By Dan Bodine
Reading about the U.S. Navy’s plan for “Chaplains to serve as counselors aboard all Navy destroyers by 2025″ brought back a frightening time almost 55 years ago when I rode a bosun’s chair from the aircraft carrier I was on, over to one of these “tin can” destroyers — all to fix it’s radar IFF unit.
Memorable, it was, yeah! Some of my ol’ seafaring days as a Navy electronics technician back during the Vietnam War era. My ship was homeported on the east coast; so I never worried about being sent into a combat zone.
But if you’ve ever had to fight back the bottom-of-your-stomach’s urge to let choppy seas and wind paint your face with the remains of that morning’s breakfast, you might enjoy this little story. God often acts in strange ways, yes.
Don’t know much on the destroyer, as perspective, but this aircraft carrier was more than a thousand feet long and housed a crew of about 5,000 sailors. A floating city armed to the gill! I was scared a bit of getting smashed by it, yes! In case of a fall.
Was it possible in this wind, a mishap in either of the cables could sling a person crashing into either one of the two ships’ hulls? Or into the ocean’s wild water dunk below?
‘Ya know damn well those fears cross a person’s mind when saddled in one of these hoists!
Or even: Bo, did you even think to bring a life jacket? Or was the only thing you were interested in was grabbing a replacement tube for tube for V208!?
Ah…Good ol’ tube V208. The bats in the IFF‘s belfry!
While serving as a Navy third-class radar electronic technician (ETR3) 52-53 yrs. ago aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence (CVA-62), I actually was sent across once on one of these bosun’s chairs while at sea, to figure out why the destroyer’s IFF had gone kerplunk.
IFF stands for Identify Friend or Foe, electronic fuzz-buzz gear commonly used to identify objects that appear on radar screens — e.g., by identifying it with coded dotted lines above the object itself.
Standard procedure for fighter planes, especially, to set their proper IFF code in their transponders for the zone which they were flying before ever taking off. It could trigger some plane, somewhere, launched into the sky to personally identify them. Remnants of our Red Scare days, I guess.
The IFF probe toward a distant ship or aircraft was actually a second pulse that traveled along with the initial radar pulse.
But instead of reflecting off of a ship or aircraft — to come back as an object on some radar operator’s screen — it acted as a challenging sentry instead, to a transponder onboard the craft: To identify yourself, please!
Identification is key to Navy defense. Any of you Swabbies remember midnight clothesline duty in boot camp. The IFF challenge pulse serves the same purpose — e.g., Hey! Who goes there? Identify Friend or Foe?
I wasn’t a good ET — n.s.! I’d wanted journalism school after boot camp. But I was good in math and it was the Vietnam War era and the Navy needed ETs. High math scores on entry exams typically meant you were capable of learning more than an average joe.
So after boot, I was sent to electronics technician school at Treasure Island, San Francisco, for 3-4 months. On graduating, it was across country to the east coast. Much better than Vietnam, I agreed.
But also, it just so happened, I was in that Aviation-Navigation (Air-Nav) Room aboard the Indy that day of war games, in the Mediterranean, when the squawk-box came on.
“Who’s on duty in there?”
“Bo‘s here, Sir!”
“You need to go up on the flight deck! Take whatever tools you need. The ship’s pulling up along side a Tin Can. Captain wants an IFF tech to go over and fix their IFF gear. It’s down!”
And then perhaps as an afterthought, he added, “You’ll go in the bosun’s chair!
Hijole! This was 1969 or ’70. We were at the far east end of the Mediterranean Sea, If I’m remembering right — providing sky firepower for the 6th Naval Fleet. Doing routine practice maneuvers. Aka, war games.
I think this was when Syria rattled sabers — e.g., Assad threatened to send tanks down into Israel. Or maybe this was his civil war. Whatever, we were on full alert, surveying not just the skies but distant ground forces, too! This destroyer needed its IFF.
So here I am dangling like some fish out-of-water in a chair-basket — suspended from an overhead cable above choppy seas and being zip-lined toward an unknown ship — while clutching a small bag of tools and spare parts.
And country-boy that I am, swaying back-and-forth while suspended in the wind in that thing — with two large steel ships cruising on each side of me — and, after praying hard to God, please don’t let either of ’em slip off-course, any — I was thinking, “Damn, Ol’ Bo, what have you got yourself into now?!?”
Can’t even remember if’n a life jacket had been thrown on me. Don’t think there was.
My only concern previously, first, had been being certain they had the same IFF system installed as we had aboard the Indy?
And the reply was yes.
Thus I’d grabbed not just one, but two spare V-208 tubes.
This was still in the days of vacuum tube circuitry, yes. And on an SPS-43, I’d had enough problems with ours to know in event of a system failure, the V-208 tube 7-out-of-10 was your suspect.
Thank God for instincts!
A country’s defense is based on preparedness, yes, and these military war games is how it prepares itself. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, et al.
But electronics just wasn’t my cup-of-tea, though! Had trouble throughout the schools and usually was among the slowest learners.
Survival instinct is something else, though. That’s why I’d brought along the spare V-208 tubes.
And it just happened to be the correct guess, too.
Once the crew on the destroyer had grabbed the bosun’s chair from the line contraption, and set me on the ship’s deck, I was led down below to the radar room.
And then over to the down piece of equipment itself. Power was shut off to the unit, of course.
One of the ship’s ETs was standing beside it, and had already opened it up for me to go to work.
I did a brief introduction, and then spotted the V208 tube.
The ET offered me his circuit-tester tool, I think, but I waved him off.
Instead, I reached into the clothe bag I’d brought my tubes in, and the few tools I usually needed — still clutching in my hand — and pulled out one of the V-208 tubes.
“Let’s try replacing a tube first,” I said.
And I handed it to him, while pointing to the same tube on the circuitry base.
He stared at me a little. Lips kinda fidgeting?
How many hours had he already spent on this? I was wondering.
Then he turned briskly and replaced the tube I’d shown him.
“Turn the unit on now,” I asked.
I can still remember a radarman grabbing my arm in excitement when the IFF came up on his screen, turning and saying thanks.
And the ol’ ET smiled — a hard one, yes — and then shook my hand.
Yeah, it was one of those rare moments when an oddball like me got to feel I Am Somebody!
This moment was mine. Even though, in time, it was just another grain of sand on the beach. Someone doing their job!
And, yes, buckling me into that bosun’s chair had disturbed my innards some. Because of the rig itself. Not being familiar with it – e.g., a suspension in time! Over choppy seas. The trip back to the Indy was easier.
Bosun is a word shortened from boatswain’s mate, those key people who maintain the ship in Navy talk. Walk gently around bosun’s mates!
If an angry, drunk Marine outside a club in some foreign port ever pounces on ‘ya — for mouthin’ off to ‘im, i.e. — they’ll come to your rescue.
But whenever the Indie [the crew’s shortened name for the aircraft carrier] was in port, too, it wasn’t unusual to see a bosun mate suspended in a bosun’s chair washing the ships hull or even repainting it, i.e.
And besides moving people, the chairs are “used to move ammunition, all kinds of supplies, parts, mail and movies from one ship to the other” also.
For the crew operating the chair this day, on both ships, I was just another routine sortie assignment, so to speak.
To me, it was more, though.
First, a lesson on conquering fear.
And then as a yearning writer, too, it gave me a story to spin.
All these years later. Once upon a time…
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