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Life On The High Seas Aboard A Tin Can Destroyer During The Cold War – The Drive

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In my previous article, I described two intense days frantically hunting a Soviet submarine in the Strait of Gibraltar back in 1967. I was a low-ranking sailor serving aboard the USS Steinaker the World War II-era Gearing class destroyer I sailed on for two years.Now Id like to describe some of our other high-seas adventures, and what life was like living aboard a destroyer in those days.

A warship like Steinaker is never left unattended, or completely powered down. Walking around the ship, you would always be aware of machinery noises, and powerful exhaust fans venting hot air from deep in the ships engineering spaces. You could always feel small vibrations, as if the ship was alive, and in a way it was. The ship was powered by high-pressure superheated steam produced by two large boilers that were heated with a thick, foul-smelling type of oil called bunker fuel.

The boilers were housed in their own space. When I was a new crewman, I got a tour of the boiler room. I remember a crewman leaning over near a steam line and lighting his cigarette by touching it to the line. The heat was intense in that compartment in some areas up to 150 degrees. The inlet end of the exhaust fans was in the boiler room, and you could stand under them to try to cool off. The steam was piped to the engine room, where it turned two turbines and probably other equipment such as generators. It would then be returned to the boiler room to be reheated.

What we usually think of as steam is really water vapor suspended in steam. Steam is a dry colorless gas. When you heat water to the boiling point, it changes state from a liquid to a gas, and you produce steam, but it doesnt contain much energy. If you lower the temperature even slightly, it will change states from a dry gas back to a liquid again. To make the steam useful, the energy needs to be greatly increased by raising the temperature and pressure. That way it can release tremendous energy while turning the turbine and still remain a dry gas.


USS Steinaker, its bow soakeda normal occurrence.

The ship produced 60,000 horsepower from two steam lines that were about six inches in diameter. Its hard to wrap your mind around the power of high-pressure superheated steam. You cant see steam. That makes a leak extremely dangerous. A leak would create a huge white cloud of vapor in the compartment, but the actual steam leak could be many feet away because the white cloud would only form once the steam had cooled and the water began changing state from a gas to microscopic liquid droplets.

When looking for a steam leak, the boiler room folks were taught to wave a broom in front of them as they slowly approached a possible source. When they waved the broom in front of the leak it would cut all the bristles off, leaving a stump at the end of the pole.

Nowadays, U.S. Navy destroyers are powered by large gas-turbine engines just like the engines you might see on a large passenger jet but designed to turn a shaft instead of producing thrust. Gas turbines take up much less space, and the ship should be able to get underway from a cold start faster than a ship that had to fire up its boilers and slowly produce steam. The cost of running a gas turbine-powered ship must be impressive. Bunker fuel is cheap, but jet fuel is not.

Clearly, in the last five decades, just about everything on a destroyer has changed propulsion, weapon systems, sensors, navigation, and communications. But some things have not. The mission to project power and protect the sea lanes remains the same, and destroyers are still making cruises to the same destinations we did.

The ocean remains the same, and the Navy is still faced with the same design issue how do you cram a lot of sailors into a relatively small ship?

In the picture above, Steinaker is sailing at a moderate speed through calm seas. I spent half of my two years on Steinaker living in the forward berthing compartment, which was located about where you see 863 painted on the bow. In heavy weather, the bow constantly rose up (as in the photo) and then plunged into the next wave and was often completely submerged. Tons of water rolled across the deck, slamming into that forward gun mount, and was blasted high into the air where it landed on top of the 03-level where the bridge and Combat Information Center (CIC) were located.

More about that later

Sea states are described using the Beaufort Scale, which runs from zero to 12. In the picture, I would say this was maybe three on the scale, and thats probably a stretch. Here are the descriptions of sea states three and twelve, for comparison:


My point is that destroyers can be rough-riding ships, even in calm conditions, but why do I mention sea state 12? Because Steinaker went through a hurricane while I was aboard. Ships do not normally steam into the middle of a hurricane, but hurricane paths are difficult to predict, and Steinaker wasnt the first ship to relocate to avoid a hurricane only to have the storm change course and run it down.

In our case, I remember being tied up at a small pier in Key West when we got the word that a hurricane was building in intensity and heading right for us. Ships do not want to get caught in shallow or restricted water when a big storm is headed their way, so we departed to the east to get some sea room, only to have the storm unexpectedly veer to the east and run us over.

I remember the anemometer in Combat (the Combat Information Center, or CIC) hovering around 75 knots and occasionally peaking at around 100 knots. I honestly do not remember it being that big a deal. Of course, that was over 50 years ago, and I am reminded of the definition of the good old days a good imagination and a bad memory. Maybe I was terrified while trapped in a windowless compartment listening to tons of water landing on top of us and hanging on for dear life.

All the chairs in CIC had seatbelts for a reason!

We had a public address system on the ship called the 1MC. I just Googled it and found that MC is short for Main Circuit. Anyway, it was common to hear, Now hear this. All hands stand clear of the weather decks while maneuvering at high speed through heavy seas. I took this picture with my little Minox camera showing why you would want to heed that warning:

Courtesy of the Author

A view of the ocean from the Steinaker in rough weather.

This picture was typical of what I remember the sea was always a dull gray and so was the sky. The only time in the two years I saw blue water was on a short trip to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The water in the bay was beautiful and the bottom was white sand that visit is for another time.

There were 21 of us housed in the forward berthing compartment, which was the size of the average apartments living room. Each person had a rack that consisted of a tubular aluminum frame with a canvas sheet stretched tight inside it. On top of the canvas was a thin mattress enclosed in a fart sack, which was like a large pillowcase.

Racks were stacked three high and lined up in rows. Some rows were freestanding, and others were attached to the bulkheads. I was in the middle between the lower and upper racks. That was a plus, as I was less likely to break my neck when I was tossed out of my rack and landed on the deck during a storm.

My row of racks was attached to the bulkhead with hinges, and the outer side was held in place with a chain at each end. When I lay flat on my back, with my elbows at my side, I could touch the top guys mattress with my fingers.

Between me and the bulkhead was a high-pressure steam line that ran from the boiler room to the engine room. It was insulated with asbestos and was about six inches in diameter. At my feet was a small fan. At night, when I managed to get to sleep, I occasionally stretched and stuck my toe into the fan.


Enlisted berthing racks similar to those found on Gearing class destroyers

Below the bottom racks were small lockers where we stored all our possessions. If that bottom rack was occupied you could not get to your locker. That often happened since we were not all in the same watch sections half were on watch while the other half slept. So, by necessity, you might go on watch, leaving your small douche kit or a paperback book laying on your rack. Our chief would make regular visits into our compartment and collect any loose items he could find and lock them away in a locker he had commandeered. Each week there was a reckoning, and we were given two hours of extra duty for each item he collected.

We soon caught on to the chiefs schedule the reckoning always took place on Friday, so each Thursday we simply pounded the hinge pin out of his locker, redistributed his confiscated items, and then replaced the hinge pin. The chief was no fool. He soon figured out our scheme and added a second padlock. He insisted that the compartment lights always be on during daylight hours, and no towels or other items could be hung from the racks above to block the light. He was beloved by all, and we all enjoyed his petty torments. Eventually, it came to the attention of the officers that some of us seemed to have a bad attitude, but I digress

Picture yourself totally exhausted from long hours on watch and trying desperately to get some sleep. In heavy weather the bow moved up and down about 15 feet as the ship plowed through the waves. One second you were pressed down in your rack as the bow rose up the side of a wave, and the next you were floating weightless as the bow dropped into a trough. The only way to not get tossed out of your rack and onto the deck was to sleep on your stomach and wrap your arms and legs around the racks frame like a spider.

Each rack had some straps that you could use to tie yourself in with, but no one seemed to like those. You could also get a shipmate to tip your rack way up and shorten the chains, so you were wedged in, but then you could not get out by yourself, and that could be a big problem.

To these many layers of misery, you need to add the constant sound of the entire compartment going underwater and the noise of the sonar, which was not far below us. Actually, after a while I found the sonar restful. About once every five seconds, it made the sound you hear in every submarine war movie youve ever seen. Because my rack was against the bulkhead, I could hear the sonar pulse and the echoes reverberating.

At some point in my two years, I was also assigned to live in the aft berthing compartment. That was infinitely better, with no constant up and down motion, and at the far end of the ship from the sonar dome.

So far, Ive just been bitching about normal everyday physical misery and discomfort. Now I want to talk about a storm! You may be asking yourself, what is he going to whine about now? Im sure destroyers are completely safe in all weather conditions, right?


For example, on Dec. 18, 1944, Task Force 38 was struck by Typhoon Cobra sometimes called Halseys Typhoon off the Philippines. The destroyers USS Hull (DD-350), Spence (DD-512), and Monaghan (DD-354) all capsized and sank. Seven hundred ninety men were killed and 80 injured.

A destroyer can only roll so far before it capsizes. I think we came awfully close in the story I am going to tell you now.

During my first Med cruise, we found ourselves tied up next to this magnificent cruise ship the Michelangelo. I took this picture while we were both pierside in Genoa, Italy. That day, I had occasion to climb to the surface-search radar platform on the main mast with a shipmate to do some maintenance. I remember looking across at Michelangelo and commenting that it was so huge its main deck was higher than we were!

Courtesy of the Author

The cruise ship Michaelangelo in Genoa, Italy, in 1966.

Courtesy of the Author

For an idea of just how tall the cruise ship's hull was, this is what it looked like from where the author was viewing the ship.

On the seventh of April 1966, we both sailed out of Genoa and headed for the Atlantic. Steinaker was heading home. Five days later, on the morning of April 12, we both found ourselves mid-Atlantic and caught in a monstrous storm. The waves were massive the size of large buildings. Steinaker had 60,000 shaft horsepower, twin screws, and twin rudders. Normally that would result in a very capable and maneuverable ship. But on that day we were completely helpless. One minute we would be pointed north, the next east totally out of control. The extremely odd thing was that there was no wind to speak of and the sky was blue.

Whatever had caused these massive waves was gone.

When we were at the top of a wave, we could see for several miles. There was a large merchant ship about one mile away. I remember seeing it with the bow buried in a wave and the bronze propeller completely out of the water, turning slowly and with the sun glinting off the blades. Then we would slide down into a trough and lose sight of the ship. The next time we rose, that ship would be pointed in a completely different direction. We were both in big trouble.

The little destroyer, seen here pre-upgrade, was not the smoothest ride when waves were present.

Above our bridge windows at the center, there was an inclinometer, which consisted of a curved glass tube filled with an amber liquid. Inside the tube was a black marble that was free to roll to the lowest point in the tube. The inclinometer was marked off in degrees. While sliding down a wave sideways, we took a starboard roll of 56 degrees. We had been told we would capsize somewhere around 65 degrees. Time seemed to freeze. Would we right ourselves or capsize? I can still see the little bubbles in the inclinometer tube in my head.

With a 56-degree roll, it is easier to walk on the bulkhead than on the deck. These extreme rolls caused everything to go flying in every direction. I ended up on my butt, jammed up against the starboard bridge-wing door at the lowest spot formed by the sloping deck and starboard bulkhead, a pile of loose items in my lap. I remember straining my neck to look out the bridge-wing window. All I could see was a massive, malevolent wall of gray water that stretched up and out of sight above us. We never practiced abandoning ship, and I dont remember ever seeing a life jacket. We had a few lifeboats that had to be lowered by pulleys. Totally useless in rough seas.

It was clear we would all go down with the ship, or we would all make it out alive. It was just a question of physics.

Meanwhile, on the Michelangelo, a huge wave came across the main deck and crushed a large section of the ship. Four passengers were killed, and 50 were injured. Damage was extensive. The ship managed to limp into New York Harbor. Michelangelo estimated the wave height at 18 meters, or 60 feet. Sebastian Junger described this storm in his book The Perfect Storm.

Courtesy of the Author

This picture was shot from the bridge on Michelangelo during the storm. Remember that Michelangelo's main deck was higher than the top of Steinakers main mast!

Food on Steinaker was different from my mothers cooking. Sometimes the cooks would get bored and use food coloring to dye our scrambled eggs bright green. They also had a habit of serving really greasy slimy food when the weather was unusually rough. This leads seamlessly into another topic sea sickness. But first, a bit more reminiscing.

I do remember with great fondness the mashed potatoes. The potatoes were stored on the main deck in large cabinets with many holes for air circulation. In rough weather, they would get drenched with seawater, but the potatoes didnt seem to mind. Mashed potatoes were universally good. I dont think the cooks bothered to peel them, so there were small pieces of peel mixed in. I have to say that my favorite dinner ingredient was those mashed potatoes.

In my previous article about the encounter with the Russian Foxtrot submarine, I described two very intense days, but there were also times when we were simply steaming independently through the night. During times like that, things were very relaxed. Most of the crew would be sleeping, and my world would consist of the three lookouts, the bridge talker, and whoever was in Combat with me. We were all on the same sound-powered voice circuit. I remember killing time by asking everyone a brain teaser, such as I have ten coins in my pocket. They add up to sixty-four cents. What are they?

Id also try to keep the lookouts company, since Id been one earlier in my short career. If there was a surface contact on the radar I thought was visible, Id give the lookout facing that way the bearing. The visible horizon from their height above the sea was about 13 miles to the top of another ships masthead lights. If you had very good eyesight, you could catch momentary glimpses of them. Anyway, occasionally, around three in the morning, the smell of baking bread would manage to work its way all the way to the top deck on the ship. One of us would go down and get a hot loaf of bread from the cook, along with a brick of butter and a jar of jam.

Man, that hot bread tasted good! I look back on rare times like that with fondness.

In general, food especially perishable items is loaded at the last minute before a trip. As a low-ranking crewman, I got tagged for all the working parties, and loading provisions was a common one. I remember bringing a large box of frozen beef on board. On the box it said, USDA Good. Im not sure you can find that grade at the supermarket. It must be a special-order item.

Milk deserves a special category all to itself. I think the Navy tried hard to always get the very freshest milk delivered to the ship at the very last minute. Once underway, one of two possibilities would happen either we would run out, or the milk would start to go bad. In the latter case, the cooks would attempt to forestall the inevitable by using a series of clever steps. At first adding a bit of canned milk might disguise the taste and slightly brown color. Eventually, that would no longer pass the gag test, and they would have to add sugar, and maybe some powdered milk. Finally, it became a lost cause.

Once the milk ran out, other substitutes were called for. We used to have those small cereal packs that had ten choices in a carton. For the Navy, they were packed for ocean shipment by covering them in some sort of tar paper and then vacuum-sealing them in aluminum foil. We must have gotten a batch that had been in storage since the Korean War, because the tar paper taste had permeated into the corn flakes. One morning, I remember eating a bowl of tar-flavored corn flakes with purple Kool Aid instead of milk.


Steinaker, sometime after her 1965 fleet revitalization and modernization upgrade in 1965.

Normally, the new watch section can go to the front of the chow line, eat, and then get up to CIC to relieve the watchstanders, who then have to rush down to get whatever is left. I remember arriving one day at the back of the chow line with a serious hunger. The evening meal was supposed to be chicken stew. When I arrived in front of the stew pot, I glanced inside. It looked like dirty dishwater with a few small flakes of meat floating in it. But at the bottom I could see a big juicy piece of meat. I told the cook I wanted that piece. An argument ensued, in which he wanted to know why I should get special treatment. I insisted and eventually he relented and granted my request.

I soon joined my shipmates and began attempting to cut my big juicy piece of meat. I remember that my knife was serrated, and it seemed to be scraping off crumbs. I tried reorienting the knife to cut the meat with the grain, but it didnt seem to have any grain. Eventually, I turned it over, and it had printing on it.

I was trying to eat part of the cardboard box the chicken came in.

The largest compartment on the ship was where we ate, and it sat directly over the midship berthing compartment. There were long tables that ran across the compartment from side to side. Food was served on metal trays like school kids probably use. The table edges were lined with a small lip to help keep the trays from sliding off in rough weather. That happened so frequently that we had a name for it Chow Course.

One particular evening, spaghetti was the main course, and I was hungry. I piled my tray high and then found a spot to sit at the end of a table. I sat my tray down, judged that the ship was fairly steady, and headed over to the bug juice dispenser. Just as I was headed back to my spot, the ship took a sickening roll that angled the table in a downward direction from my end. The tray started sliding slowly at first. As it picked up speed, each person simply raised their tray off the table to let it pass. By the time it reached the other end of the table, it was moving! It hit that little lip like a ski jump, and it was catapulted into the air. As if in slow motion, it floated through the air without losing a single noodle and dropped straight down the hatch leading to the midship berthing compartment. Time stood still. Imagine the boatswains mates surprise when a fully laden tray of spaghetti descended straight down that hatch and landed squarely on his head!

That wasnt the only unexpected roll, and, in short order, people were slipping and sliding all over the place. Noodles and spaghetti covered the deck. It started to look like a tag-team mud-wrestling contest with noodles instead of mud.

Just another navy day at sea on a destroyer.

Hows this for a segue? When I first arrived on the ship, they were already preparing for my first Med cruise. One of the more common modes of entertainment on any ship is to mess with the new arrivals. I was almost immediately sent looking for a pot of relative-bearing grease.

I had been learning to fly before I joined the Navy, and I knew what a relative bearing was, so they switched to plan B: Speak constantly about how rough the ocean would be once we got underway. The goal was to get into the new guys head and get him worrying. Once you achieved that, nature would do the rest.

I didnt fall for that one either. I had experience. When I was a kid, my parents moved us to New York for a few years and I had ridden the Staten Island Ferry several times. I never got seasick.

I was confident.

The waterway leading from the Norfolk Naval Base to the Atlantic Ocean is long and complicated. This whole complex collection of waterways is called Hampton Roads. It takes quite a while to reach the ocean. Once underway, I spent the time convincing myself that the ship wasnt any different than the Staten Island ferry boat. Eventually, we reached the ocean, and I realized I was in big trouble.

It wasnt long before I was leaning over the side and praying to the god of seasick sailors, ORoark. That was the only time I lost my lunch, but I spent most of the remaining two years with a headache.

There is a reason for that. Fear of the unknown and lack of experience are huge problems, but easily overcome. Once youve been through rough weather a few times, you will know what to expect.

You can also take precautions. We used to eat an entire box of saltine crackers before heading out after being in port for a while. The theory was that having a big wad of cracker dough in your stomach instead of your stomach contents sloshing around with normal food would help.


Comparison of two U.S. Navy Gearing-class destroyers from World War II and after the Fleet Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) I refit in the early 1960s. USS Sarsfield (DD-837) is shown on 23 August 1945, about three weeks after her commissioning. She features three 12.7-cm/38 twin mounts, 16 40-mm Bofors AA guns, and 5 53.3 cm torpedo tubes between the funnels. USS Rowan (DD-782) is shown circa early 1965, after her FRAM I refit: she has two 12.7-cm mounts, Mk 32 torpedo launchers, SPS-37 radar, ASROC launcher between the funnels, and a Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) hangar and flight deck aft.

This next story takes place somewhere in the middle of the ocean at night in rough weather. It makes no difference where it happened, and I tell it not to show that I had a cast-iron stomach or was tougher than everyone else, but to prove there is a very strong mind-over-matter aspect to seasickness.

It was a miserable night. The ships motion was nauseating in the extreme. There is a best course to sail for the smoothest ride, but that may not be the direction you need to go. As seems to be the case in my stories, I was on the surface-search radar and responsible for preventing collisions with other ships. I dont remember, but if we were operating with a carrier task force there would have been a lot going on. Everything conspired to make us all want to die. Water was probably being thrown on top of our compartment, the wind was probably howling, and the smell of vomit was strong. Everyone in CIC was sick but me. That included our division officer, who was lying face down on the deck with his head near the entrance to CIC. Anyone entering would bang the door into his head. He lay near a trash can, and every now and then he would raise his head to puke into the can. I had a splitting headache, but I wasnt incapacitated for the simple reason that I couldnt afford to be. The safety of the ship depended on me.

If someone else had been on that position they would not have had the luxury to be sick either.

Mind over matter.

When we were in a foreign port, the crew would be allowed to go ashore after they had completed their duties for the day, but we all had to return by midnight. The age of the average junior enlisted man was probably about 20, and most had never been away from home prior to joining the Navy. Their favorite activity seemed to be to find the closest bar and proceed to get as drunk as possible.

Some thought starting a large bar fight only added to the fun. I didnt drink, but wandering the dock area of a strange foreign port alone in the middle of the night was a bad idea. There were a lot of people that didnt like American sailors. So, often, I would end up in a bar anyway. I could act as the designated sober guy for some of my shipmates.

In addition to the small individual lockers we each had, there was a communal locker where we kept our large pea coats. Each was kept in a plastic bag with a zipper. I bring this up because, after waking one morning, after we had all been ashore the night before, I mentioned that I had had a vivid dream. I dreamt that someone had taken a piss in the pea coat locker. It was such a vivid dream that I felt compelled to look.

I guess it wasnt a dream after all.

The bottom of one bag was swollen with what looked like a gallon of urine. The bottom of the pea coat was immersed and it acted as a wick, so the entire bottom of the coat was saturated.

No problem. It wasnt my bag!

One more sea story. This one also takes place in our berthing compartment. The aisle between rows of racks was narrow. On the top rack of one row lived a sailor with a temper. Adjacent to him was a sailor who snored loudly. I dreamt that they were having a fight in the middle of the night. In the morning, the sailor who snored was complaining he had been attacked by bed bugs during the night because his face was covered with welts. I glanced across to the grouchy guys rack and there was a metal clothes hanger that was bent up like a pretzel.

I was the only one who knew what had happened while they both slept. I kept it to myself.

Okay One more sea story. At some point, a first-class electronics tech came aboard. A first class is a pretty high enlisted rank an E-6. It takes years to attain that rank, but he had served his entire Navy career up to that point working ashore. This was to be his first experience on a ship. He was a genuinely nice guy and wanted to get off on the right foot with the rest of the crew, so he asked if there was anything he could do.

Big mistake!


A hand-painted Steinaker seal.

One of the first things you learn is to never volunteer, unless you are extremely bored and want to roll the dice. Anyway, it was suggested that he could stand mail-buoy watch on the bow, which would be most appreciated. Of course, never having served aboard a ship, he was unfamiliar with how we received our mail at sea. It was explained that the Navy always knew where we were, and our intended course, so they could pack our mail in a waterproof sack attached to a bright red buoy with a flashing light attached and chuck it out of a plane directly in our path. That was such a masterful load of BS that I almost believed it myself!

Standing on the bow, searching for the mail buoy, you are visible to everyone on the bridge. No one stands on the bow underway because its cold and windy, and youre going to get blasted with spray, even on a good day.

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Life On The High Seas Aboard A Tin Can Destroyer During The Cold War - The Drive

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