured. Who knows what  significant is, though. In any event a day memorable in its own right. The 30th anniversary of the day the aircraft carrier I was on, when I was nineteen year old sailor, sailed into an oil tanker. That's how the day began in fact. I knew the anniversary was coming up and wanted to write something full and complete, to nail the moment down - to the extent I could remember anything. The day arrived, I wasn't prepared yet.  I find myself scrambling now to come up with some coherent thoughts, and I remember nothing.

A picture named USSRangerCV61.jpg
USS Ranger CV 61 05-09 Apr 1979. the transit back to Subic

  What happened was that on O5 Apr 1979 at 0544 in a dim hazy predawn the USS Ranger (CV 61), a 78,000 ton Forestal class aircraft carrier, struck the Motor Vessel Fortune (Monrovia) a Liberian flagged, but Taiwanese owned vessel, about 600 ft. in length. One of our escort vessels describes it in their official history USS ELLIOT (DD 967): Command History 1979. The collision also earns a line in this Italian list of naval incidents lista incidenti ad unita' navali nucleari.  It was routine for many ocean vessels to be registered in Liberia at that time - they had no maritime regulations, safety training, or equipment standards, etc, whatsoever. It made Liberia a free market perfection. The collision's impetus was a misreading by the MV Fortune of our ship/airport running lights. They read the lights to indicate we were on a different course than we were, and assumed we had better charts and knew what we were doing, so they put themselves on what they thought was a parallel course. They actually put themselves on a course to cut in front of us. We were just beginning a transit of the Straits of Malacca at the time approximately 24 miles from Singapore. The straits are a narrow and very busy shipping channel between Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula.  Lcdr "Crash" Kramer, and Lcdr "Tasmanian "Thies - we gave them nicknames afterwards - the OOD and Navigator  who were present on the bridge at the time compounded the MV Fortune's initial error. They disagreed whether to turn to port and try to regain a true parallel course, or to starboard and pass below their stern (the correct answer). The Captain was asleep in his cabin at the time and not available as tie-breaker.  No action was taken in time and we hit them amidships at 5 knots. This ended with 10,000 tons of oil washing ashore on Singapore. The largest oil spill in that region until sometime in the late 1990s  OIL SPILL CONTROL: Govt. of Mayasia. Tonnes of oil it says in that link. Normally you hear of oil spills in terms of barrels. I have no idea how many barrels of oil that might be.  

A picture named MVFortuneMorovia.jpgOil Tanker M.V. Fortune after the collision. USS Ranger hit the Fortune amidships and cut a dozen feet in, from the deck to well below the waterline.

    I have limited personal recollections of that morning. The collision alarm went off - three bell like tones in a row. Of course if you are asleep there is always the chance  you might miss a couple waking up, leading you to spend a few seconds trying to remember what an unfamiliar abrupt piercing tone might mean in the course of shipboard life. This was followed by the impact itself a hard audible crash that fishtailed the ship and knocked people out of their racks. OZ division's berthing was on the O3 level under the number 3 wire, about four-fifths of the way to the stern. We probably felt the collision least of all. While I along with Mark Edmunds, and Mark Ramsey were airwing, being with RVAH -7,  it was routine for our rating to be TADed to ships company.  Others from RVAH-7 like Mark Edmund's roommate from our Key West quarters Kent Dotson were berthed further forward. It was still very apparent we hit something. After this General Quarters was announced and we needed to report to our assigned duty stations within a few minutes as ship would go into lock-down (material condition zebra) after that. The next six hours were spent with all watertight doors shut throughout the ship. The principle practical meaning of this for us - no bathroom breaks. The nearest head was on the other side of a dogged hatch. One of our people, SN Ted Galpa, I think had been on the fantail doing trash detail  when it happened (trash detail: carry all the watches plastic trash bags down to the stern, tear a hole in them - "rig for negative bouyancy", toss in ships wake) He sees the silhouette of the ship we hit, gets back up to the CVIC on the 03 level and gave us this info, confirming the speculation and rumor going around that we hit a ship, not a reef or a submarine (- which is what I thought unable to accept at first that we hit something we could see). A group 3 cargo ship. The intense smell of sulfur pervading the ship indicated it was an oil tanker. Carrying no. 6 grade crude we found out later on. Unrefined oil straight out of the earth. There was little or no official word for the first hour or so. Though I believe we knew they had put up helos  to survey the situation. 

A picture named RangerRepairsSubicApr79.jpg
A picture I took myself with my Olympus OM-1. Arc welding on the starboard catwalk, Subic Bay PH. a week after the incident.

  For the rest of the day they worked to determine the extent of the damage, put the ship's launches in the water, put divers over the side. The impact tore a hole in the Ranger's bow at the water line that you could have squeezed a small car through  We slowly reversed away from the MV Fortune and the soon voluminous and potentially dangerous oil spill surrounding it  They determined the bulkheads in our bow behind the tear were holding, and that the ship wasn't taking on water. The decision was made to move all the planes and mobile equipment as far back to the stern as they could be stationed to raise the bow up . The ship turned north, away from the equator we had been about to cross the next day, and limped back to Subic Bay in the Phillipines for initial repairs. This consisted of welding steel plates over the gaping hole in the bow. Then later to Yokuska Japan to go into dry dock for more extensive repairs.
 Unfathomably the MV Fortune was seen by us several months later back on the job, repaired and a good 50 to 70 feet longer. They had spliced in a new midsection. I used to have a picture of that which I can't find now.  I can find no trace of what became of the MV Fortune after that on the internet now, though there seems to have been a bulk cargo ship named MV Fortune out of Monrovia in the late 1990s.  To official history (the USS Ranger is now decomissioned and awaits potential transformation into a musuem currently) it all seems quite dry and unremarkable.   

 April 5, 1979: Near the eastern approaches to the Straits of Malacca. USS RANGER collided with the Liberian tanker FORTUNE suffering substantial damage but no injuries while the tanker is holed in the port side from the main deck to the waterline. Following the collision USS RANGER's CO was relieved by Capt. Roger E. Box, USN. ( USS Ranger CV-61)

 They note that Captain Box replaced Captain Thomas G. Moore after this. That happened a month or so later after the USS Ranger nearly swamped a barge tug leaving Yokuska, the USS Ranger tried to assume helm control while the tug still had a line on us. There had already been a maritime court of inquiry that had assigned joint blame for the big accident. Captain Moore was gone within hours of that second incident. The Navy at the time routinely assigned command of Aircraft Carriers to fighter pilots like Captain Moore. As I think about it, these improvised repairs worked well enough, there was a least one period of very heavy seas when we spend three days on the edge of a typhoon off of Luzon. Nothing broke off that couldn't be winched back in place. In late August we returned to Yokuska (near Yokohama) where the Ship Repair Facility had built us a new bow section and we went back into dry-dock for a few weeks to have it fitted on. It was on this occasion that I got up to Kita Kamkura and Tokyo. From there we pounded back to Hawaii at flank speed to test it out. Every single thing on the ship rattled against something else for a week. Pens danced on desktops and the typewriters seemed to type by themselves. Your pillow rattled against your head when you tried to sleep.

A picture named CV61NewBowSRFYokuska.jpg
September at the end of the cruise: Ship Repair Facilitiy Yakuska Japan, presents us with the new bow (tied up with red ribbon) they have fabricated for us over the summer.(photo is from the 79 westpac cruise book credited "UKN")

  Every so often I'll come across a reference to the history of that year and the Ranger's small part in it in some book or article. I'll think of the repercussions and opportunity lost of that incident. The Persian Gulf not sailed to. That's where we were headed after all. A port call in Perth, across the Indian Ocean, a patrol off Kenya a port call in Mombassa, then late spring and early summer in the Persian Gulf. The Kitty Hawk had to take our place. When we went back to San Diego in September, they came out to take up 7th fleet duties. Leaving no carriers on station in the gulf for the rest of the year. The point of carriers, really, is what doesn't happen (there is a cost-benefit/risk analysis equation in there somewhere to be sure).  I don't recall anything in particular happened in the Persian gulf region in the later part of 1979. There was something indistinct about a radical Islamic revolution in Iran. This was a long time ago though, and I'm sure all that was sorted out fully in the many years since.

Peace Out.

8:56:05 PM    comment [];trackback [];

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