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The Twilight Zone of the USS CONSTELLATION

January 28, 2012

Jim Zee has given us permission to share one of his fathers stories.  Thank you Jim.

The Twilight Zone of the USS CONSTELLATION

by Jim Zee

Jim’s Notes:

This is a true story as related to me by my father, who spent 6 years in the Navy from l968-1974

It is written in his narrative as told to me, about an occurrence that happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in February of 1970.

At that time, the mighty warship USS CONSTELLATION, an aircraft carrier over 1,000 feet in length, was flying combat missions off the coast of North Vietnam.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Constellati...

Image via Wikipedia


As I walked back to the Command Center with the gray canvas mailbag, carefully dodging the bulkhead ‘kneeknockers”, the ship’s powerful PA system blared.

Gong Gong Gong !”Fire Fire Fire, hanger bay. Away the Flying Squad!”

And then, immediately the general quarters klaxon: “Ooogah Ooogah Ooogah! All Hands General Quarters.

General Quarters. Set Condition Zebra throughout the ship! This is NOT a drill.. this is NOT a Drill. Now General Quarters!

Immediately all water tight doors onboard the mighty warship were clanged shut and locked down by sailors in charge of that particular section of the ship. As I was in transit, I could not get back to my firefighting station or GQ station, but was trapped in a compartment passageway directly above the hangar deck, amidships on the 03 level deck.

A burly First Class Damage Control petty officer gave me orders as he dogged down the watertight door:

“Kid, you’re in charge of this compartment. There’s the 1 MC intercom box and a sound powered telephone headset. Put it on and await further instructions. Do not repeat do not leave your post or open these doors until you are relieved. Is that clear?”

“Yes, “I replied as the First Class slammed shut and dogged down the heavy steel gasketed door on his way out .

Suddenly the lights went out and the air conditioning fans quit working. As is standard procedure during a general quarters fire emergency, all air ducts in the ship are shut down to avoid spreading any smoke, fumes, or fire. Apparently the lighting was on the same circuit.

Instantly, though, the red battery powered battle lanterns kicked in. so I was bathed in the eerie gloom of crimson. And as the air became staler and warmer, a hell like atmosphere descended .

The ship’s engines stopped abruptly and the characteristic humm and vibration of a 1,000 foot ship splitting the seas at 35 knots ceased. Again, a standard procedure for fire at sea. The idea is not to spread the flames with the wind created by the movement of the vessel through the water.

I sat on the linoleum lined deck plates, and contemplated my position , when the intercom went off:

“Sailor, this is Damage Control central.. are you there?:”

Hurriedly I replied into the intercom box..

“Sailor Aye “

“Locate and close valve 3-2478-AVGAS. It’s marked in red above your head. And acknowlege.”

I looked up towards the overhead: Above me was a large pipe, painted red, marked AV GAS with an arrow denoting the movment inside the pipe, of aviation gasoline. There was a red control wheel on a valve on the pipe, marked 3-2478-avgas, so I closed it by turning it clockwise.

“Valve 3-2478-avgas is closed, Damage Control Central” I reported.

“Received. Await further orders. That is all.”


The characteristic whine, thump of engines, roar of aircraft overhead landing and taking off.. ventilator, now nothing. And the air became increasingly thick, and a vague odor of acrid .. something smoldering smell became apparent, mixed with the always present odors of aviation kerosene, diesel exhaust, floor wax, and tobacco smoke that was always present on a Navy vessel at that time..

Time passed, and I sat and waited. 15 minutes.. twenty .. then.. a faint sound on one of the pipes..

tap-tap-tap….. tap—–tap—-tap…… tap-tap-tap.

And again, a minute later….

tap-tap-tap….. tap—–tap—tap…..tap-tap-tap.

but louder.

Not knowing what it was.. I continued to wonder what was happening with the fire in the hangar bay, where many loaded and fueled aircraft were stored, above the bomb magazines and fuel tanks..

Usually a fire alarm was recalled a few minutes after the alarm, but not now.

Usually a fire aboard the ship was an overheated bearing in a fan room.. but not now.

We’d never gone to General Quarters on a fire call before..
This must be more serious….

As the battle lamp’s batteries began to give out, I looked at my watch again: 45 minutes had passed.

And again, that sound.. louder this time..

And it struck me.. the spacing of the taps.. three quick ones.. then three spaced out.. then three more quick..
S . O . S ..

My Boy Scout code training from years ago stuck in the back of my mind.. S O S. ..

Is someone trapped in a compartment??? The tapping continued at regular intervals… and it was alway S O S..
Not intermittant or random.. over and over..S O S…

Just then, the lights came on and the fans started working again.. and the tapping stopped.

Shortly after, the burly First Class opened the watertight doors, and I proceeded back to the Command Center with my load of mail. The fire had been caused by a signal flare discharged into the overhead by a human error.

Nothing serious, this time.

But at sea, the Captain wisely took no chances.

On my way out.. I asked the First Class. about the tapping..

This fellow was what was called in the Navy, a plank owner. He’d been on the Connie since it was commissioned, nine years earlier. He knew every inch of the ship, and had served under all of it’s captains, and he froze in his tracks:

“Ah.. you heard … what??”
His sunburned complexion blanched stone white.

“S … O .. S… coming from this pipe”..I pointed to the pipe.

“Ah .. son.. (he was 40 I but 18)

“You heard probably the dead yard birds . but don’t ya go telling anyone. Its bad for morale.”

He grabbed my arm to make his point:

“See their names on the plaque on the hangar bay, sailor.”

And with that, he stalked off down the passageway, trailing cigarette smoke.


On December 16, l960, a horrible fire broke out on the USS CONSTELLATION in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
50 yardworkers lost their lives and the ship was almost a total loss. Many were trapped in compartments and ran out of air and then died.

The ship’s hangar deck contained a bronze plaque with their names inscribed in commemoration.

Stories of the ‘dead yardbirds’ are legendary among all veterans who served aboard USS CONSTELLATION.

May they rest in peace.

Jim Zee c. 2011

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2013 1:44 am

    I am actually grateful to the holder of this web site who
    has shared this enormous paragraph at at this time.

  2. February 5, 2012 4:20 am

    Just wanted to let you know that I have chosen you as a receipient of The Versatile Blogger Award. Congratulations! You deserve it!!!

  3. Raven of Leyla permalink
    January 29, 2012 11:36 am

    Wow what a thrilling story! My Father was in the Navy during WW2 stationed in the South Pacific. He did not tell many stories but knew much about it. Love your blog!

  4. V. Lyn permalink
    January 29, 2012 11:17 am

    Reblogged this on Drayton's Gazette.

  5. January 28, 2012 10:01 pm

    As a retired sailor, I can appreciate this story. There are many happenings that are not easily or practically explained. I disliked being away from my family, bur I do miss putting out to sea.

    Thank you for your service and God bless.

  6. January 28, 2012 12:22 pm

    Oh, wow! Gave me chills!!! Thank you so posting and sharing!

  7. January 28, 2012 11:19 am

    Reblogged this on Boudica BPI Weblog.


  1. The Versatile Blogger Award « Motley News

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