One of my favorite television programs as a teenager was Victory at Sea. I watched every episode, and the theme music has stayed with me all these 70 years:
Don-Don-Don-to-Don – Dant – to – Dant – to – Dant…
The dream of being on a Navy warship and the music stayed with me even after I’d joined the Air Force and become a pilot.
And as luck would have it, after completing my F-4E Phantom Fighter Training at George AFB, instead of Vietnam, I was assigned to the 62nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Misawa, Japan. It was a great assignment, because I have always liked the Japanese culture. (Later I would build a house there overlooking the Pacific Ocean and live off base inside that culture.)
I could have flown to Japan, but instead I decided I’d try to make that lifelong dream come true. I called Navy Operations in Washington D.C. and asked if I could travel to Japan on a Navy warship. Luck was with me. I was told to report to DESRON 5 (Destroyer Squadron 5), at the San Diego Navy Base. A flotilla of warships was departing in two days, and I would be allowed on board.
I flew out there, was assigned a ship, stepped onto the gangplank of the light cruiser USS Worden, saluted the flag, went aboard, and was assigned a cabin. My childhood dream was about to come true!
All seven ships set sail in the afternoon, and when I went to the bridge the next morning and looked at the sonar, I could still see land on the bottom of the scope. So, my first impression was “It will take a long time to get to Hawaii!”
It brought to mind the first of three combat tours that took me to Hawaii and on to Thailand and then to combat over Viet Nam. And the very short time it took to get from California to Hawaii when making those flights as the pilot.
So, I settled in for a long cruise. I inspected every inch of the ship and was amazed at the missiles in the forward compartment. Like the barrel of a six-shooter – only instead of bullets the “cylinder” was loaded with huge air defense missiles. The forward deck cover would open and up would come these huge missiles into firing position. The sheer size of the weapon was amazing.
When I first boarded the Worden, I did not want “A Fair Wind and Following Seas”. I wanted to experience rough seas and hoped we would run into bad weather. But these war ships do not have stabilizers, and after being thoroughly bounced around in a normal sea, I cancelled that wish.
There were some very interesting days during our voyage. On one of them, the six destroyers in our flotilla were stretched across horizon, and our ship launched a floating target. I was assigned to give range calls as each destroyer fired at the target we were towing – not to hit it, but to come close for scoring. The simple device I used was a wooden pole with a row of wooden pegs across the top like a rake. I centered the row of pegs on the target and called out the peg numbers for each splash which gave the impact range.
It was Victory at Sea moment watching the six destroyers on the horizon firing away. After the initial range assessment, they were given the order to destroy the target. It was beyond amazing to see all those shells make direct hits on the target. It disappeared in a single huge explosion; not one round missed!
The six destroyers then moved into an echelon position, three on our port side and three to starboard. I was on the bridge, and we were to stay in position in that seven-ship echelon. Having flown fighters in echelon myself, being part of that seven-ship echelon formation was a hoot.
Then, to my surprise, the Admiral told me to “Take the con” which meant I had to give the Helmsmen and the Lee Helmsmen steering and speed orders to stay in position. I gave direction orders to the Helmsmen for steering and revolution orders to the Lee Helmsmen who sent my orders to the engine room using the mechanical Engine Order Telegraph.
The sea was not calm, and it took a little time to get the feel of the ship’s momentum – a feeling that came from the deck up the body to the brain – a sensation like riding a horse, getting in sync with the ship’s massive momentum, giving orders like “three degrees port” to the Helmsman and “five turns over 20 knots“ to the engine room and finally getting it right and staying locked into the echelon position!
It gave me a huge sense of accomplishment to stay in formation with very small corrections. When the echelon drill finished, the Helmsmen suggested a heading, and—as though I were Horatio Hornblower or Jean Luc Picard–I firmly said “Make it so!” That order came as a surprise to me but was the icing on the cake of my Victory at Sea adventure.
We arrived in Honolulu where we were told that the tug that would normally take us in was being used to guide a submarine to the open sea. The Captain decided to dock the ship at a berth in front of the Navy Officers Club. I was on the flying bridge to observe the tasks and next to me was a Senior Chief who was shaking his head, telling me that this was not going to be good. The winds off the Waianae Mountain range would create a problem.
He was right, and after many orders to the engine room and helmsmen we unfortunately hit the seawall with the bow of the ship directly in front of the Navy Officers Club. Not good!
My own luck held, though! The aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, was leaving the next day for Yokosuka Navy Base.
I was able to continue my voyage on her, and with that cruise came another Victory at Sea adventure.
Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960 and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded nine Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects and currently heads up the new OLLI Think Tank SIG.