Chapter Five: The Med and the Suez Canal, part four

When we moored in Palma, I had been the executive officer for forty days. The Yosemite had been on deployment for two weeks. I was still learning how to be an effective executive officer. After Palma, we had an overnight of steaming to Augusta Bay, Sicily. Our stop in Sicily was brief. We anchored in the bay.

It was difficult being number two, essentially subjugating my natural inclinations to the captain, and in many ways, adapting my behavior to most effectively lead and manage all of my subordinates while demonstrating the behaviors he expected and deserved from me as his number two. I expressed my frustration in a long letter to Maureen:

Lady,

i almost lost it somewhere in mid-Palma until tonight {October 14}. I could feel the edge creeping in, the desire to not be where i was, the frustration, the lack of confidence all waxing toward the surface. There was no place to breathe, no one to talk to. The box (cassette tape) i spoke into was only a box, did not respond. The letters i placed on the paper were cold and flat, dull nothings that said less. I perceived all around me shrinking into their protective envelopes, not working together for the whole, lobbying for their interests, and i could feel all of those good feelings ebbing, not gone, but i could feel myself sliding back into the mire.

(Another day). But i caught it, stopped it, put the world in perspective, thought of you, loved you, thought of how long it would be before i saw you.

Then came another malady. Plague immunization came for me as we readied for entering the Navy port of Augusta, Sicily. The shot slowly went from having the expected sore arm into a touch of the plague, driving me down into a slight fever; my work hours caught up with me and the combination demanded sleep as retribution. i yielded amidst the silly mast cases of drunks, malcontents, malingerers, and young, good sailors losing their heads over their first piece of bona fide foreign tail and explained to me at XOI: “I met this girl and my friend and hers went back to her apartment and accidentally fell asleep. She didn’t have no clock, and I didn’t have no watch.”

So i see this twenty-year old sailor, and i try to imagine the inept, drunken groping and all else that went on, and i wish i could tell him some things but i know he would never understand even if he listened and most likely will never learn.

(I should point out not all male sailors followed the women sailors as I claimed earlier.)

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One of my goals after taking over as XO was to update the ship’s instructions and eliminate duplication of instructions issued by higher authority. The first night after Commander Sheffield had departed, I hung my photograph of Maureen, arranged the office to my liking, and began to examine my surroundings. There was a built in bookcase behind my desk, about six feet tall and about five feet wide. It held two-inch and three-inch loose leaf notebooks. They were filled with Yosemite generated instructions, some dating back probably to when she was commissioned in 1945. I wanted to leave after my tour with a set of ship instructions that were current, logical, and built upon existing instructions from our superiors, not parroting or duplicating them.

I didn’t think I could complete them in what I anticipated to be a two-year tour, at the longest three years. But I was going to try.

The only time to work on this revision project was each evening underway after I had briefed the Captain following 8 O’clock Reports. This meant I would usually start around 2200 because after my meeting in the Captain’s cabin, there was always a department head or someone else who wanted to talk to me. I enjoyed these conversations at the end of the day and didn’t discourage them. Chaplin Poe was a great confidant. We would share stories and discuss potential problems and complain to each other. George Sitton was another frequent visitor in the evening. George and I respected each other’s knowledge of the sea and deck seamanship, and he was an old style sailor like me with a caustic humor.

There were others, but I most welcomed Frank Kerrigan, the doc. As mentioned earlier, Frank was brand new to the Navy. The powers that were then had not sent him to “knife and fork school,” which we laughingly referred to an indoctrination period for officers who had no prior Navy experience like doctors, attorneys (JAG), and chaplains. Frank graduated from Michigan State on a basketball scholarship. Although he never made the varsity squad, he scrimmaged against Magic Johnson. That made him a superior athlete in my analysis. We both loved sports. Frank was the one person on the ship with whom I could talk about things without my position of number two having any impact on my duties as executive officer. For Frank, I was able to explain many things about the Navy no new officer without any indoctrination would know. We were both recently married. It was a great relief to spend a couple of hours with no pressure.

But the doc and the others had lots of things to do and all were gone most of the time before taps. That’s when I would pull down a notebook from the bookshelf and begin shredding it, checking it for being current and for duplication. Arduous work. But somebody had to do it. Actually no one had to do it, but I thought it should be done.

*     *     *

Other than the crypto destruction and the drug case, the two-day journey to the southeastern part of the Mediterranean Ocean was mostly uneventful. The ship arrived at Port Said, the entrance to the Suez Canal at night. It was confusing immediately. The anchorage held an uncountable number of ships with their standing lights shining like a sky with thousands of stars. I don’t recall seeing any other area of the seas with more ships other than the entrance to the Malacca Straits near Singapore. For some reason, this mass of every kind of ship and vessel imaginable struck me as more ominous.

The next morning, ships began entering the canal at 0400. Yosemite’s turn in line came early, getting underway at 0100. We steamed to the entrance and took the pilot on board. The Navy had warned us about taking on board other parties, even if recommended by the pilot. The other parties usually claimed extra lighting was required and then charged exorbitant fees for essentially useless floodlights. Even though we had briefed the key sea detail personnel on this warning, a team of five Egyptians were allowed to board with the pilot. When the captain and I were informed, we instructed our personnel posted at the entry to the ship on the port quarter to quarantine the Egyptians in a small compartment for the duration of the transit.

Captain Boyle quite rightly was very conservative in his view of foreign nationals being aboard the ship. He was very accommodating to guests but also very protective of his ship and his crew. His recollection of the Egyptian pilot:

My most vivid recollection is the pilot. Somehow I became aware that he had been disrespectful of our female officer, (Linda, I think) as she escorted him to the bridge. I was furious and had as little contact with him as possible. He was less than worthless foisted on us by the Egyptians. As I recall I directed him to your chair on the bridge and for him to remain there and that he had no further interaction with our women crew members.

Having spent lengthy times in Subic Bay, I was very aware of the deceptiveness and the thievery of foreign natives boarding Navy ships. I was quite angry our personnel had allowed the Egyptian floodlight team aboard. The Egyptian pilot blustered his indignation at our not allowing his team to have free access aboard the ship, but we remained adamant. I too recall the pilot sitting in the executive officer’s chair (mine) on the port side in the pilot house.

*     *     *

Captain Boyle remained on the open bridge through almost the entire transit of the canal. Although he relied heavily on the experience and expertise of Lieutenant Sitton to serve as Officer of the Deck and conning officer, he allowed others to conn the ship under his or George’s oversight. I suspect when our female officers, Lieutenant Kathy Rondeau, Lieutenant Sharon Carrasco, Lieutenant Junior Grade Noreen Leahy, and Ensign Emily Black to take the conn, they were the first females to drive a capital ship in the Suez Canal.

If I can get past the hubris of the pilot and the unethical, if not illegal boarding of the floodlight team, the passage through the Suez was remarkable and thought provoking.

Even though I had witnessed the conglomeration of ships waiting for entry into the canal, the never ending line of large ships of every type was just incredible. For example, the number of languages used in the necessary communication with the canal transit operators was astounding. Once in the transit, I was not only staggered by the numbers but concerned about safety. The distance between ships was 500 to 1,000 yards. I worried about another ship’s going DIW (Dead in the water) due to engine malfunction or, because of a language barrier, a miscommunication between a ship’s master, the pilot (especially if they were as all incompetent as ours), canal operations, and another ship creating a potential collision. It was not a comforting thought. I was positive my concerns were echoed by Captain Boyle.

When I could divert my concerns about the shipping, the canal itself was stunning. The engineering effort required to dig a watercourse 120-miles long and a width that easily can accommodate the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carriers was nothing short of amazing to see.

My everlasting impression of the journey was sand. There were other emotional reactions. Shortly after clearing the passage through Port Said, evidence of the Six Day War and Israel’s sudden victory was evident, even twenty-six years later. Destroyed tanks and armored vehicles partially jutted from the sand. It was sobering to consider how swift and deadly the Israelis took the Gaza Strip. Not too much later, we passed small villages. The citizens, especially youths, sat on the canal wall with their feet hanging over the edge laughing and yelling as Yosemite passed by. It was a different world than ours, almost as if they were from an earlier century, at that moment only yards away.

At 0900, eight hours after beginning our transit, the column of ships anchored in the Great Bitter Lake. It was a salt water lake, and it was barren. Ship columns would anchor there to allow the columns transiting in the other direction to pass and reenter the one-way canal on the other side. Four hours, we stood at anchor, getting underway headed south again at 1343.

The rest of the transit was uneventful. But when we dropped off the pilot and the band of thieves and cleared the canal, we all breathed a sigh of relief, especially the captain and I.

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