This story brings us back to Torpedo-man’s School in Key West, Florida, in the fall of 1969. It has its last students going through classes before it completely closes down and moves to its new facility in Orlando, Florida. There are ten Petty Officers going through MK 14/16 “C” intermediate maintenance school. While the remaining two hundred Seaman are going through either TM “A” Submarine or Surface schools.
The school is in its own fenced-in compound on the Naval Station Annex. You come into the Annex past the power plant and shrimp boats straight up to the gate. Once you go through the gate you make a right and then another right for the school compound gate. As you pull up to the gate the Administration building and Quarter Deck are to your right and the Guard Shack is on your left.
Once you enter the compound there is a row of buildings on your right. The first building is the old special weapons school which is already located in Orlando. The second building is the Mk 14/16 “C” school building. The third and last building in the row is the Bachelors Chief’s Quarters. To the left when entering the compound is a parking lot and two school buildings. The first building houses the “A” schools. The third is empty at this time for the same reason as the special weapons building…Moving.
Another key element to the layout of the school compound is that the Mk 32 torpedo tubes are located between the MK 14/16 school building and the Chief’s barracks. The tubes are operational and are just outside of the classroom’s large loading dock door. When the “A” school class students fire the tubes they have to be rotated around to face the Chief’s barracks which is a wood-framed, shingled building.
The students in the MK 14/16 class open the loading dock door first thing in the morning so they can take advantage of a nice breeze while they work. Around 1030 hours one of the “A” school surface classes arrives and commences a training session on the MK 32 torpedo tubes. The students in the MK 14/16 class hear the Instructor for the “A” class tell his students that they need to prepare the tubes so that they can fire air slugs. Firing air slugs is a maintenance procedure performed on the tubes to test the firing mechanism. Each tube has an air flask on one end that is charged to at least 1500 pounds per square inch (psi). When the torpedo-man activates the tube-firing procedure, the high pressure air comes out the other end of the tube making more than a fair amount of noise.
Around 1130 all of the Petty Officers in the MK 14/16 class look up and then turn, looking at each other smiling, when they hear the “A” school instructor say the following: “Look we have the flasks charged so let’s stop here and go to lunch. Be back here at 1230 and we will fire these tubes.” This was followed by the “A” school instructor and students disappearing very quickly.
The Petty Officers very quickly divide up the tasks that they need to carry out for their unified but unspoken plan to be acted out on. One of them ran to the tubes and took the tube covers off of the end of the tubes opposite from the air flasks. Then the other nine Petty Officers start running around the compound picking up coconuts that had fallen from the palm trees that were all over the compound. They collected two coconuts each, which they divided evenly between the three tubes that are on each MK 32 mount and put the covers back on.
They went back into their classroom and waited, poker-faced.
Independently the Executive Officer (XO) and several Chiefs had gone to the Chief’s barracks for their daily lunch and siesta break. They would have a quick lunch and then take naps before going back to work every work day.
When 1230 rolls around the “A” school instructor and students start gathering around the tubes. The Petty Officers are waiting for the students to run a quick review of procedures which should result in them finding the coconuts and forcing them to clean each tube prior to firing the air slugs.
What happened next surprised everyone.
The instructor told one of the students to pull the three covers off the tubes. They did as instructed, but did not look in the tubes –They were not instructed to. He then had them crank the tubes around to firing position, pointing at the Chief’s barracks. Before anyone could say anything the instructor fired the top tube and three coconuts went straight through the walls of the chief’s barracks.
Now there is screaming coming from the Chief’s barracks. Shortly, the XO and Chiefs come running out screaming, the XO demands to know, “what the f**k is going on here?!” The Instructor, while stuttering, explains that they are firing an air slug and coconuts had come out of the tube. The XO growls at him, “Didn’t you check the tubes first?!”
The instructor, backed up by his students, said “we did check the tubes” but failed to mention that they had then left for lunch right after.
The XO, still angry, still red in the face, and still swearing said, “Show me what the f**k you did!”
The instructor for some reason unknown to this day, chose to fire a different tube. He fired the bottom left hand tube and three more coconuts went through the walls of the Chief’s barracks. This launched the XO along with the Chiefs, well into the stratosphere. The XO told the Chiefs to make the instructor and his class fix the holes in the walls and then have them march in the compound for the rest of the day.
The Petty Officers closed the loading dock door so the XO and Chiefs could not see them laughing and rolling around on the floor.
The XO banned the firing of the tubes, forevermore. All of the Instructors at the school had been excused from standing military duty…except for one Instructor. For some reason that instructor joined the student Petty Officers on the watch bill after firing the largest shotgun in Key West.
Other Sea Stories by Craig Johnson: