Seasnake's Aviation Page



The Sea of O


            Sailors see things much differently than the majority.  My time at sea was not extensive, but it did make up years.  You get exposed to so much, sometimes, it all becomes a visual carnival.  The experienced 'squids' pass it off, but there are times that are so spectacular that even they are awe-struck.


           We left Yokosuka Naval Base under strict orders to sail at top speed.  The recall sounded  -- sailors from all over the ship scrambled to make USS KIRK ready for sea while other men searched the nearby bars of the Honj, (the local barrio that built up next to the centuries-old Navy Base) for any sailors sober enough to join us.  Constructed in the last century just within the enormous bay of the Tokio Wan, Yokosuka serves America now.  Yoko's towering blue cranes lifted our ships in and out of the bay, like some monstrous child's toy.


          The call came through, and our fast Frigate slipped her moorings and dashed into the open Pacific.  No word on why yet -- didn't matter, we had a place to be.  No other US ship would sortie with us, KIRK would sail alone, for the moment.


         Opposite us, on the Asian Mainland not too many miles across the bathtub of the Sea of Japan, there was another Navy Base.  Vladivostok was home to the Surface ships of the Red Navy: the powerful Soviet Pacific Fleet.  Vlad's pier's were crammed with the latest Guided Missile Cruisers, Destroyers, even old capitol ships like the massive Sverdlovsk (S-Verd-lov-sk , even sounds big!). 


          This base had everything the Soviet's went to sea in, except Ballistic Missile submarines, which resided in the icy north near Petropavlovsk.  Vlad was our mirror image.  This large port town was every inch the sailor's home that Yokosuka was to us.


          Well, off we went, charging into the night.  The ship climbed the surging waves, leaping from one foamy roller to the next.  Each 35 mile-per-hour impact slammed against our ship as she searched the darkness.  I stood on the blacked-out bridge wing in a howling spray of stinging saltwater.  The sea was cooperating to make this an exciting night!


          After an hour, the rumor mill started to respond to the questions of all 200 sailors, and we found out that the Commies had sent a large fleet to sea.   They had run right past Tokyo Bay as they scooted out into the Pacific.  Eleven Soviet Navy ships, including several heavy warships and an aircraft carrier, had all made the jail-break.


          This is bad.  Our job in Japan is to act as a stopper to this kind of behavior, so our Navy sent us (and later, other ships) to find and track the Soviets.  It was a one of a kind opportunity for us, as flyers -- it was a sure bet we would get to fly against their helicopters and jump jets.  The Red fleet had serious safety problems with these aircraft carriers, and there were only about three of these voyages before the Soviet economy collapsed.  


          We got ready in a big hurry -- the Spies, Spooks, and the Snoopy Team (photo hounds) all prepared to get up close and personal with 'Ivan'.


          For over a month, the Novorosiisk (the Aircraft Carrier, named after a steel town in Russia) led us in large circles all over the Pacific.  I mean, ALL over.  We followed the convoy of Soviets ships from Japan, past Midway Island, almost to the beaches of Hawaii.  Eventually, the Carrier and her flock turned back toward their home waters, but they conducted war drills the whole way. 


          The last military exercise this Battle Group conducted was a simulated attack on the Submarine Base at Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  Under leaden skies and a solid unbreakable overcast, our fellow travelers formed a typically American convoy, and pretended to attack without warning.  On the radio, we witnessed the alarm of the various Soviet Units, attempting to respond to the threat. 


          For the final day of our approach, dozens of Soviet jet bombers made streaking overhead passes, angrily swarming the imagined foe.  Everything finished with a grand finale, with lots of Soviet guns being fired in unison.


          An event followed that I will never forget.


          The spooks on board passed a typically cryptic message that we were going into a period of dense sunspot activity.  Millions of miles away, solar flares on the surface of the sun would cause our communications gear to fuzz temporarily.       


         This region is well enough North for a lot of magnetic problems, so we expected everything would temporarily be affected.  Luckily, it all occurs according to physics, so we could plan the time of the event, and turn off delicate equipment that the electrical pulse might harm.


          For miles around us, indeed all over the globe, people were preparing for the solar storm.   Our convoy of warships waited for the 'event horizon' and when it came, all radio gear began to turn into blind static.


          The evening was only a few minutes away, and the electrical interference would last hours, so I stepped out onto the flight deck to catch a cold.


          Beside us, the KRIVAK frigate of the Soviet Border Forces (yes, the KGB has its own Navy, for patrolling the frontier areas) was quite close, and I saw the sky over us start to pulse with visible waves.  The raging magnetic storm sent streamers and cascading waterfalls of fluorescent color, a brilliant Aurora Borealis that rained down almost to the horizon.  My mouth hung gaping, as the waves passed high over us. 


          Turning in place, I was amazed at the scope of the lightshow.  For as far north as I could see, the waves rippled and danced, throbbing with blues, violets, and bright yellows and reds.  At onset, the crystal calm of the polar sky -- unearthly quiet, normally -- carried the whispers of the electron shriek in the highest reaches of the atmosphere... a wail, or a siren's call...muted into transistor radio static, 400,000 feet over our heads.


         The sound faded, leaving the lightshow to continue without lyrics.    Four hours later, bone chilled and awe-struck, I realized the night was gleaming cold and the Aurora had passed.    Other sailors from our crew were also still gazing up, mesmerized.


          Instead of angling down to pass under the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, the Red Fleet turned toward to pass into the Sea of Okhotsk through the inhospitable  Kurile Island Chain. 


         We call these islands by that name -- the Soviets call them Kurilski Ostrovka, and to the Japanese, they are stolen property.   The Soviet Union occupied and claimed the barren rocks and permafrost villages after the Second World War.  So, now the remote and forgotten chain of islands serves as the picket fence to keep the Sea of Okhotsk in Soviet hands.


          As the long string of Warships (including us) approached the stark and frozen peaks of these rocky islands, we started to wonder what the Soviets intended.  By going North of Japan, they had eluded further harassment by the Japanese and US Navies, but they also had forced themselves to cross the island barrier while the sea-ice was still solid between the islands.  The analogy of a fence got even stronger. 


         From the exposed command bridge, I swept binoculars across the tortured coast of Simushir Island.  Since we were literally under Russian airspace, we naturally could not fly.  I had nothing to do except study our enemies.  Small cottages and guard posts were widely scattered about in clumps, but the island seemed frozen in time.  No smoke rose from chimneys, or boats playing near the shore.  Although the sea was nearly flat and featureless, the winter storms had entombed the place in surreal quiet.  Summer, all 20 days of it, would not arrive for another three months.    Ice and vertical stone crags -- it looked like the home of the Titans of old mythology.


          After a short while of idling around the edge of the floe-ice, several of the Soviet ships came alongside of us.  Just looking us over, like Horatio Hornblower looking at a French sloop.  Calmly, we waited for .... something?


          Radar is nearly useless in seas choked with icebergs, but we could make out more company coming.  From the far side of the pack ice, something large was coming inexorably closer.  Goddamn! -- its the “RODINA”, or some other huge Icebreaker ship!  Nuclear powered and just incredibly well built, the mighty icebreaker drove itself up onto the ice, to crack and smash its way through.  In its wake, a straight line channel, as wide as a ship, was forming.


          We watched it perform what no American ship could, and in a short time, a channel wide enough for the Aircraft Carrier to navigate had been cut, connecting the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific.  The ice up and down the entire 1,000-mile island chain was several miles wide, except for this ice-sculptured Panama Canal.  Simushir and Iterup Islands fall about 7 miles apart, and the channel was cut to within two miles of the coast of Simushir. 


          One by one, the Soviet ships lined up, in order of their Captain's rank.  With a surprised start, we were asked over the radio if we intended to follow.  Our Skipper replied and spoke briefly with the Russians, and we were told to fall in line third from the end(!).  Protocol demanded that our Skipper, and us by extension, were given that spot because he outranked other Commanders within the Soviet fleet.  I'm sure it was mostly a method of catching us, but it worked quite smoothly.


          One by one, the twelve ships began to enter the channel.  The hard island, under its heavy mantle of snow, was so close to our starboard side, we could make out details of the small houses.  It looked like a white hell to me; no trees, just frozen rock.


          What?  Why are we stopping??-  the trap was sprung.


          Ahead of us, the Novorosiisk followed the nuclear icebreaker into clear water.  The five missile cruisers obediently steamed off in trail.  But, the ships directly in front and behind us had stopped!


          Oh, what a juvenile prank to fall for! 


          The radio complained, "You have violated the waters of the Supreme Soviet! The island is only 2 miles away and you have no legal reason to be here!" 


          Yeah, cripes... 


          So, for several hours, (as the trail of the Novorosiisk got progressively colder) we sat and watched the pack ice reform around us.  After that pause, the Soviet ships suddenly made steam and moved off, apparently confident that we could not catch up to their heavy warships.  In minutes, we were left in the company of a single Red frigate.


          Go find a map, and look North of Japan.  See that large lake-looking place, called the Sea of O?  Well, that's a cold place.  And it’s all Soviet property.  We waited for orders to get radioed to us (Japan was not far), and then began to head South to the La Perouse Straits.  Home was a good 10 days southward, with nothing to do along the way.


          Before we left the islands behind, we tried to set up a fuel stop.  It had been a week since we had met up with an ocean-going oiler, and it seemed unlikely we would find a friend in the Sea of O.  Word came down that we would have to limp home without a pitstop, so we would be crawling home at very slow speed.


          The Soviets knew nothing of this, so their racy looking Frigate, called a KRIVAK came alongside us for the voyage.  For several days, the Krivak was never more than a few hundred yards away from us.   For a thousand nautical miles, the green-flagged ship poked along at our snails pace wondering why we chose to go so slow.  Truth was, a single sprint would have emptied our tanks completely.   Periodically, this particular ship would come alongside, and tear off at top speed, to show off its quickness and gas-turbine propulsion.   As an old steam-boiler ship, the KIRK was outpaced easily.


          On the eighth day of our Southern transit, we passed the port entrance to Vladivostok.  The crew of the Krivak made the appropriate rude gestures (which we initiated) and we both went home without incident. 


          Just a couple of ships, passing in the night.  Another page in the Cold War Diary.


42 photos

Gordon Permann 96

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Last Modified: Tuesday March 10, 2009

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