Category Archives: Sea Stories

Toothpick in a Bathtub

This began when i had one of the three best combinations of CO’s and XO’s i had in my Navy career of ten sea tours.

USS Hawkins (DD 873). 1968. Newport, Rhode Island.

USS Hawkins (DD 873), circa 1969

i don’t know why thought of this came into my head this first day of 2020. i mean, the regular two-year overhaul, scheduled to last six months began in September. Commander Max Lasell had just relieved as Captain and Louis Guimond remained as XO. i was still the First Lieutenant until the sitting ASW Officer completed his tour in early October, when i would relieve him. The ship steamed to the Boston Naval Shipyard, nee Charlestown Navy Yard (now long gone). i have about fifty sea stories of those six months. but there is one memory that sticks in my mind and replays over and over again.

The Hawk transited up the Mystic River to the main yard  to begin the  six-month overhaul. In late October, Hawkins left the yard and piloted to the Navy dry dock in  South Boston. The transit was one of my last days as the first lieutenant, subsequently becoming the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Officer. One of the bigger jobs in the overhaul was the upgrade of the sonar and ASW fire control systems, costing four million dollars in 1968, or just under $30 Million in today’s dollars. So after the ship was docked and the water was pumped out, i was one of the first to go to the floor  of the dock and study the underwater hull, now dry and sitting on the huge wood blocks.

i was awed by the size of the ship, especially the sonar dome which increased the ship’s draft by about ten feet. More impressive was the dock itself. It was dock #3. Reputedly, this dock was built to hold the RMS Queen Mary. At the top right of the  1946 photo below, the Queen Mary is in Drydock #3.

Queen Mary‘s length is 1,132 feet (She currently is in pier side on the mole pier in Long Beach open for tours with the staterooms  available for lodging) compared to Hawkins’ length of 391 feet. The British liner has a draft of 34 feet compared the Hawk‘s 14.5 feet (extended to over 20 feet with the sonar dome attached). Queen Mary has a beam of  147 feet while Hawkins was 40 feet wide.

The Hawkins rested on the massive wood blocks as we descended to the floor  of dry dock #3. Shipyard personnel escorted the captain, the executive officer, the chief engineer, and me to the floor of the dock as we checked out the screws, the various intakes and discharge valves and, for me, the sonar dome.

i was an ensign. i really didn’t do much more than gape at what i saw. My lasting impression of my destroyer sitting on those blocks in the dock built for the huge liner was “a toothpick in an empty bathtub.”

Close Call: Near Collision At Sea

Please bear with me. i’m reliving my past. This time, it was sponsored by the Facebook group, US Navy Gearing Class Destroyers. The admin guy for the page posted photos of radio central aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850), which continues to be restored as a museum in Fall River, Massachusetts. A shipmate from my first ship, USS Hawkins (DD 873), Gary McCaughey, commented and added a photo of him as a second class radioman, ET3 Mike Rebich, and RMSN Michael Jury  in the Hawk’s radio shack in 1969.

i began to comment on the post, but decided i wanted to post my thoughts here because it is part of my story for my grandson Sam. i began with a question for Gary:

Gary, were you on another, ship, like a cruiser before the Hawk?

USS Hawkins (DD 873), circa 1969

Hawkins barely missed a collision with the oiler in rough weather that autumn (i believe it was autumn, October perhaps). i remember talking to a second class (i think) radioman in the radio shack afterwards. i’m wondering if it was you.

i had the 20-24 bridge watch and had the conn during an exercise for a sub testing a new streaming sonar array system. The oiler had replaced another FRAM, which had engineering problems.

The Hawkins had problems of her own as en route (i recall the exercise was in the op areas northeast of Newport, Rhode Island) a freak wave curved around a port side weather deck bulkhead and dumped at least 50 gallons, probably more onto the after switchboard (hmm, i think i’ve written of this before) requiring the damage control gang (LTJG Nemethy was the DCA) to run emergency electrical cables throughout the ship for the remainder of that time at sea.

The Hawkins and the oiler had made several runs on different patterns. Each ship’s CIC and bridge would work outmaneuvering board solutions for the designed run toward the sub’s location with a turn out as we neared the center of the plot, over the sub.

The next run would produce a CPA a bit closer than the others. i asked Captain Max Lasell (i think he had made captain by then) to remain on the bridge instead of going down to watch the movie in the wardroom, adding i would call the wardroom to have them hold the movie’s start until he arrived. Captain Lasell agreed.

For this run, the oiler did the calculations and ran the pattern correctly but apparently executed the maneuver a couple of minutes late. As i realized we were close to in extremis with CBDR, i shouted “The captain has the conn,” and he took over while i made sure his orders were understood and executed immediately. With the captain’s  emergency maneuvering, the oiler passed in front of us, port side to, by about fifty yards. i remember looking up and seeing their pilot house.

After the near collision, Captain Lasell and i discussed what happened as he sat in the captain’s chair on the port side. We decided i would have done everything he did although i was not sure i would have ordered the port engine all ahead flank. we weren’t sure we would have collided if i had retained the conn, but we knew it would have been closer.

After the watch, i went to radio to pick up my radio messages. The second class told me he had been on a cruiser that had a collision. We talked for about ten minutes before i went down for midrats. To put it mildly, it had been a bit more exciting than i would have preferred. i had learned some valuable lessons i would use in future close calls.

After my talk to the second class radioman (perhaps Gary), the possibility of what could have happened sunk in. It took me while to go to sleep that night.

This was written in Navy “shipese.” If you would like an explanation, just let me know.

From a Lucky Old Vet

It’s that time, and tomorrow morning, i shall walk up my hill, stand under my flag at the peak — i put a light on it so i could keep it up during the night, not because i am lazy — i might be but not for this — but because a number of neighbors have thanked me for being able to see it in the morning and how good it makes them feel. If i raised it according to regulations, it would be at 8:00 a.m., and many would have already gone to work by then.

i shall stand there, look down on the combatants of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, and i will take off my cap and put my hand over my heart (not the cap: the U.S. Flag regulations call for one to take off his cap and put it at his side while putting his right hand over his heart). This will be my salute to all veterans. Later, i plan to go over to the golf course, hoping Jessie Thompson, the Pearl Harbor survivor will be there and i can thank him for his service.

Memorial Day is for honoring those who have died in defense of our country. It has been expanded to honor those veterans who have died after serving. Tomorrow is not a day for mourning,  saluting those folks who have left us, or lowering the flag to half mast. Tomorrow is a day for honoring our veterans.

By sheer circumstance and good luck, i am one of those veterans. It wasn’t really a sacrifice for me to serve our country. When i got back in the second time, i gave up my career in sports journalism for the security of my family. i had some close calls, but to me my service on ten ships and two shore duties was not arduous. i remain quietly respectful for those who really put it on the line. i have lost good friends whose lives were cut short because of service. i have number of shipmates who have debilitating injuries and less than good health because of their duty. So my few close calls are insignificant. As i have said often, i loved going to sea.

i hope everyone in this country stops for a moment tomorrow and salutes the veterans who served with honor in defense of our country and our way of life. i hope we put aside our political differences to pay homage to those who have served.

i plan to post one or two more of my Lebanon Democrat columns in the next day or so  dealing with this veteran and others. Some of what is included will be repeats from what has been posted before. But i hope it provides the opportunity to think about what our veterans have done.

Why Navy?

SAN DIEGO – As the new year ramps up, I am back in the Southwest corner considering why I made the Navy my career.

My father also has wondered why a boy from Middle Tennessee would choose the sea for his livelihood. Others have wondered the same thing.

The sea called me during my midshipman cruise on the U.S.S. Lloyd Thomas (DD 694) in 1963. We steamed from Newport, RI, to Sydney, Nova Scotia; to Bermuda; and back to Newport as part of the U.S.S. Intrepid (CVA 11) battle group.

My last four weeks were in engineering with two watches and normal work requiring 16-hour work days. Having no more sense than now, I went from my last watch to the crew’s movie in the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) hangar – “DASH” was a weapon which did not last long. Sailors called it “CRASH” instead of “DASH.” But its hanger on the 02 level just aft of amidships was perfect for showing movies.

This night, I watched “The Quiet Man” for the first time. As I left the theater and traversed the torpedo deck, I walked to the port side and gazed at the full moon.

The ship was making 15 knots. The moon’s reflection cut a wide, rippling, reflective path straight to me. The boilers roared through the forward stack. The bow wave was white, curling from the side and swishing its whisper as the ship cut through the water. “Darken ship” allowed no lights except those for navigation. At least a billion stars blanketed the black sky.

The sea grabbed me. She came down that path from the full moon, wafted across the bow wave, and reached deep inside. I felt her grab my heart and take it away.

I have loved her in her fury of the winter Atlantic, when she tossed a 500-foot ship around like a cork, ripping off protruding metal like dandelion bristles, and tossing sailors around the ship like matchsticks. Her intense fury blanketed the sea surface with froth.

I have loved her in the doldrums of the South China Sea where not a breath of wind existed, and the sea surface was glass for a week. I saw my first “green flash” then.

In the summer of 1973, steaming in the operating areas off of Newport, Rhode Island, my father saw why I went to sea. My ship, the U.S.S. Luce (DLG 7), was undergoing a major inspection. My Commanding Officer learned of my father visiting and invited him to ride during our underway day.

As a lieutenant, I was the sea detail officer of the deck. My father was by my side as I had the “conn” while the ship stood out of Narragansett Bay. As soon as we reached the operating area, we went to 25 knots for rudder tests, rapidly shifting the rudder to max angles both ways. The commanding officer and I went into a frantic dance, running in opposite directions across the bridge to hang over each wing checking for small craft in the dramatic turns.

After the rudder tests, I took my father into the bowels of the ship to our anti-submarine warfare spaces. My father stood behind me as I directed prosecution of a submarine contact. In the darkened spaces with sonar pings resounding, he watched as we tracked the sub on our fire control screen and simulated firing a torpedo.

After lunch, we set general quarters and ran through engineering drills. Finally, we transited back to Newport.

With mooring complete, the captain gave my father a ship’s plaque. My wife and mother were waiting on the pier when we debarked from the ship’s quarterdeck. As we walked the brow to the pier, my father said to me, “Son, I now understand why you would want to make this a career.”

I did. Somewhere in the latter stages of that career, I met a woman, a native of San Diego, and we got married. After a brief taste of being a Navy officer’s wife, she and I returned to San Diego for my “twilight” tour, the last four years on shore duty.

So now when I walk up our hill to raise and lower the flag, I look out to sea and check to see how many ships are pier side at the Naval Station.

And that, my friends, is why I made the Navy career and live in the Southwest corner, far from my home in Tennessee.

To my family veterans: Thanks. i don’t have photos of numerous others in  uniform, but thanks to all.

Jimmy Jewell
Jason Gander
Bill Prichard with his fighter named “Colleen.”
Ensign James “Pipey” Orr
















As for me:

Goofy guy, 1989
Goofy guy, 1968

At Sea Indoctrination

Last Friday, after FMG (Friday Morning Golf, a weekly event in my life since 1991 with longtime pals), the six of us sat down with our beers (except for one of us) and began our usual palaver nearly always involving sea stories and war stories (one of us, Marty Linville, was an army artillery officer), both of which could also be called military history, personal accounts, or bullshit.

The group consisted of Marty who retired as a major, his son Michael, his grandson Carson, Rod Stark who was a commander surface warfare officer, Pete Toennies who retired as a SEAL captain, and moi, also a surface commander type.

Michael, who did not serve in the military, began by citing “Platoon” and how his father noted what occurred in the movie was pretty accurate in the events. Marty clarified they were but  that all of the events did not happen to just one unit. Then Michael asked Pete if “G. I. Jane,” aside from having a woman (Demi Moore) going through BUDS training at the time, was realistic. Pete replied that the training depicted in the movie was pretty accurate,

Carson, who is matriculating to Linfield College in Oregon with a golf scholarship this fall and the one with no beer, listened intently.

We wandered off to quite a few politically incorrect topics, and i told a story indicating a man should not get in the middle of women arguing about what they should be called.

But afterward driving home, i began to think about what Pete, Marty, Rod, and i went through long ago.  All of us did it several times: in college, at OCS, our first military tour, crossing the line, and any special group we joined. Some folks call it informal indoctrination, today it is called hazing and frowned upon, primarily because some people have let get out of hand, do stupid things because they think they are being tougher resulting in people getting hurt or killed.

To us, it was all about breaking us down to remake us into a unit, a team. As  Gregory Peck’s character in “Twelve O’Clock High” drummed into his Eighth Air Force unit, it’s all about “unit integrity.”

I have written of how i was indoctrinated to the ways of the sea aboard the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) in 1963 as a Midshipman third class. But there were many other tricks or embarrassments ahead. Those earlier stories involved sailors trying to get a landlubber, a green newcomer, even worse an officer to be, seasick. The other tricks were to embarrass the landlubber.

When a new crew member reported to his division or his work station, he was often sent on a fool’s mission. Common were the assignment to go find “relative bearing grease,” or a “sky hook.”

My favorite was on my first ship as an officer, the USS Hawkins (DD 873). During one afternoon watch with turbulent seas looming and a severe turn about to be executed, the boatswainmate of the watch piped (blew) “Attention, All Hands” on his boatswain’s pipe through the 1MC speaker system and warned the crew to “Standby for Heavy Rolls.” The watch section in CIC (Combat Information Center, or Combat) sent a new radarman striker to the galley to wait for the cooks to give him some “heavy rolls” and bring them back to the watch.

Of course, there was no such thing, and the poor striker waited outside the galley for over an hour in an honest attempt to carry out his order.

Back to the Lloyd Thomas after my time in weapons and operations, i was sent to engineering, first to the machinist mate division standing watches in main control. On my first work day, the LPO (Leading Petty Officer) directed me to go the Auxiliary Shop and ask “A-gang” for some “relative bearing grease.” i did as directed. A-gang told me they were all out of relative bearing grease and i should go to Damage Control Central and ask them for the relative bearing grease. As i walked forward through the mid-ship passageway, it dawned on me there was no such thing as relative bearing grease.

So instead of returning to Main Control empty handed, i went to my rack in midshipmen berthing on the first deck aft, let it down, climbed in, and went to sleep. After about an hour, Main Control’s LPO became worried and sent third class petty officer looking for me. He lost my trail at DC Central and reported back to the LPO. Finally, the LPO himself started his search and found me asleep in my rack. It had been about two hours since he had sent me on on the search.

He woke me and demanded to know what i thought i was doing, that i could be put on report for sleeping on duty.

i responded by telling him after being unable to find the relative bearing grease, i was too embarrassed at my inability to find it and was afraid to come back to Main Control. Not having anywhere else to go, i came back to my rack and laid down.

He bought it.

And i got the best nap i had since getting underway six weeks before.

A Fitting Reply

Back when Navy ships were steam powered and a new concept in engineering plants had just begun, i was the Weapons Officer aboard the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa (LPH  3) homeported in San Diego.

The new program established the Propulsion Examining Board (PEB) to drastically improve the engineering plants of the fleet. The Navy appointed the most experienced and knowledgeable officers and enlisted in engineering to the board and subsequently those personnel conducted the much feared Operational Propulsion Plant Examinations (OPPE’s). If a ship underwent an OPPE and failed, it was more than likely the commanding officer, executive officer, and chief engineer would be “relieved for cause,” a career ending punishment.

i had experience with the OPPE’s on two ships although i was not directly involved. Neither was pleasant. i also had a tour as Chief Engineer aboard the USS Hollister (DD 788), and it was undoubtedly one of my toughest tours. So i was alert to all of the happenings on the waterfront when it came to engineering plant readiness.

One ship, a cruiser also homeported in San Diego, which will remain unnamed here, had undergone an OPPE. The ship failed, and as predicted, the CO, XO, and CHENG were relieved. The bureau of personnel picked a commanding officer to take over who had the reputation of being a superb engineer and unrelenting in driving ship’s force to prepare the ship’s plant for the next round of the inspection.

This CO drove everyone aboard to focus on preparations. His deck, weapons, operations, and administrative people were put into the fire rooms and engine rooms to properly prepare and then paint all of the spaces. They also provided support in administration and training to the engineers who worked harder than the rest of the ship with 16 hour days being the norm while they trained and brought all of the equipment up to expected standards. It was grueling work hours and the new CO was unrelenting in driving his crew toward the goal.

There was one machinist mate who was the leading grouser about what he was going through. He had been called on the carpet several times for his resistance and even had mouthed off to the commanding officer.

As was his habit, the CO had come in one morning at 0400 to inspect some of the work that was being accomplished. After checking out the progress, he had a cup of coffee and returned to his car to retrieve something he had forgotten to bring on board. When he approached  his parking spot, reserved for the CO, he discovered his car had been riddled with bullets.

He was sure he knew who did it, the resistant machinist mate. The CO marched back to the ship and went directly to main control where he knew the second class petty officer was working on a piece of gear.

“Did you shoot up my car?” he angrily confronted the sailor.

“No, sir,” the sailor replied.

“If i had done it, you would have been in it”

Morning Watch

Previously on this website, i have commented on my habit of rising early.

i did it again today, got up just past five, fed the cats, took out the trash, put up last night’s pots and pans, took out the trash for pickup, added to and tended the compost box, watered the gladiolas, checked the vegetable boxes, set the table, and then sat down at this infernal machine to cuss at all of the blockades to doing anything productive — the genies who dwelled in the evaps (distilling plant) and gave me grief, only allowing the evaps to produce good water when they felt so inclined when i was the chief engineer on the Hollister; well they jumped on my shoulder and rode with me until they leaped into my computer, moving each time i got a new one to torment me to the gates of hell with their insidious, prankish, really evil shenanigans — while the rest of the house and neighborhood slept except for the cats who pestered me while i cussed at my desk.

It is a routine. i do not know how i got into it. i don’t know why i arise early, but i suspect it’s because of the morning watch.

i have written of the morning watch before, but this morning, i am so inclined to write of it again. The morning watch was my favorite watch. It hardly ever started as my favorite. The messenger of the watch would show up in my stateroom beside my rack around 0315, 3:00 a.m. to landlubbers.

Messengers of the watch were circumspect in this duty of waking up officers for the mid and morning watches. They had heard of the one who had difficulty in arousing a rather burly LTJG from his rack, finally grabbing his shoulder when the young hard sleeping officer jerked hard and kicked out, whacking the messenger in the head driving him into the locker on the other side of the stateroom and breaking his nose. If calling the officer “lieutenant, lieutenant, wake up, wake up, it’s time for the morning watch” didn’t work, they would get at an angle, ready to leap away, and gently prod the officer.

i never lashed out, but i did grumble a lot. i would rub my eyes, shoo the messenger back to the bridge, put on the khakis i had prepped on the small fold-out desk across from my rack, splash my face with water from the shared sink at the entrance to our stateroom, hit the head on the way out, all with my red-lens flashlight on to guide me through the passageways and up the ladders to combat (Combat Information Center or CIC) to get the operational picture of what was happening before reporting to the bridge and announcing to the off-going OOD (Officer of the Deck), “i’m ready to relieve you, Sir.” It would be around 0340. In five minutes or less, i was briefed, saluted, and announced to the OOD so all could hear, “I relieve you, Sir,” to which the OOD would respond, “I stand relieved,” and the Boatswainmate of the Watch would echo, “Mister Jewell has the deck and the conn.”

It was only then, i appreciated the morning watch. The rest of it was just irksome stuff i did mechanically, reluctantly.

But then, i was in my world. For years, it was with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. On my last two ships, the cigarettes had left me. i was usually in my world of darkness standing at the center gyro compass, peering out into the darkness with not much going on. When the ship was in company with other Navy ships, i might see their running lights sparsely glowing in the surrounding waters. They too were quiet: never too much going on as far as formation changes or information exchanges. All of the elephants were in their racks. Junior officers ruled the  decks, the seas, their universe, and at that time of day, they were not inclined to much other than leaning on their gyros (i have some other sea stories about disliked seniors (elephants) screwing with OOD’s and even CO’s on other watches).

The first signs of the morning came in the aromas. Somewhere on 0430, i would get another cup of coffee and weather permitting, would go out to the starboard bridge wing, lean over the gunnel with my cup of coffee. The galley would be stirring a couple of decks below. Starboard, not port side was where to catch whiffs of the coffee, baking bread, bacon coming up to greet the morning.

Following that, about 45 minutes before actual sunrise, came my joy, my moment of silence, my spiritual moment. First light. It would creep into my awareness, slowly lightening the black sky of a million stars with the stars fading away as the lightness gradually infused the sky, allowing me to discern the horizon, a sharp line between the shades of the sky’s grays and the dark Navy blue of the sea (you see, there is a reason for the color of “navy blue”).

Then, the inevitable rising of that lucky old sun. i didn’t even mind the pink auras of sunrise as mariners know “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” Renewal. New dawn. New day.

Better yet, it was a short watch. Relief would come by 0700, allowing the off-going watch time to be the last in the chow line for enlisted and the last three or four to join the wardroom table. All of the other watches, except for the two hour dog watches designed for three section watches to rotate and accommodate the evening mess, were a solid, unrelenting four hours.

Once relieved, my day would come with a rush. Chomping down the bacon, eggs, and toast while reading the morning message traffic, rushing to quarters to pass  the word to my division, taking on the morning duties, paperwork, inspections, paperwork.

Fading around 1000, nearly always. That’s when the rack monster would start calling me. You see, the beginning and the end of the morning watch was not joyful. By the noon mess break at 1130, i was stumbling, eyes burning. Most often, i would skip the wardroom mess and head straight to my rack: a nooner, a long nooner, and what i later came to know as a “NORP,” Naval Officer Rest Period. Good hard sleep, even in rough seas.

On several of my ships, my rack was a couch, for some reason nearly always red faux leather in the daytime. The back would fold down to disclose a mattress in a metal frame. For my rack in rough seas at night or for a NORP i had a system. i would put clothes or blankets at the back of the seat, fold down the frame until the clothes, blankets, etc. left the frame at an angle; then i would pull the mattress outward until there was a crevasse between the mattress and the bulkhead. i would wedge myself into the crevasse where the ship’s rolls had less effect on my NORP. Good hard sleep. An hour, maybe a bit more.

i don’t think i did, but i like to believe i dreamed of the morning watch.

i would continue this sea story, but i have just realized it’s time for a NORP.

The Beginning of a Love of the Sea, part III

About a month and a half ago, i began trilogy of posts about acquiring my love of the sea.

i posted the first two stories of my third class midshipman cruise aboard the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD  764).  Then i rested. Those first two posts centered around how i became insulated against sea sickness. Neither the chief petty officer faking blowing lunch with his mixture of crushed graham crackers and milk in a barf bag nor the tricks of the sailors in rough seas could induce seasickness. My resistance allowed me to never have a problem with seasickness again, not even through the roughest seas, for the rest of my time at sea. Those events gave me a one up on being a mariner.

My real love of the sea was precipitated later in that eight-week cruise. We had been to Sydney, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and were headed back to Newport in late July somewhere in the middle Atlantic. i had spent my time in deck, operations, and was about three weeks into my five-week stint in engineering.

Engineering was on a four-section watch rotation and did not dog the 18-20 — the dog watches were 16-18 and 18-20, splitting the evening mess and allowing three section watches to rotate through different watches each day; a four section watch would rotate watches without splitting the dog watches into two. The midshipmen were in three sections. i began my engineering tour with the morning watch (0400-0800). Consequently, i stood the morning watch, then put in the 0800-1600 work day immediately followed by the 1600-2000 watches. For five weeks plus, i had a 16-hour workday.

Being young and having no sense at all, i went to the evening movie, shown for the enlisted in the DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) hanger aft on the 01 level. Every night. No sense. That gave me about five hours of sleep each day. No sense.

This particular night, the crew’s movie was “The Quiet Man.” i had never seen it, and was entertained and moved by the story. Perhaps that influenced what happened next. The thirty or forty crew members filed out of the hangar deck and headed to their berthing before taps. For a reason long forgotten, i delayed and trailed the exit. i was walking forward across the torpedo deck on the 01 level before heading down the ladder. i was alone. i stopped.

The night was a perfect summer night at sea. The ship was steaming with standard running lights allowing the stars to give off their full glory in the heavens. There was a full moon. It was almost perfectly abeam on the port side. i walked to the life lines and paused.

The Thomas was steaming at 15 knots on a windless night. The roar from the stacks passed over my head and was barely noticeable, but i could hear the swish of the bow waves passing down the port side. The reflection of the moon produced a path of sparkling white from the horizon directly to where i stood.

It likely was no more than a minute or two i stood there. It seemed then, and it seems now it could have been eternity. It was as if the goddess of the sea took her hand from the moon’s path and reached up and grabbed me. There was something deep in my gut, deep in my soul touched by that lady, the sea. She called me. i felt her then. i feel her now.

Oh, i tried to ignore her and the feelings down deep. i spent my obligatory three years after a chequered path to becoming an officer and got out with the intent of being a sports journalist. i only returned because of the financial responsibility of having a wife with a daughter on the way. The need for security. But the feeling from that night on the port side of the Lloyd Thomas never left me.

i spent almost 15 years on sea duty. There were many obligations for a Navy officer, what they eventually marketed as a “Surface Warfare Officer.” Those obligations often distracted from communication with the sea, but the sea never let go, never let go.

i have loved the sea in all of her moods: the calm of the doldrums, the lapping white caps of deep blue at first light, the heat of the water reflecting on a hot summer day in calm seas, the rage of a storm with waves breaking green water on the portholes of the bridge 75-feet from the waterline. And an infinite number of nights with the stars so plentiful, they seemed to run together and the full moon tracing its path to the port side of my ships. And grabbing me deep inside.

If i could go back to sea and drive ships, i would. But technology passing me by and age would not allow such a personal whim.

But the sea. Ahh, the sea goddess. i still love her.


The Beginning of a Love of the Sea, part II

Shortly after the chief petty officer’s sea sick bag trick, sea detail was secured and the regular underway forenoon watch (0800-1200) watch was set. Mostly green-faced midshipmen filed into the wardroom.

The midshipman coordinator explained a bunch of basics about life at sea for enlisted and officers, specific rules and expectations, and of course, possible punishment for not behaving like good midshipmen. We were assigned departments and given a schedule for rotating to other departments. i was to begin in operations, rotate to the weapons department after just over two weeks, and finally be assigned to engineering after another three weeks. Before we were escorted to our berthing, which was on the first deck below the fantail near the stern, i was informed my seabag had been delivered to a ship that departed about an hour after us, and the seabag would be transferred at first opportunity.

Thinking that surely would be a day or two, i felt okay. Little did i realize it would be more than three weeks before the seabag was high-lined from the recipient ship to the oiler escorting the carrier force and then high-lined from the oiler to the Lloyd Thomas. i was given the essential of toothpaste, toothbrush, soap to get through the first day while someone was supposed to be considering what they could do for my uniform.

All i knew was i smelled pretty badly and it wasn’t good for someone’s first day at sea. We settled into our berthing and they pretty much gave us the afternoon off except for watch standers. Our new beds, “racks” in Navy jargon consisted of a canvas cloth tied to aluminum frames stacked three deep above three 3×3 foot lockers. If you had the middle or bottom rack (being one of the shorter midshipmen i was elected to have a bottom rack — if the guy above you was in, the sag in the canvas would not allow you to roll over to a new position: you would have to get out of the rack and enter in the position you wanted. i have always been able to take a nap…anywhere, anytime, and this small obstacle did not deter me. After all, i had had a few pretty rough days and little sleep.

But i did get up for the evening mess. i took my place in line on the main deck port side and in due time passed through the mess line. The crew was intent on initiating the midshipmen to being at sea and the cooks were very much into that. The first evening meal was greasy pork chops, beans, and gravy. There may have been some potatoes and white bread, but i don’t recall. When i sat down at one of the mess deck tables, i was not enthusiastic in eating the fare on the compartmentalized metal tray in front of me, but i knew eating was necessary to keep my condition the way it was rather than reaching the condition of nearly all the other midshipmen in the mess. When all of the midshipmen were settled, the sailors had another delight in store. About a half dozen of them took turns walking among  the tables. When they reached where a midshipman was sitting, the sailor would take a sardine he had tied to a string out of a sardine can. Then making sure the sailor was watching, he would swallow the sardine whole. pause, pose, and the draw the sardine back out of his throat and mouth, letting it dangle before repeating the process. We lost everyone again except for two of us.

After the mess, they opened “C-Stores” for cigarettes. i could not believe it. Out at sea, supply sold a carton of cigarettes for one dollar. i stood in line for mine and when the storekeeper informed me they didn’t have Chesterfield Kings, i asked for a carton of Winstons. i got a bad carton and on my next time to C-stores, i went to Pell-Mell’s (another story). But that night, i just wanted to smoke. i needed it…i thought.

My division assignment was radar. That meant i would be working for the radarmen in Combat Information Center (CIC), then quartermasters, and then signalmen. My first watch was the evening watch (2000-2400). The radarmen were smart and nice guys. But i was a midshipman, and their goal was to get all midshipmen seasick that first day. The fact that i smelled like a wet sock that had been in the gym for about two weeks didn’t help.

When i reported to combat, they immediately put me on a radar scope, showed me how to watch the display and report any surface contacts. The watch coordinator put me on a scope where i was facing athwartship (for the landlubbers, it is more difficult for balance, i.e. imbalance induces seasickness, to adjust to the rolling of the ship when facing athwartship rather than fore or aft). The supervisor promised to check on me. They did. About every five to ten minutes, one of the watch standers would come by my radar repeater to check. Each one was smoking a cheap, foul-smelling cigar and ensured, while they were checking on me, their smoke was blowing into my face as much as possible.

So there i was and would be for almost four hours, certain to be sitting in the wrong position, holding on the radar repeater in a dark room with only a few red lights, staring at the cathode ray tube with green sweeps across a black circular screen while the ship rolled back and forth and cigar smoke completely surrounded me after a day of sailor tactics to get me to join my midshipmen buddies hugging the toilets while i smelled like a small goat herd after a rain in my now four-day old clothes. i felt if i was turning green. i could feel clumps in my stomach rising up. i began looking about for a barf bag. i felt a lump in my throat. i wondered how long it would be before, as they say in the Navy i “upchucked.”

Then, sitting there, i told myself i was not going to let these yahoos get pleasure out of seeing me seasick. i swallowed whatever it was coming up, and it went back down. i certainly wasn’t in the best of shape, but i made it through the watch, drank a lot of water from the nearest scuttlebutt when i was relieved by the mid-watch.  And with the nonparallel capability to sleep anywhere, anytime, i hit my rack and was asleep within seconds.

From that moment on the radar watch until as i write right now, i have never been seasick. i have cleaned up from shipmates on numerous occasions. i have been in seas only slightly less hazardous than those in a perfect storm. My biggest problem with motion is getting my landlubber legs back when i hit shore after long periods at sea, not the other way around.

The second morning underway, things began to get a bit better, thanks to the very sailors who were trying to get me sick the night before.

It was better but i certainly wasn’t in love with the sea yet.

The Beginning of a Love of the Sea, part I

It wasn’t like i always wanted to go to sea. My idea of being on the water was waterskiing with buddy Henry Harding and his family or fishing with my father on Tennessee lakes. That was it for my ambition to be on any water.

In fact the Navy was my third choice in my college choices as i was about two months away from graduating from Castle Heights Military Academy. i really didn’t consider any military to be in my future, except for, of course, the draft.

My first choice for college was Centre College. John Thompson, one of the stars of our senior class was already headed there. My parents and i drove the 150 miles up to Danville to check it out. i loved it, but i really loved it because the football coach had indicated they would like to have me on the football team. i believed i might actually be able to play the sport for four more years, my dream. Unfortunately, Centre did not award athletic scholarships. The coach and my grades (i somehow — i still have no idea how  — finished fourth in academics in our class and even more remarkably had scored high on the SAT’s) allowed the administration to award me a $2500 scholarship.

i knew my parents could not afford to pay the balance, and i sadly declined the invitation.

My second choice was Vanderbilt. Each year, they awarded a four-year scholarship, The TRA Grantland Rice Scholarship to a deserving and promising sports writer. i had been the sports editor of the award winning The Cavalier, the Heights newspaper under the tutelage of one of the best journalists of all time, “Coach” JB Leftwich. It was for $10,000, at the time it would cover a large chunk of tuition and expenses.

Rumor has it i finished second. Bob Thiel, who ended up being one of my closest friends even until today, won it. He deserved it because he had been a superb reporter for the Evansville, Indiana newspaper.

i had also applied for an NROTC scholarship, never thinking i would end up being accepted as i kept thinking ole Grantland’s boys would do me well (i always have been a bit too optimistic). William LeRoy Dowdy, II, the editor of The Cavalier, and a far superior academic to me, was also going for the NROTC scholarship. One afternoon in the newspaper office, he and i decided it would be tougher for us if we both listed Duke as our number one choice of schools. So i opted for Vanderbilt. i wish it had been for my desire to take advantage of their reputation as “the Harvard of the South.” But i conceded Duke to Lee because i was a fan of Vanderbilt and Tennessee football and Vanderbilt basketball.

i got it.

There are many twists and turns of my academic disaster after i matriculated but i made it through the freshman year, which meant i would be going on a third class midshipman cruise.

At the end of April, i was ordered to report to the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764) in June for eight weeks of midshipman training.

The travel for my orders gave me two options. i could have the NROTC unit book an airline flight out of Berry Field to Providence and further transportation to Newport, Rhode Island or i could get there on my own and receive travel pay. After checking out the cost of a Trailways bus ticket from Nashville to Newport, i decided i could pocket a significant amount of money if i chose the pay your own way and get the travel pay. Bad idea.

My parents drove me to Union Station, which then was also a Trailways Bus Station. i was in my service dress Khaki midshipman uniform, complete with my combination cover. Around noon, we said our goodbyes and i boarded the bus. It was rather full. i took the aisle seat on the right side about one-third of the way back next to an older lady with a small hat on top of her gray hair.

By then, i smoked Chesterfield Kings. Cy Fraser had introduced me to them. After baseball games in my senior year, i had smoked Winstons when several of our baseball team after games would find a place where they would sell beer to minors (under 21 at the time) and find a country road, sit on the side of the road (along with several other antics of greater legend) in our baseball uniforms where we could smoke cigarettes and drink Country Club Malt Liquor. But that autumn of my matriculation, my fraternity pledge brother and still one of my lifetime friends, Cy introduced me to Chesterfield Kings. i liked the image. i liked the macho aspect of an unfiltered cigarette, and i liked the smoke.

The little old lady was not as enthusiastic. She bewailed the sinners who would smoke cigarettes. She foretold of death shortly after the U.S. government decided, even with the money thrown at them by tobacco interests, the public should be warned.

i lit up. In fact, i was pretty much a chain smoker for the entire five hour ride to Louisville with what seemed like interminable stops. She got off. i ate a woeful Stewart sandwich with chips at the fifteen-minute rest stop, drank a coke and reboarded.

The bus ride, with a stop at every spot in the road, took over forty-three hours with a transfer in Providence for the final hour ride to Newport. The bus arrived at the station in Washington Square at 0730. It was a sunny morning and the quaint little “square” was intriguing.

It was much different than when i was later in Newport. The station was at the point of the triangle to the east. “Washington Square” is not a square at all. Back then, Eisenhower Park was in the middle, and the courthouse stood at the east end, the base of the isosceles triangle they call a “square.” The sides of the triangle held a uniform shop amongst other shops and a diner or two. It seems there were a couple of attorney offices, and if i remember correctly, there was one or two bail outfits. Near the bus station were what we would call today, dive bars. Several more sailor bars were on Thames (pronounced thāmes, not “‘tems” like the street in London), the old, old street which ran north toward the Naval Station.

The waterfront of Newport still had that air of an old and rough seaport area, not the upscale touristy aura there today.

Other midshipmen, who were much smarter than me and had taken the air travel option were bussed from the Providence airport to the Trailways Station. The Navy haze gray buses were waiting for us. i debarked from the bus and went to the baggage hold to retrieve my seabag, which had all of my 3/c midshipman sailor gear in it, working whites and the classic dungarees with the blue chambray shirt — to this day, i am amazed some yahoo thought we should get rid of them and the bell bottom uniforms so our sailors could look like bus drivers and plumbers — and the dixie cup with a navy blue band around the brim — ditto on the Navy ditching them for ball caps, piss cutters, and combination covers.

Regardless, mine were not in any of the cargo holds. The buses were waiting as i frantically queried the bus personnel. As the Navy petty officers were telling me we had to leave because my ship, the Lloyd Thomas would be one of the first to get underway in less than two hours, the bus folks were admitting my seabag was not transferred in Providence as it should have been, that they had located it and it should, hopefully,  be delivered to the ship before the Thomas got underway.

Wondering just what the hell i was going to do if it didn’t make it but a bit placated by the assurance of the bus station manager, i took my bus  seat for the fifteen minute ride to the destroyer piers on the Naval Base.

As we filed off the bus, the chief directed me to Pier 2. My ship was on the north side about three-quarters o f the way down the pier. i had passed by Pier 1 and marveled at the USS Yosemite (AD 19). The flag ship was adorned with all sorts of flags and pennants with an immaculate and large brow to the pier. She was the flagship for Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet and was an impressive sight. She was the first Navy ship i saw for real. Little did i realize i would be her executive officer on my last operational tour twenty years later.

As i walked down Pier 2, i noticed small black particles in the air and settling on my combination cover and my blouse. i tried to brush some of them off, but they not only clung to the fabric, they were making holes. Back in those days, steam ships would “blow tubes” while pier side. This is roughly the equivalent having a chimney sweep clean your chimney. Blowing tubes was shooting forced air through the boiler tubes up the stack, blowing off the acidic residue, those black specks i encountered. If the residue was left on the stacks they could eat into the tube, and destroy the 600 pound boilers, most likely with a disastrous explosion. By the time i was commissioned, doing this pier side was forbidden and usually done on the mid or morning watch. By the time i was CHENG on the Hollister, you could get in real trouble and face fines, if you were caught with any smoke coming from your stacks. But then, there were no such restrictions. That cover and that blouse had little holes in them when i turned them into the unit upon my return.

i walked across the Lloyd Thomas’ brow, stopped, faced aft, saluted the ensign hoisted on the fantail, and asked the OOD on the quarterdeck for permission to come aboard, just as my Navy instructor had taught me to do. About a half-dozen of us were checking on board. The petty officer immediately escorted to the wardroom where the other midshipmen awaited us with the executive officer. There were eighteen third class and three first class midshipmen. The XO welcomed us aboard quickly. When i inquired about my seabag, one of the petty officer escorts informed me it was not delivered.

We were sent to the 01 deck forward of the bridge where Mount 52, the second forward 5″ 34 twin gun mount used to be, now it it had a hedgehog mount, an anti-submarine weapon on each side, but was more of a ceremonial deck than anything else. We fell into a three-rank formation facing the port side as the ship got underway.

In spite of stinking to high heaven and the restrictions of being at parade rest in the ranks, i had an initial feeling of exhilaration as the USS Lloyd Thomas cleared the pier, backed into a turn in Narragansett Bay and headed south by southwest out the channel past Fort Adams, Jackie Kennedy’s family Auchincloss estate and the summer mansions of ten mile drive.

About ten minutes after getting underway, the midshipmen in formation had their attention distracted. Some were already getting a little pale from the rolling of the destroyer through  the channel. A chief had gone down to the chief’s mess and retrieved a “barf bag,” a paper sack hung on rails through the ship’s passageways when getting underway, hopefully being used by some poor seasick dog to keep from puking on the bulkheads and decks. The chief poured some milk into the bag. He then took vanilla wafers, crumbled them up, and added them to the milk before shaking his mixture into a chunky mess.

He emerged from the port side hatch just aft of the midshipmen’s formation and under the port bridge wing where no one on the bridge could see him. He then spoke loudly to ensure all of the midshipmen could hear him, “Damn, every time we go to sea, i have to get sick. Looks like it’s gonna happen again.” He then paused, retched, shook, and pretended to blow lunch into the seasick bag.

The midshipmen were staring at him in disbelief. When he was sure they were watching, he explained as if to himself, “And there’s only one way to cure it.”

With that pronouncement, the chief proceeded to put the bag to his mouth and gulp down the milk and vanilla wafer concoction, making sure a great deal of the contents dribbled down his khaki uniform and onto the steel deck.

That was the final blow. Out of the twenty-one midshipmen, there was one first class, and two third class midshipmen including me,  left in the formation. The other eighteen were at the safety rails, retching their innards away into the sea.

i’m sure the sea detail on the bridge was wondering about the wimps they had just taken on board.

It was not an auspicious beginning of my time at sea. It was about to get worse.


i know i have recounted this story before, many times orally and once or twice on paper, or this poor excuse for paper that shows up on your computer screen. The other day on the  US Navy Gearing Destroyer group on Facebook, there was an entry from someone who had served on the USS Brownson (DD 868). The name generated my recall of the story.  i love it, and now that i’m hooked up with some destroyer men on Facebook, i wanted to share it again.

For those of you who weren’t around the Navy’s Destroyer School in 1973, you may not have heard this story about the USS Brownson (DD 868). Three of the Brownson’s junior officers, including one who was stashed there waiting for department head school in Newport, Rhode Island, related it to me at a late afternoon tea…okay, okay, a couple of pitchers of beer for happy hour at the small annex to the officer’s club up the hill from the destroyer-submarine piers.

CHENG (chief engineer for landlubbers) on the  Brownson had won the respect of the ship’s officers who were with me in the six-month course was just on the south side of daffy and apparently had done several wild and goofy things while aboard . But he was a superb engineer and somehow the captain tolerated all of the shenanigans.

The gang swapped sea stories about CHENG’s antics. The sea stories were surprising, sometime a bit shocking. Then they told me the best one:

The Brownson had been operating for about two weeks with exercises in the Atlantic op areas off of Newport but had been independent steaming for several days. There was not much going on, no shipping to speak of, and relatively calm seas. Those watches, especially at night, are boring where you struggle to stay awake. CHENG had the midwatch on the bridge, nine total bodies on the bridge in the dark. In watches like that when i was OOD, i would query the watch standers about the actual names of the 16 points in the compass, like “one point off the starboard bow” is “nor, nor by nor east.”

But Brownson’s CHENG had a bigger idea. About half-way through his mid-watch, he transferred steering control to after steering. Then he shifted the entire bridge team to the flying bridge on the 04 level directly above the bridge. Finally, he had the Boatswainmate of the watch go to the 1MC (the ship’s loudspeaker system) and pipe attention, followed by the announcement, “Captain to the Bridge!” On old destroyers or for that matter any Navy ship i served during my career, every captain when underway spent his nights in the “sea cabin” immediately aft of the bridge so he could quickly access the bridge in an emergency — apparently, the new age of commanding officers no longer feel required to sleep in the sea cabin but choose the much larger, more comfortable Captain’s Cabin below the bridge for the evening.

So the pipe has called attention and the Boatswainmate has called the captain to the bridge. The captain erupts from his rack, crashes out of the sea cabin in his pajamas with his housecoat dragging behind…and there in the middle of the night on the “darken ship” bridge no one is on the bridge.

The officers telling the story did not explain what happened after that except to say, the captain and CHENG had a meaningful conversation in the wardroom the next morning.

i keep trying to imagine what ran through the captain’s mind those first thirty seconds or so when he ran onto the bridge ready for an incredible emergency and the bridge was empty.