A Shot in the Dark

By Bob Cohen, Ensign, Boilers Officer

“On the Henry B. Wilson, security alert, security alert!  Away the security alert team, away the back-up alert force!  All hands not involved, stand fast!”

    Anyone who served on a nuclear-capable destroyer will remember hearing something like this over the ship’s 1MC, as well as the familiar refrain, “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons…”   If you were a member of the elite shipboard security force, you knew just what serious business this was.   If you weren’t, all you knew was not to move during a security alert, if you knew what was good for you. 

    A prerequisite to being assigned to any security capacity was a thorough mastery of shipboard small-arms: .45 caliber M1911 pistol, 12-gauge M870 shotgun and the 7.62mm M14 rifle.  These three weapons were unsurpassed in their effectiveness, and with them, we were confident in our ability to protect whatever nuclear devices we had aboard.  That is, if we had any.  Or if we didn’t.  I still can’t say.

    One of the first rules in nuclear security was this:  There is No Such Thing as a Drill.  All security alerts are the real deal, every single time.  There were many things which could trigger a security alert, none of which can be described  here.  There was only one thing which could end (‘secure’) a security alert, and that was the Command Duty Officer saying something which I also can’t tell you.  Sorry.

    Nuclear-capable warships didn’t always carry nuclear weapons.  Sometimes you had them, sometimes you didn’t.  Nobody knew for sure except the Captain, the Weapons Officer and the Anti-Submarine Officer.  At sea, it made no difference in the routine.  Inport, it made a big difference, and the rest of us could take an educated guess using certain tell-tale indicators:  Who is getting liberty and who isn’t?   Does the ship always conveniently go to security alert right after supper?   Or is it a madhouse?   While I can’t give the answers to these questions here, I will say that sometimes a ship’s status would mysteriously change after a visit to that top-secret pier where they’d bring something aboard or take something away.  Whatever it was, it was covered by canvas, so I couldn’t say for sure what it was.  Or wasn’t.  But the heavily-armed Marines who escorted it looked very serious either way.

The second rule in nuclear security was not to actually load small-arms until a very specific time.  The normal procedure was to be issued your pistol, shotgun or rifle and receive the ammunition separately, and you would keep them that way – separate.  This might have been to further the plausibility of the statement, “I can neither confirm nor deny…” but I really can’t say.

    We were in-port San Diego, in that blissful once-daily (right after supper) “no such thing as a drill” security mode when another destroyer ties up alongside of us.  I can’t say whether or not they were carrying nuclear weapons, but I will say that we couldn’t wait for them to leave.  Nothing personal here, it’s just that when one ship in a nest goes to security alert, then all ships in the nest go to security alert.  It’s another rule.

    So, now we’re a madhouse, too.  We’re going to security alert a dozen or more times a day, and everything grinds to a halt each and every time.   It’s really getting to be a pain in the neck, especially since we all know damn well that we don’t know whether or not we’re carrying nuclear weapons.

I’m sound asleep one night when that stupid loudspeaker starts blaring for the umpteenth time, “Security alert, security alert!”  I drag myself out of my rack and shuffle to the small-arms locker where I line up silently with all the other sleepyheads who dutifully receive their pistols and shotguns.  Head down and still half-asleep, I go to where I’m supposed to go, holding the shotgun by the muzzle.  The only sound is the butt dragging on the deck behind me.   I get to my position and I’m just trying to stay awake waiting for the Command Duty Officer to come by and secure me, when  POW!!  A shot rings out!  Throughout the Henry B. Wilson, you can hear magazines being slammed in and slides being racked.   Without giving away any security procedures, specifically, this was exactly the time to do that – but you didn’t get it from me.

    It took over an hour for our Command Duty Officer to secure all the now wide-awake, heavily-armed crewmembers who had squirreled themselves into positions of cover and concealment.  Many did not accept what the Command Duty Officer had to say when he ordered them to secure from security alert; instead, they (although I can’t say who) simply offered to shoot the Command Duty Officer if he entered their field of fire.  This delay nearly caused one of the sailors from the other ship to bleed to death.

    It turned out that when we went to alert status, the sailor in question did something he wasn’t supposed to do - he inserted a loaded magazine into his .45 caliber pistol, dropped the slide and promptly shot himself in the foot.  He stood there the whole time, frozen, just staring at his foot while it leaked all over the deck.  The explanation for his turning to stone was simple: what with all the real security his little faux-pas set in motion, he was justifiably terrified that if he moved an inch one of his shipmates was going to put some more unwanted holes in him.   As far as why he decided to lock and load in the first place, well…  Don’t ask.


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