Abbot Days — Abbot Memories

Jack Kelleher

Serving aboard Abbot for just about three years as my first duty station, 1961 to 1964, I remember her best, although I next served as XO on the fleet tug Kiowa for two years, and then as Aide & Flag Lieutenant to COMPHIBGRUTWO for another three. “A sailor’s first ship is like his first love”, never forgotten. We have terrific stories by others in our Crew Memoirs, but I thought I would write down a few snippets of “personal Abbot experiences” for enjoyment, before memory completely fades away.

John Kelleher

The School Ship

I reported aboard just after Abbot and The Sullivans became the “hands-on guinea pigs” for officers enrolled in the newly established U.S. Naval Destroyer School. We sported a unique squadron insignia on both sides of the forward stack — a charging golden destroyer on a navy blue background, the flaming Torch of Learning rising above her, and the pages of a textbook spread open in the background. Thus, the two ships became floating laboratories for the officer students, supplementing their classroom work.

Some Memorable Experiences

All “jg’s” and full lieutenants, few of the students had much ship handling experience. Many came from larger ships. Not willing to risk a multi-million dollar “training lab” colliding with a real pier, docking drills were conducted at sea. Yes, at sea. A large floating wooden monstrosity was the target pier. Great drills, great fun. Smashing into it without damage to Abbot, so evading scathing messages of critique from COMDESLANTFLT. Missing it by wide margins without grounding ourselves on the beach. Yes, in time the students learned to dock with aplomb as a good destroyerman should.

And, of course, man overboard drills. Executing the Williamson Turn (does the Navy still employ that maneuver?), sometimes “Oscar” got run over, sometimes left floating some 200 yards away, while the retrieving bos’n mates stared wistfully seaward, probably thinking, “what the hell are we doing here”. In time, “Oscar” got recovered more often than not.

Casualty drills taxed and stretched the Engineering Department folks to the outer limits of patient teaching. Good old sailor know-how, traditional baling wire and chewing gum, and the newly invented Super Glue kept our 20-year-old power plant together for another day of abuse.

Don’t have a lot of “standing right out there” memories as a school ship. Mostly it was “more of the same”, drill after drill. But, 9 to 5 hours, home every night and weekends.

Holiday Ship

One July 4th holiday found us anchored for three days off Marblehead, Massachusetts, at full dress ship. This is how I learned that powerful Senators and Congressional Representatives can entice the Navy to dispatch ships to various ports on special holidays to act as “tourist attractions” for the local folks. It was pretty good duty. The townspeople treated all the crew very well and most hospitably when ashore, and they were courteous and inquisitive when touring the ship.

The fun part of this “adventure” was returning to Newport. The Captain decided to shorten the voyage via a transit through the Cape Cod Canal rather than steaming around The Cape (as we Bostonians fondly refer to it). The reaction of those ashore, running down to canalside and snapping many pictures as we glided by, indicated that it was many years since a ship of any size passed through the canal. Certainly the first warship since World War II, I would imagine.

The Bump

“The Bump”, which condemned us to the floating drydock at Davisville, Rhode Island, for three weeks, occurred on one of our many trips to somewhere in the Caribbean, our favorite playground. I remember the timing well, but have no clue as to why we were prancing about that part of the world on that particular cruise. It was early May 1964, just before my marriage to Linda on the 23rd of that month. My leave was approved and I was antsy to get back to Newport and enjoy my ensuing honeymoon.

The Bump was a gigantic one, jarring Abbot’s keel from bow to stern, leaving everyone staring at each other in amazement. Uncharted reef? Couldn’t be. We were steaming in 2,000 fathoms of good old saltwater. Mystery solved when a huge whale surfaced just astern moments later. Don’t know about injuries to the whale, but Abbot limped home with a damaged sonar dome and a bent port shaft. Thus, our “grounding” to the floating drydock in Davisville as punishment for “bad behavior”.

I was undaunted. Turning over my responsibilities as Gun Boss to Mike Harris, I was off to my wedding and a long honeymoon in Bermuda. Yes, it was great. Nothing marred it until our return to our little apartment in Philadelphia. You see, I got an extended honeymoon as Abbot had just received new orders for a change in assignment and homeport — Naval Reserve Training in Philadelphia. My game plan was to wait out the repairs in Davisville and pick up the ship on her arrival in Philly. Didn’t happen. The XO wanted me back to supervise the onloading of our ammunition. What?!!!! The folks I left behind were perfectly capable of doing this without me. I mean it’s just a matter of manhandling shells until safely stored in a magazine. How difficult can that be?!

Regardless, the call went out for me. In the days before cell phones, iPads, email, and GPS devices, and before the phone company got around to installing our landline, Mike Harris adroitly tracked me down through my new father-in-law and Western Union. No, I didn’t take it well and, yes, I was grumpy leaving my new bride, but as they say, orders is orders. With something less than a cheery aye-aye, I donned my uniform for a discounted military ticket and ensconced myself and my book, “A Complete History of the Civil War”, in the club car for the six-hour train ride to Providence. Finished the book. Then a bus to Newport. I talked the driver into dropping me off at Gate #10 to the base. There was a favorite haunt just across the road, from which I called Mike Harris. I “ordered” him to turn over his CDO duties to John “Ollie” Matson and get his butt out to the bar.

We closed up the place, so I “got even” for this disruption to my first days as a married man.

Naval Reserve Training Ship

I mentioned a change in duty and homeport in the previous snippet. With decommissioning looming in about 15 months, this was Abbot’s last mission in her nearly 22 years of faithful service. Once-monthly weekend drills. Once-annually two-week cruise. Time to share a few of my “favorites”.

Drilling in the exercise area off Cape May, New Jersey, one weekend, I was OOD supervising one of the reserve unit’s OOD’s. Captain and Reserve Unit Officer-in-Charge on the bridge. All officers in our wash khaki’s. Radio messenger pops up with message board for the captain to sign. This reserve sailor was a high school kid and looked to be 12 years old!! The captain asked him who told him to bring the message board to him. “I don’t know, sir,” said the kid, “Some man in a brown suit”. At least he got the “sir” part right.

Five reserve training Fletcher Class DD’s steaming in a line abreast for a liberty port call in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two weeks annual training cruise, not just a weekend drill. Senior officer aboard Abbot. Got permission for a full-power run for all ships. Reason? Annual qualifications. Real reason — READY, GET SET, GO!!! A race. ABBOT won by not much more than the distance between the bullnose and the barrel of Mount 51. Also clocked at nearly 42 knots! Pretty neat performance by all five ships.

On this cruise we also hosted a most interesting reserve Commander, not part of the Philadelphia reserve unit, but assigned to Abbot solo for his annual two weeks “active duty”. Although the Operations Officer laid out his training schedule, he was assigned to my watch section underway and in port. Fascinating experience for me, a JG training and supervising a full Navy commander. Regretfully, I can’t recall his name but he was a pleasure to work with. He threw himself into everything and wanted to be part of everything, taking seriously any duty to which he was assigned, even quarterdeck inport watches standing tall with his badge of office, the “long glass” tucked under his arm.

One beautiful day, moored alongside the pier in Halifax, we officers had just settled in for a relaxing lunch. Promptly at noon, eight bells rang out loud and clear from the ship’s bell on the forward bulkhead just outside the wardroom. Startled, we all leaped to our feet thinking “fire”! Turns out the commander, with his more formal cruiser background and standing the quarterdeck watch, figured this was the thing to do at 1200 hours. He was correct, of course, with the tradition but not with the reality aboard a tin can. In my three years aboard, I had not heard Abbot’s bell rung before or since, but this one time makes for a fine memory. Something unique.

Running the River

Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to the open ocean was a good six hours Sea Detail — for a destroyer. Much longer for the commercial tankers and freighters transiting the Delaware River to unload and load various cargo. Captain Pirro decided to “qualify” just two OOD’s for the “Delaware River Sea Detail” (probably a unique qualification in the Navy to this day) — Freddy Fee and myself.

Our qualification consisted of two river runs with a pilot on board, one at night, one by day. It was the night run I vividly recall. Like all military services, the Navy is big on redundancy. CIC bearings by radar, navigator and quartermasters plotting positions by visual bearings to charted landmarks, all other eyes on the bridge darting about looking for hazards or obstacles, port and starboard lookouts. But this time, Freddy and I hung on the shoulders of the pilot, inhaling his every word and thought, peppering him with questions. Just below the Delaware Memorial Bridge the river channel bends some forty degrees, demanding a swinging course change. Before the navigator or CIC could sing out their recommended timing for the turn, the pilot ordered right rudder and steadied up on the new course, neatly and quietly executing this maneuver.

Being the more curious of Fred and myself, I queried the pilot on how he knew when to make the turn. His response — “You see that house up on the hill all by itself with the three lighted windows on the top floor? Well, that’s Mrs. Brown’s house. When the windows bear dead on the bow, you make the turn.” The brash one, that’s me, said, “Well, what do you do if the lights aren’t on?” The pilot sucked on his pipe for a moment, blew out the smoke, and looking me straight in the eye said, “Son, I’ve been running this river for 24 years now, and those lights ain’t been out yet.” End of discussion.

Sub Hunter

One summer weekend shortly after taking up residence in the City of Brotherly Love, and while exercising the reserve crew at sea, sonar reported a contact, ultimately identified as “positive submarine”. Reporting as required, turned out it was none of ours or that of our allies. Our drills for the weekend boiled down to “holding on and tracking this fellow”. Which we did, quite admirably and doggedly, especially for an aging destroyer with out-of-date electronics. Big disappointment come Sunday afternoon after working the contact for hours, when ordered to turn it over to a Regular Navy ship assigned to relieve us. Appears our reservists needed to get home and prepare for their day jobs come Monday morning. Even bigger disappointment came in never learning who the contact was or what happened to it. Scuttlebutt at the time had it that the Regular Navy ship lost it, never regaining it. No matter. No Russian missiles launched at New York City or Washington, D.C., not while Abbot was on patrol!

Liberty Call in Baltimore

One weekend, rather than drilling, the Captain decided to pull liberty for a change of pace, and picked Baltimore. Would have been easier and quicker to rent a bunch of busses and travel overland, but that’s not the seagoing Navy, is it? On the other hand, it would take all weekend to transit the Delaware River to the Atlantic, sail down the coast, and back up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. Simple solution. Down the Delaware just a bit, cut through the short Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay, and voila — moored in Baltimore in a few short hours!

Well, this canal was quite an experience to navigate. Looked like it was dug by hand and designed for craft no bigger than a Boston Whaler or a dory with an outboard motor. We all developed new skills. Sensitive handling of a nearly 400-foot destroyer in a canal where it seemed we could reach out and touch its banks with a standard length boat hook. Wanted that qualification in my service jacket, too. Don’t know if it ever got there.

Regardless, wonderful time on Baltimore’s harborfront Saturday afternoon, evening, and most of Sunday. Much better than our standard drills off Cape May.

November 22, 1963

Everyone still living and old enough at the time to remember this date, know where they were and what they were doing on receiving the news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President of the United States. I do and memories of my “Abbot Days” would not be complete without sharing with you.

Abbot and The Sullivans were operating in a line astern 40 miles or so off the coast of Virginia, tooling along at about 10 knots, conducting engineering casualty drills. I was OOD, standing out on the port wing of the bridge, just enjoying the beauty of the day and the sea. I could see that the W/T door to the Supply Office was open and, those working there, had a commercial radio planted outside on the deck, pumping out popular music. I could hear but wasn’t really listening. I had my own thoughts tumbling around in my head.

Someone near the Supply Office, I believe it was Supply Officer Hal Worth, shouted up to me, “The President’s been shot”!! Too startling and outlandish to believe, I shouted back for clarifiation. Receiving it, I notified Captain Pirro. Together on the wing of the bridge we awaited confirmation by official Navy radio. We had it shortly. It was a sad, sad day but one to remember for life. And, I do.

My Sendoff

Time to sign off as all good times come to an end. I had had orders in hand for several months to assume duties as XO of Kiowa, homeported at Little Creek Amphibious Base, Virginia. So, sometime in early October 1964, Mike Harris relieved me, assuming the responsibilities of Weapons Officer (to this day I prefer “Gun Boss” — very aggressive and tough sounding, suitable for a tin can sailor). Captain Pirro was very thoughtful. He had the officers lined up as “side boys”, rending a hand salute, as I was piped ashore. “Bong, bong” on the quarterdeck bell heralding, “Mr. Kelleher, departing”. Very touching and also etched in my memory for life.

As I said at the beginning, “A sailor’s first ship is like his first love”, never forgotten, neither are the shipmates, officer and enlisted, with whom I served and who served with me.