Monday, November 02, 2015

Warren Sparrow's WEAKLY READER #3

                      The Weakly Reader

Vol. I, No. 3
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
2 November 2015

Welcome to the third edition of The Weakly Reader, a publication dedicated to the enjoyment of all souls who spend too much time looking in their rear-view mirrors.  It is the mission of this publication to encourage its readers to keep their eyes on the road ahead and have a good time doing it.  Each of us has experienced a “defining moment.”  The following story is about one of them.

                                           Blue Skies

USS Wasp
Five years after my Darlington adventure, I was enjoying a “new life.”  On a perfect August afternoon in 1959 I was relaxing in the officers’ dining room (wardroom) of the aircraft carrier Wasp as she sailed in a calm ocean 200 miles off the New England coast.  I was 23, happily away from the anxieties caused by my spotty academic performance during my four years at Duke.  What could be finer than sipping coffee from a China cup perched on a China 

saucer?  The dark clouds of recurring hydraulics tests were gone for good.  There was “nothing but blue skies from now on."

In a flash everything changed.  I was talking with one of the officers on the admiral’s staff when we heard an unusual noise, a fairly loud, short  whir followed by a sharp bang.  Within a few seconds we heard the ship-wide announcement:  “Fire! Fire in Hanger Bay One.”  

At first we were not concerned.  Fires aboard ship while not routine do happen from time to time.  We kept sipping.  The fire was not our problem.  Neither of us was assigned a damage-control station.  Our duty was simple:  Stay out of the way.  

Mind you the wardroom was a fairly plush place.  In those days it was one of the few air-conditioned spaces on the ship.  The long tables were covered with white linen.  The China was 

fancy.  So was the silver.  It was a sanctuary for the ship’s officers.  The wardroom was directly below Hanger Bay One.

                                           Big Trouble

The first sign of big trouble came when one of the wardroom doors
Fire on USS WASP  August 1959

opened and several dungaree-clad sailors rushed from one side of the room and out another.  A thin cloud of smoke came through the door.   I recognized those men.  They worked for me.  If they were trying to get away from something, it was time for me to do the same.  So I left the wardroom and headed toward the rear of the ship, trying to put as much space as possible between me and the smoke.  

Back I went, stepping through many hatches until I felt comfortable about going up to the flight deck.  I climbed the ladders (stairs) and made it “topside” near the rear of the ship.  Arriving on the flight deck I looked forward and saw black smoke billowing from both sides of the ship.  Sailors were running toward the front of the ship.  A few staggered toward me, their eyes red and their faces black.

Looking toward the bow of the ship I could see two of our escort destroyers, one on each side of the Wasp. acting as fire-boats pumping water at Hanger Bay One.  These two ships were 
at great risk, especially the one on the port (left) side.  This destroyer was so close to the Wasp that the aircraft carrier’s protruding angle deck would have crushed the smaller ship had either the Wasp sped up or had the destroyer  slowed down.  

                                      No Chance

This  was one of the Navy’s “finest hours” though I did not realize it until later.  The fire began when the helicopter squadron maintenance officer  started the engine on one of the helicopters during a routine check in Hanger Bay One.  The “whir” we heard in the wardroom was the engine over-speeding (the rotor blades were not engaged) .  The “bang” was the explosion of the engine.  The maintenance officer who was at the controls was killed and so was 
a sailor who was holding a fire extinguisher at the front of the helicopter.  The start-up routine always required that there be someone with a fire extinguisher in a position to put out any engine fire.  In this instance the engine immediately exploded.  The safety man had no chance.    

When the engine exploded the helicopter caught fire.  In 1959 helicopters were made of magnesium.    For those of you who are familiar with magnesium fires you know they are extremely hot and aggressive.  Water will not put out a magnesium fire.  Magnesium tends to burn brighter when doused with water.  

The men who fought the fire in Hanger Bay One used everything at hand, including the ship’s sprinkler system to fight the fire.  The best weapon was foam, not water.  Water would cool the surrounding area but it would not put out a magnesium fire.

                                 Fire Spreading

In a matter of minutes Hanger Bay One was an inferno, the fire spreading across the oil slick deck from one helicopter to another.  Undaunted, the Wasp crew kept fighting.  There were other dangers, too.  First, the ship’s aviation fuel was dispensed from a station in Hanger Bay One.  Wasp carried a quarter-million gallons everywhere she went.  Second, there were many, many tons of explosives stored below decks.  

Understanding the seriousness of the situation, I looked over the side of the ship and reminded myself it was 50 feet from the flight deck to the water.  The ocean was calm and the there were ships around us.  If worse came to worst, I could jump.  The water would not be too cold.  It would not take long to be rescued.  

                                    Bathrobe and Pajamas

Smoke continued to pour from both sides of the forward section of the Wasp.  The smoke had lessened a bit as I watched from the relative safety of the rear of the flight deck.   The two destroyers maintained their stations and kept pouring water onto the Wasp.  In about an hour the fire was under control.  The following morning we pulled into Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where we off-loaded our most sensitive weapons.  I remember the officer whose duty it was to oversee such things.  He was wearing a bathrobe and pajamas.  

Fire under control
Later we learned that more than 20 men had been burned fighting the fire.  The only two fatalities were those killed as a result of the initial explosion.  In a scene reminiscent of World War II,  the Wasp crew pushed seven burned-out helicopters over the side.  Hanger Bay One was a wreck but its armored deck was undamaged.  It had done what it was designed to do:  Save the ship from catastrophic damage.  The aviation gasoline did not ignite.  The system’s lines were purged appropriately, another lesson learned from World War II.  The damage was confined to Hanger Bay One and a few spaces surrounding it.  

It may be said that August 18, 1959 was one of the most significant days of my life.  It was on that day that I learned the importance of team work, the importance of pulling together, even though I was not truly part of the “team.”  That day marked the end of segregation as I had lived it during my first 23 years.   

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The Weakly Reader

Warren Sparrow, Editor and Publisher

1117 West Fourth Street

Winston-Salem, NC 27101