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.