Key West, 1968
As we reached two months from commissioning, we had to fill out our preference cards. Our preferences were to request in priority what type of ship we wanted, what billet we wanted, and what was our home port preference, and add two other choices in each category.
After my experience on my third class midshipman cruise, i knew i wanted to be on a destroyer. After enjoying my time in Combat (CIC: Combat Information Center) and not finding my engineering stint very enjoyable on that cruise, i requested CIC Officer as my billet. And since i had an aunt and uncle in Saint Augustine, i wanted to have Mayport, Florida as homeport. i had relatives all up and down the east coast of Florida.
To my surprise, my orders aligned exactly: a destroyer in Mayport as CIC officer with two months of CIC school in Glynco, Georgia. i was delighted. But as with all things Navy, the day before i was to be commissioned, my orders were changed. i would now report to the USS Hawkins (DD 873); home ported right where i was, Newport, Rhode Island, to relieve the Anti-Submarine Officer after two months of ASW training in Key West, Florida.
I was disappointed, but ASW seemed interesting and i liked Newport. So after a month of leave, i went to Key West. A good friend in OCS also went there. Lanny Harer, a North Carolina boy was going to Basic Underwater Swimming school there en route to a diver in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Navy.
At the time, at least on the East Coast, newly commissioned officers on the path to becoming SEALS, EOD, or divers all went to the basic swimming training first. Lanny and i shared a stateroom in the BOQ. Lanny, a SEAL trainee, and i began to hit the high spots in Key West together.
Our favorite spot was Captain Tony’s, a bar off the main drag, although we of course hit Hemingway’s other watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s and a piano bar on the main drag were also our favorite. But Captain Tony’s was our favorite. It had dungeon like booths below street level, but we populated the bar. Captain Tony was later the mayor of Key West and a legendary figure, with a huge stuffed grouper mounted on the roof of his car.
* * *
We played a soccer match against a Dutch destroyer on a port visit. Back then, i was likely one of the few of us who had ever seen a soccer match (my high school , Castle Heights Military Academy, was a prep school and had a soccer team) and our contingent got hammered. Not only that, we were all so beat we had to retreat to Captain Tony’s for beer.
Then, we played a team from a British submarine in rugby. We didn’t know much about that game either, but one of the UDT guys had been a “Little All-American” halfback in college. So, we played it like football, and won handily.
* * *
My favorite past time came on Sundays. Four to six of us would head out around 0500. We would stop at a Cuban bakery and get a couple of loaves of their freshly baked bread for the cold cuts and fixings for sandwiches. From there, we would return to the base and board an MWR fishing boat. The boats had been harbor patrol boats used in WWII to defend US ports. They had been converted into deep sea fishing craft for about ten people. Sailors assign temporary additional duty (TAD) manned and maintained them. They were rigged with all the fishing gear necessary. There were two large ice chests, one on each side of the main weather deck. One held ice to keep the catch cold until we returned to port. The other held our sandwiches and beer, more than enough for a day of fishing with ten fisherman. We normally had about six.
The craft would take us out into the Caribbean Sea where we would fish for grouper. We usually caught three or for and an occasional barracuda.
* * *
It was a wonderful two months, and the ASW training readied me to track submarines and fire torpedoes and Anti-Submarine Rockets (ASROC). The one thing i still remember was the closing session right after our final exam. The instructors sat up our training room for a role play. The black and white square tile floor acted as a grid for a sea battle between a US destroyer and a Soviet nuclear submarine. The instructors had two sets beyond the grid. One was the bridge and the ASW plot of the destroyer. The other was the control room of the Soviet sub. * * *
The students could easily tell which was which because the actors of the Soviet officers were swilling fake vodka out of vodka bottle.
The situation became more tense. The US actors walked through the very tight procedures to get permission to fire a nuclear Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC). When it became clear the Soviets were about to fire their nuclear weapon, the US actors fired the ASROC.
That’s when the lights went on a movie began showing on the screen set up next to the makeshift stage. The clip showing was the only test firing of a nuclear ASROC. Then music began to play. It was the Beatle’s song “Yellow Submarine.” We loved it.
* * *
One recollection sticks in my mind. The gate guards at base entry points were all Marines, normally corporals or buck sergeants. Their signaling for a vehicle to pass through the gate was a thing of precision beauty. i was impressed.
* * *
Oh yes, i invited an Atlanta debutante down for a weekend. We later became engaged and married. It was short lived, and i put her in a terrible situation. i won’t go deeper on that except to say, we were young, and i was not only naive, but foolish, and i regret putting her in that situation. She divorced me six months later.
It was time to get down to being a Naval Officer on a ship.