Remembrances of my Naval Service aboard USS YORK COUNTY, LST-1175
November 5, 1958 to January 30, 1961
I enlisted into the Navy on June 15, 1957, after graduating for Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, VA, and headed for 12-weeks of Navy Basic Training, “Boot Camp”, at Bainbridge, MD. My pay as a High School Seaman Recruit was $55.00 per month.
Afterwards, I was briefly aboard the destroyer, USS GEARING, DD-710, based at the Destroyer-Submarine Piers in Norfolk as an FT striker; however, soon I was reassigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for Firecontrol Technician Class “A” and Class “C” Schools, arriving there on January 3, 1958. While receiving this training, my pay was $78.00 per month. I graduated from the last of this training toward the end of September 1958, somewhere near the top of my class.
I was transferred back to Norfolk for perhaps a month during which I took earned leave awaiting new orders. After returning from leave, I was assigned to Mess Hall cleanup duties, for two weeks, at the Armed Forces Staff College Mess Hall located on Tausig Boulevard.
My orders soon arrived assigning me to the USS YORK COUNTY, LST-1175, then in the Mediterranean at Beirut under President Eisenhower’s orders. Though none of us knew it at the time, it was our job to monitor the increasing presence of the Soviet Navy, to keep tabs on them, and to stare right down the throat of their sailors in the rapidly escalating Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR at sea.
In October, 1958, I departed Norfolk, VA via train from the end of “Main Street” at the old Union Station in Norfolk, traveling overnight to Fort Dix, NJ, which was adjacent to McGuire AFB. I was billeted for several days in a quite comfortable visitor’s barracks on the base waiting to catch military transportation to Europe. I was generally completely free to come and go on the base as I pleased with the sole requirement being that I check once daily for the timing of any potential transport to Europe. I only knew that my destination was somewhere close enough to allow me to join my ship wherever she was once I arrived. I would be accompanied by four or five other men who would be traveling to various other destinations not identical to mine. Among them I learned that I had the longest distance to travel. I was the sole new man going to the YORK COUNTY.
I recall that I thought that the USAF facilities were a heck of a lot more “plush” than what I had been familiar with in the Navy I was given a private room and bath, as in a hotel, on base. It was like the Holiday Inn.. Eventually, after several days waiting for a flight, I boarded a Military Transport Service DC-7B for Paris, France. It was a strictly no frills, bucket seats, flight with a cold, box lunch, along the way. We had two refueling stops for several hours each, the first in Gander, Newfoundland, and the second in Prestwick, Scotland. I would be awaiting an onward flight to the ship and I was thus very fortunate to arrive in Paris, some eighteen hours after departing from New Jersey. I stayed in Paris for four nights in a downtown hotel with an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower, what luck! Things were looking up! I was able to walk around, even while in uniform, and eat wonderful food in quite a relaxed manner. The people watching was the best part, and the beer was great.
On the fifth day in Paris, with no onward military flights available (what rotten luck!), I finally boarded an Air France “Super-Constellation” for Rome, which took some four hours to reach its destination. It was 1st class all the way.
I then hopped a train to Naples, Italy, where I again stayed in a downtown hotel for four nights awaiting onward connections east. I was beginning to like this free style traveling around Europe. On the fifth day after arriving in Naples, I caught the USMC Fairchild “flying boxcar” – the mail run from Naples to Istanbul – it was no frills, but serviceable travel. We stopped in Athens, Greece, for re-fueling. If you needed to take a leak, you just pissed out with wide crack in the back of the plane which was un-pressurized. If the opening had been a bit wider, your butt would be history, I thought.
I arrived in Istanbul, Turkey at about 1600 hours local time, and obtained a taxi for the thirty-minute ride to the fleet landing on the Bosphorus as the ship lay at anchor offshore, just off of what turned out to be the Sultan’s Palace. Thus, I arrived aboard the USS YORK COUNTY for duty at 1800 hours, almost dropping my seabag off of the gangway as I claimed up from the launch to the Quarterdeck, a distance of about 35-feet; I was just in time for chow. I had had my last 1st class travel for a long while!
I served as a Firecontrol Technician aboard the USS YORK COUNTY from November 5, 1958, until January 30, 1961. I boarded the ship on my 19th birthday; the USMC was also celebrating the Marine Corps Birthday at the same time. I remember it quite well.
My rating at the time was “FTSN”, and as such, while in port, I would be standing 4-on and 8-off duties on the Quarterdeck as “Messenger” in addition to my duties learning how to maintain and operate the three MK 70 Gunfire Control Systems, and the Amplidyne Power drives and servo equipment for the three 3”/50 twin gun mounts which the ship was equipped. Also, it would be my duty to assume the training of the other two crewmembers that would operate the other two gun directors while at General Quarters – Battle Stations. My pay was $92.00 per month.
While at anchor between Europe on the west and Asia on the east, we had several opportunities to witness the transit through Istanbul of several ships and submarines of the Soviet Navy. Several were seagoing trawlers with plenty of radio antenna. We were always called to attention for honors as they passed, and we would see them again on several occasions, as if in a tag match during the remainder of our ship’s cruise. They would be lingering there, observing our maneuvers, just over the horizon, watching or listen in on our exercises and communications.
When underway, I would be trained to become a qualified Helmsman and Li-helmsman, on the Bridge, standing 4-on and 8-off duties in addition to my regular FT duties. Thus I jointed nine shipmates of various ratings from the Chief Gunners Mate down to myself in what was known as the “Gun Gang”.. The Chief of course was bunked in the Goat Locker down the passageway toward the stern, and the remainder of us were bunked together in a smallish compartment on the starboard side of the ship. I remember that we had two small tables; each man had a suspended-canvas bunk and a single small locker for personal possessions. Somehow, everything in the Seabag could be stowed in them. We could listen to the ship’s radio via the entertainment system, while off duty, or play cards, or maintain the cleanliness of our facilities at our own pace.
I remember that I thoroughly enjoy going to sea once the ship departed from Istanbul. As it happened, I would be on the ship’s helm as we negotiated the Bosphorous narrows before entering the Mediterranean after leaving port. I quickly learned that the ship’s radio call sign was “NOVEMBER-VICTOR-WHISKEY-FOXTROT”.
As I recall, all these years later, our next port of call would be Naples, Italy, from where I had so recently arrived. I thought to myself that I could have simply just stayed in the comfortable hotel in Naples and allow the ship “meet me” when she arrived, but the Navy didn’t think so at the time.
The USS YORK COUNTY was one of the ships assigned to COMPHIBRON 8; as I recall, the USSS CAMBRIA was the Flag Ship, we were accompanied by the USS SUFFOLK COUNTY, LST-1173, USS RUSHMORE, and several other ships whose names I do not recall. I do remember that the USS SUFFOLK COUNTY had “Nordburg” main engines vs. the YORK COUNTY’S Fairbanks-Morris main engines, which would later result in some excitement and friendly competition between the two ships.
After the port call at Naples, I think that we engage in a practice landing of our compliment of US Marines in Libya near what was then Wheeler AFB, before heading for the next port of call at Gibraltar. The pesky Russian trawlers would be sighted on several occasions. As luck would have it, I would again be on the ship’s Helm during the mid-watch as we transited toward that port. We were in Gibraltar for several days before departing to Rota, Spain for refueling for the two-week return to Morehead City, and ultimately the home base at Little Creek, VA.
The Firecontrol system, manufactured by Stavid Engineering, in New Jersey always seemed to have some type of materiel casualty, most notably with the parallax correctors, and the single-phase optical gunfight gyro of the Mark 70 which would tumble at a fast slew rate while tracking a target. The Ku-band radar, always seemed to function well though. Due to these problems, and lack of proximity-fused ammunition, we were never accorded the coveted E award for our shooting against aircraft targets.
I recall that my Navy-Mustang Dad, by that time a full Navy Commander, was on the pier to greet the YORK COUNTY on her return to Little Creek as we arrived unceremoniously by slamming into the pier causing some damage to the ship’s paintwork and red faces on the bridge. Later, at home I asked him, “What did you think of the arrival?” His response: “Where were the fenders that should have prevented any damage?” He never said anything else.
As I recall we arrived back at home port in April or May, 1959. After arrival, we would be dry-docked at the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Company facilities, across the Elizabeth River from the Norfolk Navy Yard, for a number several months for various repairs, ORDALTs, physical modifications to the ship, rebuilding the Fairbanks Morris main engines. This was followed by various sea trials, numerous training exercises, and degaussing calibrations at a test range which was then located in the Chesapeake Bay off of Annapolis, Maryland. I remember that we steamed back and forth at the test range, for several days, north-to- south, south-to- north, near the US Route 50 Bridge across the Bay. The bridge was a single span at that time.
After completion of the degaussing tests, it was upon the ship’s return to Little Creek that the ship suffered a fire onboard of some significance. I remember that I had the duty “Midwatch ” to provide the all-important “Dumpster” watch on the pier that night. At about 0200 hours that morning, from the location of the Dumpster, I noted that a large amount of smoke appeared to be blow in the wind down the port side of the ship. I must admit that I left the duty station at the Dumpster, carrying the unloaded Carbine Rifle, and took off to make an observation along the port side of the ship. As I arrived, I noted heavy smoke forward, only on the port side, and the hull paint along the ship’s side was beginning to blacken and blister several deck above the Forward Magazine of the ship. That was enough for me, and I again took off, running down the pier, a distance of 120-yards or so, toward the Quarterdeck shouting “Fire, Fire in the forward Boatswains Locker!”
The Fire Alarm was sounded by the Petty Officer of the Watch, and the ship sprang to life! The forward Boatswain’s Lock was fully engulfed in searing flame, fed by oily rags, 5-gallon bucks of haze gray and chromate primer paints, and volatile solvents when the Damage Control fire fighting party manned their stations. About 20-minutes after the ship’s firefighters had extinguished the blaze, the Base Fire Department finally showed up to assist. The fire was attributed to “spontaneous combustion of oily-rags” stored in the locker. Later, the Ship’s Company repaired all of the damage, completing total repairs after several days.
Thus the months of repeated training, the “Dumpster Watches”, the drills worked; the ship had been saved from an even greater catastrophe from the ship’s Forward Magazine. There were no personnel casualties, save “Wally” the Gunners Mate being thrashed around at the lead end of the 5-inch fire hose! This had been the most serious event while I was aboard the ship. It provided the Chief’s added ammunition to reiterate the importance of our training, and allowed them to pile on additional drills as they saw fit for quite a time afterward.
On a lighter note, it was notable that the chow onboard the YORK COUNTY was always SUPER good as long as the Marines were not aboard the ship. It could not have been better than steak and eggs for breakfast and all of the custom prepared food a sailor could eat. Our sailor Chefs on the ship, and that is what they were, (they were not just cooks), outdid themselves in providing an abundance of nourishing, outstanding food, of fine quality to the ships’ company. But once those Marines were aboard, the quality invariably deteriorated precipitously. Once the Marine “cooks” joined the galley staff, look out!
On another occasion, I recall being at General Quarters – Battle Stations off of the Virginia Capes, manning the starboard forward Mark 70 gun director, when the skipper elected to test the atomic wash-down system. For those of us whose Battle Stations happened to be on the main deck, or above, we were drowned by icy salt water! We had proven that ABC system worked. It is sure that someone felt good about that.
Later, we had a training cruise to the Caribbean, embarking the Marines once again at Morehead City, North Carolina near Camp Lejeune. We had practice landings at Vieques off Puerto Rico, including gunnery bombardment, antiaircraft target shoots, and ports of call in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Kingston, Jamaica (still a British possession at the time), and Guantanemo Bay, Cuba. We departed Guantanemo Naval Station one afternoon and steamed toward eastern Cuba for several days within sight of the coast, and the without warning, we executed a 180-degree turn well offshore from Cuba and returned, under cover of darkness to the Bay to quickly and quietly off load all of our Marines and equipment. We again departed Guantanemo again, still under cover of darkness, the same night for Little Creek, arriving home the following week. There were obvious high-level tensions at the base. We were not given the opportunity to go ashore at all. I was promoted to FTG3 during this deployment at the grand sum of $139.00 per month.
Then, it was back into the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Company for the addition of two new three-phase, 400-cycle Motor-Generator sets to operation the Firecontrol Systems – one in the forward anchor access passageway on the port side, and one in the stern Firecontrol room. Either of the MG sets had enough capacity to power all three of the Mark 70 Firecontrol Systems at once. While the new MG sets cured the optical gun sight tumble problem, their use at general quarters was cumbersome and required additional startup time. I eventually learned to leave one of the MG sets running all of the time, so as to have all Mark 70’s immediately available for General Quarters. No one in the Navy advised us, or trained us, to do that, you just learned to do it, and not ask permission, if you wanted to be ready for “General Quarters – Battle Stations” drills. It was a learning experience all of the time aboard the YORK COUNTY.
On January 3, 1960, on a very cold winter day, we departed Little Creek, Virginia, for Morehead City, North Carolina, with all apparent problems fixed, to embark our USMC contingent for the ship’s second deployment to the Mediterranean. We arrived in Morehead City on January 4th and loaded the Marines and equipment all day. It was still very cold and sunny. That evening, at about 1800 hours, we departed port enroute east. At about 2200 hour that evening, with the ship easily riding in the long ground swell, we were in Gulf Stream, and the temperature was above 80. The Marines were lining the rail, seasick as the devil, after the ship’s movie on the main deck forward. It would take the ship another two-weeks to reach Naples, Italy our first port.
This cruise included practice landings in Sardinia and Libya, and ports of call in Naples, and Leghorn, Italy, Hyeres, France, Polarmo, Sicily, and Athens, Greece. Toward the end of the eight-month deployment, the ship fueled at Naples and headed west toward Rota, Spain for additional fuel prior to the trans-Atlantic voyage.
I remember that a potentially serious incident occurred when the ship arrived at the anchorage offshore from Rota at about 1500 hours that day. It was a windy, overcast, blustering type of day, with winds blowing at about 30-knots. There was a 10-to-15 foot chop on the muddy waters of the anchorage. Our Commanding Officer, LTC Fromnecht, had been scheduled to attend a meeting on the flag ship on our arrival, so had order that the Captain’s Gig, which was really beautiful and in its finest shape, be lowered to the rail located at the starboard side davit, with the Gig’s crew aboard and ready, so that immediately after the anchor had been dropped, he would be able to board his Gig for the short trip to the flag ship. The davit was located outboard of the ships’ main exhaust stack and passageway to the port side of the ship.
As the anchor dropped, the ship began to turn into the sizeable trough, and the ship immediate did what any flat-bottomed ship would do – it rolled to port, in the trough, by at least 30-degrees. Thus, by the force of gravity, the starboard davit shifted inward toward the ship’s stack. The Captain’s Gig, with the crew aboard, slammed into the ship’s rail and other equipment on deck, punching several a large holes in its hull. As the ship then accomplished its even deeper roll back to starboard, the Captain’s Gig and crew were violently jerked directly from the davit falling directly off of the ship into the rough waters. Of course, the event was accompanied by the enormous bang of a huge “KER..CHUNK!” sound throughout the ship. It was obvious that something really desperate had occurred to those not able to observe.
The Captain’s Gig was now barely afloat about 35-yard off of the starboard side, in the hi-choppy, muddy sea; after the Coxwain gathered himself, and determined the rest of the 4-man crew was relatively safe, he was able to star the Graymarine engine and I heard him report … “Hey, we’re sinking! We are sinking!” I can remember the Captain’s furtive and pleading orders screamed at the top of his voice from the starboard bridge at about the same time … “Save the Gig! Save the Gig!” “Get a line on it!” It took the Gig less than one-minute to disappear into the muddy waters forever. The crew, in their life jackets, though in shock, were saved with minor injuries by quick action of the ship’s crew at emergency stations.
That night, in an unexpected full gale, adding insult to injury, the forward anchor was lost in the same muddy waters as the Captain’s Gig, lost 7-hour earlier. The stern anchor was deployed after the loss, and a duty watch was posted to take action should the ship drag anchor or lose the stern anchor too. It would take about five months to obtain a replacement bow anchor after our return to the states. It would take about the same time to obtain a replacement Gig, which was not so fine as the one forever lost at Rota, Spain.
A day or so following the loss of the Gig and bow anchor, we watched the SUFFOCK COUNTY complete her refueling ahead of us and depart for the states in the early morning. It took the YORK COUNTY another 9-hours to complete its refueling, and we finally departed Rota at about 1700 hours. Captain Fromneich ordered all ahead full on all four main engines, as we departed, heading west.
Of course it was long since we had offloaded the several hundred thousand gallons of “AVGAS” that we had carried from the states, and we no longer had the substantial weight that would have been provide by the enormous ship’s anchor forward, so the ship was high in the water. The YORK COUNTY was cutting through the water at the fastest pace that we had ever seen in spite of the Marines and equipment and the pontoon bridges strapped to her sides. Those Fairbanks-Morris main engines were purring, burning about 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day. We were “flying” through the Atlantic at the fastest pace we had ever seen.
On the next morning after departing Rota the evening before, ever so gradually, we faintly observed “smoke ahead on the horizon”. The next morning, the SUFFOCK COUNTY was in out sights. On the third day at about 1200 hours, the YORK COUNTY passed SUFFOCK COUNTY on her port side about 100 yard off of our starboard side. Captain Fromneich had taken care to insure that the YORK COUNTY’s “Go to Hell Flag” was prominently displayed on the yardarm for all to easily observe. It was about eleven days later that the SUFFOCK COUNTY arrived in Little Creek more than a full day later than YORK COUNTY, after also stopping to off-load the Marines a Morehead City.
After returning to the states and another stint in the Norfolk shipyard, I was promoted to FT2G at the monthly pay of $155.00..
On Thanksgiving Day, 1960, we were again in the rickety, wooden dry-dock, at the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Company for repairs and modification which included the installation of new 8-bladed bronze screws for more power and have the ship’s bottom grit-blasted accompanied by the application of new anti-fouling bottom painted.
I remember that my then fully retired Naval officer father, mother, and future wife came aboard for Thanksgiving Dinner that day. I had the Quaterdeck watch as they arrived onboard after the long climb up the dry-dock. I remember that a shipmate friend relieved me from my duties on the Quarterdeck to allow me to join my family for the most outstanding Thanksgiving Dinner that anyone could remember. We didn’t have the fancy “Holiday Menu” that would have been printed and available aboard a larger U.S. Navy ship of war, but the crew’s effort spared nothing from its value to my family and myself.
From mid-December, while still in the shipyard, I was allowed to take 10-day home leave. It was a time that many of the ship’s crew were also on home leave. Sometime right after Christmas, 1960, the ship cleared the shipyard and returned to Little Creek for the remainder of the Holiday period before starting more testing and training exercises, which would commence in January, 1961.
It would be several year afterward the event that I would finally learn from a former shipmate that during the period of my med-December home leave, that the yard workers had mistakenly flooded the none-water tight “FT Shack” with as much as 3-feet of salt water. The yard workers managed to quietly pump the salt water out of the compartment, dry it out with dehumidifiers and depart the compartment after cutting the lock without much of their onboard activity instigating much suspicion.
They did provide a new lock and keys, which seemed strange once I returned to the ship. One Yard Foreman, had said to me that they “needed to briefly access the compartment to inspect a deck cover.” Of course, due to the flooding, all of the test equipment, as well as all of the delicate spare parts, which were stored in the compartment, including a multitude of electronic circuit boards with components were thus compromised without anyone finding out about the event until much later – once they were tried as a repair. The compartment was thoroughly cleaned and left by the yard workers seemingly as pristine as it was always kept. There was no sign of the flooding left behind on bulkheads. Nor was there any entry in the Deck Log describing the possible casualty event according to the shipmate. Perhaps one day with time to spare, I can check the Deck Log for myself if the event was officially reported.
As my enlistment was nearing its end, toward the end of January, I received new orders and on January, 30, 1961, my active duty Navy career ended “at the convenience of the government”, with my transfer to the Inactive Naval Reserve and back to civilian life. I mustered out and was give the sum of $1.52 for transportation to my home from which I had entered the Navy nearly four years earlier.
As I went through the process of being separated from the ship, I had been able to report to the Commanding Officer, for the first time since I had reported aboard the YORK COUNTY, that there were no materiel casualties with the Firecontrol system. Even all three of the pesky and reluctant parallax correctors were functioning per specification and the three Firecontrol Systems were in excellent operational condition.
I departed the ship satisfied that I had completed my duties as expected. It would be several years afterward that I learned that the old maxim, “blame everything of the guy who is no longer there” worked quite well. I learned from a former shipmate that while all the Firecontrol Systems were operating according to specification, at the time of my departure from the ship, “none of the spares or test equipment were later found to be useable. The word going around was that I had left the ship in “a mess”. I never heard anything more of the event.
Lorie F. Allen, former FT2G
USS YORK COUNTY – 1958 to 1961