Chapter 1: Last Chance

It was Tuesday August 9, 1983.

After my marriage and ten-day honeymoon, followed by a flight from San Diego to Nashville, I picked up my car at my parents’ home in Lebanon, Tennessee and drove to Chattanooga to spend the night with my sister and her family on Signal Mountain. The next morning, I threw my suitcase into the back, hugged my sister, Martha Duff good-bye, and settled into the driver’s seat of my Mazda Rx7.

It was 500-plus mile trip from Signal Mountain, Tennessee to Jacksonville, Florida and Naval Station, Mayport. With a lunch break, the drive would take nine, maybe ten hours. I hoped to make it in time to get a haircut at the Naval base barbershop. I had not had a haircut since leaving Newport, Rhode Island in mid-June. It would not be good form for an executive officer to report aboard his new ship looking shaggy. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially on the commanding officer.

I actually was looking forward to the drive. It would be the first time since late May, I would take the time to really put in some thought about my new job.

It was not a job I particularly wanted.

As I pulled out of the driveway and maneuvered down the switchbacks of Tennessee 127, I calculated lunch time and place. If all went well through Atlanta, I could make Cordele, Georgia for lunch. That would make it tight for getting a haircut. I wished I had called to see when the exchange barbershop closed. I guessed 1600 or 1700.

It was a long, mostly flat and straight stretch once I reached I-75 on the south side of Chattanooga, straight south through Georgia, and then straight east to Jacksonville on I-10. I reached over and grabbed the cassette rack from the shotgun seat. I found one of my favorites, Dave Loggins’ “Apprentice” album. I had listened to “Please Come to Boston” along with Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You,” and Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell” incessantly while playing shuffleboard in the Sasebo, Japan “Town Club,” the officers club for the U.S. Naval base there during a month-long well-deck gate repair in 1975 when I was First Lieutenant on the USS Anchorage (LSD 36).

I put the cassette in the stereo player in the center of the console and kicked the Rx7 up to 75. I figured that speed was the maximum to keep me from being stopped by the highway patrol.

*     *     *

I was not thrilled with my new duty station. I had hoped to be the executive officer of a large amphibious ship or less likely, a cruiser. They were commander billets and most attractive for advancement, and would be going to sea. When I was accepted for return to active duty back in 1972, my goal was to spend all of my tours on a ship and to make commanding officer. That was a naïve idea, impossible in today’s Navy where promotion requires obtaining non-at-sea skills ashore. It’s a bureaucratic, inter-Navy political, advancement thing. That doesn’t make it bad, just different from my idea of the Navy. I wanted to be a mariner at sea, possibly for the rest of my life. When I was selected for commander after being passed over once, I still was shocked when my detailer told me I had not been selected for an XO billet.

Not knowing what to do, I placed a call to Captain Ted Fenno, the head of Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) detailing (officer placement) branch. Ted had been the XO of the USS Stephen B. Luce (DLG 7) when I had returned to active duty in 1972 after two years as sports editor of The Watertown (NY) Daily Times . The Luce XO and the CO, CDR Richard Butts, had appreciated my leadership as ASW officer and my ship-driving ability. I became the sea detail, general quarters, and refueling Officer of the Deck before I left for the Department Head course at Destroyer School.

My call was transferred to Captain Fenno.

“Congratulations, XO,” Fenno greeted me.

Confused, I responded, “But Captain, my detailer just told me I hadn’t been selected for exec. I was calling you to find out what you recommend I do next.”

There were a few seconds of quiet. Then Fenno said, “Jim, hang on to the phone. I need to do some checking on this.”

The phone went silent for over ten minutes. Then Captain Fenno came back on line.

“Jim, I apologize. There has been some confusion here. You have been selected for executive officer. Your detailer will call you in the next few days to tell you what ship and when you will report.”

More than grateful, I signed off with, “Thanks, Captain.”

As I pulled onto the interstate, I once again reviewed the possibilities. Either Fenno or the detailer had read the selection notice wrong. I hoped and believed it was the detailer who was wrong. Captain Fenno would have been involved with the selection process. Still, I couldn’t figure out how the detailer could have screwed up so badly. Regardless, I didn’t think it was a good omen.

My suspicions were confirmed when I received the next call from my detailer. “Congratulations. You have been assigned as executive officer of the USS Yosemite.

“You’re kidding,” I almost shouted, “A tender? Is there any chance we could change it to a cruiser or amphib?”

“No,” the detailer replied, “All the assignments are locked in.”

All of the possible options rushed into my mind. I had never considered what I might do if I wasn’t selected or didn’t get a combatant ship. I had roughly six years left before I would complete my active duty service and be eligible for a retirement pension. I wanted to achieve my goal to be a commanding officer. I had qualified for command. But the XO tour was a critical and necessary step for selection. Being on a destroyer tender that stayed pier side in its homeport was not going to help.

Perplexed, I asked the detailer to speak to Captain Fenno again.

“Captain, the detailer told me I have been assigned as the Yosemite XO. I don’t really want to spend my last sea tour tied up to a pier. I came back in the Navy to spend all of my career on ships at sea. A tender by a pier wasn’t what I had in mind.”

“I understand, Jim,” the captain replied, “but that’s the only assignment we have for you. And tenders now deploy.” He hesitated and continued, “The Yosemite is the best tender on the East Coast,” hesitating again. “Before you make any decisions, why don’t you call up Admiral Butts? He’ll give you his honest opinion.”

Of all of the CO’s I had served under, now Admiral Butts was one of the five best. He had also become a good friend while aboard the Luce. I called, and Admiral Butts was enthusiastic about the Yosemite. He even said the tender would deploy in the fall.

*     *     *

After the two calls, I reconsidered. Even though she was a tender, Yosemite had always had a great reputation. I remembered when I was on ships homeported in Newport, I would find ways to take our work to Yosemite, the Cruiser Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet flagship at the time, rather than our “parent tender.” Yosemite’s repair work was far superior.

If I declined, I would have to spend the next six years in shore tours. I had never liked the shore establishment. My Navy was at sea. If I was lucky, I would have a good tour on Yosemite and get selected for command. That would get me close to the retirement (sic) requirement of twenty years of active duty. It wasn’t likely, but I knew this was my last and only chance.

I confirmed I would accept the assignment to Yosemite with my detailer. Soon, I found out the deployment would be in September, seven-plus months to the Indian Ocean, shortly after I would report aboard.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, in February, I began to think about having women as part of the crew. In the previous fall in San Diego, the married executive officer of the Prairie was relieved for cause after having an affair with his female operations officer. When I heard the news, I thought the Prairie XO was just plain stupid. Now, even though the assignment would have no effect on whether I married Maureen or not – after all, I believed I had found the woman I wanted to be with the rest of my life – I was glad I got married 12 days previously. It was going to be tough enough to be XO with women officers and crew. Being single would be like having a target on my back. I had learned from my detailer the guy who was now commanding officer almost didn’t accept me for XO. Captain Francis J. (Frank) Boyle was rightfully concerned about the problems a single commander would have as executive officer. He relented and accepted me for the job when he learned I was getting married before reporting aboard.

*     *     *

As I was leaving the Okinawa, I went to the Captain’s cabin to say farewell to my commanding officer, Roger Newman. He had been one of the better CO’s in my career and we had become good friends as well as golfing partners. After shaking hands and thanking each other for helping each other through an overhaul and following operations, Roger turned serious.

“Jim, you know XO is different from all of the other billets you’ve had,” Roger began.

I had been XO as a LTJG on a transport unit overseeing Korean troops being transported to and from Vietnam on Military Sealift Command ships, and I had been the emergency XO of the USS Cayuga (LST 1186) for almost three months, a successful and challenging tour, albeit short, in my Navy career. I had been given a great amount of advice on being a full tour executive officer and had been told many sea stories. I thought I understood what my role would entail. Roger made it crystal clear.

“You know when you become executive officer, your most important job is to support the captain,” he explained, “It doesn’t matter what you think about his decisions, if you don’t like his actions, or even if you don’t like him. Your job is to support him, to do anything to make him successful, to be his voice, his mirror reflection. That is your primary job.”

It was rather sobering, and I had been thinking about Roger’s admonition off and on since I began this journey to Yosemite (I think I adhered well to Roger’s advice with the exception of one instance).

*     *     *

My extremely limited experience with women in the Navy, enlisted or officer produced a great deal of concern for me when I was assigned to the one-month Prospective Executive Officer (PXO) Course at Destroyer School in Newport, Rhode Island.

When I discovered there was no training for being responsible for women on ships, I asked to be sent to TAD (temporary additional duty) in the last week of that training to Washington, D.C. and Norfolk to learn from those in charge of the Women In Ships program and from standing XO’s on ships with women on board in Norfolk, Virginia. The last week of the XO program was for specific types of ships to which the PXO’s would be assigned. There was no specific training for tenders. I was supposed to attend the week of training for service force ships. When the Destroyer School command refused to send me TAD, I was granted a week’s leave so I could find out what I could on my own. After arriving in Norfolk, I was unable to schedule an appointment with the Women In Ship’s coordinator in D.C. Finally, in a telephone conversation, she and I discussed what I should expect. She told me to read the regulations. Duh! There was no real revealing information.

I was able to meet with one executive officer, Captain Livingston on the USS Yellowstone (AD 41). I left that hour discussion disillusioned. In my opinion, Captain Livingston was treating the women in his crew like second-class citizens.

So all I knew about women at sea wouldn’t fill up a thimble. My only thoughts were to never put myself in a difficult situation, intended or not, and to treat the women in my command as equally as possible.

I just hoped my new commanding officer, Captain Francis J. Boyle felt the same and would be able to give me guidance.

As I drove, I thought of an irony. While in OCS, my dream sheet for my first assignment was to be a Combat Information Center (CIC) Officer on a destroyer homeported in Mayport. I had received orders for exactly that, but on Thursday, January 31 (1968), two days before I was to be commissioned, I received new orders to report to Anti-Submarine Warfare School in Key West and then report to the USS Hawkins (DD 873) homeported in Newport. At least, my desire to be stationed in Mayport had been granted, only sixteen years late.

The traffic through Atlanta had been slow. I decided to skip lunch, just refuel, and see if I could get to Mayport in time for that haircut. As I turned off of I-75 onto I-10 East, I quit thinking about anything except driving and directions.

I made it to the base in good time, but the exchange was closed. Not wanting to report aboard and deal with meeting folks that night, I checked into the BOQ, to get some sleep and hopefully get a haircut before reporting aboard the next morning.

When I awoke the next morning, the front desk told me the exchange barbershop did not open until ten. So around 0830, knowing morning quarters and officer’s call would be completed, I checked out of the BOQ, drove to Yosemite’s berth and reported aboard.

My adventure was about to begin. I knew it would be my last chance to stay at sea.

1 thought on “Chapter 1: Last Chance

  1. I can assure you that we women were not trained in the art of dealing with shipboard duty. You were not alone. I, too, called the powers that be to ask if my assignment to the Yoyo was either a mistake or a sick joke. However, to this day I call it the best experience of my life.

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