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Picket ship in Otago Harbor, New Zealand.
Photo Courtesy: Gene Spinelli
The USS Thomas J. Gary, DER-326, photographed in Otago Harbor, Dunedin, New
Zealand, circa 1965. Thirteen U.S. and New Zealand navy ships served as picket ships for 11 years before satellites and other technologies made them largely obsolete.

Roll to port

On another picket aboard USS Thomas J. Gary, I awoke at about 2 a.m. to those same words: “Spinelli, wake up, the 10 is down.”

The problem was relatively easy to see: The radar antenna high on the mast was turning but there was no such indication on any of the repeaters of that rotation. An hour later, I concluded the problem was either a bad servo (an automatic device that uses error-sensing feedback to correct the performance of a mechanism) at the antenna or a broken cable. The CO came down and asked for an estimated time to repair.

More Information
Gene Spinelli created a Web site in 1998 dedicated to the Operation Deep Freeze weather picket ships and those who served aboard them. Visit www.aspen-ridge.net External Non-U.S. government site to view some of the 2,000 images from those years.

I explained the situation, and he said, “The aerographers tell me the best weather we’re going to have for the next few days is right now.” I immediately knew he wanted me to climb the mast while the ship was pitching and rolling in the cold Antarctic night.

So up the mast I went with some hand tools. I could only climb as the ship rolled to port. During a port roll, my body would be against the ladder. On a starboard roll, I’d be hanging off the ladder with my back to the sea. This was a no-brainer: only climb on port rolls.

Eventually I arrived at the upper radar platform, strapped myself to the railing and opened the antenna pedestal’s access plate. It took all of 10 seconds to see a broken wire on the servo and another minute or two to make the repair. I then scrambled back down the mast — on port rolls — fired up the system, and watched the smile on the CO’s face.

These vintage DERs had a nasty habit of blowing boilers, generators, evaporators, and just about anything else, as they were never intended to be operational 20-plus years. We were fortunate to have the services of Sims Engineering in Dunedin. Over the years, Ted Sims became proficient at replacing major assemblies by cutting plates from the ship’s hull and using hoists and cranes to remove and replace just about any item that needed attention.

Amazing memories

So, what was the most exciting memory from these deployments? There were many, but without question, it would be the December 1965 picket at 60º south.

We had a reporter/photographer from the Otago Daily Times newspaper aboard USS Calcaterra. On this picket, the CO, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Earle, performed some amazing feats of ship handling by bringing Calcaterra alongside icebergs for close inspection. On this picket, we sailed below the Antarctic Circle and spent Christmas Day at the Balleny Islands.

After the March 1968 deployments by USS Calcaterra and USS Mills, the Navy discontinued the weather picket ship program. Technology finally caught up with the old ships, as satellites took over the weather and navigation duties. Of course, a satellite would never be able to assist if an airplane needed to ditch at sea, but then I’m not aware of any situation through 1968, or after, where an aircraft making the flight between Christchurch and McMurdo had to ditch at sea. [Editor's Note: That's still true today.]

Those were amazing years, and to have the opportunity to completely circle the Earth on a U.S. Navy ship twice would be exciting by anyone’s standard. It was a great experience, and one that influenced me for the next 40 years. Of course, today it’s much more pleasant to travel these long distances on a Boeing 747 while sipping champagne and watching movies.

Gene Spinelli’s Navy enlistment ended in June 1967. Shortly after becoming a civilian, he joined the IBM Corporation from which he retired after nearly 40 years of service. Today, Gene is semi-retired and lives with his wife in Colorado, doing occasional consulting projects in the IT industry. Gene can be heard on the Amateur Radio bands as K5GS.Back   1 2 3