It was late at night on 21 February 1974 about 900 miles northeast of Honolulu. The tanker Giovanna Lolli Ghetti had unloaded her cargo in San Francisco and was bound for Sumatra for another load of crude oil. Suddenly, a number of violent explosions rocked the tanker. The ship listed to forty-five degrees and sank rapidly. They were not able to send an SOS because one of the first explosions took out their radio room. It was later speculated, that vapors in her empty tanks were somehow ignited causing a series of explosions.
The Norwegian freighter Tamerlane was twenty-two miles away and saw the flash of the explosions in the night sky. She radioed an SOS which was picked up by the 378 foot, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Andrew W. Mellon. The Mellon had just completed a month long Ocean Station November patrol and was underway back to Honolulu.
It was my first patrol as the Mellon’s Independent Duty Corpsman and we were no longer headed home. I had been up most of the night putting together sterile burn packs and breaking out other medical supplies I anticipared needing. It was 1150 hours the next morning when we arrived on scene. I was standing in the forward part of the port air castle, a First Class Petty Officer just a few weeks away from making Chief.
What I saw was both horrific and at the same time surreal. As Captain Ben Stabile later reported, “there was debris, oil, survivors and bodies spread out over eight square miles of ocean.” There had been forty-one souls aboard the Italian super tanker and for the next five days it was going to be my job to keep the burned and injured survivors alive. I was thinking at the time, it was a hell of a beginning to what would probably be my last sea duty tour. My father had died the night before and now this.