John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: August, 2018

The Saga of the USS Indianapolis

When my cousin Bob, offered me a new book on the loss of the cruiser, USS Indianapolis, I groaned at the thought of reading another account of this tragedy. This cruiser’s sinking resulted in the greatest loss of life by a US Navy ship while at sea in the history of our Republic. Only the battleship Arizona suffered a greater loss of life while moored in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One thousand, one hundred and seventy-seven, (1,177) men died when a high-altitude bomber dropped an armor piercing naval shell fitted with fins above the ship that scored a one in a million hit. The bomb penetrated several decks before it exploded in the number two main gun turret magazine. An incredible explosion followed that literary blew the battleship apart instantaneously.


When the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine, I-58 in the early morning darkness of July 29, 1945, approximately, 900 crew members of the 1,195 on board managed to escape their dying ship that sank in twelve minutes. Some found rafts or other floating material to climb aboard, but most went into the fuel saturated water with only life vests. A series of stupid, sad and, yes, negligent events bordering on being criminal allowed the ship to become invisible to naval operations on its voyage from Guam to Leyte. Survivors of the sinking spent four to five days adrift before being rescued. Exposure, depleting body temperature, lack of food and fresh water, oil and salt water poisoning, the sun, dehydration and the greatest and most feared enemy, sharks, took their toll repeatedly.


The authors quoted Robert Shaw who played the shark hunter, Captain Quinn, in the movie, Jaws:


Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes…Very first light, Chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups …And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away…Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.  Seem to be livin’ When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then…ah, then you hear that terrible high-screech screamin’, and the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.


Nine hundred went into the water and only 317 came out.


Despite my hesitation to take on Lynn Vincent’s and Sara Vladic’s new book simply called, Indianapolis, I came away with praise for their thorough re-telling of the saga and updating the final vindication of Charles B. McVay III, the persecuted captain of the Indianapolis.


In one of the most blatant acts of “Cover your own ass,” Admiral of the fleet, Ernest J. King, insisted on McVay being court marshalled for failing to zig-zag during a night passage and leaving hatches open at the time of being torpedoed. Curiously, Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet and McVay’s boss, disagreed.


McVay lived an agonized life after his conviction. The survivors loved him culminating when he and his wife, Louise, attended the first reunion of the crew in the cruiser’s name-sake city in 1960 where he gave a moving and heart felled speech. Still, he suffered hate filled letters from those who lost family. In 1963, eighteen years after his command was lost, McVay walked out behind his Connecticut home and ended his torment with a bullet from his revolver.


The point MS Vincent and MS Vladic make in their book is King and co. chose to protect the Navy at McVay’s expense. King’s miscarriage of justice wasn’t exonerated until July 1999 when a compilation of evidence reached Senator Bob Smith of NH. (Read the book for the details.)


It proved that McVay was set up. Long story short, the evidence was a slam dunk in McVay’s favor, but John Warner, the committee chairman and former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan was too loyal to the Navy, so he blocked publication of the findings by his committee. Finally,  late in 1999, Warner received a letter from Mochitsura Hasimoto, commander of Submarine I-58 who sank Indianapolis.


In 1947 when the expression “optics” that describes how something will be received by the public was unknown, the Navy flew Captain Hasimoto to Washington DC to testify against Captain McVay! Not only was McVay the only captain court marshalled, much less convicted for losing his ship in World War II, the Navy had the audacity to present the enemy submarine captain as their witness.)


In a turn around that struck Warner’s soul, Hasimoto wrote:

“I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name. Our Peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your people forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.”


Warner was blown away and released the committee’s findings to the Senate floor on October 12, 2000. Both houses passed the resolution and then Secretary of the Navy, Gordan England, formally and forcefully entered a two-paragraph addendum into McVay’s record totally exonerating him.  Finally, justice was served.





Close Calls and Near Misses

I watched my first close call while riding north on the Van Wyck Expressway years ago. A brightly painted Braniff 727 flew over me on its approach to LaGuardia Airport. Quickly, I knew something was wrong. The glide path was too shallow for a landing. Then the airplane began to climb and veer to the left. Up ahead, a second Braniff 727 rose into the air from the same runway banking hard right as it climbed.


Since that day I have witnessed or been involved in several near misses and close calls during the almost thirty years of my life as a frequent flyer. I have been on two flights where the pilot flew into dead air, once somewhere over the Carolinas on a flight from Jacksonville and the other over the Hudson River approaching LaGuardia. The first incident happened during meal service launching trays, meals, flight attendants, carts and unbelted passengers into the air. They retuned thanks to gravity with remarkably no worse for the experience except for spills, stains and a few bumps and bruises. The second was more dramatic being that much closer to the ground. Fortunately, we had prepared for landing and everything and everyone remained in place. The pilot quickly accelerated as he banked over the Meadowlands where he found good air. We passengers maintained complete silence until the wheels hit the ground.


Two aborted takeoffs, one in St. Louis and the other in Bermuda. In both instances, somebody had wandered onto the runway. I also witnessed a similar near miss at Houston (now Bush) Intercontinental Airport. An Eastern 727 about to land had to abort as a single engine prop plane crossed the runway in front of it.


I also lived through two near miss collisions while in the air. The first happened over the Alps on a clear morning. Alan Gardiner and I were heading to Paris from Kula Lumpur on a MAS 747 when I saw a dot on the horizon. The dot grew into a Swiss Air DC-10 that was desperately climbing as it crossed over us. I joked that it was so close that I could read the pilot’s name tag. His name was Hans. The second happened over New Jersey on an outbound flight from JFK. We were still climbing as I gazed out a window. Suddenly, the entire window was filled by a turbo-prop commuter airliner that crossed over my jet. Seconds later, it was gone.


I have lived through two touch and go aborted landings. The first happened in the late fall of 1990 on a flight from Copenhagen to Oslo on a SAS MD-80. Oslo was socked in as the pilot began his approach on instruments. I watched as we descended but saw only clouds. Down and down we went for what seemed to be forever. Finally, we broke through the cloud cover and to my shock, all I saw were houses. Almost immediately, the crew accelerated and quickly climbed out of there. Nothing was said until we reached cruising altitude when the pilot advised that we would shortly attempt a second instrument landing. His explanation for aborting the first was, “They brought us in too close the first time.” This begs the question, “To close to what?”


The second was my closest call of all. I was on a trip to visit Waterman Steamship in Mobile, Alabama and I traveled on American Airlines with my colleague, Louise Varnas. American was a new player on the route to Mobile having established a new hub in Nashville. We changed gates and MD-80s there. Before the airplane pulled back from the gate, the pilot announced: “Right now we are being held here because rain and fog conditions in Mobile are below the acceptable minimum. The airport does expect to re-open in less than an hour and I believe we will go tonight. But, if you feel uncomfortable, you may disembark and try again tomorrow.”


The airplane was less than half full and about a third of those on board decided to deplane. Louise and I discussed our alternatives knowing that we had a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. the next day. I decided to put my trust in the pilot and Louise reluctantly agreed to join me.


As promised we left a bit over an hour later for the relatively short flight to Mobile. Conditions while now acceptable were almost down to the minimum and the pilot made sure the airplane was buttoned up for this instrument landing. Like in Oslo, it seemed to take forever and I’m not sure I saw the ground just before the wheels hit the runway or vice versa. Either way, we were too far down the runway to commit and the pilot hit the throttles to climb out of there.


Once at altitude he explained what had happened then advised: “I am going to give it one more try and if it’s too dicey, I’m calling it off and we’ll return to Nashville.”


Take two, this time he touched down where he wanted to, (more or less,) and slammed on the brakes and reverse thrusters pulling us away from our seats so only the belt stopped us from catapulting forward. I still have the imprint of Louise’s nails on my shoulder. Needless to say,

we both enjoyed a stiff drink once we reached the hotel.


When we related our experience at the meeting the next morning, Bob Parker, Waterman’s Risk Manager, looked at us quizzically. He shook his head and explained: “You don’t know how lucky you are. They just completed a long-planned runway extension last week.”


It occurs to me as I write this, the number two is prevalent throughout this piece. Whatever that means.  


Happy flying.

Prince Christian Sound

On board Holland America’s MV Massdam, July 23, 2010:


Today, our ship is scheduled to cross southern Greenland from west to east through Prince Christian Sound as part of our trans-Atlantic cruise deemed: “Voyage of the Vikings.” We had been warned this passage could be cancelled at any time, so I was totally attentive when shortly after nine, James Russell-Dunford, the ship’s information director announced in his booming voice:


Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It’s been quite a night and a rather long one for me. I have only just returned to the bridge having been relieved, so I could get a bit of rest. One of our passengers, an eighty-four-year-old man took ill late last night, and our doctor determined that he had to be evacuated. We returned to Qaqortoq arriving at 3 am where we lowered him by tender and he was taken to the local hospital with his wife and their baggage. The crew did a superb job and we were on our way back to sea by 3:30. Hopefully, he will be fine, and I’ll be able to report his status.


We have made good time and will be approaching an entrance to the sound in a half-hour. Helicopter observations report that the sound is ice-free, but we’ll have to see if the fog persists when we reach the entrance before I can commit to a passage.


I return to my book continue to read while glancing out over the bow. When the electronic gong sounds signaling another announcement. I look up and there in the distance breaking through the mist directly in front of the ship I spy a mountain at least 2,000 or 3,000 feet high. “Where did that come from?” I remark to the woman in the next seat. As I rise to leave, the captain announces we were going to start a passage. “I may have to turn around if conditions deteriorate, but right now I am satisfied with visibility and ice conditions.”


I hurry to our cabin to don protective clothing, rain pants over my jeans, sweatshirt, wind breaker, wool vest and a new waterproof rain jacket. A Tilley’s rain hat tops off my outfit and to the bow I rush. I stay only long enough to photograph the entrance to the straits then move to the stern out of the wind and rain; away from the crowds. Here I stay for the entire passage except for lunch in the Lido and a camera battery change. A cold rain persists but, not only do I survive, more importantly, so does my camera.


My reward; some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever witnessed. It may have been more pleasant had the sun been out, certainly far more colorful, but the low clouds and mist add drama that, in my opinion, trumps color. Mountains exceeding 4,000 feet line the sound towering over the ship, as close as 500 feet on either side of the channel. At times, layers of clouds wrap around their faces, clinging to the sides obscuring them, but allowing crags and peaks to poke through. Other times, the drab gray, brown and green formations break free of the mist. Countless waterfalls drain pockets of ice and snow while seven different glaciers descend from the mountains, one directly into the sound. Icebergs of all sizes, shapes and colors drift by. The captain’s enthusiasm grows as we continue and, at some point he silently decides we will complete the journey including a side-trip to a lone Inuit village that clings to a flat, rock plateau.


Approximately 150 men, women and children inhabit Aappilattoq, (Ap-pil-at-tog) an isolated hamlet of small pre-fabricated houses perched at a junction of canyons. Once again, my senses are jolted by the exterior colors of the Inuit’s homes; bright and vivid reds, greens, blues and yellows.


The natives fish for sustenance and hunt seal to make a living. The captain sails Maasdam past the village into a wide basin where the ship makes a 180-degree looping turn to continue east along a different passage. The ship’s horn bellows as we complete the turn calling out skiffs from the village. Four appear, a single man in the first, two villagers in the second, six in the third including at least three children and three in the last. The boats are similar, white open skiffs with huge outboards. Two of the drivers stand steering by means of long handles attached to the motors. They wave and take photographs of us as we wave and take photos of them.


Before lunch, Mary Ann brings me a welcome cup of the thick Dutch pea soup being served on several decks. It is so good that I enjoy more with lunch.


We exit the sound just after 4 pm. I took more than 250 photos over the seven hours that I spent on deck which I edit down to 100.


What a fabulous day!



That Close to Oblvion

The evening of September 18, 1980 found the Arkansas Democrats gathered together in Little Rock for their annual party’s convention. William S. Clinton, then governor, chaired the convention.  Hillary joined her husband and Vice President Walter Mondale was their guest of honor. Little did they know that fifty-miles to the northwest near the little town of Damascus all hell was breaking loose at the Titan II Missile Complex 374-7.


Eighteen Titan II complexes were spread over 150 miles of rural Arkansas north of Little Rock AFB their operational HQ. Each complex controlled one Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) mounting a single W-53, 9.5 megaton warhead with enough firepower to take out a medium city like Little Rock. These complexes were designated 373-1 to 9 and 374-1 to 9.


An experienced crew had assumed control of 374-4 that day. Led by Capt. Michael T. Mazzaro, it included his launch officer, 1st Lt Allan Childers and the two enlisted technicians, SSgt Rodney L. Miller and SSgt Ronald O. Full. This tour included a supernumerary, 1st Lt Miguel A. Serrano, in training to be a silo commander. The team had already experienced an unusual day that delayed arrival for their 24-hour shift. First their assignment changed as their original complex, 374-5, was undergoing maintenance. They were further delayed because the alternator on the crew vehicle had to be replaced.


Adding to the stress, Capt. Mazzaro decided to alert HQ that the pressure in the missile’s oxidizer tank was below acceptable levels. HQ dispatched a repair team on call already performing repairs at other silos. The repair team (PTS0) didn’t reach 374-7 until 6:30 PM. By then, they had been on the job that day for eleven-hours. Sergeant David F. Powell and Airman Jeffrey Plumb made their way into the silo.


Was it fatigue or carelessness that led to their fatal mistake? The two-man team had been issued new procedures requiring them to use a torque wrench and socket to remove a pressure cap. But they had left the torque wrench in their truck and, rather than climb back out of the silo to retrieve it, Powell decided to make the repairs using a ratchet wrench, the previously approved procedure.


“Powell picked up the ratchet with the socket seemingly attached. As he swung it up into operating position, the 8.75-pound socket separated from the ratchet at waist high level, fell onto the Level 2 platform, bounced once onto the rubber boot between the platform edge and the missile airframe, and before either technician could grab it, pushed through the boot and fell approximately 80 feet. The socket hit on the thrust mount ring, then bounced upward and toward the missile puncturing the Stage I fuel tank skin.”


White liquid began to pour out of the missile and into the silo creating a noticeable cloud of Aerozine 50 vapor. “Aerozine 50 is hypergolic with the Titan II’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide; i.e., they spontaneously ignite upon contact with each other. The nitrogen tetroxide is kept in a second tank in the rocket’s first stage, directly above the (pierced) fuel tank and below the second stage and its 9.5-megaton nuclear weapon.”


Powell notified Mazzaro of the fuel leak then he and Plumb evacuated the silo. News of the leak made its way up the chain of command and on to Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ in Omaha. One issue was tackled immediately, nobody in the chain of command would confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on the Titan II leaking fuel in Silo 374-4.


The danger was two-fold, the vapors could create a hazardous situation of an explosive atmosphere needing only a source of ignition, or as the fuel tank emptied, the almost empty shell would no longer support the rocket above it. This would likely rupture the nitrogen tank and explode.  Definitive data didn’t exist to predict with certainty if an explosion would be powerful enough to detonate the missile’s warhead.


When detonated, a 9.5 megaton device would release three times the destructive power of all the bombs used by all the armies in the Second World War including the two atom bombs dropped on Japan. 


Around 9 PM, the crew was ordered to evacuate. Mazzaro originally objected to this order on the theory that they could assist emergency crews in entering the complex, but he was overridden. Evacuation too, became a drama as the crew found the regular passageways were saturated with fuel vapor. This forced them to evacuate by way of a separate emergency “chimney” tube where they climbed to safety.


At some point during the night, the instruments in the complex sensed a fire condition and inundated the silo with more than 100,000 gallons of water from a massive sprinkler system.


The first attempt to re-enter the complex were thwarted by the inner blast door that could only be opened from the inside. Two other technicians, Sgt Jeff K. Kennedy and Am David Livingston took readings inside the complex that found airborne fuel concentration was at its maximum density.


About 3 AM, Livingston was ordered to turn on an exhaust fan and shortly thereafter, the silo blew up.


The blast obliterated the silo and sent the 740-ton steel and concrete launch door more than 200 feet into the air and 600 feet from the complex. The warhead landed 150 feet from the silo. Twenty-two people were injured, and Livingston died of his injuries the following day.


To this day, nobody knows how close the warhead came to detonating. If it did, one source estimated 3,000 citizens would have died and the history of our presidential elections could have been completely altered.


…and now, let us pray.


On the Outside Looking in won’t publish next week and will return on August 15,