If you have not served in the military, you have not experienced what it is like to truly offer yourself, your life and your freedom to serve. That being said, it was the military that allowed me to “kickstart” options in my life that I never realized I had.
I was going to graduate from high school in 1976. I had no real future and no plans to attend college, like my classmates. I had been working since the age of 15 as a janitor, dishwasher and pizza maker, not really making any headway in any position, living with my parents and making wrong adult decisions. I had already become a drinker, dancing until the early hours of the morning, with nothing to show for my effort but hangovers and a pregnant girlfriend. In short, I was failing in life and I wasn’t even “out of the gate”. I made the decision to join the military.
Getting into the military was an effort. I decided to go into the Navy. I had grown up as an Air Force brat and I did not want to have anything to do with the Air Force or Army. I had seen what my father had gone through and it seemed too restrictive for my taste. Anytime I saw sailors, I saw parties and drunken carrousers. THAT was what I wanted. I gave my local Navy recruiter a call and spoke to Bill Sutton, a veteran Radioman about what it would take for me to join. Bill went over my grades with me and said that I should be able to get in. Anyone who knew me in school, knew me as a person who never seemed to be in school. I skipped classes constantly in high school, though I would read all the material I was given. I did not take any Math classes, choosing to focus instead on creative arts such as English or Theater. I would rue the day that I made those decisions, but not that time.
Bill administered the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test. I scored high on everything except Arithmetic Reasoning and Math. My scores were low, but enough to get me in. Bill was confident that I would be able to handle what was going to be thrown at me in my career. My scores in Word Knowledge and Paragraph Comprehension were very high. Bill recommended that I sign up as a Navy Journalist. It was exactly what I wanted. As a journalist, I might become a radio broadcaster or even write for a military paper. The problem was that I would have to wait for a year to enter into the military DINFOS school and I needed to get into the military. Now. Why? My girlfriend was pregnant and I wanted to marry her. Did I tell Bill that little piece of information? Hell no. I just told Bill that I really wanted to join the Navy, now. Bill’s advice was an option; Operations Specialist. I would broadcast on the radio and could be involved in top secret operations. My father got his start in radar when he started in the Air Force during the Korean war. Bill did not lie to me. I was a broadcaster on radio…just not the kind of broadcaster I wanted to be.
I opted for Operations Specialist, hoping that within a year, I could be eligible to opt out for a seat in the Journalism school, instead. The test complete, I needed to pass another test, the military physical. Bill sent me to what is now known as the MEPS station for my phsyical.
My first hurdle in joining the military was that the surgeon stated I was not qualified to join. I had a fresh scar across my neck that the surgeon took a shine to instantly.
“What’s that?” he asked me.
“I just had an operation,” I answered him. “A thyroidectomy. 95 percent subtotal.”
“Are you on medication?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in. Physically, you’re okay, except that you have flat feet and you’re taking medication.”
“Can’t you make an exception?”
“No. I can’t let you go in. You have too many other problems that disqualify you for service.”
I went back home and talked to my father about what the doctor said.
“I’ll go back to the station with you,” he said.
Dad was true to his word. He went back to the station with me and had me sit down at a chair so that he could talk with a sergeant at a desk. I looked at the person talking with my father. He had an Air Force insignia on his arm. He left for a moment and came back to talk to my father for a few more minutes. Both of them smiled at each other and he beckoned me to approach him.
“Looks like your father really wants to help you get into the service,” he said.
“Okay, I talked to my commanding officer. He talked to the surgeon and they don’t see a problem in letting you join. Looks like you’re in the Navy.”
He had a record in front of him with my name on it. He had a stamp in his hand. With a flourish, he pounded his fist on the record…”Passed” showed up across the record in big red letters. I had successfully passed the military physical, only because my military father had intervened on my behalf.
Bill called me within days of my physical and told me to get down to the processing station with a light bag. My mother’s idea of a “light bag” was a suitcase, which would be taken from me and sent home, including my underwear that was packed with it. My father went with me. I filled out the necessary paperwork, signed my name on the line and got on a bus to head to the airport. I was on my way to NTC San Diego, California for Boot Camp.
Boot camp was a flurry of activity. I ended up in a “Special Company” because I could sing. We were not a “drill company”, we composed the marching band, the navy choir and the flag team. We did a lot of marching in San Diego. We marched on the “Grinder”. Those days were hot, sleazy kinds of days, marching on a hot tarmac, covered with the smells and splatter of pigeon shit. I grew to hate pigeons in those days. When we weren’t marching, we were in a hot classroom, nudging each other to stay awake and when we weren’t in class, we were running in the heat, learning to fight fires in the heat, sitting in tear gas, learning how to fire a weapon and sweat together as a group to complete our mile-and-a-half run in two minutes, fifteen seconds. Our evenings were spent polishing boots, ensuring that our bunks were spot on and our clothing was folded perfectly for our daily inspections.
Boot camp could take up the size of a book, so I will be brief enough to let you know that in the time I was at NTC, I ended up being robbed on liberty (I was at a company party and our entire group was waylaid by two individuals who robbed us all at gunpoint – apparently a common practice at that time – which left me on the base for another month, while I waited for my military ID to be reprocessed). I was lucky to graduate with my class. I had a report chit pulled from me, ready to go in my last two weeks, because I decided to humiliate a fresh company marching into their barracks, in full view of their company commander. My company commander chewed me out for over an hour, telling me how lucky I was, since their company commander wanted me to repeat my boot camp training.
Two weeks later, I took part in my graduation with my company and received my orders for Apprentice Training. AT was quick on my timeline radar, more of a laid back kind of memory, filled with classes that taught us all how to tie knots and learn all the functions of shipboard life to prepare us for our future as sailors.
I remember the flight to the Phillippines to catch my first ship, the USS Long Beach (CGN-9). It was a very long flight for me. Families were on the flight as well, since it also stopped at several airports along the way. We were on an Air Force C-9, bound for Clark Air Base, Phillippines. Our flight from San Diego made a stop in Anchorage, Alaska, where we all de-planed into what was a cold airport. We boarded another C-9 that stopped in Honolulu, Wake Island, Tachikawa Air Base in Japan and finally, Clark Air Base, Phillippines.
Opening the door to the Phillippines was a memorable greeting for me. The air was so hot and humid that my glasses fogged up as soon as I stepped out of the door. I suffered from jet lag and shuffled behind everyone onto the tarmac, measuring every step carefully as I struggled to wipe the fog from my glasses that seemed to not go away. I retrieved my sole baggage from the airport, a duffel bag and walked to customs. On my way to customs, I noticed a couple of yellow buses parked not far from the small airport, all of them with different names. Out of customs, I found my way to the Naval attache, showed him my orders, who directed me to the first bus that was parked next to the terminal. A large sign, “Subic Bay” was on the front of the bus, with a line of sailors, men and women formed up at the door, each with a duffel bag in hand and filing onto the bus.
Looking back on my past posts, one can realize what it was like to be on a ship, even a ship filled with as colorful and glorious a past as the USS Long Beach.
A Career Sailor
The life of a career sailor can become a plethora of changes: one command to another command, each stay at the command lasting only a year or two.
My tour on the Long Beach only lasted two years. It felt longer because those years were my most formative years, comprised of 2 months of scrubbing toilets that literally “exploded” with feces from time-to-time and 3 months of duty, scrubbing hundreds of steel sheet pans in a hot scullery every day. (By the way, I attempted to find steel sheet pans on the web like the ones that I worked with. There are none even close to what I cleaned. The pans I worked with were heavy individually, each one had to be at least 7 pounds each, pitted with use, always covered with grease.)
By the time I was finally introduced to the life of an Operations Specialist, I was grim. I learned from the best veterans in the U.S. Navy. Our captain could be stodgy at times, but I feel that he was the best mentor anyone could have to this day, Captain Harry S. Schrader (later Vice Admiral Harry S. Schrader, Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet), a man I would have the honor of working for in other capacities throughout my career, a man who would eventually see me progress as an exceptional Operations Specialist.
My introduction to my commanding officer however, did not start out so well. I was assigned as the bridge talker as the ship took plane guard station 10 levels above the main deck.
It was an awesome sight and a scary position for me to be in. I felt like I was stationed on top of the world and “God” himself was in front of me. We were part of the world’s only nuclear task force, Long Beach, Enterprise and Truxtun, Long Beach taking station 500 yards behind the carrier for plane guard duty. For anyone who has never seen what it is like to be 500 yards behind a huge carrier, with jets taking off and landing on its deck, you don’t know awe or fear. Not yet, anyway. I was manning my sound-powered headphones, a naval tradition that dated back to the second world war. Captain Schrader had the conn and started by looking at my board before talking to me.
“Combat, give me a range and bearing to the carrier.”
I was ready for him.
“Aye sir…range to the carrier, 3,750 yards, bearing 279.”
“All right. Combat, give me range and bearing to the carrier every 15 seconds when we approach 2,000 yards.”
“Aye, Aye, sir.”
I could hear OS2 Goodman on the phones. He was manning the radar, chatting with the rest of the Combat Information Center watch crew in CIC, 12 decks below me.
“Goody, the captain wants range and bearing to the carrier every 15 seconds when we are within 2,000 yards of the carrier,” I whispered into the sound-powered phones.
Goodman’s voice was crisp and clear.
Captain Schrader called out for range and bearing to the carrier.
“Combat. Bridge. Need range and bearing to the carrier.”
“Range 2,300 yards. Bearing 270.”
“Roger,” I said.
“Captain, range is 2,300 yards, bearing 270.”
I watched the carrier pass us on my left. It looked huge. It also looked too close. The bridge tilted to one side as we turned.
“Quartermaster, give me constant range and bearing to the carrier.”
“Aye, captain,” answered the quartermaster manning the chart.
The captain stepped out onto the deck just outside of the bridge.
“Combat, range and bearing to the carrier.”
“Combat, range and bearing to the carrier.”
I watched the silhouette of the carrier loom ahead in front of us as the quartermaster called out visual range and bearing to the carrier, while I waited for word from CIC.”
“Combat, where is my range and bearing?”
“Aye sir. CIC, Bridge, range and bearing to the carrier.”
Captain Schrader was obviously annoyed.
“Bridge Combat, range 1,700 yards at 300.
“Captain, CIC has carrier at 1,700 yards, bearing 300.”
“Okay, give me those ranges and bearings.”
“Combat, range and bearing to the carrier.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
“Don’t sweat it, man.”
“Captain wants range and bearing to the carrier every 15 seconds.”
I watched us approach the carrier closer as the quartermaster called out range and bearing of the carrier every 15 seconds.
“Combat, need range and bearing to the carrier. Captain wants it, now.”
“Okay, okay. Range 800 yards, bearing 357.”
“Captain, CIC reports range to the carrier 800 yards, bearing 357.”
By now, the captain was not listening to me, but the quartermasters. The aft end of the Enterprise loomed directly in front of us.
“Okay QM’s, that’s good. Give me a final bearing and range. Combat, finish up with the Officer-of-the-Deck. Good job everyone.”
I relayed the information to CIC, which now was silent. The circuit had gone dead while the watch changed. I felt like I did not do a good job, but that I did the best I could.
My tour on the USS Long Beach lasted until my new orders to my OS “A” School in late 1978, where I would spend 6 months at NTC Great Lakes, Illinois. I almost failed at the school, because of my low math skills. I never realized the need in high school to have even a rudimentary knowledge of trigonometry or calculus, a lesson I would rectify on my next command, sacrificing precious sleep for an education in mathematics at sea.
After school, I was assigned to the USS Monticello. I was salty, but not enough. Monticello was where I really grew up as a professional and as a man.
I grew as an Operations Specialist in a very small group. It gave me the opportunity to not only make my mistakes, but to stand out as a growing professional.
The USS Monticello was where I began to throw off my mantle of anger and frustration. I began to truly enjoy myself as a sailor and hone not only my perspective of the Navy, but discover what and who I was, by looking at the men that I lived and worked with. Those I worked with, shaped me into the man I would become. We would visit many countries, cities and ports. I would go with my friends on some occasions, scout out alone on others. All of the places we visited became a part of me.
What I discovered during this time was each port had its own distinctive smells. One of the guys taught me that. I can’t remember who did. But that person was right.
I would go on to more commands, more ships, more friends and more adventures after the Monticello. I would serve on the USS William H. Standley (CG-32), USNS Ponchatoula (TAO-148), FCTCPAC (Fleet Combat Training Center, Pacific) and USS Downes (FF-1032).
Eventually, life or destiny brought me back to the USS Long Beach (CGN-9) as one of the decommissioning crew, to retire her in 1992. As fate would have it, my last ship was the USS Denver (LPD-9).
I felt it fitting that I end my career and retire on the Denver, since I initially made my 20-year start in the MEPS station, located in Denver, Colorado. Looking back, were it not for my time in the military, life would have been very different for me, I doubt that my life would have been better, probably worse. What I have to look on with pride is that I took part in a part of our country’s history and served the United States as a military sailor with pride and honor.