Lundquist: Did your training help you?
Gallagher: The bottom line that night is that our training kicked in. And everybody methodically did what they were supposed to do. I can’t fault Minkler when he went one direction when he should have gone the other direction. He was still very new on board.
Our preparations for the Propulsion Examining Board – which is a big inspection that we went through before we got to the Med – really helped prepare our crew for what happened. Capt. Walter Shafer, the commanding officer, Commander Greene, who was our chief engineer until just before the deployment, and Cmdr. John MacKay, who was our new chief engineer, believed in drilling us over and over again. There’s only so much work you can do in the steam plant underway, because you’re lit up – you can’t touch anything, hardly. But you would drill and you would drill, and you would drill. It got to the point where we were thinking, “Why are we doing this?”
Lundquist: Did you ever drill for a main space fire?
Gallagher: Yes, we practiced evacuating the spaces in the event of a boiler explosion.
We did training on each of our watches. We’d talk about what to do in different situations. “What are you going to do if this happens? What’s the first thing you’re going to do if you if this other thing is happening?” We would move people around to those different watch stations so that we would all be familiar with these scenarios. “We lost feed water – what would you do?” Secure the stop and secure fires. “We lost fuel – what would you do?” Secure the closing valve, bring it back up slow, and notify main control what you’re doing at all times. Our guys did everything they were supposed to do that night – very expeditiously, but not in a panic. The only person who got into a panic was me when I got into the control room, when I got into the escape hatch and looked and saw Minkler going in the wrong direction.
Lundquist: And did that training kick in?
Gallagher: I made a quick decision. When I looked in the scope and saw dark smoke coming down instead of light smoke going up, there was no smoke in the fire room yet. But I saw the stack light go out in the top, which isn’t normal. I knew something was wrong. I also knew something was wrong when they said, “Captain to the bridge!”
Lundquist: What happened after you left the Navy?
Gallagher: I worked for MWR at Little Creek for a while, then applied for a job with PWC to work at the power plant. I was qualified to be an operator, but they were concerned that I would be afraid around the boilers, so the only job they would let me have was a WG-2 job, the lowest they had, which was basically a janitor sweeping floors. I took the job. Within the first year they saw what I could do, and they started giving me responsibilities associated with much higher pay grades because I had the capability of doing them. I was doing fuel records, managing boiler performance, and all the administrative work.
Finally, the supervisor there saw what I could do, and he offered me a WG-10 position as a boiler plant operator. I was fortunate because there were a lot of World War II veterans there at the time, and they saw my work ethic. They were former boiler technicians and Seabees who ran mobile power plants, and they took a liking to me. They just took me under their wing, took me around and taught me everything I needed to know, and I became one of the few people in the plant that knew every spot of the plant. To this day I know every valve and pipe in that plant. I know what it is, I know what it’s for, and how to operate it or fix it.
I’ll be with the Navy 45 years, as of June 22nd. And I think one of the main reasons I stayed with the Navy is because of how they treated my family and how they treated me and my wife during that period of time. I owe them.
Lundquist: You don’t owe anybody anything.
Gallagher: There’s a lot, a lot of people that gave me and a couple other people credit for saving the ship, but there were a lot of heroes that night. A lot of heroes. When I was lying in the focsle looking up, I saw guys standing on edges with hoses pumping in on the fire. The Belknap’s 3-inch/50 gun mounts were amidships, and the ammunition in the ready service lockers were right there at the main deck level, and ammunition shells going off around yhe guys fighting the fire. And the other ships – USS Claude V. Ricketts and USS Bordelon (DD 881) – were right alongside putting water on top of the fire with those rounds cooking off. It didn’t faze them. When they transferred me over to the Ricketts, shells were going off then. And those guys just said, “Just get him off there. Just get him over here to safety.”
They took me over by a small boat, and from there they took me by helicopter in this wire cage, and I was thinking, “Damn, there’s a strand of wire maybe an eighth of an inch, and they’re pulling me up.” I was hoping that thing wasn’t going to break.
Lundquist: It’s amazing to have had the presence of mind to be thinking that, and to remember it today.
Gallagher: Surprisingly, for the most part, I stayed pretty lucid. It wasn’t until they started treating me that I things got foggy.
Lundquist: Were you interviewed for the investigation afterwards?
Gallagher: They came to talk to me in the hospital. I don’t remember a lot of it. And I’ve read the investigation, since then. One of the things the investigators did not understand is why I gave the command to leave. They agreed with it, but they didn’t know why I gave the command.
Lundquist: The sight glass periscope wasn’t convincing enough to them?
Gallagher: As I said, I don’t remember, but my wife told me that in one of my less lucid moments, I got angry with them because I had been asking for a flame retardant coverall for the spaces, and I kept getting shot down: “There’s no money, no money, no money.” Supposedly my wife said to me, “All you do is give them hell about not having flame-retardant coveralls.” Even later, she told me “You got quite rude.” But even though I don’t remember, if they would have come to me now, I would tell them the same thing. And it’s true, my guys didn’t have flame-retardant coveralls, and none of my guys got burned But for the other guys in the after engine room, it might have helped.
Lundquist: They might have helped you, too.
Gallagher: Yeah. It would have. It definitely would have helped.
Lundquist: Do you ever find yourself in a power plant looking at that sight glass and having flashbacks?
Gallagher: There are times, like on the anniversary of it, and every once in a while, for no obvious reason, I’ll go down to the memorial down by the USS Iowa in Norfolk. Going to reunions are hard. Sometimes the children of the guys who were lost want to know what it was like for their fathers. I was just burned, and I know their fathers were killed. I have seen my guys since then, and we’re all grateful that we got out.
I enjoyed my time in the Navy. If I hadn’t got burned, I probably would have spent 20 or 30 years in. Back then it bothered me a lot. I would think about what I did, and was it the right thing to do. Could I have done more? It doesn’t bother me in that way anymore. I did everything I could possibly do. I know that now. The worst part was being at San Antonio with Mike Kawola and watching him die over three or four days. He was on the mess decks as the electrician showing the movie that night. When he heard “Captain to the bridge!” he knew what that meant, and he went to his GQ station in the after engine room. He was on the ladder on the way down when the explosion happened. I was looking across at Mike in the hospital in San Antonio for a while before I even knew who he was. But when they had to lift me up at one point, I looked up and I saw the name on the bed, “EM2 Michael W. Kawola.”
He actually was burned less than I was. But his lungs were scorched.
My shipmates told me later that after the fires were put out, they went back into the space, and the ladder was all twisted and burned. They also told me that the incandescent bulb in the phone booth where I was writing the letter to my wife had melted and was elongated. But the truly amazing thing is that letter to my wife was still there!
Lundquist: After the explosion? And the fire? And all the water from the fire hoses?
Gallagher: The letter was untouched. One of my shipmates took it and was able to get it to my wife.
Lundquist: Thank you for sharing with us, Andy. We have tremendous respect and admiration for you and what you did aboard Belknap that night.
Gallagher: I told you more tonight than I told anybody, especially the part about the officer in the brown shoes. Other than my wife, I don’t think I’ve told anybody the full story.
Courtesy of Surface SITREP. Republished with the permission of the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).