On a dark night in 1971, the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62) was operating independently in Caribbean waters on a routine training mission. The mid-watch was half-completed when the lookouts reported a series of faint lights dead ahead. Radar showed no corresponding pips, and, although visible through binoculars, no one could discern the lights with the naked eye. To add to the mystery, the strange lights seemed to be “hovering” ahead with no change in range or relative bearing.
The officer of the deck decided to maneuver to avoid, but as he reached for the sound-powered telephone to inform the captain, someone opened a door along the starboard catwalk, allowing white light to flood outward into the darkness. Such a breach of darken-ship procedures normally would be most unwelcome, but in this case it saved the OOD some embarrassment and the unnecessary waking of his sleeping captain. The light made visible the shafts of the 35-foot whip antennas arrayed vertically along the flight deck; it instantly became clear that what had been thought to be contacts in the sea ahead were actually the tips of those antennas, glowing with an electrical weather phenomenon that sailors long ago had dubbed St. Elmo’s fire.