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Bob Stockton

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The Secret (or maybe not so secret)Joint Capsule Recovery Operation © 2010
By Bob Stockton
Monday, December 26, 2011

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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The recent AP story about the declassification of cold war Project Hexagon got me to thinking..

© 2010 Bob Stockton. Excerpted from 'Listening To Ghosts' (Xlibris Press) by Bob Stockton. All rights reserved.

It was the winter of 1959 and our destroyer was  docked at Pearl Harbor while shipyard workers and a few civilian contractors loaded some sophisticated electronic equipment  and antennae aboard that was to be set up in a designated compartment aft on the 01 deck level. No one except the Captain, Exec, Ops and the Communications Officers knew what exactly this meant and they weren’t talking, at least not yet. Kivett, our lead petty officer said that he had heard we were being assigned a special surveillance mission somewhere along the Air Force Pacific Missile Range but didn’t know exactly what that mission would be.

Rumors circulated wildly throughout the ship, each new rumor being more  improbable than the last. Finally the Captain decided to put an end to the speculation running rampant throughout the ship and called for a briefing session in the wardroom for all officers and chiefs that would be involved and who would in turn brief those sailors with a “need to know” regarding the upcoming operation. The truth turned out to be almost as strange as some of the rumors swirling around the ship.

Following installation and calibration of the new electronic gear, we got underway from Pearl Harbor, steaming in a southwesterly direction approximately 800 nautical miles toward  Johnston Atoll. Upon reaching our assigned area we then began to steam along a NNE - SSW axis in the general direction of French Frigate Shoals. When the northern end of our assigned area was reached we simply turned 180 degrees and steamed back in the opposite direction until we reached the southernmost part of our area. And so on. And so on, ad infinitum. No radar contacts. No other navy ships in the area and plenty of time for drills. The Captain decided that the gunners mates were getting a bit rusty so we conducted live battery fire almost daily, dropping a floating radar reflector that we had taken aboard at Pearl and using it as a gunnery target. I can vividly remember an incident when the ship was at GQ and the bridge announced that the next round of fire would be a broadside salvo from all ships batteries firing simultaneously. All six 5 inch 38 cal. big guns, the twin 3 inch fifty cal. guns and the 40 mm. battery would all be firing. Kivett had stepped out on deck for a smoke or something and was walking in the door to our Combat Information Center when the salvo let go.

 WHAM! Dust fell from the overhead, light bulbs shattered and it felt like the entire ship was pushed sideways about five feet. Only Kivett’s silhouette and ball cap were left hovering in the doorway as he went flying out into the passageway. I guess he hadn’t gotten the word about the salvo. I still can see that ball cap suspended ever so briefly in midair and hear Kivett’s “Son of a Bitch!” coming from the passageway.

About the mission: We were part of a joint task group for the Discoverer capsule recovery operation, a rather improbable recovery effort by the Air Force that had specially equipped C-119 aircraft aloft trailing a net - yes a net! - behind the aircraft that was supposed to catch the damn capsule in the net as it deorbited and came back to earth. What are the odds of that happening? Apparently the odds were very long ones as the U.S. Navy had recovery ships strung out all along the Pacific Missile Range to recover the capsule from the water in case the C-119 failed to catch the  thing. Our ship was one of those recovery ships waiting to pick the capsule from the water if necessary.

And we had company. It wasn’t very long before a Soviet trawler appeared on the horizon and began to shadow our every move. They were there not only to monitor and record the telemetry from the capsule but also to accumulate information on the electronic parameters of our ship’s radars. We, of course immediately moved into a “radar silence” mode in order to deny the Soviets as much opportunity to gather information on our electronic footprint as possible. At the time I couldn’t understand why the Soviets were so interested in a dummy capsule. It was only some years later after the program was declassified that the real objective of the Discoverer program was revealed. It was to retrieve satellite reconnaissance film contained in the capsule.

Our captain, Old "Bull" Dozier loved to play “chicken” with the trawler, coming as close to them as possible to see which vessel would turn away first, and he always won. The old man had some balls. A collision would have cost him his job and probably caused a mild international incident. We thought it was great fun. When we got close to the trawler we’d send unofficial hand and digit gestures to the Russians that are universally understood, gestures that they cheerily returned. Aside from the nightly movie on the fantail it was the only recreation we had for weeks on end.

We never even came close to recovering one of those damn capsules.


       Web Site: Navy Publishing

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