There were some missions which extended beyond the fuel and provision limits for the DEs. When this was predicted, a second DE would arrive on station and the first would head for Midway for fuel and provisions. It would take a day or two to get to Midway and we would generally be at the pier there for only about half a day. The stop would give the sailors and CTs a chance to get ashore, visit the Navy Exchange and perhaps a bar at the EM or Officer’s club. One of our favorite pastimes was to walk out to the golf course and watch the Laysan Albatrosses (or Gooney Birds) come in for a landing. While these birds were experts at soaring over the waves, they weren’t very good at landing and taking off on land. Midway is a nesting area for these birds and we were supposed to keep our distance from nests and birds on land. It was amusing to watch the birds landing—many would tumble head-over-heels on landing. Unfortunately, a small percentage would tumble hard enough to break their necks and there were often a few dead birds on the grass.
During one approach to the pier at Midway, the Captain allowed one of the ship’s junior officers to handle the ship. While the crew and CTs watched on deck, he made a nice approach, but didn’t slow down in time. We dinged one of the offshore dolphins (groups of pilings about 10 yards from the pier) pretty hard. The dolphin barely survived, and the MCMORRIS got a good dent and needed some repainting of the hull. As a visitor, I stayed quiet in the wardroom that night, but the other officers were not gentle with the junior officer of the deck.
On one mission starting in early 1974, our detachment was aboard the USS CLAUD JONES at the time Navy-wide advancement examinations were scheduled. We had left Pearl Harbor several weeks before and had not anticipated being at sea so long. We did not have either the exams or the study materials the CTs needed to prepare for the test. CINCPACFLT had a procedure to cover this, as it was a common occurrence for the CTs deployed on submarines: a special exam would be administered after the CTs returned to Pearl Harbor.
After we had been on station for about two weeks, another of the DEs, the CHARLES BERRY, arrived on station and delivered some critical supplies. I also received a message that the NSG officer on the BERRY would be delivering our CT exams to be administered in about two days. This caused great consternation amongst the CTs. They had been tired and seasick for two weeks and had no access to books and manuals needed to prepare for the exam. Remember that this was before the era of internet downloads—the required manuals would fill a footlocker and the manuals were classified and required special handling. We normally didn’t take these manuals with us as we had limited storage space and no study area other than our telemetry intercept room. There wasn’t desk space to spread out manuals and it was often noisy due to the teletypes in the communications area.
After consulting with my Chief, I sent a message back to headquarters requesting delayed exams and explaining why the exams would be unfair to the CTs. Some Lieutenant Commander on the staff decided that we didn’t rate the same consideration as the CTs on submarines and we were ordered to proceed with the exams. I again consulted with the Chief, asking if there was anything else to be done. He said that if we were ashore we’d be screwed—but we were on a ship. The Captain of a ship has nearly absolute control of administrative matters aboard his vessel. I went up to the bridge and pled my case to the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander H. LCDR H sent a message to the NAVSECGRUDET CINCPACFLT staff stating that, since there was a procedure in place for giving alternate exams and there was no secure area aboard the ships suitable for administering the exams, they would be postponed until the ship returned to Pearl Harbor. I’m sure there was some grumbling and cursing amongst the NAVSECGRUDET staff at this countermanding of their order. However, overruling a ship’s Commanding Officer would require taking the issue outside NSG channels and it was unlikely that CINCPACFLT would side with the NSG rather than the Commanding Officer. The envelope with the exams remained sealed and the CTs breathed a sigh of relief.
LCDR H’s stock with the CTs rose to new heights. We had all thought him a good Captain. Now we knew he would stand up to staff pressure in the interests of the embarked CTs. I have long felt that he was one of the best leaders under whom I served. After that incident, I was less impressed with the leadership of the NAVSECGRUDET staff. Along with the CTs, I felt that they didn’t understand the difficulties of our mission on the DEs, and that they gave unfair consideration to the [REDACTED] submarines. We knew that working conditions on the subs were difficult and living and working quarters were cramped. However, the subs didn’t roll 30 degrees each way on station!
My own standing with the NAVSECGRUDET staff dropped significantly after this incident. Since I had already received orders to be released from active duty, this was not a major concern to me. I felt a lot more loyalty to the CTs with whom I served than I did to the staff officers who complicated our lives. My fitness report from the CLAUD JONES was very good. The report from the NAVSECGRUDET staff—OK, but not as good. In the end, it counted for little as the mission reports from the USNS WHEELING, MCMORRIS and CLAUD JONES were all very good. At that time, the best fitness reports in the Navy would probably not have been sufficient to change the decision to release me from active duty.
While we were on station with the SMRIS, we struggled to keep our high-frequency radio communications circuits open. We were often in what the communicators called the “Black Hole of Midway”. HF radio signals bounce off the ionosphere, allowing them to have hundreds to thousands of miles of range. However, there are areas along the signal path called “skip zones” where communications are unreliable. The locations of the skip zone are dependent on the frequency and time of day. The communicators could usually get circuits to work most of the time, but even small dropouts would cause the crypto gear to lose synchronization. Re-synchronizing the crypto gear required using a new key card and following a procedure that took up to 10 minutes. One of the critical supplies delivered to the MCMORRIS was several packages of crypto key cards.