By Sean Peters
Part I – Preparations
This story takes place in 1989. Internally, the Soviet Union was not in such great shape, but from the outside looking in, it was still quite formidable.
I was assigned to USS Brewton (FF 1086), a Knox-class frigate out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We had returned from deployment, been through a yard period, and were doing our workups. Of course, we were also available for whatever tasking COMNAVSURFGRU MIDPAC (our local Admiral) decided he needed done.
We were a model ship, as evidenced by our berthing assignment. It was widely known that the Admiral wanted his best commands close to him, and his office looked out over the higher-numbered end of the Bravo piers. These started at B-20, down by Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard (aka “the Navy’s No Ka Oi [number 1] Shipyard”). This part of the Bravo piers was known as the “penalty box”, because it was far from Pearl’s amenities – if you were berthed on that end, you were in dutch with the Admiral. They ran up to B-26, but the best spot was B-25… right outside his window. This was routinely where we were berthed… on the occasions when we were in port.
However, being the Admiral’s pet had its downside. It meant that we got picked for all those little missions – helo deck landing quals (DLQs), submarine tracking services, SAR, you name it. But after months of out on Monday, back on Friday… or maybe the next Friday… we finally pulled in with the idea that we were finally going to get some in port time. We scheduled an availability (meaning, the ship was going to be “available” to the intermediate maintenance activity to do repairs). Many, many schools were scheduled. Leave was planned. Etc. But, ominously, as we were preparing to enter port, we received a message: USS Brewton: assume duties as ready destroyer as of (Monday).
We emitted a collective groan. We had been ready destroyer on and off since the beginning of the year, and this status had precipitated most of these continual underway periods. We all took comfort in the idea that we kept getting tagged with it because we were good. We pulled in, passed the lines over, and duly ran up the “Romeo” flag from the yardarm.
Monday rolled around. Sandcrabs swarmed over the ship, working on the massive maintenance package we had developed. Sailors went off to leave and their schools. I was bound for Boilerwater/Feedwater Chemistry (Basic), on Ford Island, as part of my preparation to get qualified as Engineer Officer of the Watch (EOOW). The first day went by uneventfully. I was enjoying the class and looking forward to finishing.
Fast forward to Tuesday. I hop on the boat to Ford Island (there was no bridge in those days), and report to day two. The morning class goes by. I hop a ride back to the main part of base for lunch, eat, go back. I’m in class that afternoon when it happens. BTI is going on about hydrazine/morpholine layup when a petty officer comes into the room and whispers something in his ear.
BT1: “Mr. Peters, can you come up here, please.” Dumbfounded, I go to the front of the room. The rest of the class is staring at me.
BT1: “Sir, you need to go pack your skivvies and report to your ship ASAP. You’re getting underway.”
Me: “What? Why?”
BT1: “Don’t know, sir. I’m just delivering the message.”
I gather up my stuff, hop the next boat back to the mainside, rush home, pack my shit. Rush back to the ship.
The sandcrabs are gone. But there’s a fueling barge alongside, and the crew is frantically taking on chow and other stores. No one seems to know what the hell we’re doing. I get my gear up to my stateroom, then track down LT Brown, my old boss.
Me: “OPS, what the hell is going on.”
OPS (stone-faced): “I can’t tell you. But you’re the OOD for sea & anchor detail, so be in the wardroom in an hour for the pre-underway brief.”
An hour goes by, and I’m camped out in the wardroom, nervously drinking coffee. The sea & anchor team filters in, subdued. The CO shows up, brief gets underway. The navigator gives the standard brief – this is the track, this is where there are shoals, we should get to PH (a nav point near the mouth of the harbor) at such and such time, etc. Any questions?
I stick up my hand. “Yeah. Where are we going?”
The Captain gives me a look. There’s an uncomfortable silence. “You’ll know soon enough,” he says.
The brief breaks up. Not long thereafter, over the 1MC: “All hands man your sea & anchor stations.” I report to the bridge, and begin running the checklist. Rudders are functional, radars up, engine order telegraph functioning normally, radio circuits up, boilers/engines functioning normally, etc. We’re ready. The tugs arrive and are made up. The harbor pilot arrives. We pull in the lines, pull away from the pier. The tugs get us headed fair down the channel, and we’re off. In an hour we’ll be in the open sea.
Soon enough, we’re leaving Pearl behind us. The CO directs me to bring the second boiler online. Interesting. Wherever we’re going, we’re going there fast. I get on the horn with main control to make this happen. Then he gets on the 1MC. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was to this effect:
Gentlemen: I’m sure you’re all curious about why we had to get underway so suddenly, and why there was so much secrecy. In fact, we have been tasked with Operation ____ _____ (using a code word I can’t reproduce here) – we’re to intercept and follow a Soviet task group that is conducting an ICBM tracking exercise. Our mission is to gather as much Intel as we can regarding this new ICBM. I know this is unexpected, but I need all of you to provide your best efforts to make this mission a success.
I was floored. Now that we were cut off from the world, the details could come out without fear of information leaks. The Soviet group was coming out of Vladivostok and included a missile tracking ship, their equivalent of the USNS Observation Island – a huge platform with multiple radomes meant for missile tracking. This was fortunate, as even with both boilers we weren’t very fast, but the missile tracker wasn’t either, so the intercept was going to be a doable thing. Our intercept point was somewhere in the vicinity of Midway, which was something like a thousand miles to the west-northwest of Oahu. With luck, we could be there in a few days. We began speeding in that direction.
Elaborate plans were drawn. “Snoopy” (surveillance) teams were to be manned 24/7. In the event of a close ICBM landing, any loose bits and pieces were to be retrieved for analysis, and a system of buckets on ropes was to be used to gather water samples (the XO’s brainchild, this was viewed as being of dubious practicality and usefulness by most of us). Rule of engagement were reviewed. Details of the ship types expected were studied. We were ready in all respects.
The next day, I had just been relieved and was standing around on the bridge wing, enjoying the day for a minute before I went down, when I heard, over the 21MC:
“Sir, EW is picking up a Don series radar, bearing 010.”
So, I thought. The party’s fixing to start. We were radiating the AN/SPS-10, so no doubt they knew we were here as well. And then:
“Sir, three contacts, designated skunk Alfa, Bravo, and Charlie, bearing 030, range 21 miles.”
“I see ’em, Chief. Obviously the Russians.”
“I need the course and speed and a recommendation to intercept, please.”
“Stand by, sir.”
In due time, recommendations were made and accepted, and we fell in with the Soviet group. They increased speed a bit at our approach, but the missile tracker did not appear to be able to go much faster than 20 knots, which we could have done with one boiler. She and her escorts continued to the southeast, with us in formation.
We ran to the southeast for days. We had been provided with an extensive list of “tippers” – behavior on the part of the missile tracker that something was about to happen. The Snoopy teams kept the ship under constant surveillance, looking for any signs of these. But nothing seemed to be happening – just an endless trip to the southeast, in the general direction of Kiribati. When would the launch happen?
Part II – A Line Is Crossed
This is where the Cold War began to get amusing. I wasn’t on watch when it happened, but we were all spending quite a bit of time topside, so I was up on the signal bridge when the Snoopy team made a report.
“Bridge, signal bridge.”
“Sir, we’re seeing some activity on the missile tracker.”
“Well, what is it? “
“Sir, they’re… building something on deck?”
“Look amidships, sir. Between the two deck houses.”
“What… what the hell is that thing?”
“Sir, I have no idea. This isn’t anything they briefed us to expect.”
“Hold on, I need to call the Captain about this.”
We all spent the next several hours, taking turns looking through the big eyes at the structure being built on the deck of the missile tracker. Activity ceased around dinner time, and we were all scratching our heads. It was baffling. Whatever this structure was, it was looking pretty ramshackle. And it was far from clear what it could possibly have to do with the matter at hand.
The next morning, construction resumed. I was on watch when we finally realized what was going on. The Bo’s’ns mate of the watch and I were looking at it, when he said: sir… that thing looks like a throne. The realization struck us both at once: the Soviets were planning to cross the line! Crossing the equator is a big deal for all sailors, and it certainly appeared as if they were preparing for the arrival of King Neptune. The Captain came up to check it out for himself, and agreed: sure looks like that’s what they mean to do.
This meant a couple things: 1) we had at least a couple hundred more miles to go before anything happened, and 2) we were going to need to get our own crossing the line ceremony together, quick. We began to feel a certain kinship with our Soviet buddies.
So once again, we were scrambling, this time to put together an appropriate reception for King Neptune. Certain trusty shellbacks were, alas, unable to participate in the festivities because they were needed to keep up surveillance of the missile tracker, but there were enough of us to properly cleanse the wogs of their sliminess and indoctrinate them into the Ancient Mysteries of the Deep. I was an old hand at this by this time, having crossed the line twice already, but I mainly saw my role as preventing things from getting too out of hand. Back in the day, being a wog crossing the line meant you were definitely getting your ass beat, eating revolting “foods”, crawling through garbage, having greasy substances rubbed all over you, and/or participating in drag shows. It’s a kinder, gentler Navy now, but in those days some of the shellbacks could get a little too enthusiastic about their work, so it was important for someone to keep the whole business from getting out of control.
Meanwhile, much the same scene was playing out aboard the missile tracker and escorts. We collectively got all our wogs taken care of, cleaned ourselves up, and continued our southeasterly journey. So now what?
Part III – Glory to the International Worker!
We settled back into our journey. Right after we intercepted, one of the destroyers escorting the missile carrier had made a move as if to shoulder us off – maneuvering to interpose between us and the missile tracker in an attempt to force us away, but the Captain was having none of it. The Russian ship was evidently unwilling to risk a collision, so for the rest of the journey to date we settled in almost as if we were in formation: the missile tracker in the center, us just aft of her starboard beam, one of the destroyers off our port quarter, and another destroyer off the missile tracker’s port bow. Many jokes were made about our “Soviet-American task force” and how the flagship needed to be better about signaling what the formation was supposed to be, etc. Occasionally the destroyer astern of us would retrieve our garbage bags, evidently to pick through them for Intel. The next joke was that we ought to package up some old Playboys for them (although we never did it, to my knowledge).
But only half a day or so after we crossed the line, the situation changed. The Soviets slowed way down, and instead of going somewhere purposefully, began drilling holes in the ocean – in other words, steaming about in circles. Evidently we had finally reached the target area.
This initiated a period of boredom, somewhat mixed with concern. On one hand, nothing seemed to be happening. But on the other, we were getting low on fuel and beginning to bob like a cork. Also, we had already run through most of our supply of “FF&V” (fresh fruits and vegetables) and were beginning to rely on the canned stuff. Dairy was down to a couple days. The CO had been reporting our logistic status back to Pearl, and even before we arrived at the target area, USS Willamette (AO 180) had been dispatched to catch up with us for refueling and replenishment, but it was going to take nearly a week for her to get there. We began to make nervous jokes about scurvy, and although it was quite unlikely in that part of the Pacific in late April, began worrying about the possibility of a typhoon (which can be devastating if you have insufficient fuel for ballast or to run away).
Days passed. And once again we began asking ourselves: are they going to launch the goddamn thing or what? We ran completely out of FF&V. Began relying on powdered milk and eggs. And Willamette was still at least a couple days out. But finally: I was doing some work when the word got out. Something was happening on the deck of the missile tracker. I made my way topside, along with a bunch of the crew.
Something was going on, all right. The Soviet crew had a huge piece of what appeared to be cloth on deck, and were doing something with it. The CIC officer (LTJG Jim Mirabile) was up on deck as well, and I asked him if he had any idea what was going on. Damn if I know, he said. As usual, they never mentioned this as one of the tippers. We both made our way up to the bridge wing to see if we could gain any more information.
By the time we got there, it became clear what was going on. They were about to launch… a balloon? The cloth was rapidly filling with helium (hot air? Couldn’t tell), and beginning to lift up off the deck. The Captain had come up to the bridge, and was getting a little agitated – they were upwind of us, and this thing was going to blow down right over top of us. What the hell was it for?
Finally the thing rose into the air and launched… trailing Soviet and American flags below it. The Snoopy team reported that the Russian crew were waving. Some appeared to be saluting. We were… confused. Until Mirabile pointed out to the CO: sir, it’s 01 May. May Day. This must be some kind of holiday salute or something. We were all thinking: you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Where the hell did they even GET an American flag that big (the flags were huge)?
The flag-festooned balloon passed over our bow as expected, as the CO said, well, what are we going to do as a gesture in return? Does anyone speak Russian?
The answer turned out to be no.
XO: Why don’t we spell out “Happy May Day” via flaghoist?
No one had a better idea, so the Captain told the COMMO to make it happen. Sigs manned up the flag bags right away, and within a minute or two, the signal was in the air. Then:
“Bridge, signal bridge.”
“Sir, the Russians are getting ready to send a signal themselves.”
“Very well, let me know what it says.”
“It’ll be just a minute, sir. Looks like they’re still getting it ready.”
Then: flags run up the yardarm of the Soviet ship.
“Bridge, signal bridge.”
“Sir, the message: TANK YOU VERY… in plaintext.”
“Uhhh, “TANK YOU VERY”?” (Laughing)
We were all dying. The Captain, in a festive mood, said, let’s fire off a flare in celebration. A gunner’s mate was duly sent for a flare pistol, positioned himself about amidships… and fired the flare. There was one small problem. Instead of firing it up into the air, HE FIRED IT DIRECTLY AT THE MISSILE TRACKER. (moral: give your people clear instructions.)
We all emitted an audible gasp as the flare streaked toward our erstwhile friends… but thankfully, fell well short. If the Russians even saw it, they didn’t react in any noticeable way. We breathed a sigh of relief that World War III was not started that day. With both us and the Russians apparently out of ideas for further celebrating, we went back to our routine.
Part IV – Epilog
Another few days went by. By this time we were subsisting mostly on fresh baked bread and canned and dried goods, as we were out of just about everything else. The CO was becoming frantic about our fuel state – we literally were not going to be able to go on much longer if Willamette didn’t show up. But, finally, one midwatch, she did. The OOD was my buddy, LTJG Paul Bevans, the A&E (auxiliaries and electrical) division officer. Bevans was half Brazilian, and universally known as “the Mutant” – earlier in his shipboard career, he had served as midshipman coordinator. During this period, he referred to his charges as his “mutant warriors of death” (he was a very enthusiastic man). The name, however, stuck to him.
In any case, the Mutant was on deck when we made contact with Willamette – nice big blip coming from the north, right IFF, right EW emissions, etc. We got on the horn with them and began setting up an UNREP. But at that point, an accented voice crackled over the bridge to bridge radio (channel 16 VHF, the international hailing frequency):
“US Navy wessel on my starboard beam, this is Soviet Navy wessel on your port beam. Over.”
Mutant: “… this is US Navy vessel. Over.”
Soviets: “US Navy wessel. Who is that ship comink toward us?”
All they would have seen was an AN/SPS-10, which was the most common surveillance radar in the fleet at the time. As far as the Russians were concerned, this could have been anything. I guess they felt that since we were such great friends now, we’d be happy to spell out what was happening.
Mutant: “Uhhh, I’m afraid I can’t give you that information. Over.”
Soviets: “Roger, out.”
It became clear enough to them at first light, though, when we broke off from the formation to refuel. Willamette had stopped a little short of the formation, but the Soviets could likely identify her distinctive superstructure, and in any case, our radar blip essentially merging with hers would have made it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt what was going on. We went alongside and began taking on a big drink of badly needed fuel, plus every imaginable kind of chow via VERTREP and cargo STREAM (the Standard Tensioned Alongside Replenishment Method – the modern way to transfer stuff from a replenishment ship to the customer ship). While this operation was in progress, we and Willamette got a message from the homefront:
041832Z MAY 89
FM COMNAVSURFGRU MIDPAC
TO USS BREWTON
INFO COMDESRON TWO SIX
SUBJ: TURNOVER OF OPERATION __ ___ SURVEILLANCE DUTIES
1. FOR BTN: UPON RDVZ W WMT, CONDUCT UNREP, THEN CONDUCT TURNOVER BRIEF FOR WMT CREW. UPON COMPLETION, RTHP [return to homeport].
2. FOR WMT: REMAIN IN COMPANY OF SOVIET VESSELS AND MONITOR FOR MISSILE TEST RESULTS PER BRIEFING. REPORT RESULTS PER INSTRUCTIONS PROVIDED BY BTN.
[Note: Paraphrase of the actual message. The real thing would have been classified SECRET and contained considerably more detail, but this gives you the flavor of what was said]
So we were done. We completed our UNREP, broke away, provided Willamette with the details of what we had seen and what to do, and headed home, leaving the Russians in her care. We found out later via the grapevine that the ICBM test never did come off – Willamette followed them around for a couple of weeks, nothing ever happened, the Russians started heading north again, and Willamette was ordered home too.
So, a little anticlimactic after all that. But it was a very interesting Cold War encounter – plenty of ships had experiences with the Soviet Navy where they were very aggressive and confrontational. But our experience showed they could be nice guys, too.