My name is Charles Legoll Becker and I began going to sea in 1968. In that year, I graduated from High School in rural Northern California and entered the United States Merchant Marine Academy. I struggled through my plebe year at Kings Point and spent my second year ‘at sea’ aboard merchant ships crossing the Pacific. I sailed aboard the SS President McKinley and SS President Wilson (American President Lines), SS Hawaii (States Steamship Company), and SS Sierra (Oceanic/Matson Navigation Company) . The Sierra, in particular, would fill a volume of sea stories by herself. On returning to Kings Point from sea year, I was finished and resigned. I then spent a brief period doing nothing worthwhile, before enlisting in the United States Navy in April 1971.
I spent six year in the US Navy, deploying to Viet Nam three times and generally pretty much grew up in the Navy. I was one of those people who needed that. And being enlisted was one of the best experiences I ever had, for a former “academy boy” it was everything good about having “worked my way up from the foc’sle”. I served aboard the oiler USS Ashtabula (AO-51) and the frigate USS Barbey (FF-1088). In 1977 I had to make the decision whether to stay in the Navy for a career, or try something else. It so happened that my employer-to-be was advertising in the “Navy Times” newspaper for sailors with my rating (Quartermaster). So in 1977 I applied to and was hired by Military Sealift Command (MSC) as an Able Seaman (AB).
I began with MSC on the East Coast, out of Bayonne, NJ, with MSCLANT in April 1977. I sailed on one ship with them, the WWII-era USNS Mosopelea (Captain Henry Potu, Chief Mate Alex Prieto), as an AB, putting in enough time to qualify to sit for my Third Mate’s license. New Year’s of 1978 found me back in San Francisco, living in a ‘flop’ on Fillmore Street and studying for my long-delayed license. I got my Third Mate’s license in April 1978, six years after I would have had I stayed in Kings Point, but feeling that I’d really earned it this time. Thanks to contacts I’d made while studying for my license, I went to work for MSCPAC in Oakland, Ca and was assigned to another WWII-era ship, this time the converted Victory ship USNS Wheeling (Captain Shakey Jake). From there, it was back to WWII-era tugs USNS Lipan (Captain Phil Rosten) and USNS Ute (Capts Bjorn Werring and Arne Willenhag, as Second Mate). I worked my way through the fleet, landing my final Chief Mate’s job aboard USNS Southern Cross (with Captain Werring again, an ex-Moore-McCormick lines C3-S-33a five hatch freighter) in 1982 bound for Antarctica. This was my final job as Chief Mate, and I’ll begin the actual history with a few words about that trip.
2. USNS Southern Cross, Antarctica, Israel
This assignment was a dream job, and I have the Port Captain, Capt George Bruno, to thank for it. He must have seen something in me to entrust me with this job. USNS Southern Cross was a seaman’s dream (or nightmare) with five hatches rigged with booms, hydraulic hatch covers, upper and lower ‘tween decks and lower holds in most hatches, with deep tanks in #4 hatch. She had a 75 ton jumbo boom at the forward end of #3 hatch and a 20 ton heavy lift boom (the source of many difficulties). At the time, Southern Cross was the “classic” five hatch breakbulk steam-powered freighter that represented the United States Merchant Marine throughout the 20th Century. And I was assigned as Chief Mate, responsible for all that plus the cargo, stowage, stability, and two navigation watches a day to stand.
When I joined the ship in Port Hueneme, Ca (support base for Antarctic logistics operations) she had just returned from McMurdo Station. It had been an eventful trip, and tragic in that a longshoreman had been killed in an accident aboard. The Captain was Norwegian and the crew mostly Hawaiian. A classic West Coast freighter, and I fit in like a square wheel. We were put to work carrying ammunition to the Far East and retrograde ammunition back to the West Coast, which we did all through the summer and fall. Late in 1982, we headed back to Port Hueneme in preparation for heading ‘south’. We loaded and prepared in other ways (loading equipment and so forth) and sailed for Antarctica, as I recall, right after New Years 1983 (although that date could be off by a few days or weeks). We made the trip direct to McMurdo Station, a stunning passage the likes of which few seaman ever have the chance to make, through southern oceans, within miles of Tahiti, ice as far as the eye could see, and more ice, to the bottom of the world.
We did our work there, then headed to Port Lyttleton, NZ to discharge retrograde cargo (mostly waste material and broken equipment) and load again. While discharging cargo, a boom pedestal at the after end of #2 hatch folded up and collapsed, creating an impossible situation as we raced the clock to get underway in time to return to McMurdo and get back out again. We made it, and the return trip to McMurdo went smoothly. You can find photos of Southern Cross in Antarctica, including the infamous ‘truck falling through the ice pier’ incident by Googling “southern cross antarctica 1983”. Unfortunately, I was too busy working to stand around taking pictures (story of my life).
We returned to Port Hueneme in the Spring of 1983, through some of the roughest waters I have ever sailed. We were to return to Far East ammunition runs, but were ordered to transit the Panama Canal and head for Europe instead. We did, losing our gyrocompass on the way, loading in Beaumont, TX and Mobile, AL for Rotterdam and Bremerhaven.
We crossed the Atlantic, loaded with Army equipment, and began discharging in Rotterdam. When it was time to button up the hatches, we got emergency orders to ‘discharge everything, proceed to sea, do not open the orders in this sealed envelope until after you are clear of the harbor’. This was a big mystery, indeed. It turns out we were ordered to Israel to load unspecified cargo. On arriving at the entrance to Haifa harbor, we were most sternly challenged, the Stars and Stripes flying from our stern insufficient to placate local security forces. But we entered port, loaded our high priority cargo, and returned to the East Coast. We discharged at, as I recall, Cherry Point, NC. From there, we headed to a weekend layover in Bayonne, NJ (with no harbor chart for New York harbor, a first and last for me) before entering overhaul in Boston in preparation for the late summer resupply to Greenland. Having been properly relieved after 14 months of service, I left the ship there and came home to study for my Master’s license.
I got my Master’s license in September 1983 and had the great good fortune to be assigned immediately as Master aboard USNS Catawba. From that point forward, with the exception of six weeks I spent as Cargo Officer to qualify on underway replenishment (UNREP) ships, I spent the next 26 years sailing as Master on a very wide variety of ships. I was Master of at least 20 ships, but somewhat shamefully lost track quite some time before I retired in November 2009.
3. USNS Andrew J Higgins, Desert Shield, Desert Storm
Oilers, the ships that carry refined fuel oil for transfer to Navy ships at sea, are the backbone of the Navy’s underway combat logistics force. Without oilers, the US Navy would be limited to coastal or regional operations. Beginning in the early 1970’s, to ease personnel shortages, the US Navy began turning over operations of their existing oilers to the Military Sealift Command (MSC). In the late 1980’s, Military Sealift Command began taking delivery of a new class of underway replenishment oiler, the “Henry J Kaiser” (or ‘187’) class. These modern, automated, diesel-powered ships replaced three earlier classes of WWII and 1950’s vintage oilers. When deliveries began, these ships were really quite miraculous, including features like single staterooms for all crewmembers, a personnel elevator, and ‘unattended’ engineroom operation so there were no watchstanders in the propulsion spaces at night.
In 1989 I was assigned to relieve the Master of the first West Coast ‘187’, the USNS Andrew J Higgins (T-AO 190). This was to be a two month relief job, the permanent Captain was to return after his vacation. Several months went by before I asked the Port Captain about the permanent Captain’s return. At that time, he informed me that I was now the new permanent Captain, and “Oh, by the way, congratulations and good luck!”. My Chief Engineer was Tom Wash, who had been with the ship from the builder’s yard at Avondale in Louisiana, and still the smartest guy I’ve ever met. My Chief Mate was Kerry Porterfield, who as of this time (2010) is a harbor pilot in San Diego.
About six months later, while in Subic Bay, we had a very tragic incident where the ship’s main switchboard exploded. This ultimately resulted in the death of the crewmember who had been working on the switchboard. This was, without a doubt, the most tragic incident of my career. The loss of our shipmate deeply affected everyone onboard, the entire crew was in shock and grief and mourning for months. And the ship was left utterly helpless, without electrical power anywhere in the ship. We began a six month ordeal to rebuild, culminating in being towed to Japan for final repairs. When repairs were completed in the Spring of 1990, we began trials and exercises to validate and rebuild our capabilities. In June 1990 we joined the USS Independence Battle Group. Independence was, at the time, the “forward deployed” aircraft carrier in the United States 7th Fleet, homeported in Japan.
Enroute to Subic Bay, we suffered a casualty to our starboard main engine. Briefly, the way the Kaiser oilers are configured, the starboard engine powers the starboard shaft and the port engine powers the port shaft. If a main engine becomes inoperable, the associated shaft is effectively out of commission, as well (“Mode 3″ and “Mode 4″ offering nothing worthwhile in this case). We had apparently broken a couple of head studs on one cylinder of the starboard engine, resulting in a coolant leak, etc, and I say with the greatest of respect, “The usual engineer-talk stuff about broken this and dislocated that”. We spent a frantic three days inport Subic trying to identify and repair the problem, yet ultimately were not successful to the satisfaction of the relief Chief Engineer. So we deployed with the Independence Battle Group toward the Indian Ocean (IO) in July 1990 with one dubious main engine.
Most unusually, there was no Battle Group in the Indian Ocean to relieve. Everything there seemed to be calm and peaceful, we looked forward to a six week ‘victory tour’ of the IO, then on to Australia for liberty. The other oiler with the Battle Group was a Navy –operated ‘Cimmaron’ class oiler who, shortly after we left Subic, lost both of her high pressure air compressors, thereby rendering herself unable to conduct a replenishment at sea. We aboard USNS Andrew J Higgins, by contrast, limped along on one healthy main engine, one suspect main engine, and two good high pressure air compressors. The Battle Group cleared the Singapore and Malacca Straits and entered the IO enroute Diego Garcia in late July 1990. To this day, I continue to harbor suspicions that our turn to the southwest (rather than continying on to the west toward the Persian Gulf) was reported to Baghdad.
We were due to arrive at Diego Garcia on 3 Aug 1990, but the afternoon of 2 Aug the Battle Group commander, RADM Unruh, called all ships’ captains to a conference call on the secure voice radio. He informed us of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and that the Battle Group had been ordered to the Gulf of Oman at best speed. I clearly recall my reaction, which was, “So what’s the big deal?” We, and the rest of the world, were to find out in the months ahead what the big deal was. As soon as the conference call was over, we went to a complete Battle Group replenishment, topping off all ships with fuel before watching them disappear over the northwestern horizon en route the Gulf of Oman.
On completion of the replenishment late that night, we turned and headed for Diego Garcia. A huge amount of material for the Battle Group had been staged there, and we needed fuel as well to replenish our stores. I got my first inkling that this was a serious situation when the Diego Garcia harbor pilot boarded. MSC ships usually receive little or no attention from local Naval authorities, in fact more often disdain than assistance. This time, though, the commanding officer of the base, a Navy Captain, boarded to express his personal interest in our operations, gave me his card, and told me to call him personally if we needed anything. This really got my attention and started me to thinking that this Iraq-Kuwait thing might be a bigger deal than I’d thought.
We loaded as quickly as we could, including seven aircraft engines which had been destined for USS Independence. The only thing missing was half of the 5,000 lbs of potatoes, which led me to call the base commander, resulting in the local galley making up the difference. I guess they went without potatoes for a while, but we were, after all, going off to fight a war. We were underway, as I recall, on 4 Aug, headed northwest to rejoin the Independence Battle Group.
4. IV. Desert Storm
On 9 Aug 1990, we rendezvoused with the Independence Battle Group in the Gulf of Oman and immediately went to a full Battle Group replenishment. They had been operating at high speed and flying combat missions without fuel resupply for a week. The Desert Shield operation was building up and an electric tension was in the air. We continued to operate through mid-August 1990, at which point our fuel stores were running low. We carried 180K barrels of fuel, with the Battle Group burning an average of 6K barrels of fuel a day. So we theoretically had almost a month’s worth of fuel onboard. But with building military operations, high speed transits, and looking ahead to limited options, after two weeks without a refueling I was getting nervous.
It was right around this time that the DoD “turned on” the GPS constellation and announced that it was to be considered fully operational. We had experimental access to the system for a few years before that, but fully operational status wasn’t scheduled for another five years or so. This was a big deal, it really changed our world.
Somehow or other, outside my realm of knowledge, the powers that be arranged for us to call at Minah Fahal, the fuel facility at Muscat, Oman for a refueling. We tied to a huge buoy and spent the night there, loading fuel. Muscat was open to us, for the first time in anyone’s memory we could get ashore in a MidEastern port. For the rest of the month, the hottest month in the hottest spot on Earth, the routine was crushingly boring, yet unbearably tense.
When large numbers of amphibious assault ships began arriving in theater, from mid-Sep 1990 onward, we aboard USNS Andrew J Higgins were assigned to supporting them in their operating and anchorage area south of Masirah Island, off the coast of Oman. During this period, we entered their anchorage several times for various material and personnel transfers. I was schedule to go home on vacation for the holidays, from late Dec 1990 through late Jan 1991. I was finally relieved on 20 Dec and flew home, getting a rare upgrade to business class because the very heavy travel traffic had filled economy class for days in advance.
I had been home for a bit over a week when I got an 8am phone call. MSC captains who get 8am phone calls at home know to expect some sort of bad news or another. This time I was clueless, not even expecting it to be MSC. When I answered, the Port Captain opened the conversation with a memorable phrase, “Chuck, your ship has gone aground and is in pretty bad shape.” That got my attention, I honestly could not imagine where they might have grounded because we weren’t (to the best of my knowledge) operating around any particularly threatening waters. As I got more information, I remained baffled because the report was that they had not just grounded, they were stranded on a rock pinnacle in the approaches to the amphibious anchorage area (which we’d been in and out of at least four times). The Port Captain told me that the Captain who was aboard Higgins intended to try to get off the rock at the next high water. From what I’d heard of the damage, I knew that would likely lead to disaster.
So I got in my car and drove to our office in Oakland, meeting with Commodore Ray Addicot, the Port Captain, and the engineering staff (Steve Bauer and others). They presented the damage situation as it had been reported. As I suspected from the earlier phone conversation, almost the entire ship forward of the engineroom was open to the sea. In that configuration there was not just a huge loss of buoyancy, the ship had also lost most of her ability to control any list caused by off-center weight or buoyancy. To my thumbnail estimate on the spot, at the moment, extracting the ship in that condition would at least caused an uncontrolled list and trim situation. Worst case scenario, it could have caused the total loss of the ship.
We conferred in the Commodore’s office and my recommendation to stay put until tank vents could be blocked and controlled was sent to the Captain. Chief Engineer Thomas H Wash and Cargo Officer Ted Bridges, who implemented these measures onboard, are generally credited with having saved the ship. They received appropriate recognition and awards after the situation was stabilized.
The ship proceeded slowly, with air pressure on the tanks to control list, to the Dubai Drydock company facility. There, an almost entirely new bottom of more than 200 tons of steel was put in during a 30 day drydocking. I returned to resume command when the ship left the drydock facility.
For the next 9 months, we continued to provide underway logistics support, including some bizarre situations necessitated by situations no one had foreseen. Personnel tensions were also an issue as the misery of summer set in, and delayed reliefs continued. At one point, I needed to have a crewmember escorted off the ship, “bag and baggage” as we say, with an engraved invitation to report directly back to our headquarters in Oakland. When we were relieved and departed the Persian Gulf in Sep 1991, we had been continually deployed on Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm for 13 months and were the “last of the first” to depart the area.
I was relieved aboard USNS Andrew J Higgins in 1993 to report to Tampa Bay, FL for an ill-fated commissioning effort for USNS Benjamin Isherwood. That was utter frustration, but wrapped up after three months when the incoming administration cancelled the contract and put the ship into the reserve fleet when she was 97% completed.
I returned to USNS Andrew J Higgins in 1994 for a brief relief job, which turned out to be quite eventful.
5. USNS Rappahannock
In June 1995 I reported to the Avondale yard in New Orleans for assignment as delivery Master of USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204). My Chief Engineer was Joe Byers, who is as fine a man and engineer as I have ever had the pleasure and honor or knowing. We went through the usual round of frustrations, head butting, plausible deniability, and utter nonsense that is to be expected any time the US Navy is involved in receiving delivery of a new ship. Joe and I were there, with a gradually building crew (started in June with a half doze, building to a full crew of 100 by November), until a month after delivery. We got underway from New Orleans, bound for Oakland, Ca on December 7th, 1995.
I spent 11 years as Captain of USNS Rappahannock, and was ready to retire in 2006 when the opportunity arose to serve out our headquarters. I ended up spending 2 1/2 years on the staff there, made many new acquaitances and made some new friends. I learned a lot, got a few things done, and ultimately retired from the sea altogether in November 2009. I had joined my first ship at Pier 29 in San Francisco in September 1969, so that was a 40 year and 2 month career at sea, which was just right and time to move on while returning ‘home’.
So I’m retired and home for good. I volunteer at the hospital, library, and maritime museum. I’ve recently begun teaching traditional navigation methods to the park rangers who do the ‘interpretations’ aboard our museum ship. That’s been good fun and a chance to share some sea stories. It’s also given me the chance to actually learn some of the old methods that I’d only heard about as a cadet at Kings Point, so I can teach the rangers. I still have no desire to go back to sea, but I surely do treasure having gone to sea. It was the richest, most rewarding, and most memorable career that any young boy could ever hope for.