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USS Yorktown's Last War

by Pat Dingle
Joining the Navy at the ripe old age of 17 years 3 weeks, and not able to swim, I reported aboard the WW2 aircraft carrier USS Yorktown CVS 10 right out of boot camp in San Diego in Aug.1964. I was assigned to Operations Intelligence, OI div., Combat Information Center as a radarman. In boot camp I had requested sonar in subs when asked, I'm learning how it works in the Navy. Whenever the Yorktown shoved off from a pier or weighed anchor nearly every station in CIC was manned and stayed that way until we hit port again. We practiced war drills 24-7 as soon as we were far enough out to sea from Long Beach to turn on the powerful air search radar and crank up the surface radars. To do so in port would have knocked most television stations in the LA area off the air, something I wanted to do every time. Our war game drills consisted of every civilian water craft, be it a ten foot fishing boat or a commercial freighter. The air war we fought was intense within a hundred miles of land. You'd be surprised at how many piper cubs we'd track as though each one was a kamikaze bent on sinking us. So it goes in the mind of a seventeen year old E-2 sailor learning the intense art of correctly interpreting and tracking pinpoint radar returns on his scope and reporting the data to all the other stations within our system via sound power phones. And believe me it's an art, not a science. Contacts would be "painted" a lime green color on the scope each time the radar beam hit it as the antenna swept 360 degrees about every 30 seconds or so and then fade until painted again. Many conditions such as heavy seas or storms would distort or cause the contact to "disappear" from the scope, driving a good radarman crazy, especially when there were numerous contacts. To help solve this potentially disastrous situation all contacts were marked on the scope's glass cover with a grease pencil about every five to ten sweeps. All unknown or contacts of concern were also plotted by an E-2 or 3 on one or more large upright Plexiglas charts. Generally each radar station had at least one upright chart depicting what the radar operator was seeing. By these means we were almost always able to "pick up" the contact at some point, knowing the general area of the sea or air it was last seen and where it should be if it hadn't change course. The chart boards also allowed the CIC watch officers to see at a glance any and all activity. Up on the bridge our radarman standing watch there maintained an identical chart for the Captain's benefit, giving him the "big picture" at a glance. We were all connected via sound powered phones sounding like an angry beehive.
CIC consisted of about nine or ten radar stations, divided into what we called the "air picture" and the "surface picture", along with the several plotting boards or upright maps drawn on the charts per radar station, the radio telephones for ship to ship communication worn by the chart plotters, one to three watch officers on a raised platform against the back bulkhead with their own radarscopes and a top secret electronic counter measure equipment (ECM) room behind a thick green curtain. That's also where we kept the most used station in CIC, the large coffee pot. There were numerous other electronic devises within reach of most of the stations as well. I think the term multi-tasking was invented in here or maybe it was a one armed paperhanger. CIC is located directly under the island and flight deck in an armor plated, air conditioned space a mole would love. I'm talking very dark. The only light emits from the scopes and charts. In order to read a message you'd have to turn on a small spot light in the overhead and move the message back and fourth under a narrow beam of light. There were only two ways to enter this very restricted space, one from a small passageway on the starboard side and through the ECM room, our usual route, or from an inside passageway where the pilots ready rooms, Air Intelligence Office and "Flag Country" spaces were located. There was one more door, directly behind the CIC watch officers. The Admiral's war room was on the other side of that door. It was understood it generally stayed closed unless his staff opened it to slum with our officers. Sometime I'll post about the time in early 1965 we were steaming far north of the DMZ in the Gulf of Tonkin when the Admiral and all his officers burst through that door about 0300 and ran directly up to me, scaring the shit outta me as I dosed with one ear open, ordering me to broadcast an emergency radio transmission requesting help from the combat air patrol (Cap) flying 24/7 over the fleet down south.....the "Yorktown is coming under attack by two North Vietnamese torpedo boats". I remember it well, their door was grey.
When the Yorktown, her four destroyer escorts and air crews, left Long Beach in late 1964 for a routine six month west-pac cruse I was ready. We had conducted a number of short shakedown periods at sea of a week or two each for carrier landings, general sea trials and every conceivable drill for every division aboard ship just to make damn sure everything was in syntax the Navy way. I had my sea legs by now and couldn't wait for us to head over to West-Pac for our regular six month deployment, I can't clean the OI division heads if I'm on duty in CIC. Or so I thought at the time. I learned soon enough that rank and seniority means something aboard ship. All those bennies would come to me over the next three years but meanwhile I'm enjoying every minute of my life in the Navy. I was meant to go to sea and that's saying something for a guy from the desert. Another CIC duty station I enjoyed was lookouts high up on the 07 level where we could watch all the activity on the flight deck during air ops, scan the horizon for ships, watch the flying fish as they glided over the water, occasionally see porpoises, sharks, and shooting stars while snorting stack gas. In the South China Sea sea snakes were common along with floating debris from junks. One of the joys I'll never forget is steaming westward across the Pacific and the great ocean swells out there. Our bow would rise high in the air as we rode the hill of water to the top then plunge over to the bottom of the trough on the other side. If the swells were timed right it felt like I was back home on my gently loping horse. If the next hill of water came too soon and we'd hit it at the base, it was like hitting a solid block wall and the Yorktown would pause then shutter as she force her way forward. I've seen green water twenty five feet high coming over the bow at those moments, and keep in mind the flight deck is 83 feet up from the water line. That always made us grin and say we hit a rock. Never tired of that joke. The other amusing aspect was speculating on how many of the crews aboard our four destroyer escorts were puking their guts out as their ships twisted and turned in those rough seas. Somehow that always came up when we'd meet those guys on the beach, we'd make sure of that. They usually came back with something highly insulting to us in turn like the Yorktown's crew can shoot pool in such seas and it's the tin can sailors who are the real Navy. Nothing we could come back with but bend over like we're barfing and laugh a lot. We had one guy who really would barf if it were later into the night and he had tipped a few too many. We truly did work well together with those tin can sailors at sea and played well on liberty ( I never knew whether there was a pool table aboard or not).
It was in November of 1964 while steaming to Japan when it came. I was off duty in our sleeping quarters when suddenly the Yorktown made a hard turn to port and started making 30 plus knots. You could always tell by the way she vibrated. I was wondering what the hell was going on as I knew there were no air operations that day and that we were on a straight run to our next port of call. I thought about going up to CIC to find out when the boatswain whistle came over the M1c and "Stand by for special announcement" then "This is the Captain speaking. If all went according to plan, elements of the 7th fleet attacked North Vietnam thirty minutes ago. Our orders are to proceed to Vietnam. I don't know yet if we are at war. I'll keep you advised. That is all". A moment in time like when you heard Kennedy was shot. And so it began for the USS Yorktown and her crews, from World War 2 to now, her last war. We arrived on our duty station deep in the Gulf of Tonkin just days later for something a few months later called "Operation Rolling Thunder", the start of the sustained air war against North Vietnam on Feb. 24th 1965 and a month before the Marines first landed 3,500 men in Vietnam at DaNang on March 8th to guard the air base there. All the training I've had up till now had kicked into a shooting war with on the job training. OI stood watches 7 hours on then 5 off, 5 hours on then 7 off every day of the week for months, you get good at your duty very quickly. With so many of our military's aircraft shot down or shot up over North Vietnam during the next few years, with 170 (94 were Navy) by Dec. 24th 1965 alone, the Yorktown's mission had changed from anti-submarine warfare to the air-sea-land rescue of pilots hit north of the DMZ. CIC was the very first step in that process. I heard many a pilot's last words as he's going down. Saw on my scope many more hit and "squawk" his emergency IFF then nothing more, unknown fate. I'll write future stories of some of those rescues I took part in from CIC, tell of the time the Yorktown nearly beached on the North Vietnam coast, the many North Vietnamese Mig jets I tracked, the ever growing number of surface to air missile sites on our boards, The Yorktown's Sea King helicopter shot down killing the entire crew three days before I was to go out on patrol on one, the pilot who was shot down over the North, rescue aborted due to hundreds of NVA at the site firing at the rescuers, yet picked up the next morning alive and well. I heard the entire event, shoot down to rescue, on my headset. Interesting times, lots of memories, serving aboard the Yorktown on my 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays in the South China Sea combat zone as a charter member of the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club and then later the USS Pueblo "Incident". Wouldn't have missed any of the Yorktown's last, my first, war for the world. Fortunately, I didn't.