USS LEXINGTON CVT-16
It has been more than 40 years since I was stationed on the Lexington for temporary duty, so please bear with me, while some memories are crisp, some others maybe not so much.
I was a nuclear power prospective student, a nuc (pronounced as nuke) MM3 fresh out of “A” school reporting to the Lexington in January 1973 for temporary duty until my school would begin in May. As Of course, my PO3 rank amounted to absolutely zip. For us Nucs, PO3 was automatically given to us after graduating “A” school. The resentment that garnered plus our ‘temporary duty’ status worked against us and we nucs were beneath even the E-2’s and E-3’s fresh from boot camp.
I was assigned to the Aft Engine Room. The Forward and Aft Engine Rooms both had two Main Engines each so the ship had four engines, driving four propellers. I can well remember standing Cold Iron watches there and they were aptly named because they were cold!
It was sometime around the last of March 1973 that I had the Cold Iron midnight watch and the responsibility to wake the “light off crew” at 3:00AM I think as we were to leave Boston that day. The Forward Engine Room and the Aft Engine Room crews were to bring all four main engines and associated machinery online. Of course since I was already awake I was part of the light off crew in the Aft E.R.
To the best of my memory, it was mid-late morning that we opened the throttles and got underway. All of this was completely new to me, for the last 3 months I had been around all of this machinery but never had I seen any of it in operation and I had no clue what was normal and what was not. So hearing a rumble and feeling the deck plates vibrate didn’t alarm me as it did the more experienced and senior crew down there in the Aft Engine Room. There was some scurrying and I remember being told to help close the main steam valve to the aft engines (yes they had to point it out to me). That valve took a lot of work to close and I seem to remember there were 3 of us all heaving on it simultaneously. After that was done the lights went out and I remember wondering what the hell was going on? For a short time the only lighting was with battle lanterns. I don’t remember when exactly that the lights came back on (diesel generators came online), anyway lights or not, I remember that I became part of a team to close the Main Condenser Seawater Injection Valve to the portside engine (No.3?) and again I was one of 3 men heaving that valve closed. That valve was tougher to close than the other and I was to later learn that was due to mud/sand/and every manner of harbor bottom material having been scraped from the bottom of the harbor and scooped into the condensers of all four main engines.
The condensers act like tremendously huge automobile radiators. The difference is they use seawater to cool the steam back into reusable water for the boilers whereas a radiator uses air to cool the circulating coolant of your car. When the seawater stopped flowing through the condensers of all four main engines…. well all kinds of hell broke loose to put it mildly. The end result was a frantic complete shutdown of the steam plant. DIW dead in the water.
In the Aft Engine Room it took several hours for the two condensers to cool down, but it was around dinner time I believe, that the engineering officers and chiefs decided it was safe enough to unbolt a manhole cover to the condensers seawater injection header. It was still steaming hot inside but we could see that the condenser’s header was at least ¾ full of bottom debris. We rigged up a flexible forced air ventilation system, shoved it into the manhole to accelerate the cooling, and began to gather a workforce to bucket brigade this debris out of the engine room and up to the hanger deck to toss overboard. Anyone care to guess how many levels that is? Or how exhausting it is carrying 3-4 gal. buckets of stinky half cooked bottom scum up near vertical ladders for that many levels? (my guess is around 6 levels but I may be under). Well being a nuc and at the bottom of the totem I was volunteered to be the first to climb into the No. 3 condenser to fill the buckets and hand them out of the manhole. All the while I had to remain within the ventilation because it was still steaming hot inside (not to mention the noxious gasses being produced--methane and hydrogen sulfide? Anyway, fully covered and taped up so no skin could touch the scalding debris or metal I worked in 20 minute shifts, then another took my place while I had 20 minutes to rest/cool down before going inside again. Leadership had us do that for 3 rotations then retired us to the bucket brigade for the rest of the shift. Did I mention how large the condenser headers are? Think of a small room, say 12’x4’x8’ and that’s about the size of it. Now fill that ¾ full of harbor bottom scum and steam it, scoop it in 3-4 gallon buckets and climb around 6 decks (navy ladders) to dump it. Yeah, you’re getting the picture!
Bucketing all that night, into the next day and by late morning we had the first condenser (No.3) header emptied. Next, was to volunteer someone to clear the muck, sand and gravel out of the condenser tubes (literally thousands of tubes, I would guess 2-3 thousand of them) by forcing compressed air into each and every tube opening, clearing them of any debris. As you can guess I was volunteered again! It was at this time that the starboard main condenser (No. 4?) was opened up and the process of emptying it began. I wasn’t involved with that as a fellow nuc and I suited up and the both of us began lancing No. 3’s tubes with compressed air. The process was simple enough, just seal the compressor hose nozzle against a tube and the air pressure will build until the blockage shoots out the backside into the discharge header. The trick was to not stand in front of the tube incase of back blow and to remember which ones you’ve done and not do them twice.
By midday the 3rd day grounded my fellow nuc and I had completed lancing No. 3’s tubes and we moved over to No.4 and began to lance it. It was routine and repetitious for both of us by then and we were pretty quick at it. I guess that’s why the leadership kept us at it. We completed lancing No.4 just after reveille the 4th grounded day and our Chief and the Chief Engineering Officer ordered us to bed. The Chief specifically told me he didn’t want to see me for 48 hrs. I think they just found out that I had the midnight watch before we lit off the plant and that I had been without sleep for 96 hours and not the 75 hours they had thought. (Ah, to be young!)
Well the result of all this labor by all of us in the Aft Engine Room was that when the tides and the tugs were finally able to get us off of the bottom (around day 6 or 7 I think) the Lexington (and the Captain) was spared the humiliation of requiring towing. Instead the Aft Engine Room was operational and the ship was able to make way under its own steam back to the dry dock.
A couple of weeks later I had my orders for transfer for Nuclear Power School and that was the last time I saw the Lexington.
On a side note, when I reported to the school the yeoman there told me that I was the first student to attend there who had a Letter of Commendation from a aircraft carrier captain.