By John Paul Rossie

Sometime in the spring of 1969, a U.S. plane was shot down by North Korea. We responded by sending an amazing armada of Naval vessels to "show them our shit." I remember waking at sunrise and going out on deck after having joined up with the task force sometime during the night. We were totally surrounded by ships of all shapes and sizes: cruisers, carriers, destroyers, tankers, supply ships, and the battleship New Jersey. I was on a destroyer and felt dwarfed by the firepower around us.

It was a glorious sight, straight out of one of the episodes of "Victory At Sea" that my father had always centered our "family hour" around. The chill in the air, the misted breeze, and silhouetted super structures of every kind reaching panoramically to the horizon. Above the rumble of the engines, I could almost hear orchestral background music coming out of the low-hanging clouds.

That morning held one of the most impressive sights I've ever seen. We all thought we were going to be involved in something truly historic. Later that morning, two Naval Security Communication Technicians (CTs) and several crates were lowered to the after deck by a hovering helicopter. They had brought with them some Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) equipment to add to our on-board equipment. I casually knew one of the CTs and generally knew some of the equipment, so ended up unofficially in the CIC room for several ECM watches.

We peeled off from the main task force somewhere along the coast of North Korea and began a spiral sweep, swinging inland past the international five mile zone to maybe three miles, then circling back out again, working our way up and down the coast. The purpose of this maneuver was to get them to lock radar on us so we could pick up the signals with the new equipment. What would show up on the scope was a carrier wave and accompanying "signature" at a specific frequency, which could then be matched with a wave form in the handy dandy little reference book. And the ECM watch would enter into the log book something like: "At 1100 hours, a type XYZ missile radar locked onto us. At 1118 hours, a carrier spike appeared, indicating the missile is armed and ready." At that point, we'd make sure we were headed in the other direction. We would then try to plot the position of the radar installation and report it for possible air strike. We did that for several days.

As we were out in the open international waters one chilly, semi-foggy day, we rendezvoused with a tanker and started refueling from port side. I was on first crew at the forward refueling station, with the responsibility to establish a line between the ships and to haul over the fueling hose. After we got hooked up, and confirmed a flow, the secondary crew came on site and my crew went on stand-by until the disconnect and securing of the fueling station once we were topped off with oil. I heard several versions of what happened next.

"All of a sudden" a Russian destroyer was steaming about 50 yards off our starboard. Some claimed that nobody saw them slip into formation, which is highly unlikely. I'm fairly certain that the Russians weren't using Romulan Cloaking Devices at that point in time. Some stated that the Russian ship was mistaken for one of our own destroyers that would be refueling after us. At any rate, its appearance was apparently a surprise.

But there they were, the Russian Navy. We all lined the starboard side and start waving at the Russians who were lined up on their port side facing us and waving back. I even managed to snap a picture. Almost simultaneously, bilingual announcements told the crews of each separate ship to "knock it off and get about your work" - or at least I assume their CO said the same thing that our CO did. So I went below to the mess deck to get some coffee before returning to the fueling station to assist with the upcoming detach.

I was only down there about two minutes when the General Quarters (GQ) alarm went off. Now, that's something that we drilled endlessly for. There's only one response a trained sailor can make when that horn starts blaring, because all movements have become instinctive. Honest to God, the next thing I recall is sitting in the forward 5-inch gun mount, having slammed the manual override pommel down; and I'm raising elevation with the crank wheels to put cross-hairs just at the base of the bridge of the Russian destroyer. The swing around had been handled by the guy at the other wheel, also on manual override. The GQ alarm was still blaring.

Then it turned off, and all was quiet; and I found myself sitting there, staring into the sights, looking right over a 5-inch barrel pointed back at me (or actually, pointed about 20 feet aft of me where our bridge was located). I have vague memories of moving though hatchways below decks and actually recall passing someone in a hatchway - which is a physical impossibility. But, hey, who worries about things like that when you're on automatic pilot.

I came to rest at my battle station as one of the forward sight setters when my last conscious motion was raising a coffee mug to my lips. Then my heart started beating again. And, boy, did it start beating! I was looking at World War III, right down the barrel. And I remembered that we were still tied to the tanker. One good spark and all three ships would be gone.

Very calmly, over the com system, the Captain said something like "Forward and Aft. I want you to swing those guns around very slowly. Now!"

So we did, just hoping the other guys were doing the same thing. Fortunately, they did. Then, the same calm voice says, "OK. Does anybody on board speak any Russian?"

Well, smart-ass Rossie remembers one phrase and one phrase only...something like Ya ne paniymayu, Gospodin, which very roughly translates "I don't know anything, Sir." So I say it into the head phones without thinking.


"Uh.... Rossie, Sir."

"To the bridge, Rossie. Now!"

Well, shit. How do you diffuse WWIII? By a wise-ass comment that might just piss somebody off? I explain to the Captain that I THINK it means "I don't know anything, Sir;" but that's all the Russian I know. I wouldn't be able to have any semblance of a conversation. Unfortunately, I'm the only one on board that knows ANY of the language.

I remember I was scared shitless and still shaking from coming out of automatic pilot mode after my recent battle station run. I honestly don't remember if we tried to transmit that or not. I do remember the Captain later complimenting the crew on its record time at manning our GQ stations. It had probably been less than three minutes from the time I was on the mess deck to the time I got to the bridge.

The kicker to this story, which has never been told before, is that we had an Ensign on board who would make Ensign Palmer look like a college professor (no offense to the academicians.) He was on the bridge wearing his life jacket, because he had been at one of the fueling stations. And one of the straps accidentally hooked onto the GQ alarm, which was an orange-colored rocker switch that moved from left to right on a wall panel. Well, as he walked away, no shit, he accidently pulled the rocker over by the tug of his hooked strap and the GQ went off.

And that, my friends, was how close we once were. You historians can look around to see if there's any mention of this. I'd be surprised if either side ever documented much on the magnitude of that little stupidity. I can still remember "coming to," staring into those gun sights, wondering how I got there, and the slow dawning in my consciousness that I was sitting right smack in the center of what could easily become a truly historical event. Fortunately, it didn't happen. But we were that close.

Copyright © 1994 By John Paul Rossie, All Rights Reserved