Chapter 5: The Med and the Suez Canal

Liberty in Rota was quiet. It was our first liberty for the deployment, so I was a bit nervous. Perhaps it was because of my initial visit in 1968 to this southwestern port city of Español.

Back then, the town was off limits to all but personnel stationed at the Naval Base. I was awaiting transportation to my first ship, the USS Hawkins (DD 873). I waited for two weeks. I took a tour bus to Seville for a bullfight and a day’s walk around the old world city. The rest of the time I played golf (poorly) on the very dry base course. In the evening, I would wander from the BOQ over to the officer’s club. On my second Saturday, I hooked up with a couple of aviators and several of the nurses at the O-Club bar after dinner. We went to one of the nurse’s apartments in downtown Rota, my only time off the base during those two weeks. We played a drinking game called “Indian.” I shall not go into details, but the other officers drove me back to the base in the wee hours of the morning and poured me out of the car. I stumbled into my quarters and proceeded through the worst hangover in my life. On the following Monday, I received instructions to catch a morning flight to Malaga, Spain where I would board the USS Hawkins (DD 873), my very first ship.

Needless to say, I did not have fond memories of Rota and had concerns some of Yosemite’s personnel might follow in my experience fifteen years before.

But the crew and officers went into town and enjoyed the sights, returning to the ship in good shape (as far as I knew). Several of the officers, including Doc Kerrigan and Linda Schlesinger, our disbursing officer drove about 45 minutes to Cádiz. Cádiz is a larger city directly south of Rota across the Bay of Cádiz. It had a fairly large casino. Linda had stood watch during sea detail, then pulled shore patrol duty before joining Frank at the casino. She later told me she fell asleep out at one of the gaming tables. When she woke up, all of her chips were gone.

We pulled out of Rota in the morning. By the time we reached the straits, the world of the sea had turned gray. Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean or back out to the Atlantic Ocean was one of the most majestic sights I saw in my 15 years of sailing the seas aboard Navy ships. I transited the straits four times. This time, it appeared the transit was going to be just gray mist and black seas, no sighting of Gibraltar’s promontory this time. If you knew where to look and for what you expected as I did, you could barely make the shadow of the awe inspiring peak.

But then came something better. We gained communication with a radar contact on a parallel course eastward. It was the USS New Jersey (BB 62). She, with a speed advantage, soon became visible, a specter of a magnificent past silhouetted in the gray mist. We crossed into Mediterranean waters side by side. It was more awesome than it would have been had it been a beautiful sunny day. We didn’t need that Spanish rock. We were in the company of a legend, and she was breathtaking for this mariner.

I was even more impressed with Captain Boyle when he sent a flashing light message to the New Jersey’s commanding officer. Captain Rich Milligan, the New Jersey’s CO, later was Frank’s immediate superior in follow-on commands. Milligan became the Commander, Cruiser Destroyer Group Two out of Charleston. Frank was the Commanding Officer of the Readiness Support Group in Charleston. His direct superior was Commander, Cruiser, Destroyer Group Two, also in Charleston, Captain Rich Milligan. They became friends and golfing buddies.

Their flashing light messages made me smile. They discussed the durability of the older Navy ships like destroyers, Yosemite, and New Jersey, compared to the new ships, an appropriate observation even more applicable today. And they were doing it by flashing light messages as these two ships of World War II vintage crossed from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean.

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But then we had an event that was upsetting to say the least. After we had secured from sea detail, we conducted a “unit sweep.”

As we got underway from Rota, we announced the unit sweep for drug testing. The Navy belatedly had begun a “zero tolerance” program for drug abuse. In 1973-75 during my time aboard USS Hollister (DD-788) as chief engineer and on USS Anchorage (LSD-36) as first lieutenant, drug usage had been epidemic. There were many crazy incidents involving marijuana and harder drugs on both ships, but it had been particularly rampant on the Hollister. During my years aboard those two ships, the Navy’s policy was unclear, at least in my mind. On the Hollister, I took the position if a sailor used drugs off the ship and his using did not impact his performance on the ship, I would not take offense. But if they used drugs on the ship or it impacted their ability to perform, which in engineering is a definite ship safety concern, then I would do all in my power to take them to mast or a court martial and use every means available to get them off my ship.

My approach didn’t work. I was at peace with the way I handled it, but drug usage did not abate on Hollister. On Anchorage when I was first lieutenant, drug usage was still a significant problem, but the wanton disregard for policy had abated somewhat. Still for an operator, it was a scary proposition for many reasons.

After nearly four years as the Senior Naval Officer at the Texas A&M NROTC Unit and two years in my amphibious squadron staff tour, the military’s zero tolerance for drug usage was still a concern of mine when I became weapons officer on the USS Okinawa (LPH 3) in Perth, Australia in September 1981. The military established a zero tolerance for drug usage in late December 1981. The policy used random testing and “unit sweeps” to find drug users and initiated punitive actions including courts martial or administrative separation for drug use. Drug testing included marijuana, cocaine, heroin (opiates), amphetamines, barbiturates, methaqualone and PCP. The Navy’s version of the edict was issued with the catchphrase “Not on my watch, not on my ship, not in my navy.”

From my perspective as a ship’s department head and as executive officer on Yosemite, the zero tolerance greatly improved my ships’ performance and greatly reduced the dangers associated with drug use on ships.

As part of the regulations including military justice, the procedure included the command’s ability to process any Navy personnel who had tested positive twice out of the Navy on an “Administrative Discharge.” It was a step in the right direction. Taking anything with the probability of debilitating one’s effectiveness at performing their job at sea on a warship was, and remains an unacceptable risk. I believed that then and I believe that now. Even though I drank alcohol like a champ, I never had a drink aboard any of the Navy ships on which I was stationed. To me, there was and is a distinction between alcohol and drug use.

So, I was all for the Navy’s new zero tolerance stance. Another advantage for a ship’s executive officer was that it gave me a clear and unconfused procedure to follow.

There was only one sailor who “popped positive” on the test: ET2 Schmidt, the second class who had admonished me for calling out another sailor for a gross rack during a messing and berthing inspection. It was Schmidt’s first drug offense.

When Schmidt appeared before me at XOI, I asked him why he would violate the Navy’s zero tolerance program. He told me he was raised in a family where they did not consider marijuana harmful, and they all used it as a matter of course. He continued by explaining he did not agree with the Navy’s policy. I thought his explanation was a lame excuse and did not bear any weight. He knew the consequences, and he had violated the rules. I was actually sad a productive sailor who had been a positive force for the command had chosen to cost him and the command by committing an illegal act. In addition to being a key, effective member of Rx Division in providing electronic equipment repair and maintenance, he was the division’s leading petty officer. As stated earlier, he had contributed positively to the ship’s “esprit de corps.”

That made Schmidt’s act even more severe from my perspective.

Captain Boyle, if possible, was even stronger in his belief than I was about drugs having no place on Navy ships. Following his own guidelines even though Schmidt’s division officer and department head recommended leniency, Captain Boyle held firm to his belief and administered the penultimate maximum punishment at captain’s mast: reduction in rate to ET3, half-pay for two months, forty-five days extra duty, and restriction to the ship for sixty days – the harshest punishment supposedly was three days in the brig on bread and water, but most commanding officers, including Captain Boyle and this executive officer believed the long restriction and reduction in rate would have a more significant impact on the offender. I thought the captain’s action was right on target.

If a Yosemite sailor had a second offense for drug usage, Captain Boyle’s policy was to refer the offender to a summary court martial. He believed, and again I agreed, someone who used drugs and endangered the ship, should leave the Navy with less than an honorable discharge. An administrative discharge would get the sailor out of the Navy but with a “general discharge under less than honorable” conditions. That was not sufficient punishment or enough of a deterrent in our minds.

Case closed. Or so I thought.

 

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