USS Tripoli christened

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The memories came flooding back to 79-year-old Dr. Toxey Morris of Hattiesburg last weekend as he looked up at the USS Tripoli Landing Helicopter Assault 7 warship that was christened at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.

Morris was chief medical officer for an earlier USS Tripoli, a Landing Platform Helicopter warship that he helped to build in 1966 when he joined the Navy. He was among 70 veterans of the earlier Tripoli.

The irony for Morris is that he doesn’t really care for the whirlybirds that were carried by the Tripoli.

“I don’t like helicopters,” he said. “I don’t believe in them. I don’t think they fly. And I got to learn to fly a helicopter; it was illegal, of course.”

As a new Navy lieutenant, Morris figured he would have to go to sea duty.

“But I would have to build a ship in a placed called Pascagoula, Miss.,” he said from his Hattiesburg home earlier this week. “Everything got exciting from then on. We did do it and we did build it. I was stationed at Pascagoula as part of the preconditioning detail.”

As chief medical officer, Morris had some important decisions in designing the Tripoli that later saw action during the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Somalia.

“The old Tripoli had a structural problem in that it had a vibration with the turning of the screw; it was a single-screw vessel,” he said. “Nobody thought too much of it, but I said, ‘I’m giving a spinal anesthetic. Have you ever given a spinal anesthetic to somebody who’s shaking about 3 or 4 degrees?’ They said, ‘No.’

“Then we went out on an inspection trip with a high-ranking officer. He was inspecting the troop berth, which was used as a hospital ward. The ship was shaking. He put his hand up and a whole row of berths fell on his hand and smashed his hand. I had to sew him up and set his hand under no anesthesia and with the ship shaking like that. After that, we got $3 million to fix the problem. We didn’t fix it completely, but we made it habitable. Anyway, they responded to the stimulus.”

Morris also found a problem with moving wounded Marines from the flight deck to sick bay.

“We didn’t have any way to transport casualties in the steel combat stretchers from the hangar deck – where the airplanes were berthed – up to the sick bay, which was one level up,” he said. “We couldn’t get them through the door. Thirty million dollars later, we got that fixed. They built an elevator that would lift the caretaker, the patient and anybody else up to what was called the O1 deck just below the flight deck. Again, it was a huge cost and designed by someone who didn’t have to use it.”

Morris said he felt blessed to be the chief medical officer of a Navy ship.

“I will say that the Navy never failed to give me anything in the way of supplies, personnel or equipment that I didn’t ask for,” he said. “We didn’t happen to have an anesthesia machine, but we could do major surgery. We could do everything except brain surgery. We had to carry the sailors’ dependents and children up to Philadelphia to be commissioned. I had no fear because I had everything I needed. We got to Philadelphia and requested an anesthesia machine. I said, ‘How are we going to do surgery and we can’t put the guys to sleep?’ They said, ‘You’re right,’ and gave me two anesthesia machines. It was just that way. Everybody pretty much broke their backs for the medical corps. It was the secondary mission of the ship.”

According to Morris, the older Tripoli carried 600 sailors, a battalion of Marines (normally 1,600) and various aircraft squadrons, all helicopters. The Marines usually had their own doctors and the Air Wing had its own doctor. The eventual duty station was Vietnam near Da Nang just south of the 17th Parallel, using Danang Air Base for logistical supply.

“I was responsible for the health of the ship’s company,” Morris said. “I had about 10-12 corpsmen, enlisted people with the best hearts and minds in the world. They always wanted the right things for their patients. They would go through you with a machine gun to get it, if they had to.”

Morris had an undying respect for the corpsmen who worked with him.

“It was sad because the Viet Cong would wound a Marine and it’s just like in the movie, ‘Full Metal Jacket,’” he said. “They would leave a man wounded on the field, crying. Then they would get a more expensive version – a corpsman – to come out and treat him; they would shoot him too. They would use him as a decoy. That was hard on everybody. So I have a lot of admiration for the corpsmen; never officers, they are always assistants. The only doctors in the Navy are really doctors; they’ve got a degree somewhere. Nurses are about the same way. We did not have female nurses aboard the Tripoli in 1967.”

The ship’s medical corps was busy from May to December 1967, when the ship was stationed in Vietnam.

“I was trying to get some totals of the work we did in the ship’s medical corps, Morris said. “The best I could come up with was about 1,300 people we treated; that was Marines, Air Force and Vietnamese civilians.”

For the Marines and Air Force personnel aboard the Tripoli, their days were also busy.

“We would sail with our amphibious operations,” Morris said. “Training was constant, day in and day out, hour in and hour out. You had to stay trained. That was the survival mode for most people.”

As a bonus for Morris, his counterpart on the dental side of operations turned out to be someone he could relate to.

“The whole medical and dental department of the old Tripoli was made up of Hattiesburg people,” he said. “The dentist was a doctor that used to practice here before he went into the Navy – Dr. Mel Burch. He was a disc jockey for WHSY before he went to dental school. I nearly fell over backwards when he said, ‘I’m from Hattiesburg, Miss.’ He used to give anesthesia for me.”

Morris said he almost had a Navy career, like Burch.

“But I would never have met this lady,” he said, pointing to his wife, Virginia, “or have come home. I figured once I did that (have a career in the Navy), I was gone forever. In fact, a very senior combat pilot told me that.”

Morris said he got the best of everything from the Navy.

“Be decisive, be on time, be polite, don’t get mad about anything; it never accomplishes anything,” he said. “So I’m very peaceful. My wife says I’m competitive.”

Saturday’s christening ceremony was special for Morris and his family.

“I took my whole family and in-laws down to this because they had never seen a ship christened,” he said. “I had and it’s a pretty memorable ceremony. Memorable things are said, promises made and they try to live up to them.

“The friends at Ingalls did a super job of logistics in getting this event organized. They do it all the time, as you can imagine. They had the old veterans of the Tripoli, those that survived, about 70 of them. It was surprising that that many survivors were there.”

With an audience of nearly 2,000, ship sponsor Lynne Mabus christened the amphibious assault ship with the traditional breaking of a bottle of wine across the ship's bow. She is the wife of former Secretary of the Navy and Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus of Starkville.

"I'd like to thank the shipbuilders, who through what must be supernatural abilities, have built something that goes beyond anything nature could create," Mrs. Mabus said. “It looks as if it was built by the hands of the gods."

"All Ingalls ships are built with one goal in mind – to protect the brave men and women who protect our freedom," said Ingalls President Brian Cuccias. "Working closely with our Navy partner, we continue to improve on each ship we build, and Tripoli will be no exception."

Acting Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Dee was the keynote speaker for Saturday's christening. Dee said the addition of Tripoli to the U.S. fleet will make for "a stronger, more flexible and better Navy and Marine Corps team. The ship will be a force-multiplier and her crew will proudly serve our country for decades to come.”

"I am grateful to the men and women of Ingalls Shipbuilding for their dedication and to the citizens of Pascagoula for their unwavering support as we continue to make our Navy stronger," he said.

The Tripoli incorporates significant strengthening of the flight deck to better accommodate launches and landings by Lockheed Martin F-35B stealth jump jets. Tripoli is an LHA-type warship that has been "optimized for aviation capabilities," according to the Navy's news release. Both vessels were built with the primary purpose of carrying and launching F-35B fighter jets, and so were outfitted with enlarged hangars and more room for storing aviation fuel.

Huntington Ingalls launched Tripoli 13 weeks ahead  of schedule. Current plans call for the Navy to buy nine more America-class LHAs.