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MEEKER | EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Cole downplays his own Vietnam experience in light of what others endured, but he did play a role and his story deserves to be told. Author William F. Brown agreed, and asked Cole to be interviewed for a chapter in a new book, “Our Vietnam Wars, Vol. 3.”
With Cole’s blessing, we’re including his chapter in the book, which is available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle at https://www.amazon.com/Our-Vietnam-Wars-Vol-veterans/dp/169883859X/. Cole, who is a member of the local VFW chapter in Meeker, would like to encourage and invite service members and their families to join the local VFW, American Legion and their Auxiliaries to help serve our community and promote patriotism.
DAVE COLE’S WAR
I grew up in Englewood, Colorado, a suburb near Denver, with flying in my blood. My mom and dad had met in 1937 while both enrolled in a flight school. WWII stopped their flying but I heard about their adventures growing up. After my first airplane ride at age six, I was hooked and earned my private pilot license while in High School (this was even before I had a driver’s license) working as a busboy to pay for it. I enrolled in the University of Colorado as an ROTC cadet, and studied aerospace engineering for two years. While working nights to earn tuition and struggling to maintain passing grades, I learned that the Navy had an Aviation Cadet Program, NAVCAD, which only required two years of college, so I enlisted in January 1966. Unfortunately, no sooner was I in boot camp than I found out that the Navy had shut the program down.
Directly following boot camp, I joined “Ships Company” aboard the USS Oriskany as a Seaman Apprentice E-2 “non-assigned personnel.” That was about as low on the totem pole as you could get, assigned as a cook’s assistant and toilet cleaner working twelve hour shifts as we headed for WESPAC (Western Pacific) and Vietnam. After stays in Honolulu and Yokosuka Japan, we arrived at Dixie Station off the coast of South Vietnam on June 27 and began flight operations, shifting to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam on July 8. So for me it was Boot Camp to the ship to Vietnam all in six months.
I wanted to get as close as I could to aviation so I requested and was reassigned to Operations Center (OC Division) which provided Air Traffic Control. While there I taught myself how to type, prepared weather reports, learned radar, and got very good at writing backward on the big, clear plastic “status board” with a grease pencil. I would write down the pilots’ names, aircraft numbers and fuel states of our planes returning from air strikes against N. Vietnam so that the officer in charge could determine which would refuel in the air, divert to S. Vietnam or trap directly aboard the ship.
The Oriskany was an Essex class aircraft carrier, a “long hull” version with a wooden deck, home-ported in San Diego. Construction of the ship began in 1945 and it was commissioned in 1950, the last of that class still in service when I went aboard. It had done two combat tours during the Korean War and an eventual five in Vietnam. It was used for the filming of “The Bridges of Toko-Ri” in 1954. The Oriskany was actually involved in bombing bridges in North Korea during that war, and we got to watch this movie while we were at sea.
Typically we worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Our division’s sleep compartment bunked 30 to 40 men stacked four high, located just below the #2 or #3 arresting gear wires, which made it very hard to sleep. While the officer’s quarters had air conditioning, the enlisted compartments did not, so while in Japan, a number of us chipped in and bought an air conditioning unit for our space drawing in outside air, we added a plywood door to keep the cool air in the compartment. The AC and the plywood door were to soon prove critical.
On Oct. 26, 1966, at 0730 the fire broke out in the magnesium flare locker forward of and below our level in the hangar bay. It proved to be the worst ship fire in the U.S. Navy since World War II. 44 men died, most of whom were pilots.
I had been to the dentist the previous afternoon where all four of my wisdom teeth were removed. During extractions, one tooth broke off at the gum line and had to be dug out. My face was all swollen, and I was supposed to keep ice on it. Unfortunately, the average temperature outside was 100° and no ice was available. I had been lying in my rack all night in pain trying to sleep when the fire alarms klaxons went off all over the ship.
There was nothing new about hearing klaxons or fire drills. Fire was the worst hazard any ship faced, and we were used to having frequent drills. They would always begin “This is a drill, this is a drill—Fire at the……” This time, however, the voice on the intercom began “This is a dr…” out of habit and continued with the real “Fire at the…,” which was a critical mistake. Unfortunately, many people only heard the “This is a…” and tuned out the rest. That was especially true of the pilots. We had been doing continuous air operations for over three months, they were all exhausted, and their quarters were dangerously close to the flare locker. Many of them died of asphyxiation. Only one crewman died of burns.
What had happened was that a sailor accidentally pulled the trigger lanyard on one of the magnesium parachute flares in the starboard side locker on the forward hangar bay under the flight deck during a downloading process after the strike had been cancelled. Not thinking, he threw the flare inside the compartment with the 700 others, closed the door, and they all went off. These are intensely hot and set off dangerous chemicals stored in the elevator bay. It is impossible to extinguish a magnesium fire with water. The fire penetrated down five decks before it was brought under control.
They would always begin “This is a drill, this is a drill—Fire at the……” This time, however, the voice on the intercom began “This is a dr…” out of habit and continued with the real “Fire at the…,” which was a critical mistake. ~ Dave Cole
Because our air conditioner was running and our plywood door closed, we did not smell the smoke until we exited our space. I heard several levels of fire warnings. As the three of us were not on any of the fire crews, we did not react until the speakers sounded “General Quarters (Battle Stations)!” That got everyone’s attention. We got dressed and headed for the door. The Operations Center (our battle station) was several decks below our quarters. When we opened the door, there was thick smoke in the corridors and stairwells which quickly got worse.
We all had memorized the route from our berthing quarters to our General Quarters (Battle Stations) and found our way blocked by some locked hatches which forced us to find an alternative route. I remembered seeing an elevator machinery access door next to the toilets of our head, which allowed us to get down to the hangar deck. While moving across the deck on our way to the OC division, an officer ordered us to carry five gallon buckets of animal blood to the foaming equipment fighting the fire in the forward hangar bay. It was frightening to see flames over our head, jet airplanes scorched black, crew frantically moving airplanes to other areas of the flight deck to get them out of danger, and men pushing steaming bombs overboard. Two other carriers, the Constellation and the Franklin D. Roosevelt had sailed nearby to give aid.
The “Prepare to Abandon Ship” order was given over the 1MC (ships PA system) and I was then told to go to the mess and begin distributing life preservers. A number of thoughts began racing through my head. Two at the forefront were “How well can I swim under oil slicked waves on fire” and “What is the fastest way to jump ship”?
The mess halls were shut down, so they broke out old WWII C-rations for all to eat around lunch time. It wasn’t long before one sailor became ill from eating out of one of the cans which had swollen. It was announced to us that the food inside had gone bad, usually from botulism, which could get you very sick and even kill you, we should not eat contents of any bulging cans, and anyone who had should report immediately to the sick bay.
Eventually, they got the fire under control, but so much water had been pumped inside the ship that it was now riding dangerously bow-down. Normally the bow was 50-feet above the surface of the ocean, but it was now down by the bow 20 feet. Many flooded compartments below deck had battery powered emergency lights which were dim or out by nightfall. Twelve hours after the fire began, I was ordered to join a bucket brigade to remove water from flooded compartments well below sea level because with no electricity the normal pumps would not function. While going further below decks to do this, moving along dark passageways with water up to our knees, I saw electricity arcing behind us. That was very scary.
A number of thoughts began racing through my head. Two at the forefront were “How well can I swim under oil slicked waves on fire” and “What is the fastest way to jump ship”? ~ Dave Cole
When the fire was out, we sailed for Cubi Point Naval Air Station Bay in the Philippines, where the airplanes and munitions were offloaded, and on to San Diego, arriving on November 16. By March 23 all of the repairs to the ship had been completed, on June 16 the ship returned to Westpac and Vietnam. On July 14 the ship commenced bombing operations on Yankee Station off North Vietnam. Ironically, on July 26 the Oriskany provided help with the fire on the USS Forestall.
The Navy did interviews of everyone who had been aboard. Five crewmen were eventually court-martialed, but the charges were dismissed. Those of us who were involved in fighting the fire received letters of commendation for what we did. It allowed us to pick a school we wished to attend. I chose the basic Air Traffic Controller School in Brunswick, Georgia (NAS Glynco) and left the Oriskany in December enjoying a Christmas stop in Denver on the way to school. Unlike high school, by now I was really motivated, and did very well, placing #1 in each class, and attending all three of the air traffic control schools available– Basic ATC, Ground Controlled Approach and Tower Controller. I joined the Navy aero club on the base, completed my advanced pilot and flight instructor certification at my own expense and during my off duty hours. The Navy assigned me to remain at the Naval Air Station at Glencoe Georgia as an Air Traffic Controller. I was released early from my military service in October 1969. I was an E-5 when I was discharged, received the usual array of Navy medals and ribbons. My only diagnosed disability was Tinnitus, ringing of the ears, but suffered from PTSD as a result of the chaos, frenzy and life threatening terror of being nearly trapped below. During my transfer from the West coast to Georgia, I had stayed stayed at my parent’s house over Christmas and woke them up night after night with my screaming. I thought that it was normal until I realized recently that it had a name PTSD.
My BS degree was completed at Metro State College in Denver during which time I taught flying. Because of all the pilot certificates I had accumulated, I was able to receive almost a year of college credit by exam. In fact, because of my background I ended up writing a few of the exams and teaching an instrument instructor simulator class to receive its credit because they had not scheduled a class instructor.
During the completion of college I flew in Madagascar and West Germany commercially. As I completed my degree in June of 1973, Frontier Airlines hired me. Due to re-organization, bankruptcy and restructuring my piloting career took turns at Peoples Express, Continental, and FAA Aviation Safety Inspector. United Airlines recruited me from the FAA as an instructor and line pilot for their Boeing 737, 747-400, 757, 767, and Airbus A-320. I found it interesting that a few of the Navy pilots onboard the Oriskany, whose names I had written on the status board, later became my copilots in the airline business. I had been the younger Seaman Apprentice E-2, just up from cook’s assistant and toilet cleaner who couldn’t get into the NAVCAD program, while they were the commissioned officer pilots who later became airline copilots due to their longer commitment time in the Navy and the airline seniority system.
I retired from the airlines in 2005 and went on to run a Colorado college flight program. My flying continues flying private jets and turboprops. Additional interests include life memberships in the VFW, American Legion, performing contra-dance and bluegrass violin music and volunteering in church outreach.
Special to the Herald Times