The Cactus Incident
By Bruce Lonardo
When I first arrived in
Yokosuka, the Midway was out on Gonzo Station, so I was placed in
transit until I was sent to Cubi Point. From there, the USS Dixie
ferried me out to Diego Garcia where I caught a ride on the USS San
Jose, which took me out to the Midway. I still remember the day
the helo brought me aboard. It was December of 1979 and I was 17. My God,
where did the time go? It seems like it all happened just yesterday!
It was about 2300, or maybe a little bit after, when a trembling sensation ran throughout the ship as if there were an earthquake occurring right under the hull. Suddenly, the ship's collision alarm blurted out its pulsating scream, followed by the general alarm and the routine instructions that always followed the general alarm, but this time with one difference: "GENERAL QUARTERS! GENERAL QUARTERS! ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! - THIS IS NO DRILL!" Everybody just bolted up to the hanger deck, enroute to their battle stations and I remember as soon as I got up to the hangar deck, I could hear an ear-screeching sound of metal scraping against metal. I looked in the direction of where the sound was coming from, which was the port side aft area near aircraft elevator three, and I actually saw another ship scraping past us - ramming us for lack of any better description.
My G.Q. muster station was with the First Lieutenant Division in the VA-115 upper berthing, which was located directly under the flight deck in the forward part of the ship. As soon as I and a couple of other guys from my division get there, our leading petty officer told us to go back down to the hanger deck and muster with the entire ship's company. He also said that possible 'abandon ship' orders were pending.
On the way back down to the hangar deck, we were passing through a huge open ladder space, which leads several decks down from the flight deck to the hanger deck on the port side in the forward part of the ship. As we arrived at the hangar deck level, I saw a horrible sight which froze me in my tracks. It was one of the two men who were killed that night, lying dead in a stokes stretcher and he was covered with a gray navy blanket. What terrified me and the horrible image that remained imbedded in my brain was how the blanket appeared. Where a blanket would normally have made the obvious shape of a man's head, it appeared to have sloped down upon the deck. In other words, it looked like, and to this day I'm not exactly sure if this was the case, but it looked liked this poor soul had been decapitated and I heard rumors to that effect in the aftermath scuttlebutt. As I stood there frozen in my tracks for a second, I remember a buddy of mine who was behind me, shoving me forward and crying out "LONARDO, DON'T LOOK AT THAT! KEEP MOVING!"
When we arrived on the hangar deck, every one was donning kapok life vests and the Captain's launch was being readied. Through the open aircraft elevator doors, we could see our escort ships were surrounding us on all sides and flooding the Midway with illumination from their massive spotlights. We also tragically learned that another of our shipmates was dead. The damage the Midway had sustained was extensive. We had been accidentally rammed by a Panamanian freighter, the Cactus, which was traveling in the same direction as the Midway. The Cactus had hit the Midway's port side aft area knocking aircraft elevator three completely off its track. The giant elevator was literally hanging by its cables. The Cactus' hull had sliced into the Midway's hull causing a fifty foot gash in the port side below the waterline. The freighter's bow had also obliterated the port side catwalk, the LSO platform, and the port side landing lights. Several Corsairs and Phantoms (nearly all the aircraft in VF-161) were totally destroyed. As you know, on a carrier the aircraft are parked on the flight deck in a TOW manner (Tail Over Water) with the main landing gear put nearest to the edge of the flight deck. This maximizes maneuvering space for other aircraft, enabling them to be moved or repositioned on the flight deck. The result of positioning aircraft in this manner is that their entire tail section, along with a good part of their fuselage area, is then poised beyond the edge of the flight deck, over the water. As the freighter rammed into this area of the ship, these aircraft, numbering about fifteen total, were demolished. Some of them, simply disappeared - pulled completely and entirely right off the flight deck into the sea.
As bad as all this damage was, it was not the worst damage the Midway had sustained that night. By far the worst damage occurred in the port side hanger deck almost at amidships. The Midway's 5000 gallon liquid oxygen (LOX) plant had been seriously ruptured and was badly leaking. Moreover, the Midway's diesel fuel lines, which ran fore to aft on the port side of the ship, had also been severed and they were badly leaking. LOX is a very volatile and combustible agent whenever it comes in contact with heat, other chemicals, or any other petroleum agents such as diesel fuel. Both of these agents were leaking heavily in direct vicinity of each other, creating an impending catastrophe. Fortunately, the damage control teams were able to keep the two agents separated from each other by placing a barrier of light foam (ordinarily used for structural fires) between the two agents long enough to repair the LOX plant, the diesel fuel lines, and also decontaminate those areas in imminent danger. Thank God! Had the worst possible scenario occurred and given the vulnerable location where this occurred (amidships, near the expansion joint), 5000 gallons of exploding liquid oxygen would easily have caused enough devastation to do irreparable damage to the Midway's hull by making watertight integrity impossible. It could have even literally broken the Midway into two sections, which of course, would have resulted in the loss of her. Again, thank God for the Midway's damage control teams. They literally saved a legend and probably all of us aboard her, that night!
The entire crew, ship's company and squadron personnel, remained at GQ until about 7:00 am, at which time the ship secured from general quarters and the assigned on-duty working parties continued to monitor the extensive damage. At that time, the skipper made an announcement over the 1MC that the ship had been seriously damaged and that our escorts (which were still surrounding us) would be taking us in tow. We would be returning to Subic Bay and entering the Naval Ship Repair Facility for at least a one month working in port period. When a cheer erupted throughout the ship, it appeared no one was looking forward to three monotonous months out on Gonzo Station.
The skipper also made condolences about our two shipmates who had been tragically killed. They were Machinist Mate Second Class Daniel Francis Macey and Machinist Mate Third Class Christian John Belgum, both from A Division. Of the first man, the rumor I heard other men saying was that he had been decapitated. From what I myself witnessed, seeing how his corpse appeared in the stretcher, I fear the rumor may have been true, although I hope not. As for the fate of the second, I only hope the rumor I heard from other shipmates was untrue. The news going around the ship was that he was directly near the liquid oxygen tank when it ruptured. Rumor had it that he was drenched by liquid oxygen, which has a temperature of 300 degrees below zero, in which case, he would have been instantly crystallized.
After the ship secured from general quarters, many of the crew went topside to see the damage that had been done to the ship. What I saw looked like the aftermath scene right out of a war movie. The portside catwalk was no longer there. The landing lights which extend from the portside of the angle deck were gone, along with the LSO station. Aircraft elevator three was lowered at hanger deck level and was attached to the ship only by its giant greasy lifting cables. At least ten F-4 Phantoms were totally destroyed, their tails and aft fuselages ripped completely off. There were some A-7 Corsairs damaged in the same way and a few other aircraft were gone - just plain vanished! In addition, far more serious damage was evident with the LOX plant, the hangar deck fuel lines, and the 50 foot gash on the portside hull below the waterline. Cameras were strictly forbidden on the flight deck and hangar deck. In fact, anyone who even attempted to photograph the damage faced the penalty of having their camera confiscated by the Master-at-Arms and this was strictly enforced.
I remember for the next few days until we returned to Subic Bay, there was a quiet, pensiveness lingering about the ship. It was hard to believe that this had actually happened to the Midway. To say that there was a surreal connotation to this event would be an understatement. It was as though the entire crew and the Midway herself were in a state of shock. What probably contributed at least in part to such a haziness of disbelief on board may have been the wild rumors circulating throughout the ship. The commonly discussed scuttlebutt among the crew for several weeks prior to this tragic incident was that the nationally famous psychic, Jean Dixon, had made a prediction that within the year of 1980, a U.S. Naval warship bearing the number 41 would have a tragic accident at sea and founder. The USS Midway's side number was, of course, 41 and given the reality of our current situation, it was hard for anyone to dismiss her prediction or at least the unbelievable coincidence. At the time, it had seemed more like a prophesy. However, the part about the ship foundering never happened, thank God! After a few days, we arrived back at Subic Bay for an intense working in port period at the ship repair facility. About five weeks later, the ship was fully repaired, all the destroyed aircraft had been replaced, and we were once again underway for the fair seas of WESTPAC and a long three month period out on Gonzo Station.