Printed here with permission of the author…Life on an aircraft carrier, in Mike’s case, USS Coral Sea [CV-43], during the Vietnam War wasn’t a guarantee of safe duty. In fact, things happened and people died. Mike spent two tours in Vietnam, these five short stories describe some of those times when things didn’t go quite as planned. The original article did not have attached photos – I added these [Pdoggbiker].
The Beast was standing before me. It was inert, dead;… only man could bring it back to life. I had heard the story, how it had killed. Without any thought it had reached out and claimed its victim. It didn’t care who the victim was only that it had been careless and had gotten too close.
The Beast had been designed for death and it would claim any victim that it could find. It had both beauty and a twisted ugliness about it. Its roar was loud and terrifying and its flame could spit for thirty feet. You could hear it coming before you could see it. It had a low mournful sound like the ghost of Hell coming for you and leaving a black trail where it had been.
I stepped closer; I wanted to look into its mouth, to see what the victim had seen in his last moments. I wanted to know all of my enemies; I wanted to be the one to survive, to go home when this time had passed. Its mouth was big enough to swallow a man whole. Its teeth were terrifying. I’m sure that it had happened so fast that its victim had not even had time to think. Certainly there was no time to react or even to scream. Was there time even to be terrified?
The only evidence that was left were the scuffmarks left by the mans boots as he was sucked down the intake and into the turbine blades of the F4 Phantom. The lifeless body had been removed; another sacrifice to the “Prince of Death”.
The Beast and I would cross paths many times but I knew to keep my distance. There were other Beasts on the flight deck and other close calls and other victims. The flight deck was both a beautiful and fearful place, where peace and death walked hand in hand.
Michael L. Murphy
Attack Squadron 153, Ordnance
USS Coral Sea
Vietnam 1967, 68, 69
I had been assigned to mess detail for three months and have been down here for two months now. What a pain in the ass detail. How I want to get back up to the flight deck, with fresh air, excitement. Something to look at besides white walls and dirty dishes. What the hell am I talking about, its safe down here, its normal down here, a person could grow old down here, live a long life down here…….I don’t belong down here, I’m not doing my duty down here. I’m 23 years old and I’m thinking like an 18-year-old kid, I have a wife and daughter at home. Stay safe down here. God, I’ve got to get back up to the flight deck, I’m alive up there. Am I doing this for my country, for me, for the guy’s in country, or for a people who are strangers to me? Must I endanger my life for their freedom? Will I ever know the reason? Will I ever be able to explain the reason to someone else, …or even to myself?
Don and another guy are screwing around again, a mock knife fight this time; except Don has a real knife, a butcher knife; the other guy gets a nice deep cut on his hand. I tell Don that someday he’s going to get hurt or hurt someone else. He just laughs. Don just made E4 and is going back to his division in Ships Company where he works in the guided weapons dept.
I’ll be down here for another month, four decks below the flight deck. The only time I get out is twice a day to take the trash to the fan tail. Yesterday I just missed seeing an A-4 Skykawk get blown off the aft end of the deck. A combat strike was getting ready to launch and the tie down chains that keep the plane tied to the deck had been removed. The brakes are the only things that keep the plane from rolling around now. To keep from rolling back as the ship pitched an F-4 Phantom put on too much power as he was taxiing and blew the A-4 over the side. The A-4 pilot was killed; his body was not recovered. One of the flight deck crew was blown into the safety net and this kept him from falling into the sea. When the ship is turning at 30 knots, anything that falls into the prop wash is sucked under; there is no second chance.
Two weeks to go and I’m out of here. I’m now off duty till tomorrow morning. I am trying to decide whether to take a shower first or write a letter home and then take a shower. I decide to take the shower first and get it over with. While walking back from the shower I run into Don and we talked for awhile, he is on his way to work in the Missile dept. and is glad to be back.
As I start to write a letter home a fire call comes over the PA system. Damn, another drill, I’m too tired for all this shit. I get dressed and instead of putting my boots on I slip into my shower shoes and head to the ladder. As I reach the ladder, our phone rings and I grab it, it’s the Chief and he tells me to check and make sure that everyone is out, so I go back and double check and then up the ladder to the connecting passage way.
It’s no “drill”. The smoke in the main passageway is half way to the floor. Shit. I don’t want to go to my left; that’s a bomb assembly area, go to the right towards the mess deck. As I bend down below the smoke I’m looking at a passageway that is covered with blood. The ship is on fire, people are injured and I’m wearing my damn shower shoes. I turn to go back and get my boots; just then they sound “General Quarters” battle stations. No time now, I turn and bend down and run down the blood-covered passageway to my battle station. For the next ten hours I sit and look at the blood on my feet and wonder who’s blood it is. I also worry about what will happen if I have to get out over burning steel decks wearing rubber shower shoes. I worry a lot and swear that it will never happen again. Ever.
A rocket launcher that had been on one of the earlier flights had not launched all of its 5″ rockets. One of the rockets had not fired and was still in the pod. The rocket had been defused and the pod was sent below decks to the Missile Dept. to be tested and repaired. The rocket should have been removed from the pod before testing. This had not been done and it fired during testing. The rocket punched half way through a steel bulkhead just missing two guys in that room. The rocket motor kept burning; it burned out the electrical panel that controlled several A/C units to the engine rooms and units that controlled the temperature in the Missile storage rooms. It also badly burned two guys coming back from the showers and some guys in the Missile room; one of them was Don.
During the ten hours we were at General Quarters, damage control teams were getting the fire under control. Relay teams were getting Ordnance out of the danger areas and dumping it over the side. The engine rooms without A/C was an oven, with temperatures of 250 degrees. They had to use fire hoses to keep the controls cool. The men could only stay in there for 5 minutes at a time before they would pass out. One of the mess guys was called back to work in the engine room. When we got him back he looked like he had been to hell, he said that he felt fine at 5 minutes but would pass out after 6 minutes. He went back in four times; it was his job, his duty.
When we secured from General Quarters I went back and put my boots on. For the next ten years or so, as soon as I would get out of bed I would put my shoes on. To this day I will not leave the house barefoot. Some fears die hard.
Don came home; his name is on the “Wall.”
USS Coral Sea
Norman Franklin Ridley
U.S.S. Coral Sea
I never knew you in life.
We may have passed each other at sometime on the ship or in port and never knew it. We met on the flight deck the day you died.
We had just armed the plane on the catapult and were waiting to launch it. For some reason they kept it on the cat for a long time and we started to recover the aircraft from the earlier flight and they started to bunch up on the deck. I kept thinking, “just scrub the damn flight, what the hell different will one more plane make.” Then the plane was launched just as you were pulling the fuel hose across the deck. My back was to you and I saw part of your ear protectors and goggles blow down the deck, I knew that something terrible had happened. You were lying on the deck about 20 feet from me. The wing had hit you in the head as the plane was launched. I looked down at you as I walked by. I did not stop, I had planes to de-arm, I just walked by.
When I finished my job I went below deck to the ordnance shop and thought about your death. Where was God this day, why did this happen, what purpose did your death accomplish. It happened it was over. Another sacrifice had been made to the “Prince of Death” and it wasn’t me. That may sound crass to those who weren’t there but I know that you understand. I went down to dinner and on with my life, but I never prayed again.
You have never been far from me, sometimes I wonder about what your hopes and dreams were, what you wanted to do in life. At 18 we think we will live forever. In 1979 I cried for you for the first time, I cried again when I went to the Wall in 1987, I was back on the flight deck I could hear the Jets and the Helos, I could smell it, feel it and I could see it. You will be in my memory till the day I die.
I only knew you in death.
There it is the Golden Gate Bridge, just peeking over the horizon – Home.
I have been in the Navy for two years and this is the end of my second tour to Vietnam. My wife Jeanne will be in San Francisco to greet me upon my arrival. My Mother, Father, Aunt and Uncle will be there as well. They saw me off before the first tour so it is nice that they will be here when I come home.
I stay on the flight deck until we dock. It’s a time to think and reflect on the times that have passed during the past two years. Times containing laughter and fun, but not over shadowing the episodes of death and pain.
It’s 1962, my senior year in High School. Mrs. Snider (my teacher) asks the class where Vietnam is on the map. She looks at me and asks me to point out the country on the map, but I can’t. Mrs. Snider looks at us and says; “You boys better find it, because you will be going there.” What the hell does she know? I’m going to college, get a job and hope to live to a ripe old age. That was the first time I heard of Vietnam; but it would not be my last.
In 1966 while on vacation with my wife and 9 month old daughter we got a phone call from my sister. Her fiancé, a Marine, had been killed in Vietnam. The war had gotten closer.
I had been in the Navy for a year on inactive duty but my time to go was imminent. The news on TV did not paint a very reassuring picture for my wife. I said, “What could happen on an Aircraft Carrier.” A few weeks’ later 134 sailors were killed on the flight deck of the USS Forestall.
I can see the bridge clearer now, as well as the surrounding land. You just don’t know how good it feels to see America.
The USS Coral Sea had been adopted by the City of San Francisco two years before. Last year the City put on a nice homecoming for us. I hope they do the same this time; it really means a lot to us.
This has been a bad tour of duty in some respects, one of the ships crew was killed on the day we left San Francisco and we lost three crewmembers in a plane crash on the last day of combat operations in Vietnam. They were the last plane to have landed but they missed the cable on the landing attempt and shortly after that they crashed into the sea, there were no survivors. We lost 10 people this tour and several more were injured in accidents on the flight deck.
The bridge is getting closer now; I can see people waving to us. Last year they had a sign that said “Welcome Home” and they dropped flowers from the bridge.
Why have I survived? What did I do any different than the guy a few feet from me who was killed or the guy five feet behind me who was sucked into the jet intake? Why did the “Prince of Death” take them and not me? Was I smarter, wiser or just luckier?
We are passing under the bridge now.
The people are shouting obscenities and are dumping garbage on us. A sign unfolds; it says “MURDERERS”. A terrible void fills my heart as if someone just kicked me in the chest. My country asked me to go. I went. I did what was expected of me as an American. I did not run away from my duty. I fought for what I believed in, freedom. Was I wrong?
The people of this great nation had turned its back on its sons. Somewhere in their anger and fear they forgot that we were their brothers, sons and fathers that they had sent off to war.
It was a Saturday and the Reader’s Digest had come in the mail. As I thumbed through it I saw a story called “The Wall That Heals”. I stop, but then quickly passed it. It’s been many years since I came back from Vietnam and I don’t watch movies or read stories about Nam. It was in the past, it needed to stay there.
A few months later I pick up that Digest and open it to the story, for some reason it would not leave my mind. It kept pulling me back. I read the first paragraph and the tears start to flood from my eyes. I put the story down and never went back to finish it, but I knew that someday I had to go to the Wall.
In 1987 we went to my wife Jeanne’s high school reunion in Pennsylvania, I also planned a side trip to Washington DC. I told Jeanne and my youngest daughter Diane that I wanted to see the Monuments and Museums but the real reason was the Wall.
In Washington we spent the first day walking through museums and art galleries, anything to avoid the Wall.
The “Wall.” I wanted to see it, I had to see it, but I was also afraid to see it.
On the second day we went to the Washington monument, but because the crowd was too large, we walked to the Lincoln monument instead. Jeanne asked me where the Vietnam Memorial was; I tell her that it’s off to the right and she said let’s go there.
No, not yet, for some reason I can’t. I don’t know why, I just can’t do it. She knows something is wrong, I am distant, here but not here. We look at the Lincoln monument but I don’t really see it. My mind is on the Wall; it’s pulling me. It’s time.
As we walk towards the Wall I fall silent, I become more distant, my heart is pounding, I find it hard to breath. The Wall pulls me towards it.
We enter from the left. The first thing I see are the statues, I have no emotion to them. They almost look out of place, …….then I saw the Wall. Black granite half buried in the ground. Half buried like the war and the people that came back, half hidden like the conscience of the country. The tears flowed, I couldn’t stop them, I didn’t want to stop them. I can’t see through the tears so I close my eyes and I am back on the flight deck, back in Vietnam. I can see it, smell it, touch it and hear it. I quickly open my eyes…….and I see the Wall. So many names, so many names. They were all young once as I had been, had so many dreams, had so many hopes. I close my eyes and let Vietnam flow over me. I stood there and sobbed. I cry for the ones that I had known, and for the ones that I did not know. We were all brothers. We went to a land that hated us and came home to a land that hated us. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.
Yankee Station, North Vietnam
|Killed||Missing in Action|
|LT Harvey D. Gibson||LCDR James M. Vescelius|
|LCDR Fred H. Gates||LTJG Fredrick J. Fortner|
|LT Michael J. Allard||CDR Charles R. Gillespie|
|AN Lawrence L. Gardner||LTJG Richard C. Clarke|
|SN Carlyle B. Pomeroy, Jr.||LTJG Robert F. Frishman|
|SN Ronald A. Hessman||LTJG Earl G. Lewis|
|AO3 Victor R. Wooden||CDR Verlyne W. Daniels|
|DK2 Maximiliano Miranda||LCDR Paul H. Schulz|
|SN Gregory A. Watson||LTJG Timothy B. Sullivan|
|CDR William H. Searfus||CDR William D. McGrath|
|AN Dennis R. Schmidt||LT Roger G. Emrich|
|AO3 Donald E. Maki||LCDR Claude D. Clower|
|ACDR Wilmer P. Cook||LTJG Walter “O” Estes II|
|LTJG James E. Teague|
|LTJG Theodore G. Stier|
|Killed||Missing in Action|
|CDR Marvin J. Naschek||CDR Quinlin R. Orell|
|SN Thomas J. Bitter||LT James D. Hunt|
|AA Norman F. Ridley||LTJG Larry Stevens|
|CDR Rodney M. Chapman|
|AMS1 Stanley M. Jerome|
|AO1 Eddie R. Schimmels|
Mike Murphy served with Attack Squadron 153, as an Aviation Ordnanceman. VA-153 was stationed at NAS Lemoore California and was deployed with Air Wing 15 on board the USS Coral Sea. The first tour, 1967, 68 was Yankee Station off of North Vietnam. The second tour, 1968, 69 was off of South Vietnam. His first tour was spent loading bombs and other weapons on aircraft. His second tour was spent on the Ordnance launch and recovery crew, arming the aircraft prior to launch and de-arming the returning aircraft. “Long hours on the flight deck”. The USS Coral Sea and Air Wing 15 was also sent to patrol off of North Korea just after the capture of the USS Pueblo in early 1969.
Mike Can be reached at MURSFMG@AOL.com
All material is copyrighted © 1999 by Michael L. Murphy, all rights reserved
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