Once Upon a Time…
By: Kurt Stuvengen
I started my Navy career in 1979. After boot camp and various schools. My first assignment afterward was a CG forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan by way of one week in Pearl Harbor prior to a homeport swap. I spent the next 6 years being trained by Vietnam era WESPAC sailors on how to maintain an engineering plant in the high op-tempo environment of the forward deployed Navy. Being a SURFPAC ship our OPTAR seemed to be bottomless and getting SRF jobs done and procuring supplies was never a problem. I left the ship for shore duty at CFAY as a First Class BT for a much needed break and to get married. After two years as LPO running of BEQ Division for CFAY Supply Department I was ready to get back to sea and REALLY ready to get back into Engineering Department. The long term future of the steam ships in Yokosuka did not look promising so in order to stay in Japan I looked South to Sasebo.
During the Carter years, Sasebo was within a couple years or maybe even months of being completely turned back over to the Japanese. The only commands remaining were the Navy Fuel Depot and Ordnance Facility. Then things changed in the world and the decision was made to bring the base back to full power. Three Amphibious ships, 2 salvage ships and 2 submarines were now homeported there.
Around the same time I transferred to CFAY, my running mate and mentor transferred to Atsugi from Midway. He put on the hat while at Atsugi and upon transfer took orders to a LPD out of Sasebo. This sounded like a good move to stay in Japan and also try out a different surface community so I too negotiated orders to the LPD.
After leave in CONUS my wife and I packed up the car and headed for Sasebo. We checked into the base and I was in a transit status awaiting further transfer to the ship. Operation Earnest Will was in full swing and my gaining command was in the Persian Gulf right in the middle of it. About a week prior to being flown out to the gulf I picked up Stars and Stripes and read about the C.O. of my new command being relieved for not rescuing a group of Vietnamese refugees while outbound to take up station in the gulf. Things that make you go Hmmmmm.
Eventually, with three new shipmates, I was in a van on the way to the airport. There is no American air carrier that flies east of Japan. Since Sasebo PSD had previously spent in excess of $25,000 to fly a handful of sailors eastbound to the Persian Gulf area of operations, the bureau apparently told them to find a cheaper way. Our little rag tag group flew domestic from Fukuoka to Osaka where Northwest took over. For the next 45 hours, with less than an hour at each stop, we flew to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and London. Upon arrival in London the RM2 going to the embarked LCU discovered his luggage hadn’t made the trip. From London we boarded Cathay Pacific airlines for Bahrain, arriving at night in the sweltering September heat. The Cathay plane fare from London to Bahrain was more expensive than the total fare on NW airlines for a flight two thirds of the way around the world.
The next day the four of us boarded a civilian tug in the morning to meet the ship at Sitra Anchorage. We spent the next 12 hours on board the tug, outside on deck, with no food or water in the sunshine. A good time was NOT had by all.
After dark I observed port and starboard running lights approaching and knew that my new home was arriving. Watching the stern gate being lowered and the deck force handling lines gave me the good feeling that I was back in the sea going Navy once again.
We all crossed over to the ship along with our bags, mail and other supplies. A Boatswains Mate escorted us up to the Personnel office to get checked aboard. We had barely left the well deck area when the stern gate was raised and I heard the whine of the forced draft blowers increase. The rumble of the screws as they slowly bit into the sea could be felt through the steel hull as we slowly came up on turns and headed back out to our station in the Gulf. The first familiar face I saw while crossing the mess decks was the CHENG who greeted me with “About fucking time you got here”! He was a fellow Harley enthusiast and had been a CWO3 on Reeves during my early years on board and was now a LT in charge of Engineering Department.
After finishing up in Personnel, I was escorted down to B&M berthing and found a rack. I spotted a couple more familiar faces from Yokosuka while stowing my gear, grabbing a shower and shifting over to dungarees. Shortly thereafter the Chief passed word for me to meet him on the mess decks.
Chief Bobby Sommer had reported aboard a month or so before and had a pretty good handle on the pulse of B-Division. We proceeded out onto catwalk surrounding the flight deck and with a cup of good Navy coffee he proceeded to bring me up to speed about my new work center.
The Dubuque had been forward deployed only a few years. What this meant was there were still some crewmembers on board that had brought the ship over from San Diego. To say not all of them were happy being a crewmember in the forward deployed Navy was an understatement. More importantly this had infected the attitude of the junior sailors.
Bobby told me I was being assigned to Bravo 2 where the First Class presently in charge was not the strongest asset in the division. There was only one Second Class assigned, who just the week prior while auxiliary steaming at anchorage had steamed the forward boiler with water out of sight low for over 15 minutes because he didn’t know what to do. This was good news in the sense that there was only one way to go and that was up.
I headed down to the space to take a look around my new work center. The material condition did not instill a lot of confidence. Pump packing glands were leaking excessively along with numerous valves that were in dire need of maintenance. I found no spare parts of any kind on hand, nor a tool box even if somebody wanted to do maintenance. I took into consideration they had been on station for 4 months in the hot arduous conditions of the Persian Gulf and lack of any kind of availability or repair time. However this didn’t excuse the lack of housekeeping or cleanliness. It was at this point I realized that SURFPAC ships and PHIBRON ships had different budgets and Sasebo was at the end of the logistic pipeline.
The space LPO let me know right away the he was senior to me by one advancement cycle, but the more I talked to him the more apparent it became that BTwise he was sorely lacking. Two days later it was put out by our Senior Chief that I would be taking over everything in Bravo 2 except admin i.e. PMS boards., watchbills etc.
Three days after this we pulled back into Sitra Anchorage for an overnight stay and liberty for the crew. This was when the BTs of the after space found things were going to be different! Number #2 boiler was due for water side cleaning. There was a new procedure that had been out for a few years that chemically cleaned the watersides. Prior to this it was necessary to remove all the boiler internals and mechanically clean each tube with an air driven brush. A procedure that normally took days to accomplish. The chemical cleaning procedure with Ethylene Diamine Tetra Acetate (EDTA) took just hours and I was the only BT on board that had experience doing this. Once the chemical was injected, the boiler would be steamed for four hours at a low firing rate then secured, dumped and opened for inspection.
I rounded up the after fireroom crew and explained what needed to be done. In addition to the BT1 and the loosely designated BT2 I had a group of third classes and fireman with very little training in anything other than watch standing. I eventually found out weeks later that previous to me reporting aboard there were two hard charging second classes that did all the maintenance and did it very well. What they didn’t do was train anybody. Any third or FN that showed interest was told to go clean or paint something.
While in Reeves we used a small air driven pump to inject the EDTA, Dubuque was going to be a gravity feed operation. The 55 gal poly drum was staged in the main access trunk with a garden hose running down to the boiler. I hadn’t had an opportunity to trace any systems in the space and instructed one of the guys to hook the hose to the highest drum air cock. Once the hose was hooked up the valve was opened and 40 of the 50 gals flowed rapidly into the boiler. Then it stopped. So now I’m up and down the ladders tracing the hose, and checking the valve alignment trying to find out why the EDTA isn’t flowing. Eventually I realize that the hose had been hooked up to the superheater vent instead of a drum air cock and we had dumped the first batch of chemicals into the superheater. I quickly traced the system and found the right drum vent, switched the hose over, ordered the superheater drained and a new batch mixed up. The next four batches flowed smoothly into the steam drum. Now during my initial frustrating expedition up and down ladders trying to get the crew organized and the equipment hooked up etc, I found the “LPO” sitting on a stool on the lower level boiler front with a clipboard. In answer to my inquiry of “what the fuck are you doing”? He informed me he was setting up a watchbill so half the work center could go ashore and enjoy liberty. I promptly told him: “Nobody is fucking going anywhere until this fucking boiler is properly injected with chemicals and fires are lit!” We finally got things going smoothly, the chemical injected, gear stowed and ready to light fires around midnight. I then told the “LPO” he could send the crew on liberty and I ordered fires lit.
28 days after reporting aboard I was designated as Bravo #2 LPO. The old “LPO” was relegated to watchstanding and staying the fuck out of the way. This was the fireroom’s introduction to the forward deployed Navy. Gradually over the next couple of months as we continued our mission in the gulf, I started giving the Thirds and Fireman maintenance tasks on equipment. The ship also got a BT2 from Midway and another BT1 from the East Coast that both had their shit together and took a portion of the load off my plate. We finally pulled back into Sasebo right before Christmas and with a couple of exceptions my team was really starting to come together.
I knew that I had them heading in the right direction when one of my BT3s came to talk to me. He was getting out in a few weeks and heading home. He had really taken on the role of junior Petty Officer, enthusiastically expanding his knowledge of the rate and machinery maintenance and I really hated to see him go. He walked up to me and quietly told me “BT1 if you had come on board 6 months earlier, I would have stayed in the Navy”. I asked him what it would take to make him stay but he already had money spent and arrangements made to attend college.
That was the start of a very successful tour in Sasebo. Apparently it had been noticed by the chain of command as I was selected as Senior Sailor of the Quarter for my performance in my first four months onboard.
A retired Navy Chief, Kurt Stuvengen was raised in Wisconsin by parents who were WWII Navy veterans and both Asia Sailors in their own right. He served 16 of his 20 years stationed in Japan and now steam boilers for the University of Wisconsin. With his Japanese wife of 29 years, he lives next door to the home he grew up in. In his spare time he enjoys putting as many miles on his Harley as he can, around volunteering with the Boy Scouts of America and multiple Veterans organizations.