Chapter 7: Diego Garcia and a Change of Plans, part two

This installment follows the Yosemite’s change of schedule, eliminating Perth, Australia as a liberty port and departing for anchorage off of Masirah, Oman with the objective of providing more repair and maintenance services for Battle Group ALFA.

The change made perfect sense. I suspected wanting to be at sea rather than in a port might have played a small part in the captain’s idea. I was elated. We would be at sea. There would be many less problems without liberty. The CO and XO would have much more control over ship’s company, and the change would, in fact, allow us to do our job better and more frequently.

On the other hand, this would also affect our schedule, most significantly our liberty port visit to Perth, Australia. Perth was one of my all-time favorite ports of call. I had spent over two weeks there where i joined the wardroom of USS Okinawa (LPH 3). I was single, and Perth was a wonderful place to visit.

As with all things related to Navy ship’s schedules, that schedule did change. The departure from staying in Diego Garcia make a voyage east to Perth impractical.

With the loss of Perth as a liberty port, the captain and I lobbied through radio messages to the chain of command for the Yosemite to return to Mayport at the end of the deployment by going east, around the world. Of course, we both wanted to circumnavigate the globe. We also mistakenly believed it would be a public relations coup for the Navy: the first Navy ship to go around the world with women as part of ship’s complement. The chain of command, not too excited about getting positive public relations for the Women at Sea program, denied our request.

But we would be headed north shortly. We might have been the first tender to operate in a forward operational area since the Korean War. That made missing Perth and not going around the world a little easier on me.

As the plans were changing, we continued to operate as other tenders had in the Footprint of Freedom. Liberty launches began their round trip circuits at liberty call until the expiration of liberty. Our few rules about fraternization seemed to work. We would watch and other officers would report to us how our sailors would go to the Navy clubs and have a good time. As they left, a number of couples could be seen walking with their arms around each other or holding hands. As they walked toward the liberty launch pier, they would gradually move away from affectionate postures and by the time they arrived at the liberty launch, they would have quit holding each other, not holding hands and mixing with everyone else as if they were not a couple.

Having liberty meant having problems, even on an atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. One medical report in the ship’s logs for October 16 is proof:

Received injury report on Schmidt, Joe. S., MM3 [again, personnel who had performance  problems are made anonymous by using the name “Schmidt”] Procured head injury from falling out of his rack. Urinalysis to follow.

But even with alcohol available in the clubs and apparently marijuana and possibly other drugs available through sailors not abiding by Navy regulations, we had a minimum of liberty problems. I attribute some of that to the fact male sailors behaved better when they were with women sailors.

*     *     *

But Yosemite had business to do. To do that, we would have to refuel. It had been a long way, since Palma since we took on fuel. Combatants, for all of my time aboard them, refueled at sea.

In my first Navy years, it was from a Navy oiler. Back then, the surface Navy had the destroyer, amphibious, and service forces. The service force consisted of ammunition ships, cargo ships, and oilers. Refueling at sea was a tricky evolution, bringing a ship alongside an oiler, passing hoses from about 120 feet apart, maintaining course and speed (usually 12 knots) with the combatant maneuvering to maintain station on the oiler. The refueling usually took an hour or so depending how much fuel the combatant needed to top off. The fueling was usually accompanied by a high line between the ships with the oiler delivering supplies and mail and swapping movies. It was a demanding operation for all hands from the engineers, to the personnel on station to latch up the refueling rigs, and the bridge where the OOD keeping station was a mark of good seamanship.

By the time Yosemite deployed, most of the service forces had transitioned out of the Navy and became Military Sealift Command ships manned by the merchant marines, not sailors. The amount of refueling at sea had greatly decreased with most refueling being accomplished in liberty ports. It really didn’t matter as Yosemite’s capability to refuel at sea had been removed a number of years before we deployed. In a way, I was relieved. Even though we had the best LDO Bosun I had ever met, a Commanding Officer who was an expert in such maneuvers, and I was a conning officer with tons of experience, we had enough on our plate without having to go through refueling at sea.

On Monday, 17 October, we weighed anchor, moved to the “POL” pier and commenced an all-day refueling, returning to anchorage in the late afternoon.

Our business, Yosemite’s mission, was to provide repair and maintenance services to forward deployed ships. The first was not a destroyer type, but a nuclear submarine. The USS William S. Bates (SSN-680) came alongside and tied up to us the next morning. The one-day alongside allowed us to perform some minimal maintenance and repair work. The Bates primary need we provided was provisions. We resupplied the sub with stores, especially food items. Linda Schlesinger, our ship’s store officer at the time remembers the sub was down to hot dogs and brussels sprouts.

The XO with his requirement to be sure everything was ship shape was a bit concerned.

It was our first maintenance period since deploying, a nuclear submarine getting supplies and maintenance services from a destroyer tender. I was well aware the high jinks submariners could initiate. Their wild liberty escapades were well-known sea stories (rumors) among surface sailors. Those submariners had spent long, long days submerged without any contact with females. Some of their antics on liberty, even commanding officers, were legendary. Again, Yosemite’s executive officer was concerned, but no incidents from the sub reacting to the women crew members occurred, at least as far as I knew.

Later that morning, the USNS Catawba (T-ATF-168), a Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet tug came alongside to port. She refueled and got underway the next morning.

After Catawba departed from refueling, I went ashore. I went on a run of about ten miles with the doc, Frank Kerrigan. We showered and changed at the gym and then went to the Officer’s Club for dinner. I sat down at the bar for an after dinner drink. Sitting next to me was the master of the Catawba.

Diego Garcia had some new buildings at the base. The transition to new barracks was completed, but the old wood buildings where base personnel originally had been housed were still standing. They reminded me of many of the WWII buildings used for training at OCS in Newport, Rhode Island, or perhaps more so like the barracks in Asia during WWII depicted in movies, wood siding on the outside with interior open space, all on stilts. The Officer’s Club was small and a spot for escape to me. The bar and dining area looked out toward the northeast where the “toes” of the “Footprint of Freedom” were visible. The “toes” were West Island, Anniversary Island, Middle Island, and East Island. The “O” Club had a great view, was comfortable, had passable food, and occasionally gave one the opportunity to have some contact with someone outside of the command, sometimes a needed escape for an all-consuming effort for an executive officer.

Catawba’s master provided me an escape. Unfortunately, I have no record of and do not remember his name. We talked over a couple of drinks. I remember most of the conversation well because I was thinking about my future.

The master related he had been a second class quartermaster on a destroyer with six years in the Navy. He got out, used his navigation experience in obtaining his third mate’s license, and quickly moved up to master of a fleet tug in his early thirties. The salary for a master of any sea-going merchant marine ship was almost three times what I was making as a commander and executive officer with 15 years of service. And the Catawba’s contract was working at sea for six months with the next six months off at home each year.

Being on a ship at sea had become a passion for me. If my quest for command at sea did not materialize, by now a likely result, I considered another option for continuing a life at sea. In my first executive officer tour with Military Sealift Transportation Service (MSTS) which had a name change to Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 1970 while I was XO, I experienced life as a member of the Merchant Marine. Transport Unit One rode the USNS Geiger and later, the USNS Upshur carrying Republic of Korea troops to Vietnam and back to Pusan, Korea. The Navy transport unit officers consisted of a commander CO, the XO, two doctors, and a chaplain. The medical team consisted of a chief and six corpsmen. Two “storekeepers” were assigned to the unit. One second class yeoman, a boatswainmate chief and two seaman rounded out the unit.

I had actually considered finishing my obligated Navy service of three years, attaining a third mate’s license with the merchant marine and spending my life at sea. But my career goal was to be a sports writer, and an offer from a good friend to become such in Watertown, New York, was too good to turn down. After my three year obligation, I left active duty and became a sports writer and then sports editor of The Watertown Daily Times.

Talking to the master of the Catawba, that possibility of remaining at sea crossed my mind again. I had always wanted to be on ocean going minesweeper and a fleet tug was similar in size and more of a working ship. It could be, no, should be fun. But I dismissed the thoughts quickly. I was married now and wanted to spend as much time with Maureen as possible.

The next day, the USS Lynde McCormick (DDG 8) came alongside for repair and maintenance services. The planning conference and the ensuing dinner in our captain’s cabin with the McCormick’s commanding officer brought about another first on our transit north in the coming days.

As we concluded the McCormick’s maintenance period, radio messages from CINCPACFLT confirmed our schedule change. The Yosemite would head north in three days, arriving off the island of Masirah, Oman on November 1.

As mentioned earlier, the bad news was the scheduled liberty port visit to Perth, Australia was cancelled. The crew was not happy with the idea of not going to Perth but going to sea and working. Also as mentioned earlier, i was personally disappointed.

I had flown to Perth from Subic Bay, Luzon, Philippines on a C-141 in September 1981 to report aboard USS Okinawa (LPH-3) to relieve Ken Manni and become the weapons officer.

The flight was one of the most miserable in my Navy career. Being the only officer on board other than the flight crew and dressed in my service dress blues, I sat on a cargo jump seat in the back of the aircraft and concerned about my appearance when reporting to Okinawa, I remained there during the flight while a number of the enlisted passengers climbed atop the large amount of cargo and slept sprawled out for most of the initial ten-hour flight. The pilot announced we would land at an Australian air force base in Queensland to refuel and a breakfast had been prepared for us at the base enlisted mess. This was welcomed news as our only in-flight meal was a box lunch we had been handed while boarding. It consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with a bag of chips, an apple, and a stale cookie. The flight crew handed out cokes and cups of water sporadically throughout the ten hours.

Unfortunately, no one had told the Australian galley of the plans. The breakfast did not occur and we re-boarded for the remain twelve hours.

But the miserable flight led to one of the best liberty I had during my time at sea. Shortly after I reported aboard, a group of officers hired two cabs to take us to Eagle Wools, a sheepskin plant outside of Perth. I was not interested in purchasing any sheepskins, but decided it would be good to mingle with my new shipmates.

Eagle Wools was consisted of a warehouse where a number of ladies were sewing sheepskins into various items, mostly hats and slippers – they later became the manufacturer of Ugg boots, but that came much later and the warehouse now boasts a modern showroom.

We were greeted by Phil White, the plant’s manager. He pointed the other officers to product sales material and turned them over to the ladies. When he asked me, what I was interested in buying, I responded I wasn’t interested, just along for the ride. He asked me if I would like a beer. Of course, I did. The two of us went over to a corner and a 1950’s era refrigerator. Phil opened it up. It was stuffed with cans and cans of Emu beer. We had both had about three when the officers finished their shopping.

I ran with Phil White and his wife for the rest of our liberty stay. I went to pubs that might as well have been in Britain. Phil took me out to the R&R inn in a park where Australians and Americans escaped from the rigors of battle in World War II and Vietnam. There after a hearty lunch, I had face-to-face time with kangaroos, koalas, and wombats. The couple also introduced me to several enchanting Aussie women. It ended the night before our ships sailed with Phil and I back at Eagle Wool, swapping tall tales. After not intending to buy any wool products at the outset, I ended up with four two-hide sheepskin rugs, a couple of wool hats, and to top it off, a nine-piece sheepskin I have used for a rug before my bachelor fireplace, a bed cover, and something to make me very, very warm when needed.

I was looking forward to escapades with Phil again, but it was not to be.

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