Category Archives: Sea Stories

Black Oil

Long before Navy ships became sophisticated power chains of today, most Navy ships were fueled by black oil. Black oil was just a step above crude oil. Environmentalists would probably have heart attacks just looking at it.

It was the fuel for ship’s boilers after coal and before “Navy distillate,” a cleaner burning oil. i have a number of sea stories about black oil and Navy distillate. This story is about black oil before that other stuff became the Navy’s fuel of choice. It was a thick, viscous, and clinging substance: think of B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox, B’rer Bear, and the “Tar Baby.”

In the summer of 1963, the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764) was on exercises in the Atlantic OP areas (operational areas). i was a third class midshipman. We were en route from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Bermuda and were refueling from an old Navy oiler. It was the time of black oil.

During the refueling operation, i was assigned to the “DASH” deck aft. i don’t think the sailors topside who weren’t on the refueling teams were wearing service dress whites as in the Goodrich photo, but they could have been. We were in our dungarees (far and away the most impressive, most effective, and most appreciated working uniforms for sailors ever) and in kapok life jackets. We didn’t wear hard hats but we did have on battle helmets.

Ray Bean, a member of the Facebook group, “US Navy Gearing Class Destroyers” posted some rather amazing photos of the USS Goodrich (DD 831) refueling that same year. Ray’s photo here shows the after refueling station on the DASH deck, just forward of the after gun mount:

The refueling hoses were secured to the post in the middle of this photo and the end was placed in a fitting which was a fuel line to the ship’s tanks. The hose was tied off with what we called a “pigtail” to keep the hose in the fitting.

On this particular evolution, the deck seaman in charge of securing the “Pigtail’ did not do a good job. When the refueling began, the force of the black oil through the refueling lines broke the pigtail. Black oil hit that sailor dead on, carrying him back into the lifelines in the upper left hand corner of the DASH deck as shown in the photo. He collapsed in the corner completely covered with the oily goo.

The disaster was reported to the captain on the bridge. He sent his executive officer back to the station to take handle the catastrophe. By the time the XO got to the station, the pigtail had been secured and fuel was being pumped into the tanks. But this old exec was proud of his self-importance. Seeing the fuel was pumping, he raged about cleaning up the mess. He pointed to the gunky mess in the corner and demanded to the officer in charge to get rags, clean the mess up, and to throw that oily mess overboard.

The officer in charge then said, “But sir, that’s Seaman Jones.”

The XO, startled, mumbled something about cleaning everything up and meekly went back to the bridge.

After we cleaned up the seaman, we all laughed.

Christmas Keeper

i posted this two years ago. Even though it validates i am a bona fide goof ball, i believe the story itself should be retold. Maureen Boggs Jewell remains a wonder, and i think, in spite of me she loves me almost as much as i love her:

i may have written about this before, but i don’t remember if i actually did post it here, or if it was such a seminal moment in my life, it just seems i have written about it a thousand times.

It happened in 1984. Christmas Eve actually. In Mayport, Jacksonville, and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

The USS Yosemite (AD 19) had returned from its historic deployment to the Indian Ocean eight months earlier. If anything, the executive officer’s workload, a.k.a. moi, had increased. But down time was a lot more fun.

After Maureen had given up on her weekly commute between Jacksonville and San Diego  in early June, she and i had become a permanent couple in the same place. We had been married July 30, 1983 in her father’s home in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego. Yup, the Southwest corner. Ten days later, i had flown home to Lebanon, Tennessee to pick up my Mazda Rx7 and drive to Yosemite’s home port of Mayport, northwest of Jacksonville proper. Other than a romantic Labor Day weekend with Maureen, i would not see her for another eight, almost nine months.

i was elated to see Maureen on the pier when Yosemite moored on her return and even more excited when she gave up the commute. It was not quite two months before our first anniversary and we had been together only two months of our marriage.

Christmas was going to be special, extra special, our first together. Our first married Christmas, Maureen was with her family in the Southwest corner; i was in Diego Garcia.

The Yosemite cooks and mess specialists (MS), nee “stewards” had done an incredible job for a Christmas away from home, but it wasn’t’ home, and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet — some bozo later decided to change the name because they wanted only the president to be the “Chief” and reduced the title to simply “Commander, Pacific Fleet – wanted to raise the esprit de corps of the tender’s crew and wardroom, which meant Yosemite had a personnel inspection on Christmas Eve and this XO joined Captain Boyle, Admiral Crowe, and his aide for a Christmas Eve lunch. The admiral was a great guy and later became the CNO and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it really wasn’t the kind of Christmas Eve i would have preferred.

So the Christmas in Mayport was going to be special. But not in the manner i anticipated.

The ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Frank Kerrigan, and i had become good friends on the deployment and had a common interest in playing golf and racquetball, as well as being ardent sports fans. Frank was my escape from XO in many ways. Fresh out of medical school at the University of Chicago, Frank came to the ship with no Navy experience. i taught him many of the ropes, and he allowed me to talk and act like a human, not a Navy commander, number two in charge of a ship’s crew of 900. Janet, his wife, also had earned her medical degree with Frank in the Windy City, and was the resident doctor at the Mayport naval base clinic. Maureen became her patient, which evolved into them becoming close friends, like Frank and i, until that 1984 Christmas day. The two are the godparents of our second daughter, Sarah.

We were all away from our other families. So we decided to celebrate Christmas Day together at our home in Ponte Vedra Beach. It sounded like an excellent idea and eventually, it was.

But Christmas does not reduce a ship’s exec duties. The holidays actually increase the things an XO must do. So i kept putting off Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. Frank (a ship’s medical officer is also busy), came up with a plan. To this day, i claim it was Frank’s idea, and he claims it was my idea. We agreed to that strategy.

Regardless, we had it all worked out when we added something we both loved as a Christmas present to ourselves. We got a tee time with a couple of Frank’s friends. The course was a new championship course with the holes entwined with a river on the west outskirts of Jacksonville, about an hour drive from the base.

The plan was to leave the ship around 0930/1000, drive out to the course, play 18, and finish up our shopping for our wives before returning to our homes around 1700. Our wives, aware of the stress and workload we both were under, agreed to our plan.

Great idea.

But then there were some complications.

Just after morning Officer’s Call and Quarters, Frank came to my office.

“XO, we have a slight problem,” Frank said, “One of our enlisted women overdosed on some prescription drugs. We have to get her to the Navy hospital. We’ve called the EMT vehicle.”

“Man, that’s terrible,” i reacted, “Is she going to be all right?” Being the good XO, i added, “Have you told the Captain? If not, i better let him know.”

“I think she’s going to be fine,” Frank answered, “I would appreciate you notifying the CO, adding, “but there is another problem.”

“What’s that?”

Frank responded, “I left my clubs at home in Atlantic Beach, thinking we could pick them up on our way to the course.”

“So?” i asked.

“XO, I have to go in the ambulance to the Navy Hospital,” he explained. The Navy hospital was about a half-hour away on the other side of Jacksonville.

“i guess that means our golf present to ourselves is cancelled,” i said resignedly.

“No,” Frank replied, “If you don’t mind, you can go by my house. I’ll give you the garage opener. You can get my clubs and shoes and pick me up at the hospital around ten.”

Then he explained, “I don’t think it would look very good for the ambulance to stop at my house and put the clubs in the back with the patient.”

i agreed with his explanation, also agreeing to his plan. He gave me his garage opener.

Well, being an XO on Christmas Eve, complications on the ship can arise. They did. My planned departure of 0930 was pushed back to past 1030. i called Frank and told him i was on my way. i picked up his clubs and headed west through the maze of interstates, bypasses, and confusing surface streets. This was long before mobile phones of any kind or GPS navigation. Being me, i got lost.

i finally made it to the hospital about 1230. Frank got in my RX7, and we sped to the course. We were about twenty minutes late. Frank’s friends had already teed off. We guessed they would be on the third or fourth hole. Now, i don’t know if you have noticed or not, but not a lot of golfers play on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, especially on the East Coast where it gets dark, real dark early in December. Frank and i decided we could play really fast and catch up to his friends.

We didn’t catch up. Tough course. As we got to the fifteenth tee, the sun was setting. We discussed our options. Being golfers, whether decent or bad, logic was not included in our decision. We decided to complete the round. After all, it would be a shame to not “see” the last three holes.

By the time we reached the seventeenth tee, the sun had not only set, the stars were out. The course, surprise, surprise, was dark. We played in the dark, guessing the direction where our shots were headed. If the balls weren’t where we guessed, which was nearly all of the time except on the green, we would drop another ball and continue playing. When we finished, Frank’s friends were long gone. There was no one in the clubhouse except the rather anxious pro. He had to finish his shopping as well.

i began driving toward the big shopping center on the coast near both of our homes when Frank told me we had to make a detour and a stop.

He explained, “Well, Janet wanted a kitten for Christmas, and I made a reservation to pick one up from this lady.”

Thinking this exchange would be a slam dunk, i agreed and took Frank’s direction to the lady’s house.

The house was a trailer home in the middle of a swamp of some sort, or perhaps a jungle. i drove the RX7 down the unpaved, one-lane road to the clearing where the trailer home stood. Frank knocked on the door.  The old lady came to the door.

He told her he had come to pick up the kitten and asked how much he owed her. She responded the kitten was free. i thought the deal is done; we’re out of here. But there was another twist.

The old lady muttered, “You’ll have to catch one.” She closed the door and returned to watching the television.

Frank and i spent about twenty minutes chasing all kinds and all ages of cats through the brush and the trees before catching one. We found an empty orange crate, opened the hatchback of the RX7, and i started to place the kitten in the crate.,

The kitten was not pleased with the idea. He or she attacked me like the cat from hell, puncturing my hands multiple times before climbing up my left arm at full speed, leaving claw marks for my entire arm’s length, and departing with a shriek.

We returned to the hunt for about ten minutes before giving up. It was too dark.

Frank was disappointed with this turn of events but okay. He said he could get a kitten later and he had already bought Janet another nice gift.

i had not planned ahead that well. i needed to get to the shopping center. i wanted to get Maureen a nice piece of clothing and nice piece of jewelry. i sped there. The shopping center closed at nine. Except on Christmas Eve, the mall closed at six.

The parking lot was empty.

i was frantic. Frank rode with me looking for something open. The only place we found was…a Pick ‘n Save.

They had absolutely nothing Maureen would want for a Christmas present, especially for our first Christmas together as husband and wife. Frantic, i ran down the aisles looking for something, anything.

Then this yahoo spotted something that would be awful but might somewhat make amends if i told my story, apologized, and promised great gifts beyond her wildness imagination in the future.

This would have probably been a good plan. But the gift i chose was a set of four whiskey sour glasses for $6.99.

I got home at 2100 (9:00 p.m.). i explained most of the misadventure, blaming Frank. She already knew me well enough to believe a little less than half of my tale. We dressed and went to wonderful midnight Christmas Eve service, sitting in the small balcony of an Episcopal Church close to our home. The service was almost completely carols with the sanctuary lit by candles and filled with the aroma of the pine bough decorations. It was romantic. It was so Christmasy.

But it did not assuage my fear of our gift opening the next morning.

The next morning, we had a wonderful Maureen breakfast. Before Frank and Jan came over for the Christmas turkey feast, we opened our presents. There were many wonderful gifts from our families in San Diego, Tennessee, and other places. Maureen’s present to me was wonderful, a sweater, i think. i waited as she took the rather shabby wrapping off of my gift as i once again expressed its inadequacy with my weak explanation, blaming Frank and the failed kitten hunt again. Dread is probably the best way to describe my feelings as my “gift” was revealed.

When she saw the box of whiskey sour glasses with the price tag i had forgotten to remove in my haste…she laughed her crazy, legendary laugh. At first, i thought she was crying, fearing our love affair and marriage might be falling apart before my eyes. Then i realized she really was laughing. She came over and gave me a wonderful hug and kissed me. My relief cannot be overstated.

The story has become legend among our families and our friends.

The whiskey sour glasses made it back to the Southwest corner when i was relieved as XO and headed back to San Diego for my twilight tour (the last tour before retirement). Shortly afterward, the four glasses strangely disappeared.

But that Christmas morning was when i realized i had a keeper and would be married for a long, long time.

That realization came thirty-four years ago.

And she still laughs about it.

And i’m still paying for it.

Merry Christmas, Maureen, dear wife of mine.

A Photo of Another Era, Another Place

i shared a photo memory on Facebook several days ago, and a man, a good man, whom i now consider a close friend, Hays Mershon, made a comment about our not reading the sign:

i responded with a sea story i would like to share with those who read my posts and aren’t on Facebook:

Oh, we read it, Hays. We just decided it didn’t make a lot of sense.

It was the Market Time outpost on the peak across the channel from the Army port of Qui Nhon.

On an earlier trip, we had some beers in the Army’s small O’Club hut on a peninsula at the end of the base. A Vietnamese man in a small narrow boat was coming in from a fishing trip. Apparently, the lookouts in the post in the photo thought the fisherman was a bad guy. They began to fire their .50 cal at the fisherman.

They weren’t very good shots and the Army lookouts at the post at the very end of the base thought someone was firing at them and began to return fire. We were caught in the middle of the crossfire and hunkered down between some concrete and steel piles outside the O’Club.

The fisherman calmly continued down the channel and pulled in boat into a small pier beside his village.

Finally, the two outposts realized they were shooting at each other. The crossfire ceased.

We went back in the club and had another beer before going back to the ship.

On the next trip, we went over to Market Time and the village over on that side of the channel and visited. Thus, we took this photo.

After we came back to the ship in a small skiff, just after midnight, Viet Cong zappers blew a hole below the waterline of the cargo ship aft of us (i’m pretty sure we were the target because we had just dropped off 1500 ROK troops and were to load 1500 the next day to take back to Pusan).

The blast blew through the cargo hold and out the other side. When i looked out my after cabin porthole, the cargo ship had a 30 degree list and the huge tires for pier fenders were bouncing down the pier. The Filippino crew began running of the ship with seabags and suitcases. A number of them tried to hire on our ship, the USNS Upshur to no avail.

The cargo ship finally was secured to the pier with its list. When we came back about 22 days later, it was gone.

Notes from the Southwest Corner: A Sailor’s Happiest and Loneliest Moments

From my Lebanon Democrat archives — it’s a good thing i saved most of them as the new owners disowned anything written there before their takeover. i repeat it here as i wish to remind myself of those sailors, soldiers, and airmen who will not be home for Christmas. We also won’t be back home for Christmas but will be home in the Southwest corner, which is just fine.

SAN DIEGO – Thanksgiving is gone, and Christmas is now truly just around the corner.

The Southwest corner Jewell contingent will be in Tennessee. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” just like Elvis sang a long time ago and Bing sang a long, long time ago.

These first few weeks of December evoke my recollections of the mariner and the sea with its wonderful and wonderfully sad moments.

Many deployments to the Mediterranean or the Western Pacific ended just before Christmas. For the first few deployments, I kept a short-timer calendar. I numbered backward from the day we were to return to home port. Then I marked off each succeeding day to note the count of days remaining.

I quit when I realized it seemed to make the days pass more slowly.

Christmas Landings

Deployments ending around Christmas could be especially happy. Not only was I home from seven to nine months at sea, but I was home for the holidays. I certainly could relate to Bing and Elvis when they sang Kim Gannon’s lyrics. It was truly “the most wonderful time of the year” as Andy Williams sang to us in the 1960s.

It could also be about the most lonesome time.

During my sailing days, ships had a month’s Rest and Relaxation (R&R) period split by Christmas. Half of the officers and crew would get the first 15 days off and the other half would get the last 15 days. If I was in the wrong half, it meant I would spend Christmas working.

After every deployment, single officers, actually or geographically, would get the duty to stay on board the day the ship moored in her home port. The two together could put a real whammy on the holidays.

A Single’s Duty

When I was single, geographically, or otherwise, having to stay on board when my ship moored at home for the first time in months, the first night was most lonesome.

The furor of docking the ship next to a pier clobbered with a military band; Navy brass to welcome us home and get photo ops; and wives, children, and girl friends waiting to take their husbands, fathers, and lovers home kept my adrenalin flowing.

When the brass exited, the women, children, and girl friends took their men home, and the music died, the duty section went to work. The engineering plant had to be secured in consonant with connecting the shore power, water, and auxiliary steam lines. Mooring lines had to be tripled, triced, with rat guards installed. The quarter deck had to be rigged to spit and polish standards.

The command duty officer (CDO, a.k.a. me) was briefed by the captain. The duty watch sections had to be set. The duty section had to muster; damage control and security drills had to be run; colors had to be observed at sunset, and watertight integrity had to be set and checked. After the evening mess, eight o’clock reports had to be taken. A walk through all of the ship’s spaces was my final evening duty.

After taps, an empty hush ensued. I would ponder my lonesomeness in the empty wardroom, which had been a bustling center of khaki for months.

Christmas Away

Even more lonesome were deployments which sailed right through the holidays.

Christmas in Cam Rahn Bay was not too bad. After a year in and out of Vietnam, I was going home in less than a month, and a great guy, Ollie White from West Virginia, an Army Korean Military Advisor Group (KMAG) officer and i shared our Christmas with a pretty young lady, whose father was a general had volunteered for the the U.S.O., and was manager of the base officer’s club.

Christmas in Hong Kong was spectacular, including an evening dinner at the British Officer’s mess atop a pier side skyscraper, followed by the Episcopalian midnight mass.

Christmas on the U.S.S. Yosemite in Diego Garcia was particularly poignant. Only a few of us were conditioned to long deployments. We needed to take the novices’ minds off their distance from home.

Our wardroom mess specialists (formerly stewards) conjured up a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, including non-alcoholic sparkling wine. The uniform was service dress blue, and the wardroom was candlelit.

All of those holiday celebrations were well done, fun, high quality, and very, very lonesome.

My family has been coming back to Tennessee for Christmas since 1992. For me in many ways, it is like a sailor coming home from the sea, and it is far, far away from lonesome.

Note: We have only missed two Tennessee Christmases since 1992. Covid whacked us out of it last year. Christmas on Signal Mountain is dear and oh, so Christmas. Yet, our low in the Southwest corner yesterday was 39, so it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here as well.


Remembering “The Rest of the Story”

Paul Harvey. Remember him?

He was a notable radio news reporter and commentator with a gravely voice. i listened raptly from sometime in  my high school years and college, totally unaware of him being very conservative. At the time, it probably would have made no difference, and i did not hear, as with many of the news reporters (yes, Virginia, there is a difference between reporters and commentators, but you probably aren’t aware of the distinction because the lines have been blurred).

Regardless, i listened. In the summer of 1964, when i was trying to keep my world on track by, at the financial burden on my parents, getting my GPA back to where…oh, what the hell: i was at Vanderbilt summer school. Billy Parsons and i would finish our morning classes, meet at Rotier’s for lunch with a tuna salad, saltines, and iced tea (long before someone invented prepared “sweetened ice tea”) We would get back to the Kappa Sigma house where Billy was the only summer occupant. And we would listen to Paul’s noon newscast.

My favorite three of Paul’s “Rest of the Story” segments were:

1. The stewardess, the female predecessor to “flight attendants,” was getting the come on from two inebriated males, one in first class and one in coach. When the flight landed, the first class (sic) drunk as he is leaving the cabin hands the stewardess a key to his hotel room and says he will see her there at 8:00. When the coach class drunk gets to the door, the stewardess hands him the key and tells him to meet her there at 8:00.

2. The terrorist in the Middle East makes up a mail bomb in a mailing envelope and mails it to a government official. He did not put in the address correctly. The package was returned because he had included his return address. He opened it: as i viewed it, justice in its truest form.

3. The old widow was having difficulty with her oven. It had quit operating. She called a repair company. Their tech came out and replaced the blown fuse. The oven worked as it should. He gave her the bill for $75. The widow was amazed since the repair took less than five minutes and the fuse cost about a dollar. The tech explained they had a minimum of an hour rate charge for any house call. So, she had him mow her lawn for 55 minutes before leaving.

And now, for the rest of the story, mine, with two very close friends, 52 years ago and now.

It was the summer of 1969. i was Anti-Submarine (ASW) Officer on the USS Hawkins (DD-873), a FRAM destroyer that had recently changed home port from Newport, Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia. i was running with two other officers in the Hawkins wardroom, Andrew Nemethy from Massachusetts and Rob Dewitt from Maine. i was coming up on the time to request to remain aboard for the second half of my three-year obligation to active duty or request to be assigned somewhere else. Andrew and Rob were commissioned later than me but they too would soon have to face the decision.

George “Doc” Jarden was the Administrative Officer aboard the USS Guam (LPH 9), a helicopter carrier in the amphibious force. He and i were roommates and classmates in Officer Candidate School (OCS) and had become good friends. Doc was also facing a similar decision about staying or rotating.

Andrew and i had discussed staying aboard the Hawkins, and after we got out, buying a sailboat, sailing it to Europe, selling it and using the money from the sale to kick around the continent until we ran out of money and came home to grow up.

i had become “the wardroom sea daddy” on the Hawkins and found myself in an awkward position. Captain Max Lasell began to rely on me and he and i would meet often in the wardroom to share thoughts on the ship’s operation. My weapons department head was being bypassed because he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the light array. i decided i needed to split my tour and go somewhere else. But where?

There were other factors in this problem.

After building up the numbers of service members during Vietnam, the military forces were beginning to cut back the officer corps with early releases, reductions in rank and other strategies. This began to play in our decision about what to do next.

Doc and i often met after our workdays at the Red Mule in Norfolk, a hamburger and beer joint we liked. We discussed our decisions about rotation on most such occasions. We were so similar our service numbers were only two numbers apart. Doc’s was 726236 and mine was 726238 — it is remarkable to me i can remember such things because the Navy went to social security numbers by time i returned to active duty in 1972. We had the same detailer, the officer in the Bureau of Personnel who was responsible for determining our fate in staying aboard or rotating.

Doc, a Duke graduate, was a liberal in his thinking. i described him as the hippie’s gift to the Navy. Even then, i was pretty much apolitical and focused on being a twenty-year old man enjoying life. So, i was surprised as Doc and i were quaffing our beers after cheeseburgers and fries when he said, “I’m going to volunteer to go to Vietnam.” i was shocked. We both had agreed one of the primary reasons to get our commission at OCS was to avoid the draft (the draft lottery was not created until a year or so after we were commissioned) with the concern we would end up as ground pounders in the Army. Now, Doc was thinking about volunteering to go there.

“What, Doc? How could you come to such a decision?,” i almost shouted.

“Well, i’ve been thinking about it,” Doc explained, “Our parents had World War II, and whether we like it or not, this is our war.

“I want to be a part of our war,” he finished.

Now, it may have been a couple of beers, but i mused and agreed.

We began calls to our detailer. It was tough to get through but we did it. The detailer — i have not included his name as i have tortured him enough — informed us a release of officers would be coming soon. He told me i would be cut early. He told Doc he didn’t think he would be cut. Doc and i met again at the Red Mule and scratched our heads.

The cut came. The powers that be cut those officers in essentially “non-critical” billets. I was ASW officer on destroyer, including being the sea detail, general quarters Officer of the Deck. Doc was Administrative Officer on a helicopter and like me the sea detail and general quarters OOD, i.e., essential.

We were not cut and resumed our calls to our detailer. He told us they didn’t get down to the numbers they needed, and another cut was coming. He told me i would be cut. He told Doc he would not be cut.

The criteria for the next cut was fitness reports. Fitness reports were the assessments of officers by their commanding officers in the performance of their duties. Doc and i had been rated high in our fitreps and were not cut.

But wait, the detailer told us. They still had to make another cut. i was sure to be cut, he told me. Doc was told he would not be cut. Perhaps, i guess, it was because i was on a destroyer and Doc was on an Amphib. i do not know.

The next cut was done by commissioning date. The date chosen was one month after we were commissioned. Both of us remained on active duty.

i decided to act on Doc’s idea about Vietnam. i volunteered to be a forward Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (NGLO or GLO). This is a job that requires the officer, aka me, to go out ahead of the front lines, usually with a radio talker and call in fire on the enemy. Really bright people who want to live past the next year stay away from these kinds of assignments. Not me.

The detailer readily, almost gleefully agreed to my proposal. After all, there were very few officers applying for GLO and most that were assigned balked at the idea as much as possible. Not me.

We began planning the rotation when he told me i would be required to extend my active duty for a month. Astounded, i asked why. He explained that any assignment to Vietnam required a complete year for the assignment. To perform the duties of GLO, i would have to go to a gunfire support school and to Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training a two-week course requiring the trainee to be captured and experience being a Prisoner of WAR (SERE) training including some forms of torture, like waterboarding.

Some sense kicked in: “You want me to extend a month to go over there and probably get my ass shot off? Forget it? What else you got?”

Now mind you, this phase of detailing negotiations took about three, maybe four months of negotiation.

On the next phone call, the detailer told me had an assignment that might appeal to me. i asked him what it was. He told me i would be the executive officer of the Military Sealift Transportation System (MSTS) Transport Unit One (The name of the command was changed later the next year to Military Sealift Command or MSC. i asked him what the job entailed. He said he didn’t know but he would check with the others in the office. i waited on the phone for almost three-quarters of an hour. Fortunately, BUPERS did not have muzak for waiting.

When the detailer came back he explained that no one really knew exactly what it was, but one detailer recalled from the past what he thought was.

“And what did he say?” i implored.

“We think you will be the only Navy Officer on a USNS ship manned my government civilians,” he explained, “The ship is a transport that carries U.S. troops and dependents to and from various ports in the Pacific,” finishing with, “We believe you should hit every major port in the Pacific in your year’s tour.

He paused after my earlier rejection of GLO because of the extension of active duty,  “You will have to extend a month to attend the Register Publication System school for communications in your new assignment.

“Hmm,” i mused, “Extend a month to see all the major ports in the Pacific and being the only Naval Officer on the ship.”

“I’m all in,” i explained.

This occurred sometime in October. Shortly afterward, i received my orders in a radio message to detach from USS Hawkins (DD 873)  in December 1969  and report to RPS school in San Diego and proceed to to Yokosuka, Japan to report to MSTS Headquarters for further assignment to Executive Officer, MSTS Transport Unit ONE. To be honest, i was pretty pumped. i began my preparations in earnest.

As usual, there are several more stories in this too long for inclusion here.

The wearisome and very long flight to Yokosuka put me in late in the evening in mid-January. The next morning, i walked in the rain to the MSTS office building. It was a dreary, dark day. The office was dark and bare. The overweight civilian with a dark tie, white shirt, and dark suit, rose from his chair and shook my hand across the large metal desk and motioned me to sit in the chair in front of him.

He told me i would be leaving that afternoon to fly to Sasebo, Japan. i was not impressed with Yokosuka and wondered if Sasebo would be different. Then, the man behind the desk dropped the bomb on my ideal tour: “Well, it’s not quite what you were told.

“You will be the executive officer of an 18-man unit. There is a CO, a lieutenant commander, you, two doctors, and a chaplain. There is a boatswainmate, storekeeper and corpsman chiefs, 6 corpsman, 3 storekeeper enlisted,  and a seaman.

“There are three troop transports for carrying 1500 Republic of Korea troops to and from Vietnam out of Pusan, Korea. Sasebo is the port for six days of upkeep and resupply. Your unit is aboard the USNS Geiger (T-AP 197), the other ship in the current rotation is USNS Barrett (T-AP 196). The third ship currently in overhaul is the USNS Upshur (T-AP 198).

When i reported to LCDR Hank Fendt on the Geiger the next day, i sent an letter to that detailer: “Dear sir, all the major ports in the Pacific are Sasebo, Japan; Pusan, Korea; and Qui Nhon and Nha Trang, Vietnam. The “US troops and military dependents are ROK troops and officers. Thanks.”

Yep, i was disappointed. But it turned out pretty well. It was a good recalibration for me, and gave me a lot of time to think. It also was a wild, wild time. That is yet another story.

What i didn’t know was what happened to my friends. In the last several years through the new things people love to hate like Facebook i have reconnected to my old shipmates, Andrew Nemethy and Rob DeWitt, and my OCS roommate Doc Jarden.

i thought all three had gotten on the next reduction in force. Now i know the rest of the story.

Doc, because he was one of three officers a rather anal commanding officer had qualified as Officers of the Deck (OOD’s) underway. Therefore, he was in a critical position on the Guam. He did not rotate as he wished, was not cut in a reduction of force, and finished his three year obligation on the Guam.

Rob was not cut, rotated to a command ship, the USS Wright (CC 2), homeported in Norfolk. After a working on motorcycles and getting several post graduate degrees, he ended up in home state of Maine as an orthodontist.

And then there was Andrew. i was sure he made the cuts. He didn’t. i found this out when i inquired after he made a comment about being in Vietnam. When Andrew learned of my new assignment and found out he would not leave the service early, he decided he would follow suit and requested a tour in MSTS. He got it. He as in the MSTS office in Saigon. He describes how he got there:

You were the inspiration for that, traveling all around the Orient on a freighter having a jolly old time in ports, seeing the world, and writing poetry, which as you may recall, We sent back-and-forth to each other. That I ended up in Vietnam is all due to you!

What could go wrong? The glitch was that I had no idea…MSTS had posts in Vietnam. Oops.  That is why Lasell was chuckling at my orders when they came in. Traded a cushy boring job on the destroyer for the excitement of being in the middle of a war. You were the inspiration for that, traveling all around the Orient on a freighter having a jolly old time in ports, seeing the world, and writing poetry, which as you may recall, We sent back-and-forth to each other. That I ended up in Vietnam is all due to you!

The Lasell Andrew mentions was the commanding officer of the Hawkins. He was on of the best i had in the Navy. Ironically, his last tour was the commander of the MSC office out of San Francisco. Sadly, he passed away after i had finally located him in the Southwest corner but before i could go see him. i owe him a lot.

Now the rest of this story also is dripping in irony. The funny thing is three of us ended up in journalism of sorts. Doc became a television producer. Andrew was a journalist in Vermont, and i have been all over the charts in my writing efforts.

The real rest of the story is there are three guys with whom i had great relationships and shared good and hard times and we have reconnected. We have our lives to live and they are in Maine, Vermont, North Carolina, and the Southwest corner. i might get to visit with them in the coming days, but time, which does not change, is getting shorter. It doesn’t matter. i have reconnected with three pretty special people.

Hey sailor…belated Happy Vet’s Day.  Note the switch to personal email–my day-to-day involvement with our local NPR station is just now coming to an end.
So, my tour after the Guam.  In early July, 1968 got a nice note from Bupers to proceed unodir within 60 days to DaNang to take over as officer in charge of a river squadron.  Okay, then…not exactly the kind of news one hopes for, but we had all volunteered and that was the way it was.  Lots of anxiety, but basically resignation.
Meanwhile, the CO of the Guam was a tough son-of-a-bitch, and like all COs of carriers–fixed wing or helo–was an aviator.  He was uncomfortable on the bridge, but at the same time had little time or respect for young OCS officers.  He only reluctantly qualified anyone as an underway officer of the deck.  I was one of the few.


You know, I have no idea there was a person, a detailer, making decisions about my next duty. I did request to join MSTS, because I was sick of Norfolk, new we weren’t going anywhere, and wanted something a little different in my last year than the same old same old. You were the inspiration for that, traveling all around the Orient on a freighter having a jolly old time in ports, seeing the world, and writing poetry, which as you may recall, We sent back-and-forth to each other. That I ended up in Vietnam is all due to you!

The glitch was that I had no idea, stupidly, that MStS had posts in Vietnam. Oops.  That is why Lasell was chuckling at my orders when they came in. Traded a cushy boring job on the destroyer for the excitement of being in the middle of a war. What could go wrong?
Fortunately, nothing, and I would not trade the experience, nor taking an in country discharge making money and then traveling back around the world, for anything. Just about killed my poor parents though, especially since I was an only child. Taking four weeks, or maybe it was three, of survival training down at Quantico,, with Marines, was an interesting experience and also launched my interest in fitness and being in shape, which I turned out I was pretty good at. Carried that athletic interest for the rest of my life. It was a cold slosh of reality too, since they threw us in a simu,aged VC prison camp and among the things they did was throw us in a muddy pond, during the winter, so it was really cold, and then “tortured” us and used psy ops tricks on us.
I will never forget that the guy who probed the hero in our platoon and outsmarted our captors to unite our crew was the least likely looking hero of the bunch, a gangly professorial JG. Meanwhile a commander who was going to Vietnam, an older guy and seemingly all no younger,  totally fell apart before our eyes, and was not shipped out as a result, at least that’s what I heard. So you never know who’s going to be the brave one or how people will react. Lesson learned.
My theory was that if the Viet Congress wanted to get me, I would try to at least be able to run like a bastard and at least be as fit as they were. Plus I had good boots and noflip-flops. 😝

Junior Officers

i began a post Saturday night with many thoughts i thought would go well as a rambling entry. By mid-Sunday morning, i recognized it would be more like a book than a post: too many things to say with too much to write about any of them.

i started on a different path as i cleared out one more pile in my office. There was a large 12×13-inch old album. i opened it up and there was the tale of tres amigos. It was on my first ship, the USS Hawkins (DD 873), homeported out of Newport, Rhode Island. This particular group of photos was in 1969 when the ship was assigned to be the observation ship, providing a fixed position for submarine Polaris missile training. Our first sub was a British sub that had a perfect Polaris launch. i will not write of our second submarine here. This is a memory of great shipmates on a terrific ship with fantastic officers and a wonderful crew, mostly made up of guys who were there because of the draft.

Great memories:

The goofy guy, ASW Officer, in front of the ASROC Launcher Captain Control Shack
A serious Andrew Nemethy.
Rob Dewitt, the third and calmest of los tres amigos.
Joe, who graduated from Fordham but because of my brain fart, his last name will have to be edited in later.
Joe was taking this photo of Andrew and the goofy guy.
Our pier in Cape Canaveral.
Andrew fishing with crew members.
Hawkins’ lee helm and helm in the pilot house.
Looking aft from the DASH deck en route to our station.
The Brit’s successful Polaris launch.

And with that, i shall rest with my memories tonight.

A Prince I Missed

There are likely to be a number of posts like this one coming from me. Some, like this one, i may have posted before, but those earlier posts have either been forgotten or i liked the subject so much, i posted it again because i’m just too damn lazy to look up the old one and repost.

Summer, 1975. The USS Hollister (DD 783) was one of the destroyers in Destroyer Squadron 9, home-ported out of Long Beach. i was her chief engineer. The sea stories gathered in my time aboard, just shy of two years, are almost limitless. But this little radio  “wire note” exchange and what generated it remains one of my favorites.

The reserve squadron deployed in the summer of 1974 to Hawaii and back to its homeport. En route, the U.S. destroyers conducted exercises with the British Navy, notably the HMS Jupiter, a British Navy Leander class frigate.

Upon arrival, i took leave, and my wife Kathie and our two-year old daughter Blythe flew over. We had secured an old housing unit on the back side of Fort DeRussy, the U.S. Army’s “rest and  recreation” area on Waikiki. Our tin roofed house, complete with a momma cat, was adequate, which was all we needed as we spent a wonderful week on the beach and seeing the sights. It was quite rudimentary compared to the megaplex Hale Koa Hotel for military personnel that stands there now amidst the Hilton, Sheraton and Trump resort hotels. But boy, was it wonderful.

While we were enjoying our time, toward the end of our port visit, the Jupiter and DESRON 9 ships put together a picnic over on Pearl Harbor. i was not interested, but nearly all of the officers of the Hollister not on duty attended. There was the usual Navy picnic fare and lots of friendly competition.

The Hollister’s communications officer was Wendell Parker. He was very good at his job. He was also very gregarious. During the picnic, he met his counterpart on the Jupiter. They got along very well and spent nearly the entire picnic talking to each other.

His counterpart was Prince Charles.

The ships sortied together, standing out of Pearl Harbor. i was up to my neck in distillation plant problems (we called them “evaps”), another story. But as the Jupiter headed west and the Hollister with her sister ships turned toward Long Beach, the two comm officers traded this wire note:

It seems the prince possessed my kind of humor. i was sorry i didn’t get to meet him.

But you know what? i wouldn’t trade it for what i had:

Navy and Beer

This is not a criticism nor a political statement. It is an observation ignited by a story of a Fox news item on Google news internet link.

Paul Best, the reporter, tells us that the Pensacola Naval Base has ordered E3 and below, most of which are “airmen” (Seaman Recruit, Seaman Apprentice and Seaman, also “Firemen” if the new Navy hasn’t changed those terms to be politically correct) to not be sold more than one six-pack of beer a day at base exchanges.

In spite of what appears to be noble intent, this may be the silliest regulation ever imposed by our Navy. Supposedly, this will reduce the number of “alcohol related” incidents by young sailors and make training and safety more effective. If a sailor buys and drinks a six-pack a day every day, i’m not too sure the base has accomplished anything. And with the pay sailors get nowadays, i’m pretty sure they can get all they want above a six-pack, not to mention the hard stuff, off base and the local age limit will not deter them one bit.

It appears Navy Air is trying to be like the Air Force: you know, those guys who wear uniforms to look like bus drivers.

The article did make me think about the past and beer.

The first thing that came to mind was an incident on the US Army’s base in Pusan, Korea, now called “Busan” and perhaps both. It was 1970. i spent the night in the BOQ with Captain Ollie White. Ollie was assigned to the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) and had ridden our ship to observe and assist our transport unit which was in charge of the Korean troops being transported to and from Vietnam.

On the return trip to Korea, Ollie and i became good friends, and he invited me to dinner and a a couple of nights off the ship, something always welcomed.

We left the ship, caught a cab to the post across town, changed into civilian clothes in Ollie’s BOQ suite, had dinner, bought a couple of new albums at the post exchange: George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” among them, and went to the post “package store” for something to drink while enjoying the music.

Ollie went to get some bourbon, i think. i headed for the beer and got two cases of Olympia, one of the few US beers sold in the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) that did not have formaldehyde as a preservative. i figured what we didn’t drink in the evening and coming day, i would leave for Ollie and his army buddies.

i sat my two cases on the counter as Ollie came up to be next in line. The Korean native cashier looked at my cases and said, “No, no. You can only buy one case of beer.”

“Why not,” i asked, puzzled.

“It’s policy,” the cashier replied, “Beer is rationed to one case a day.”

At this point, i began my rant on what a stupid policy and how could anyone come up with such a bullshit idea, uttering a few more choice Navy terms before paying for my one case, picking it up and heading for the exit.

The cashier looked at me, then at Ollie, and said, “Must be a Navy man.”

*.    *.    *

As mentioned, most US produced beers available in WESTPAC at the time were loaded with preservatives that made them all taste bitter. Pabst Blue Ribbon put the date of canning on their beers. One night in the small officers club in Qui Nhon just northeast of the Delong pier where our USNS ships moored, four of our officers including me were drinking PBR’s when someone told me of the practice. i checked my can. i was drinking beer that had been canned in 1958, twelve years earlier.

Because of the preservative factor, local beers were consumed. The most famous was San Miguel, a brew in the Philippines. Military folks called it San McGoo. There are many, many stories involving San McGoo, and i am trying to imagine what would have happened had the Subic Navy Base, or the Clark Air Force Base had ordered a limit be placed on that beer.

i don’t think it would have been pretty.

*.    *.    *

My golf has always seem to include beer, even now for our Friday Morning Golf (FMG). But that has changed drastically over the years. In addition to the 19th holes, Navy courses had other sources for a beer. Out on  the courses, there were one or two covered areas containing soda can dispensers, one or two of which dispensed can beer. There was a chain curtain to keep someone from stealing the machines, but a golfer could put his arm through a link to deposit a quarter and get a beer. These beers were available at that price as late as the late 1980’s.

*.    *.    *

Things have changed. Prices have changed. Habits have changed.

i’m glad i was there for the old days and old ways.

The Roughest Seas…for me

Lately, in discussions with former shipmates and  other old sailors, rough seas have been discussed. i experienced rough seas on my first night aboard the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD-764) and fought back seasickness as the radar gang was trying like mad to make me sick (a ritual described here previously). My first ship after commissioning, the USS Hawkins (DD-788) experienced enough bad weather off of Cape Hatteras that she experienced her maximum roll of 45 degrees, dangerously close to her “point of no return,” i.e. if she went much farther she would just keep going and capsize. That was rough. i was chased by a typhoon across the South China Sea, forced out of Hong Kong liberty by another (my wife was there to spend a week with me), and actually in the eye of a hurricane when it was forming in the Caribbean. But in a weekly column in The Lebanon Democrat several years ago, i described the worst storm i experienced in 15-plus years of sea duty.

Notes from the Southwest Corner: Stormy weather? It seems so calm to me

SAN DIEGO – Late last week (2013), a friend called early in the morning to tell me it was raining downtown.

“Rain,” I said, “What rain?” There was no hint of rain only several miles away. “Yep,” Steve responded, “It’s raining real rain here.”

Rain in June is rare here, spot rain even rarer. So there is yet another Southwest weather corner mystery.

The call regenerated thoughts of storms. Even though I was in the eye of a fledgling hurricane as I recently related, it was not the worst storm I experienced.

That storm came unannounced and unwelcomed.

In December 1972, the U.S.S. Stephen B. Luce (DLG-7) returned from a Mediterranean deployment with Destroyer Squadron 24. Being the holiday season, the squadron was allowed to exceed the normal limit of 15 knots.

After crossing the Atlantic on a great circle route to Charleston, SC, the U.S.S. Stanley (CG 32) detached and headed toward its homeport. The other five ships turned north toward Newport, RI, expecting to cover the 1000 miles in about three days, arriving two days ahead of schedule.

There were no warnings about what was ahead. Even without satellites, Navy weather stations normally did a decent job on weather reports, but not this time.

When the storm hit us, wind speeds approached 100 miles per hour, perhaps even more.

The bridge of the Luce was 75 feet above the water line, and green water, i.e. real waves, crashed against the bridge windows almost in relentless rhythm.

We tied bridge watch standers into their posts. Only the officer of the deck (OOD) and his assistant remained unfettered to frequently shift from side to side for better vision. Mostly, this OOD stood behind the center line gyroscope repeater with one arm around a handrail, making small course changes to find a better course.

The bow would climb up a wave and about one-quarter of the 500-foot ship hung in the air above the ocean before crashing down, the bow plunging under water before settling out briefly and starting up the next wave.

Foam covered all the sea except when the wind gave a glimpse of the dark blue ocean. The other ships were often within a 1000 yards but seldom seen except for their masts, the rest of the ship hidden by the waves.

Our watertight doors proved less than that, leaking from the pounding seas. Over a foot of water rolled about the main deck passageways. The galleys could not keep food on grills or steady in the ovens. We ate what was available, cold. We did manage to make coffee for almost five days.

The Luce took innumerable 45 degree rolls. Hanging tightly on a bridge wing, it seemed as if I was parallel to the sea.

When two other officers and I ate in the wardroom, the chairs were tied to the tables, unavailable. We propped ourselves on the floor against the port bulkhead. After a bite or two, the ship rolled fiercely. We lost our seating and tumbled across to the starboard side, sandwiches and coffee flying everywhere.

One enlisted man with the top rack in a three-tiered section was sleeping peacefully when another jolt tossed him out and down, across to the adjacent tier where he landed in the lowest rack with another startled sailor.

The Luce lost two days, arriving in Newport on its original schedule. Two older destroyers arrived about a half-day later. One newer class frigate arrived a day later. The final ship, another frigate arrived a day after that.

On the one frigate that was last in making Newport, a freak wave crashed off a forward bulkhead and ripped a three-foot hole in the back of the forward gun mount. The ship experienced flooding forward but successfully secured the breach with damage control.

When we pulled in, none of the Luce’s usual weather deck projections remained: life lines, fire stations, and damage control equipment were gone. Ladders (stairs to the landlubber) between decks had disappeared. Plenum chambers for air vents had been ripped back from the exterior bulkheads, eerily resembling giant wings.

Remarkably, we only had one major injury. At the storm’s onslaught, our assistant navigator took a dive into the brass around the chart table and cut a gash in his forehead, requiring several stitches.

Strangest of all, the sun shone daily through the entire ordeal.
Never before and never after have I been so glad to be home for Christmas.