Attack at Dawn


By LCDR Mike Snyder, USN (ret)

At the time of this story, LCDR Snyder was LT (jg) and the Missile Officer (1973-1974)


    Operating far from the fleet in an exposed position, USS Coontz (DLG-9) steamed above cavitation speed in random patterns inside a 10-mile by 10-mile box.  She was in the Eastern Med on PIRAZ (Primary Identification and Radar Advisory Zone), the closest US ship to the 1973 Mid East War.  The crew worked in a Condition Three wartime posture with one third of the ships crew awake and at battle stations ‘round the clock.  The 5 inch 54 caliber gun and its MK 68 Gun Fire Control System were at alert on the bow.  Back aft, one of the big, megawatt, AN/SPG-55 Missile Fire Control Radars and the twin-arm missile launching system operated continuously.  There were live long-range Standard missiles on the rails, ready for launch in an instant.  In their isolated cubbyhole the sonar gang squinted into hooded scopes searching for the first faint glow indicating a hard target out in the depths.  Their electronic and intuitive evaluations coursed into the Underwater Battery Fire Control System with the rocket thrown ASROC and tube-launched torpedoes at the business end.  The Tactical Action Officer, ensconced in CIC, watched and questioned as the world went on around him.  He had written authority to fire the weapons.  We were poised to respond to any air, surface, and subsurface attack within seconds. 

    The fleet commanders threat assessment included Egyptian fast missile boats and an errant Israeli submarine suspected to be in the area.  It was tense aboard the ship, especially so in CIC where the team was tasked to identify and classify as friend or foe every air and surface contact our sensors detected.  It was a big order.  The two and three dimension air search radars, far up on the masts, reached out hundreds of miles and pushed an astonishing number of targets down into the Navy Tactical Data System.  So many, in fact, that the detection horizon and report flow had to be limited to keep from overloading the system.  The surface tracker, using the venerable AN/SPS-10 surface search radar, watched for contacts out to about 30 miles.  The sea was strangely empty though.  The war had driven most of his potential targets to ground.  Only a few courageous, and probably hungry, commercial captains ventured out into the war zone. 

    A full bridge team of OOD, JOOD, quartermaster, and Boatswains Mate of the watch with his helmsmen and lookouts maneuvered the ship safely around in its appointed hole in the ocean.  The watch officers had complete freedom of movement within the PIRAZ station.  In the daylight some practiced Williamson Turns using a box or floating trash as the “man overboard” target.  Others patrolled the edges completely touring the circumference in a four-hour watch.  One conning officer drew his initials in the sea using the 100 square mile surface as a chalkboard.  The bridge team intently watched for periscopes.  They provided visual descriptions of radar contacts.  They ran the ships routine with announcements and functions such as: Sweepers man your brooms, Relieve the watch, Mess Gear, Stand clear of mount 51 while conducting T checks, Permission granted to blow tubes, Darken ship, and Taps.  It was deceptively routine.  The weather was pleasantly warm.  The sea was flat calm and slick.  It looked dusty.  The old SPS-10 could pick up a 50-gallon drum at 8 miles in this calm 

    As a night time OOD, I maniacally demanded a darkened ship.  When I was on watch most of the small bridge illumination and indicator lights were covered with masking tape or black electricians’ tape, white lights were not tolerated anywhere topside, and smoking was restricted for all on watch save the messenger when he was below decks.  Good night vision was slowly won and instantly lost.  But the effort paid off when a contact peaked above the horizon, the side and running lights revealing a target angle at ten or twelve miles.  In the pitch dark, I quizzed the watch standers on their duties and pumped up the lookouts by challenging their skills at determining target angles.  We ran signal book drills between CIC, the bridge, and the signalman. 

    From his gloomy corner at the back of the bridge the phone talker urgently spoke above the whispers and murmur, “Bridge, CIC, surface contact inbound on the starboard bow, range 10 miles, course 165 degrees true, speed 23 knots”.  The hair stood on my neck as I charged out onto the bridge wing.  Nothing visible!  I called to the lookouts to watch along the target bearing and went back inside.  My JOOD had begun a grease pencil track on the dimmed radar scope and his marks showed a short line pointing directly at the ship.  Sonar heard nothing.  The electronics counter-measures suite (ECM) sensed nothing.  The TAO put the gun fire control radar into a search pattern on the bearing and they too came up empty handed.  Unwaveringly the contact advanced, same speed, same course.  At seven miles the TAO put the gun on the bearing and called the CO.  Still, there was nothing to fire at.  Back out on the wing I strained for a sight, half expecting to see or hear a torpedo boat on final approach.  Oh Jesus!  The pucker factor got real high and real tight.  At about two miles, as we all gnawed our lips, the contact evaporated.  It just broke up and disappeared from the screen.  What-was-that?!?!  A few minutes later the CO came out on the bridge, poked around a bit; assured himself we all weren’t sniffing glue, spoke a few words of encouragement, and, with his bedroom slippers shuffling softly, went back to his sea cabin.  It was just past 0100. 

    Ghosts.  Radar ghosts.  That’s what this scary phenomenon was labeled.  The Med had played strange tricks on me on an earlier cruise.  A lookout reported a strange appearing ship on the horizon.  With my binoculars, I saw it clearly.  The ship was suspended just above the horizon looking short and fat, like a loaf of squashed bread.  CIC cranked the radar out and discovered a ship over the horizon, nearly 50 miles away.  That didn’t make sense, but that’s what the radar repeater was telling us.  When we pushed the radar horizon out to its limits we could clearly see both the north and south shore of the Mediterranean.  They appeared much, much closer than we knew them to actually be.  Ships were visible all up and down the Med.  This strange effect persisted throughout the afternoon.  The explanation was ducting.  Radar and visible light was trapped between the sea and an atmospheric layer causing the radar, and our eyes, to sense objects much farther than was normally possible.  Thus our nighttime contact was relegated to the status of a radar ghost, an unexplained anomaly. 

    Not many nights later another watch team reported an approaching contact.  The TAO danced through the rehearsed procedure; wake up the CO, put every available sensor and weapon out on the bearing, and sweat.  They got to breathe again when the contact broke up inside two miles.  People began to get antsy and ask, “How many more times are we going to go through this crap”?

    Awakened from a fair nights sleep, I relieved the deck and conning officer at about 0345.  As always, I minimized the scope illumination, taped over the lights, harangued the watch into making the bridge truly dark, then settled into the routine.  I enjoyed the morning watch.  It was usually quiet, most of the training and drills having been completed hours before.  It was shorter than the normal 4 hours allowing me to get breakfast, I got to wake up the ship, I saw the sunrise, and I was excused from quarters.  Not bad!  I assured myself there were competent helmsman and lookouts on watch with me and patrolled the PIRAZ sector as vigorously as night-ordered 14 knots would allow.  In the east the first faint glow of dawn showed high in the sky.  “Sir, surface contact, port beam, 9 miles, 21 knots, CIC reports constant bearing, decreasing range.”  Oh shit, here we go again!  Out on the bridge wing I peered into the dark, alternately looking through, then over my binoculars.  I glanced slightly away to move the retinal blind spot off the target line.  Nothing!  Not a damned thing!  As before, the TAO trained all the sensors to the bearing, but he didn’t wake the CO for this one.  Difficult minutes passed, perhaps 20.  As before, the contact dissolved from the scope when it reached what was the normal edge of sea clutter.  Excited and curious, I remained on the wing. More minutes passed.  Then, out of the gloom, just above the surface I saw movement.  It rose and fell irregularly and advanced in waves.  Closer, closer . . .  There! . . Birds! . . Yeah, ducks!  The flat light of early dawn revealed a flight of ducks heading south for Egypt and the wetlands of the Nile delta.  Skimming along in loose formation, their wings beat independently.  Sensing the ship ahead the formation broke up, silently spreading around and over us.  I guessed there were about 50 individuals in the flight.  They quickly disappeared into the gray on the opposite side.  The radar did not re-establish contact as the ducks flew on. 

    Later, discussing this with the radar folks, we concluded the flat calm sea allowed us to pick the ducks up as they flew into the radar beam, the flight being sufficiently compact to give a return.  When they reached the inner radar range resolution, then dispersed to fly around the ship, they vanished from the scope, each bird individually too small to provide a return.  Outbound, it took some miles for them to reform into the tight group, while their backsides, and the trailing edges of wings and feathers presented a poor reflecting surface. 

    The CO slept easier after that and I felt pretty good about solving the mystery.  Alerted to the phenomenon, other OODs remained on the bridge wing long enough to confirm ducks heading south.

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