7 FEB 1980

While operating off the Virginia Capes on the morning of 7 FEB 1980, heavy seas washed four king sailors overboard as they attempted to asses the damage received during a storm at sea. One sailor, BM2 Bernard Mcginess, was recovered after 12 minutes. The remaining three sailors were lost at sea. The air temperature at the time was 37 degrees with water temperatures of only 49 degrees.

HT2 Richard Bilicek

SN Steven Campbel

SN Edwin Traylor

Those In Peril On The Sea

Written by an unknown crewman from the USS Luce (DDG-38) on the U.S. Militaria Forum

It was the winter of 1980, February, Hurricane season off the Florida coast. An exercise, ‘Operation Safe-Pass 80’ was being conducted by a Cruiser/Destroyer Group in the Bahamas at the Andros Missile Firing range, en-route to Nova Scotian waters. The Navy has a policy of sending it’s ships to sea during the approach of rough weather. To a civilian this may seem odd, departing a port for the sea, when a storm approaches. But the Navy does not care to have it’s ships battered against the piers and docks, damaging their hulls & equipment. As our chiefs are fond of saying, “Sailors belong on ships, and ships belong at sea”, so my DESRON sortied from Mayport Naval Station, Florida, and joined up with the CRUDESGRU.

The weather began to rapidly deteriorate, and we steamed North from the Bahamas, up the Carolinian coastline, and tried to clear Cape Hatteras before the brunt of the storm struck us. For two days and nights, our ships were pounded and slammed by 80 MPH winds and high waves. The seas were running from 20’ and higher, with swells up to 40’ or more.

As we finally began to clear Cape Hatteras, the seas began to subside. They were still running high, but the skies were clearing, and the swells were down to 10’ feet or so.

On LUCE, we had taken tremendous damage, as had many of the other ships of the Group. We had damage to our masts, our aerials on the fantail were snapped right off at the base like twigs, our bilges were awash, most of our pumps and firefighting gear topside was swept away, and even the armor plate on the missile house was cracked (and that’s no sea story). With the seas still running high, we remained dogged down, running North. Such was not the case aboard the KING.

She had also taken a tremendous pounding, suffered structural damage, and was taking on some water. Though she was in no danger of sinking, it was decided to send a repair party on deck to survey the damage. The liberty boat on the port side was damaged, as was much of her deck gear. On the main deck, starboard side, the bits for the mooring lines had been wrenched from the deck, which also left holes in the adjoining bulkhead, and water was entering the hull. A team of Boatswain’s mates and hull technicians was assembled.

There were at least seven sailors in the party including five BM’s, BM2 Bernard McGinniss, BM3 Winfred Morris, BM3 Billy Irby, SN Steven M. Campbell, & SN Edwin L. Traylor, along with two Hull Technician Petty Officers, HT2 Sam Callicoat & HT2 Richard Bilicek.

They went out onto the main deck via the starboard midships hatch, began to clear away the storm debris, and police up the damaged equipment. HT2 Callicoat was the ‘R’ Division LPO, and a high pressure pipe welder. He was on deck facing aft with BM3 Irby, when the first of several ‘freak waves’ washed over the starboard side in quick succession. “We were knocked off our feet due to the speed of the water,” said Callicoat, “After the water receded a little, we tried to work our way to the hatch, at the same time we were yelling at our crews to get back inside. The second wave was bigger and I did not even see it. Myself and Irby's lives were saved because we got hung up on the accommodation ladder that was welded on the side of the ship”.

The others in the repair party were not so fortunate. The same waves that had struck Callicoat, Irby & BM3 Winifred Morris, had washed the other four men over the side. Callicoat stated, “Myself and Irby were hurt pretty bad. I was cut and broke up all over, and Irby's shoulder was torn out of the socket.” Morris was clinging on for dear life, and only suffered severe bruises. The other four were gone, swept away into the raging sea.

Aboard LUCE and the other vessels in the taskforce, a ‘man overboard’ signal pealed over the guard frequency. The seas were still running high, though visibility was about 4 to 6 nautical miles. We also immediately calculated the sea surface temperature to judge the survival time of the men in the sea. The sea temperature was 49 degrees, and the air temperature was 37 degrees, without wind chill. We didn’t have much time.

As the tense seconds ticked away, we scanned the waves expectantly, searching for heads, arms, a flash of orange vest, anything at all. After 12 long minutes, the guard frequency squawked. BM2 Bernard McGinniss was recovered from the sea by another Destroyer, the longest 12 minutes of his life. We went on, reversed course, searched, reversed course, expanded our pattern, but to no avail.

There was no trace of the other three men, and their bodies were never recovered. Aboard KING, they had wounded men to attend to. Both Petty Officers Sam Callicoat & Billy Irby were severely injured, and a rescue helicopter from Norfolk was inbound. Callicoat recalls, “Myself and Irby had to be heloed off the ship, and I remember when they were trying to get Irby onto the helicopter, he almost got washed over the side again. I was strapped in a stokes stretcher and I remember telling the guys not to drop me.” “The accident … changed my life forever …I lost a good friend and two shipmates that day.” BM3 Morris was battered, but alive & remained aboard, while his ever fortunate shipmate BM2 Bernard McGinniss was waterlogged, but lucky to be alive.
Newspaper article on the sailors lost at sea.
Newspaper article on the sailors lost at sea.