From the AnthologyVeterans’ Voices
It was around 0400, late in June of 1976. I had just left the wardroom after a full breakfast aboard USS Mobile LKA-115. It was a bright and shiny morning. It was strange to awaken at 0300 to the morning sun. But we were in the land of the midnight sun. We were near Elvin Cove, just northwest of Sitka,Alaska. Tod ay was the big day—our multi-ship amphibious exercise. We were the transportation for two Marine battalions that were tasked to transit in the area of the 50th state and demonstrate that they could attack a simulated foreign shore, move inland, and capture territory. We were not a“major” exercise, but we were important enough that we had a Soviet submarine tailing us once we left Washington state waters.
Mobile was gliding through a glass-like sea toward our anchorage. I was headed down the ladder from officer’s country to the main deck to my boat. I was the Boat Group Commander (BGC) for my ship. I was responsible for 10 landing crafts: my 32 ft. command craft, four tank carriers, four troop carriers, and one salvage craft. My boat was out of its cradle and was hangingat the rail from the 20-ton boom and was ready to be lowered into the water. My crew—the coxswain, the engineer, the signalman, and a seaman—were standing by the main deck, ready to go.
“Anchored!” came over the 1MC, the intercom system. We scrambled aboard the boat. Soon thereafter, the command “Away all boats!” came down from the flying bridge. The deck line handlers, under the guidance of Chief Pancheco, the Deck Leading Chief, eased on their taut lines and lowered us slowly into the sea. He always shouted to us as we were descending to the water: “Don’t none of you fuckers get hurt. Causes me paperwork.” It was his way of saying, in a fatherly way, “I love you. Be careful.”
Just as we hit the water, we heard the command, “Avast lowering!” I looked up at the Chief. “What’s up?” He pointed to port a few hundred yards said, “Killer whales.”
My coxswain, a Vietnam riverboat vet, looked at me and said, “Sir, I want to be issued a sidearm!”
“Be cool, Boats,” I said to my coxswain. “If needed, the gunners will pull out the M-14s and take care of us. Anyway, we’re not allowed to kill ’em.”
We froze in place as the group of tall, jet-black dorsal fins moved on a B-Line toward the ship. There were about ten of them, I guessed, and they were moving in a phalanx formation toward us at a leisurely pace. They were surfacing from the inky, black, deep water to breathe and blow out spray that smelled of fish. Then, they would submerge again and glide on their apparent rendezvous with us.
At about 100 yards from us, the leader of the pod turned his phalanx left, moving the group to a parallel course relative to us. The tail of the formation now came close to my craft, right next to where my boat was still lashed to the side of the ship by the five handlers on the mail deck.
My coxswain said, “Boss, let’s cast off and get out of here!”
I said, “Stand fast, Boats. We…”
Just as I said that, a whale surfaced alongside the port quarter of my boat, no more than three feet away. The whale was as large as our 32 ft. boat!Our boat was fiberglass. A good bang of the whale’s head or a forceful slam of his tail could have started us to sink. But he just turned on his left side, exposing his head and right eye to the surface. He rolled his eye at me as he glided by then silently submerged. They gave it the same casual inspection and then headed toward the coast.
After they had cleared the entire anchorage, we commenced the exercise.The operation went fairly well. Some mistakes were made, some men got hurt, some lessons were learned. So go most exercises.
I am a retired naval officer with 10 years of sea duty. I have been a certified scuba diver since 1980. I have had some interesting experiences at sea, but this is one of the most memorable. I will always remember the encounter with the killer whales.