This story comes from Steve, who served his first duty station aboard “Lady Lex” in 1978 as a flight deck crew operator. He retired in 1998.
Night flight operations had just concluded aboard the training ship USS Lexington, CVT-16. It was August of '78. We were somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and the Yucatan Peninsula and we were tired… working fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, just damn tired. We were three weeks into a month-long, 24-7 pilot qualification detachment in the Gulf of Mexico and our Maintenance Lieutenant or “LT” as we called him, Smitty, myself and a few other V-2 Catapult Division operators were performing post flight ops maintenance on the catapults. It was a dark, black night with no moon and it was close to 0200. The only light we had was from a single flood light attached to the island structure of the ship that was over 100 yards away. Smitty was assigned as a Bridle Runner to the division. Bridle runners are tasked with retrieving the heavy, greasy cables that tow the aircraft down the cat track as they are launched off the bow. The bridles stay attached to the “turtleback” until the bridle runner runs over and detaches it and sends it back to the launch area to be used again.
We had just pulled a fifteen or sixteen hour day and we were all exhausted. No one noticed when it happened, but suddenly Smitty went into a grand mal seizure and fell to the flight deck while installing the steam track seal on the starboard cat. He was only twelve to fifteen feet from the deck edge. He was full-blown seizing and the motion of his body during this trauma was pushing him toward the edge. Since it was so dark and everyone was busy attending to their duties, no one had noticed this going on until he was about to fall over the edge of the deck. LT heard the muffled, strangulated sounds of his seizure and turned to see him as he was about to fall off of the edge of the flight deck. Suddenly he lunged toward him without saying a word and grabbed him by the belt loop of his dungarees just as he fell over in the only section of the ship where there were no deck edge nets. LT was slowly being pulled over the edge by Smitty’s weight. If Smitty had fallen over, we would have lost two, maybe three sailors, because the LT would never have let go of him and another shipmate had just jumped on LT’s back to keep LT from going over the side along with Smitty. I jumped down beside the LT and after what seemed like fifteen minutes we all three somehow managed to pull his limp, exhausted body back up on the deck. We laid there trying to catch our breath and trying to make sense of what just happened. Eventually other sailors near the island structure heard the ruckus on the bow and came up to see what was going on. One of us finally got out what had just happened and one of the other sailors bolted down below to Medical to get personnel up there to tend to Smitty.
It was only after we'd gotten him to Medical that it hit me as to what had just happened. Smitty, this young man just a year or so younger than me who had only been in the Navy a year or so, almost lost his life. He had come from meager means back home in his native New York and he had joined the Navy to “see the world” and to serve his country. After I had transferred to shore duty a year or so later, I heard that Smitty had another seizure while in port in the middle of the day. He fell off of the flight deck into a gun tub fourteen feet below the flight deck. It was a hot summer day and the metal of the gun tub was scorching hot. He landed face-down on the gun tub and suffered second degree burns to his face and to the palms of his hands before he was discovered. Unfortunately the Navy decided his condition was too much of a risk for active duty, so he was medically discharged a few months later.
The details of that scary night are a bit fuzzy now, but I’ll never forget the pit-of-the-stomach ache I had for days to come, knowing that three people I worked with on a daily basis almost met their demise in a most bizarre way. During my years on the Lady Lex, I was witness to many dangerous situations, a few deaths and some horrible injuries while working the flight deck. But I had never been that close to witnessing someone lose his life while in the service to his country. In the end, the code of the sea-going sailor won out. Shipmates always help shipmates and in this case, shipmates helped save a life.