Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sea Stories 1 - sixty years ago

Norfolk has changed a bit in the past sixty years. Fleet wide, Norfolk was known as "Ship City". (That's with a t, people) In those long ago days, there was a bridge and tunnel to Portsmouth. Ferries served to Newport News and Hampton, while the Cape Charles ferry ran from Little Creek to Kiptopeke. The Eastern Shore was the site of potato farms, poverty and a single track railway to Kiptopeke, as well as a two lane blacktop called R13.

The Railroad ended at Kiptopeke where the cars were shunted onto a barge and then tugged off to Norfolk. The Virginia state liquor laws were antediluvian, and kept preachers happy and bootleggers prosperous. In the Portsmouth Navy Yard lay the old wooden USS Hartford, civil war vet and flagship of Admiral Farragut. She leaked like a seive, and pumps worked 24/7 trying to keep her afloat. She sank at the dock there in about 1955.

I had reported to the USS Fremont(APA44) from USNS Salvage in Bayonne, NJ. Assigned to A div, I was working with a group of good men.Kurt Hofschneider (known as Hof) was one of them. Our div was responsible for a large variety and quantity of equipment, such as the machinery of our 24 landing craft, the evaporator plant(producing fresh water for the ships boilers, crew and embarked troops), the emergency diesel generator and refrigerator plant preserving food for crew and as many as 1,200 embarked marines. In addition we had all the deck machinery (winches and windlasses) and emergency fire pumps as well as diving equipment and assorted other machines such as a smoke generator on the fantail. That generator is the subject of another story much later. ( I did not know it had become my responsibility until much later).

As an attack transport, the USS Fremont was dedicated to landing troops and equipment on a targeted beach, either a contested or uncontested landing. For this reason, the ship carried 24 landing craft, small vessels designed to approach a beach due to their shallow draft and relatively powerful old adaptations of bus engines(read Gray Marine 6-71). We had four LCMs,of approx 53 feet with twin engines and capable of landing a medium tank, one LCPL for landing personnel only and the smallest of our craft, plus the nineteen LCVPs, capable of carriying personnel or a jeep and radio trailor or small artillery piece.

Landing operations involved off loading all boats in the water, from a ship anchored well off the target beach. In the water, the boats formed ccircles off bow and stern, port and starboard. This was a slow and and cumbersome operation. When all boats were in the water they were called back alongside the transport, usually three or four to a side, for loading troops and or equipment. Each loaded boat then returned to their designated circle to wait for the loading process to be completed.

When all boats were loaded, they were sent off in single file to a" line of departure" usually marked by an APD. Those vessels were old destroyers, converrted into high speed transports and usually the home of UDT groups whose job had been to survey the landing beach and destroy any underwater obstacles or if necessary mark them for the landing craft to avoid.

At the line of departure, boats made a turn on signal from the APD, forming a wave which then ran for the beach. Once successfully unloaded at the beach, the craft were controlled by beach masters who had marked the beach with colored flags. Now the craft were sent to vessels in the fleet as chosen by the beach masters, based on the needs expressed by the troops of the landing force.

The USS Fremont has an excellent web site, and I suggest those interested explore it. I have photos on page 10 of the "50s album" The record of that ship inWW11 is of real interest and she also had a bit part in the film "Away All Boats". The Fremont was the best looking APA in the fleet,altho she had some sister ships, I visited 2 (scrounging spare parts) and found them to be real rust buckets. A newer class of APAs were just dogs when it came to appearences!
Dr. Vic Keranen served as an engineman in the US Navy, working as a diving and salvage expert in the 1950s. In 1954, he left the Navy to join the Merchant Marine, where he crewed T2 tankers. Following more than a dozen voyages, he changed professions, graduating from Duke University Medical School in 1964 and starting a 30-year practice as a neurosurgeon, retiring in 1997. He continued to sail during that time, making five transatlantic passages as Master of the sailing ketch Stella Polaris.  He joins the Dockyard Blog as a regular guest blogger, writing the column Sea Stories.
Thanks Vic!

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