Shooting the USS CALIFORNIA

PHC (DV1) (PJ) Richard 'Dick' Johnson, my fearless leader in the world of underwater photography. He would never make his men do anything he wouldn't do, but the problem was there was nothing he wouldn't do.

 
LT Brian Barbata, UDT-21: LCDR Chuck LeMoyne, NAVSEA: Foreign Frogman. They were testing the GE Mark 1500 Closed Circuit SCUBA. This photo was taken in Puerto Rico in 1973.

(Both photos by Steve Waterman)

Back about 1974 when I was serving with Combat Camera Group's Underwater Photo Team in Norfolk, we got a call that a team was needed at AUTEC (Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center) on the Bahamian Island of Andros. This was good news as we always used any excuse we could to go down there on a job. There was no problem getting volunteers as the water there is warm, clear, and the beer is cold and cheap. There aren't any available women, but what the hell, two out of three ain't bad.

Chief Dick Johnson picked the team. We had Mac McCraw, yours truly, and another guy I can't remember now. On top of this we would have some young dumb Frogmen from UDT 21 to back us up as our swim buddies. The CO of Team 21 sent a new LTJG as OIC of the Frogs and told him he'd be working for us. The entire job was under LCDR Chuck LeMoyne of Naval Ships Systems Engineering Command (or something like that). I hadn't worked with Chuck before, but I had heard he was one of the good guys. Chuck was a UDT/SEAL officer and was doing his time on shore duty to get his ticket punched on the way to Admiral.

We arrived at the Fresh Creek International Airport (a dirt strip with remnants of aircraft that didn't quite make it laying about the perimeter) and a van came out to pick us up in several trips. A platoon of civilian engineers were already there from another one of the Naval Engineering Commands. Chuck was with them. During a little get together we photographers didn't attend, the Frog officer told Chuck that we were just photographers and that they were the guys who were trained to do scary shit. They should be shooting the film and we should just be there to support them. Chuck put an end to that train of thought and things went on as planned.

The problem was, above 18 knots the sonar had such an ambient noise level that they could not hear anything. It was believed the problem was being caused by cavitation along the sonar dome. Cavitation occurs when uneven pressures in the water, caused by irregular surfaces, pull air bubbles out of the water. When the bubbles collapse, noise is created that can screw up sonar. They had a boom-buoy system set up that would give the helmsman of the USS CALIFORNIA (a 600 foot nuclear powered frigate) a target to aim for. This system was nothing more than a couple floats on ropes leading down to weights at the end. A boom made of neutrally buoyant aluminum tubing kept the sides at a specific distance. The ship would go between the buoys in the same direction each time.

Anyway, we would have photographers stationed in various places along the boom system. I would be halfway from the waterline to the keel on the starboard side shooting with a DBM-9 movie camera set at 200 frames per second. We would wait on the surface hanging off a large inner tube until the ship started its run. At a certain point, the ship would blow its whistle and the team would submerge and take up stations. When we got to ours, on Chuck's hand signal, I would start shooting film of him firing a .357 magnum bangstick into a five gallon can we had tied off on the buoy line. This gave the ship an acoustic marker for reference. From that point on I had to keep the trigger down on the camera to keep continuity. The ship came by at about 22 knots on the first run. I shot my film and noted my distance seemed to be a little father from the ship than what I wanted.

Between each run, all divers would surface, hand our cameras to some guys in the Zodiac inflatable and they'd reload them for us. Chuck would put another round in his bangstick, and we'd hang off the inner tubes in the 3 foot seas. I forgot to tell you earlier that we became acquainted the night before in the dimly lit interior of the Thousand Fathom Club. Being short of women to impress, we simply got drunk and were not early to bed. This was taking a toll on Steve and the crew. I started to get seasick. Before long, I was puking and so was Chuck and a couple of the other guys. We couldn't wait for the damned ship to come back so we could go down where it was calm. By now the ship was supposed to be steaming by at 32 knots. I figured if they were going to have an observable cavitation problem, it would be on this last run. I was goddamned if I was going to miss it. this time when I went down, I worked my way out to the middle of the boom after I shot the bangstick. I looked back to check my distance from the line on my side of the boom system and realized, "Oh, shit. I'm too far out." and started swimming back to where Chuck and another Frogman were hanging off the line. Out of the gloom, in the 300 foot visibility, came the bulbous sonar dome of the USS CALIFORNIA. I was just to the starboard side of the dome and was going to get run over by it. I kicked my young dumb ass into overdrive and just about broke the blades off my duck feet,keeping the camera switch jammed down hard. If I made it, this would be some wicked footage. I swam at warp speed until the hull stopped getting wider. I realized I was safe now, so I turned around and faced the hull. The ship was about 10 feet from me and she was coming by at 32 knots. About now, I exhaled to get negative and started to drop below the bilge keel. Now I could see the screws churning through the water. I dropped down below the hull and shot them from about 30 feet away as the ship blasted by overhead with the sound of a hundred locomotives thundering in my ears. I swam back into the prop wash prepared to have my ass slammed all over the Tongue of the Ocean. I wasn't disappointed. With the camera shoved against my face mask, I rolled up into a ball and waited for the blast of water. I felt like a piss ant getting hit with a fire hose. It knocked the dogshit out of me and threw me all over the place like I was in a blender full of whipped cream. The water was nothing but a froth. When it cleared, I looked around for my swim buddy. He one of the guys who had wanted to do our job. He was about 30 feet below me. I think his eyeballs were bugged out right against the glass of his face mask.

Later that afternoon, as we relaxed in the air conditioned comfort of the Thousand Fathom Club, Chuck stood up with glass in hand. "I just want you guys from Combat Camera to know that we'll swim with you anywhere, anytime." That felt good to us 'titless WAVES, as photographers were often called.

Chuck LeMoyne made Admiral some years later and died of cancer in 1996. I was sorry to hear that. He was a good man.

I never did get to see my footage from that job.

Note: I am offering a reward to anybody who can locate and get me a copy of the footage we shot that day. It is no longer classified as the USS CALIFORNIA is now razor blades.

 END

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