By Martha Jette
While I am grateful to be a part of ‘Sea Stories,’ I hope you all agree that these stories cannot all portray the happy and fun events involved in Navy life. It just would not be realistic. What follows is one incident that haunts many a sailor to this day, including me ~Ron Burwell
The USS Belknap (CG-26) had just finished a long and hard NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) exercise in November 1975. The Naval Striking and Support Forces link U.S. Maritime forces into NATO operations. Thus the Navy provides a standing force for United Nations operations worldwide by providing ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel when needed. Because of this arrangement, NATO exercises are held so they can work jointly when necessary.
The ship had just broken off from the task force, passed through the Strait of Messina and was headed back to Gaeta, Italy. The group continued east just past Sicily at about 23:45 hours when they started to get ready for night flight operations. The guided missile cruiser, the USS Belknap (CG-26) was assigned to move from picket ship (meaning the sailors maintained a watch) to aft (toward the stern or rear of the ship) of the aircraft carrier, the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67).
The USS Kennedy had just finished its NATO exercises as well, had a port call at Catania, Sicily and then traveled the Strait of Messina.
On November 22, the OOD (officer of the deck) aboard the Belknap made a fatal mistake. Instead of flanking port, increasing speed and swinging around, he turned to starboard and slowed to save time. As a result, the two ships collided and the Belknap’s superstructure ended up under the John F. Kennedy’s overhanging flight deck.
In the process, fuel lines were ruptured and gasoline spewed across the Belknap’s deck. The gas ignited and “blazed up” the Belknap’s port side. It is said that firefighters got the fire under control topside in about 10 minutes but a “receiving room below burned for several hours.”
Heavy smoke forced the “evacuation of all the carrier’s fire rooms,” forcing the ship to go “dead in the water.” On top of that, there was ammunition aboard the Belknap that began firing, sending “fiery fragments into the air.”
Because of the presence of nuclear weapons on board both ships, the commander of Carrier Striking Forces for the Sixth Fleet sent a secret nuclear weapons accident message (a “Broken Arrow”) to the Pentagon, warning of the “high probability that nuclear weapons aboard the Belknap (W45 Terrier missile warheads) were involved in fire and explosion but there were no direct communications with the Belknap at that time and no positive indications that explosions were directly related to nuclear weapons. An hour after the Broken Arrow message was sent the USS Claude V. Rickettes (DDG 5), alongside the BELKNAP fighting the fire, reported that BELKNAP personnel said “no radiation hazard exists aboard”.
Since this fire endangered the lives of the sailors, vessels operating with the John F. Kennedy pulled alongside with no regard for their own safety in an attempt to rescue them as those ammo fragments hit their boats as well. The guided missile destroyer USS Claude V Rickets (DDG-5) and the destroyer USS Bordelon (DD-881) pulled in close on either side with fire hoses to help put out the blaze. The frigate USS Pharris (FF-1094) also provided assistance.
With the sailors refusing to abandon their ship, only the seriously wounded were rescued. As a result, the Belknap lost seven sailors, with 23 men suffering serious injuries. Aboard the John F. Kennedy, Yeoman 2nd Class David A. Chivalette succumbed to smoke inhalation and two others suffered injuries from the fire.
Sailors who saw the Belknap afterward, said the superstructure was “nearly completely melted and destroyed down to the main deck level.” The Belknap was towed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where it was “decommissioned and rebuilt.”
However, as Ron Burwell stated: “The worst losses of all were the lives of the sailors who perished that day. R.I.P. my brothers.”
In addition to the Sailor, Yeoman 2nd Class David A. Chivalette, who died on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), here are the names of the sailors who perished aboard the USS Belknap (CG-26)…We thank you for your service, and for making the ultimate sacrifice for our country: