“Can you fetch me the wee hammer, laddie?” called the Scotsman.
If you can imagine Popeye with graying red hair, a bad attitude, and a penchant for swearing in English so accented it was barely recognizable than you’ve got a pretty good idea what the Scotsman was like. He also happened to be Rolls-Royce’s expert on fin stabilizers, flying all over the world to repair the buggers. Two enlisted men and I were there to keep him focused on his task. Over the last few days of watching him work, I think our main purpose was actually to make sure he didn’t bring the ship down as he battered, hammered, and swore his way through the repair. The current object of his ire was the bearing housing. For the last hour I’d watched him beat, kick, scream, and outright glare at the thing as his frustration with it continued to mount. Now, it sounded like he was going to give us front row seats to the next level of Celtic whoop-ass.
As HT1 reached for the aged roofing hammer next to him, the Scotsman screeched, “Nae! The WEE HAMMER! Get me my WEE HAMMER!” jabbing a finger to the other side of the room. Adjusting, the petty officer grabbed the 10lb sledge with the shortened handle hidden in the mad man’s tool bag, and handed it over to the Rolls-Royce technician. As his grease covered hand grabbed the hammer and felt its familiar weight, a positively devilish look appeared in the foreigner’s eye as he glanced towards the metal bearing sheath that had been causing him so much trouble. “Now, beastie, we’re gonna ‘ave a reck’ning.”
Just as the Scot raised his weapon, my cell phone rang. It was one of those old government cell phones that looked like a brick but could get signal anywhere — even, apparently, deep in a ship’s hold. The room froze, and all eyes turned towards me. For the most part during this job I had simply sat there in the room, watching it all go down, barely making a sound. It was my third job for 00C5, the Underwater Ship Husbandry division of SUPSALV, and while I was technically the expert for the Navy on this job, the reality was I was fresh out of Dive School, this was my first fin stabilizer, and I had been sent there more to learn than to advise. Aside from the occasional question or discussion of schedule, the repair crew had forgotten I was there. The alien sound of a cell phone’s ring so deep inside the ship reminded them of the stranger in their midst. “Yeah,” I said, smiling as I pulled the phone out of my pocket to my ear, “I should probably take this.”
“LT McClellan,” I answered, as I exited the space and made my way up towards the main deck, sunshine, and a clearer signal.
“Yeah, Rob,” said the voice. “Listen, do you know what’s going on?”
“Uh, I’m here in San Diego doing a fin stabilizer change. Who is this again?”
“It’s Tom McCue.”
Tom McCue was a civilian in 00C5 who handled the hull cleaning contract. Aside from the occasional office interaction, we had barely spoken since I had checked on board. The travel schedule being as it was, and him handling hull cleaning and me with ship’s husbandry — well, you know, ships passing in the night and all that. “What’s up, Tom?” I responded, hoping my rhetorical question would segue into an answer somewhere along the line.
“Look, the La Moure County ran aground down in Chile and Mike just called up here and wants the friction stud welder sent down to him. He said you had it.”
“Yeah, it’s over at SPAWAR. We’ve got the bracket installation after I finish up here. Now, what ran aground again?”
“LST 1194, USS Lamoure County. It ran aground doing some beach landing exercise down in Chile. Whole thing’s screwed up. Mike and Scott have already called in Phoenix, GPC, and MDSU-2 to help out. Mike needs you to –”
“Holy shit,” I interrupted. “Are you serious? Do you need me down there, too? Phoenix is my contractor, I can be on a plane in a couple of hours.” Despite being a Seabee Diver in a fleet world, the idea of a huge job like what this sounded like was way too big for me to not want to be a part of. The very idea was like electricity flowing through my body. You joined the Navy for big challenges, and this one sounded HUGE!
“Well, hold that thought, OK,” responded Tom. “If they need you, they’ll call you. What I want you to do is get that stud welder straightened out and headed down South. Cancel the job with SPAWAR, wrap up the fin stabilizer job, and then get back here ASAP. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. I hung up and walked back down to the work area to see the Scotsman banging the living hell out that bearing housing and signaled to HT1 that I had to take off. He nodded in assent, and I walked up and out and headed to my rental car at the end of the pier.
On the drive from the 32nd Street Naval Base to SPAWAR, I had a little time to think. Mike Dean was the head of the 00C5 division of SUPSALV. It was not a normal thing for him to leave the office to go out on a job. And LCDR Scott Mattingly was the big dog at 00C5, certainly a mentor to me and a man with a very solid reputation as an engineer and salvor — to put it bluntly, he was the guy you called when the world was about to end. For 00C to send both of those men, this must have been one hell of a grounding. Phoenix International was SUPSALV’s diving support contractor and we had worked together welding anodes onto USS Enterprise, my first job at 00C. But GPC was the warehousing agent, managing all of the Emergency Ship Salvage Materials (ESSM) for the Navy worldwide. What were they being mobilized to Chile for?
Once I arrived, the wrap up at SPAWAR was relatively routine. The gear was still in its original crates. I inspected it, and we shipped it back off to logistics to be sent directly to Antofogasta, Chile. Jack Fix, the equipment’s creator, was going to meet it there and help the repair crews use it. The next day we finished the Fin Stabilizer job and I caught a plane back home to DC, anxious to see what happened next.
Little did I know the future that awaited me there.
Next: LST 1194, Part 2: The Big Picture