Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Lest We Forget

The Prop over at coffeegrounds reminds us that today is the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, but I never remember April 19th that way.

I remember a beautiful, sunny day much like today. All was right with the world, and my ship was en route to an exercise in the Puerto Rico operating area. To get ready, we were training and rehearsing along the way. We had set Condition II (Gun Quarters) that morning, and I was due to take my watch as Officer of the Deck in a few hours. The first shoot of the day during the forenoon watch would exercise the port section, and then the starboard section would follow after lunch.

I was in the Deck office, talking with the bosun. I don't remember exactly what we were talking about, but it was probably something about DC qualifications, a never-ending discussion in a department of 300 men with 80% non-rates. (Bosun, if you're out there, do you remember?) Shortly before the scheduled main battery shoot, there was a loud boom that shook everything in our office. I remember the vent diffuser over the 1st Lieutenant's desk (where I was sitting) falling out and crashing down.

The bosun and I looked at each other and I said, "was that the 5-inch?" As soon the words came out of my mouth, the GQ alarm sounded and we knew that something had gone horribly wrong. The voice of boatswain's mate of the watch confirmed it as the bosun and I ran out the door and on our separate ways. "Explosion in Turret 2!"

I ran to the bridge through a fairly thick, but not overwhelming cloud of smoke. When I got there, it was chaotic. I was supposed to take the deck for GQ, but after about 5 seconds of consultation the port section OOD and I decided he should keep the deck and I should dive in and help pick up the slack.

First priority was to get the smoke moving away from the fire parties on deck and to get the bridge team settled down. The JOOD was a sharp LT j.g. from the Citadel and had been in engineering (M division officer, if I recall correctly) for about two years. I relieved him of the conn and sent him below to help out where he could in engineering. He earned a Navy Commendation Medal for his actions later that day.

The firefighting and rescue efforts of our crew were simultaneously the most frightening and proudest moments I can recall in my Navy career. Sixteen years later, it's strange what details stand out in your mind, and what becomes a blur. Little snippets of the battle, like the image of our two Marine officers working to enter the escape hatch on the aft starboard corner of the turret, I'll never forget. The reports that the powder magazine crews had escaped relatively unharmed and that DC Central needed to evacuate because of the smoke also bubble to the surface, but I can't recall in what order these events happened.

The worst part for me happened after we had the fire out. We mustered the crew to find out who was missing. After the reports came in from each division, the names of those unaccounted for were called out over the 1MC. It seemed that the list of names was read hundreds of times. When it was over, we knew that we had lost 47 men. From Seaman Recruit up to Senior Chief Gunner's Mate and Lieutenant Junior Grade, they had died at their posts, doing their duty.

They were my shipmates, and I'm proud to have served with them. I wish I could have known them better, and longer. I remember Turret Two.