Did you see any other curious phenomena at sea?
When the sky is really clear and you have a good horizon, there’s a phenomenon called the green flash that you see as the sun is going down. It has to do with the way light refracts through the atmosphere. As the sun slips below the horizon, if it’s really clear you can see a green flash. It lasts for less than a second and it’s gone. So we’d always look for that at sunset. Usually there’s so much haze along the Pacific coast that you don’t see it well. You need both a clear atmosphere and horizon. Of course, we were able to observe a lot of ocean marine life. A lot of the time dolphins or porpoises would ride the bow wave and surf alongside the ship for a while. That was always cool. And occasionally you’d see a shark or a sea turtle. When you were within range of the coast there were always birds. There were fewer birds further out, but occasionally you’d see an albatross. I think my education—my background in natural resources from college—was probably a factor in the degree of my appreciation for these experiences, and made me more attuned to the natural phenomena going on around me.
What about storms?
Each of the ships I deployed on managed to get sucked into at least one typhoon. That was always nerve-wracking, not that the ships weren’t stable, but it added an element of complexity when you’re trying to navigate and keep your balance at the same time because the ship is rocking back and forth. One time we got into a storm where the swells were higher than the bridge wing of the ship. We were taking up to 45 degree rolls. Because it was a small ship, it was intense. Just standing, you had to be able to concentrate. There was a place where you could stand next to the radar repeater and compass, and you could hang on to that and brace yourself so you weren’t constantly rearranging your footing to stay upright. A lot of the guys got really sick.
Another one of my favorite storm stories was when we were anchored in Hong Kong Bay. I was on active duty on an ammo ship. Because we carried ammunition, we couldn’t go into port. We had to anchor out, because if there had been an accident, we had a blast radius of about 10 city blocks, so they didn’t want any tragedies to happen to anyone other than us. We used small boats to get back and forth to the main
land. While we were anchored, I spent the night in Hong Kong. I got back to the ship about mid-morning, and the command duty officer was like, “Jim, Jim … CTF73 (Commander Task Force 73) says there’s a typhoon coming, and they want us to get underway as soon as possible, but I don’t know where the captain and the executive officer are. I don’t know what to do.” The chief engineer happened to be there in the wardroom, and I looked at him and said, “Engineer, when can you have the main engine on line?” And he said, “Well, if I start now, 1600.” And so I told the command duty officer, “Tell CTF73 we’ll be underway at 1600, and we’ll work with whoever we have back on board by then.” So we started doing that. The engineer came up to me after we had that discussion. He was senior to me, and if we’d had to get underway without the captain and the executive officer, technically he would have been expected to take command. He said, “Jim, I know I’m senior to you, but if we have to get this ship underway without the captain I want you to be in command.”
What happened, where was the Captain?
The Captain and XO made it back. This was before Hong Kong was turned back over to the Chinese, so the British Navy still had a presence there, and we had a liaison officer, and they were very adept at rounding up stray crew people when a ship had an emergency or something. So they got hold of the captain and the XO and made sure they knew they had to get back to the ship right away.
What was your title at the end of your 11-year service, and what were your responsibilities?
I made the rank of lieutenant commander. In my last assignment I was the Operations Officer on board an ammunition ship. I was responsible for scheduling, managing the navigator, the operations specialists, and the Combat Information Center. The radiomen and the signalmen were all my guys. Because we were an ammunition ship, we did periodic underway replenishments with other ships to transfer them food and fuel and ammunition. That was a complex process, so we focused on logistics and training to make sure we were prepared and did things well.
What aspects of your work with the Navy have shaped your character and performance with the NPS?
One of them is that I am a lot better organized. I attribute that to being in the Service. The self-discipline and work habits that I developed to survive in the Navy I’ve always been able to apply to my outside life.
Julie West, Communications Specialist, Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division