The NDC has been working on a declassification project involving classified Navy deck logs from the Vietnam War era. As part of this project, the NDC is set to declassify 11 boxes of classified deck logs from Record Group 38 (Office of the Chief of Naval Operations), Entry UD-06D 1. These records will be available to researchers later this year.
A sailor’s lot in life is often a difficult one, and as a sailor seldom has a choice in his or her circumstances, most sailors just learn to live with it. In keeping with that tradition, the sailors that crewed the four ships of Escort Division Eleven, a subunit of the Pearl Harbor-based Escort Squadron Seven in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, were a stoic lot judging from the classified deck logs to be released of these four ships.
CORTDIV 11, as the organization in the U.S. Navy’s infamous shorthand writing style was known during part of their careers, consisted of USS Claud Jones (DE-1033), USS John R. Perry (DE-1034), USS Charles Berry (DE-1035), and USS McMorris (DE-1036). Collectively known as the Claud Jones class, the CORTDIV 11 ships were part of a failed attempt intended to keep the Navy’s shipbuilding costs down and productivity up during the next world war.
World War II had taught the U.S. Navy that it could never have enough escort ships for the numerous merchant ship convoys that kept the United States connected to its Asian and European allies. The Navy had built some hundreds of these small but useful destroyer escorts during the war; however, the resulting six different classes of escorts were propelled by a mix of propulsion systems: diesel, diesel electric, geared steam turbine, and turbo-electric. The need for all these engineering options was forced by production shortages of the various propulsion machinery types. For the next war, the Navy was determined to make a better show of producing escorts more efficiently.
One result of this effort was the Claud Jones class of destroyer escorts, built at Avondale Shipyard on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. A little larger than their World War II ancestors, the Claud Jones class put two 3-inch guns, depth charges, hedgehogs (a small bomb thrown ahead of the ship on a submerged target) together with four diesel engines and a simple sensor suite in a 300 foot, 21-knot hull. It did not take long for the Navy to figure out that its search for a simple mass-produced convoy escort vessel had gone too far in cutting price, complexity, and capability. By the late 1960’s, with the ships less than 10 years old, the Navy had placed the entire ship class in the same unit, Escort Division Eleven (CORTDIV 11), and based them at Pearl Harbor.
What transformed seemingly useless little ships into something a bit more respectable? Two words that the U.S. Navy stretched to cover an enormous number of activities during the Cold War–Special Operations.
These days, when one mentions the term special operations, one immediately thinks of a small group of elite warriors from all of the military services who, for the most part, operate on dry land, although Navy SEALs have been known to conduct their missions in the deep blue water.
U.S. Navy vessels conduct special operations as well, although few mentions of their post-World War II activities have made it intact through the declassification process. Submarines are probably the best known and least discussed of the Navy’s special operations practitioners, the submarine community’s well-known and well-practiced reticence contributing to that reputation. Surface ships conduct special operations as well, and classified deck logs are one (but not the only) means of documenting these missions.
What missions did the Navy recognize as special operations? Quite a few things judging from the deck logs. Apparently any time a ship dropped a bathythermograph was enough to classify the operation as special and to classify the deck log page for that day as well. What’s so important about that activity? Bathythermographs (or BTs as they are sometimes known) are devices that are deployed overboard and measure the temperature/depth profile of the waters in which they are thrown. Knowing the temperature profile of deep waters allows antisubmarine warfare specialists to determine the sonar figure of merit for a given location, which was a measure of sensor effectiveness in a particular locality.
Keeping watch on Soviet vessels was deemed a special operation. Whenever Soviet vessels gathered, operated in close proximity to U.S. Navy ships, or operated in near U.S. territorial waters, the watchers were considered to be on special operations and their deck logs classified.
Anytime a Navy ship worked with Navy cable laying vessels (ARC’s, later T-ARC’s), even if it were only to replenish the ARC with fuel and supplies, that ship too was considered to be on special operations. The Navy is rightly sensitive concerning the operation of its small fleet of cable layers as they were key to deploying and maintaining the sensors of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) and its later iteration, the Integrated Underwater Surveillance System (IUSS).
Radar picket ops were also considered special operations for Navy ships. For a number of years in the late 1950’s to the mid-1960’s, the Navy operated a number of ships as floating radar stations. The ships, designated destroyer escort radar (DER) and general auxiliary radar (AGR), stood their lonely patrols hundreds of miles offshore of the North American continent in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their job was to replicate the early warning function of the Air Force Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar line that focused towards the North Pole, but to the east and the west of the coastline where there was no land for U.S. Air Force radar systems.
Then there are the special operations of CORTDIV 11, which were special indeed. For a period in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the four ships of CORTDIV 11 operated out of Pearl Harbor. Reading the logs of these ships is not very exciting–lots of “steaming as before” and “moored as before” entries as the DE’s made their slow way from Pearl Harbor to Midway, or Pearl Harbor to Johnston Island, or Midway to Johnston Island, and so on, sometimes loitering in the same location for days at a time. The point of this cruising is usually not clear, as each day’s log entry when a ship is underway usually starts with an enigmatic recitation of the authorization for the ship’s current cruise such as “Underway independently in accordance with Commander Task Force 92 OPLAN 160-64, message 052037Z.”
However, interspersed with the hundreds of “Moored as before” and “Underway as before” entries are reports that are a bit more intriguing.
An early example of the special operations conducted by CORTDIV 11 can be found in the log of the Claud Jones in October 1967. During the month the ship rendezvoused with the U.S. Missile Range Instrumentation Ship USNS General H.H. Arnold (T-AGM-9).
Not long after this encounter, the Claud Jones met with three Soviet ships, the Sibir, the Sakhalin, and the Suchon, all identified as Missile Range Instrumentation Ships.
This is a very interesting gathering of ships for this particular location–approximately 1200 miles west northwest of Midway Island–one would be hard-pressed to find a more isolated stretch of ocean. In addition, one can’t help but note the fact that four of the five ships involved share the same function–missile range instrumentation. Such a gathering demands an event, and this event occurs during the Claud Jones’ busy 0400-0800 watch on 30 October 1967. At 0633, the ship stationed its surveillance detail (in later years this detail became known as the SNOOPIE team (Ship Nautical or Otherwise Photographic Interpretation and Exploitation Team) and noted that the Kamov Ka-25TL helicopters on board the Soviet vessels were all in the air. At 0647 the log notes that a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft is overhead. At 0700 the log notes that lookouts sighted “what appeared to be a missile” and “heard double explosion” By 0718, the Claud Jones is “maneuvering on various courses proceeding to impact area.” The destroyer escort arrived at the impact site at 0843 and immediately put its #1 motor whaleboat in the water. The whaleboat was in the water only 12 minutes before it was recovered. What, if anything, was recovered remains unmentioned in the log.
What kind of event took place on 30 October 1967 can be deduced from the log evidence. The presence of three Soviet missile range instrumentation ships identifies the event as a Soviet ICBM test. The presence of the Arnold shows U.S. interest in gaining information about the test, while the Claud Jones is there to act as the chaser in collecting physical evidence of the Soviet ICBM reentry vehicle (RV) itself–the Arnold is too large and too valuable to be chasing after ICBM RVs. A sobering detail in all of this activity is the log’s notation of the sonic booms (“double explosion”) of the Soviet RV’s arrival–the crews of these five ships heard what few people could have experienced and survived–the opening act of Armageddon if the RV’s were armed with their thermonuclear warheads.
Another example of this kind of special operation appears in the log for the USS John R. Perry (DE-1034) for the 1200-1600 watch on 15 April 1969 notes: “1305 Made rendezvous with the Soviet missile instrumentation ship Sibir.”
A more revealing deck log entry occurs during the 1200-1600 watch on 17 April: “1514 Stationed the surveillance detail. Set material condition ZEBRA main deck and below. 1526 Sighted Soviet reentry vehicle passing overhead. 1528 Commenced maneuvering on various courses at various speeds to recover debris from Soviet reentry vehicle.” By 1638, the Perry’s port motor whaleboat was in the water, returning to the ship with whatever was found by 1725.
A view of this type of special operations comes from the crew’s website for the USS McMorris (DE-1036):
Some of the log entries reflect long standing nautical traditions, such as this entry from 17 May 1968 on board the USS Charles Berry (DE-1035): “0900 His Royal Majesty King Neptune came aboard to cleanse all slimy, greasy, pollywogs (sic).” Even while conducting special operations, some traditions must be observed.
Another photo depicts the conditions the ships of CORTDIV 11 faced on a regular basis as they cruised the farther reaches of the Pacific Ocean:
For the long-suffering sailors of CORTDIV 11, their 3-4 year tour aboard any of the four ships would have been filled with the scenes and experiences detailed above, along with a number of other adventures that have gone unmentioned. Likely most of the crews for these ships would not have been fully briefed on the missions to which their ships were assigned, although I am sure the mess deck rumor mill would have supplied some details. I dedicate this article to these hardy sailors who cruised the lesser-known corners of the Pacific Ocean for weeks at a time in small ships only to be rewarded with liberty at such ideal ports as Midway, Johnston Island, Kwajalein, and Adak.