Japan, Part 1

My introduction to Japan started back on the Oxford when we were laid up in Sasebo for engine repairs.  I loved it then, even though it was the dead of winter, so I was really looking forward in anticipation to this tour.  I was going to be here for a complete tour – three years.  I was determined to make the best of it.

I landed at Tachikawa Air Base in the middle of Tokyo and was bused over to the Security Group area at Kamiseya.  What I didn’t know at the time was this whole operation (which had suffered a huge fire in September of 1965 that killed 12 men) was to be moved northward to Misawa Air Base way up near the tip of Honshu Island.  I had only enough time to check in before I was hustled over to a plane headed to Misawa.

Misawa Air Base is a sprawling base run and maintained by the Air Force.  By our nature and for the most part, the Security Group used already existing facilities and the Air Force had a very nice Security Service installation out on a peninsula attached to the air base proper.  There was a huge circular antenna used for direction finding.

The same reason for existence of direction finding used in the Azores operation applied here.  The Sea of Japan and the portion of the Pacific surrounding Japanese waters could be extremely dangerous.  Our equipment was used for a variety of reasons; navigation and rescue were near the top of the list.  Being in such proximity with the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China we had loads of other tasking.  We always like to joke that Vladivostok was closer to us than Tokyo (which was true).

I was assigned a watch section, but since I was now an E-6 (CTR-1) I was made a supervisor of the section.  I was replacing CPO (E-7) this time.  The first E-6 to do so at this base.  Talk about being under the guns.  My performance had to be perfect now.

Any base housing (on or off base) was unavailable at the time I received my orders so I was forced to proceed to Misawa without my wife.  We took leave and I brought her back home to Colorado and left her and my daughter there.  She would remain there for just over a year before being allowed to come and join me.

As I said, base housing was very scarce.  I could have lived off-base, or “on the economy” as it was known, but these houses were typically Japanese – thin walls, very small, kerosene heaters, primitive kitchens and the like.  Very snug however, but just not what I was prepared to go for.  Monthly rental contracts were also made, but, curiously, in U.S. Dollars instead of Japanese Yen.  At the time, the conversion rate was fixed at exactly 360 Yen to the dollar.  A typical rental unit would cost maybe $150 a month.  When the big monetary upheaval came and the Japanese Yen was allowed to float, the conversion rate went down to around 180 Yen to the dollar.  The contracts written in dollars really stung the landlords.

I put my name down on the list for on-base housing and settled in for an extended wait.  Meanwhile, I was assigned to the Navy barracks as a barracks chief.  This was in addition to my normal watchstanding duties and involved making sure that all the Japanese workers did their jobs.  The particular building we were given by the Air Force was in fairly good condition.  It also allowed everyone to have an individual room.

The guy’s rooms quickly filled up with locally crafted Japanese furniture and stereo equipment.  High quality woodworkers in the town of Misawa could be commissioned to make some really breathtaking items.  Normally, all you had to do was show them a picture of what you wanted and they made it.  As for the electronics, there was a store right outside the gate, called Ebina’s, which sold electronic equipment.  Everything from small self-contained units to speaker enclosures you could park a car in were available.

Winter arrived with a whoosh of wind and snow directly from the Kamchatka Peninsula, frigid, hard, and penetrating.  It dumped almost two feet of snow virtually overnight.  The air base snow crews were very good.  The road running to the DF site was, back in October, lined with bamboo stakes over eight feet tall.  I wondered at the time if that was really necessary.  Yes, it was.  That winter, we received a total of around six feet of snow, drifting to twelve feet.  The snow, which made driving hazardous, was really welcome the year the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo.

On our days off, we were pretty much free to go our own way and do things.  Being an Amateur Radio enthusiast and a member of Navy MARS, I ended up over at the radio shack set up by the Air Force.  The current chief (and only) operator was a friendly sort named Red, and we got along well.  I began filling in for him in some of the AF traffic nets.  These nets were set up to facilitate communications to and from their host countries and typically consisted of stations in Vietnam, Korea, Guam, Philippines, and Okinawa.

Although their primary mission was as back-up to other comms, their secondary mission was to assist in making telephone “patches” back to the States for all hands on the base.  In a typical day’s operation, we might make as many as twenty or thirty patches back home for base personnel.  There were always regular operators (mostly on the US West Coast) standing by with their radios to make these patches into the telephone system.  These were the real unsung heroes of the airwaves.  On one of their typical days they might run as many as a hundred patches for us.  One operator, in the Seattle area, would have as many as five telephone operators standing by with several pre-arranged patches ready to go.  As always, patches from Vietnam took precedence, but the vagaries of atmospherics would force them to drop out about the time Misawa became stronger.

I spent a lot of time hanging out at that station.  Several of my watch section buddies began spending their time there also.  One in particular was as proficient in Morse code as I was.  We would spend a lot of time with our little code machine sending jokes from Playboy to each other.  Red wasn’t as good as we were so when we came to the punch line we’d speed way up and he’d have to struggle to catch it.

We were also licensed to get down on the ham bands and did so at every occasion.  Our call sign, KA8FY, was very rare.  Whenever we were present on any frequency we would be besieged with calls from hams all over the world for a contact.  One memorable situation, just before a typical ham band contest, we were adjusting transmitter power and gave our call.  There was an immediate return from another ham with a similar call sign (containing an “8”) who stated he was in Chicago and wanted to know if we were near him since we were so loud.  We said that no, we weren’t, and added that we were in northern Japan.  There was dead silence for perhaps fifteen seconds and then he started laughing.  He was convinced that we were kidding him and that we were in the next building or something.  It was only when he looked us up in the call sign directory that the laughing stopped.  He was our first contact of the contest.

I operated primarily in CW (Morse code).  When I started calling for any contacts, I was usually kept busy for at least an hour before I could stop due to our rare location.  We were the only American station in our part of Japan and considered a very rare catch.

Finally, the second winter arrived and I was assigned an on-base house.  It was a bit drafty due to the cracks in the wall (more on that later), but surprisingly cozy.  My family was due to show up in about three weeks.  I could hardly wait until they did.


Island in the Atlantic

In a previous post I gave a few details of my trip back on Christmas leave from the Azores.  It was while I was back home, at a party, that I met my future wife.  What I didn’t go into detail about was the first part of my tour there after leaving Pensacola following initial training.

For a young guy, and I had yet to turn twenty, arriving in a foreign country can be intimidating.  In my case, I was rather blasé about it.  I’d spent a lot of time out of the States – Germany, Alaska (not yet a state) and Canada – so the impact was not that bad.

I flew in from McGuire AFB in New Jersey via Bermuda to Lajes AB on the island of Terceira.  It was a blustery day and the smell of the sea was strong.  As I found out later, the smell of the sea is always strong.  Hey, it’s an island.  The town of Lajes is on the northeast side of the island and the air base is between it and the steep cliffs.  In fact, steep cliffs, except for rare areas, surround the entire island.

It is a volcanic island with one major mountain roughly in the middle surrounded by lesser hills.  My ultimate destination was the small town of Villa Nova, where the Security Group had it’s barracks.

NOTE:  For anyone interested, go to Google Maps and find Terceira Island, then Lajes.  Follow the coast road west until you get to Villa Nova.  I’m not absolutely sure, but there is a big, white building outside this village where our barracks may have been.  Our Operations Building still stands apparently as it is still visible.  Just west of town center, there is a road (3-2) that heads south.  Follow that road a short distance until you see a curious circular road off to the east.  There are buildings in the center of it.  This was Ops.  For a couple of buildings just the foundations exist now.

I arrived, checked into the Administrative building, turned in my orders, and got fingerprinted just to make sure who I was.  I mean, really; who else would travel to a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean prepared to spend eighteen months?  I was assigned to a watch section and given a room in the barracks.  This was new to me – an actual room I could call my own.  I was astounded.

Our watches were set up as I described before for the Philippines: 2-2-2-80.  My first watch was that night, the midwatch.  Bummer.  I cracked an eyelid at 2300, showered fast, dressed, and was ready for the little Metro Van shuttle to Ops.  The Operations building sat in the middle of a big antenna array and was connected by a little road to the Support Facility which housed generators and our “motor pool” (one carry-all and a four-door pickup).

While In Pensacola, since I graduated second in the class, I was given an extra four-week class in Direction Finding.  The Villa Nova operation was a DF site.  Given our location roughly one-third of the way across the Atlantic (from Spain) we were a crucial part of the DF network for the Atlantic area.  Stations on either side could give bearings that would show general east-west positions, but ours would act as the only north-south indicator.  Thus, should ships at sea or airplanes above get lost or lose navigation facilities we were invaluable in providing assistance.

One of my earliest rescue operations while on watch was one eve watch when we were alerted by Lajes Base Operations that a RB-47 (Reconnaissance) had lost pretty much their entire electrical and communications equipment.  All they had was a High Frequency radio which we could tune to with our gear.  We alerted the rest of the stations in the net and started a plot.  The plane would transmit a long, drawn-out number count and we all took bearings – lots of them.

Each time we plotted a position, we reported that to the tower and they passed it to the plane.  For two hours we guided that plane towards the Azores.  Halfway there, they developed engine troubles also and had to shut down three of them.  On a RB-47, that only left three; one on one side and two on the other.  Things were getting pretty hairy.  They finally got to within sight of the runway and as they turned on final approach the other three engines flamed out.  At the time, they were at less than a thousand feet and a half-mile from the runway.

No electricity, no hydraulics left, and no landing gear they elected to flop to the ground and slide down the runway.  The only injury was the navigator who got thrown loose from his seat by a broken belt.

This was not a typical scenario however.  Most of the time we did routine plotting and location exercises with Navy ships at sea and commercial ships wanting a cross-check on their navigation.  That was not our only mission though.  If I went into that, I’d be blogging from Portsmouth Prison because they didn’t know we were plotting them.  This was brought to the forefront of national conscience during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We worked very hard during those tense hours.

Liberty on the island was great.  Weather would sometimes play a part by making the skies cloudy with rain, but on the whole it was nice and sunny during the summer months.  The populace was extremely friendly.  The Azores is a Portuguese possession and they, of course, speak Portuguese.  I did manage to learn a bit of it, but by and large the city-dwellers spoke passable English.  The two largest towns, Praia and Angra Do Heroismo were in fact fairly extensive.  They both had fine parks, Old World architecture and quaint shops.  It was a photographer’s paradise.

I took a lot of photos too.  Most every weekend every village would host some sort of festival or celebration.  Being a very Catholic country most of them were religious in nature.  That did not stop the making of a potent grape brew called ‘vinche’ (pronounced vin-chay).  This was primo stuff which had been aged sometimes as long as two days in huge clay pots and strained through old sweat socks.  Four or five glasses of this blood-red firewater was guaranteed to blow your mind.

The ‘beach’ at Villa Nova was down a long switchback road from the top of the cliff.  There were lots of fishing boats that plied the waters around the island.  Myself and several of my friends got to know a few of the captains and eventually were allowed to help crew for them.  It was exhaustive work hauling wet nets through the long rollers coming from Gibraltar and the Mediterranean with nothing to stop or slow them down.

When we got back into port, the skipper would usually give several fish to us to take back to our little mess (dining facility).  We had one of the best messes I’d every been associated with the whole time I was in the Navy.  Ours was privately funded by monthly assessments.  We bought our own food, hired our own cooks, and paid for them out of our fund.  It was great since we also had a nighttime cook for Midrats.

I took up the game of golf while I was there.  I started out at a driving range and graduated to the actual course.  The ones we played at (there were only four on the whole island) had a no-penalty rule if you lost a ball.  There are no water hazards on any course.  This is because there are huge cracks in the earth that go all the way down to the bottom (wherever that is).  Any loose water, like rainfall, would immediately drain away into the center of the island.  So, if you are watching your ball roll down the fairway and it suddenly disappeared, you would mark the spot by eye, call “hole”, and wait until you could go to that spot.  Usually there was a crack, down which your ball might be visible.  If it was, then you pulled your extensible grabber and fished it out.  Visible or not visible, you got a ‘drop’ free of charge.

For a short period of time I had a little motor scooter.  Not a bike, but a Vespa scooter.  I rode that thing all over the place.  On a good day, you could circumnavigate the entire island in about five hours.  If you stopped to take pictures it was a good day trip.  Pack a lunch, visit with local guys, and pass around a bottle of vinche; that’s the life.

A little about the women of the island.  They were mostly beautiful – and untouchable.  Raised strictly Catholic even a steady suitor of a year or so could only stand outside the rock wall surrounding her house and talk to her while she sat at a window.  Mother and other daughters (if any) would chaperone.  During festivals, the young, unmarried girls were kept in what amounted to a stockade.  A nice one, but still a stockade.  Men were strictly controlled around them.  As a result of this, the Navy deemed a tour on the island a ‘hardship’ tour and allowed two rest and recreation (R&R) trips to Europe (not the States though).  Popular destinations were Gibraltar and Spain.  I never went; however, because I was content to spend time just poking around the island.

Most of the time I hung around Praia at a very nice city park.  There was an open-air cantina sort of thing where one could get a beer or aperitif and watch people coming and going.  There was also an exceptional beach with real sand that extended along the whole length of town; marred only by long breakwaters extending into the bay.  Angra had a boat harbor where you could rent a small day sailer and cruise around the bay.  You never ventured out into the ocean though because of high winds.  Lose a mast or sail and you’d end up a month later in South America and really, really hungry.

Things sort of changed for me after I came back from the Christmas leave.  I spent a lot more time in my room or on watch rather than running around the countryside on my Vespa.  I sold it to another guy about a month after I got back.  The one time we really cut loose was a party in our little Quonset hut club.  After an evening of dining (take-out pizza from our kitchen), dancing (fourteen guys and five dependent girls), and drinking (oh, yeah;  Big time), five of us decided it would be cool to give the Air Force building across from our barracks an “E” for Efficiency.

This is strictly a Navy thing.  Whenever a ship gets an excellent rating on any of their fitness or engineering tests, they get to paint an “E” on the stack.  Various colors indicate which division got the “E”.  We debated about which color to use, but since all we could find was black, that’s what we used.  The building was three floors tall and had a heating chimney that stood another thirty feet up from the roof.  To this day, I have no recollection of exactly how we did it, but twenty feet up that stack was a rather well done “E” in black paint.  The Air Force officer in charge was not amused and reported it to our CO.  He, in turn, passed it down to his Exec with the orders to find the culprits.  He came over to the barracks and nosed around.  We all decided to fess up and received a Captain’s mast.  Our punishment: re-paint the entire stack.

Both the CO and the Exec were pretty good heads.  They privately (very privately) thought the whole thing was hilarious.  A couple of months later, I was headed back home with orders for an advanced class at Fort Meade (NSA).  This was to be a sort of ‘finishing school’ for me.  Most of the classwork was in the “burn before reading” classification.  I had re-enlisted for five years in order to get this class.  The deal offered came with a promotion from my current grade (E-4) to the next higher grade (E-5, or CTR-2); and also allowed my dependent (wife) to travel with me to my next duty station; the Philippines.


Time for the Darwins…

Once again courtesy of my Sister:

The Darwins are out!!!!

Yes, it’s that magical time of year again when the Darwin Awards are bestowed, honoring the least evolved among us.

Here is the glorious winner:

1. When his 38 caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Provo, Utah would-be robber Jason Ellison did something  that can only inspire wonder. He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked.

And now, the honorable mentions:

2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat cutting machine and after a little shopping around, submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company expecting negligence sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and he also lost a finger. The chef’s claim was approved.

3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. Understandably, he shot her.

4. After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped… Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies..

The deception wasn’t discovered for 3 days.

5.. A teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit.

6. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer… $15.

[If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime committed?]

7. Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly.. He decided that he’d just throw a cinder block through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinder block and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinder block bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas. The whole event was caught on videotape.

8. As a female shopper exited a South Carolina convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, “Yes, officer, that’s her. That’s the lady I stole the purse from.”

9.. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti , Michigan at 5 A.M., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast. The man, frustrated, walked away. [*A 5-STAR STUPIDITY AWARD WINNER]

10. When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on an Atlanta street, he got much more than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal gasoline, but he plugged his siphon hose into the motor home’s sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to press charges saying that it was the best laugh he’d ever had.

Remember, they walk among us!!



Navy 1, Recruit 0

Since this whole series of posts started off on Veterans Day, and my initial post was tied in with some of the hardships spouses (in my case, my wife) must face while the veteran is away, I neglected the first part of my career.  So, even if it slightly out of order, I’ll go back to the beginnings – Boot Camp and progress up to where I ended up in the Philippines (my first post).

I was up in Montana at the time, freshly out from under my first year at college.  I attended Montana State University with a ‘what, me worry?’ major.  I minored in goofing off.  If you were to graph the results of my first year, you would have a pretty good line chart of the economy now – a rough forty-five degree downhill slope.  Things averaged out, however, so I ended up with s surprising middle-of-the-range GPA.

When the year ended and I got back home, Ye Olde Draft Boarde reared it’s ugly head and beckoned to me.  It spoke:  ‘come hither, young man and be a part of us.  We will turn you into a fearless soldier and ship you to exotic locations where you might have a chance to be shot at’.

Well, that sounded like something I’d rather not get involved in, so I went to see the on-base recruiter for the Air Force.  I’d done a bit of jiving even at my young age, so I could recognize a jiver when I saw him.  I didn’t want to be a jivee, so I told him I’d think about it.  This is circumspect talk for ‘bye, I’ll try not to let the door hit me in the ass on my way out’.

My next stop was the Navy recruiter downtown.  He was much more understanding, explaining that the Vietnamese Guerrillas rarely boarded ships at sea.  This sounded like a much better plan to me.  We sat down with a huge book that listed all the Navy occupational ratings (jobs) that were available.  I made a lot of notes and meant it when I said I’d be back.

My dad, at the time a light Colonel in the Air Force, seemed to know what several of the rates actually did and pointed out one in particular to me: Communications Technician (CT).  He said, and this is the first time I’d ever heard it (but not the last), he’d tell me what they did, but then he’d have to kill me.  As I had just seen the movie ‘Dr. No’ I had visions of martinis shaken not stirred, fast women, and sleek cars; or, was it the other way around?  This, I thought to myself, had definite possibilities.  I signed up the next day.

On my birthday near the first part of July I got my notice to report for transportation down to San Diego for what was known as Recruit Training.  Thirty-seven fresh fish from Montana left Helena by train headed for California.  I made the mistake of turning the correct direction on a ‘right face!’ call so I got to be in charge of everyone.  I was admonished that if anything happened to anyone and they didn’t arrive in San Diego that I’d have to serve out their sentence, er, hitch.  I thought to myself, ‘how hard can this be’?  It was like herding cats.

When we passed through Las Vegas for a crew and engine change, and to add several more cars, six of my flock decided to get the flock off the train and go pull some levers.  Note, however, that being newly enlisted they were hardly twenty-one.  This made no difference.  The hopped off the train and scattered like chaff.  Since each of them were going in the Navy for either three or four years, I would end up spending anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-eight years serving out their terms.

I needn’t have worried.  Trainyard security corralled them and herded them back on the train – still clutching their quarters in their hands.  Shortly thereafter we started moving again.  In due time, we made San Diego and the games began.

Our bus, recently converted from coal to diesel (as was the train for that matter), ground away from the terminal and gave us the last glimpse of normality for the next fourteen weeks while we passed trough the wonderfully suntanned scenery.  I’m sure that the young women of San Diego were very used to an entire busload of guys trying to get their attention.  They feigned indifference and, little did we know then, they would retaliate.

We entered the main gate and pulled up to a huge square of concrete which had been set to Broil.  We grabbed our meager belongings and got off the bus.  If we weren’t fast enough, a size 15 boondocker (boot) helped you off.  Hence, the term ‘Boot’ camp (I guess).

Our first logistical problem was to “line up tallest to shortest along this line”.  Absolutely no indication as to which end of the line was ‘tall’ and which was ‘short’.  Much confusion and milling around smartly until it was clarified with an amplified voice coming from a bullhorn.  “This way, you *%^#^)(*#&”.  His henchmen grabbed what was probably the shortest guy I’d ever seen and placed him at one end.  “Oh!  THAT way.  Why didn’t you say so?”

We snaked back and forth through a series of chains set up like the entrance to the Matterhorn Ride at Disneyland until we reached a window.  We had to yell our name, last, first, middle initial, service number; always making sure to preface it and append “SIR“  as loud as you could.  Apparently, the cave dweller(s) was/were hard of hearing.  We found out later (about five minutes) that everything we said or did had to use that format.  The louder, the better.

Eventually we were formed up into separate companies of around seventy or eighty guys.  Our contingent from Montana was paired with an entire draft of refugees from Florida.  Just the two states alone with no others.  The Civil War was about to begin again and it wasn’t going to be Civil this time.  After determining our leader by measuring … height, we were marched off to our new quarters.

Fresh recruits got to stay in two-story wooden buildings built around the turn of the century; the nineteenth.  Forty bunk beds, twenty down one side and twenty down the other side, were arrayed with precision and they were NOT to be moved under pain.  Just that, pain, nothing else.  Our first four weeks had to be spent on this island attached to the main base.  Tales of sharks in the water reinforced our leader’s threats.

The next week was spent getting shaved (head, that is), clothed, X-rayed (tooth and chest), packing up our civilian clothing to mail back home, and drawing our wooden rifles.  A note about these rifles.  They, as I said, were made of wood but some twisted soul devised a way to drill down the barrel and add a chunk of lead.  More lead was added to the stock.  Total weight of this piece was about eight pounds.  The worst you could to with it was hit someone with it.  In our first trial of the Manual of Arms, bones were broken.

We marched everywhere.  Any time we left the building we had to be marching as a group, or, if the Instructor felt like it, running.  Breakfast was twenty minutes long.  We entered as a company, stood in line packed up like sardines, shuffled down the steel sliders and got stuff put on our compartmented steel plate and then directed to a table.  Guards walked around checking to see if you were hiding any food for later.  We figured this was really funny because who the hell would want to do that?

What better way to work off your breakfast than jogging back to our company area and doing calisthenics?  A half hour of this and we were all barfing nicely.  We were given ten minutes to slip into something less comfortable and then marched off to morning classes.  Then followed lunch.  More of the same except that it was now light enough to see other people and what you were eating.  This is why I preferred breakfast.

We did afternoon classes on a full stomach.  This guaranteed you would be drowsy.  Teachers and Instructors took glee in singling out a recruit who fell asleep by sitting them down in a three-legged chair that started out with four legs.  What fun when the poor guy fell and broke his nose.  What was really fun was watching some shmuck holding up a round from a five-inch gun with his elbows bent while weaving back and forth in a trance.  I was a morning person so once in a while (twice) I got tapped for gun duty.

Whole days were spent pulling labels off our new clothes.  Every piece had at least seven or eight labels and inspection slips tucked into secret pockets that we had to remove.  With glee, the Instructor would pounce on some poor guy and ask him if that pair of pants was empty.  “SIR, YES SIR.”  Whereupon the DI would smack his hand on the garment lying on the bed and say in a menacing tone “What about THAT one, Recruit Slime?”  Sure enough, the recruit would reach into the pocket and pull out ‘Inspected by #14 – you’re screwed’ (Just kidding about the last part).  Forty pushups later the pants were clean.

All was not fun and games however.  In the midst of all this seeming harassment we were being taught team movements, team thoughts, and team spirit.  Virtually every thing the DI’s had us do had a practical reason.  For instance, you had to be clean shaven or the mask of an OBA (Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) would not make a seal if you had whiskers.  Pushups and arm lifts with your rifle built up your strength and slimmed us all down.  Guys that started out rotund ended up looking a lot healthier; guys who were thin put some meat on the bones.  By the time four weeks were up, we were looking pretty sharp.

One more thing.  Those nicely browned girls we hooted at in town were now gathering on the back decks of houses running up the hills opposite the ‘grinder’ (as our marching concrete area was known) and flashing their hooters at us and laughing as we sweated away in the heat.  Now that was cruel and inhuman punishment.

Life on the main base was nicer in all respects.  Our diverse group had now coalesced into a bunch of guys, all with the same goal.  Former foes from both side of the Mason-Dixon Line were now helping each other learn the General Orders which you had to spit out like a machine gun whenever anyone of higher rank (which included sea gulls) ordered you to.  We had now graduated also to real rifles which we got to take to a range and actually shoot.

My one great fear has always been a big fire.  I knew that it was an illogical fear, but I was still nervous about it even at eighteen.  When we were herded into hold area of the USS Neversail (a learning “ship” built on dry land) and a lecture begun, none of us knew what was going to happen.  Suddenly, in mid-sentence the loud pealing of a General Alarm rang out.  PA speakers came to life: “Fire!  Fire in main engineering!  All hands report to Damage Control!”

The previous weeks had been spent well.  Without much conscious thought we broke and ran to our appointed places throughout this mock ship.  Billows of dense black smoke began seeping through the ventilators.  A voice shouted for them to be closed and down came the shutters.  It got dark very fast.  I was lead man on a fire hose, using an OBA, but I couldn’t see a thing.  Off in the distance an orange flame shot up.

Aim for the base.  Aim for the base.  This mantra repeated in my mind as I hammered the valve open on my fog wand.  It began to shoot a wide swath of cold water ahead of us and we slowly moved towards the fire.  As we moved closer, the fire went out.  All around me I could sense other doing exactly what I was doing in full synchronization.  This is the results of constant harping on doing it by the numbers.  We suddenly “got it”.

The fire was tamed and we emerged into the sun thoroughly blackened except for the round circle where the mask had kept the smoke away.  At that moment, I realized that I was worried about a big fire any more.

Virtually every day for thirteen weeks we had been learning a series of exercises that involved the use of our rifles.  We would hold them over our heads and twist around, then drop them in front of us and do standing pushups with them followed by a slow-count manual of arms from right shoulder to left shoulder and back.  It is really something to be near the rear of at least three thousand guys all moving as one to the music of a band.  Every two weeks, your company moved forward one rank.  When you reached the front rank, your company would be the next to graduate and leave San Diego.

Before that happens, you get two weekend day passes.  This means you get to go on liberty at 0800 and return at 2200.  San Diego is a very picturesque place with numerous spots of interest.  When our company got our first liberty, after being restricted to the base for ten weeks, we headed outwards – directly to the beach.  Why?  Need you ask?  It was there that quite a few of us found that the rumors the cooks were putting saltpeter in the food were embarrassingly disproved.  We had just been so overloaded with information and instruction that other things never entered our minds.  The second liberty, two weeks later, was much more subdued.

Graduation day!  This is the first time we were allowed to wear our one set of whites we NEVER used except to wash every day.  Dressed with white ammo belts and white puttees above our boots, rifle butts shined, and hats correctly centered we did our exercises for an assembly of officers and guests.  Following this, we were lectured on the responsibilities we all had to undertake while in the service of our country.  Some of us had orders already.  I knew I was going to Pensacola, which drew huge groans from six guys that were from Pensacola, but were headed to a destroyer right in San Diego harbor.

Our last day!  We dressed in our new blue uniforms, holding our wrapped orders in our hands, and seabags at our feet.  Handshakes with friends, and even a passing word with our DI.  We were ready to serve.



Big wind from the Gulf of Mexico

I know I promised to limit myself to describing places where tourists normally don’t go, but one item of note that occurred while I was stationed in Pensacola was the arrival of Hurricane Camille.  In August of 1969 this huge wind blew over the Gulf coast between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian in Mississippi packing winds up just over 190 miles per hour with gusts over 200.  The devastation was unbelievable.  Whole sections of coastline up to miles inland were flattened with very little above two feet tall standing.  Entire buildings were blown down or shredded.  Huge trees three feet across were uprooted and simply disappeared.  I know, because I was there immediately after it hit.

We had gotten quite a bit of rain and wind in Pensacola that day (the 16th) and it continued throughout the night.  I was part of the Navy M.A.R.S (Military Affiliate Radio System) network and we fired up our radio systems and kept in touch during the storm.  After the winds abated and we reported to our respective commands I, along with several of my fellow instructors who were also Amateur Radio operators, decided we would try and provide some communications to the stricken area of the Mississippi coast.  The idea was passed up channels for review.

We were organized under the command of a Warrant Officer, wore the green, Seabee-style coveralls, and were traveling under orders from the base Commanding Officer.  It was an official function, and we were ready.  I provided my VW Camper bus as one of the vehicles, and other members of the party had radios in theirs.  My bus was packed with food, water, spare parts, and all of my home radio station – good, hand-built, Heathkit radio gear.  We had a generator, fuel, and lots of coiled wire for antennas and such.

At the time we left our base, most of us had been awake for quite a while already.  By the time we stumbled back home almost five days later, we would have chalked up better than 100 hours without sleep.

Our drive over was slow but steady.  We met roadblocks by the local and state police several times, but after they saw our six radio cars and our Navy orders they let us pass.  The devastation became apparent miles away from Pass Christian, our goal.  At first it was simply debris on the road but after another twenty miles or so we saw whole sides of houses in the fields.

The ring of officialdom around most of the coast was strictly controlled by the Army National Guard of Mississippi.  They, being military, understood what good we were doing there and also let us through.  They provided an advance jeep with orders to let us set up our station at what was left of the Seabee base at Gulfport.  It was very dark at night when we arrived and we got lost.  One road we managed to find with a lesser amount of debris took us over a causeway.  We didn’t know until the next day that what we had traveled had been condemned by the engineers as being totally unsafe.  It even had missing sections of concrete (that had dropped into the ocean below) which we blithely drove around.

We reached an area that used to be a school.  High water marks appeared on the second floor about halfway up the wall.  It wasn’t safe there so we found another place about a hundred yards from a thundering Guard generator the size of a tractor-trailer.  The noise was deafening, so we moved yet again until a place in a partially destroyed warehouse seemed good.

Within an hour, we had everything going but no antennas.  The winds had died down, but since there wasn’t anything left high enough to string antennas from we improvised.  We found one telephone pole that had a power line drooping from it and another line that stretched to five other poles.  It wasn’t connected to anything so we simply clamped onto the wire and did our best.  It wasn’t perfect, but we had a station on the air.

We also had five other cars out trying to find their way around town.  Since roads were generally impassable and, in fact, most of them were completely unnamed due to no street signs, we had to rely on a map of Gulfport to locate ourselves.  Our outlying troops began to locate small groups of people who had survived and were just now coming out of their shelters to survey the damage.

We took careful notes of their names and addresses, which were then radioed to us at our base station.  We would add them to master lists and when the list got to fifty names we would make up messages for transmission to various cities the outside world.  The Amateur Radio message system is very efficient.

At first, we had trouble making anyone believe we were in Gulfport.  Everyone on the Ham bands wanted to talk with us but we wanted to pass traffic out of the emergency zone.  Finally, a supremely loud, and authoritative, ham in Chicago joined our group.  She cleared off the frequency, enlisted the help of a couple of her friends, and we managed to organize an impromptu net.

That first hour, we only passed along the messages from around 150 people.  But, as reports came in, and the word got around we were offering our services as a “we’re still here and alive” outgoing message center, things picked up drastically.  We were passing messages by voice and Morse code using my station as the main station and two others as auxiliaries.  That day we passed over 300 messages to the rest of the country.  We accepted no inbound messages.  Not only were we unable to spare the people to deliver them, but we had no way to even locate them if they’d stayed at their own house.

By the time the first day had ended, we had established ourselves on the ham bands as the only station on the air from the Gulf Coast.  No others in the surrounding area had survived the storm.  We continued passing messages throughout the night, shifting frequencies as the atmospherics dictated.  We lost the big Chicago station but ended up with another loud station over in Dallas.

That night, we passed yet another 350 messages.  We were getting tired now.  We still hadn’t slept at all.  The outriders in their cars came back to our station and helped file items for the rest of us.  They also grabbed sandwiches.  We had run out of our own food the first day – having given quite a bit of it away – so we were reduced to scavenging what we could.

As a sidebar, it might be of interest to note that the Red Cross was selling two pieces of dry bread with a slice of cheese or bologna for fifty cents; however, the Salvation Army was giving stuff like that away for nothing.  In my estimation that was a really crass thing for the RC to do.  Hardly anyone who survived in the area had anything to wear, much less to pay for food.  Just my opinion.

The next morning, we re-established our station on a higher radio band with contacts in Omaha and New York.  It was a huge success because we passed almost 500 messages that one day.  I took some time away from the radio because my wrist had been cramping most of the night from running my telegraphic bug (a semi-automatic keyer) and walked around.  I saw the ruins of another school.  A sign, plastered against it’s brick wall, stating it was an emergency shelter seemed to mock the fact that there was nothing standing anywhere.  The whole ground floor was nothing but piles of rubble from the other two floors above it.  Fortunately, the citizens had been warned long enough in advance so they had evacuated rather than stayed at home.

There were ocean-going ships placed almost a mile from the shoreline by the 24-foot storm surge.  The entire contents of a huge yacht basin were concentrated in one small corner that was left of a seawall.  What seemed like hundreds of boats, small and large, were stuffed inside each other like artichoke leaves.  What cars that hadn’t been bulldozed by the Guard were really nothing but round tubes of metal stuffed into the frameworks of what used to be some great restaurants along the waterfront.  And, everywhere lay the remains of all the houses and trees.  It was mind-bending the amount of destruction this storm had caused.  I got discouraged and went back to the station and tried to get a nap.

Sleeping was not an option.  I’d been up so long now that I wasn’t tired.  I was still functioning so I took over the voice radio and kept the messages moving.

Finally, after yet another long night, help from the military and civilian establishment began to arrive.  Huge helicopters carrying mobile vans were setting them down in compounds cleared by bulldozers.  They began to take over.  This was long before the advent of cell phones and satellite relay dishes.  Communications were still either landline (non-existent) or by radio – the old-fashioned kind.  It was nice to know that we’d played a part in the drive to assist.

We packed up our station, said our goodbyes to the Guard troops who’d helped us, and departed the area.  We drove like zombies and, when we finally just couldn’t drive further, we agreed to stop at a motel.  The owner took one look at us and asked if we’d been ‘the radio guys’ the television had been talking about.  We didn’t know that news reports had been keeping track of our efforts all along, reporting on how we were doing.  He offered us four rooms free of charge.  Most of the group took them.

Myself, and one other car, decided to push on towards Pensacola, now only about fifty miles away.  We chatted back and forth over the radio to keep each other awake and arrived back home after more than four days of pure, hectic, activity with no letup.  I don’t know if this sounds nuts, but I actually enjoyed what we did in a sense-of-accomplishment way.

Next:  Back to the Pacific Rim