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USS Franklin D. Roosevelt Rotating Header Image

1977 “Last Man Standing”

Our guest speaker at the 2009 Jacksonville reunion was what I called “THE LAST MAN STANDING” on board the USS FDR. His speech was so spectacular that many of our members told me that they took a trip down memory lane. He was so good that you could smell the smells, taste the tastes and hear the sounds like we were actually on board.  Ray Hough, VP USSFDR Reunion Assn. 

USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT REUNION

REMARKS AT BANQUET, 16 May 2009

 My name is Steve Barton, and like many of us in this room I was ship’s crew on the Rosie. I come from a Navy family tradition; my Dad served as a Radar Tech in WWII, and my grandfather before him served as a BT snipe in WWI during the days of coalfired boilers. Both had stories about the wars; about shot-up ships, victories, and even he sinking of a WWI German sub by my grandfathers crew. So the Navy had a grand appeal to me early on.

I reported aboard in Sept. of 1975 as a relatively new Ensign, fresh from MPA /DCA and Firefighting Schools, and a DD out of San Diego. Coming from a DD to a carrier was real culture shock, I promise. I was shown around by Lt. Ericson, the Assist. Navigator, who proved to be the lighter side of Navy life. On the bridge one afternoon when asked by the Captain for a position report, Lt. Ericson informed him that at our present course and speed and according to his navigational calculations, in one hour and 27 minutes we would fall off of the edge of the earth!! The dead silence on the bridge was thankfully broken by the captain who fell into laughter………..which allowed the rest of us to laugh…………a little.

When I reported aboard the Roosevelt I didn’t yet realize what a huge tradition I was to become a part of; that of a proud ship that had already served for 30 years through two wars and 6 (and then the 7th) presidents.

History: Roosevelt was launched 29 April 1945 at the New York (Brooklyn) Naval Shipyard as the USS CORAL SEA CVB-42. She was re-named Roosevelt on 8 May 1945 following the death of the President, and commissioned as the USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT CVB-42 on 27 October 1945.

She was 1 of 3 Midway Class carriers and the latest in high tech modern naval aviation warfare. She eclipsed all of the capabilities of the predecessor Essex Class bird farms and was truly state of the art. Her class was built for one purpose…the invasion of Japan…..that never happened. Even the Navy Dept. didn’t have advanced knowledge of the Manhattan Project; undertaken to end the war early by bombing Japan. So, the Midway Class was built like no other with incredible separation of engineering spaces for damage control, STS armor plating on the island and below the waterline that a torpedo would bounce off of, heavy 5″-38 guns, 40 mm and 20 mm cannon and anti-aircraft guns.

Her design displacement was 45,000 tons, but grew to 64,000 tons with modifications during her career. Kind of like the weight gain many of us have experienced over the years! One shipmate recently told me that he was now “twice the man he was back then”!!!

Among her long list of firsts in carrier accomplishments are the first jet launch & recovery operations, the first carrier to carry nuclear weapons, the first carrier to operate a Harrier squadron …….. including the first fixed wing aircraft to make a bowon, down wind landing on a carrier!

During 1976 Rosie was given a minor overhaul and refitting (11 million dollars!!) by Jacksonville Shipyards for what would prove to be her last cruise. She would cover the bases for the USS Eisenhower who was late coming into service. The Navy quickly put together an air wing from numerous locations, including F4J Phantoms, A6 Intruders, A7 Corsairs, an E2 Hawkeye “Willie Fud”, and a COD which rumor had it was pulled out mothballs in Arizona and had a serial number close to 000001!! These latter two planes were some of the last propellor-driven fixed wing aircraft to be operated off an American carrier.

I served aboard the Roosevelt until she was turned over to Kearney Shipyards for scrap in April of 1978. I was the assistant R-Div. Officer in the Engineering Dept. and for a time R Div. Officer. As engineers we used to joke that our job was “to keep the pointy end going through the water.” As an Ensign, I listened, observed, and understood who really runs the Navy and makes the pointy end go through the water………the Chiefs. Some of the other guys I knew never really learned that prime rule and they didn’t fare too well sometimes as a result.

But I decided that I was there to learn, so I set out to qualify as E.O.W., Engineering Officer of the Watch. That meant hours, weeks, and months of crawling through bilges and shaft alleys; tracing steam lines, fuel lines, and electrical distribution systems. Squeezing in and out of boiler firesides, D.A. Feed tanks, and learning the innards of a Babock & Wilcox 600 lb./850 deg. superheat steam system, fuel oil transfer pumps, and the AFFF fire fighting system. Somewhere along the way I even talked shipfitter’s shop HT Chief Kuhn into teaching me how to weld.

The first thing they gave me to weld was……galvanized steel! For those of you who haven’t experienced this, galvanized steel out-gases zinc when welded, which when breathed in will “set you free”. By this I mean it will set free, liberate, and release everything you’ve eaten since you were a small child!! The only antidote is buttermilk. Yes, buttermilk!

Buttermilk has a particular amino acid that apparently cancels out the effect of zinc fumes……….a teeny, weeny fact that was withheld from me at the time!!! I wasn’t really mad but 24 hours later I was somewhat wiser, and somewhat………..lighter!

I was on board the night of the collision with a Liberian grain Freighter in the Straits of Messina. I was in the HT shop playing guitar with Chief Kuhn, HT1 Hatfield, and a few others around 10:00 at night when we heard “Attention to Starboard” on the 1MC. We all wondered why they would render honors to a passing ship in the middle of the night……..in the middle of the straits! The correction was no sooner made on the 1MC to “Collision to Starboard” when we felt the impact. It was a sudden jolt and then a skidding or sliding feeling as if we had run aground. This was not unheard of in the Straits of Messina even though the center traffic lane was regularly dredged.

It turned out that this grain carrier had come up on Roosevelt from behind and perhaps decided to beat us out of the straits rather than waiting her turn. We were lit up like a Christmas tree with white outboard lights on, and friendship lights in the masts and rigging above. She had no running lights when our fantail After Watch saw her appear out of the night and pull around to our starboard side. CIC had not picked her up because the CINS (Close In Navigation System) had a 20 degree blind spot aft where the radar swept the stacks. When they put glasses on her there was apparently no one on her bridge………..she was being steered remotely by after steering and radar. She tried to go around us but didn’t make it. The Roosevelt plowed into her tearing a huge gash from her main deck down to the waterline. I can tell you that barley saturated with seawater really smells bad!!

The snipes on watch took Rosie from standard speed of 090 rpms or 15 knots, down to All Back Full and STOP in record time and never lost a boiler off the line. We then began moving forward and stayed wedged into her port side, slowly pushing her until her keel was buried in the mud on the edge of the dredged main traffic lane. She settled there temporarily without being a hazard to navigation, with her main deck dry, and fortunately with no casualties on either ship despite plenty of damage on both.

All of the G.Q. drills paid off and the repair locker crews performed flawlessly. Quite a mess with a damaged bow and partially wrecked catwalks on the starboard side. Our guys in the HT shop did an incredible job working non-stop repairing catwalks while Rosie continued to fly airplanes with the bow of the ship bent! Eventually we pulled into Naples, Italy for more extensive repairs.

Going to sea on an aircraft carrier is dangerous business. We lost men and aircraft from the Roosevelt as often happens in carrier operations including a pilot, a parachute rigger, two A6’s, and an AV8 Harrier. The Harrier was actually lost before the last cruise.

The story goes that when returning from JAX to the ship out on local Ops, with the Marine Air Wing payroll checks, the pilot was obliged to hover 2,000 yards off the starboard bow to dump fuel as his fuel load was too high for shipboard landing regulations. In the process he experience a gradual flame out of the engine and slowly lost altitude. With ditching immanent the pilot acted quickly to establish priorities. He unzipped his flight suit, stuffed in the payroll, zipped back up, and then ejected. The Marines lost a multi-million dollar aircraft that afternoon but the pilot was a hero for saving the payroll!!

On our last Med cruise rumors were rampant about decommissioning and half way through the Atlantic crossing back to CONUS, we were told that not only would she be decommissioned, but she would be sold for scrap! We were all shocked; we had hoped she would be put into mothballs in Portsmouth, VA. or Bremerton, WA. We decided to do a last high speed run as our steam plant was in excellent shape. Better shape in fact than some of the newer fossil fuel carriers. With all 12 boilers on the line we generated more steam than the turbines could use and began lifting safeties in all 4 engine rooms. So we took 2 boilers off the line and still broke a high speed run record for the ship with a full load.

This underlies one of the most frustrating aspects of the decommissioning and scrapping of Rosie; she was in fine shape from the steam plant, to the cats, to the JBD’S. Even better shape than some of the newer carriers! And none of us ever really understood the Navy’s rationale for the decision to scrap her so quickly. Why the rush? Perhaps we’ll never know.

After returning to Mayport from the cruise we left JAX with PCS to Norfolk. I was assigned to the engineering group responsible for coordinating the removal of equipment the Navy wanted to keep at the Portsmouth Naval shipyard. A lot of people were there for the 10:00 decommissioning ceremony at on a Saturday morning, 1 Oct. 1977, including my Mother and my Dad, an ex-Navy man himself. Captain Rollins, the former X.O. was then commanding officer and welcomed former C.O.’s, Captain Bordone, and Captain Easterling (by then an Admiral) aboard.

After stand down when the crew finally left, I was assigned the job of engineering coordinator for Roosevelt at INACTSHIPFAC, (Inactive Ship Facility) Portsmouth, VA. INACTSHIPFAC kept a full time security watch and mechanical crew aboard while the yard removed a tremendous amount of equipment. Walking through the dark ship with a flashlight, looking at the impossibly large and deep holes which had been cut from the flight deck and hangar deck all the way down to the engineering spaces for removal of turbines, reduction gear, evaporators, generators, pumps, etc. was really eerie and very sad. Only a few months ago this had been a thriving, floating, armored city full of crew and aircraft prowling the Mediterranean Sea. And I can swear that you could still detect the smell of baked bread in the port side main passageway from the forward bakery nearly all the way back to the Engineering Log Room. It must have gotten into the paint. But I know I didn’t just imagine that, as others from INACTSHIPFAC who had never been aboard could also smell it!

I spent the last night aboard Rosie (31 March 78) with the security detail. She was riding high and light with her boot blacking above the waterline at Whiskey Anchorage in the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth. The next morning (1 April 78) the rigging group from Kearney Shipyards (of Kearney, N.J.) arrived around 0700. Paperwork was signed and documents exchanged. I was the only former crew member left aboard, and also the last Navy man to step off the Rosie.

At the quarter deck I turned and saluted a flag that was no longer there, and walked down the ladder to a waiting shipyard gig. Sounds dramatic maybe, but that’s the way it was……..a very hard morning. It was a sad affair to leave her, made even more difficult because of her fate. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend being led off to execution. They towed her off later the next day but I couldn’t bring myself to watch that.

An interesting note was that a couple of months later CINCPAC was enquiring of INACTSHIPFAC in Portsmouth, looking for a carrier platform for Harriers and they actually thought that Roosevelt was there in mothballs. Would that she was, but it underscores a total lack of communication about the demise of an otherwise excellent ship. We remarked to ourselves…….”we told you so”; Roosevelt should not have been scrapped, especially since there were Essex Class bird farms still in mothballs in Bremerton, WA. So much for “Military Intelligence”!! Maybe the cost to upgrade a fossil-fueler to handle F14’s and other more advance aircraft was just too much to justify with the larger nuke carriers coming on line.

One other interesting note; the Navy sold Roosevelt for 1.4 million dollars less than two years after the 11 million dollar minor refit! The STS armor plate above and below the waterline, copper wiring, and silver electrical distribution buss bars alone were worth far more than that!

There are a lot of memories I have of my time on Roosevelt. Boring and monotonous times on watch. Thanksgiving and Christmas on Rosie, with a special personal thanks- but -no- thanks to the sentimental guy who kept playing Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the 1MC. That certainly did nothing to improve morale.

The Catholic Chaplain (Father Grosco) who, with his bald head and goatee really looked a lot like Satan should, but was a great guy even to Baptists like me. G.Q. drills with cold C-Rations. Fire drills, and real fires. Man overboard drills and the real thing. A collision at sea; complete with armed Marines pulling splintered wooden souvenirs from the unfortunate Liberian grain freighter. Shot lines, high-lining, refueling, and UNREP. Flight OPS, and a water break failure that nearly sent the starboard CAT through the bow; we felt that one all the way down in engineering Main Control. A bad storm that left fish in Hangar Bay 4, white water damage to airplanes on the flight deck, and a cart-mounted Harrier Rolls Royce engine which broke free of it’s tie-downs and careened around Hangar Bay 2 smashing anything and everything in it’s path.

Good food and bad food. Does anybody here remember powdered eggs and powdered milk? They taste the same anywhere; on a DD or a carrier! My Dad always told me that during his time in the Navy they just put ketchup on powdered eggs to kill the taste. I tried it. It worked! Bug Juice and MIDRATS; always the best food at MIDRATS because the guys in the galley would fix just about anything you wanted (if they had it) from eggs to hamburgers. Good movies, lousy movies…. and ports of call……..but not enough.

Even as I get older though, I’m careful not to romanticize the memories of my time aboard. I remember it for what it was. It was a lot of work and very little glamour, especially for a Snipe. But it was a way of life and friends that I will always remember and miss. Those memories are burned inside all of us and they’ll never fade completely.

With the Roosevelt and the Coral Sea gone it’s great that the USS MIDWAY (CV-41) was saved as the first, and the last of its class, and is now a permanently moored museum in San Diego. Last year I had the opportunity to take my wife, Beth, aboard Midway which is the closest that I can ever come to showing her my ship. It was a very bitter sweet thing to go aboard but I’m sure glad that one of these three ships was saved. But fellas, it’s not the same. It’s not our ship.

And I have to say, that it was a bit unnerving to see a gift shop in Hangar Bay 4 selling gummy bears, candy, and souvenirs made in China! And a café on the fantail!! The only meal I ever ate on the fantail was a cold C-Ration left over from my Repair Locker!

The Rosie was a fine ship and for a time, she was our home. A place where troubles ashore could sometimes be left far behind as soon as the 1MC called out “Shift Status, Now Set the At Sea Detail”. A place where shipmates became closer than brothers back at home on land. And as in the case of my brother-in-law, a place where new lives were carved out which sometimes turned into careers. In fact, Ken Dankwardt, my best friend aboard Roosevelt met and married my sister!! I guess I didn’t listen when others warned me to “never bring a sailor home to meet your sister.”!!! But, after Ken’s career and retirement from the Navy, after 30 years of marriage and 5 kids (two of them Navy men like their Dad), Susan and Ken are still happily married!! It takes a very special woman to be a Navy wife.

I believe that the Lord puts people in certain times and places for a purpose. He gives us all opportunities to grown and to learn. Aboard ship, we all grew up a bit and learned that we could do far more than we thought we could. We learned lessons that would be with us for life. Hopefully those lessons have made us better men, better husbands, and better fathers than we might have otherwise been.

For all of us who served aboard Rosie, there will never be another time in our lives like that. And there will never be another ship like her. A ship’s memories, her legacy, and indeed her very soul are the sum of us all. May God rest the sleek, haze-gray soul of the USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT.

THANK YOU.