Leaving the Sea

by J. Allen Whitt

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep,
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.
-United States Navy Hymn

I packed my sea-bag after an early dinner, and waited. In the next few hours, I’d be leaving the USS Coral Sea for the last time. For almost two and one-half years, I had served aboard the attack aircraft carrier as a Naval officer. I’d traveled the equivalent of more than seven times around the earth. The ship took me across the Pacific Ocean three times, between the Philippine Islands, Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, and countless miles around the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin during three overseas combat deployments.

By November, 1967, my peripheral role in the conflict was nearing an end, and I was about to be transported back to San Francisco, by way of Manila, Tokyo, and Honolulu. At Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, I would be discharged from the Navy into civilian life.

At precisely 2100 hours on November 17, as I sat with my packed seabag, the phone in my stateroom rang. “Sir, we’re ready for you up on the flight deck,” the voice on the other end said. The moment was at hand. I picked up my seabag, and started toward the flight deck, several decks above.

The Coral Sea was a World War Two-era carrier, and she had been designed for survival rather than comfort. Nevertheless, the ship seemed like home to me. Essentially a floating city, she was as long as three football fields, carried almost 4,000 men and about 125 aircraft, and was divided into nearly 2000 watertight compartments, with decks on many levels.

While carrying out air strikes over Vietnam, the carrier usually operated about 100 miles from the coast, out of sight of land. For those of us whose duties were confined to the ship—I worked in the ship’s Supply Department—it was mostly an oddly impersonal war-at-a-distance, in which the combatants never came within sight or hearing of each other. On rare occasions when the ship neared the coast, the explosions of our aircrafts’ bombs erupted in brilliant flashes that played over the hills of North Vietnam like lightning, or glowed behind rows of hills, a grim diorama.

When I arrived at a hatchway just off the flight deck, I waited for a crewman to guide me to my plane. I watched the activity on the deck outside. Jets and propeller-driven fighters and bombers were being moved around in preparation for launching. Under their wings hung 250- and 500-pound bombs, and air-to-surface rockets. This was a precisely coordinated, yet hazardous business. On a prior deployment, a flight deck crewman had turned the wrong way and stepped into an aircraft’s spinning propeller. Parts of his body were never found.

Many dangers existed onboard warships, particularly older carriers. They were called “floating bombs.” We lived in close proximity to thousands of tons of oil, aviation gasoline, jet fuel, rockets, flares, ammunition, and bombs. Only a month before, an air-to-surface rocket had been accidentally triggered below decks. The rocket’s exhaust plume became a giant blowtorch, and badly burned the seven men in the compartment behind it. Three received second- and third-degree burns over most of their bodies. The remains of another sailor were removed hours later, after the fires had been extinguished. The other three all died later from their injuries. During an earlier deployment, twenty-eight men were killed in onboard accidents, or failed to return from air missions. Most of the men we lost were pilots. Planes were shot down, their crews killed or captured. I might see a pilot at dinner in the wardroom one evening, and he wouldn’t be at dinner the next evening.

A flight deck crewman met me, and led the way to the plane. We dodged around aircraft, and ducked under wingtips. Once all cargo and passengers were onboard the COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft), a flight crewman yelled instructions to us over the rumbling of the plane’s turboprops. “Grab your harness straps, pull them TIGHT, and DO NOT LET GO!” Next, he pointed to an illuminated glass box on the rear bulkhead of the aircraft. The box had one word: STANDBY. He said, “When that box turns red, it means they are ‘cocking the gun,’ preparing to launch us. Then HOLD TIGHT!”

We all knew that launching a plane from an aircraft carrier posed risks. A few months before, something went wrong during a catapult launch, and the plane merely rolled forward slowly, fell over the end of the flight deck, and landed upside down in the water. Fortunately, the four men on board the plane were able to escape before the plan sank. On the COD, our seats faced the rear of the plane. It was a design intended to increase our chances of survival if we suffered a similar accident.

The COD taxied into position, and the deck crew attached the aircraft to the catapult. We stared at that box, and waited.

The box turned red. The pilot revved the COD’s engines up to maximum power, the turboprops roared, and the plane rocked and shook as if about to break free from the restraining catapult. Seconds later, I was jerked against my shoulder straps, and my head was forced down toward my chest. We accelerated from zero to maybe one hundred knots in three seconds, the flight deck flashed by, and there was a loud POP as the metal “t-bar” (tie-bar) snapped, releasing the plane from the end of the catapult. I felt weightless as we passed over the bow of the ship, and then over the dark void of ocean. It was as if Coral Sea knew we were deserting her, and had preemptively flung us and our belongings out into the night.

As Coral Sea disappeared into the night behind us, I realized that I had come to understand why ships are called “she.” Even though she was not a living thing, I felt she had become so. She had a distinct personality, unique quirks, and moods. She could speak to us in ways we understood, and seemed capable of sadness, exultation, and indifference, as well as episodes of dashing boldness, pride, and unpredictability. She housed us, fed us, carried us across oceans, and, in spite of the dangers, Coral Sea generally kept us safe. She had plunged through a massive super typhoon that raised winds of one-hundred and forty-five miles per hour, and sent gray-green waves spilling over the flight deck, forty feet above the waterline. She carried us through with no losses or serious injuries, and only minor damage to the ship.

She could provide reassurance and a sense of intimacy as we lay in her during quiet moments. Yet, if she became angry, and was pushed too far, she could emit fury, and like any human, might even become unbalanced and threaten disaster.

She was quickly recognizable from a distance, and if it pleased her—and sea-conditions were right—could entrance us as she gracefully slipped through still seas, cutting symmetric bow-waves that spread across the surface, and painted scenes of beauty on the seas. In time the ship became ours, and we fell in love with her. Long after we deserted her, we would listen for news of her, and would feel that we still knew her intimately. Someday, she would finally be struck from the rolls and torn apart to provide steel for new ships, or sent to rest in the depths, and then we would grieve her. After my many hours at sea, I could understand a sailor’s feeling of attachment to his ship; it is frequently strong and abiding.

The pilot gained altitude, made a long turn to port, and passed back by the ship at a distance of maybe a half-mile. For the last time, I studied the ship through the window next to me. Her light-washed deck was full of planes loaded with bombs and rockets, and her running lights glowed in the night, making fleeting circles of light on the water. There was a deep and unsettling contradiction between her graceful and appealing form, and her deadly function. She was massive, but deceptively agile, with a formidable beauty that gave little indication of her ability to unleash conventional—and nuclear—hell.