Refueling in the big swells

Vietnam 1965 – 1966

USS Reeves returning from WestPac



As we headed back to the States from the deployment in West Pac in late ’65, we were with a carrier, a destroyer, and another DLG, the USS King.  As we proceeded eastward about two days out from Hawaii, we were getting huge swells from the North, caused by a storm off the Aleutians, 2000 miles to the North.  This made every activity uncomfortable, since we were taking these 25-30 foot swells on the port quarter.  The ship would roll to starboard, pitch down, then roll back to port, and pitch up as the wave passed under us.  This made a pretty monotonous roller coaster ride.  After two days of this, Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG), the admiral on the carrier,  was getting concerned about the destroyer, which needed to refuel.  We turned the group northward into the seas, and came alongside for refueling. In order to get fuel from the carrier to another ship,  it is standard procedure to have the provider take a steady course and speeed, and the recipient comes alongside about 100 feet out on the starboard side.  A heaving line is thrown from the provider, then a heavier line brings over a cable.  The cable is made fast, then a fueling hose is brought over and coupled up so that fuel oil can be pumped over.   The hose is coupled up, the valve turned on, and the fuel pumped into the recipient’s tanks.  The ships remain alongside for up to 30 minutes while the transfer takes place.  During refueling,  the distance between ships is maintained by the recipient ship.  The water running between ships tends to pull them together, so an experienced hand on the helm is necessary, and the conning officer must be experienced so that he can anticipate any movement toward or away from the providing ship and give corresponding orders to the helmsman.


We managed to take on some fuel, and so did the King, but the destroyer was pitching so badly that they finally had to give it up.  The group turned East again, and proceeded.   The next day, the swells hadn’t abated much, but the destroyer was getting desperate for fuel, so it was decided to give it another try.  This time, the group was oriented to the South, to run before the swells and see if the destroyer could link up to get some fuel.   The King was ordered into lifeguard station 1000 yards astern of the carrier, and the destroyer was ordered alongside for refueling.  The King came about to get into station, and the captain had me  bring the Reeves into station about 2000 yards off the starboard beam of the carrier, preparing to watch the show.   As the King was turning to get into station, there came a call over PriTac radio from the King, “We  have a man overboard.”.  King executed the Williamson turn to get back to the man, but with the heavy seas, we all knew that they would not be able to put over a boat.   CAG ordered the ready helicopter to proceed to assist the King with recovery of the man.  We watched to see what we could do, but mostly we just stayed out of the way.  Finally CAG ordered us into the lifeguard station astern of the carrier.  The helicopter made a pass to pick up the man, but had to hover higher than normal, and had a hard time putting the horsecollar on the man. They didn’t dare put a swimmer over, because that would have been two people to rescue instead of just one.  Finally, they hovered above him so that when the wave bought him up to the peak, he could get an arm through the collar.  You can bet he was holding on for dear life as they brought him back to the King’s deck, where he dropped off and the helicopter proceeded back to the carrier.  The refueling went on as normal, although the destroyer did a lot of pitching, weaving and bobbing – she was being lifted 20 to 25 feet, then dropped just as far, within every 90 second span of time – and they got enough fuel that the destroyer did not worry about running out of fuel until we got to Hawaii.


The epilog came four years later, when I was relating this story in  the wardroom of the USS Albany, where I was the Missile Systems Officer and my buddy  Mike Worley was the Electronics Officer.  As I related how King was coming about and noted that somehow the man had fallen overboard, Mike piped up.  “Yeah, the guy was running to his station – luckily he had grabbed his lifevest already – the stern dropped out from under him and moved to starboard while he was going straight, so he just dropped in the water.” Mike was the OOD on the King when all this happened. 


Just goes to show, you should always tell the truth when you’re telling a sea story, because someone else in the group just may have been using the same story.