I met Captain Hayes in August 1980.
I had been high-lined from the USS Cayuga to the USS Belleau Wood as Amphibious Squadron Five was en route to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I had been serving as executive officer of the Cayuga for two months due to the standing XO having a breakdown (another story). When the new XO arrived, i returned to my job as the staff’s current operations officer (by high-line).
Captain Hayes had just relieved as commanding officer, and was senior to our commodore, Captain Jim McIntyre, an E2 pilot who preferred to be known by his aviation handle of “Silver Fox.” This seniority business made things, i later found out, a bit awkward.
After the high-line and settling back into my quarters, i made my official visit to the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Hayes, in the late afternoon. He was a big man. We hit it off. The captain was from Easley, South Carolina, which made it easier. I enjoyed our visit and decided i liked him. The surface line officers stuck together in the amphibious environment where many senior aviation officers went to get their major sea command tours for furthering their careers.
I later was told in World War II, Captain Hayes had been a coxswain of an LCM3 (5 generations earlier of the landing craft LCM8, which were the state of the art during my service). His ship was involved in the invasion of Okinawa. Captain Hayes, then a third or second-class boatswainmate, took supplies into shore after the beach head had been established. As the story goes, when he returned from his run, he could not locate his ship: Japanese gunnery or a Zero fighter had sunk it.
He also was in a underwater demolition unit (the origination of Navy SEALs) in the Pacific, was awarded a masters degree in nuclear physics from the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, and was in Admiral Byrd’s command in the admiral’s last exploration of Antarctica.
He was legendary among surface sailors and had been known to go out on a bridge wing and cuss out the line handlers on the forecastle several hundred feet away. And they heard every word. He was an old school surface mariner, my kind of Naval officer.
After getting back on the Belleau Wood for the next couple of days, i was deeply involved with catching up on my duties. I had been on Cayuga for over two months. I saw little of anyone except at the morning message meetings with the staff.
After we entered Puget Sound and set sea detail for going into Esquimalt, the Canadian navy base, the staff assembled on the flag bridge directly below the ship’s bridge. As the Belleau Wood closed to the harbor entrance, we received an intercom message from the ship’s bridge. The boatswainmate of the watch told us the port master wanted to talk to the commodore on the bridge-to-bridge UHF radio, which was not on the flag bridge.
The Commodore was loath to leave his post and directed me to go up to the ship’s bridge and talk with the port personnel.
I climbed the ladder to the bridge, feeling a bit awkward. The port should be talking to the captain of the ship, not the commodore, and there was this aviation-surface tension, not to mention the reverse seniority awkwardness. As i arrived, Captain Hayes in his gravely booming voice directed his junior officer to give me the microphone to the bridge-to-bridge radio.
The port officer pointed out crosswinds had picked up significantly, the harbor entrance was narrow, especially for a ship such as a helicopter carrier, and the tight berth would be difficult for ship of such size with the wind to moor without some damage. He then asked if the commodore would agree to going to anchorage, a mile-long liberty boat transit for the liberty party.
Feeling proud of myself for my tact, i pointed out to the port officer the commodore was not in charge of the ship, but i would ask the commanding officer, Captain Hayes, what he thought was best.
“Thanks, Lieutenant Commander,” Hayes began, “Tell them i won’t enter the harbor and will go to the assigned anchorage.”
“Aye, sir,” i replied. Then hitting the transmit button on the bridge-to-bridge, i told the port officer, “Captain Hayes said he can’t get the ship to that berth in these conditions and will take the ship to the anchorage.”
Then i heard Captain Hayes in full force:
“GODDAMMIT BOY, I DIDN’T SAY I COULDN’T GO TO THAT BERTH, I SAID, I WOULDN’T!”
“Yes, sir,” i replied meekly. “I apologize,” quickly retreating down the ladder.
The ship went to anchorage. I went on liberty, caught a hydrofoil to Seattle, rented a car and picked up Blythe, my ten-year old daughter at the airport. She and i spent a day in Seattle, rode the hydrofoil back to Victoria, stayed in the Empress Hotel, one of my all time favorite places, took a ferry to Orcas Island where we stayed with my long-time college friend Cy Fraser, spending the night in sleeping bags on the small patio of his log cabin to wake up and watch the deer grazing between us and the rocky beach of Puget Sound about thirty feet away.
Blythe and i went back to Seattle where i put her on a plane back to Austin. It was one of the nicest weeks i have ever experienced, all because i was with Blythe.
And to this day, i feel a kinship and understanding with J.C. Hayes. He taught me the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.”
Captain Hayes retired in 1983 after 40 years of active duty. He returned to his home in South Carolina where he passed away last year.
Sleep well, you wonderful mariner.