Interview With Roy Ridderbusch

From the interview with Roy Ridderbusch of Lynnwood, WA conducted by phone by Clare Ledden from the Fort Worden History Center on March 11, 2014. Mr. Ridderbusch served two tours of duty with the US Navy at the Fort Worden Harbor Entrance Control Post,the first from 1951 to 1953 and the second from 1957 to 1959. He was an electrician’s mate first class. Here he describes his duties:

“ I had been trained in San Francisco for what they called the ground control mine and I was trained in the electrical portions of that unit and these were about 5000 pounds of TNT round steel casing, pancake shaped, and they sat on the bottom of the ocean floor and they were connected to the shore station and they could be set to explode as a ship passed over the top of it or it could be exploded from the land station, which was Fort Worden. The Army had these mines, they took care of them up through World War II and at the end of World War II they turned it over to the Navy and the Navy took it up from there. They also had, when I was stationed up there,all the common electrical duties around the buildings, putting in new lights and heaters or whatever the case may be. I was a mine specialist but I retained my regular electrical duties too.

It was a controlled mine. It could be set to explode automatically if anything magnetic went over the top of it or it could be set just to indicate the ship had crossed it or we could explode the mine at will. They were meant to prevent a sneak attack. So we wouldn’t be tracking anything unless it was one of our own ships. And, there were listening devices placed ahead of the row of mines so that hopefully we could hear something coming in the Straits before it got to the mine fields.

The mines operated a lot like automatic telephones. Like you could call a person’s number and we could call a particular mine. If that mine wanted to call us because there was a ship passing over it,it would do that. Then we could have, what you might say, was automatic answering machine and that could be set up so that it would answer to anything crossing over and blow it up. it worked basically the way the automatic telephone worked. And even up there in Port Townsend at that time, we did not have automatic telephones, we had switchboard operators. So it was pretty well advanced.

We did explode one mine while I was there and we did a lot of research of the area and we had the Fish and Game Department. They were interested in what the explosion might bring up and I don’t remember the time of day we did this but I would think it would probably be maybe close to around noon. I don’t remember the tide conditions. I think we waited for kind of a slack tide but we exploded one mine that we selected because everybody was wondering what it would be like, I guess. So we didn’t have any target. I think we just selected a mine at that time and fired it. But the Fish Department was very interested to see what kind of damage we would do. Two sturgeon came up to the surface and they were sturgeons that they had never seen in the Puget Sound area so that was quite interesting to them. They had been killed from the concussion. But otherwise there was no significant kill of wildlife, at least that came to the surface.

We were working right between Point Wilson and Fort Casey. That was the strongest part of the tide. Listening devices, we called them a hydrophone, and they sat on the bottom on an anchor and we could hear water and rocks rolling down between them and there was so much noise at times that you wouldn’t have heard a ship passing over the top. We had a lot of hard work without accomplishing really a lot. We planted a group of mines which was 13 mines in a straight line and I don’t remember the distance apart. They were probably not much over more than a hundred feet apart, so that if a ship would come in it could not sneak in between them. Of course, we were mainly looking for submarine penetration.”

Describing his second tour at the HECP:

“ The second time we were there we were still planting mines but just for training and were mines that were filled with concrete instead of TNT. We had to mix vermiculite with the cement so that we could replicate the true weight of a mine filled with TNT.

After Fort Worden, the first time when I left we were just in the midst of planting these live mines and my duty there was to check the relays that went into the mines and check all the relays into the system so that everything would call up the correct number. I had to check the detonators to make sure that they were live and weren’t a dud. You had to measure the resistance in the detonator itself. What is was was actually an electric blasting cap that you would use. When we were trained to do this we had a little kind of a steel vault that we would put the blasting cap in and then we would use what we called a resistance bridge, was a balanced bridge and when you didn’t have everything balanced, that meant the detonator was good. If it wouldn’t balance, then you would just dispose of it. But if it per chance blew because of some malfunction in the detonator,it was in the steel vault where it couldn’t do any damage. Well, we didn’t have one of those little steel vaults in Port Townsend and we didn’t have the balanced bridge and they wanted the detonators tested and I said I couldn’t do it with the equipment that I had. We had to get different equipment and they felt one meter should be as good as another one, shouldn’t it? And I said, “No it’s not. We want these tested before we have anybody working with them and I want you to test them”. And I refused. I told them that I didn’t have the equipment and said that I would try to test them with the equipment I have. So they said okay.

So I put my detonator in a heavy steel bucket that we had and I put it around the corner. All the building up there was cement. We were in one of the, what we called, the casemate. I went around the corner and took the wires around the corner to where I had my work bench and I just touched my meter to it and “bam”, the thing blew. The bucket was a good sprinkling can after that. It was just punctured with shrapnel from that electric blasting cap. So I got the equipment that I needed.

I also had to pick up these blasting caps in Bremerton and we didn’t have any bridges in those days so I had to go down and pick up a dozen blasting caps and we had a rickety old vehicle, Navy vehicle, so I drove down to Bremerton and picked up the blasting caps and checked with the ferry and they said “No explosives allowed at all on the ferry, you will have to drive around”. So by the time I got that all squared away it was dark. So I drove around the Hood Canal. Every time I met a car and I had my headlights on bright, when I would dim them they would go out. So that was quite an experience driving up with my blasting caps, just like have a dozen pencils, my load, but they were explosives and they wouldn’t let me on the ferry with them, because I declared them, which if I had not done, I could have gotten across all right. But I wanted to play their game the right way. Anyway, I was by myself and I was driving around and every time I had to kick that dimming switch, about six times to get my lights to come back on again. It was fun. It must be about 60 miles, going down to Tacoma almost and then around the end and then come back up.”

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