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How I nearly sank an aircraft carrier

Updated on March 12, 2011

Here she is in all her glory.

Topped to the gunwales with Fairy Fireflies and Hawker Sea Furies, and sporting around two dozen 40mm bofors, she was a ral fighting machine in those early days.
Topped to the gunwales with Fairy Fireflies and Hawker Sea Furies, and sporting around two dozen 40mm bofors, she was a ral fighting machine in those early days.

A place of bugle calls, bosun's pipes and more brass than a scrap metal yard.

Welcome to how I nearly sank what was then the Australian Navy's Flagship.

Way back in 1955 when I was a nineteen-year-old sailor aboard the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney I worked, along with perhaps ten other trainee radio operators, doing other than my specialist training. The ship’s first officer, a commander known as: Jimmy the One, quickly became aware that trainee R.O.s can only spend so much time actually training. This meant they had spare time. And on Her Majesty Australian Flagship idle hands were definitely a ‘no, no.’

red lead and ship-side grey.

So the ‘Jimmy’ took advantage of this by putting we trainees to work on more mundane sailoring duties. This included scrubbing decks, chipping and scraping rust, and recoating bare or rusting metal with plenty of ‘red lead’ and ‘ship’s side grey.

Many years later she became known as the Vung Tau Ferry.

She went from flying sorties in the Korean War, to peacetime ops, then to taking supplies to Vietnam.  A proud old lady, she never got the recognition she really deserved.
She went from flying sorties in the Korean War, to peacetime ops, then to taking supplies to Vietnam. A proud old lady, she never got the recognition she really deserved.

The amount of paint pots and brushes that fell from that ship...

Naturally, we young recruits rebelled, but in very subtle ways. No point in aggravating people. Cans of paint went missing; expensive paint brushes fell overboard. Despite this, the work went on. But then the ‘Jimmy’ came up with other work. The boys could help out in the galley. No, not actually cooking, but certainly scrubbing creasy pots, making huge urns of tea, and washing up the myriad metal trays that a crew of 1200 sailors would used to hold their meals.

Now just a few feet of water on a large deck space can topple a vessel.

I was put onto this last duty – that’s how I nearly came to sink an aircraft carrier! We’d all seen a film where in World War Two a carrier had actually overturned when around two feet of water had found its way into one of the carriers major deck spaces. It was a thought that stayed in my mind as the event I tell you of now unfolded.

It happened like this:

I didn't joine the Navy to be a tray-washer's assistant.

After every meal, a senior stoker-mechanic (We’ll call him Dusty Miller) used to work the tray-washing machine. I was Dusty’s little helper. It was a simple enough job: placing trays in the machine, pulling them out, stacking and putting away in racks The leading stoker-mechanic did all the technical work around the machine. I was really nothing more than a sort of slave.

Anyway, one evening, as we two were working the machine – I’d been at it for maybe a week - Dusty says to me:

The Sydney in dry dock. It's a long way down when you're painting the mast.

I suspect this is Sydney in her earlier days.   Looks like a cruiser in background.   HMAS Australia, maybe, or perhaps Shropshire.
I suspect this is Sydney in her earlier days. Looks like a cruiser in background. HMAS Australia, maybe, or perhaps Shropshire.

You can finish up here, Tom. I gotta go early.

“Tom, I’ve got to meet my missus around 6-00pm up town. I want to get away early. I want you to work on after I’m gone. You’ve been here long enough to know how it goes. You just switch off the machine here.” Dusty points to the on-off controls. “ And then when that’s done you shut off the water by turning that valve. You turn it like so – four turns down is enough. That valve on the deck. Yeah, over there in the corner.”

Simple!

"Ship's company! Ships company will wave and cheer in unison...".

Admirals and the press loved this sort of thing. On a flagship it is generally understood that if it moves you salute it.   It is is motionless you paint it.
Admirals and the press loved this sort of thing. On a flagship it is generally understood that if it moves you salute it. It is is motionless you paint it.

Now everyone knows that to close a valve you turn it clockwise...or do you?

No. Not simple. Dusty goes early as he said he would. I carry on. I finish up the last of the trays and put them away. The deck space around me is quiet now except for the hum of various machinery. All the cooks and their assistants have gone. Then I switch off the tray-washing machine.

Next I go over to the valve on the floor and turn it...and turn it...and turn it.

It doesn’t come to a halt. It doesn’t seem to ‘reach bottom’ as it were. “Oh, well. I must have turned it the wrong way.” So I turn it around the other way.

Same thing. It just turned and turned and turned. Didn’t get to a place where it stopped. How could I know if it were closing or opening?

This way...that way...which way is right?

Now...Had I turned it the right way in the first place? Well?... I turn it the other way, around twelve turns. It does come to and end. It just keeps turning. I turn it the other way. Around and around and around.

“Oh, God.” I can’t find any other people familiar with the machine. There’s no way I can contact Dusty. Feeling like a criminal I tidy up the room, switch off the lights and leave the main deck. Later, I go ashore, have a few beers and completely forget the incident.

All said, she was a good billet.

It was hammocks and hooks in those days.  Crowded beyond comprehension.  Matelots who couldn't find hammock space slept on the floor, on tables, and anywhere they could.
It was hammocks and hooks in those days. Crowded beyond comprehension. Matelots who couldn't find hammock space slept on the floor, on tables, and anywhere they could.

Good God! The whole main deck seems to be flooded!

The next morning as I enter the main deck where the ship’s crew’s cafeteria or main dining hall is, I notice the whole deck is awash with around six inches of water. It covers everything. The galley is flooded. As are the various store-rooms, the eating area and, of course, the tray-washing compartment. There’s the noise of pumps, and half-a-dozen sailors are busy with buckets, squeegees and rags to soak things up.

A grey-haired chief petty officer is glaring at me.

A grey-haired chief petty officer, ship’s coxswain is glaring at me. He suspects what has happened but no one questions me. After all, I’m an ordinary rate, not yet trained, a lad, really. Everyone knows that the kitchen flat’s machinery area is the responsibility Dusty Miller, an experienced leading stoker.

Needless to say I was never rostered into the galley area again. There had been little chance of that warship sinking anyway, as we were tied up alongside Garden Island Fitting Out Wharf and the Sydney Harbour had remained as calm as a mill pond all night.

Comments

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  • WillStarr profile image

    WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

    Great story Tom! I suspect the valve chose that moment to break. I had one do that on my lawn sprinkling system, and it just kept turning.

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