“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.” _John Fitzgerald Kennedy, PT-109 Commander, WWII; President of the United States
In the pre-dawn hours of Oct 3, 1977 I arrived at the Recruit Depot of Naval Training Center, San Diego, California. I had signed my life away the previous afternoon at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Phoenix, Arizona. And despite the very attractive female Marine Sergeant at the MEPS, I did not on-the-spot decide to opt for the Marine Corps.
Marched as a gaggle – that would be rectified very shortly – to get haircuts, none of us really knew what was happening. Then lined up for clothing issue, and medical checks and barracks assignment. Nothing was fast enough, efficient enough nor military enough for the Recruiting Company Commanders that day. After a full day, we were assigned our bunks. And at O-dark Thirty, 0330 or 3:30AM, the loudest bang from a metal trash can thrown down the center of the barracks woke everybody. Welcome to Boot Camp, ladies.
Forty years later, I have been retired seven and a half years. I can look back on the best and most challenging times of my life: two periods on Active Duty from 1977 through 1980, and 1987 through 2000, and two periods in the Reserve, 1987 till I opted for Active Duty again; and from 2000 through 2010 when I retired. Eight years assigned to sea duty – most of which spent going to sea. Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean , Red Sea, and Caribbean deployments. Panama and Suez canal, Equator and Date Line crossings.
Saturday morning, 3 AM, and I am awake. I really do not want to be; when I was in my twenties and thirties, I was able to be very productive on four hours sleep. Six hours would have been “vacation mode”. For some reason I am reminded of many times I stood watch on the Quarterdeck in the middle of the night while our ship was in port. Whether aboard the USS TEXAS – the cruiser, not the present submarine, on the West Coast; or in Norfolk, Virginia aboard the USS PETERSON, a Spruance-Class Destroyer, it was often very cold standing watch at this time of the morning.
I still remember the sound of the exhaust fans, the deafening, steel rattling as warm air was blown out onto the weatherdeck from the ship’s interior. Standing at a podium, partly exposed to the wind, I remember on more than one occasion wrapping my peacoat tighter around me, and sending the Messenger to get me more hot, very black coffee. The “balls to four” watch, midnight till 4 AM, is one of the more difficult watches since there are few comings and goings, the ship’s commander is either ashore or asleep since getting his last passdown report. It was a good time to quiz ourselves and study for qualification tests. At that time, the ESWS qualification was a big boost to a junior Sailor seeking advancement. The landline rarely rang at that time unless it was to report a member of ship’s company going on or off- leave. Sometimes it was the base security reporting a member was being written up for being intoxicated and belligerent or trying to drive onto the base. We would have to rouse a master-at-arms to go retrieve him. Normally, unless we were in a period called a Intermediate Maintenance AVailablity ( IMAV) when welders and other contractors were coming and going all night, it was often a dull period of duty. This was in the decade before 9/11, so the occasional drunk Sailor returning from Liberty and a visit by the base Command Duty Officer might be our only interruption on the Quarterdeck.
Overseas in the Mediterranean in the period following the Gulf War and Bosnian conflict, the middle of the night was a time we did not have security forces in heightened vigilance as we had once on the other side of the Suez Canal. On a six-month deployment, our ship might spend a month patrolling in the Med with several port visits. It was often a blessing to be on duty in port. One of my shipmates was never interested in going out on liberty – he had been to these same ports several times. He bankrolled a lot of money on these cruises.
Saving money when overseas was never a strong skill of mine. Had I not stood midwatch overseas though, I might never have believed stories I read about mariners, ships, and rats. When I was standing the Quarterdeck midwatch in Trieste, Italy in the early 1990s, I remember looking down to the head of the pier at some dog rooting around the dumpster just off the pier. It was dark, foggy, and things illuminated by the yellow lamps of the pier were not distinct. But I realized that dog was not a dog. What would a dog be doing here anyway? It was a wharf rat, about the size of a terrier – the largest rat I have ever seen. And now I know why ships mooring lines have “rat guards” on them. For good reason.
For those who might be amused, or assume I was exaggerating, I found an article online of a rat that obviously was well-fed up until his untimely end.
1 mid-rats is the term we use in the Navy for the late night meal prepared for the watchstanders. RATs is short for “rations”, not an item on the menu.
As a Navy technician, a graduate of electronic schools where I learned the theory of operation, maintenance and repair of digital and analog (vacuum tubes and relays) equipment, I also had experience in the maintenance of diesel-power emergency generators and battery backup systems. I’ve crawled under raised flooring ( computer -decking) to run bundled cables from a telephone cabinet, when cables were wire-wrapped in large panels, to equipment in vault-like enclosed rooms. In my off-time, I helped fellow trainees swap big block V-8 engines from an 1973 El Camino into a 1970 Chevelle. But I will always remember one Spring at a base near Washington, D.C. when I got the military to fund my repair of a golf cart.
There was a golf cart with a broken axle and missing (scavenged) parts rusting away in the back lot behind my building. It was forgotten. I was motivated by an idea, that a running cart might serve me and my shopmates travel between one end of the base to the other; however, we had weekly tasks in several buildings at that facility. Every week we had to bring equipment to take measurements and perform maintenance, and it was annoying to hand-carry everything between the two. It was a ten-minute walk each way lugging gear in a hand-cart.
That particular model of golf cart was no longer being serviced by any company in the metro area. And parts were difficult to come by. This was more than a decade before the Internet was available so no Ebay nor Amazon was around to query. And finding a catalog was impossible. I called machine shops until I found one that would build the parts to repair the axle and a bearing manufacturer that would take my measurements to make a wheel bearing. I became a skilled negotiator with the finance office lady in charge of petty funds. After some weeks of dealing, I was able to get these items approved.
Two months later we rolled out the now -running golf cart, and was set to do the next round of maintenance at the far end of the base. My workcenter supervisor was pleased. My fellow technicians who earlier thought me crazy, were also looking forward to using the “shop cart”. But no good deed goes unpunished.
My shop Chief announced the repaired vehicle was needed by the Department Head. My Chief also intended to use it to perform audits of the maintenance checks in all the buildings we serviced. I never used it after that. I spent the next year working at the Pentagon communications center, so the “Golf Cart Bravo Zulu” was actually my opportunity to support the Director of Naval Intelligence and stepping stone to the next adventure in my Navy career.
What is the most unusual thing you have repaired while in the military?
Among my peers in the world of Navy cryptologic operations, we enjoyed a sense of humor that few civilians might understand. To this very day, when friends or family ask me about my work, I will likely smile, then say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” I do not get asked very much about my work.
Today, when recalcitrant equipment that I either test or provide customer with needed support and repair, I always have a smart-aleck response as my double-secret probation/ inside-voice, final debug plan. Put it in a barrel and light off some Thermite. But then, I am hired to fix it; it is up to my bosses to determine when the expense outweighs the continued troubleshooting.
Very early in the 1990’s, particularly as some hotspots in the world – where intelligence-gathering was not collected from 60,000 feet or a hundred miles in altitude as it may be today, but on the ground – my unit held a demonstration of classified material emergency disposal. This was the chemical destruction capability of THERMITE. Given a few minutes to dispose of the contents of a large safe, personnel might not have time to shred documents; some equipment that shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands could not be physically destroyed by physical effort. Ergo, a thermite grenade could be ignited, placed in or on it, and the object would be reduced to ash and molten slag.
However, history taught me that this material might have been more for show than practical use. When the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, if some stories are to be believed, shredded documents were reassembled by people working furiously over months. When the Iranians again seized our personnel during the Obama Presidency, was there Thermite to obliterate our crypto gear on board? was it destroyed? If jettisoned overboard, was it recovered?
And in the digital world of identity theft, credit reporting thefts, and hacking, there’s nothing to render data irretrievable but for military-grade encryption. And yet it often depends on human beings to practice security. Of course my mind runs to a different form of “thermite”, but if we cannot find the provocateurs, cannot render them sanitized.
When I was very young I was taught to swim, and recall that I was quite fond of holding my breath and ducking underwater and pushing off to see how far I could swim before I had to come up for air. My father had been a great swimmer my mother tells me, but when he was still in his twenties, illness took away his athleticism. With his DNA, I enjoyed being in the water: swimming pools, rivers, ponds, and the ocean. With my mother’s DNA (she grew up by the Irish Sea), cold water was not preferred but also not dreadful for me.
As a pre-teen I took a Red Cross Life-Saving certification class at the community pool near our apartment building. I had always been a good swimmer and athletic, but the certification test proved to be my brush with drowning. The backup instructor was a huge Marine-looking man who jumped into the pool and pointed at me. I swam toward him as trained and he started to thrash about. Then he seized hold of me, and climbing up my shoulders, forced me under the water. That simulation was all too-real. Whether fear of death or anger at embarrassment, as I started to choke inhaling pool-water, I managed to strike him as hard as I possibly could. They awarded me the Life Saving certificate. I don’t think the instructor wanted to advertise that a lanky kid had overpowered him. I have told the story previously how, on a beach in Cape Cod, my mother and I were walking along a tidal sand bar with the tide going out. I ran ahead into a channel that appeared to be no more than knee-depth. It wasn’t and I lost my footing in the swifty oceanward water and was washed about a quarter-mile into the Bay. I was rescued by a couple in a power boat who were near enough to see my mother’s frantic waving and my bobbing. In the Navy at seventeen, it was not water that got the better of me but a failure to properly secure my gas mask in the tear gas training chamber. Lord! I was crying, spewing and hacking with stuff running out of me long before we all had to remove the masks and sing “Anchors Aweigh” for our boot camp instructors! Years later, after my first enlistment ended and I was a student at the University of Arizona, I took scuba diving lessons, certified and spent several weekends in successive summers, in the Sea of Cortez. During one of these, I was a now, more-experienced diver paired up with a newly-qualified teen (ten years my junior). “Jacques Cousteau” did not heed the diving limit so we found ourselves about a hundred feet instead of the sixty-foot maximum set by our dive master. Pointing him to the surface, we were several hundred yards from the dive boat and had a challenging swim to get back to the boat.
In all the scenarios that we undertook during my second enlistment in the Navy and eight years of sea duty, we performed a lot of dry simulations of flooding casualties to the ship. We had hands-on training ashore for firefighting, and we had both well-lit, and blackout compartment simulations on entering, exiting, and securing compartments. As part of the training for the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification, I had a familiarity as well as a number of hours monitoring and performing skills that might save my life or my shipmates someday.
I have no idea what has caused shipmates on two Navy combatant ships, the USS John S. McCain, and the USS Fitzgerald, to collide with merchant ships this summer, but the intense bravery and training of the men and women who saved their ships has not been told in the questioning by observers on how that could possibly happen in the first place. The facts will certainly be collected, studied and whether training or terrorism-related, the truth will be known. It is the response of the crew to a potentially fatal breach of the hull that should be studied equally and used to train subsequent generations. There were definitely those who, knowing they could possibly die, chose to try to save their shipmates in the flooded compartments instead.
Numerous injuries and the deaths of at perhaps seventeen Sailors at sea are horrible. The mere seconds between personnel sleeping, eating breakfast, taking pressure readings, monitoring electrical panels — and the aftermath of a collision: the crushing metal, screaming men, pitch darkness, and flooding seawater, are mind-numbing for those who have not been in peril. We should all pause and pray for those Sailors and their families. The loss of life in combat, in training accidents, in freak-occurrences on routine days, or even the acts of a madman or terrorists are never acceptable, but the mental preparation as members of the military one might accept the possible call to put yourself in harm’s way to save your fellow service members.
There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea. Joseph Conrad
In February 1992, at age 32, my personal life in shambles ( an estranged wife with mental illness, and crushing debt were the big issues), I received orders to the USS TEXAS (CGN-39), a nuclear powered guided missile cruiser homeported in Alameda, California – across the bay from San Francisco. I drove out from Florida by myself. Arriving at the bottom of the brow, I was ready and excited to begin my first period of “sea duty”. I was reporting as one of three technicians, supporting the communications and RF surveillance systems – which I had just spent half a year learning. Looking back today, the electronics and the computer control – running octal code! – were less complex than the average electronic toy today. But in 1992, few people owned a personal computer, and maybe the well-heeled might have a “car phone” — bulky device, with bag, battery and a cigarette lighter socket charger.
The duties I was assigned – as the newbie out of school – were general. I was already being called “grandpa” since I was nearly six or seven years older than the senior tech in our workcenter. As the new guy, I was put in a harness to go aloft. (The harness came with a “ball-buster”, so-called because of the mechanical brake used as a safety line for ascending and descending the mast — if you disconnected without thinking, a few pounds of metal would swing away and crash into your groin! )
For a guy that wasn’t all that fond of heights – I had been rappelling mountains in Virginia to end that timidity climbing a hundred feet up above the water pierside was my “welcome”. Of course, the lamp at the top of the mast, attached to our TACINTEL antenna had no need to be changed. But the gentle sway was calming, and height never troubled me after that. I spent a lot of time over the course of several years greasing fittings, cleaning away salt buildup, sanding and painting equipment. Since each communications shop : the CT and EW (electronic warfare or ELINT guys) were in my division; the Radiomen and the Combat Systems groups also had things to maintain aloft. The primary time to do these chores were in port for extended periods as we would have the rotating and radiating (radars especially) for our ship and neighboring ships “tagged out”. Nobody wanted to be sterilized or cooked (think of a microwave oven) from RF energy.
Between performance tests, maintenance, cleaning, and cross-training as an operator in our own center, we had training in security force ( rapid reaction team), firefighting, damage control and other collateral jobs. Because of the nature of the job, most of the crew knew us only as “spooks”, and Maintenance (CTMs) were not above getting strange looks from the hot and sweaty Engineering (Snipes) crew. You see, in a couple of our workspaces, the air conditioning (chilled water) system were overly efficient. Large, heat-generating equipment had been replaced with newer systems that were much less power consuming. The now much colder workcenter made it necessary for the techs to wear our winter coats or “foul weather jackets”; we might forget to remove them when we went to the Mess Deck to get some coffee. Some sweaty, greasy shipmates were a little irritated at some “topsiders” easy living.
Working behind the “Green Door” with its OZ Division sign (“Oh-Zee” meant we were part of the Operations Department) required special access and security protocols. We would get asked from time to time what we were doing. We would come up with all sorts of stories. “Actually, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you” was our running joke. In the days when email and Internet were toddlers, when the AFRTS broadcast was still received and rebroadcast in the evening through the ship’s entertainment system, we might get sports scores or news before the rest of the ship.
While the underway schedule was tedious and I would sometimes spend up to eighteen hours working, cleaning, training or on watch, it was peaceful. All the noise at sea – equipment, machinery, buffers, alarms, announcing systems were less unnerving than the sudden “silence” – an equipment casualty occurring at that moment – followed by an alarm and a all-ship announcement through our 1MC intercom. I really felt at home on the TEXAS. Compared with the stress of the home I had left back in Florida, I was in a long-term relationship. That ship and crew were my family. I set out to learn everything I could about the ship as part of the Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification and earn my silver Surface Warfare pin.
It was a shame that the ship’s schedule was a few months deployment s, before it was to go into the shipyard for a couple of years in order to replace the nuclear fuel and receive upgraded systems. My first underway period occurred in the late Spring of that year, and it was not long afterward that I was able to add Panama and Ecuador to foreign places I had visited. Transiting the Panama Canal was one of the highlights of my Navy career. And becoming a member of the honored Shellbacks – first, as pollywogs, we had to be properly indoctrinated in a raucous smelly, greasy, traditional welcome. And being hosed down with salt water in the pre-dawn of the equatorial waters near the Galapagos Islands, is a memory I cherish. My years of spanish from school, living in southern Arizona, traveling in Mexico, paid huge dividends in Central and South America. Where some Panamanians or Ecuadorians were bemused or put off by American Sailors, I was able to share jokes, catch deals on local crafts, negotiate fantastic deals on a hotel room for shipmates and even trade wits with a streetwise New York-born kid visiting relatives.
On our return to Alameda, a segment of the crew was able to take change of station, house-hunting leave for our pending move to Bremerton, Washington. In June, I was soon after to realize, that the weather was perfect though temporary. For the remaining 11 months until the following June, it was cloudy, misty, rainy, snowy or sleeting. Prior to going into dry dock, the TEXAS made a trip across the Puget Sound for Esquimalt , British Columbia, Canada. Killer whales in a pod accompanied us for part of the trip. Between maintenance assignments and duty rotation, I was briefly able to take in the view outside the skin of the ship. The view of the Olympic Range (the Olympic peninsula is the large portion of the state west of Seattle) to the south is amazing – when the fog or mist lifts long enough to see the snowy mountains. The Canadian naval base is next to Victoria, a city that looks every bit as if it was lifted out of England and deposited there. For the couple of days that we were visiting, I had my first experience with craft beer. My present infatuation with micro-breweries, got started there.
I still think about going back to hike in British Columbia, visit the tea shops and markets, and maybe enjoy scones and english marmalade.
In the coming year, the ship, now in dry dock, was cut open, all the decks were covered with plywood, giant tarps hung over the side of the ship while sandblasting away the paint, barnacles, and growth of many years at sea.
With my equipment shutdown or removed for maintenance, I was left to clean, to document maintenance – I worked fairly closely with the Maintenance Material Management System or (3M) Coordinator by that time. For a couple of months I was assigned off the ship to help coordinate the maintenance of the Bachelor Officers Quarters which at the time was being transitioned to a civilian who had been running large hotels. Officers had it pretty cushy. Enlisted sailors in base quarters in Bremerton didn’t have it too rough either. At the time the Navy made its decision to halt the refueling and scrap the TEXAS, I had moved off base to renting a home not far from the shoreline. Seattle was visible across the bay.
I was enjoying the little town of Manchester. Then my estranged wife showed up, long enough to take most of my valued possessions and several firearms. And leave with her boyfriend. I was ready to transfer to my next ship, a destroyer in Norfolk, Virginia, the USS PETERSON (DD-969).
Ships are known to the men who go to sea in them as “she”. Temperamental, attractive, frustrating, consuming, difficult, requiring a lot of commitment and hard work. And romantic. All at the same time. But like a woman you are with, you can be successfully only in one relationship at a time — and a ship is jealous for your time.