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Noxubee Stories


By Dave Johnson

I served on Noxubee right out of ET school, from October 1958 until first decommissioning in 1959 at the Reserve Fleet in Green Cove Springs, Florida. She was headed for the scrap heap, we were told. So, imagine my surprise in 1968 to see "56" on the bow of an AOG easing out of Da Nang as my new DLG approached. At the time, I didn't know she had been recommissioned.

The Noxubee I knew was a real WWII ship, with diesel-electric drive and a ride like a corkscrew. I was the guy responsible for her electronics equipment, which with the exception of an updated surface-search radar was all old stuff from the Big War. Most of that equipment was barely working, and spare parts were kept in big parts lockers in my ET shop as was done since her first commissioning. It was a challenge to keep the fundamental devices operating while trying to restore everything else to operational condition. It was a tremendous learning experience for a young, inexperienced ET, and taught me how to operate independently and to persevere regardless of the difficulties involved. She was a very relaxed ship by the time I arrived, due in part to the remote pier assignment in Newport Naval Base, and in part to her expected decommissioning. She was finished with her primary job of hauling aviation gasoline, and the last load in her tanks was fresh water taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after Castro acted up and Capt. Bulkely cut the water line to the base in response. What she was at the end of her first commissioned service was sort of like McHale's Navy. However, she had a good crew, somewhat spirited, and we could get underway whenever required.

When I first reported on board, I was met on the pier by the BM1, who brought my seabag up the gang plank and to the quarter deck. Having had some experience with BM1s from deck-force days, I was impressed that he took such a personal interest in me, a lowly ETNSN (but soon to be ET3). It was a WELCOME ABOARD that suggested trouble lay ahead.

It turned out that my arrival was eagerly anticipated by the crew, because the only TV set (black and white) was hardly functioning. There was no money in the Welfare and Rec fund for repairs, so the story went. Within a couple of days, and without any parts, I had rebuilt the TV lead-in cable and the beat-up antenna. Reception was somewhat improved, but still fuzzy and inadequate. I did some basic tube testing and found a couple that were about gone, and they were not in my onboard supplies. I checked, and sure enough, no money was available for a run to Radio Shack. This was very much a concern on the mess deck, because one of the guys was a personal acquaintance of Justine on Dick Clark's Band Stand show and we couldn't appreciate her performance when seen in fuzzy pictures. (Only you old guys will remember Justine.) Within a couple of days, as if by a miracle, the crew's TV was working fine, but the Wardroom set had gone fuzzy. As the assigned electronics technician, I could offer no reason to the Wardroom except that tubes do go bad and sometimes they seem to improve when re-seated. Fortunately, there was money for new tubes for the wardroom set, and it was back in service before the day was out.

A fond memory of Newport, RI in the winter during a Nor'easter is those Icy walks down Long Wharf on liberty, from the pier to town. It was only a few blocks, but with waves breaking over the sidewalk and mixing with snow and ice on the streets, it seemed like a long way.

Noxubee's last contribution to the national defense before decommissioning was to serve as a practice torpedo target for submarines out of New London. We would go out past Block Island, accompanied by a torpedo retriever boat, and steam around in a prescribed location until the subs could stalk us and fire non-lethal torpedoes. Each shot was announced by a smoke flare fired from the sub, and the lookout stationed above the pilot house was supposed to spot the smoke and then watch for the torpedo wake, reporting same to CIC for plotting. I was the assigned lookout, for some reason, and the sight of a live, but hopefully unarmed, torpedo or two headed for mid-ships was cause for a major pucker factor. They never missed in the several target missions we supported, and my respect for submarines went way up. However, after a particularly rough period of high winds during one such exercise, my eyes got so inflamed that the next morning I could only see a red haze and was removed from the lookout station for several days of treatment. Agony for the eye balls, I tell you.

Steaming in and out of Narragansett Bay - fog, wind, snow, ice, lousy, radar broken - was fun indeed. Since I was trained only in the maintenance of radio communication gear, I had to learn radar on the fly. Fortunately, the FT1 assigned for maintenance of the fire-control equipment for the 3" guns was happy to teach me the fundamentals, and helped with the tough problems. I wish I could recall his name. Maybe he'll remember if he visits the web site, and give me a shout.

One of the many eccentricities of Noxubee was the tendency of her electric drive motors, which were directly connected to the two propeller shafts, to cause generators to motorize. This phenomenon was signalled by loud thumps and stalling of the main diesels. Never fully understood the specific circumstances, but it had to do with the props spinning up the propulsion motors in certain seaways, which then fed back to the generators, which then acted like motors, which then sometimes stalled the diesels.

With empty tanks or just light ballast, she would roll enough in moderate seas enough to cause loss of sea-water suction for diesel engine cooling, and she'd lose the electrical load and thus propulsion. This happened several times off Cape Hatteras, and was exciting while rolling around in the dark.

As an old WWII ship, crew accommodations were a bit basic. Instead of porcelain devices in the crew's head, there was a long sanitary trough running fore and aft, with a salt-water discharge at the upper end to provide constant flushing action to the overboard discharge downstream. Just as in some outhouses with which you country boys are familiar, one sat on two boards running along top of the trough, with about 6 inches between them (just enough so that you didn't fall in). There were also some rudimentary dividers along the trough for "privacy." This arrangement made it possible for the practical jokers among us to give shipmates a thrill from flaming heaps of toilet paper floating down the trough, singeing whatever was exposed. It worked better when inserted at the upstream end with a full seating. It was funny at the time to watch shipmates pop up in turn and offer verbal salutes to the perpetrator. A call of nature required constant vigilance.

We had a couple of disciplinary problems on Noxubee. One shipmate finally was court-martialed for his mischief, and got a 90-day hard labor sentence, to be served on board nights and weekends doing Rust and Corrosion Control. This is where the BM1 and duty Masters at Arms stepped in to see that the sentence was served and the work done correctly. Since it was the dead of winter, it made sense for the hard labor to consist of removing all hull insulation in the crew's head, de-rust and paint the bare surface, and replace the insulation with new stuff. Problem was, as soon as the insulation was removed, a couple days of hot steamy showers created several inches of solid ice on the bare surfaces. Don't remember the outcome, but it took a while to get things under control, during which time the head was a might chilly.

One of the cooks tended to over-indulge on liberty, and regularly was returned by the Shore Patrol in his cups. One night, for reasons we never found out, he decided to take revenge on the world and heaved some of his cooking equipment over the side (some pots, kettles, knives). As I recall, they were not replaced, given the pending decommissioning, and he had to cook with makeshift utensils. I never noticed any impact on the food.

On occasion in port, Cook would be was missing on his duty day when time to start breakfast was at hand. The usual response was to do our own cooking, which seemed to work OK. At sea, no problems finding the cook.

You guys who served in the icy climes will remember the "Icy decks and Tankdeck Catwalk Challenge" that got interesting in high winds. There was no way to keep the catwalk free of ice, and it was the main path (and safest one) from the forward section to the after section. The game was to try to slide under wind power from one end of the catwalk to the other without either falling or crashing at high speed into the steel bulkhead at the other end. I was not real good at it, and usually resorted to holding on to the railings.

With the constant wind at Newport and occasional snow storms, Noxubee and her diesel-electric drive was not the best for delicate ship handling. We never used tugs, as I recall, so hard landings at the pier were not unusual. They were so usual, in fact, that it was difficult to get guys on the pier to approach very close until she'd bounced one time. I recall one very bad day when we hit, got a stern line over, and began to drift down until it was singing. One of the shipboard guys got an axe and was about to cut the line until it was pointed out that a nylon line so cut would likely flail around and do some damage. Fortunately, the Captain was able to get the strain relieved with the engines.

All was not fun and games. In December, we rode at anchor in the Ammunition Handling area of Hampton Roads, off Norfolk Naval Station, to transfer all our ammunition to lighters along side. It was a cold, snowy day, and I was assigned to a working party at the forward elevator for 3-inch ammunition. The elevator carried three shells in transport cases, which were stood on end by a Gunner's Mate way down in the magazine. Upon arrival of the elevator at the handling location, we would each grab a shell and take it out to the deck for transfer to the lighter. Things were going fine until we heard a "crunch" as the elevator came up, and smelled what seemed to be ether. When the door opened as the elevator got to the top, the shells were partially decapitated from falling over during the ride up and striking a horizontal frame in the shaft. My heart pounding, I grabbed a shell and ran outside to the lighter, where I handed it to the Chief Gunner's Mate supervising the operation. I still don't know what he did with that or the other two shells, but handling was suspended for an hour while safety was evaluated and our hearts returned to standard locations. May have required some underwear changes, too. However, we completed offloading in the snow and went back to Newport for Christmas.

When we made the trip in early January, 1959, from Newport to Jacksonville, Florida, I was presented an unwelcome challenge (make that order) by the weather and the Captain. It was off Cape Hatteras, and the weather was clear but the wind was very gusty, resulting in lots of snap-rolls and wallowing about because, it seems to me, we were lightly ballasted. At the rear of the antenna platform that was atop the forward mast was a ten-foot steel pipe about 2 inches in diameter, at the top of which was a UHF radio antenna about 2 feet across. The antenna had broken its mount, and was swinging around over the catwalk rather menacingly, requiring the catwalk to be secured. Since it was my equipment, and absent any volunteer, I tied on a safety line and climbed up to the platform. My division officer, brave guy that he was, came up to tend the line as I shinnied up the pole. At the top, I was holding on with one hand as I tried to tape the loose antenna to the pole when rolling was minimal. Whenever I felt a major roll coming, I had to grab the pole with both hands and enjoy the sight of nothing but angry water underneath me, which usually caused the tape to loosen and sail away. However, after a time the loose antenna was secured and we made our way down, and the catwalk was reopened . Captain Kellor was gracious enough to write my first-ever letter of commendation, and I treasure it to this day.

After a stop in a ship yard in Jacksonville for initial layup work, we went on to the Reserve Fleet at Green Cove Springs, down the St. John River. (It was down, or South, because that is one of the few rivers in the U.S. to run to the North.) Noxubee was put out under Maritime rules, which was all electronics and habitability equipment to be off-loaded to warehouses, all spaces to be opened for air circulation, and all topside penetrations to be sealed with the famous silver paste delicately called Monkey Excrement (not the term used by the BM1). A final trip was needed to a dry dock in Jacksonville for bottom painting. Well, wouldn't you know, when the work was done and the dry dock was being flooded down, somebody goofed and opened a sea valve to the dock's pump room which flooded and stuck the old Noxubee for a couple more days.

During the months in Green Cove Springs, I was the only brown-bagger. I had been married just before reporting to Newport in October, so my bride managed to make the trip to Green Cove Springs. We got a small and badly-furnished apartment in what had been WWII Navy housing, which was barely affordable on my new ET3 pay. Eventually we got a used 1954 Chevrolet, which was popular with my shipmates because I drove to the ship and I'd drop them around the area after knock-off. Unfortunately, paydays seemed to be about two days too far apart, and one Friday I had the weekend off and limited resources. Upon counting every cent in the house, we had the grand sum of 98 cents. Since this was 1959, if one had an even dollar one could live fairly well around the base. So, we took out the back seat of the Chevy and found 2 cents. With that dollar, we went to the base movie, had some popcorn and drinks, and still managed 50 cents for gas that was needed to drive to Jacksonville where the ship was located. Fortunately, Monday was also payday, so we survived one more time. I tell my grown kids that story at least once a year as a reminder of the high times us U.S. Navy sailors once enjoyed, and the lessons in money management we got.

As decommissioning neared, another project was being completed in the forward cargo hold. A Ship Fitter First Class (I believe he was) had started construction back in Newport of an inboard motor boat. He worked on that thing all during decommissioning, and close to the end declared it ready for launching. It was lifted out of the hold and into the water, and stayed afloat. The engine ran, and the craft passed its sea trials. He got his transfer orders soon after, to a ship in Norfolk. After a leisurely run up the Inland Waterway, he actually pulled along side his next duty station, requested permission to come aboard, and reported on time to the OOD. I heard that story for some years afterwards during my stay in the Norfolk area.

So, it was eventually the End of the Line for Noxubee. The last piece of equipment to go was the coffee maker. Unfortunately, the last couple of days required reuse of old grounds, since we had none and still had a two-man watch at night. Makes really lousy coffee. I remember how spooky the old lady was that final couple of weeks, when you had to roam around checking for problems and could hear what sounded like footsteps and strange noises. The tank deck would reverberate from any impulse, even cooling off at night. We did our best to assure she was laid up suitable for future use, even though the common wisdom was that she'd be turned into razor blades within six months. Our work was not in vain, under Captain Kellor's supervision, as proven by the apparition I saw in 1968 at Da Nang from the deck of a brand new missile shooter, USS Biddle (DLG 34) which I had commissioned as a Data System Chief.

My orders from Noxubee were to report to a wooden MSO at Little Creek, VA. I guess the detailer figured that if hauling aviation gas was not sufficiently hazardous, maybe dodging splinters resulting from mine activation would be the final test. However, the six months or so on Noxubee were about the most interesting I ever experienced. Turned out to be good training for operating in a non-traditional environment that definitely was the MSO world of that time.