It was time for me to learn…and i did. Oh, did i learn, but most of it was not what was the learning objectives the Navy had in mind.
Of the 18 midshipmen from a mixture of good college programs, most of us were more focused on good times. i, to be honest, didn’t have a clue.
The first department to which i was assigned was Operations. CIC was fun. Tracking contacts on the radar, learning how to determine maneuvering board solutions for contacts’ Closest Point of Approach (CPA), and working out maneuvers of our ship getting where it should for formation steaming was not work. It was flat fun. Learning how to stand behind the glass status boards and writing backwards was almost a game.
i loved my time on the signal bridge with the signalmen. Being midshipmen and therefore unwisely undaunted by regulations, the evening (2000-2400), mid (0000-0400) and morning (0400-0800) watches often found me and my middie buddies climbing into the signal flags basket, a canvas bag about six by four feet that held the signal flags, most of which were about two-feet square, hung on rods at the top of the bags. It was a dank but fairly comfortable place to sleep even if was against all watching standing regulations.
Before we reached our first first liberty port, i was reassigned to Weapons Department. Nearly all of my time there was uneventful. The best part for me was standing lookout on the bridge wings, especially in the night watches. The dark, deep hole of after-steering was the most joyless watch i think i ever stood.
Just before we reached our first liberty port, we finally rendezvoused with the other ships and were close enough for the destroyer that had my seabag refueled from the oiler and in the process transferred it by hi-line. When we then came along the oiler for fuel, my seabag came across by hi-line. i think i hugged it. i was not infatuated with those camel leather boots and was glad to return them.
Finally, we reached Sydney, Nova Scotia as the summer rolled into July. All of the other ships continued east about 250 miles to Halifax. This is where i learned about the old Navy. By the time i reported to my first ship as an ensign, quite a bit had changed.
The big event was Canadian Independence Day on July 1st. It was a Monday, and the Sydney folks had a great day. i was one of the six midshipmen assigned to be escorts to six young women who were the hostesses of the parade. It was a fine moment. Think of a small town July 4th parade in a small town and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it was like. We dressed up in summer dress whites and made picture-perfect escorts.
Being a midshipman didn’t make much of a splash with the young lady i escorted. After the parade, i and several of my middie buddies headed to the nearest bar and called, “Mabel, Black Label,” the commercial ditty for Carling’s biggest selling beer at the time. One of us had gone elsewhere, met a girl who introduced us to several more Canadian lasses that evening. We spent the bulk of the remaining liberty running around with these ladies. That, of course, was truncated as we stood a 24-hour watch every third day. Our liberty expired at 0100.
On the penultimate day in our first port, we conspired to have more time with those ladies. One of our first-class midshipmen would be standing the mid-watch as Officer of the Deck (OOD) on the quarterdeck. He agreed to our not returning on time and not reporting us for UA. We planned to come back to the ship around 0230 to 0300. Off we went. The captain had been the CO of a submarine and disdained running with the wardroom. When he went on liberty, he would go with a bunch of chiefs. He too took off with his CPO buddies.
It was a Friday night. The town held its usual weekend dances in the dance hall in the middle of town. Sailors being sailors made a beeline to the dance hall after a day of a lot of calling out Mabel for Black Label. The CO and his chiefs had found a cozy bar on the edge of town to toss ’em down, although i expect the fare was whiskey and gin, not many Black Labels. We were in a nice home outside of the city proper, actually having a quiet, nice, evening with our new lady friends.
Then, hell broke loose, maybe not all hell, but it apparently was close. The local boys did not appreciate the sailors making runs on their women at the dance hall. It became tense and got worse. Finally, a sailor and a town boy threw some punches. It quickly escalated into a brawl and got worse. Soon, all downtown was a brawl, nasty. The local police attempted to quell it, but unsuccessfully. The ship and the town declared Lloyd Thomas’s liberty was cancelled. All liberty.
The midshipmen on their lark and the captain and his buddies were blissfully unaware.
We actually called off our soiree a bit early, returning to the ship around 0200. To our dismay, our conniving abettor no longer was the OOD. The executive officer, in the absence of the commanding officer had replaced the middie with a lieutenant department head to have an experienced officer in charge.
We were caught. Unauthorized Absence (UA). The XO was livid and made sure we were put on report. Even today, i wonder how he was dealing with his boss still not back, location unknown.
Several of us decided to stick around on the main deck as sailors were still straggling back from the town-wide brawl. We were amazed as the steady stream of sailors came across the quarterdeck, every one of them with some evidence of a fight. Our favorite was a third class petty officer. He stumbled across the brow using the hand rails to keep him upright. He reported to the quarterdeck, was written up, and proceeded aft to his berthing. We stopped him, actually because we were worried about him. He was in his sock feet. His face was bludgeoned. His uniform was bloody, muddy, and his white blouse was ripped to shreds. In addition to his shoes, he had lost his dixie cup and his navy blue scarf. We asked him if he was all right and asked how he fared in his fights.
His reply: “I came back, didn’t I?” He turned and headed for his rack with no further comment.
Thinking we had reached the zenith of entertainment, we started to disburse when two cabs pulled up to the brow. The captain and five chiefs piled out of the cab. The stumbling chiefs were holding their CO up as the they reeled across the brow. The XO frantically tried to convey the seriousness of what had happened. The captain, rolled his eyes when the XO told him all liberty had been cancelled.
“Bullshit,” the CO resisted. “Liberty for all hands!”
The exec, realizing this was not a good place for further discussion, had the chiefs escort the CO to his in-port cabin, and rescinded the edict resuming liberty.
The next morning, many hung over bodies, including the captain, set sea detail. i was on a detail with first division on the forecastle. The ship got underway and began to navigate out of the narrow channel. A medium size Japanese fishing vessel was anchored on the edge of the channel. i do not know what happened, but some conning errors occurred, and the Thomas veered toward the craft. The crew was on the weather decks, many eating their breakfast, when they realized the destroyer was headed for them. i watched in amazement as the big ship sideswiped the smaller fishing vessel. The vessel’s crew scrambled. Chopsticks were flying. Many of the crew ran to the port side and abandoned ship with an assortment of dives and jumps.
i was not into international law, international relations, any news that did not involve sports, not to mention we were on our way out to sea for another month or more. So, i don’t know what happened to the collision aftermath except for our ship, it was very minor. Nor do i know what were the ramifications, but i do know that captain remained there for the duration of our cruise.
It was a different world and a different Navy.
“For those of you, probably a very few, to relate: “The Adventures of Remo Williams” continues.