Saving the Ensign

The U.S. Navy Fulton-class submarine tender US...

The U.S. Navy Fulton-class submarine tender USS Howard W. Gilmore (AS-16) at La Maddalena, Sardinia in late 1973/early 1974. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Craig Johnson USN (Retired)

The USS Orion AS-18 had just changed homeports.  She had been home ported in Norfolk, Virginia at Destroyer and Submarine Piers number 22 for so long no one on active duty remembered when she had first moved there.

US Navy Submarine tender

USS Orion AS-18

The USS L.Y. Spear AS-36 was a brand new Submarine Tender that had relieved her so she could relieve the USS Gilmore AS-16 in Charleston, South Carolina.

USS L. Y. Spear (AS-36)

USS L. Y. Spear (AS-36) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When navy ships change home ports there is what is called cross decking.  This is when sailors are allowed to trade duty assignments for their benefit, according to what their detailers tell them.  In reality it saves the Navy money by not moving all of the families and paying the associated costs.  What this does is disrupt the experience level of the Officers and Crew.   In this homeport change the Orion had received a brand new Ensign. A Supply Officer just out of school and new to the Navy.

As all Sailors know, you never let Ensign’s out unattended.  If you do, they can create all kinds of trouble for themselves and the Command.

The Marine Detachment on Charleston Naval Base recognized the opportunity that this young Ensign provided for them to get out from under a problem that I will describe in detail later in this story.

The Marine Detachment had custody of an ammunition magazine located just across the street from the Orion’s new home pier Papa.  The Gunnery Sergeant was able to convince this Ensign that he was to take custody, officially, of this magazine for the Orion.  The Ensign proudly signed the official documents, and then  he went happily back to the ship and up to the Supply Office to inform the Supply Officer, a Commander (CDR), that he had expedited the transfer of an ammunition magazine on the Naval Base to the Orion’s custody.

When the Supply Officer heard what his new Ensign had done He knew something was drastically wrong.  As the Ensign stood in front of him smiling and proudly waving the keys to the lock on the door of the magazine, the CDR asked the Ensign, “What, if anything, is in that magazine?”

Calmly and confidently, as if he had done nothing wrong, the Ensign responded. “I don’t know, I didn’t check.”

When the CDR was pried off of the overhead by the Supply Department’s Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO), he ordered the LCPO to go with the Ensign and find out what he had signed for.

When the Supply Ensign and Chief got to the magazine the Ensign unlocked the doors and swung them open with the help of the Chief.  The magazine was empty…Except for two crates just inside the doors up against the left hand wall.  One box was marked “white phosphorous grenades’ (WP) while the other one was marked “concussion grenades.”  The Chief advised the Ensign to shut the doors and lock them before anyone came by and saw what was in the magazine.  They locked up the magazine and headed back to tell the CDR all about his new acquisition.

Upon being informed by the Supply LCPO of the contents of the magazine the Supply Boss called the Weapons Boss, a Lieutenant Commander (LCDR). The CDR informed the LCDR about the situation, wanting to know if he can have someone check on the status of the boxes of grenades.

Now is when the real power brokers get involved; the two Chiefs who have to solve this problem created by the Ensign.  The Supply LCPO and the Weapons LCPO go over to the magazine to evaluate the situation. The Weapons LCPO determines that both cases of grenades are armed and rusty.  Even worse, the cases holding the WP grenades were decomposing at an alarming rate.

These Chiefs now head back to the Chief’s mess on the ship and get in contact with the Deck Department LCPO.  The three Chiefs then come up with a plan to eliminate this problem for the command.

The Boatswain Chief gets a motor whale boat and crew to pull up to the sea wall across the street from the magazine.  The crew of the boat had canvas tarps that can be hung over the side of the boat to hide identifying markings.

The Weapons Chief grabs four of his most experienced Second Class Petty Officers to move the grenades from the magazine to the motor whale boat.  This is done by hand with two of the Petty Officers carrying to two crates while the others stop traffic as they cross the main road going the length of the base during the lunch hour.

Once everything is loaded and all the sailors are on the motor whale boat they get underway going up the Cooper River past the paper mill to the Naval Weapons Station.  Once they are out of site of the Navy Base and before they come into site of the piers at the Naval Weapons Station they drop the tarps over the side and tie them off so that no one can tell where they are from.

As they clear the bend in the river and come in site of the piers for the Naval Weapons Station, they notice that the Marines are stationed at the head of one of the piers.  The Chief says, “Let’s give these damn things back to the Marines! Pull up to the far end of the pier away from those Marines.” The Weapons guys grabbed the crates and balanced them on the gunnel (top edge of side of boat) while the coxswain slowly drove the boat past the end of the pier heading back down river.  As they passed the end of the pier they set the crates on it as the coxswain immediately gave the boat full throttle.

Once the boat was out of site of the Weapons Station, the crew pulled the tarps back aboard and stowed them away out of site, prior to being visible by anyone on the Navy Base.

When the sailors stowed everything and went back aboard the Orion the Supply Officer, Weapons Officer, and the Ensign were standing next to the Brow used by the Crew to go on and off the ship during working hours.  Just as the last Sailor came aboard the Ensign asks, “Chief what did you do?”

Before the Chief could answer, the CDR growled, “Mr. you do not want to know what they did!” He continued. “You just need to understand that these sailors just saved your f*****g Naval Career!”

So once again the Chiefs saved another Ensign.

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