By Steven R. Butler
When the Yorktown left Norfolk in September 1969, I was on leave from my previous duty station. It wasn’t until I arrived at Norfolk in mid-September that I learned the ship had already departed for a 3-month cruise. After spending a miserable three weeks in the transient barracks in Norfolk and a further (and much more enjoyable) week in London (during which time I met my future wife), I did not join my squadron, VS-24, aboard the Yorktown, until Thursday, 16 October 1969. On Saturday, 18 October, one of the fellows I knew from my week in London, Greg Westphal, asked if I wanted to accompany him and one or two other guys to Amsterdam for the day if I didn’t have duty. As it turned out I didn’t, so off we went.
We started out by taking an R.E.T. tram or bus from the pier to the central train station in Rotterdam, taking in the sights along the way. I was impressed with how clean and modern the city looked. I later learned all the new construction was necessitated by all the bombs that had rained down on Rotterdam during World War II, destroying 90% of the old city.
At Rotterdam’s central station my companions and I bought round-trip second class tickets to Amsterdam (cost: 8 guilders, 60 cents each) and then went up to the platform to await the train. During this interval, someone in our group went downstairs to use the restroom. When he returned, he said he had run into a chief petty officer who told him we should go back to the ship as it was about to leave port. We all scoffed, speculating that the chief had either been drunk or joking. We had just left the ship about an hour earlier and there had been no talk of leaving! As far as we knew, the Yorktown was scheduled to be in Rotterdam until Tuesday or Wednesday! So we just laughed it off, and when the train came, we got on and went to Amsterdam, giving the chief’s warning little if any credence.
Our visit to Amsterdam was interesting but uneventful. After alighting from the train at the city’s central station, we walked to the Dam Square, which was overlooked by the luxurious Hotel Krasnapolsky. The square was full of long-haired, bell-bottomed young people, talking, hanging out with friends, or playing guitars. We were startled to learn that marijuana was legal in Amsterdam, as long it was smoked at certain venues where young people gathered to dance, listen to live music and socialize. (We did not visit any of these however.) We also saw (and saw is all we did) the famous red light district–the “window-shopping” street where prostitutes publicly displayed themselves while potential customers walked past, inspecting the “merchandise.”
In the late afternoon, we decided we should head back to Rotterdam. On the train we discussed the chief’s warning and wondered if maybe it was true, although we were still very skeptical. We soon learned that he had not been drunk or joking. Walking through the Rotterdam train station’s concourse, we were approached by a Shore Patrolman who informed us we had better get back to the ship right away because it was about to leave! Quickly we ran outside, flagged down a taxi and as we tore through the streets of Rotterdam toward the pier, we could see, even before we got there, that it was true. The Yorktown, docked in the heart of the city, had towered over all the buildings around it. Even though it was dark, it was easy to see that the ship wasn’t there anymore!
What we did find were approximately four or five hundred other sailors, all milling around on the dock ina state of confusion, just as puzzled as we were. Why had the ship suddenly left? What was going on? Weren’t we supposed to be in port until Tuesday?
Eventually, some of the officers left behind took charge of the situation. After an hour or two, motor coaches pulled up at the end of the dock and we were all taken to a Royal Dutch Marine Base on the outskirts of the city, where we spent the night in the barracks. The next morning, we had breakfast in the chow hall and then sat around in the recreation room of the barracks, wondering what was going to happen next.
Because of the “Cold War” between us and the Soviet Union, we speculated that someone had finally pushed the button and that we had gone to war with Russia. That we even imagined this might be true goes to show how real the threat of atomic war was to us then. We thought there might not be an intact United States for us to return to, and being stuck in Holland, we feared we might be captured by the Soviets, with only a handful of European countries between them and us.
Later that day, a Dutch television news team came in to film us and interview our officers. We were told, if asked, to say that we didn’t know what was going on. Some wise guy said that would be easy since we didn’t- -which was an indirect request for information that the officers probably didn’t have either.
Late that afternoon, we were loaded into motor coaches again and taken out to Rotterdam airport where the calm demeanor of the civilians we saw there made it clear that World War III had not broken out. Although we still did not know why the ship had left port three days early, we were relieved to learn we weren’t in danger of capture by Soviet troops.
From Rotterdam Airport, the same place I had arrived only three days earlier from London, we boarded USAF Military Airlift Command transport planes (probably the “Hercules” type like the one seen in the photo below), which flew us across the North Sea to the Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall, England, from which the U.S. Air Force also operated. So, less than four days after I had arrived aboard my ship from England, I was back in the country again! I could hardly believe it.
At Mildenhall we were allowed to leave the barracks but not the base. After showering and drying off with the sheets that came with the folding canvas cots we were supposed to sleep on (we had no towels), we went to the E.M. Club, where we spent the evening drinking beer and socializing (and speculating about what had put us in this predicament). We must have been a sight. None of us had anything but whatever we had taken with us when we left the ship on Saturday morning–no toothbrushes, no shaving gear, and no change of clothes.
It was still dark and foggy outside when we were roused the next morning and herded on to motor coaches again. If we had breakfast first, I don’t remember it. All I recall is riding across England through the fog, from Mildenhall, which is in Suffolk, to Portsmouth, which is on the southern coast of England in Hampshire–a distance of slightly more than 150 miles.
At the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, we sat around for most of the day, waiting to board a U.S. Navy vessel of some kind. In the interim, Greg and I and some other guys toured the H.M.S. Victory (see photo, above), Lord Nelson’s flagship, which is still on display in Portsmouth to this day. After seeing how miserably sailors lived aboard ship in the early nineteenth century, I began to appreciate how much better we had it, although I still thought there was quite a bit of room for improvement.
While standing on the pavement near the Victory, smoking cigarettes and talking with my companions, a British naval officer walked by and when we didn’t notice, he did a snappy about-face and chewed us out for not saluting, going on about how we were allies and how any naval officer rated the respect of the enlisted men of any navy. And so we all stood to attention and gave him a salute and off he went, apparently satisfied that he had straightened us out. If he had heard some of the names we called him after he was out of earshot, he might not have thought so.
Eventually, in groups of about fifty, we were taken aboard English tugboats and ferried out to the U.S.S. Waccamaw, an oil tanker. After we were all on board, the Waccamaw set out for the open sea to catch up with the Yorktown.
That night, we had to sleep in 8-hour shifts, so that three men actually used the same bunk–one at a time. I was grateful to get some sleep because the waking hours were boring and for the first time ever, I got seasick when I stood in the chow line the next morning. I don’t think I actually threw up but I sure felt like I might.
Finally, that afternoon, we came alongside the Yorktown. Since it was due for refueling, the Waccamaw swung its oil hoses across the gap between the two ships and the crews of each began the process of refueling at sea while the two vessels cruised together, side by side, with less than the length of a football field between them.
In the meantime, it was decided to rig a highline across from an upper deck of the Waccamaw to the flight deck of the Yorktown and one by one, each of us were taken across in a bosun’s chair.
It was quite an experience, both pulling on the line that took other guys across, and then taking my own turn in the chair. Looking down from this precarious perch, high above the churning water between the ships, I got an exhilarating feeling. Only later did I feel a shudder of fear when I thought about what might have happened if I had fallen from the chair or if the line had broken.
Back aboard the Yorktown, I returned to my squadron and was relieved to learn I wasn’t in any trouble. I was told later that the powers-that-be in Washington had decided to call an “operational readiness alert” on all U.S. ships in foreign ports, just to see how fast they could get out to sea and, so I was told, they were allowed to leave once they had at least 3/4 of their crew aboard, which explained why hundreds of men were left behind.
On October 19, 1969, the New York Times ran a United Press report of the Yorktown’s sudden departure from Rotterdam, saying that it had caused “some apprehension.” The story included the fact “that some of her 2,800 crew men were left ashore on leave.” It was further remarked that the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a carrier at Mayport, Florida, had also received orders to put out to sea quickly. I did not see this report at the time of its publication but it confirms the story I was told, namely that the ship’s leaving unexpectedly was due to “an apparent readiness test.” On October 20, however, the Times reported “Washington seemed at a loss today for an explanation of emergency ship movements around the world yesterday,” which had raised some “speculation here and abroad that a crisis was brewing.” A former Yorktown public information officer, Lt. J.G. Dale Potts, states on another Yorktown website that the reason for all the excitement was “a Russian submarine,” which had been “reported coming over the North Pole.” Potts says further that this led Washington to order the Yorktown “to do our ASW (anti-submarine warfare) role of hunting and finding it.” This information, which I discovered more than thirty years after the event, leads me to wonder if there is not even more to the story. Perhaps someday, when I have some spare time to devote to it, I will try to find out.
Ed’s note: If you happen to miss a ship’s movement, it is probably a good idea to be in a crowd standing on the pier instead of standing there alone.