On the sixth of June, 1944, seventy- five years ago, more than a hundred- fifty thousand Allied troops became heroes on D-Day.
My late mother was a 12 year old schoolgirl living on the shores of the Belfast Lough in Northern Ireland. She told me of a foggy early morning probably a few days before the invasion when she saw many ships in the Lough only to disappear a day later. That capped a brief visit days earlier of an American cousin in her mother’s family, a Merchant Marine, who she later learned had been decorated for bravery in the Battle for Malta in 1942.
While some may think that Northern Ireland was far from the Blitz – the campaign the Nazi waged against Britain – German bombers attempting to destroy or disable aircraft manufacturing and the Belfast shipyard from April through May 1941, destroyed a considerable part of the city. A thousand were killed, many were injured and more than 100,000 were left homeless. Once the Nazis started their campaign against the Soviet Union in June 1941, they diverted their bombers.
My mother and family were fortunate in that their home was not bombed but the family retail business was unable to recover from the bombing of the city and the economic conditions which persisted all through the war and the remainder of the decade. And so my mother’s family became emigres to the United States in 1948 (other relatives had been living in the United States since the mid-19th Century).
Reading some of my old letters my late mother kept in her scrapbook, I appreciate jogging memories of my initial service in the Navy forty years ago. At the time, I was stuck in limbo, waiting on orders, waiting on a medical evaluation, and bored. I had spent eighteen months training for a career as an electronics technician in San Diego, in Illinois, in Florida and again in San Diego. When I had received an opportunity to attend the Naval Academy, a medical evaluation accompanying the selection board was possibly going to prevent that. In the meantime, I was assigned to support a correctional unit on Naval Training Center San Diego, to guard and escort sailors confined and others pending transfer to the Naval Brig.
“January 13 1978
I was paid this morning and I have finally got some money in my pocket after being in the depths of poverty for the last week. I’ve been keeping a budget book to account for every penny. Setting aside a $120 to send to you to save for me, I spent most of my last paycheck on a stereo receiver and headphones. I got a great deal as the stereo store said it was a trade-in and not brand-new.
I have been chugging away at BE & E. My Learning Supervisor is better at getting the material across to me than reading the book. And I am frustrated at the computer based training – that I am taking remedial tests every time.
Next weekend I am thinking of the YMCA’s military special to Disneyland – everything including bus ride and ticket, for $14.75…. “
When I read these letters I recall that my focus was split between very difficult technical training, spending money slower than earning it, having a good time, and the things a sailor thinks about: cars, girls, staying out of trouble, and so on. And taking care of my mom.
“February 18, 1978
…it’s been a week since I was home for that short visit…. I’m expecting to finish BE and E School (Basic Electricity and Electronics) in seven working days and then ice and snow! (I was scheduled to transfer for further training at the Great Lakes NTC north of Chicago) I have been trying to spend money and save it at the same time….
I bought two books ” How to Buy Stocks” and “How to Build a Fortune Investing in Land””
“July 3 1978
Class 7825C, ET/A school Bldg 520, Great Lakes Training Center: Thunder and lightning this weekend. Thank you for the ever-increasing moral support. It helps this “screw-up” when I seem to be trying and trying over these multiple -choice tests and I miss the question because I don’t put down my first choice but over think them! Why can’t I learn! Some solace in that I got my PO3 raise today. A whole $10.
Congratulations on your new friend and you both seem to be on the same “astral plane”. And my little sister has a boyfriend! She is growing up fast. I ran into a friend who is very close to a bachelors degree having taking a lot of courses through the CLEP tests. He’s looking at Officer Candidate School and making some career-connections with several officers involved in the program. He’s shared with me several of the courses and tests to take should the Annapolis thing not get accepted. Studying electronics harder will give me a mental breakdown. I need some thing different.
I looked at that Naval Academy application. I think they want someone who is a cross between O.J. Simpson and Albert Einstein, not me!”
In the year between my initial training in San Diego, and returning back to San Diego, I had been undergoing technical training and screening for a government security clearance. Between the training, standing watches, and liberty in Chicago and Milwaukee, I was also trying to figure out if I could afford a TransAm like one in the movie Smokey and the Bandit. It was nearly eleven thousand dollars. I couldn’t. I did learn a lot about weather. Playing pool in the barracks. Guys who were playing some role-playing fantasy called Dungeons and Dragons. A summer music festival at the Navy Pier in Chicago. And working on cars. Being in the best physical shape of my life while in Pensacola, Florida. Running several miles a few times a week that started from a dare between roommates in the barracks while attending CT – school. A circuit of the base, inside the fence was about four miles. We would run it twice a night.
“Letter dated August 2 – 5, and 8, 1979
It’s the second day of August, and in one day following the
most insane twenty-four hours I have yet spent at TPU (ed: Transient Personnel Unit), I think I shall be ready for the funny
farm very soon.
Let me tell you some of the the goings-on at our “Hotel California”. Yesterday, we got a new boatload of lunies (sic) plus one who is trying to put one over on us that he’s nuts, and he is getting my goat.
Another case is my boss Chief Heller. His retiring soon and he continues to drop in
on Bldg 23 if only to holler and cuss everyone.
It is just as if he’s giving out a daily dose of castor oil.
Still another example was last night’s supposed-to-work-flawlessly relief of the day watch. A PO1(Petty Officer First Class) who knew he had duty never showed up, and despite all my efforts couldn’t be found anywhere on-base. No one knew who I was looking for- even though he was supposedly assigned to the same working area! So, as a result, an overworked PO2, a good friend of mine, was forced to stay all night as well as his morning workday.
In addition, I was forced to work late (a 13-hour day) which
it turns out shall be my regular working hours.
It was either that or work 10 hours plus have an extra watch in TPU
every three days.
Today was continued insanity when, in the early afternoon, one of our “mental” cases went berserk and smashed a wood-covered (barricaded) window with a chair. He demanded to go to the brig or he would do more damage! It’s a good thing I don’t sleep there- I don’t know if some night I might get my throat cut by one of these scumbags.
Tonight I went to the PO Club with two friends, George, who works in the NTC Police/Decal Office, and June who also works there. We all had a good time. But what occurred later is interesting. Well, June got very drunk, I was sober and George nearly so. June had to be talked into being escorted to her barracks. George (who went with her) in her car and I followed behind in mine. June wandered all over the road at speed and I sped up to catch her. And out of the dark an NTC (Naval Training Center) police vehicle pulled ME over. Luckily, he was a friend but since I was “rocketing along” at 20 or 30 MPH, he wouldn’t let me drive back to TPU. A quarter-mile walk later I was sober; June was the one all over the road – I’m sure the cop saw her. That will be the last of my “good Samaritan” gestures.
August 5, 1979
Yesterday I finally bought the 10-speed bicycle I was [going to get you] shopping two weeks. I’m sure you will love it, as a matter of fact I wanted to buy one for myself from the same people. Now I have only one detail to work out and that is how to get it home. Two possibilities are open to me, but I don’t know how much it will cost me to ship it, so if you don’t mind I am going to wait till I hand-deliver it.
In other news I have been heartened by a lot of mail, especially yours and from Nana, but I’m going through a lot of ups and downs. I’m almost at the end of my rope as far as this Restriction/ CC (Correctional Custody) “babysitter” job goes. Today I got yelled at for these a@#$@#$ goofing off even as I have been trying to imitate Attila the Hun with them .
I’m starting another entry in the ‘journal’ after putting the
pen down for two days. I am just putting down thoughts as they come to mind. My
mind is awfully screwed being run ragged.
I think I will drop this topic in favor of other topics to ramble on
Tomorrow I’ll begin packing a few things for the trip to San Francisco and I’m going to hopefully make a weekend out of it. What is your reaction to the earthquake this week? It think it is about time for the city to fall into the sea?
It’s all a bit tedious. I’ll hopefully be home sooner or later. “
These letters bring back some of the missing names – and the memory -recalling the faces of those Chiefs at TPU. These memories seem as fresh as having occurred yesterday. The more I recall of those months in school, in training, and time at the transient barracks, I am amused by the complaining, angst, self-righteousness, stubbornness, and shock of having to work long hours. In this particular letter, the reference to “Hotel California” my mother probably would have missed – her musical taste was stuck in the early 1960s and she never heard of the Eagles. But I was fortunate that my mother, who pursued a second career as a college English teacher around that time, and worked a full-time nursing job, never pointed out my ‘overworked’ complaints. As I look back after forty years of military and civilian jobs – on my youngest co-workers and their peers – their complaints about fairness, working conditions, and emotional safe-spaces are more their age than something “we” never did.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those (A)who are the called according to His purpose. –Romans 8:28 (NKJV)
No Company Commander, nor Drill Sergeant ever whispered a gentle wake-up to new recruits in basic training or boot camp during my time in the service. The whole point of basic training for recruits is to completely change mindsets and hearts to hear and obey, instantly, the calling. It isn’t the Lord’s voice that one responds to the best of their ability, but to His representative on Earth during that time: the Drill Sergeant or Company Commander. The “encouragement” that a recruit, fresh off the farm, the beach, or the street receives during the first several weeks of military service, instills instinctive responses, physical prowess, self-discipline, and a basic knowledge of the traditions, responsibilities and expectations of each member of a team. At a certain point, each military member makes the decision to embrace that way of life, engage fully, remain devoted, and give one’s best efforts to the team. Or they part company, either expeditiously before the end of recruit training, or after three, four or more years.
11 Light shines[a] on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. 12 Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name. –Psalm 97: 11 -12
For those who have been through the maturation process of military training, and thrived, the recognition of authority, wielding it, and being instilled with a single-focused purpose of a spiritual life, is more natural. I think that is why a lot of the imagery in the Bible, Old Testament and New, involves soldiers. As a disciple of Jesus, in my own life experience I understand rigorous training, discipline, and obedience to authority. We have the tools, the teamwork, and the mission to execute. But I am grateful that my christian missteps do not result in “marching parties”, “demerits”, or being found in the receiving end of some “fan-room counseling”.
Thank God that Jesus speaks Truth in Love. If we all respond to that, the hurled trash can “attention-getter” in the barracks hall might not be a wake-up tool anymore.
American sailors on liberty in Pusan, South Korea before 1999 used to talk about going to Texas Street. Dive bars and cheap eats.
When I visited Pusan in 1999 while aboard USS CORONADO, I remember a Russian carrier in port. Russian bar girls. To avoid uncomfortable conversations, my shipmate and I had a line popularized by Steven Segal: “I’m just a cook!” Didn’t see any Russian sailors. But I picked up a few words in Russian.
I don’t know what it’s like today, but I left there thinking the bar district had become “Russia Street”.
Learned a little bit about being stationed in South Korea. I learned how to order a Starbucks in Korean. “Grande Mocha”.
And I know not to enter any Asian establishment with a “barber pole” out front. Was told they were “massage” parlors. Wonder if they also do haircuts?
All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.
~John F. Kennedy , Newport dinner speech before America’s Cup Races, Sept. 1962
I have never learned to sail a wind-driven vessel, nor do I recall the difference between a sloop and a ketch. That said, it does not mean I have no familiarity with ships, storms, life aboard ship, or the special bond that seafaring men (or women) have as a crew at sea. For eight years out of a twenty-six year Navy career, I was a member of ships company, on a Virginia-class cruiser, a Spruance -class destroyer, and a converted amphibious transport dock-turned-command ship (for the U.S. THIRD Fleet). I have spent months at sea repetitively in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, Mediterranean, and Caribbean Seas. Perhaps the readers of this blog, merchantmen and military navymen (and women) have also looked upon Naples, Italy with Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop in the early morning. As a Petty Officer on a ship that was one of the very first Navy visitors after forty years of the Cold War, made port in Varna, Bulgaria. On deployment to enforce blockade of Saddam Hussein’s illicit oil trade after the Gulf War, transited the Suez Canal and made circles in the Red Sea. Like the apostles of Jesus two millennia ago, I walked the streets of old Jerusalem, visited Cyprus and Crete, Turkey and Greece. Gazed upon the ruins of ancient seafaring civilizations four thousand years old. I’ve ridden trains on a day’s liberty time as a Pacific Fleet sailor between Yokosuka and Tokyo, Japan, and as an Atlantic Fleet one from Marseilles to Paris, France.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
A man I have known casually for years at a place I have written about many times, Liberty Tobacco, a cigar lounge in San Diego, California, is another Old Salt. We both have long careers in the electronics industry and worked at some of the same places in San Diego. But tonight we learned that we have been to the same places underway on ships, and to shore stations around the country. Twenty-five or thirty years ago is a long time in an age where, in a social media-world, memories last minutes or perhaps hours till another attention-seeker replaces them.
We shared memories of the school buildings for our respective Navy trades being across from one another on the shore of Lake Michigan. We were assigned to electronics schools ( perhaps five years apart) at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. And we both have been through the fire-fighting trainer in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a large complex of buildings built to resemble shipboard compartments where fuel-oil fires are set ablaze. Into the heat, dense smoke, and real danger, crews are trained to combat them, and to become familiar with all the tools and roles needed to fight and preserve a ship. At sea, there is only your shipmates to keep your vessel afloat.
Other memories of putting to sea on your first ship get dusted off and refreshed while talking. The times standing watch on the ship’s Quarterdeck in the middle of the night alongside the pier in Italy, you can chuckle about the garbage barge alongside – with something moving (not human) in the shadows. Or noting wharf rats the size of cats rooting around a dumpster in the dark at the head of the pier. And realizing what “rat guards” on your mooring lines are designed to block.
Memories of winter rain in Panama that will soak you to the skin in minutes. One of the wettest places on Earth, the year-round rain recharges the waters in the Canal Zone powering the locks on each end of the Isthmus. Swapping stories of liberty visits in ports ten time zones away from home that are extended to a month when a casualty occurs. For one it was the ship’s screw (the propeller, in civilian-speak). Without a shipyard and drydock, this enormous thing had to be replaced underwater by specially-trained teams. For the other, when a gas-turbine engine has to be flown from the USA and replaced in the Netherlands Antilles. Due to a prior transit in a freshwater river in the Northeast USA, killing the built-up marine growth – and then immediate transit to the Caribbean resulted in the cooling inlets for that turbine being choked by dead organisms and engine destroyed by overheating.
The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat. It is a colossal scavenger slang and has no respect.
While some of my friends have experienced sea-sickness on a harbor ferry in San Diego bay, and worn the medical patches when first putting to sea on cruise ships and small frigates, these aids may become unneeded when accustomed to life at sea for months at a time. With merchantmen and Navymen, the camaraderie of sharing shipboard stories, having weathered hurricanes and strong gales in the mid-Atlantic and off the western coast of Mexico transiting from the Panama Canal, the memories seem only days old instead of a quarter-century. My shipmates and I have marveled at the different colors of ocean water, the patterns of currents, bright sunshine and placid seas turn gray-black and stormy within hours. I’ve been concerned for brightly color birds alighting on our ship as we leave port and then been still there twenty miles to sea. Crossing the Equator and the International Date Line, as a Navyman I have been both Pollywog and seasoned Shellback during the traditional ceremonies of the “Shellback Initiation”.
And some of the other ‘initiations’ like standing a first watch on the bridge – learning to always check your binoculars handed to you, especially at night. Some salty Bosun’ mate (Boatswains mate) may have first smeared a little shoe polish in the eyecups. Or being especially vigilant while manning instruments and reporting conditions during underway replenishment. Any sailor will acknowledge the gait at sea is unique, an adaptation to simply performing your duties while the ship rolls in heavy seas. Huge waves breaking over the bow of your ship become commonplace. Watching a smaller vessel in your group seeming to disappear in the trough of the waves and then pop up as the waves crash by. While performing maintenance on deck, looking out and seeing a small sailboat, manned by an individual sailor, pass alongside hundreds of miles from shore.
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau (brainyquote.com)
For the many who are serving or have served honorably in uniform, we have a bond that few understand. For those who have spent several months, several years, or a working life, at sea, we have another strong bond that years and decades later we recall clearly. Perhaps it is indeed the stirring of the salt in our blood, the sea spray on our skin, and the experience of working together in times of routine, in danger and in emergencies when we all realize just how we are and will always be, Sailors.
In my email today I saw this story from my feed Pocket posted from the Philadelphia Magazine. And perhaps it is my age, my nostalgia, or something about potato salad or tuna with mayo – real mayo that is, but mayonnaise stories resonate with me. Alas, in truth I also have succumbed to post -20th Century condiments. The mayo that I do buy – is avocado-based!
Anyone who has gone to sea for any length of time – and with a wink to my Coast Guard brothers and sisters I mean out past “ankle deep” (out of sight of the land) – knows the sea is vast. And it really does not matter whether the vessel taking the mariner out is a sloop, a ketch, a six-hundred foot Navy cruiser, a thousand-foot aircraft carrier or nine thousand-passenger and -crew cruise liner. At some point, everyone realizes that we are but dots in the ocean.
For poets, scholars, kings, farm boys and fishermen, the ocean casts a spell beckoning us to it, and yet the depths and potential hazards have been a metaphor, even among land-lubbers, for danger and despair. Who today has not heard or used the phrases “in over your head”, “you’re in too deep”, “the deep end”, or being “out of your depth” to describe discomfort.
2 I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. Proverbs 69:2 (NIV)
But getting in over my head was never a reason for me to avoid doing something. I did venture to sea, most of the eight years I was crew on 3 Navy ships. Perhaps it was due to my early introduction to water. I think I was learning to swim almost at the same time I was learning to walk. My mother used to tell me how, as a toddler, I would venture off the step in the shallows of the community pool – and her lightning-quick mother’s arm would shoot out to rein me in as my head went under. I was a budding Jacques Cousteau. As a young teen, I took a class in Lifesaving, in order to become a lifeguard, and the instructor- as I recall it- tried to drown me simulating a panicked swimmer. I punched him. Later, in the Navy class on treading water, I never understood how some of my peers had never learned to swim. I never feared putting my head underwater. And in my twenties I obtained a SCUBA certification and spent some years going diving.
Still, I have a healthy respect for water whether it is gathered in rivers, large lakes, or the ocean. Perhaps it is due to my experience with lakes that appear deceptively shallow, or water that was particularly frigid on a very warm New England May day. Or with currents in rivers, in saltwater marshes with an ebbing tide where I tried to navigate a little rowboat across. And I’ve lost my footing in a shallow beach tidal outflow and been sucked out to the bay.
There is a magical quality to looking out at the sea, and witnessing the deepening blue hue of the deep ocean, turn gray-blackish and whipped into white foam caps. When a calm sea could become a violent storm in a matter of hours, there were some, myself included, who offered prayers of thanksgiving to Providence for never having been seasick . On a bright sunny day, as the weather turns into a full-force gale.
The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. Vincent Van Gogh / brainyquote.com
In my childhood, I was fascinated by nautical museums, sea captain’s two hundred year-old homes, touring lighthouses and old ships, steamers, and ferry boats. And today I am blogging about such things now and again. At my keyboard now I remember the first work of fiction I wrote for a college literature class being a blend of all these memories. And I quite clearly pictured Burgess Meredith as the crusty old Salt protagonist.
Dwellers by the sea are generally superstitious; sailors always are. There is something in the illimitable expanse of sky and water that dilates the imagination. Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Strangely, I never bought a boat after my assignments at sea ended. While I have been on several since my career in the Navy ended, I have never wanted to scrape barnacles, chip paint, or clean the salt-corrosion ever again. But I still know port from starboard, and even on the maritime museum, the MIDWAY at the pier in downtown San Diego, I will still request permission to come aboard. And I can wish for others a fond time getting “haze gray and underway”.