Sunday, October 26, 2008

Small Arms Weapons Training

Up until the 1980s or so, small arms training on ships was pretty much an afterthought. If you had an in-port watch assignment that meant you may have to carry a weapon, you were shown how to load and unload it. Then you were given a chance to "familiarization fire" it. When the ship was steaming independently (not in formation), a group of sailors were assembled on the fantail with a gunner's mate. If your assignment meant you had to carry a .45, the gunner's mate loaded it (with five rounds in the magazine) and handed it to you. You then pointed the weapon aft of the ship and fired off all five rounds.

If you managed to hit the ocean, you passed.

That, for obvious reasons, was not very satisfactory.

The next plan was to qualify on full-sized silhouette targets. The targets were supposed to be set at 25 yards. You then fired 30 rounds; ten at slow-fire, ten at timed fire, ten at rapid fire. (Definitions here.) If you finished up with 20 holes in your target, you were qualified.

That had its own problems. Few ships, other than carriers, had a place where you could set up a target, move back 75 feet and not either have fallen over the side or have something in-between the shooter and the target. So the smaller ships had to use a shore-side rifle range to qualify.

That raised a lot more problems. Nearly every non-engineering petty officer on every ship had to qualify with a .45, as the Petty Officer of the Watch post in port was an armed watch. All of the sailors on the security teams had to qualify with a .45, M-14 rifle and riot shotgun. Half of the officers had to qualify with a .45. So possibly a hundred or more sailors from each ship had to shoot for qualification on a yearly basis, and even in a small port, that meant that several thousand sailors had to qualify.

The base pistol ranges were not set up for that amount of use and they quickly became overwhelmed. There might be a seven month waiting list, which was unsatisfactory to the ships.

So they began to find creative solutions. If a chief on one of the ships was a member of a gun club, he would make a deal with the club to use their range in exchange for the ship providing a large tin of coffee or a work/cleanup detail. Some ships found informal ranges in national forests that were usable during the week.

Meanwhile, the bases had begun programs to expand the hours and the sizes of their ranges, only to find out that the demand was evaporating. The solution most base commanders adopted was to forbid the use of civilian ranges for "liability concerns." That was an order that was widely ignored.

Ultimately, the Navy adopted reduced-sized silhouette targets that were suitable for ten-yard ranges. Most ships had small helicopter flight-decks; the target holders were set on the edge of the deck and the shooters stood on the other side of the flight deck. So as long as the ship was off on its own, they could qualify a lot of people rapidly.

There was some talk about starting to send teams to a "Hogan's Alley" sort of advanced training, but I don't know if that ever became a reality.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dining In

There were two kinds of formal dinners held by Navy commands. One was a "dining in" and the other was a "dining out." For a dining out, the officers and their spouses attended. For a dining in, it was only the officers, though the commanding officer of the next higher unit was typically invited.

They are generally held in home port at the base officer's club and, for small ships, held with the permission of the squadron commander, because all of the officers attend, which means that one of the most senior chief petty officers is the command duty officer for the event (typically, the officer who would have been the CDO does not drink for the event.) Attire is "mess dress", which basically for women was Service Dress Blue/White with a long skirt. For male lieutenants and below, that was Service Dress Blue with a bow tie or Service Dress Whites; for lieutenant commanders and above, it was a form of tuxedo jacket. Service Dress Whites, colloquially known as "chocker whites," were best worn on those occasions when an adequate blood supply to the brain was not necessary, for if an officer had put on a significant amount of weight, well, you get the picture.

The two key people at a dining in were the Captain and a junior officer who was designated as "Mr. (or Ms.) Vice." Mr. Vice was the enforcer of the rules of the occasion and he levied fines for not wearing the uniform correctly or swearing or not toasting with a full glass or smoking when not authorized.

There was a cocktail hour before the dinner, then the dinner began. The main course was always roast beef, with the first slice served to the Captain, who tasted it and then pronounced: "This beef is fit for human consumption." As the meal went on, Mr. Vice turned to his main duty, which was making sure everyone got shitfaced. This was done by frequent toasts, first to the President of the United States, then to the Commodore (if he attended the dinner) and then to the Captain. After that, the toasts were up to the imagination of Mr. Vice.

The best toast I ever heard was: "To the Russian Navy, for without them, we'd all be in the Coast Guard." One lieutenant was aghast at that toast, but the Captain thought it was very appropriate. If you read this, it probably will not surprise you to learn that the officer who made the toast was an OCS grad who got out after six years and the aghast LT was a Boat School grad who eventually became a flag officer.

The amount of drinking at a dining in began to taper off in the mid 1980s when the Navy started to get really serious about drinking and driving and then drinking in general. Up until then, getting blasted on shore leave/liberty ("shore leave" was the term for officers, "liberty" was the term for enlisted, though the colloquial term was "hitting the beach") was sort of a badge of honor, as in "it takes a real sailor to get blasted on the beach."

One time I drove a shipmate to his house after a dining in, because I had been careful with my drinking and he hadn't. I had a fairly new car at the time, the first new car I ever owned, and I told him that if he puked in my car, I was going to roll him into a drainage ditch and stand on his head. He didn't puke; I got him to his house and his thoroughly disgusted wife (it was well after midnight) and I managed to get his carcass inside the house. We dumped him on the living room floor, she threw a blanket over him, took his shoes off, put a pillow under his head and somewhat sarcastically thanked me for bringing him home.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

ASW Weapons; Part II

To understand depth charges, you need to know that active sonar (the Brits called it ASDIC, for some obscure reason) did not exist in World War I. The British and American navies had been working on it for years, but it was not ready by Armistice Day. The ASW escorts charged the datum and began putting depth charges into the water. As submarines could not go very fast on batteries, if a destroyer got to the last known position fast enough, it was possible to catch the sub.

When active sonar was installed on ships between the world wars, the sets were at what now would be regarded as very high frequencies. That permitted small lightweight sonar domes, but also meant limited range. Those sonars were probably not good submarine detection sets; they had to know about where the submarine was.

There are four basic stages in ASW: Search, localize, track and attack. World War I destroyers were pretty deficient in the first and third stages, as they had no sensors, other than the Mk 1 eyeball, to detect submarines and no way to track them after they submerged. The early sonar sets were not much better on the search aspect, but once the crew knew where to look and got close enough, they could localize and track.

Depth charges had huge deficiencies. First off, they were horribly unsafe. They were often stored in racks on the weather decks, so each ship had thousands of pounds of high explosives just sitting on deck. They were vulnerable to shipboard fires, enemy fire and for getting loose in heavy seas.

Second, they were dangerous in use. If a depth charge that was rolled off the fantail detonated early, it could blow the stern off the ship. Even if it didn't do that, the shock could blow out the stern tube seals around the propeller shafts and sink the ship by flooding the engine rooms.

Third, blowing up a number of depth charges created a lot of regions of disturbed water, which obscured the sonar signals.

Fourth, sonars could not look straight down or to the rear. When the destroyer which was tracking the submarine commenced its depth charge run, it lost track of the submarine just before it got into position to launch the depth charges.

Imagine, if you will, that you are at a trap or skeet shooting range. You call "pull" and a clay bird is launched. You swing your shotgun towards the clay bird and just as the barrels start to swing into alignment, you close both eyes, try to maintain your swing and then fire.

Now imagine that the clay bird has the ability to alter its flight path and that the clay bird knows that just before you fire, you are going to be blind. The sub commanders knew that a depth charge run was underway and, as the destroyer came into position, the sub commanders would order a sharp turn. The destroyer commanders had to guess which way the sub might go and try to compensate. The sub might alter its speed, anything to mess up the depth charge run.

Something that was not known early in World War II was that the German boats could dive deeper than American or British submarines, in some cases, three times as deep. The Germans could go below the maximum setting of the early depth charges. Even when depth charges would detonate that far down, it took a bit of time for them to sink that far, which meant that actually hitting a deep sub was more a matter of sheer-assed luck.

Something had to be done.