March 02, 2018

Sea Story: Late Night Forward Pumproom Test

The following is from Jim Pobog, the tour department lead on the Iowa. He was a boiler technician on the oiler Mispillion off Vietnam, and has kindly given me permission to post some of his sea stories here. Here's one in honor of our recent discussions of engineering. Some of the terminology here is best understood after reading Propulsion Part 4.

USS Mispillion (AO-105) off Vietnam

One of the interesting effects of being at sea for long periods of time was that it was easy to lose track of what day it was. The repeated routine day after day led you to doing things on sort of an autopilot, never expecting variation.

At one of these times I was on watch in the fire room in the middle of the night. We were just station keeping, sailing in those big circles, back and forth up and down the coast of North Vietnam.

Quite suddenly the engine-order telegraph rang. The engine-order telegraph is the thing you see in movies, the large dial that indicates what speed the Officer of The Deck wants the ship to go. We were cruising along at Ahead 1/3, then… RIIIING!!!! RIIIIING!!!, and it shows All Back Emergency.

Now that is a thrill, having those bells come out of nowhere in the middle of the night.

An engine order telegraph

The engine room got the same signal and spun their throttles open to the reverse turbines. The props slowed rapidly, stopped for a moment and then started their run up to emergency reverse speed. The entire ship shook as the 18 foot propellers pounded the water against its forward momentum, and as we watched, the steam pressure in the boilers started to drop noticeably. This jolted us to action, a frantic rush to light off all burners and then start swapping out single burners in turn to replace the orifice plates with larger ones so the boilers would produce more steam.

Then, just as suddenly….RIIIIIING!!!! RIIIING!!! Another speed change! ALL STOP, then, AHEAD 1/3. Now as we started to make too much steam, we did our dance in reverse, cutting out burners in the hope that we were quick enough to prevent the safeties from lifting.

Another minute or two and things had quieted down. We all looked at each other in shock. "What the hell was that????" There was no call from the Bridge that might explain the situation, no call from Main Control (the engine room) either.

As is my nature, that bothered me, and I was curious as to what had happened. I started asking around and finally got most of the story.

The forward part of Mispillion below the helo deck is the Aviation Gas tank. This was almost never used, although we did carry AvGas on one trip to the line. It is very dangerous stuff, and just not used much anymore, so the tank is kept empty.

There is, however, a pump that must be maintained and kept in operating condition. It is located forward far below the waterline, and is accessed by a steep stairway down a long, narrow tunnel that runs through the AvGas tank. The pump room is probably no bigger than 8'X8', cold and clammy, and houses a small 4 cylinder diesel engine that drives the pump.

The diesel was in need of repair or maintenance and two men had been assigned to the task. The workday ended, but the two decided that rather than quit and have to resume the job the next day, they would just continue to work until the job was done.

The men finally got the pump back together and started it to make sure it ran. This was the cause of all our excitement in the fire room.

Remember, this is during the time we were all on high alert and running blacked out at night because of the Eastertide Offensive of North Vietnam.

The exhaust for the diesel came out of the port bow about 20 feet above the water line and approximately 150 feet forward of the bridge. The bridge watch could not hear the diesel, but the port lookout caught a whiff of diesel exhaust and called out "Collision!", and the watch officer rang up Emergency Back.

The bridge watch did exactly what they should have done. The error was by the two mechanics. They should have called the bridge and asked permission to start the pump. I never found out who it was on the repair job, and to the best of my knowledge they didn't get much heat, just an admonition to request permission next time.


  1. March 02, 2018quaelegit said...

    Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed the story!

    Any idea where the name "Milspillion" came from? To me it seems like a punny but unfortunate name for an oiler...

  2. March 02, 2018bean said...

    It's from the Mispillion river. All US Navy oilers were named after rivers, until some idiot started monkeying with names. (Actually, this is true of all USN classes these days. I'm going to run for SecNav on a platform of returning to the traditional naming schemes.)

  3. March 02, 2018RedRover said...


    I think the carriers are the most egregiously terrible at their names. The Navy has basically sold itself out to its supporters. They should either name them after battles, as they used to, or some bold names like Enterprise, Hornet. The British and the French at least have food names for their subs, though the British insistence on starting with the same letter seems a bit forced.

  4. March 02, 2018bean said...

    Oh, definitely. I think my biggest problem is simply that we have lots and lots of names with heritage that we aren't using. Use those, in memory and inspiration of the ships that brought ruin to our enemies during WWII.

    The British have a very long tradition of doing the same starting letter on all ships of a class. Leave them to it.

  5. March 05, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    I might suggest a note at the top to read Propulsion Part 4 before this, since it explains about burners and orifice plates.

    Also have to applaud @RedRover for an excellent typo. I actually went to wikipedia kind of expecting to read about Baguette-class attack submarines or something.

  6. March 06, 2018Nornagest said...

    Now I'm disappointed that Baguette-class attack submarines aren't a thing.

  7. March 07, 2018Johan Larson said...

    The "Late Night Forward Pumproom Test" sounds like some sort of shockingly dirty hazing ritual.

  8. March 17, 2021Blackshoe said...

    Like Johan Larson, I was mildly disappointed this did not turn into a "Dear Penthouse Forums" style letter. Then again, those aren't the stories that tour guides tell these days (at least, not outside the VFW hall at happy hour, I suspect).

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