The Tenatious Torch – USS Dahlgren DDG-43

This stage of the journey began where the desire to ‘glow in the dark’ ended. After being removed from the Nuclear Power Training Program in Ballston Spa New York, I was transferred to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton Connecticut to await orders for my transfer to the fleet. While stationed at the sub base, I worked as a Master at Arms in charge in the restricted barracks. The coolest part of this job was the fact that my badge number was ‘007’. As a fan of the James Bond movies, this was awesome. As luck would have it, when I transferred and had to return that badge, it mysteriously became lost. Oh well, fork over the $10 to replace it and promise to take better care of the next one. By the way, take a close look at my shadow box and you will see that I eventually ‘found’ the badge. Anyway, the restricted barracks was a building designated for the submarine fleet to send their personnel who were being punished by their Commanding Officer. Basically it was a holding area for people who were being discharged for bad behavior or just being detained for a minor infraction. The surface navy keeps these personnel onboard but the subs have to send them to a shore facility for security reasons (confined spaces + nuclear materials + submerged operations + disgruntled employee = ‘Bad Juju’). Anyway, that lasted for about two to three months until I received orders to my first ship – USS Dahlgren based out of Norfolk.

During the transit from Groton to Norfolk, I went home for about two weeks of leave. This was during the Christmas holiday season and for the most part was a happy and relaxing time. However, that would change just prior to my departure from home to continue my journey to the fleet. Misfortune favored us that year with an unexpected death in the family. Fear not, that is a path that this story will not stray upon. I only mention it because this was the first contact I actually had with the Dahlgren, a request for leave extension. Fortunately, the leave extension was granted without question and I was back on track.

When I finally hit the road and headed south to Virginia Beach, the trip was pretty much uneventful, that is if you discount the nightmare of traffic on the DC Beltway. However, the directions provided by my brother failed to mention a few key facts that would have made it a little easier to find his home. First of all, he failed to mention the fact that there was a significant dip in the road at an intersection. Imagine if you will, me driving a two ton Chrysler at around 35 MPH. In the distance, I see a traffic signal turning yellow. Me, I elect for the option to floor it and make it through before the big red light comes on instead of the preferred method of coming to a stop and waiting my turn. This, however, was not a good idea. Me and my two ton Chrysler accelerated to around 60-ish and flew through the intersection with plenty of time to spare before the light turned red. Remember that dip I mentioned earlier? The next sensation I have is of free flight, yep two tons of Chrysler airborne! The sensation of free flight only lasted a second or so – two tons of steel falls fast after all – and next I am bouncing forward with my noggin’ rapidly approaching the steering wheel. The seat belts were designed as a perfect pivot point to increase one’s velocity. Anyway, the next thing I hear is my oil pan leaving paint and metal on the pavement. Ah good times, good times. Next in the adventure was my discovery that the city of Virginia Beach, in its infinite wisdom, has a nasty little habit of randomly changing the names of streets at intersections. This is a bit of information that would have helped when I looked at the street signs while at an intersection and discovered that while I was on Wesleyan Drive a minute ago, I was currently on Haygood Road.  Anyhow, I eventually arrived in one piece at the new homestead and had a day or so to unwind and meet new friends.

Finally, the day has arrived for me to report to the ship. Picture if you will a Sunday evening, at or around 10 PM, we arrive at the pass and decal office for a temporary pass to get me on base. Getting the pass was not a problem; however, we didn’t know which pier the ship was berthed at. All I really knew was a name and hull number. Fortunately, at that time all destroyers were berthed in the same general location. We finally locate the Dahlgren at Pier 22 and I bid my farewells to my brother and his friend. My first memory of the Dahlgren is walking down the pier with my sea bag on my back at 11:30 PM. The ship is eerily lit by high intensity street lights, steam is billowing out of the pier and the ship and a welder is throwing up sparks on the super structure. It still reminds me of the images of ships in WWII preparing to return to battle.       

The ship is of the Farragut Class of Destroyer and is propelled by two 1200 psi super-heated steam turbine driven engines. She is capable of just under 40 knots and weighs in at just over 10,000 tons displacement. She was commissioned in the early 60’s as a Light Guided Missile Destroyer and re-commissioned in the early 70’s as a Guided Missile Destroyer. The difference between the two types of destroyer lies mainly in the missile capability. In the 70’s she was retrofitted to handle ‘special weapons’. Now for those who are out of the loop, the Navy uses the term ‘special’ in conjunction with the types of weapons that they don’t wish to ‘confirm or deny’ are in existence. They are the type of weapon that have the capability to release massive damage from a small package and make areas of impact unlivable for decades. Anyway, back to the ship, her first tour of duty was the Cuban Missile Crisis as a blockade escort ship. She did several successful tours of duty in Viet Nam and was now starting to show her age. By the time I walked on board she was approaching 25 years of service, a long time for a ship. She may have been old, but she was still a sexy beast.

I reported onboard at just before midnight and was assigned the first open rack available in Engineering berthing, with the electricians. I awoke the next morning and discovered that the ship was getting underway for a two week exercise in the Caribbean in preparation for the upcoming deployment, The fact that I was assigned to the electricians berthing area left me in a bit of a limbo. Since I wasn’t an electrician, they assumed that I was being taken care of by the main propulsion division where I was to ultimately be assigned. However, the main propulsion division did not know that I was onboard since I was berthed with the electricians. To add to the confusion, the administration office merely said ‘welcome aboard’ and left me to find my own way around. So, I wandered around aimlessly for a few days, not knowing what I was supposed to be doing, not knowing if anyone really knew that I was there. Finally, after a few days I decided to wander down to the engine room and ask what I was supposed to be doing, I was pretty sure wandering around the ship aimlessly was not the right answer. Anyway, once they knew that I was onboard, I was introduced to my new family. At first they were unsure of my capabilities, for they had bad experience with ‘nuclear waste’. By the way, did I mention that I came to the fleet after being removed from the nuclear power program? Those of us who started life in the nuclear power program but were sent to the conventional fleet were ‘affectionately’ known as nuclear waste. Traditionally, the ex-nukes have proven themselves to be pretty useless and have shown a lack of common sense. However, I was different, I showed them a passion for knowledge and willingness to work long hours to meet the common goal. By the end of those first two weeks, I felt at home with my new family.

The engine room is manned underway by a watch team consisting of the Top Watch (supervisor), a Throttle Man, an Upper Level watch, a Lower Level watch, and a Messenger of the watch. We start at the bottom at Messenger and work our way up the ladder. The Messenger of the watch is basically a ‘go-fer’, and is the only one of the group that can actually leave the engine room while on watch. His primary function is to maintain a log of operating parameters for all of the equipment but he is utilized to go to the mess decks for coffee, the soda mess for junk food, and to find the next watch team to make sure they show up for their shift, hence the ‘go-fer’ title. The next link in the chain is the Lower Level watch. The Lower Level Man stays on the lower level of the engine room and maintains the equipment found there. On the lower level are the support equipment for the main engines, water distillation units, and the ship’s electric generators. The Upper Level Man maintains all of the equipment on the upper level of the engine room; do you notice a trend here? Anyway, on the upper level are two steam driven electric generators, 1000 kW each, a water distillation plant, 12000 gallons per day, a high pressure air compressor, and the ships steam driven main propulsion engine set. The next link in the chain is the Throttle Man. The Throttle Man controls the steam to the ship’s engine based on orders sent down from the bridge. It’s a simple concept, more steam more power. The final link is the Top Watch or watch supervisor. It is his job to make sure that all of the members of the watch team do their respective jobs, keep the lights on and make the ship go fast through the water. During my tour on Dahlgren, I would progress up to the Throttle Man position.

My first deployment started around April of ’88. We were sent to the Persian Gulf as an escort ship for tankers as they transited the Straits of Hormuz. For a history refresher, at that time Iran and Iraq were at war with each other and had been targeting tankers. To protect the tankers, the US allowed them to fly our flag which put them under the protection of our Navy. This was also just over a year after the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark. The Stark was on a routine patrol mission in the Gulf when she was ‘accidentally’ targeted and attacked with missiles. A lot of lives were lost, and the ship was almost lost. The threat of attack came from both sides of the Gulf. Both Iranian and Iraqi aircraft harassed us relentlessly and the Iranian fast attack gunboats were constantly provoking us in an attempt to draw fire. The Iranian gun boats were basically fishing boats with machine guns and hand held missile launchers. We were not allowed to fire upon either side no matter how close they got unless, of course, they opened fire first. This really irritated the hell out of my Commanding Officer. He finally got fed up with the gun boats and scared them away. One day, while three of these gunboats were baiting us, he brought the ship broadside and pointed every weapon in our arsenal at them. Imagine, if you will, the large ship you are harassing suddenly swings to port now you are looking down the barrel of a 5 inch, 54 caliber cannon, a box launcher with eight anti ship missiles, twelve 50 caliber machine guns, two three-barreled torpedo launchers, and two more anti-ship missiles on the twin armed missile launcher on the fantail. All of these weapons pointed at you and, the ship is ringing the bells that send us to battle stations. Let’s just say that the gunboats kept their distance after that. Anyhow, the deployment in the Gulf was pretty much uneventful until the day we were detached from the battle group and sent on our way home. Before beginning our journey back to our homeport, we were going to make a quick trip to the island of Diego Garcia. Diego Garcia was a British base where we could restock supplies and take a day or two of rest, by the way at this point of the deployment we had been at sea for about 90 consecutive days. The main reason for the trip was actually to cross the equator, a voyage few east coast ships get to make. However, while on the way out of the Gulf another incident had occurred, the USS Vincennes had just shot down an Iranian airliner. At least that is what the press will have you believe. For a little bit of first hand history lesson I will share with you the perspective of one who was there. This ‘airliner’ that was shot down showed up on our radar as an F-14 fighter, as it did to the Vincennes. We heard the Vincennes hail the aircraft and try to determine its intentions. Several attempts were made, in several different languages, to warn the aircraft that it was approaching a US Warship and if it did not change its flight path it would be fired upon. Remember this is just around a year after the Iraqi’s shot at the Stark. Add to the tension the fact that just an hour before this incident, an Iranian helicopter had fired upon one of the helicopters from the Vincennes. As the aircraft approached the Vincennes it began to descend in a manner that indicated the intention to attack. As the aircraft approached the Vincennes, her Commanding Officer made the only logical choice in that situation and fired his missiles and destroyed the aircraft. At this point we had turned around and were making best speed to assist the Vincennes. When we arrived on station, we became involved in the recovery of the aircraft and passengers. We pulled the remains of around 30 passengers from the sea that day, each and every one of them were as cold as ice. Now, I don’t know how many of you have been in the Persian Gulf in July but the average temperature of the water at noon is around 90F. Draw your own conclusions about whether or not the right decision was made to shoot at the unknown aircraft. Me, as a participant in the ordeal, I believe the right decision was made. You had to be there to understand the intense amount of tension between the Iranian military and the US Navy.  Oh well, just another delay in our departure from the Gulf.

Finally we depart the Gulf and head towards our first port visit, Naples Italy. When we arrive in Naples, our total consecutive days at sea since our departure from Norfolk had reached 128; there are 180 days in a standard deployment. We spent seven days in Naples. Our schedule was one day of duty followed by half a work day, a day off and back to a day of duty. During my work days, I trained on driving the small boats we use to transport the crew to the pier in preparation for our next port visit where we would be required to anchor off shore instead of mooring to a pier. On my days off, I was the typical sailor and regrettably spent most of the time in a drunken stupor. Oh well, I was young and stupid in those days. I do, however, recall my first experience with real Italian food. This is probably when I developed my love for Italian foods, oh by the way. My travels through the city included an old castle that was converted into a recreation area for visiting sailors and the NATO base on the other side of the city. This was my first real experience with the barter system. Throughout Europe and the Middle East, it is customary to barter for the price of most goods, especially those sold by street vendors. It was here that I made my first purchase from the street vendors. I traded a ship’s Zippo lighter for a leather jacket. In retrospect, it was a really crappy jacket made from hard leather and the jacket didn’t really fit well, at least not when I was sober. However, I traded a lighter that I found in berthing so I wasn’t really out that much. As an ‘oh by the way’, at that time a new Zippo sold in the local stores for the equivalent of around $90.00. This is when I realized the purchasing power of a ship’s lighter or ball cap, knowledge that would come in handy in our next port visit. The only other thing that really stands out in my memory of Naples was the cab rides. If you are a thrill seeker with no fear, I recommend a cab ride in Italy. The NATO base was about a fifteen minute cab ride from the piers. For fun, we offered the cab driver an additional $20.00 US if he could get us there in less than 10 minutes. Since the exchange rate at that time was around 9000 Lire per US dollar, the cab driver was more than happy to accept the challenge. We leave the piers at about 80 mph through the crowded city streets, often driving on the trolley tracks. I mention the trolley tracks for one specific reason; at one point during this ride we entered a tunnel, about a ¼ mile long tunnel, on the trolley tracks. As we approach the end of the tunnel we see the lights of an on-coming trolley. The cab driver doesn’t seem to see this as anything to be particularly worried about and merely waits until the last possible moment to dart out of the way of the trolley. Just as a reminder, we are still cruising at around 80 mph. At some point during this journey we zip past an old lady who had to be approaching 100 years. We come so close to her that her skirt is ruffled by the draft, as you can probably guess; she was none too happy with this event. Anyway, the cab driver merely cackled an evil sounding laughter and accelerated the cab through the next intersection. He accelerated because the light was RED. This is about the time that I came to the realization that in Italy, traffic signals are only a suggestion of the recommended action for a driver. Well, we arrived in one piece at the NATO base in just under nine minutes. Maybe being a drunken sailor wasn’t a bad thing on this day. In any event it was better than any ride at any amusement park in the US.

Our next port visit was to Benidorm, Spain. This was a seven day visit with no work days, just a duty on every third day. Benidorm is a resort city that hadn’t hosted a Navy ship for around six or seven years. We were there with the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. At this port we couldn’t pull up to a pier so we anchored about two miles from shore. My job on my duty days was to ride the ship’s small boats as we ferried passengers ashore. This job was a lot of fun during the day since we could talk to the locals and find out where the best places were to go for entertainment. The down side of this visit was the fact that we were sharing the port with an aircraft carrier with around 7000 sailors, as compared to the 350-ish on my ship. However, we were able to find a good time. Once again, alcohol was too prevalent in the visit but I did have one helluva time. On the first day off we decided to sit at the topless beach and enjoy the sights. We found ourselves a beach side bar and set up camp for the day. My drink of choice at this time was rum, so I ordered up a rum & coke. I was a bit surprised when the drink arrived in a glass that was ¾ full of rum with a little ice and a splash of coke for color. Anyhow, after about two or three hours of ‘sight-seeing’ we stumbled on our merry way to find ourselves something to eat. This is where I really perfected the use of broken English and broken Spanglish. We found ourselves on the local strip with all of the American fast food joints. Our choice of the night was Burger King. It’s hard enough to communicate that you want a burger with only ketchup in broken Spanglish, imagine the difficulties after several hours of drinking. Still, we had a good time and managed to find ourselves back to the fleet landing and onto the ship before curfew ended. For clarity, fleet landing is where we board the small boats that take us to the ship at anchor. My next outing involved a little less alcohol but a lot more crazy decisions. We jumped into a cab and headed to the local go kart track. We chose to go to the go-kart track because it was off-limits to us. It was off-limits because the go-karts were capable of going over 60 mph and they had a bar at the track. It was customary to sit at the bar and drink heavily while waiting for your turn on the track. What could possibly go wrong here? Anyway, after we wrecked a few go-karts, we were ‘asked to leave and never come back’. At this point we ask the cab driver, who agreed to stick around if we bought him a few drinks, to drop us off somewhere away from the city. He takes us about twenty to thirty minutes away from the city center to a small town with a restaurant and a bar. When we get there we make a deal with the cabbie, if he comes back at 8 PM to take us back to the fleet landing we will pay the fare plus give him a twenty dollar tip. We had sobered up a little bit, not enough based on the fact that we let a cab driver drop us off in the middle of nowhere with only a promise to return and pick us up, and decide to eat a local meal. That was a good decision, the food was excellent. We had no idea what we were ordering because of the language barrier, but it worked out fine. After dinner, we went across the street and proceeded to return ourselves back to a drunken stupor. All in all, it was one of the most fun times, which I can remember, on this trip. It was very interesting being the only Americans in a small Spanish town. The locals treated us like friends and the cabbie returned as promised and we returned back to the ship. On our final day of liberty, we found ourselves in a British pub called ‘Annies’. Annie was a middle aged woman whose family had opened the pub just after the end of World War II. She loved sailors and provided a safe haven for all of us drunken fools. Our goal that night was to spend all of our Spanish currency. We wanted to spend it all because it was a difficult task to convert it back to US currency. Besides, it was way more fun to drink it away than convert it. What we would do is dump the coins into a large bar glass until all the paper money was used up. At that point, if we were still able to speak, we planned to start using up the coins. By the end of the evening, we could barely walk or speak and still had a large glass full of coins. We finally convinced our barmaid to accept the excess cash as a tip, this was not an easy task as tipping is not customary in Europe, and decided to find our way back to the ship. Here is where our new friend Annie helped us. She made sure that we made it to the fleet landing safely by having some of her friends escort us to keep us out of trouble.

The next month found us in the Northern Atlantic playing war games with our battle group. We were operating in the fjords of Norway. This is quite possibly the most beautiful part of the Atlantic Ocean. Cruising through the fjords was more like cruising on a lake than the open ocean. After our war games we pulled into Karlskorona Sweden. On The most vivid memory of this visit was the reception their navy held for us. By the way, we were the only ship to arrive at this port. The reception was memorable because it was a royal reception with the king, queen, and several princes & princesses in attendance. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to slow dance with a couple of princesses, a feat that will not likely be repeated in my lifetime.  

Our next visit was to Arhus, Denmark. On the way into port we were met and harassed by Green Peace. They assumed that each and every US Naval ship carried ‘special weapons’ and were protesting our arrival into port. After hosing them down with our fire hoses to keep them at bay, we proceeded into port. Here we were berthed in an industrial complex that was a few miles from the city center. We were berthed so far away because a Russian ship was berthed to a pier in the downtown area. This was a goodwill visit set up to promote peace between our countries. However we were encouraged to avoid the Soviets if at all possible. That advice was promptly ignored as we met and talked with the Russian sailors. They were excited to talk to us and learn about American culture. It was a rare occasion that they were allowed to interact with the Western culture. We shared a meal with three officers from their Navy and had a good time without incident. They were fascinated with the amount of responsibility that our enlisted ranks hold. In their Navy, only the officers are allowed to operate and perform maintenance on the ship’s equipment. The enlisted personnel were performed servant and custodial duties only.

Our final visit on this deployment was to Kiel, West Germany. In this port the most memorable event was our bus trip to Hamburg. At first we thought the trip was going to be a waste of time since it was on a Sunday and it was raining. That, however, soon changed as we met up with a group of German college students who gave us a tour of the city. Throughout the day, we saw all of the standard tourist stuff plus, the most notable was bomb damage to a church that was a remnant of WWII. We met these students as we walked past a pub with a lot of people dancing on the bar. We figured that this was a place we had to visit. We made a lot of new friends that day, some of which I corresponded with for a few years after our visit. 

We finally arrived home in early October for some much needed rest and relaxation. The next few months were pretty uneventful with a break for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Early in ’89 we headed back to sea for an exercise as the opposition forces working with the aircraft carrier America, co-incidentally my next ship assignment. As opposition forces it was our job to sink the carrier. During the war games, we broke away from the pack to cross the Arctic Circle and join the ranks of the Blue Noses. Crossing the Arctic Circle is one of those ageless traditions of the world’s navies. Once you cross the Circle you are recognized as a Blue Nose. The ceremony started at around four in the morning when we were all rudely awakened and mustered up on the fantail of the ship. At one point we had to crawl to the forecastle (forward part of the ship, where the gun is) where were formed into a mimic island chain being battered by a ‘Nor’ Easter’. This was accomplished by bringing the ship up to around 25 knots and spraying us down with fire hoses. We were subjected to various other rituals throughout the day and in the end were all christened as official Blue Noses. As we returned to the war games, we managed to slip into the America’s shield of escorts undetected and found ourselves in the perfect position to take out the America and one of her defense escort ships. The Admiral in charge of the exercise was so impressed with our ability to sink the carrier that he changed our scheduled port visit from Toulon, France to South Hampton, England. The America was ‘punished’ by being sent to France for a liberty port.  While in South Hampton, we boarded a train and spent the day in London. London is an awesome place to see, even though it rained the entire visit. The day was spent doing the typical tourist things. As an ‘oh by the way’ I found out that I don’t speak English, I speak American. Anyway, this is one of the places I would like to visit in my civilian life. Once again, alcohol was a big part of the trip and the memories are a bit fuzzy. However, I do remember visiting Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is a lot like Times Square in New York City. It was a lively place with a different kind of street band at each corner, clowns and mimes wandering around everywhere, and what seemed like a million street vendors. We wandered around soaking up the atmosphere before stopping by a local disco. Yes, I said disco, just when you thought disco was dead, it rears its ugly head in Europe. Anyhow, by this time the rum was kicking in pretty good. I remember waking up in a booth surrounded by a large group of locals wondering just where, exactly I was. After regaining what little senses had left, I saw my shipmates out on the dance floor and joined them. We spent the remainder of the evening having a good old time with my new friends from the booth. We ended the night and boarded the train for our return to the ship in South Hampton. After returning to South Hampton, we had about two to three hours to kill before we had to be back on the ship. One of the bad things about London is the awful food. Fortunately, the cab driver that was taking us from the train station to the ship offered to take us to an American burger place as long as we paid for her dinner. This burger place looked as if it were straight out of the fifties, roller skating waitresses, hoop skirts and one of the best burgers I have ever eaten.

After our return to Norfolk, we went into the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for some routine repairs. This was my first experience with the shipyard environment, it was also the first time I had the unique experience of walking beneath a ship in a dry dock. It is nearly impossible to describe the feeling one gets as they walk under a warship that is out of the water. You spend so much time on board and at sea that you form a bond with the ship. It is both awe inspiring and sad to see your ship in the air on wooden blocks. She is out of her element and at the mercy of hundreds of strangers who merely see her as another paycheck. They have not shared her experiences at sea nor have they endured the relentless pounding of the waves as she traveled the world. Like I said, we form a special bond and odd relationship with the ships we take to sea. Each one possesses a unique personality. Anyway, towards the end of the shipyard, I take the first step towards the culmination of a career, my first reenlistment. I reenlisted for six years which would extend my contract to the ten-year point. The main reward from this contract extension was the opportunity to move on and transfer to my next ship, the USS America. Leaving Dahlgren was a difficult decision to make; she was my first ship and a dear friend. However, I had reached the limits of my ability to learn and needed newer challenges. I had just been promoted to Petty Officer Second Class and a new ship was the right decision to make. So, in early December, I bid farewell to my shipmates and closed the first chapter of my career.

After being sold and repossessed a few times, Dahlgren was dismantled for scrap in 2006 by a Texas shipyard. Her legacy is now to provide the steel to build the next generation of warship. She will be sadly missed by all that had the honor of taking her to sea to dance among the waves.  


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