Most of the ships, that is.
Instead of heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as planned, USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) was given a new assignment: to sink the target hulk which had stubbornly refused to go down despite being repeatedly bombed by the carrier’s air wing and hit by 5-inch shells from several surface ships.
Needless to say, this turn of events did not sit well with Burke’s Commanding Officer. He argued to no avail with the Battle Group Commander that there were other ships closer to the last known position of the Evergreen, formerly a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter.
Burke was the first of a new class of ship, so we were getting a lot of attention, including visits by military and civilian dignitaries and write-ups in the press. There was a strong belief that our assignment to sink the Evergreen was more than a little motivated by a desire to show us we were the new kids on the block and no better than any other ship.
* * * *
The CO called a Department Head meeting to inform us of the change in schedule and make plans for the sinking. On my way to his cabin I felt the ship reverse direction and pick up speed until we were going as fast as I remembered from pre-commissioning high-speed trials. Without looking I knew Burke was throwing a huge rooster tail of water aft.
The plan was simple: drive like hell to the Evergreen’s last known position — the Navigator estimated we’d arrive around 1:30 a.m. — pump the hulk full of 5-inch shells until it sank, reverse course and run like hell to San Juan. If everything went well we’d miss 12-15 hours of our scheduled three-day port visit.
After the Department Head meeting broke up I met with what I liked to call the Supply Department Leadership Council: my assistant the Disbursing Officer and the Chiefs and First Class Petty Officers who got things done.
As a group we talked about what the department needed to do to support both the delayed port visit and night gunnery action. For example, Stores Division would have a Sailor standing by in the Supply Support Center in case a spare part was needed on short notice to repair one of the gun mounts.
Senior Chief Holcomb, the department’s Leading Chief and senior cook, suggested beefing up the team involved with preparing and serving Midnight Rations. Called MidRats for short, it was the fourth daily meal served when ships are underway to support late-night watchstanders. With more Sailors than usual expected to be up and around, more food would be required for MidRats and as an added treat Holcomb wanted to include fresh-baked brownies and cookies.
* * * *
Word gets around pretty quickly on a small warship — we called it Rumor Control or Mess Decks Intelligence (MDI) — so when I wandered down to the mess decks after our meeting quite a few Sailors already knew what was going on and those who didn’t suspected something when we reversed course and went to flank speed. Dinner was being served and I wanted to listen in when the CO announced the schedule change over the shipwide 1MC announcing system.
The CO started with the facts — San Juan was delayed because we had been tasked with sinking the target hulk — before adding some spin to the message: We were the only ship the Battle Group Commander trusted for the mission, it was an honor for a brand-new ship to be entrusted with such a delicate task, etc., etc.
The crew didn’t buy it but I could tell they appreciated the effort, and overall the grumbling was at a minimum. The CO closed by telling the crew it wasn’t often they’d get a chance to see a night surface gunnery action, so he suggested everyone not on watch get up and watch the show.
* * * *
I headed up to the bridge at 1 a.m., knowing I would need extra time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were still hauling the mail at the point, but shortly after I took up a position near the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch the Burke slowed to what seemed like a crawl.
“Bridge, Combat: surface target bearing zero-zero-zero relative, range 20,000 yards,” came a report from the Combat Information Center (CIC), following the protocol of: station being called, station calling, message.
If it was the Evergreen, the target was 10 nautical miles dead ahead of us. By this point all stations — CIC, gun mounts, magazines and ammo handling rooms — were manned and ready, and lookouts wearing night-vision devices were posted on the bridge wings.
Although there was absolutely nothing around us for miles — we were in an area known to be used by the Navy for exercises and appropriate Warnings to Mariners had been sent out — the CO wisely wanted visual confirmation so we held our course as the Bosun and Officer of the Deck challenged the lookouts to be the first to identify the target.
The disembodied voice from CIC counted down the range to the target, and a feeling of anticipation began to grow on the bridge. I slipped out to the port bridge wing, sniffed some of the chilly Caribbean air and returned to my spot by the Bosun.
A few minutes later CIC reported the radar picture of the target was lost — and then just as quick it was back on screen. In response to the CO’s question the CIC watch officer opined that the target may be low in the water: a safe bet considering the Evergreen had taken several bomb and shell hits.
As we steadily closed the distance the radar picture remained solid but the lookouts were unable to get a visual on the target. And then:
“Bridge, Combat: Surface target lost by radar. Last bearing zero-zero-zero relative, range 6,000 yards.”
Followed shortly by:
“Bridge, Sonar: Underwater target acquired, bearing zero-zero-zero relative, range 6,000 yards, depth increasing.”
* * * *
With the newest and most expensive surface warship in the U.S. Navy’s inventory bearing down on it, the Evergreen decided enough was enough and the former cutter slipped beneath the Caribbean waves.
You could hear a pin drop on the bridge of the Burke as the gravity of the Sonar report sunk in. Sitting in his bridge chair on the starboard side, the CO rested his chin on one fist and stared blankly ahead. I’d seen him angry on more than one occasion and this had all the signs of being another.
By this point the other ships of the battle group were in port somewhere, enjoying some down time with a few cold beverages. Burke, on the other hand, had been given a task that not only delayed our port visit but turned out to be unnecessary.
Just then the centerline watertight door clanged open and my wardroom supervisor, a Petty Officer First Class who would go on to cook for the Secretary of the Navy, walked through with a platter of brownies and cookies.
With everyone staring at him the cook quickly sensed something was wrong and he stood uncertainly with the platter while the delicious smell of the baked goods filled the bridge. After what seemed like an hour but was probably just a few seconds, the CO waved him over.
After the cook approached him the CO picked up a cookie and took a bite. He slowly chewed the still-warm chocolate chip treat while staring ahead and listening to CIC report the increasing depth of the Evergreen. When finished, the CO thanked the cook and said the cookies were excellent. After a sip from his coffee cup, the captain leaned forward and pushed the button on his intercom.
“All stations, Captain: I want to put five rounds of 5-inch on the target’s last position, then reverse course and make best speed to San Juan.”
And that’s what we did, although I suspect in the final report to the battle group commander the sequence of events — Evergreen sinking and Burke shooting — may have been reversed.