In the first part of December 1965, we left Subic Bay and headed north. It was time for our quarterly readiness exercise. This exercise involved loading strike aircraft, pilots manning their planes and positioning planes on the flight deck just as though they were about to fly off on a strike during nuclear war. Then the exercise would end, and the planes would be unloaded.
Something happened during that exercise that I was unable to talk about for 24 years, until it was made public in 1989.
My assignment was as a technical monitor — roaming the hangar deck, observing the loading crews on the aircraft and watching movement of the loaded aircraft in the hangar bays up to the flight deck. The loaded planes were lifted up to the flight deck by means of aircraft elevators, which were platforms that hung out over the water. These platforms moved up and down between the hangar deck and flight deck level. Planes were moved and positioned on the ship by small yellow, four-wheel, motor-powered carts hooked to the front landing gear of the airplanes. Planes were also moved by muscle power — men called “plane pushers” moved the planes by pushing just as you would push a stalled automobile.
The handling supervisor was assisted by sailors watching the plane’s wing tips and tail to ensure the plane didn’t strike anything, including other planes, while moving in the close quarters of the hangar bay area. The handling supervisor directed the plane pushers by blowing on a whistle, which was carried around his neck on a chain. Two plane pushers always carried “U” shaped blocks of wood that were placed around the two wing landing gear wheels, and served as chocks, or wheel stops, when the plane came to a stop. The plane pushers also carried heavy tie-down chains that were used to hold the plane in place any time it was parked or stationary for any length of time. Tie down wells were generously placed on the hanger deck and flight deck as attachment points for the tie-down chains.
As the aircraft loads were completed in the hangar bay, the plane pushers pushed out the loaded planes onto the aircraft elevator. Two armed Marines accompanied each plane. After sounding a warning horn, the aircraft elevator operator would push the "Up" button, and the elevator would begin rapidly moving the loaded plane, pilot, plane pushers and marines up to the flight deck.
Another sailor and I were technical monitors on the hangar deck; there were also two technical monitors on the flight deck. From time to time the word would be passed, “Now stand by for a roll to starboard (or port).” And we would experience a roll of the ship in the direction of the announcement. The sea was a little rough, and the ship was making turns trying to keep itself as stable as possible during the exercise.
A loaded A-4E Skyhawk was being pushed out onto the aircraft elevator. The pilot was in the cockpit, and the cockpit canopy was in the "up" position. As the plane was being pushed out onto the elevator, the ship began a roll to starboard, accelerating the rolling plane. The handling supervisor blew his whistle loudly indicating the command for the pilot to apply the landing gear brakes. The two plane pushers on each side of the plane stood ready to throw the wheel chocks on the rolling wheels. The pilot’s head was down in the cockpit and the plane was accelerating faster. The handling supervisor blew his whistle wildly, and all the plane pushers trying to hold back the accelerating plane, began hollering “Brakes! brakes!” as the plane rolled closer and closer to the edge of the elevator. The pilot continued looking down into the cockpit and was oblivious to the loud whistling and shouting. Two of the plane pushers threw the wheels chocks around the wheels, but without the brakes being applied the momentum of the heavy plane could not be stopped.
The tail of the plane extended out over the edge of the aircraft elevator, and then the wheels jolted off the edge, tearing out a portion of the safety net that encircled the elevator. The plane pushers’ efforts were futile trying to hold back the rolling plane, and they leapt clear of it to keep from falling into the sea. As the body of the plane slammed against the deck of the elevator, the pilot finally looked up. I’ll never forget the startled look on his face. He grasped the edges of the open cockpit, and appeared to attempt to stand up, but he was restrained in his seat by the seat harness. All of this happened in a matter of seconds, but it was as though it was happening in slow motion; the plane pushers, marines and all of us stood there in stunned shock. The plane’s nose lifted, and the plane rolled off the elevator with the shocked pilot struggling to stand up. The plane flipped completely upside down, and fell toward the sea. There was a huge splash, and as the ship moved away, the plane and pilot disappeared under the blue-green surface of the water.
I immediately ran to a phone in the hanger bay, called the W Division office, and told them I was preparing a “rainbow message.” All technical monitors carried a blank rainbow message that just needed blanks filled in. I filled it in, read it to the division officer and then ran up the many ladders that led to the ship’s bridge. As I had been calling the division, the word was being passed over the ship’s loudspeakers, “Man overboard! Man overboard; starboard side!” The ship had slowed, and made a turn to starboard to move the ship screws away from anyone who might be in the water. It had been a miracle that none of the plane pushers had fallen into the sea with the plane.
I arrived at the bridge, gasping for air, and explained to the officer of the deck that I needed the captain’s release signature for the message. The captain called me over to his bridge chair, and I showed him the rough message that detailed the loss of the loaded plane in the sea. The captain took his time, and after looking at the high level of addresses, which were from the White House down, finally said “Well, I guess we have to send this one?” There was a five-minute time limit on messages of this type, but we didn’t make it — it was twenty minutes before the message was released. There was a reason for urgency, because if there had been a nuclear detonation and our entire task force disappeared in a fireball, the White House — thinking we had been attacked — might begin pressing buttons and starting World War III. After the captain signed, I ran to the communications office, where the message was sent by “flash precedence.” The message informed the entire military chain of command what had happened. A “Broken Arrow” report was also prepared, the beginning of a small mountain of paperwork that was associated with this accident.
The Ticonderoga and our escorts circled the area where the plane had gone over the side for a long while, hoping to find the pilot. The plane had dropped off the ship into one of the deepest areas of the Pacific Ocean. Finally the search ended. There was no hope of finding the pilot.
I’ve often thought of the horror of those final moments of that young pilot’s life, as he plunged down into the dark depths of the sea, with the sunlight on the surface rapidly disappearing, knowing that he was entombed within his coffin, plummeting to his grave. It was speculated that as the plane hit the water, the cockpit canopy slammed down upon him, pinning him in. We also hoped that the canopy’s slamming down also mercifully rendered him unconscious. The horror and helplessness of those few moments have remained burned into my memory.
During this cruise we lost a number of pilots to hostile fire over Vietnam. This young pilot was also a victim of war, as he was killed while perfecting the readiness for nuclear war. We learned it was LTJG Douglas M. Webster, and he was married, which made the tragedy even worse. I recalled those occasions when he would come into W Division to sign the custody paperwork for the weapon he would use in the event of nuclear war. He was a cheerful, likeable officer who we enjoyed working with. The exercise was completed in a somber mood as we realized one of our shipmates had just been killed.
24 years after this accident, in May 1989, the incident was made public, and newspapers reported:
The United States told Japan that a hydrogen bomb lost overboard from an American aircraft carrier 24 years ago almost certainly burst under intense water pressure and spread radioactive plutonium on the ocean floor. A team of American weapons designers from several national laboratories assured Japanese officials that there was “no environmental impact” from the accident. American officials offered no indication that radiation had escaped during the accident. The disclosure came after the Pentagon confirmed reports that it lost the bomb 80 miles from a small Japanese island in December 1965, when an A-4 aircraft carrying the weapon fell off the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. The pilot was killed and the bomb immediately sank.
Those that gave their lives for our country during that 1965-1966 cruise were: CMDR John C. Mape; LT Richard W. Hastings; LTJG John V. McCormick; LTJG Gerald L. Pinneker; LTJG Douglas M. Webster; LTJG Stephan G. Richardson; AN Charles O. Dixon