LT Tom Stuart's Rainier Memories- 1966 to 1968


Chief Petty Officer Bigoness and I were shipmates on what was for me the best blue water duty of my 21 years, USS RAINIER (AE 5), a WWII vintage ammunition ship commissioned just weeks before Pearl Harbor and still going strong when I served in her 1966-68 (just prior to going incountry as part of the Brown Water Navy for a year).
On RAINIER, we didn't rate a medical officer, so Chief Hospital Corpsman "Doc" Bigoness was it.
I reported to RAINIER in July, 1966 as she was coming out of the yards, having completed an extensive overhaul that included much needed repairs and the installation of modern-radio equipment to replace the WWII era TBS "stuff" that was by then woefully obsolescent. Even at that we still didn't get the modern elevators and other heavy equipment of other, more modern ammunition ships, but had to make do with electric winches used to hoist pallets of ammo out of our five cargo holds. The hours it took to "break out" cargo ammunition in preparation for an underway replenishment (UNREP in Navy jargon) are a measure of how labor-intensive the job was.
After several fits and starts trying to leave the commercial ship yard in which we kept blowing out cylinder liners in our two story high Nordberg nine cylinder diesel engines -- which cost $5,000 a pop to replace as Nordberg had long since gone out of business and these puppies had to be individually contracted -- our brand new Chief Engineer came up with a fix. He was an LDO -- limited duty officer -- engineering specialist, a mustang who had come up from the ranks, by the name of Murphy. He was also one of the best shipmates I ever had. Lieutenant Murphy put in enough of what he called [unauthorized] "Murphy Alts" that one of them took and our twin diesel prime movers never again let us down. Indeed, after we finished RefTra (jargon for "refresher training") and finally deployed for eight months in early 1967, we not only met our own committments, but also that of others when THEY broke down. We were the oldest ammo ship in WestPac (western Pacific, part of the Seventh Fleet) during that deployment, but we won the Battle Efficiency "E" because we were the best.
We would load out at the Naval Magazine at Subic Bay (as I recall, 70 km north of Manila Bay) and then spend about 3 weeks on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin rearming attack carriers who were prosecuting the air war against the DRV (operation "Rolling Thunder") and Laos ("Steel Tiger'.) Then, we'd take a hike south down the gunline rearming small boys (destroyers) in need of replenishment, all the way to the Ca Mau Peninsula of South Vietnam. Besides being Operations Officer -- and, for a while, Navigator -- I was also assigned as Officer of the Deck (OOD) for regular steaming watches and as OOD for special sea and anchor detail (entering and leaving port), for general quarters (battle stations) and, my favorite, UNREP OOD alternating in that capacity with my shipmate Howard Murphy the only other UNREP OOD. We did a LOT of UNREPs, so Murph and I got to spend a LOT of bridge watch time.
During an UNREP, we would choose a replenishment course to minimize motion about the roll axis -- you don't want to be hoisting tons of muntions up into the air, over the rail, and out across the water to the customer ship if you are rolling very much -- and an UNREP speed, usually 12 knots. The customer ship would make an approach along either our port or starboard side, depending on which side we had the break out ammo stacked and ready to go. The customer would fire a shot line across something like 80 feet of water which our deck crew would catch, to which they would attach a line, a larger line, and then a piece of wire rigging the customer crew would haul over to their ship and attach it.
Once we were wired together -- and it was critical that helmsmen aboard both ships steer the exact same course -- we would start transferring cargo ammo by the ton the customer had ordered. It was, as you might guess, very much a team effort and although we had the oldest ammo ship in WestPac with antiquated cargo handling equipment, we also had the best team in Westpac. In addition to signalmen (who worked aloft on the open signal bridge for line of sight comms using flag, semaphore and lamp to maintain radio silence), and quartermasters (who did much of the navigation work and log keeping) and radarmen (who manned combat information center and kept us abreast of the surface tactical picture) and electronics technicians (who kept our radar and comms gear working), my department also had radiomen who manned our modern communications center (monitoring the fleet broadcast, sending and receiving message traffic &c,).
During one particulary busy period on Yankee Station our deck crew was so exhausted breaking out ammo trying to catch a little sleep flaked out on the top of bomb pallets when they could that quite a number of my highly qualified techs volunteered to go down in between their watches to help roll bombs for the break out. That was the kind of team spirit we had on that ship, the legacy of those who had gone before.
I specifically recall a time in May 1967, the occasion being Ho Chi Minh's birthday, that we re-armed FOUR aircraft carriers in one day. We were pretty well played out for awhile after our guys delivered THAT birthday present.
During my tenure, we had two outstanding skippers. One was a fighter pilot (had earned a Navy Cross) who needed the assignment as a deep draft command to qualify for command of an aircraft carrier. The other was a diesel submarine warfare specialist. They were about as different as two men can be, but each was a gifted leader and each had much to teach junior people like me.
At one point the aviator CO asked me to set up a briefing for the crew: I visited a carrier that was inport at Subic when we were, arranged to meet with a member of one of their embarked attack squadrons and arranged for a guest speaker -- an A4 attack driver -- to come visit our mess decks and tell our crew what he and his mates did with the bombs, rockets, and bullets we worked so hard to deliver. He spoke to our crew for about an hour, took questions and answers and was given a standing ovation for his trouble.
As I say, this was the very best blue water duty of my career. The only better duty was the year I spent right after that in waterways of the Mekong Delta where the war got up close and personal, but that is a story for another time.
Suffice it to say, that whenever Pat and I get a chance to attend a RAINIER re-union (includes "shipmates" who served in WWII and their wives) we do our best to make it. RAINIER and those who served in her as crew will always epitomize for me the best there is. 1
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