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Westpac Story

Norfolk to Westpac (Western Pacific)

1966

 

The USS Conway DD507 left Norfolk, VA. in June of 1966 for deployment to the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) and Vietnam.  Many of the approximately 260 crew members felt that they were bulletproof, indestructible, and that nothing could harm them. Those ideas were a reflection of our youth, or at least my youth and my attitude.  The attitude of a twenty year old kid who had never been west of New York City or more than 100 miles north of Boston was on his way to war. Our preparation and training for this deployment was intensive and extensive for all departments and all hands. My assignment was in engineering, main control and the aft engine room. 

The USS Conway was not the newest ship in destroyer squadron 32.  In fact it was the oldest of the eight destroyers in the squadron.  Being the oldest we had more to prove.  We might have been the oldest but we sure did have pride in what the engineering department could accomplish.  We inherited that feeling of pride from those who served before us -- the snipes that worked and sweated in the engineering spaces of the Conway from the time she was commissioned up to this deployment, the ship’s last assignment to combat.  Shipping out with us were the shadows and spirits of all of our former shipmates, living and dead.  With us were the sailors who saw battle in WWII and Korea.  The sailors who, during peace time, did what needed to be done to keep the Conway afloat and defend our freedoms.  

All of these former shipmates handed down to us a tradition of long, hard work in engineering.  We owed it to them, our ship and our country to do not just as good a job as those who went before us, but a better job.  We had a strong sense of duty, commitment and a work ethic dedicated to giving the best we could.  The motto of the squadron was “Anywhere Anytime”.  This motto complemented the motto of the USS Conway.  “Motor in Adversum” (Forward in Danger).  We committed ourselves to the ideals of those mottos.    

Although we were well trained with an excellent officer corps and a highly competent group of non-commissioned officers, some of us were still a little apprehensive as to what we were facing.  In order to allay our trepidations and those of our families, the captain of the Conway, Captain Douglas, used a tool of naval communications called “The Family Gram”.  Issuing a total of six family grams he kept our families back home apprised of our work on station in Vietnam.  The family grams were of comfort to our families, keeping them informed of our mission.  We augmented this information in our letters home with descriptions of what it was like to live, feel, see, and smell the experience. 

My battle station was in the after deck house, underneath the twin three inch guns and behind the aft five inch gun.  My job was, #2 OBA man of the repair party at this station.  Rick Miller was the #1 OBA man. We were at battle stations day and night in the metal shell of the after deck house.  The pounding of the three inch guns above us and five inch gun on the other side of the bulkhead gave me a new appreciation of the plight of the bell ringer of Notre Dame.  Sleep became synonymous with the squadron motto “Anywhere Anytime.”  Years later what was emblazoned into my psyche will kick in. Now, sleep can – and has - overtaken me in a movie theater during a noisy movie or on a raucous public transportation system.

Main control, the main engine room, is about mid-ship. Bravo four is the aft engine room, under the torpedo tubes. The engine rooms generate their own heat to enhance the searing equatorial heat and humidity. Working, standing watch, and living in the engine room on a destroyer is a remarkable experience.  Two very small hatches, one on the port side and one on the starboard side of the main deck, provide the only access to main control. Bravo four aft had two hatches, one in the passageway of officers’ country and one in the torpedo room.  The four hatches and strategically placed blower vents in each engine room were our only access to fresh air.  The blower vents provide a blast of air in an attempt to offer a cooling breeze.  The vents, in fact, succeed in blowing around the 120 degree heat so that we had only an impression of relief.  Salt pills were a necessary part of each watch.  The coffee pot was always performing its required duties of producing twice cooked coffee, percolated on the inside and heated on the outside.  We did have our engine room perks though.  I do believe that the statute of limitations will apply to the confession of this morale boosting criminal offense.

When the ship’s stores were replenished at sea, cases of food were passed from sailor to sailor along the deck on their way to storage in the galley.  The port hatch to main control was just slightly aft of the galley.  A strategically placed snipe standing in the line of sailors passing boxes of food along the deck may have accidentally dropped a case of tuna fish down the port hatch of main control. This “accident” along with a stash of crackers provided many a delightful midnight buffet to the mid-watch crew.

In preparation for our deployment to WESTPAC, all personnel and stations on Conway trained very hard.  Battle station drills were run constantly and consistently in the months prior to deployment and in the weeks of travel to our duty station.  Timing and accuracy mean everything when the battle station gong is sounded.  We all knew that speed was essential for manning your battle station.  The safety and security of the ship and your shipmates depended on your immediate response and preparation when battle stations were called.  At each practice session for battle stations the din of the gong was interspersed with an announcement over the one MC to all hands, “Battle stations!  Battle stations!  This is a drill! Battle stations!”  My response from anywhere on the ship to battle stations was, for me, a personal test of how quickly it would take me to man my station.  My goal was to try and be the first one of the repair party to be at my station. 

Captain Douglas was very intent at making sure battle stations were properly manned and secured.  Condition Zebra was strictly enforced.  There was, however, one incident that embarrassed all the members of the repair party in the after deck house.  Captain Douglas was performing a fastidious inspection of each battle station.  When he came into our area he noticed a breach of material condition Zebra.  A small plug that was to have blocked a hole in the bulkhead was not in place.  Chief Kelly, in charge of the repair party in the after deckhouse, took the full brunt of the captain’s loud admonishments.  When the captain left, even though we were all present during the harangue, Chief Kelly blasted all of use for the unpardonable breach.  The old saying “It flows from the top down” was never more evident.  We felt bad for Chief Kelly.  Someone did not do their job and the responsibility for that fell on the Chief’s shoulders.  That incident was never repeated at our battle station.

Machinist Mate 3rd class Jim Zolnik, who set the fuses in the magazine under the aft five inch gun mount, just outside the aft deckhouse, remembers days and nights at battle stations.  The chief in the mount told him not to worry about an unforeseen detonation of a five inch shell. If it happened, his detachment from Conway would be permanent and instant.  He would not feel a thing. 

Family Gram Insights

Conway’s last enemy action

The culmination of those days and nights of training finally came to an end.  Off the coast of Vietnam the battle station gong sounded.  This time between gongs we heard, “Battle stations! Battle stations! This is not a drill! Battle stations!”  A chill ran through each of us as every sailor realized that this was the real thing as we executed an orderly scramble to man our stations.  As much as we had trained and set personal speed records, this was the fastest anyone had manned their battle station in the after deckhouse at any time.  It seemed as though we were all there at once.

The family gram dated 7 August 1966 mentions in paragraph four a spectacular battle.  This is how Captain Douglas described the battle. 

This is how the repair party of the after deckhouse saw the same incident.  Earlier in the morning of that day, Machinist Mate first class Green was sitting outside the port hatch to main control.  I’m not sure how long Green had been in the Navy.  He seemed to have hash marks from his finger tips to his collar bone.  He was a gentle, soft spoken man, well liked and respected.  It would be very difficult to find anyone who could say anything bad about Green.  As we walked by him we asked him what he was staring at so intently.  He said “by lunch time we will be at battle stations.”  We said, “How do you know that?  It looks pretty quiet.”  We were very close to shore but we could not see the same thing Green was seeing.  He said, “Look between the two mountain peaks in the far distance and tell me what you see.” As we strained our eyes to force them to be like binoculars we could barely see the deadly ballet style antics of several jet aircraft.  Green said, “I have been watching them for awhile and they are moving their way toward our position.” Just before the noon chow the battle station gong sounded.  Battle stations!  Battle stations! This is not a drill! Battle stations!  The stage was being set for us to witness the fatal dance.

The LST Clarion River was also with us along the coast.  When the helicopters and the jets attacked, the Clarion River opened up with its impressive array of rockets.  Through a port side hatch left ajar we watched as an entire hillside disappeared in smoke and flame.  The screaming jets and helicopters plastered the beach and jungle with napalm and rockets.  The thunderous echoes and huge balls of fire left no doubt that this array of fire power could not be survived by our then enemy.  We were in awe of the conflagration.  The deep rumble of explosions reverberated through us and the ship.  A strange byproduct grew out of this.  One member of the repair party said, “I wish I was over there!”  This declaration at first surprised me and then it settled in to me and others that we were not doing enough and guys on the beach were bearing a heavier load.  

We never expected to see any guerrillas (Viet Cong) or North Vietnamese combatants.  Even though we were in some narrow rivers we did not believe the enemy to have the ability to cause much damage to a destroyer.  It was very common for swift boats to tie up along side every now and then.  The crews would come on board and raid the ships store and just take a break from the action.  One day a swift boat tied up along side us and much to my astonishment three Viet Cong prisoners were on the fantail guarded by crew members with rifles and pistols. 

As in the picture from our cruise book on page 46, they kept their heads bowed and huddled together.  Two of them briefly raised their heads.  To this day the image of those haunting eyes staring straight at me is burnt into my mind.  They did not look like an enemy.  They looked like they were about twelve years old, children.  Are they all this young?  Are we killing so many that this is all that is left?  They had that blank empty stare of shock.  The technology and weaponry that engulfed them had to be overwhelming and add to their fear of captivity and what their fate may be.  They appeared to be awe struck at the sight of this gray behemoth of a ship alongside of them.  My first instinct was to try to do something to help them.  This of course was not possible.  My earlier feelings of guilt for not being able to do more during the battle faded away.  It would be difficult to face an enemy of the kind in front of me now and have to take their life.

 

There were several more encounters with the now unseen enemy.  Jim Zolnik and the men at the three inch guns and forward five inch gun did not realize it then but they were the last people to load and fire the weapons of the USS Conway during actual combat.  When we look back at that time none of us realized the significance of those moments.  The decommissioning of Conway perhaps was being planned in Washington but while we were on station the Conway was just as full of life and fight as she was in World War II and Korea. 

To quote Commander Douglas, Captain, “Each man can be justifiably proud of his contribution in keeping CONWAY ‘on the line’, always prepared for any task and fulfilling all scheduled commitments”. This quote applies not only to the WESTPAC crew but, as mentioned earlier, to every sailor who has ever served on the U.S.S. Conway.  

Thomas F. Keane, Jr.

Fireman Machinist Mate

USS Conway DD507 

         

Credits

If it were not for the investigative work of co-historian Jim Zolnik, we would only have two of the original six Conway family grams.  Jim had two of the original mimeographed letters.  He found that a Westpac crew member at the Wilmington reunion had all six family grams.   Jim Zolnik arranged for them to be sent to him.  Upon receiving them, Jim collaborated with technicians where he works and put the entire WESTPAC ‘66 cruise book and all of the family grams on a disc in PDF format.  The family grams and cruise book data will be presented at the New Orleans Reunion for submittal to our webmaster to add to our newly established web site.

 

Zebra provides the greatest degree of subdivision and tightness to the ship. It is set immediately and automatically when general quarters are sounded. It is also set when entering or leaving port during wartime, to localize damage and control fire and flooding, or at any time the Commanding Officer deems the maximum condition of survivability should be set.
 

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CDR Stephen P. Douglas, Commanding Officer USS Conway DD507,  WESTPAC ’66 cruise book pg. 64

 

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