The Navy's traditions live on in the hearts of those who serve

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Battleships

OK shipmates, I know it's been a while since I posted anything. It has been a busy, crazy, long, exhausting, but enjoyable summer. But now, my creative juices are flowing and a memory has come to mind. Actually, many memories have come to mind, so I hope to keep writing for then next few days. This blog is about my days as a tech rep for NAVSEACENLANT and not my days as a sailor.
After my retirement, I went to work for a large insurance company. They hired me as a "Management Intern". Fundamentally, that means, you are the guy no manager trusts because they are afraid you will take their job away, be their boss soon, or tell top management where their skeletons are hidden. So, after 11 months of that fun, I decided I wanted to work for the Navy in my "old" profession. After contacting some old friends, I was hired by Naval Sea Support Center, Atlantic, as a gun tech rep. The one condition was that I work on 16"/50 triple gun turrets. The very turrets on the Iowa class Battleships. That like asking someone who likes chocolate to be a taster for the Hershey company! Now mind you, even though I was a Master Chief Gunner's Mate, I never worked on 16" turrets. Yes, I knew they operation, in theory. And yes, I knew how all the components worked, in theory. But that's like doing a correspondence course in brain surgery and then being asked to do a brain transplant. However, after some very intensive on the job training and a 9 week Navy school in the 16"/50, I was at least able to find all the components, not get lost in the turret, and sound like I knew what I was talking about.
While I was still working for that fortune 500 insurance company, the USS Iowa incident occur ed. After I returned from 16" school, I was soon part of some of the testing that accompanied the investigation into the incident. One such test was thrust upon my supervisor and myself one late afternoon. The Navy Captain leading the investigation wanted to know what effect there would be on the "Rammer Operator" if the electrical power was cut off from the electric motor that operated the hydraulic system that was the rammer. At this point, a short course in 16"/50 triple gun turrets is in order.
The 16"/50 triple gun turret was 1910 technology. No particular safety were built in. everything was manual. It goes without saying that everything was BIG. There were NO small bolts, screws, motors, pumps, or parts. everything in the turret reflects the fact that the gun shoots a 2700 pound projectile, 18 miles, using 660 pounds of gun propellant! It was designed to be maintained, operated, and repaired by farm boys who were used to working on big tractors, combines, and farm equipment. The electric motor that turned the hydraulic pump to move the turret in "Train", that's left and right to you non-Gunner's Mates, had a 300 horse power rating and was designed to operate after being completely submerged in saltwater! Like I said nothing in this turret was fragile.
So, back to the story. The test was supposed to determine, that means NO ONE HAD A CLUE, what would happen to the rammer operator of the electric power was secured to the rammer drive motor. This specific motor was a 40 horse power electric motor turning a axial piston pump with variable displacement. How the rammer worked was; The rammer operator pushed a lever forward, that moved the tilt plate on the axial piston pump, which moved fluid to the hydraulic motor, that turned the gear, that moved the rammer, that pushed the 2700 pound projectile and the 660 pounds of gun propellant into the chamber until the projectile was seated in the forcing cone of the rifling in the gun barrel. The the rammer man, shifted the lever in the opposite direction and retracted the rammer. Simple huh?! Remember, farm boys and the year 1910. There were no safety interlocks, no backlash compensator's to isolate the rammer man from the hydraulic pump being rotated by the 40 horse power electric motor. Hell, there wasn't even a seat belt for the rammer man, who by the way sat on a 'Tractor Seat" on the left side of the loading tray, which was on top of the projectile hoist, and to his left side was the powder hoist. Directly in front of the rammer man was the gun assembly, which recoiled towards him when the gun fired. Oh, I forgot to mention, right where the rammer man's toes sat, was a precipitous 22 foot drop into the gun pocket, where the gun assembly went when the gun elevated for high elevation shots. Again, not even a safety rope here. OSHA wasn't even thought of in 1910! So, with that, the testing begins.
My boss in the 16" world was an exceptional technician and very bright. He was also 15 years younger than I. That didn't bother me. I never asked him if it bothered him. He served 4 years in the Navy and went into the civilian part of maintaining ships. And he was good. He got a call from the Captain running the investigation at about 1500 that established the testing requirements. We were told that we would have to video tape the tests and send that tape to him in Washington D.C, to be viewed by the House Armed Services Committee, or some group of House/Senate suits, the very next day. We procured a video camera and headed to the USS Wisconsin to do the testing. The directions for the tests were very specific. We even had to use the same gun, on Wisconsin, that was involved in the incident on Iowa. Now I have told you how I respected held my 16" leader. He had the lead, and I was confident in his ability. I knew nothing about video cameras. I still am ignorant about them. He was not much better off than I, but he seemed to know how to operate the camera, so He would operate the camera and secure the power to the motor, I would act as the rammer man and operate the rammer. The directions for the test were to span the loading tray, as it would be for loading, naturally the breech plug would be open. We placed an oak 4" X 4" piece of shoring across the chamber and slowly advanced the rammer until the hydraulic buffer in the head of the rammer was compressed. Now the fun begins!
Remember I told you earlier, No one knew what would happen when you secured the electric power to the rammer motor with the hydraulic pump in operation and under load? We were about to find out. There I was, left hand on the rammer operating lever, the system running, my toes at the edge of the 22 foot precipitous. Our plan was to run the first test at FULL STROKE!! That means MAX POWER!!! Why?!? Why not, we had no idea what was in store. So, my boss had the camera, running, I placed the lever at "Full Stroke". The hydraulic motor was straining against the immovable shoring, and the noise was unbelievable. My boss counted: One...Two...Threee!!!! and shut off the electric motor. At that instance, the lever that controlled the stroke on the axial piston pump violently kicked. Since my elbow was locked and I was braced for the unknown, I went flying forward, over the edge of the gun pocket, towards a certain hurt locker event. Somehow, I grabbed the spanned loading tray with my right hand, I never let go of the rammer actuating lever that my left hand now had a death grip on, and hung there until I could get my feet back on the gun platform!! Naturally, there was much profanity, laughter, and vibrato, all caught on this video camera. We had to do the tests in a number of different power stroke percentages and we accomplished all of the testing, with a little Gunner's Mate ingenuity. And we got the tape to the Captain in Washington D.C. for his dog and pony show, on time. Later the next day he called us and said; "Good tape, bad language!" We replied, "What language" The Captain said; "Didn't you guys know the audio record was on?" Like I said, I know nothing about video recording equipment. But I guess we embarrassed a few of the suits in Washington. At least, that's what the Captain said.