Celestial navigation a required course

Celestial navigation was a required course in the naval science curriculum of the NROTC at the University of California in Berkeley during WWII. The fuzzy spots that lingered became clear when the staff ran us through it a second time the following semester due to the lack of electives.

When the Navy decided it was not necessary to go beyond our junior year in order to function adequately as new officers, we were all commissioned as ensigns and sent off on our first assignments. Mine was to the Sub Chaser Training Center in Miami. At 19 years of age, I was full of enthusiasm and confidence and eagerly learned about a line officer’s duties on sub chasers.

My first ship was the PC (patrol craft) 599 at the Pearl Harbor sub base. It was a 175-foot, steel-hulled vessel resembling a small destroyer. We functioned as a training ship, escorting a submarine out to sea every day for various exercises as either a target or a sub chaser. The crews of both ships honed their abilities in the process. Since that was all we did, we probably had as much experience as a sub chaser crew could havenone of it in combat, however.

At the end of WWII we took that ship back to San Francisco for decommissioning. Next, I was sent out to Guam to be executive officer of PC 1125. As exec, I was also navigator, which was fortuitous because no one else on board, with the exception of the quartermaster, knew one end of a sextant from the other. At Guam we had one of the new loran receivers installed, and I received a few hours of instruction. After trying it out, I decided its accuracy might be better than nothing if no celestial sights could be made for a couple of days, but I never had the need to use it.

We were dispatched to Eniwetok where our captain was sent directly back to the States having achieved the requisite number of points for discharge. People were departing for home as fast as they could, leaving those of us with insufficient points to man the ships.

So, as a 21-year-old lt. j.g., I was given command of the PC 1125, her five other officers, and 65-man crew. Off we went to Kwajalein with two other shipsboth having captains that outranked me. As the first night approached, the senior officer had his signalman ask those on the other two ships to find out if either of their captains knew where we were so he could issue night orders to his little flotilla. I knew but wasn’t eager to tell just yet. When it became apparent that no one else could navigate, I allowed as how I might be able to issue the night orders for course and speed if requested to do so. After a little more conversation between signalmen the request was made and the smart-aleck junior captain issued his orders.

At Kwajalein we were sent off alone to Majuro for a couple weeks of picket duty. This entailed a daily run out of the lagoon and then around the atoll to a point overflown each afternoon by a transport plane. If the plane ditched, we would try to be of help. When it winged safely away in the distance, we returned to the lagoon, anchored close to a fine little beach, sent part of the crew ashore with steaks and Iron City beer (prior to my arrival on board, someone had traded the contents of our forward ammunition locker to another ship for an equal volume of beer), and enjoyed that corner of paradise for as long as the duty lasted.

On the final day of exquisite R & R, I plotted a course to Pearl, and, in late afternoon, we exited Majuro lagoon for the last time. In the late evening, I turned the conn over to the officer of the deck (OOD) and turned in. Anguished cries of, "Captain, Captain, the lookout sees breakers dead ahead!" launched me from my bunk and up to the pilothouse in my skivvies. By then no one was seeing breakers any more, including the radarman. I had the OOD slow to bare steerageway, then hastened to the chart to scrutinize the course line I had plotted. I was stunned to see that it passed through a tiny stippled circle marking a shallow reef. A quick plot of distance traveled put us there.

Up on the flying bridge, we all checked for any sign of a reef. Seeing none, I decided my safest course was to go back on the reciprocal of our track, rather than risking going aground in any other direction. We executed a Williamson turn, went back at slow speed for an hour, then northerly for an hour, then back to our original course and speed. As I hit the sack, the ship began to bounce around with increasing wind and waves, but I had no trouble getting right to sleep.

"Captain,Captain, water is coming into the forward crew’s quarters!"

"Good grief, we found the reef," was all I could think. Up forward, water was, indeed, pouring into one of the top bunks of the tiers of three. Thank goodness it wasn’t coming from a holed hull! On the deck above, we found that a small four-legged ammunition locker welded to the deck had been partly carried away by the green water slamming into it. We turned stern to the waves and coasted along at slow speed until our welder could seal the holes and tack the locker back down.

The rest of the night was uneventful. But after a week went by, I couldn’t help but wonder where we really were. I took sights of everything I could see at morning, noon, and night. I also plotted fixes and DR tracks, and it all looked right as our track came closer to the spot on the chart labeled Oahu. But were we really where that track said? I’m sure others were wondering the same thing: did this j.g. really know what he was doing?

Finally there came that evening when we anticipated landfall. I plotted ahead and determined that at about 0200 the next morning we would see a certain light pattern about 10° off the starboard bow. I put it in the night order book and went to bednot to sleep, but to wait. . . and wait.

"Captain, Captain, it’s right where you said it would be, when you said it would be!"

"Well, what do you know about that," I said to myself as I turned over for a good snooze before taking the conn for that familiar run into Pearl Harbor.

Fred Jones is a retired wildlife biologist who recently published a book with his wife. He lives in Cool, Calif.

By Ocean Navigator