Sea Tales 9:
Recollections of a retired U.S. Navy Photographers Mate

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By Richard L. Baker, PH1, USN
OP Division - 1975 prior to Hancock's Decommissioning

The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is that a fairy tale begins, "Once upon a time.", and a sea story starts with. "This ain't no shit." Well this collection is that of the latter.

Excerpt from the 1864 Naval Officers Guide: "Enlisted men are stupid - but they are sly and cunning and bear considerable watching."

The USS HANCOCK (CV-19) had been built in the later years of World War II and had seen considerable action during the last months of that conflict. Later she would be called into action for service off the coast of Korea while engaged in the Police Action there. Yet again she would be sent into harms way as she carried her pilots and sailors into action in the Gulf of Tonkin as the war raged in Vietnam.

Over the passage of time Hanna was surpassed in ability by newer, larger, faster ships and heavier aircraft. Her days were numbered even from the time her keel was laid and construction began.

By 1975, over thirty years after her beginning, the decision to remove her from the fleet was made,. Hanna was making her last deployment to the Far East and upon returning to her home port at San Francisco she would be decommissioned and then towed across the bay to be broken up for scrap.

I was a second class Photographers Mate standing on the pier at the Naval Station at Subic Bay, Philippines when I saw the Hancock as she was being eased alongside the pier by several tug boats. Along her deck edges her sailors, attired in dress white uniforms stood manning the rail as the huge ship inched closer to the pier. Her quarter deck and afterbrow ramps were placed against her deck as the last of the huge hawsers that secured her to the pier were being made fast.

Some time later I went aboard and reported to the photo lab where I was informed by the photographic officer that I would be placed in charge of the labs supply section as well as being assigned general photographic duties.

Lt. Davis, the photo officer, explained that there was a great deal of work to accomplish as the ship sailed back across the Pacific. All of our photo equipment such as our processing and printing equipment would have to be prepared for shipment to other naval photo labs once we arrived back in our home port of San Francisco, Ca. The Naval Air Systems Command who had control of our equipment had sent to us a message stating where we were to ship each piece of our equipment inventory.

Down below the main deck, on the fifth deck of the ship, the photo lab had a reefer where we stored all of the film and photographic printing paper. Film came in sizes from 16mm by 100 feet, to rolls of aerial recon film 10 inches wide and three hundred feet long, as well as all the usual small rolls sizes, 35mm and 120. All of which would have to be brought up on deck, sorted, inventoried, packed or otherwise disposed of. The bulk of the film would be offloaded at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and sent to a silver recovery facility as the emulsion of photo film is silver based.

Once we had deposited all of the inventory items there remained a large amount of smaller items such as timers for the enlargers and film processors, printing easels of various sizes, filters for both cameras and enlargers as well as a great many smaller items some of which could be used by another photo lab on other ships. Also there were many items that would be difficult to dispose of, Mark V gas mask, cases of paper towels, office supplies and numerous other small things. I suggested to Lt. Davis that we place all the smaller items into boxes, inventory each box and then invite photo officers from other commands to come aboard and take whatever they wanted. We would be pier side and unable to dispose of things over the side, they on the other hand would be going to sea again and could deep six whatever they did not need or could not use. All we had to do was place one useable item in each box and require that the box and its contents be taken by whatever photo officers came and wanted any of the things that we had to give away.

As the ship made its passage across the wide Pacific, my sailors and I were able to dispose of much of the smaller items that had no value to another lab.

On a bright and sunny morning the USS HANCOCK passed for the last time under the Golden Gate Bridge; passed the islands in San Francisco Bay and was pushed alongside one of the piers at the Alameda Air Station. Hanna had finished her distinguished career and had served her sailors, airmen and her nation in grand fashion. Once alongside the pier her mighty throbbing engines went silent, her heartbeat stopped and her active life began its end.

Lt. Davis had sent out the message to other ships and stations in the area that we were disposing of our lab materials and invited them to come aboard and pick up whatever they wanted. Warrant Officer Pudsey, the photo officer from another of the aircraft carriers that was in port came aboard and began to select the items that he would want sent to his lab. He was informed by Mr. Davis that anything Mr. Pudsey wanted, he would have to take the entire box full of material, useable or otherwise.

Mr. Pudsey selected most of the boxes that we had tagged and then made arrangements to send his photo lab personnel over to the side of the Hancock the following morning where they would wait at the lower end of the conveyor that was attached to the ship and used to transport material from the ship to shore. We would send the boxes down to them and they would haul away any boxes marked "Photo" back to their ship.

It came to my mind that they really did not know what they were to get or how much they were to receive. I had tried without success to turn in battle helmets and gas mask as well as a large collection of canvas belts from our print dryer. There was also the problem of disposing of the contents of our trash cans, the used coffee grounds from our coffee pot and a good deal of other assorted junk. All of it went into boxes, each marked, "photo" , sealed with tape and sent on their way down the conveyor, never to be seen by my crew again. That, I thought was a darned good way to clean out a photo lab, quick simple and efficient. I and my crew awaited our transfer orders to other ships and commands.

When my orders came in, I was transferred to the USS ORISKANY (CV-34) which was at that time somewhere in the Western Pacific near the Philippines, and was completing her last cruise and was preparing to return to the States for decommissioning. Oh boy! Here we go again.

Once again I was flown across the Pacific to await the arrival of my ship at Subic Bay.

Warrant Officer Moe was the photo officer of the Oriskany and as soon as I had reported aboard he welcomed me into the photo lab and then asked many questions regarding the decommissioning of the ship and of the ways to dispose of the labs materials and equipment. I told him how we had worked things out on the Hancock, or at least most it. Mr. Moe agreed to the basic plan and once more I set about with my crew to dispose of ship's photo equipment and supplies.

Seventeen days of steaming across the Pacific Ocean and the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Again a message was sent out to other photo labs announcing our give away, and once again Warrant Officer Pudsey came to the lab. As soon as I saw Mr. Pudsey enter the photo lab I beat a hasty retreat out the back door. I really did not want to talk to that man.

Mr. Pudsey again selected those items which he wanted and once more made arrangements for his crew to receive boxes of "photo" material on the pier.

Among other things that Mr. Pudsey wanted was a set of jewelers tools that were used by the camera repairman. That offered another chance to pull a gag on our photographic pals of another ship. Dust is the greatest threat to proper photographic processing and printing and a major amount of time is spent cleaning the lab to keep the dust problem at bay. We took the repair tools and placed them inside a large cardboard box, into which we also placed a weather balloon and some small and heavy objects. The balloon was then inflated and the end tied off and stuffed inside the box. The flaps were closed over the balloon and the entire thing was taped up with as much masking tape and ordinance as we could find. The box was completely hidden under the tape. The only way to open it was with a knife or box cutter. You must understand that all weather balloons being rubber are coated inside with a fine talcum powder. When that box was opened the poor sailor that opened it was in for a surprise and then a long job of cleaning the dust out of his photo lab.

Our special box and several other boxes of scrap, garbage and odd pieces of junk went to the conveyor and the well trained sailors on the pier carried it all off to their ship. We would not see that stuff again as the other ship would go to sea and we on the Oriskany would soon have our orders and go our separate ways to new commands.

Shortly after we had disposed of our lab material, I received my orders to yet another aircraft carrier. Mr. Moe also received his orders which took him to the USS ROOSEVELT, the next carrier to be decommissioned.

I took my orders and my seabag to my new command and as I stood on the pier and looked up at the huge structure I remembered the advise that I had been given, "If you ever go aboard the ENTERPRISE tie a string off on the pier and you will have a line to follow once you get lost." I did not have any string so I took a chance that I would not get lost and proceeded up the afterbrow. At the top of the brow at the hanger deck level I saluted the colors at the fantail and then the chief on duty and ask, "Permission to come aboard, sir." As I was sure he would the chief granted me permission to come aboard and then had one of the sailors there with him escort me to the photo lab.

Before I entered the photo lab and reported to my new photo officer I took a twenty four inch ruler and tied a clean white handkerchief to it, knocked on the door and then entered the office of the photographic officer. I held up my ruler. The photo officer rose from behind his desk and said, "Welcome to the Enterprise, petty officer. You are to be my new supply petty officer and I have a store room full of things that will require your personal attention." Then Mr. Pudsey sat back down and smiled broadly.

Submitted 11/22/2007
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