LCDR Mike Snyder, USN (retired)
GMT-3, Plank Owner, USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63)
Kitty Hawk lay at anchor dominating the center of the harbor at Rio de Janiero, Brazil. She had made passage from Roosevelt Roads, PR, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after completing refresher training in 1961. Kitty Hawk was a new ship, bound for great adventures in the Pacific despite an ignoble beginning at the hands of New York Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Camden, NJ. The ship was nearly a year behind schedule and had serious engineering and mechanical problems. Many important systems suffered from shoddy workmanship and poor management in construction. Towed across the Delaware River, Philadelphia Navy Shipyard made repairs to items critical to our transit to California but we faced more than six months at Hunters Point Navy Shipyard, San Francisco before we would join the fleet.
Following two months of drills and late hours we successfully passed our tests and were released from Guantanamo Bay. Our cruise south was pleasant, occupied by unhurried maintenance and filled with the natural wonders of the seas. Whales, sharks, strange fish like the Mola-Mola, swarms of sea birds, warm-water penguins, porpoise, turtles and all nature of creatures were at every hand. Off the mouth of Amazon River the ocean was tinted brown and filled with floating logs and debris 50 miles at sea. Cruising at 17 knots, I rode the safety nets on the bow of the carrier, seventy feet above the water. It was exhilarating. Flying the bow in the movie Titanic had nothing on this.
When we crossed the equator, thousands of us entered Davy Jones’ Realm for the first time. I was privileged to receive a hair cut by the Royal Barber; one great ssssnip out of the middle with foot long shears. I visited the Royal Doctor for a horrid dose of “medication” (peanut butter and quinine mixture) scraped from a bed pan, made the acquaintance of all manor of shillelaghs which alternately moved or welted you, paid homage to the queen by groveling at her foot, kissed a Royal Baby’s belly, and honored King Neptune by prostrating myself to slither through a chute of all manner of slime and mysterious abhorrents. With much ado lasting over four hours and an unceremonious backward splash into a seawater pool I was inducted into the Crusty Order of Royal Shellbacks. I was sore, sunburned, and bruised for weeks after that blessed event. My picture, taken in a Rio bar, is in the cruise book. It shows me with no hair.
Our first liberty call in South America was Rio de Janiero. We entered the port early in the forenoon watch cruising past fabled Sugar Loaf Mountain on the port hand with Christ the King ahead standing atop Corcavado. The pilot and tugs assisted us safely past the choke point with a low, rocky island bristling with malicious shore batteries. Turning into the wind the anchor chain roared out of the hawse. The tumult soon subsided into single clumps and bumps that vibrated the entire length of the hull as individual links walked out. One long blast on the whistle announced to everyone aboard and ashore that we were moored in the inner harbor. Hundreds of pleasure boats and harbor craft crowded around. Bare breasted women flashed by in roaring speedboats. Workboats motored slowly past with signs advertising the best music, food, and parties ashore. Sailboats large and small ghosted by carrying endless variations on the “girl from Ipanima”, each saluting with a drink held high. What a wonderful introduction to my first foreign port.
With the ship anchored a flurry of activity began in the water alongside. We launched every boat, barge gig and punt aboard. They circled just out of the shadow of the ship. A garbage barge took its appointed place across the stern, while very large camels (pontoons) were made fast amidships to act as piers for the expected visitors. Ding-Ding . . Ding-Ding . The ships bell and the 1MC announced, “Kitty Hawk departing”. The captain left the ship in his gig as soon as the forward brow was rigged. He was off to meet the American Ambassador and begin the obligatory round of official visits. Merchants and vendors boats crowded about the after gangway anxiously vying to come aboard to visit the supply office, the chief engineer, or their particular representatives. They were there to dispense food, fuel, and water, obtain space for souvenir tables, make tour arrangements, offer uniform and clothing sales, and dozens of other things vital to the well being of the ship and interest of the crew.
Magically, a liberty party began to form in the hangar bay. In all ships, no matter how much the XO jumps up and down and the Chief Master-At-Arms shouts, there appears a group of die-hard-sailors in dress canvas lurking about the quarterdeck well before the anchor is walked out to riding scope. Kitty Hawk was no different. This early liberty party was pushed out of the way by working divisions and threatened by the Masters at Arms if they failed to clear away. Like smoke in a wind, the men disappeared into the bowels of the carrier to await a formal announcement.
We were scheduled to remain in Rio for three days and nights, underway on the fourth day, Monday morning. I was in three-section liberty meaning I had duty one of the three visit-days in port. My day aboard was Sunday.
The ship hosted hundreds of visitors on the first day and thousands in the two succeeding days. They were ferried out to the ship in water taxis holding upwards of a hundred per trip. The water-taxis, expertly handled by Brazilians, moored to the pontoons. The visitors walked the 30 or 40 feet to a gangway manned by US sailors and were guided up into the hangar bay. There, tours were organized in groups of fifty to a hundred. Everything went smoothly Friday and Saturday. With translators leading, the tour groups moved through the hangar viewing the vast open space and the one or two helos and aircraft (hangar queens) stored there. Demonstrations of damage control equipment, uniforms, medical equipment, portable communications gear and more were on display for all to see. A surprisingly swift ride on an aircraft elevator took them to the flight deck for more show-and-tell and gee-whiz hardware. In a half hour they were back in the hangar to make their way off the ship. It was all controlled, well managed, neat, and efficient. The visitors loved it.
Mid-morning Sunday while lounging in my berthing space far aft on the starboard side I began to hear 1MC messages of increasing urgency. “First Division man the fo’csl”! “All boat crews man your boats”. “The officer of the deck is shifting his watch from the quarterdeck to the bridge”. “Away the line handling working party, muster in the forward hangar bay”. “All B and M Division personnel report to your spaces”. Something was going terribly wrong!!!
I rushed up to the weather sponson just above my compartment where I was greeted by chaos. The sky was very dark, low, and threatening. Lightning flashed in the mountains to the west. A strong wind whipped the bay into white-capped waves that slammed against the hull sending spray vertically up the sides. On the port side the big pontoons were leaping and slamming like scared horses in a corral. Passengers abandoned their loaded boats to run across the pontoons toward the safety of the gangway. The gig, admiral’s barge, an officer’s boat, and several utility boats moored to the boat booms were savagely tossed about. The crews, attempting to clamber down rope ladders from the boat boom, placed their life and limb in serious danger. The wild motion made the final leap to the boats perilous.
From beneath the stern came the unmistakable beat of a turning propeller. The ship was being maneuvered with two anchors down and boats alongside! A slight wake showed aft.
Over the madness the 1MC barked, “All petty officers muster in hangar bay one on the double”. Away I went! A milling mass of visitors prevented me from running directly forward on the hangar deck. From my position aft I went down into the starboard passageway, ran forward through the mess decks, past the hot, breathing engineering spaces, then up into the forward hangar bay. We quickly formed into groups of 10 or twelve under a senior petty officer. Our orders were to double man every door, hatch, ladder, and opening leading from the hangar. We were to let no one into the innards of the ship.
In the hangar bay masses of people milled about wild eyed. They had been hurried down from the flight deck as the unbelievable storm struck. Their dark hair was stuck to their heads and wet clothes were plastered to their bodies. Many shivered with an unexpected chill. There were roughly two thousand visitors aboard. They were very uncomfortable and appeared scared. Every unexpected noise and movement brought loud murmurs and more than a few shrieks from the crowd. Closing the windward hangar bay doors to protect them from the wind and rain was most frightening. The hangar bay grew dark and they were no longer able to see outside.
Topside, conditions worsened. The wind shrieked and curtains of rain drove horizontally. Wave-tops tore off and streamed downwind. Tremendous thunderclaps instantly followed brilliant lightning flashes! The storm was directly overhead. Plunging pontoons and steep waves smashed into the nested boats. They combined to sink an officer’s boat and destroy the forward accommodation ladder. The civilian boats moved away from the ship, making their way toward the safety of the shore as best they could.
As in all carrier port visits, tours ashore were plentiful and diverse. The ship chandlers, supply officers, and tour companies had joined forces to provide exceptional opportunities. There were tours to the museums, cathedrals, bullfights, rain forests, and this Sunday, a tour to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, with arms outstretched, high atop Corcavado. Two bus loads of Kitty Hawk sailors were up there when the storm swept out of the high mountains. It was fierce and instantaneous! The sky turned ink black and torrential rain drenched everyone caught outside. Wind lashed the busses violently, threatening to turn them over. Lightning struck all around the peak in blinding spikes of flame. Many sailors huddled inside the pedestal of the statue, wet and chilled. They were unable or unwilling to face the wind, rain, and lightning in their sprint to the buses. W Division sailors told of lightning forming into balls and rolling down the slopes. Torrents of water streamed off the mountain onto the steep, twisting road filling it with mud and rocks. Wind tore branches from trees and threw them onto the driving surface making it impassable. In an hour the violence of the storm abated but the men were trapped high up on the peak; forced to remain there for several hours until the road was cleared. Late in the day the buses safely made their way back down into the city where the sailors found the relative comfort of bars and hotels. Power outages caused many places to operate by candlelight.
At the height of the storm the Brazilian carrier, Minas Gerias, anchored closer in-shore, lost her moorings, went adrift, and bore down on Kitty Hawk threateningly. As she drifted towards us the officer of the deck maneuvered Kitty Hawk with both anchors down. Working two of the four screws he twisted and dragged, trying to clear the way and reduce the size of the target we presented. Rushing commercial and navy tugs caught up with the drifting carrier before she struck us, turned her into the wind, and checked her uncontrolled flight across the bay. The danger was imminent! A real disaster was only narrowly averted.
Aboard Kitty Hawk the visitors’ lot deteriorated. The violent storm, raging for the better part of an hour, prevented any departure by water taxi. The effect of the short steep seas combined with the carriers evasive maneuvering either destroyed or heavily damage the floats, gangways, and moorings needed to evacuate the crowd. They had been aboard now for several hours without food, water, or sanitary facilities and were growing more and more restless. Shouts became louder and waving arms more energetic. A full-scale riot brewed in the hangar bay! We had not prepared to relieve the discomforts of such a crowd. Their numbers and growing anger overwhelmed any attempts to bring calm. A very tense standoff developed between the crew and the visitors who sensed there was relief below decks.
Several hours after the onset of the storm and nearly two hours after the crowd had been isolated in the hangar bay, a company of Brazilian para-military police boarded across the floating wreckage from tugs and taxis. These small men in dark green uniforms wore helmets, black combat boots and carried short slightly flexible rubber truncheons. Most did not have visible firearms. Using a bullhorn they shouted orders to the crowd, instantly formed a wedge, and drove down through their center flailing with the clubs. They struck everyone who failed to move correctly or quickly enough. With complete disregard for whom or where or how many times a person was hit, this no-nonsense force quickly and violently segregated the men out of the crowd, herded them aft, and, with several trips of an aircraft elevator, heaved them topside into the drenched and steaming atmosphere. It was over in a half hour. Women and children huddled in the hangar bay murmuring quietly. Sullen men stood in groups on the flight deck, loosely surrounded by a ring of fierce warders.
The wind quickly subsided to a whisper and the bay surface dropped to calm. Our ships force repaired the accommodation ladders while the stevedores and tug handlers from ashore replaced the damaged pontoons with others. As night approached the ferries and water taxies resumed their rounds. In several hours the crowd had been moved off the ship. In waves, our wet liberty party straggled back aboard. A survey of the hangar bay revealed that every single piece of concealable brass had been taken. There were no nozzles on the fire hoses, the spuds had been removed from the fog applicators, covers were gone from standpipes, and through bulkhead fittings, and air test fitting caps were missing. Nothing remained! Everything had gone ashore with the crowd.
Throughout the evening things slowly returned to normal. The in-port OOD resumed his station on the quarterdeck and the engineers in the holes went back to providing hotel services from their one or two boilers. It had been a remarkable day for everyone.
Next morning, Monday, we hoisted in all boats, raised the accommodation ladders, launched the CH-46 twin rotor helicopter, and prepared to get underway. The crew manned the rail in undress whites; one man every three or four feet completely around the flight deck. In the cathedral-like foc’sl the anchor underfoot was weighed in advance of heaving in the long scoped riding anchor. Soon after the heaving began the sound powered phone announce; “Bridge, foc’sl, anchor foul”. The storm maneuvers had twisted the two anchor chains. Neither could be raised! In a destroyer, opening a detachable link and taking out the twist using wire rope and a winch resolves the problem. In a carrier where each chain link weighs more than 300 lbs. that solution is not quite as “easy”. Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team divers went down to evaluate the situation. The men at the rail were released and the navigation team stood down. Many hours later, well past noon and after much hauling, twisting, and pulling, the fouled anchors were clear.
With a send-off equaling that of our arrival we steamed out of the harbor, past Copacabana and Ipanema, into the gray offshore haze. We were south bound for Tiera del Fuego, Cape Horn, and Lima Peru.