When Pie and Fuel Oil Don’t Mix

One of my favorite Navy memories involves a cherry pie and an Italian oil tanker. It happened while I was the Supply Officer of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) during an underway replenishment or UNREP, in the Adriatic Sea.

Much of my time in the Navy was spent doing paperwork;  I enlisted as a Yeoman, the Navy’s version of an administrative assistant, and later was commissioned into the Supply Corps, the officer community that styled itself as the “Navy’s business managers.” As such, I always enjoyed the opportunity to do something real, like an UNREP. Regardless of the commodity being transferred from one ship to another — people, fuel, stores, food or ammunition — I got a kick out of watching it unfold.

As an enlisted sailor my UNREP stations included being a phone talker on a sound-powered circuit linking various stations like the bridge and engineering, and being a line-handler. When I was a division officer, I served as the safety observer on a fueling rig; moving up to department head meant I spent UNREPs observing from the bridge wing with the commanding officer.

UNREP is a time-honored tradition in the United States Navy, and some will argue it was a large factor in our winning the fight in the vast Pacific Ocean during World War II. Yes, other navies refueled and resupplied at sea, going back to the days when sacks of coal were passed between ships at anchor, but it was our fine-honing of the procedures — many still in use today — that gave the U.S. Navy a crucial advantage.

Part of what I loved about UNREPs was the smaller traditions that had become part of the overall evolution. For example, at the completion of every connected replenishment or CONREP — when two ships steam side-by-side connected by tensioned wires for the transfer of fuel or stores — the customer or receiving ship will execute an “emergency breakaway” drill.

An emergency breakaway is just what you’d think: transfer operations are ceased and the crews on both ships work feverishly to safely and quickly break the connections between the two, and then the customer ship swings sharply away from the providing ship and steams off at high speed. A real-life emergency breakaway would be used in the event of a steering or engineering problem cropping up on either ship, or if the enemy suddenly appeared.

An integral part of the emergency breakaway drill was the “breakaway song” played over the weatherdeck loudspeakers by the customer ship as it built up speed and turned sharply away. Some ships had set breakaway songs, others rotated them. Hard rock, rap, classical — Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” was an obvious choice — anything with a strong initial few seconds could make a good choice.

I was allowed to pick the breakaway song for one of my final UNREPs as Supply Officer of Arleigh Burke during the ship’s inaugural Mediterranean Sea deployment. My choice was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Sounded pretty good, too.

* * *

 Another small tradition during UNREPs was the passing of gifts between ships. Ball caps, plaques and small food items like cookies were the usual items passed between the two commanding officers. Of course not every UNREP involved the passing of ball caps or plaques; those items were usually reserved for the first UNREP of a deployment or exercise, or for rare one-off events.

On the other hand, food items were passed every time, and ship captains usually liked to impress each other with the quality of their culinary staffs. One of my cooks was a wizard with chocolate chip cookies, and a couple dozen became our “go-to” UNREP gift. We even won a contest for “best cookie” during an battle group exercise using his recipe.

Other ships had their own signature items, including cherry pie from USS George Washington (CVN 73) that was delivered in a special box inscribed with the ship’s crest and the words “I cannot tell a lie — this is great pie!” One of the most unusual, and interesting, UNREP gifts came from USS Milwaukee (AOR 2). Flying a custom-made flag that resembled the Old Milwaukee beer label, Milwaukee transferred a cold 12-pack of beer with each UNREP.

I had the pleasure of being on customer ships as both an officer and enlisted Sailor, and the choice of beer changed in the years between the two. In the mid-1980s Milwaukee transferred actual beer, which became a bit of a storage problem for the customer ship’s captain as alcohol was (and still is) prohibited on U.S. Navy ships. In the early 90s non-alcoholic beer became widely available and that was transferred instead, although eventually the Navy would decree it was also unauthorized.

I can say this, though: after a month at sea even Old Milwaukee NA or whatever it was called tasted pretty good, too.

* * *

During Arleigh Burke’s initial Med Sea deployment, the ship spent 35 days on station in the Adriatic Sea supporting NATO’s enforcement of a Non-Fly Zone over the Balkans. We were fully loaded with stores and ammo, so the only UNREPs needed during that assignment were for fuel every five to seven days.

As we were part of a NATO operation, the logistics schedulers at Task Force 63 (a job I would have three years later) called upon the Italian Navy to help meet our fuel needs. Italy had at that time a handful of logistics ships, including the tankers Stromboli (A5327) and Vesuvio (A5329), and we took fuel from Stromboli on two occasions.

As we prepared for the first UNREP with Stromboli, Burke’s commanding officer called me to his cabin to discuss what gifts we would pass over. Ball caps and a plaque were a given, but he was concerned our award-winning chocolate chip cookies would not impress his Italian counterpart. Instead, he wanted to pass a sweet treat that would be very American and not something likely found on Stromboli’s menu.

Evidently our past UNREP with George Washington impressed him, as the captain told me he wanted to pass them a cherry pie. Orders received, I had the Wardroom cooks prepare and box up a cherry pie the night before our UNREP.

The next day, I tasked one of my senior cooks to take the pie to the forward messenger line station after we began receiving fuel. This was where the pie box would be placed in a coaling bag with the hats and plaque for transfer across to Stromboli. This was our standard routine and the boatswain’s mates on the station knew exactly what to do.

I watched from the bridge wing as the coaling bag made its way slowly across the blue water separating the two ships, pulled across by a few Italian sailors. When the coaling bag made it across to Stromboli, one of the pulling sailors detached it and placed it on the deck. Next, he connected the bag holding his captain’s gifts for Burke, and the evolution was reversed as our Sailors began hauling it in.

Everything was going to plan at this point. As it was our first UNREP with a foreign ship, Burke’s captain was understandably very involved in what was happening on the fueling rigs, so I knew better than to pester him with trivial updates. But once the Italian coaling bag was safely onboard, things started to go south.

The same Stromboli sailor picked the bag with the pie off the deck and began to open it, but suddenly the bows of the ships began to swing away from each other. It may have been a sudden swell or the vacuum created by the two ships steaming side-by-side, but the distance between the two suddenly increased. This caused the forward line to become very taut, and the working party of Italian sailors jerked toward the rail.

Seeing this, the sailor holding the coaling bag threw it to one side — it hit the deck, rolled over and slid until coming to rest against a bulkhead — and grabbed the line to help his shipmates. The two ships steadied after a few moments, and the sailor retrieved the bag, but I feared the pie was likely a cherry-red mess.

But it wasn’t over yet. The Italian sailor opened the bag, looked in and pulled out the ball caps, plaque and finally pie box. He handed the other gifts to a second sailor, but the pie box was taped shut and he was unable to open it. Evidently curious as to what could be inside, he vigorously shook the box while holding it up to his ear. The sound of pastry and pie filling sloshing around didn’t help him, and as I watched he looked across at me with a quizzical look on his face.

With a shrug of his shoulders the first sailor added the pie box to his messenger’s load, and the second man headed off to deliver the gifts to his captain. By the time the messenger appeared across from us on Stromboli’s bridge wing, the refueling had settled down and Burke’s captain was rubbing his hands together in anticipation of seeing his counterpart’s face as he opened the pie box.

I didn’t really have the heart to tell him it wasn’t going to be the look he was hoping for.

Sure enough, Italian captain held up a ball cap and the plaque with a big smile, waving across to us. Next, he pulled a small knife from his pocket and cut the tape holding the pie box shut. When he opened the box the lid obscured his face, so I don’t know what the initial reaction was, but when the lid came down the smile was gone.

Burke’s captain returned the wave with a big smile, which I think only served to confuse the Italian officer even more. Shaking his head slowly, Stromboli’s captain handed the pie box to another officer and made a “shooing away” motion with his hands before turning back to us. He shrugged and held his hands out palms-up — a stance I would see many, many times while living in Italy — as if to say “what the heck?”

This of course confused and upset Burke’s captain, but after the UNREP was completed I was able to explain to him what happened. We laughed about it and a private message was sent to Stromboli’s captain to explain what the red mess in the box was.

The next time we refueled from Stromboli we sent chocolate chip cookies across and the Italians on the opposite bridge wing seemed to enjoy them very much.

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3 responses to “When Pie and Fuel Oil Don’t Mix

  1. My father tells a story about a song that they played on the USS San Jose (AFS-7) when they refueled an aircraft carrier commanded by future Admiral C.C. Smith. Smith has been C.O. of the San Jose and when the San Jose refueled the carrier he was commanding after leaving the San Jose, knowing his taste in music, my father and some of the others on board decided to play Ray Price’s “Please Release Me” as they broke away. Your story here made me remember his!

    • Thanks for commenting and also pointing out something I forgot. The logistics ship “breaks away” after UNREP with an aircraft carrier. When I first read your comment I thought you remembered the song being played on the wrong ship … but later I figured it out.

  2. I was happy to find your post. As editor of The Tin Can Sailor I see many such good stories that go into the magazine. Bravo Zulu

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