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BT1 Andrew Gallagher Risked His Life to Save Others Aboard USS Belknap

An interview with BT1 Andrew Gallagher, USN (Ret.)

 

Andrew Gallagher works for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s Mid-Atlantic Region in Norfolk, where he is responsible for “thermal commodities” – that means steam and peak electrical power generation – for naval facilities from Maine to Virginia. He joined what was then Public Works Center Norfolk in 1977, and was assigned to the power plant on the naval base. He served as a boiler technician in the U.S. Navy from 1970 to 1977, when he received life threatening injuries while on duty aboard the USS Belknap (DLG 26) on Nov. 22, 1975, following a collision at sea with the USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67). For his heroic actions, Petty Officer Gallagher was awarded the Legion of Merit, and is a member of the Surface Warfare Hall of Fame.

 

Lundquist: How did you get into the Navy?

Gallagher: I’m originally from Philadelphia. I joined the Navy in 1970 and wanted to be a BT – a boiler technician – like my father. As an undesignated seaman, I was assigned to BT “A” school. After graduating, I reported to the precommissioning crew for the USS Paul (FF 1080), one of the new Knox-class destroyer escorts, up in Newport, Rhode Island. But I was hospitalized to have my appendix out, and when I was discharged from the hospital I was assigned to USS Blandy (DD 943) out of Norfolk. It was a “Mod Squad” ship, and all the officers were one grade lower than those assigned to other ships. The CO was a lieutenant commander, and the Chief Engineer was a lieutenant. So they were all hand-picked, and we had a pretty good crew. We deployed to the Med, and did a lot of other ops. I was sent to BT “C” school, and when I graduated I went back to the Blandy, and met the ship in Hawaii on its way to Vietnam. This was 1972.

When Blandy came back to Norfolk, the ship went in the yards for overhaul, and I decided to get out. I was married by this time. I left the Navy in April 1974, and went back to Philadelphia.

But I decided to come back in the Navy in July. It was right after the Viet Nam war ended, and they were letting people go left and right, and they didn’t have people that were qualified to do the high pressure ships. So I was assigned to the USS Belknap (DLG 26) as a BT2, a boiler technician second class. I wanted a ship out of Charleston, but went to Belknap because I was the only 1200-pound-qualified top watch available for assignment on the east coast. We did a UNITAS cruise down in South America. We were back home for several months before we headed to the Med. By the time we got there, we were shorthanded – basically Charlie-4 on personnel. I was assigned to the after fire room, and we were supposed to have 15 people assigned to our space. The forward fire room had a Chief and two first class BTs, but at 23 years old and as a BT2, I was the space supervisor in the after fire room because the senior chief felt that I was a lot more qualified than the other people he had.

 

Lundquist: How old was the ship by that point?

Gallaher: Fifteen years. The boilers were bigger than on Blandy, but not as well maintained. They had a lot of machinery that didn’t work in the spaces, and I couldn’t understand it. I was told, “Well, we can’t get money to do anything.” And we didn’t have enough qualified watch standers, so those who could had to stand port-and-starboard watches – six on and six off – even though we had enough people for three or watch sections. So I said, “Guess what. Everybody’s on port and starboard. And they can come off port and starboard when I come off port and starboard.” Well, they learned pretty quick.

My chiefs and senior petty officer on Blandy were good, and they taught us how to do a lot of repairs ourselves because we didn’t have the money or the availabilities to get work done. That helped me on Belknap.

We had this piece of equipment that leaked all the time, but when we were lit off and at full pressure, the leak would stop. So. I said, “That’s dangerous. If it’s leaking now that means there’s a weak spot.” The chief said, “There’s nothing we can do. It’s been leaking since last year.” I said, “Okay. I’m gonna fix it.” He said, “If you fix it, I’ll give you a 96-hour pass.” I said, “Okay, no problem.” I took it down, and I could see that the steam had cut a hole in the valve and the gasket, causing it to leak. A lot of times they leak at low pressure, but they didn’t leak when they got to the higher pressure—it would seat the gasket and the leak would stop. So I brought a welder down and I said, “I want you to weld that all up.” I said, “We’re probably going to be here about 5 or 6 hours, but I’ll get you a 96 if you help me work on it.” He welded it up, I ground it down, and we blued it out with blue dye, ground it down, put a new gasket on, and it never leaked again. And I got him his 96.

When we got to the Med, I was 23 and I was the oldest guy in the after-fire room. I had four people on each shift. Ships frequently would have two short watches between 1600 and 2000 so they can rotate the watches and not always have watch at the same time. However, our watch team didn’t rotate the watches until we came back into port. And we kept our whole watch sections together as a team, trying to build up the team continuity. But for some reason or another, the night before the collision we rotated the watch and our section moved up. I had no idea, of course, that I’m rotating myself from a watch that was not on during the collision, to a watch that was on during the collision.

USS_Claude_V._Ricketts_sailors-fight_Belknap_fire

Firefighters aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG 5) direct spray from their hoses onto a fire on board the guided missile cruiser USS Balknap (CG 26). The Belknap was heavily damaged and caught fire when it collided with the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) during night operations. U.S. Navy photo

Lundquist: So what happened that night?

Gallagher: It was about 9:50 at night, I guess, when we started to get all these crazy-ass bells. Everything had been pretty predictable for the last five days. You’d get a stop bell, so you knew the carrier was turning. Then we’d get a full bell, and we knew we were trying to catch up and get back into station.

 

Lundquist: Were you on a plane guard?

Gallagher: We were on plane guard. They put us on a plane guard because their TACAN was down. We had been making this same maneuver to port eight or nine times a day – from the start of the turn to completion was 3600 yards. This time we made a turn to starboard. I’ve read the investigation report, so even though I was down in the fire room, I’ve since come to know what happened up on the bridge. With the lights of the carrier looking the same, there was confusion, and miscommunication, and we made a right-hand turn this time, and the arc was half of what it had been for the last 15 or 20 times. We were going to stop, let them go past us, come across the wake, and get back in position, but we couldn’t determine what their position was. So, I’m in the phone booth, and the next thing I know, we’re getting all these bells. I said, “Okay, everybody, be alert.” Usually on this shift there is nothing going on—no exercises or drills, and the off-watch crew is watching the movie. I was actually writing a letter to my wife and I put it down in the phone booth. The engineering spaces are very noisy, and the phone booth is a place where you could talk. I saw the shaft stop, and I said, “What the hell’s going on?” So I told the guys, “Everybody pay attention. Something’s going on.” And then they called “Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge!” on the 1MC general announcing system. I knew they would normally pass the word, “Commanding Officer, your presence is requested on the bridge,” and only if they couldn’t reach him on the phone, or send the messenger to find him in time. But I knew from when I was on Blandy, going to Viet Nam, that “If you hear this terminology, you know there’s a serious problem.” So, I said, “Okay, everybody, get up. Get up. Get ready. Something’s gonna happen.” And then all of a sudden the ship started to shudder, and I thought, “What’s going on?” And I looked over to the stack periscope. With the periscope, you can look out to see whether you’re smoking or not. And usually, if you were smoking it gets black at the bottom and it goes up to the top. What we didn’t know down in the fire room at that time was that when we hit, JP-5 fuel lines were cut up on the carrier, and fuel poured down onto our ship, and into the air supply for ventilating the engineering spaces. We had combination stacks and masts, called macks. All that fuel came down into the after mack. The forward mack never got any oil on it. All that fuel came down MY mack, and they estimated like 18 hundred gallons.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...