Earl Higgins

A couple of weeks after commissioning in May 1963, I reported aboard USS MIDWAY (CVA-41) with homeport in Alameda, California. After the usual operations and one cruise to WESTPAC, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 changed our operational plans. President Johnson escalated the war, and MIDWAY was an early part of that effort. Instead of an anticipated peacetime cruise that would have taken us to, among other places, Australia, Singapore, and Bangkok, we were ordered to war.

MIDWAY departed Alameda in early 1965 for Subic Bay with a stop in Pearl Harbor for operational readiness inspection. After getting through that ordeal, the next stop was NAS Cubi Point at Subic. A couple of days there and some sampling of the legendary rum punch at the officers’ club called “The Cubi,” we sailed west into the South China Sea and then northwest to the Gulf of Tonkin. I remember feeling a sense of thrill and dread one evening as the captain announced over the 1MC that we would be in combat operations the next day.

Sure enough, the next morning the alarm was sounded and the bugle call blasted throughout the ship as the boatswain’s mate of the watch called out “General quarters! General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations. This is not a drill.” MIDWAY was at war.

I had been promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1964 and was assigned as the First Division Officer. First Division was composed of about 70-75 sailors. The petty officers were boatswain’s mates The division was responsible for maintaining the forward part of the ship, including the forecastle and the ground tackle (anchors and associated machinery); mooring the ship; manning two obsolete 5-in. 38-caliber deck guns during general quarters (GQ); standing watch on the bridge; and manning two starboard stations during underway replenishment (UNREP). I stood watch, depending on the particular operations, as officer of the deck (OOD), junior officer of the deck (JOOD), and combat information center (CIC) watch officer. Once the ship began combat operations, the pace was demanding and unrelenting.

MIDWAY’s air group was composed of A-4 “Skyhawk” attack aircraft, which were the workhorses of the air war; a squadron of old A-1 “Skyraiders” each aircraft powered by a single propeller. These planes were referred to by their slang name of “Spads,” but were very durable and had long range and loiter time. They carried a substantial payload. Also part of the air group were the then-new, high-performance F-4 “Phantoms.” MIDWAY’s F-4s were configured in interceptor mode rather than attack and were not used over land.. Other aircraft were also on board.

Flight operations were daytime, making the aircraft more vulnerable. The ship took position near “Yankee Station,” a geographic point in the South China, and operated in a designated area as she turned into the wind to launch or recover aircraft. The reality of war struck when planes were launched and did not return. The ship itself was never under any real threat of attack because the North Vietnamese air force was not well equipped and not well trained. A couple of times some obsolete MiG-19s approached, setting off GQ aboard ship, but probably the approaches were just to test our response because the MiGs quickly turned back before they were near the ship.

MIDWAY became part of Operation Rolling Thunder, the strategic bombing of North Vietnam that continued for years. USAF aircraft from South Vietnam and Thailand were part of it. MIDWAY’s planes and pilots were delivering up to 125 tons a day on North Vietnam, but MIDWAY’s air crews paid heavily for participating.

The operational routine was about 35 days at sea after leaving Subic Bay, then back for about 5 days before returning to the combat zone. Most flight operations were daytime with nighttime spent in UNREP. Nearly every night MIDWAY would rendezvous with a replenishment ship and take on ship’s fuel, aviation fuel (aviation gasoline and JP-5 jet fuel), ordnance, general stores, and provisions.

The UNREPs would begin about 2200 and, depending on what and how much were being transferred, could last until 0300 or 0400. First Division was involved in every UNREP. Standing at an UNREP station all night after a day of work and watch standing was not just fatiguing, it was potentially dangerous. Drowsy sailors risked being caught in wires or lines, the sea between ships was churning with danger and death for whoever might fall overboard in the dark. I remember fighting to stay awake as I leaned on my life jacket. It was too noisy to engage in light conversation with the sailors to keep them alert, and on occasion I shook a couple of the men as they seemed to be drifting off.
The number one replenishment station where I supervised the UNREP was on a sponson deck starboard side forward. As supplies, provisions, and ordnance were transferred by wire from the replenishment ship, the sailors would release the hooks and slings, then move the cargo into the adjoining hangar deck. Cargo on pallets was picked up by forklifts, but much of the materials, especially provisions, had to be moved by hand from sailor to sailor to be stored below deck. A ship with more than 4500 sailors on board consumes a lot of everything. Long lines of sailors sometimes moved provisions from one to another and down through the hatches to storage below. These assembled sailors from all divisions of the ship and air wing were called “working parties” and could include hundreds of men.

The procedure during UNREP was first to establish connections between the delivering and the receiving ships. A wire cable moved back and forth on spools on each ship controlled by trained sailors operating the hydraulic motors that kept the appropriate tension on the line as it moved, each transfer with a different weight. MIDWAY received a great number of old bombs when alongside an ammunition ship. Twenty years after World War II there still were bunkers and magazines filled with “iron bombs.” These were hauled across the Pacific for use on North Vietnam. The 250-lb. bombs were transferred in clusters of four in a special sling. The 500-lb. bombs came across in twos. And the 2000-lb. bombs crossed the water individually. None was armed, of course, the fuses/detonators moved separately.

One night as the UNREP was in progress and the hangar deck crowded with ordnance, a flickering light resembling a flame appeared across the hangar near a catwalk on the port side. The thought of fire close to tons of explosives was chilling. Fire at sea is always frightening because there is so much that is potentially flammable and there is nowhere to escape. Ship’s crews constantly train for fire at sea, but before GQ could be sounded that night, someone discovered that what appeared to be flickering flame was a fluorescent lamp that had come loose. Crisis averted, nerves relaxed, back to work.

Another night, another replenishment of ammunition. This night the weather was rough, the high seas between MIDWAY and the ammunition ship made keeping the proper, steady interval between ships difficult. Occasionally sea water would splash up on the sponson deck where the sailors wrestled the loads of ordnance that came across with some difficulty. As the ships moved apart, the wire tightened, and the operators struggled to keep the proper tension so that the line would not sag into the sea or become so taut that it would flip a load high into the air. I watched anxiously as the sailors on the ammunition ship attached a sling with a 2000 lb bomb to the hook. As the bomb started across the churning space between ships, a heavy wave splashed water high, the ships separated slightly, and the big bomb was almost flipped into the air on its sling. Then the sea subsided, the distance between ships narrowed, and the bomb, which was by now almost aboard MIDWAY, started a dive that looked like it would strike the ship with force and all its weight. Instinctively I cringed, but my brain quickly reminded me that there was no detonator attached and, more macabre, that if the bomb exploded twenty feet from me, I would not be around to do anything about it.

The winch operator managed to get control of the load, and the sailors got it to the deck and onto a dolly. The big bomb was rolled out into the hangar deck that was already covered with ordnance waiting to be moved to magazines below. Had any of those bombs or rockets or missiles exploded, a chain reaction would have doomed the ship and all of us aboard. I kept reminding myself that fuses and detonators were loaded and stored separately from what they were supposed to ignite. Just another night’s work.

Living conditions aboard MIDWAY in 1965 were grim, especially for the enlisted men. The ship had been built at the end of World War II and was heavily compartmentalized. There were dozens of separate watertight compartments, a design that would allow the ship to absorb kamikaze attacks and still stay afloat. Each of the four main engines was in a separate compartment as were four main generators. The engines were powered by steam from twelve boilers in separate compartments. The size of the engineering plant and its many compartment meant that many sailors were needed to operate it. The engineering department was the largest on the ship, with over 600 sailors. All those sailors needed some place to live and sleep, and they were crow1ded into tight berthing compartments slung with old-fashioned “rack” bunks. Each sailor had only a small locker for uniforms and personal gear. The berthing areas were cramped and smelly, no air conditioning, only forced-draft blowers that moved the air around in noisy streams.

Taking a shower was often not an option. Fresh water was made from the sea by evaporators, but with over 4000 men aboard, even taking a “Navy shower” used too much. (A Navy shower is one minute to get wet, then turn off the water. Soap and scrub, then one minute to rinse off. That’s it.) Showers were a luxury. First priority for the fresh water were the boilers. Next were the steam catapults, which used up to 100 gals. for each launch shot. The third in line were the galleys and sculleries, to ensure that food service was sanitary. After that, water could be used for laundry and showers. The pace of operations was so constant and demanding that some sailors and even officers just gave up. Salt lines stayed on uniforms, and the odor of the unwashed soon numbed the olfactory nerves.

Conditions in officers’ country were better than in the enlisted quarters, but there was no air conditioning in the berthing areas. My stateroom had adequate room for two, not cramped, and the wardroom was always a place for a cup of coffee, conversation, even a movie if schedule permitted. The food was good, but there was no air conditioning in the wardroom either. In fact, if I remember correctly, the only air conditioned spaces were CIC and a couple of other spaces with lots of electronics. In the pre-digital age there were lots of electronic tubes that generated lots of heat. They needed to be cooled or they would burn up. The wardroom was cooled by a refrigeration unit that had been used in a cool warehouse or meat locker. The temperature got too cold, and there was no humidity control. In 1964 MIDWAY had been preparing for a long overhaul and modification period. We had drawn up lists of deficiencies and items needed to make the 20-year-old ship ready for the 1960s and 1970s. But before that plan could be implemented, she was sent into combat with old and jury-rigged features. MIDWAY did go into a five-year period of overhaul after I left the ship.

My stateroom was in a compartment on the 3rd deck below the main (hangar) deck, starboard side aft, just over the outboard starboard propeller. Moving a 65,000-ton ship through the water at high speed requires enormous amount of energy and produces much vibration and noise. When the ship increased speed beyond 25 knots, conversation in the compartment meant talking very loudly. At that speed I had to suspend any writing because my typewriter would start to move along the desk from the vibration.

On the day before Easter I was in my stateroom when three enlisted men, not the stewards who were assigned to clean the spaces and make the beds, appeared in the curtained doorway with some boxes.

“Is this Lieutenant Parks’s stateroom?” They asked.

“Yes,” I said, wondering what was going on. Ed Parks had been my roommate for a short while, but we barely knew each other. He was an A-1 “Spad” pilot and spent most of his non-flying time in his squadron’s ready room. He was an agreeable, pleasant guy without the tension and swagger of many of the other aviators.

“What’s going on?”

“Mr. Parks got hit. He went down. We need to pack up his gear.” The war was very close.

On Easter Sunday there was actually a little slack time. After dinner I didn’t have to go on watch, and I was lying in my bunk reading when the curtain opened and Parks walked in. His flight suit was filthy with mud and grease and sweat. His stench preceded him by several feet. His face was sunburned, and he had several days’ worth of a filthy blonde beard.

“Parks! You’re supposed to be dead!” I was surprised and relieved.

“Yeah, that’s what they keep telling me.”

Then he told me how he had been on a bombing run in his oh-so-slow airplane and started taking fire from the ground. The A-1 had some armor, and Parks himself was not hurt, but his radio had been destroyed. The engine cowl had been hit, but the armor prevented the engine from being knocked out. He took evasive action by diving through low clouds to near treetop level to avoid the ground fire. Apparently his wingmen or others who’d seen him get hit thought he had crashed, especially when he did not respond on the radio. Parks got his damaged aircraft to Danang, which was not yet a well-functioning airport. Nobody came around to help him after he landed; he collapsed from fatigue and the emotions of his experience and fell asleep under the plane.

Later, Parks was able to compose himself and got Danang to contact MIDWAY to report that he and his airplane were OK. The plane was not considered safe to return to the ship and experience the stress of an arrested landing, not to mention Parks himself. On Easter Sunday he returned via a helicopter. I don’t remember if he went back to flying after that, but I don’t think so. He was unhurt. I didn’t see much of him after that.

Standing bridge watch meant alternating periods of monotony and tension. As OOD I had control of the ship subject to only the captain’s orders, but during operations the bridge was crowded with senior officers, all type-alpha aviators trying to get their opinions heard. There were airplanes to be launched, planes to be recovered, surface ships both friendly and unknown to be tracked. The weather was always a factor. Listening to all those senior officers with all that testosterone conferring as politely as they could in front of the captain, I once let out an expression a little too loudly: “Indecision is the key to flexibility.” Some of the conferring honchos heard it, and the MIDWAY’s navigator, a senior commander, turned toward me with a sheepish, almost embarrassed grin. Nobody said anything to me. Apparently whatever problem they were discussing went away.

The Cold War was in full bloom in 1965. It showed up in the Gulf of Tonkin and presented another item of concern for the bridge and CIC watch teams. A Russian intelligence-gathering ship, euphemistically referred to as a “trawler,” followed MIDWAY from time to time, coming in closer as she turned into the wind to launch aircraft. The Russians were observing the planes, listening to our electronic emissions, then sending the information to their handlers for processing and dissemination to the North Vietnamese. The U.S. Navy countered the trawler with an ocean-going tugboat rigged for electronic warfare. The tug’s mission was to interfere with the Russians’ transmissions and prevent operational data from reaching the enemy before the bombs were dropped. I don’t know how successful all this activity was, but the tug and the trawler were two more surface vessels to be accounted for on the radar screens and display boards.

The first week of June, the 23rd anniversary of the Battle of Midway for which the ship was named, was brutal and deadly. A Skyhawk and its pilot were lost. Then an EA-1, an A-1 “Spad” configured for electronic surveillance, was shot down, taking two officers and two enlisted men on a fiery crash into the jungle. They had been engaged in intercepting electronic signals, radar and radio, from North Vietnamese sites. The aircraft had descended below a safe altitude and was downed by a surface-to-air missile. The pilot was LT Gerry Romano, whom I did not know well but whose stateroom was directly across the passageway from mine.

As tragic as the loss was, there was muted scuttlebutt around the wardroom that the descent from high altitude was a deliberate violation of the mission. The hours of surveillance were monotonous, boring. Supposedly someone spotted a convoy on the ground, and the Spad was dropping to attack it with 20 mm. gunfire. The high altitude flight plan was to prevent the loss that actually happened. There was even talk of preventing the award of the purple heart medal, usually automatically awarded for killed in action. Had Romano survived, so went the sad, bitter chatter, he would have been court-martialed for putting his aircraft and all aboard in unnecessary hazard. All that talk was squelched, and the purple hearts were given to surviving families. The remains of those aboard were not found and identified until 1985, 20 years later.

A few days after the tragic losses, MIDWAY became a place of exhilaration. Two MiG-19 were on approach to the ship, were intercepted by F-4s, and were shot down. It was the first time in the war that enemy aircraft had been shot down by carrier-based planes. A couple of days after that, some slow Spads also encountered a MiG-19 and destroyed it. This tended to soften the excitement of the F-4 aviators because theirs was the hottest aircraft in the Navy and the A-1 Spad was not a fighter jet and was an obsolescent attack aircraft. A lot of the success was due, however, to the incompetence and poor training of the North Vietnamese air force.

June was the end of my tour aboard MIDWAY. I received orders to transfer to the USS BETELGEUSE (AK-260), homeport Charleston, SC. That meant leaving MIDWAY in the Gulf of Tonkin and traveling almost halfway around the world. In the last week of June I boarded the ship’s C-1A shuttle plane to begin the trip with the first leg back to Cubi Point at Subic Bay. The C-1A was designated COD (carrier on-board delivery) and made regular flights from and to the ship with people, mail, vital spare parts, etc. It was a two-engine, propeller-driven aircraft with an unpressurized cabin. I was crammed in with some dirty, greasy airplane parts and a bunch of mail bags. The flight to Cubi was around three hours, much of it through Monsoon weather. The small airplane shook and bounced, and rainwater started leaking onto me. I was ready for a “Cubi” rum punch after landing.

The confusion endemic in the early part of the Vietnam War soon enveloped me. How was I supposed to get back to the U.S. and report to my next ship? Nobody seemed to know. I spent two nights at the B.O.Q. in Cubi before I got onto a bus loaded with lots of other people in my situation. The bus took us to Clark AFB a few hours away where we waited again, two more days, before they loaded us onto a chartered civilian passenger plane for the trip home. We stopped in Guam, then in Honolulu to go through customs, and finally to Travis AFB north of San Francisco.

Once again, nobody knew what to do with the planeload of returning tired sailors and Marines. Another junior officer from the plane and I struck up a conversation and reached a consensus that since no one seemed to know what was going on or cared, we had to get out of there on our own. We rented a car to drop off in Oakland and drove the hour or so south.

We found our way to the B.O.Q. at NAS Alameda, MIDWAY’s home port, and had to talk our way into getting rooms. So much for supporting troops returning from the war. This was a harbinger of reactions in general that I would experience over the next few years.

Then I talked to my dad, who decided to join me for the long drive home. My 1964 Volkswagen Beetle was in storage in Oakland. I picked him up at the airport, we spent the night with relatives nearby, and then drove back to New Orleans. We crossed the Mojave Desert on July 4 in the unairconditioned VW, taking Route 66 (no completed Interstate in 1965) east through Arizona. I was ready for a few days at home before continuing to Charleston and the next stage of my life aboard BETELGEUSE.

Earl Higgins, CDR USN (ret) is a 1963 graduate of Tulane University NROTC

I once let out an expression a little too loudly: “Indecision is the key to flexibility.”