Once we arrived in the operational area, defined as somewhere within sight of the SMRIS, we would cruise slowly around the SMRIS while the bridge crew plotted the position of the Soviet ships. We knew from previous tests that when a launch was imminent, the SMRIS would position themselves in an elongated cross with the long axis along the flight path of the missile. When that happened, we would position our ship in the center of the cross so that we would have the best chance of collecting warhead debris.
While we were watching the SMRIS, they were watching us. They had the advantage that some of them had onboard helicopters. The ones we saw were the KH-47 with two counter- rotating rotors. The helicopter would fly around us while both side took photographs. They would generally stay a few hundred yards from us and not make provocative moves. Unlike other barely- armed surveillance ships such as the USS LIBERTY and USS PUEBLO, we had two 3" dual purpose guns with anti-aircraft capability. There were times when the helicopter would close to about fifty yards upwind, then “bounce” down to about 30 feet in altitude. When they did this, the rotor wash would kick up a lot of spray which would wash over the ship. When this happened, the bridge crew would retreat inside and close the hatches. Luckless sailors and CTs on deck would turn their backs and hide their cameras under their jackets.
We had a few white-knuckle incidents during the surveillance phase of PONY EXPRESS missions. The scariest incident occurred on CLAUD JONES when the insulation around one of the freshwater evaporators caught fire. These evaporators were low-pressure distillation equipment that used waste heat from the diesel main engine exhaust to produce fresh water for the crew. The insulation started smoldering and the smoke was detected by the engine room crew. They called in a fire alert and the bridge hit the emergency alarm followed by the announcement “Fire in the engine room. This is not a drill!” The crew went to fire emergency stations and the CTs mustered in the Telemetry room. With our separate AC system, we never smelled smoke, but it could be smelled throughout ship. The fire never grew to a dangerous blaze, but ALL fires on a ship are taken seriously. This one was identified and controlled in about 20 minutes.
Another incident occurred on the MCMORRIS while we were on station. There was a failure in the hydraulic steering gear during a turn. As a result, the ship could only continue that turn until the steering gear was repaired. As a result, the ship sailed around in a circle for about two hours while repairs were under way. Since the ship could not maneuver, it had to hoist a day signal indicating that it was not under control. (The mnemonic we learned at OCS was “Red over Red, the captain is dead”. No captain likes to hoist that signal! Another downside to the situation was that it occurred near lunch time and we could not take a course to minimize rolling during the meal. During that lunch and other meals in rough conditions, the officers got very good at eating with one hand while holding our plates in place with the other. The crew in the enlisted mess actually had it easier. Their food was served on standard metal tray with four areas with raised edges that minimized sloshing. The crew mess was also a deck lower where there was less ship’s motion to move the food around. It was almost funny watching the officers handle the soup course: one hand tilting the bowl to keep the soup in place while the other maneuvered the soup spoon.
The 1033-class DEs rolled a lot. They were round-bottomed ships which had been given a lot of new topside weight in the Telemetry room and antennas. It was not uncommon to have 30- degree rolls in the large swells of the North Pacific. Seasickness was a common problem—particularly among the CTs who didn’t spend that much time at sea and were in a closed compartment well above the roll axis of the ship. Sleeping in heavy weather was difficult. I would often sleep against the bulkhead behind the mattress in my bunk with the mattress wedged against the bunk rail to keep me in place. It was not uncommon to find a few CTs strapped into the bolted–down chairs in Telemetry room with their heads on their crossed arms trying to get an hour of precious sleep.
I was seasick to the point of nausea only once on my PONY EXPRESS missions. That occurred on a morning where the stewards served very sweet and greasy French toast accompanied by guava nectar. I was braced in a chair in the Telemetry room just after breakfast when I realized that breakfast and I were going to part ways. I barely made it out the back door to the deck before losing breakfast. After about five minutes of coughing and spitting, I felt much better. French toast and guava nectar have joined with 95% ethanol and cranberry juice on my Do Not Consume list.