Location: Palmyra Atoll, North Pacific Ocean
Ghost report from Dennis Wayne Smith on September 17, 2017:
“I joined the Navy in Hammond, Indiana in 1960. After Boot Camp in San Diego I was assigned to The USS Henry County (nicknamed “The Hawk”), a landing ship tank assigned to Amphibious Forces. Our job was to carry troops and their tanks. Hit the beach, open up the huge bow doors and they would roll off ashore and we would pull off and head back to sea. We only had a crew of 192 men including officers.
After going onboard and getting settled in I was assigned to the engineering department. I would be working as a boiler technician. I started out as a Fireman Apprentice and then Fireman and was fairly soon promoted to Boiler Technician 3rd class and was then put in charge of the Boiler Room. That was as high as I rose in the 4 years I served.
The day after I boarded the Hawk, many of the crew members were coming to me and introducing themselves and telling me where they were from. One of the guys was Bill Baylor, a tall and lanky, dark haired sailor from Hershey, Pennsylvania. We hit it off immediately and soon became best buddies. Bill had come aboard only 3 weeks before I had. Bill was an Engineman and rose in rank right along with me.
All the fun would soon be over. At the end of 1961, Russia resumed nuclear weapons testing ordered by Khrushchev. In early 1962, President John Kennedy announced we would do the same to answer the threat. The USS Henry County was selected to be one of the ships participating in the tests.
We steamed out of Long Beach on July 12, 1962, headed for Pearl harbor, Hawaii where we would re-supply food, fuel and fresh water. From there we would steam to what was termed the Johnston/Christmas Island Danger Zone designated Operation Dominic. The Hawk was part of Joint Task Force 8. The base we would operate from would be Johnston Island which was 823 nautical miles SSW of Hawaii. We would be steaming between Johnston and Christmas Island participating in the nuclear tests.
After 9 days at sea we sighted Diamond Head lying off our starboard side. We continued on down to enter the channel that would lead us to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base where we would tie up.
The next night after berthing at a pier, Bill, myself, and one of the welders hit the beach. We stopped at a little bar out on Waikiki. At muster the next morning it was announced that myself, Bill, and Howard Sayers (Second Class Electrician’s Mate) had been chosen to attend radiology school for five days. Three days after the classes ended we pulled away from our pier and headed down the channel and to the sea on our way to Johnston Island.
At 0500 hours on the third day we began approaching Johnston Island which was really not an island but just an atoll. We anchored 1,000 yards out from the break-wall that had been built around the atoll. We were all issued a dosimeter — a small, black round object that would hang from a cord around our necks. We were told these would be ‘read’ from time to time to detect how many roentgens we were being exposed to. They never were.
Bill, Howard, and I were seated on the deck just inside the port hatch. We knew a B-52 had left Hickam headed our way with a payload. It would be a surface drop of a multi-megaton nuclear bomb. We had no idea where the Hawk’s position would be in relation to this drop. This drop was designated “Shot Chama”. We had no idea what that meant either. The countdown was blared throughout the ship:
“D – MINUS TEN MINUTES”
We three looked at each other. Howard shrugged — that was all he knew to do.
“D -MINUS TWENTY SECONDS … …19…18…17…16…15….14…13… 12…11…10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1”
The overhead lights blinked off and on. I could hear the engines changing speeds trying to maintain some sort of station. The engines shut down. There was silence. The speakers blared: “Brace for base surge.” We had been warned about the ‘base surge’ in radiology school. “Ten seconds to base surge – 9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…”
It was like a giant’s hand had slapped the side of the Hawk. I was thrown against the bulkhead behind me. Bill’s head slammed into the bulkhead behind him. The Hawk took a 20 degree list to starboard and then bobbed back up on an even keel. On the deck under us we could hear the damage control parties:
“What the hell!”
“Mary, Mother of God.”
The ship’s speakers crackled: “Damage control teams to port and starboard shaft alleys for damage inspection. Report to CIC. Radiology team lay topside.” That was us. We got the hatch undogged and stepped outside. The heat was worse than inside. Daylight was just breaking. The sky on the southern horizon was unnaturally white with a greenish hue. It was like being on another planet, looking at an alien sky.
We headed below decks, stripped down and hit the showers. Doc stationed himself outside the shower stalls with his own Geiger Counter. Howard was the first to come out of the shower. He stood with his arms out and legs spread while Doc ran the wand over him. There was no clicking from the Geiger counter. I came out next and assumed the position. Doc pronounced me ‘clean’. Bill came out. There was some clicking under his right armpit. He went back into the shower. When he came back out, the clicking continued. He headed back into the shower. When he came back out the third time, the clicking had stopped. Bill was clean.
The next nuclear test was two days later. This time the weapon would be carried aloft by a Thor missile and detonated in the ionosphere above us. It was designated “Blue Bird.” We were each issued a pair of dark goggles with one-inch thick lens.
At 0100 hours we were all seated topside with our knees pulled up. Even with the goggles you had to bury your head into your arms because the initial flash would blind you. The control room on the island was coming through the ship’s speakers: “The blue bird has left the island – stand by”. We didn’t need to be told that. We were close enough to see the Thor missile lift from its pad and hear the roar and see the flame. It quickly disappeared into the blackness of the night. We waited. Then the countdown:
“D – minus 30 seconds.”
We buried our heads and closed our eyes.
“10 – 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1”
With the goggles on, my face buried in my arms, and my eyes shut, I still saw a flash of light. We waited. The speakers came alive: “All hands may now observe detonation.”
We removed our goggles and looked up. The sky was on fire. A deep, dark, boiling red, covering the entire sky. There seemed to be lightning bolts flashing through it. There were audible gasps all around me. I heard an unknown voice somewhere behind me, “Now we know what hell looks like”. Somebody else said, “The hell we do, this shit would scare the piss out of Satan!”
We had steamed southeast to Palmyra Island and anchored just outside the lagoon. We were here for what the Navy called R and R (Rest and Relaxation). Hot dogs, hamburgers – we were even allowed beer brought from Johnston Island. Some of the guys were in the lagoon splashing around. A baseball game was underway. Bill, Suds, Howard, several guys from deck force, and operations and me had a game of tag football going. The longer our game went the more competitive it became. Pretty soon the ‘tagging’ was replaced by full contact tackling. Bill and Suds and their crew were on the opposite team from me and Howard and our guys. When it finally ended, there were bloody noses and torn t-shirts. I don’t even remember which side won but it was great fun. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood as we piled aboard the LCVPs and the sun was setting.
Bill set down in a corner of the boat, “Man, I must really be out of shape. Damn, I’m tired and ache in every bone.” He didn’t feel like eating chow that night. I said, “They’ve got ice cream. Do you want me to bring you a bowl?” He thought a second, “Nah, I don’t think so.”
After chow I went back to the berthing area to get Bill for the movie but he was sound asleep. I went back to the mess hall and watched a movie. Halfway through just about everyone walked out, including me. Reveille came at 0530.
When I jumped out of my rack I noticed Bill was already up. I tied a towel around my waist, grabbed my shaving kit and stumbled to the head. An engineman named Mosley was shaving at the sink next to mine. I never cared much for Mosley. He resembled a chipmunk to me, buck-teeth and all. He said, “Where’s your buddy, Baylor?” I said, “Probably looking for you to whip your butt.” Mosley was patting cheap after shave on his jaws, “No man, I’m serious. He was supposed to stand the mid-watch on the auxiliary engines. I went to wake him up but he wasn’t in his rack. Hell, I couldn’t find him anywhere. Mac had to take the watch.”
I went back to my rack and climbed into my dungarees and boondockers. I headed to the mess hall to grab a cup of coffee and climbed the ladder to the main deck which I did alone most mornings to gather my thoughts and try to catch a breeze of some sort. As I moved forward I saw Bill up by the forward gun tub.
When I got to him I said, “Where in hell have you been, buddy? A lot of guys looking for you. You didn’t relieve the watch last night”. Bill said, “I know I didn’t”. That concerned me a little. I said, “Are you okay,Bill?” He smiled, “Actually, I feel better than I have ever felt in my life”.
That also disconcerted me for some reason. Bill had a strange aura about him, as though he was glowing just a little. It had to be the rising sun to his back causing the effect. But he also had a very slight scent of cinnamon about him which made no sense. For some reason we started talking about our adventures: the fun we had at the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena on New Years Eve 1960, watching The Washington Huskies defeat the Minnesota Golden Eagles in the Rose Bowl the next day, all the fun we had on the Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach chasing the girls, and the western sing-a-longs at Knotts Berry Farm. We laughed and talked for an hour.
Finally I said, “Lets go get some chow, buddy, before it’s all gone”. Bill said, “Not now, I’ll be down in a little while, maybe”. I said, “Make it quick or it will all be gone”.
As I turned to leave Bill stopped me. Putting his arm around my shoulder he said, “About that Australia thing, that was just a pipe dream, Den. I want you to promise me you’ll take care of yourself and go home and marry that raven-haired girl you talk about. She’s waiting for you”. I said, ”How would you know that?” He smiled again, “I just know, believe me I do. Hell, I might even be at the wedding if you’ll have me”. I said, “We’ll talk about it later” and headed down below for some chow.
After leaving the mess hall I headed down the passage way that led by sick bay where old Doc Bailey ruled the roost. As I passed, the hatch door was open. I noticed someone was on the hospital bed with a sheet over his head. I stuck my head in and said, “Who you got there, Doc?” He shook his head. “It’s your friend Bill, Smitty. I’m afraid we’ve lost him. He woke me up around 2300 saying he was in pain everywhere. I got him in here and he started throwing up. I gave him something to put him out but he was gone before he even swallowed it.”
I stumbled back against the bulkhead. I said, “You’re crazy Doc, I just talked with Bill a short time ago up topside!” Doc reached over and pulled the hatch shut and dogged it down. Doc said, ”Listen to me Smitty! I’ve been in this man’s navy nigh on 30 years. World War 2 and the Korean Conflict and I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen too many dead men and I’ve heard what you’re saying many times. The bottom line is I believe you talked to Bill on the main deck earlier because I’ve seen this before. But the fact is, your good friend has been dead close to 8 hours and lying right here”.
He pulled a little of the sheet back. It was Bill. A cold shiver ran down my back and my hands were shaking. Doc grabbed my arm and said, “Get ahold of yourself. As I’ve told you, what happened to you is not all that uncommon but if you have any sense at all you’ll keep it between us. You want an honorable discharge when you get out and not a Section 8. You wouldn’t be able to get a job at a dump. Just let it go, Smitty”.
I nodded okay but the chill was still with me. Doc said, “I’ve notified the Captain. A hospital boat is on it’s way to take Bill back to the Island where he’ll be flown to Hawaii and back to Pennsylvania”. Doc handed me a key, “In the meantime I want you to go to his locker and get all his things out and bring them back here so they can go with him. I know you would be the one he would want to do it”.
The chill was still running up and down my spine as I went to get Bill’s seabag and then to his locker to put all his things in it.
While going through his locker I found a piece of paper with Bill’s handwriting. It looked as though he had started a poem of some kind but hadn’t finished it:
Steaming On A Sea of Red
By William Baylor
Steaming, Steaming, Upon A Sea Of Red.
Steaming, Steaming, Upon A Sea Of Red.
Dare We Pray Tonight For Sleep Or Rest?
Or Would A Moment’s Lack Of Vigilance Bring
Us That Eternal Sleep That Knows No Sound?
Being Young And Foolish, We Do Not Know.
I slipped the piece of paper into my own pocket and I still have it. I carried it all back up to sickbay still totally bewildered.
In August of 1964 I received an Honorable Discharge and headed back to Indiana. The dreams started a month or so after I returned home: Bill and I talking that morning up by the forward gun tub. All of it. Word for word. The scent of cinnamon, the aura of light. Right up to me heading below decks. But it wasn’t that often, maybe once every 2 months or so.
As the years wore on, strangely, the dreams increased. It’s now to the point, after all these years, that the same dream comes to me at least once a week and sometimes even more often. My wife Linda is the one who told me I should write about it because it might be therapeutic for me. I can only hope it is. Hoping and praying. I certainly don’t mind having dreams about my friend. I would like to have dreams about some of our adventures. But it’s the same dream, word for word, over and over.
Everyone aboard the Hawk signed paperwork that nothing we saw or heard at Operation Dominic would not be revealed to anyone for 30 years which would be 1992. And I have honored that.”
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