“Coffee, Nectar of the Gods…er…Chief Petty Officers”

“Coffee, Nectar of the Gods…er…Chief Petty Officers”

By: Garland Davis

If asked, “How do you take your coffee?” I reply. “Seriously, very seriously.”

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The coffee plant, discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th Century, has a white blossom that smells like jasmine and a red, cherry-like fruit. At that time, the leaves of the so-called “magical fruit” were boiled in water and the resulting concoction was thought to have medicinal properties. As the fame of the coffee plant spread to other lands, its centuries-long voyage was about to begin.

Istanbul was introduced to coffee in 1555 during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by Özdemir Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of Yemen, who had grown to love the drink while stationed in that Country. In the Ottoman palace a new method of drinking coffee was discovered: the cherry seeds, later called beans, were roasted over a fire, finely ground and then slowly cooked with water on the ashes of a charcoal fire. With its new brewing method and aroma, coffee’s renown soon spread even further afield.

Over the next century coffee spread throughout the countries of Europe. England first became acquainted with coffee in 1637 when a Turk introduced the drink to Oxford. It quickly became popular among students and teachers who established the “Oxford Coffee Club.” The first commercial coffeehouse in Oxford opened in 1650 and was called the “Angel.”

In 1652, the first coffeehouse was opened in London. Using his extensive knowledge of how to prepare and brew Turkish Coffee, the Greek owner introduced his friends and clients to its peerless Taste.

By 1660, London’s coffeehouses had become an integral part of its social culture. The general public dubbed coffeehouses “Penny Universities” as they were patronized by writers, artists, poets, lawyers, politicians, and philosophers. London’s coffeehouses offered customers a great deal more than piping hot cups of coffee: the entrance fee of one penny allowed them to benefit from the intellectual conversation that surrounded them. It is believed that William Shakespeare conceptualized and wrote plays in the coffee houses of Strafford upon Avon.

Many coffeehouses of London placed a brass box bearing the words “To Insure Promptness” where patrons could leave a coin in payment for the services rendered by the coffee wenches. That is where our current term “TIP” and the practice of “Tipping” originated.

Coffee reached North America in 1668. The first coffeehouse in New York, “The King’s Arms”, opened in 1696.

Coffeehouses of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as in London, were frequented by students and intellectuals.

In 1714, the Dutch presented Louis XIV with a coffee sapling from their plantations on Java. The sapling was planted in the royal Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

In 1723, a French mariner took a sapling from the Jardin des Plantes to the island of Martinique. From here, the coffee plant spread to other Caribbean islands, as well as to Central and South America.

In 1727, a Portuguese sailor carried coffee saplings to Brazil from French Guyana. Today, Brazil is the number one producer of coffee in the world, accounting for 35% of global coffee production. By the mid-nineteenth century, coffee had become one of the most important commodities in world trade.

After the “Boston Tea Party,” the drinking of tea by the colonists fell out of favor. Coffee grew in popularity throughout the colonies and later the fledgling states. During the American Civil War, the blockade of Southern ports created an extreme shortage of coffee. Numerous substitutes were attempted, primarily toasted corn, toasted barely and the ground root of the chicory plant. Many in the deep south developed a taste for chicory and still mix chicory root with coffee.

Coffee was mostly drunk by the officers in the early American Navy. The sailors preferred their beer and rum rations. It slowly became more popular as a morning drink throughout the Navy.

The practice of coffee being made available twenty-four hours per day was established as a Naval tradition at the Battle of Manila Bay when Commodore George Dewey ordered the fleet to keep the galley fires lit to make coffee available throughout the battle.

Early versions of the Navy Cook Book required that the coffee be made only so strong as to see the bottom of the cup. This was to prevent the sailors from becoming overly stimulated. It later became customary to make and drink coffee strong enough to “float a marlinspike.” Coffee became the favored beverage of sailors until the invention of Drink, Instant, Strawberry, Artificially Sweetened better known as red “Bug Juice.” There were also Lemon (yellow Bug Juice), Lime (green bug juice), Orange (orange bug juice), and Grape (you guessed it, purple bug juice) flavors available. It was not uncommon to hear a sailor answer, “Red,” to the question, “What flavor bug juice do they have today.” But bug juice is another story for telling at another time.

Coffee not only became the at-sea beverage of choice, the cans of coffee grounds raised the practice of barter (Cum Shaw to the Asia Sailor) to an art practiced by some of the canniest Blue Jackets afloat. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if some sailor didn’t have the SRF in Yokosuka build him an entire ship. I have a brass ashtray that was produced by the Foundry at said SRF. My boss traded coffee for it and presented it to me after winning the 1982 and 1983 Ney Awards as Leading MS in Midway.

Being the Chief Cook and Baker, I was also the custodian of the ship’s supply of coffee grounds. I could always tell when my shipmates were going to hit me up for a can. They would be extra nice to me for a few days before. Of course, I always acted as if it would place a financial burden on the General Mess, but after listening to them tell me of all the glorious products they were going to get for a mere twenty pounds of coffee, I would relent and give in. Of course, I always kept a stock of coffee already charged as used just for these instances. In preparation for an extended availability while in Midway, I had over two thousand pounds of coffee charged off. I would surmise this isn’t done in our new kinder and gentler Navy.

During stores on loads and working parties made up by sailors from all divisions, it became a game for me to make sure all the coffee made it to the storeroom with my fellow Chiefs urging their troops on the working party to misplace a case of coffee (two twenty pound cans). Coffee wasn’t the only items popular for pilfering. Aforesaid bug juice was popular, it would take the tarnish off brass and shine deck plates. Wonder what it did to our stomachs. And snipes would take anything edible, even dehydrated mashed potatoes. But again, coffee is the story.

I remember when the Navy made Coffee, Powdered Instant available. We tried it on one of the ships I was in. (The Food Service Officer claimed to prefer instant coffee.) To placate him I ordered a case. I took a jar into the CPO Mess. Those of us who tried it figured you could make a better beverage with the detritus gathered at evening sweepers. The jar sat alongside the coffee pot for a couple of days and then disappeared, I presume into the shitcan. The Food Service Officer took a jar, paid for by the Wardroom Mess. Two years later when I transferred, the were ten jars of the original twelve still on the books.

As for decaffeinated coffee, it is one of four items that I consider substitutes for the real thing. The other three are non-alcoholic beer, skim milk, and masturbation. Not even worth consideration.

Having retired some twenty-six years ago, I am not sure which direction coffee has taken in the Navy and aboard ship. With the rise of the specialty coffee stores and shops offering Espressos and other foo-foo, exotic made up drinks, I would not be surprised to see an espresso coffee maker in the Ward Rooms and General Messes and, I hate to say it, even the CPO Mess. As for me, I’ll take my coffee hot, black, and strong enough to float that marlinspike.

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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.


Leaving Subic Bay

Leaving Subic Bay

By: John Petersen

USS Halsey CG-23, WESTPAC 91-92. Made a port visit to Subic on the way to the Gulf, this visit was after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and during the workings of the base closure. We were not allowed to leave the base. Some areas of the base still functioned. The Navy Exchange (pretty much a ‘liquidation’ sale type deal), a few food joints, base club, etc.


Getting around the joint was a crapshoot, the base taxis (remember those shitty little white Isuzu I-Marks?) were idle unless someone volunteered to drive ’em. There were mounds of volcanic ash everywhere, the maintenance shops were shuttered.

A few native vendors were still on site, hawking bamboo furniture and WESTPAC jackets and such, but not much more. Pretty dismal, actually. I picked up a matching ‘his & hers’ set of jackets, and a cool San Magoo mug.


At one point during the few days we were there, I found myself looking through the fence across that notoriously putrid river at Olongapo, picking through my memory bank of the fun, the debauchery, the seemingly endless supply of San Magoo’s and MOJO and Green Bullfrog, and the caramelized skin of those warm little sweeties…I may have actually shed a tear that day, knowing that when we pulled out of port, we would never return. The day the ship got underway, the crew was solemn, other than the barking over the 1MC and the chatter of the 2JV down in engineering, things were strangely quiet.

During the return trip from the Gulf, we passed Grande Island. The base was by now closed, no US ships remained. I stood on the fantail having just gotten off watch, along with probably every other individual not on watch. The port side of that cruiser was lined with people. As we passed the Island, without any fanfare or orders from the bridge, practically everyone popped tall, saluted, then placed our covers over our hearts, knowing that decades of a Naval tradition was no longer. Almost akin to a burial at sea, only the ceremony detail was sharply attired in grungy 2190 soaked dungarees.

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The memories of Subic Bay that I have will never wither away. B-52 Club, Cordon Bleu, Tigers Den. The Shakey’s Pizza joint a quarter way up Magsaysay on the left side. The grizzled old toothless woman selling black market Marlboro’s on that famous bridge. Getting one’s butt kicked by a seven-year-old pool shark. Trike races to the Barrio in ankle deep mud (long before that road was paved). Showing up at the Iron Horse in the Barrio, somehow Mamasan knew exactly when you would be there, and she’d have a plate loaded with lumpia and a huge mound of shrimp fried rice and a couple of cold one’s waiting for you. A rousing game of smiles at Marilyns. White Castle ‘n Sprites. Dancing baluts on the table while a bunch of tough guy Marines stare at you with contempt, then biting the heads off and wind up in a brawl. River Queens and her minions diving for pesos in Shit River, before they put up that twelve-foot steel wall. Subic City, the complete adult Disneyland, where everything goes (and stayed). Scarfing down a fistful of BBQ of questionable origin while staggering back to the ship to hopefully grab an hour or two of shuteye before quarters, swearing on a stack of Bibles that after the day’s chores it was nothing but sleep that evening, yet back to the fun you went instead.

I swear, there will never be any place on God’s green Earth that will compare to Subic Bay in it’s heyday. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be a part of it’s history are to be revered. Those who have not pulled a liberty in this paradise, including today’s Naval warriors, should bask in the glory of the true Asia Sailor, for you have no idea what fun really is.

My Last time in Subic:

The Bridge

By: Garland Davis

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that I crossed that bridge for the first time. It was 1962. A couple of hours at the club to get a buzz on before you hit the gate and crossed the infamous “Shit River Bridge.” Your shipmates had told you about Olongapo and the one peso beer and the four peso short times. You halfway believed them. You really wanted to believe them. But could it be that easy? They were right about liberty in Sasebo and Yokosuka. There was no way liberty in Subic could be better than Sasebo.

Stopped at the on base money changer. The exchange rate was P3.85 to one US dollar. Supposedly you could get a better rate from the money changers across the river, but a lot of guys had been burned with worthless Japanese occupation Pesos. Better safe than sorry.

With almost forty P’s tucked into the inside pocket of my white jumper, My watch in my pocket. (I had heard about the watch snatchers.) I headed for the gate only to be blocked by Marine Private brandishing a billy club. He looked my uniform over, told me to square my white hat and asked how many packs of smokes was I carrying? After he had been satisfied that I was squared away and wasn’t going to wreck the Philippine economy with black market cigarettes, he motioned for me to pass. I walked to the edge of the bridge to wait for my shipmates.

Suddenly I was hit with a god awful smell. Something like the combination of a leather tannery, a paper mill, a landfill, and an overflowing shitter. It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I surmised that it was the odor of the much talked about Shit River. They had damned sure named the son of a bitch correctly. After a few moments, my friends satisfied the Marine Corps and joined me. As we walked across, we looked at the boys in the water begging for sailors to throw coins, wondering why they still lived after swimming in that black viscous liquid.

The tales about the delights of Olongapo proved true. It became a looked forward to port of call on many WestPac cruises. Of course, there were other ports, the aforementioned Sasebo and Yokosuka in Japan and later Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, and Keelung. They were all sailor towns and catered to the American sailor.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, the economy of Japan and Hong Kong improved, and they became less enjoyable and more expensive than in the past. New liberty ports were discovered in Singapore and a small fishing village in Thailand known as Pattaya. All these ports were welcome interludes in the endless hours of flight operations, plane guard, gunfire support, constant rearming and refueling. The cold drinks and the warm, willing women healed us and maintained our sanity.

Viet Nam ended only to be replaced with Indian Ocean cruises. A stop at Subic on the way into the IO, if lucky, a stop in Freemantle/Perth on the way out and, of course, Subic.

The one port, the one city that became the Asia Sailor’s Mecca was just across that bridge. Olongapo and onward to the much more debauched, if that is possible, Barrio and Subic City became the one liberty port that I looked forward to over all others. I guess one of the best descriptions I have ever heard is, “Big Boy’s Disneyland.” I could do and did shit in Subic that they would put my ass in jail for in Oklahoma City. Am I proud of all that I did there? No. Am I ashamed of some things that I did there? Probably should be, but I just can’t find it.

Twenty-five years, eight Seventh Fleet ships and numerous trips across that bridge passed until I made the last trip across. It was 1987. That time it was in a Special Service’s van to Clark AFB to catch a flight to Japan and on to Hawaii for my twilight tour before retiring.

Sometimes when I am walking my dog in the mornings, I will see one of my young Filipina neighbors walking to the bus stop and catch the odor of a Filipino mother cooking their breakfast, and it flashes me back to a morning in the past and wish I could go back, Just One More Fucking Time!

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Vietnam Memorial Wall Facts

Vietnam Memorial Wall Facts!


A little history most people will never know. Interesting Veterans Statistics off the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

There are 58,267 names now listed on that polished black wall, including those added in 2010.

The names are arranged in the order in which they were taken from us by date and within each date the names are alphabetized. It is hard to believe it is 61 years since the first casualty.

The first known casualty was Richard B. Fitzgibbon, of North Weymouth, Mass. Listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having been killed on June 8, 1956. His name is listed on the Wall with that of his son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who was killed on Sept. 7, 1965.

There are three sets of fathers and sons on the Wall.

39,996 on the Wall were just 22 or younger.

8,283 were just 19 years old.

The largest age group, 33,103 were 18 years old.

12 soldiers on the Wall were 17 years old.

5 soldiers on the Wall were 16 years old.

One soldier, PFC Dan Bullock was 15 years old.

997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam ..

1,448 soldiers were killed on their last day in Vietnam .

31 sets of brothers are on the Wall.

Thirty one sets of parents lost two of their sons.

54 soldiers attended Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia. I wonder why so many from one school.

8 Women are on the Wall, Nursing the wounded.

244 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War; 153 of them are on the Wall.

Beallsville, Ohio with a population of 475 lost 6 of her sons.

West Virginia had the highest casualty rate per capita in the nation. There are 711 West Virginians on the Wall.

The Marines of Morenci – They led some of the scrappiest high school football and basketball teams that the little Arizona copper town of Morenci (pop 5,058) had ever known and cheered. They enjoyed roaring beer busts. In quieter moments, they rode horses along the Coronado Trail, stalked deer in the Apache National Forest. And in the patriotic camaraderie typical of Morenci’s mining families, the nine graduates of Morenci High enlisted as a group in the Marine Corps. Their service began on Independence Day, 1966. Only 3 returned home.

The Buddies of Midvale – LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez, Tom Gonzales were all boyhood friends and lived on three consecutive streets in Midvale, Utah on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues. They lived only a few yards apart. They played ball at the adjacent sandlot ball field. And they all went to Vietnam. In a span of 16 dark days in late 1967, all three would be killed. LeRoy was killed on Wednesday, Nov. 22, the fourth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Jimmy died less than 24 hours later on Thanksgiving Day. Tom was shot dead assaulting the enemy on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

The most casualty deaths for a single day was on January 31, 1968 ~ 245 deaths.

The most casualty deaths for a single month was May 1968 – 2,415 casualties were incurred.

For most Americans who read this they will only see the numbers that the Vietnam War created. To those of us who survived the war, and to the families of those who did not, we see the faces, we feel the pain that these numbers created. We are, until we too pass away, haunted with these numbers, because they were our friends, fathers, Husbands, wives, sons and daughters. There are no noble wars, just noble warriors.


Cooks and Snipes Continued

Cooks and Snipes Continued

By: Mark Bowen

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On the DD-963’s the galley was just above main control. The Waste heat boilers that supplied the steam were terrible and in combination with finicky evaps. we were on water hours often. This helped to develop a good working relationship between the night baker and the snipes.

Being a newer ship in the 80’s we just turned the potable water on and off from main control with the push of a button. When we were on water hours we just secured the potable water. The night baker would call down for water and we would turn it on. When he finished baking early in the morning he took a trip to Aux 1 and had his shower on the Evap Flat. It was one of the perks of having the night watches to get fresh baked goods delivered with butter.

Listening to that damn mixer run on the 20-24 sucked because he usually did not have anything ready by the time you were off watch.


Yes Garland even if you took good care of us we stole from you any chance we got. Mess cooking snipes were moles and A gangers with reefer deck keys were not above reproach. I used my experience when I made Chief and was the mess caterer to harden the CPO mess from these raids.


There were occasions that we showed our love in different ways and one still sticks in my mind.Now this is no shit, I was eating early chow and the MSSN on the serving line gave me a very poor portion of the main course and we started having a discussion about it. I reminded him that I was a Second Class and I did not appreciate his disrespect. Things escalated and he got the best of me and Iside-armed my tray back under the sneeze screen like a Frisbee. It went past him at a high rate of speed missing him as I had planned.

I walked off and went down to main control and and told the Chief what had happened. About a minute later the MS1 shows up and says to the Chief ” Bowen just threw a tray of food at one of my cooks” Ol’ Chief Lurch looks at him and says “The food must not of been any good I have never known Bowen to miss a meal”

MS1 left main control muttering” I am going to write him up”. Chief says to me that I need to get in front of this and get something worked out with the MS1. I sat there on watch and decided to write the MSSN up for disrespect to a petty officer. The MSSN had had his problems and a recent Mast. I went to the MS1 after watch and apologized. He told me the MSSN was having problems but he had already written me up and turned in the chit it was out of his hands. I pulled the report chit out on the MSSN and I told him that I was turning it in too.

I was lucky we had CPO mast for report chits, I guess they decided it was offsetting penalties and dismissed both cases.

A Couple anecdotes by Garland Davis on snipes:

I was a CS3 serving in USS Vesuvius AE-15. WE were in our homeport of Port Chicago, California. We were leading stores. I was in the reefer decks stowing the frozen and chill items as they were struck below.

The escape trunk from the lower level of the engineering spaces opened directly between the reefer doors. Since the ship was on cold iron the hatch was open. An MM3 yelled from the bottom of the trunk, “Hey Davy, throw me something to eat.”

I ignored him and continued to work.

“Hey Davy, how about a piece of fruit. An apple or an orange. Something!”

I had just placed a crate of watermelons in the chill reefer. I yelled down the trunk, “Okay here it comes” and dropped a watermelon. I was picturing watermelon seeds and bits of rind all over the place.

The asshole caught the damned thing.

“Hey thanks, Davy. The first round is on me tonight.”


Another time, a couple of firemen climbed the trunk and absconded with a three-gallon container of chocolate ice cream.

The Captain, the CHENG, and the duty engineer were touring the engine room and discovered them in the evaporator flats eating ice cream with a couple of spoons the had stolen from the mess decks.

When asked where they had gotten the ice cream, they admitted to stealing it.

The CO said, “Well then, you’ll have to eat it.” He instructed the Duty Engineer to stay there and make sure they ate every spoonful of it and to ensure they returned the spoons to the scullery.


MS2 “Furd”

MS2 “Furd”

By: Garland Davis

He was a Second Class Mess Management Specialist. He always insisted that he was a Commissaryman and not a fucking Steward. He was nearing retirement at twenty years. He was from one of the deep south states. His middle name was “Alfurd.” I don’t know if the spelling was intentional or the mistake of a poorly educated registration clerk.

He came to be known as “Furd” by the cooks and the crew. He took their joking and pranks with good spirit. He had one tooth, upper front. When the dentists were pulling teeth, I often wonder why they just didn’t take them all. For his birthday the cooks bought a new toothbrush and cut all the little bristles off except for one clump. They said that was all Furd needed for his tooth.

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He didn’t drink coffee. Furd kept a case of Pepsi-Cola in his locker and would drink a room temperature Pepsi each morning. I once asked him why. He told me he was Mormon and didn’t drink caffeine. I told him that Pepsi also had caffeine. He swore I was wrong. I told him Mormons weren’t supposed to drink beer either. He haughtily informed me that he was a “Jack Mormon and it was okay.”

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Furd was a “one-nighter.” Payday night he went ashore and blew his whole paycheck, whatever port we were in. Sometime he would be moping around the Mess Decks between paydays and I would loan him a Twenty so he could go ashore. He always kept track and paid me back the first thing after he was paid.

He was mediocre cook but he was a hard worker and would take on any task assigned but not without bitching about having to do it. Once he was making Chili and told me he was going to make it so hot I couldn’t eat it. He was chopping Jalapeno Peppers and told me he was going to use them to make it hot. I was eating one of the peppers as he told me that. I asked him how they were going to make it too hot for me to eat when I was eating the pepper.

He once asked me if I would help him study for the MS1 test. I told him that of course I would. He said, “I want to learn what you have learned from experience not that shit in the books.”

I told him that they would be testing him on the books, not on what I knew.

He replied, “Then they are fucked up.”

He creeped the XO out with his one toothed smile and I was directed to make sure he wore his dentures when outside the berthing compartment. When Furd could, he would be in the compartment during XO Messing and Berthing Inspection and would grin at the XO without his teeth. The XO sent the Yeoman into the compartment to make sure Furd wasn’t there and eventually required that I be there to clear Furd out of the space before he would inspect it..

That was one of the reasons I eventually assigned him to the Wardroom Pantry. I didn’t think it would last long, but it gave me a chance to take a dig at the XO. I stated before that Furd was a mediocre galley cook. Furd shined in the Wardroom Pantry. It turned out that he was an excellent cook when cooking in small batches and giving individual attention to each serving.

The Junior Officers loved him and the XO even came to accept him, as long as he kept his teeth in his head. He took a load off my shoulders by keeping the Officers happy and well fed and minimizing bitches from the XO..

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Cooks and Snipes

Having served as Night Baker, I can attest that during the four to eight watch, the Night Baker is the most popular person aboard ship. I always tried to maintain a good relationship with the snipes, with the caveat: Don’t let them get the upper hand, they will steal you blind.

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I went to the head and forgot to lock the galley. A canned ham disappeared from the Galley reefer and a BT had the temerity to come and ask me for a flat of eggs and a loaf of bread because they were cooking breakfast in the Fireroom.


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Cooks and Snipes

By: Brian Smith

It was mentioned last night about the wonderful relationship between cooks and snipes. This story happened in USS Bagley FF-1069 during Westpac 90-91.

We were steaming somewhere in the Pacific, about month five of our WestPac. I had the four to eight watch as EOOW. As usual you could smell the fresh bread baking in the Galley all the way to the Engine room.

My usual routine was to have the messenger stop at the Galley for a couple loaves of fresh bread and some butter when he made Shaft Alley checks. Sometime later he came back and told me the “new” night baker wouldn’t give him any.

I picked up the 2jv and called Electrical Central and told them to secure 440 to the Galley, got a sleepy, ” Aye Chief.”

A short while later the MS2, Night Baker, comes running into the booth flailing his arms and babbling about no electricity and his ovens don’t work and breakfast is fast approaching.

I look at him and calmly say ” you don’t have any electricity?”

He goes, “Yeah I don’t have any electricity.”

I say, “That’s funny, I don’t have any fresh bread.”

If you could slam an ellison door that’s what he did as he left.

I called Electrical Central and had power restored to the Galley.

A short while later my messenger brought down a couple loaves of bread and some butter.

And this my friends is no shit.


Agent Orange Veterans

Agent Orange Veterans Hunt Through Ship Logs In Fight With U.S. Navy

April 19, 2017 by gCaptain

by Mike Hixenbaugh (The Virginian-Pilot), Charles Ornstein and Terry Parris (ProPublica)

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of U.S. Navy ships crossed into Vietnam’s rivers or sent crewmembers ashore, possibly exposing their sailors to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. But more than 40 years after the war’s end, the U.S. government doesn’t have a full accounting of which ships traveled where, adding hurdles and delays for sick Navy veterans seeking compensation.

The Navy could find out where each of its ships operated during the war, but it hasn’t. The U.S. Department of Affairs says it won’t either, instead choosing to research ship locations on a case-by-case basis, an extra step that veterans say can add months — even years — to an already cumbersome claims process. Bills that would have forced the Navy to create a comprehensive list have failed in Congress.

As a result, many ailing vets, in a frustrating race against time as they battle cancer or other life-threatening diseases, have taken it upon themselves to prove their ships served in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed. That often means locating and sifting through stacks of deck logs, finding former shipmates who can attest to their movements, or tracking down a ship’s command history from the Navy’s historical archive.

“It’s hell,” said Ed Marciniak, of Pensacola, Fla., who served aboard the USS Jamestown during the war. “The Navy should be going to the VA and telling them, ‘This is how people got aboard the ship, this is where they got off, this is how they operated.’ Instead, they put that burden on old, sick, dying veterans, or worse — their widows.”

Some 2.6 million Vietnam veterans are thought to have been exposed to — and possibly harmed by — Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used to defoliate dense forests, making it easier to spot enemy troops. But vets are only eligible for VA compensation if they went on land — earning a status called “boots on the ground” — or if their ships entered Vietnam’s rivers, however briefly.

The VA says veterans aren’t required to prove where their ships patrolled: “Veterans simply need to state approximately when and where they were in Vietnam waterways or went ashore, and the name of the vessel they were aboard, and VA will obtain the official Navy records necessary to substantiate the claimed service,” VA spokesman Randal Noller wrote in an email.

Once the VA has that documentation, the vessel is added to a list of ships eligible for compensation, streamlining future claims from other crewmembers. But proactively searching thousands of naval records to build a comprehensive list of eligible ships — as some veterans have demanded — “would be an inefficient use of VA’s resources,” Noller said.

But because the historical records are sometimes missing or incomplete, veterans groups say the fastest and surest way to obtain benefits is for vets to gather records themselves and submit them as part of their initial claims.

More than 700 Navy ships deployed to Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. Veterans have produced records to get about half of them onto the VA’s working list, with new ships being added every year. Still, veterans advocacy groups estimate about 90,000 Navy vets are not eligible to receive benefits related to Agent Orange exposure, either because their ships never entered inland waters, or because they have yet to prove they did.

Joseph Pires, 68, spent 2 1/2 years working to convince the VA that his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Bennington, should be added to the list.

He reviewed the daily deck logs to find the latitude and longitude recordings and read officers’ descriptions of the ship’s movements. He found a listing for Dec. 26, 1966, when the ship entered Qui Nhon Bay Harbor to pick up comedian Bob Hope and his troupe for an onboard Christmas show.

“Now I had the proof,” he said.

He submitted it to the VA, waited a year and received an email on Dec. 31 notifying him the Bennington had been added to the VA’s list. That makes about 2,800 crew members aboard the ship on those two days eligible for benefits if they have illnesses associated with Agent Orange.

Now Pires is waging the next battle: His personal application for benefits, based on his prostate cancer and ischemic heart disease, has been pending for nine months.

“They put everything on your shoulders,” said Pires, who serves as the Bennington’s historian.

Pires, of Calabash, N.C., is among more than 4,000 Vietnam veterans and family members from across the country who’ve shared Agent Orange-exposure stories with ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot over the past several months.

The importance of proving to the VA which ships went inland during the war was underscored last month, when the VA rejected a request from veterans and members of Congress to extend benefits to all Navy veterans who served within 12 miles of the Vietnamese coast, the so-called Blue Water veterans. Those vets believe they were exposed to Agent Orange even if they stayed off the coast, arguing that their ships sucked in water tainted with the herbicide, which contains the dangerous chemical dioxin, and used it for showering, cooking and cleaning.

When Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, the VA initially approved benefits for any sailor who had earned the Vietnam Service Medal. But in 2002, it began denying sick Blue Water Navy vets compensation for Agent Orange exposure, maintaining that the placement of a comma in the original legislation made a distinction between those who served on the ground in Vietnam and those who served elsewhere.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims directed the VA to review its rules for compensating Blue Water Navy Veterans. In February, 10 months later, the VA affirmed its policy of providing benefits only to those who served on land or in inland waters. If anything, the VA tightened its policy by excluding ships that entered certain bays and harbors that had previously been accepted.

The VA estimates it would cost taxpayers $4.4 billion over the next decade to provide benefits to all Blue Water veterans, but its policy of excluding them has complicated the task of determining who’s eligible for compensation.

By 2006, veterans had begun presenting evidence of those ships’ activities, and the VA began granting Agent Orange benefits to Blue Water veterans on a case-by-case basis. A couple years later, veterans advocates succeeded in convincing the VA to use the evidence submitted by individual veterans to maintain a list of approved ships.

John Rossie, executive director of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and a Vietnam veteran, agreed to help the government collect information from affected veterans, hoping to speed up the process. He said he put out a message in 2009 telling Navy vets that if they sent him their ship’s deck logs, he would get them to the VA.

“A month later, I smacked myself on the forehead, because I started getting buried under boxes full of these deck logs.”

The first published list came out in January 2010 and had 16 ships on it.

As veterans have come forward with records — and as the VA has conducted its own searches — the agency has added a few dozen ships each year. More than 430 ships are listed now. The pace has slowed, but Rossie is confident more need to be added.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Rossie said. “A lot of individuals have invested a lot of hours in this.”

To make the process easier, Blue Water vets pressed for legislation in 2013 that would have required the Navy to pull all of the deck logs and compile an accurate accounting of which ships spent time inside Vietnam’s border. That bill passed the House, 404–1, but didn’t advance in the Senate.

A year later, in 2014, advocates got the House to insert language into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the same thing. John Wells, a Louisiana lawyer who has spent more than a decade advocating for Blue Water veterans, said the language was stripped from the Senate version after the Navy objected, contending it would cost the service $5 million to conduct a study to locate each ship.

The Navy did not answer questions for this story.

Marciniak, the veteran from Pensacola, says he was fortunate. He’d held onto paperwork proving that he’d spent time in Saigon before flying back to the U.S.

That yellowing page spelling out his orders was enough to prove to the VA that the 76-year-old Navy vet was eligible for compensation after he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and heart disease a few years ago. The claim was approved in 2013, a year and a half after he initiated the process.

Others he served with aboard the Jamestown, a research vessel, off the coast of Vietnam had a harder fight. The ship, along with the USS Oxford, intercepted enemy radio traffic and frequently sent crew members ashore to deliver sensitive information to commanders on the ground. As a result, the ships’ activities were classified, making it more difficult for veterans to come up with records proving where they served.

Former Oxford and Jamestown crewmembers were eventually able to get their hands on declassified command reports that included details about the trips ashore. Those records helped get both ships added to the VA’s list in 2011.

“Even with the ship listed, it took the VA more than 18 months before they approved my claim,” Marciniak said. “I’ve written letters for three widows addressed to the VA explaining how the the Jamestown operated and describing our regular courier runs, because their husbands’ died before they were able to get VA compensation.”

Another challenge: Veterans who were denied benefits before their ships were added to the list must start the process all over again. “The problem there,” Rossie said, “is these guys are sick and dying. They don’t have a lot of time to jump through hoops.”

Rory Riley-Topping, a consultant and former staff director for the House VA Subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, said the VA has many pressing issues to deal with — health care wait times, construction delays, benefits backlogs. “Bureaucracies that are large are not known for their efficiencies, and this is a great example of bureaucracies being shortsighted and not understanding the big picture. A lot of people thought this issue would go away, and obviously it didn’t.”

For John Kirkwood, the push to get the amphibious command ship USS Mount McKinleyadded began in March 2010 when he went to the VA hospital in San Diego because he wasn’t feeling well. He spent 40 days in the hospital after a heart attack. His wife and stepdaughter initiated a claim for benefits. A little over a year later, it was denied because he couldn’t prove he was in Vietnam or exposed to Agent Orange.

Kirkwood wasn’t able to get deck logs from the National Archives or the Navy. Both said they didn’t have them and had no idea where they were. “I didn’t know what the hell to think at that point,” said Kirkwood, a 66-year-old retired auto body technician.

In May 2011, he posted a note on the ship’s website that read, “I was a shipmate of yours on the last cruise of the Mount McKinley in 1969. The purpose of this comment is to see if any of you remember going into Da Nang harbor on that cruise for liberty, parties at China Beach and water skiing in the harbor behind the Captain’s Gig.”

Emails began streaming in from shipmates he knew and those he didn’t. “I remember going ashore,” one wrote in an email he shared with ProPublica and The Pilot.

“You are not the first one to ask these questions,” another wrote.

Kirkwood also found a cruise book in his garage, which is essentially a scrapbook of the tour. “I was able to take photocopies out of there showing that we actually went to Da Nang Harbor,” he said. “I can’t make up a cruise book.”

A fellow shipmate sent him a calendar he kept, showing the ship was anchored in Da Nang Harbor over 60 days of that cruise. Kirkwood’s own claim for benefits was approved in January 2013. Kirkwood then forwarded his documentation to Rossie, who forwarded it to the VA. The ship was added to the VA’s list in July of that year.

“Sometimes I felt I was fighting a losing battle, but I’m persistent,” Kirkwood said.

Others are still fighting. Brad Davidson began researching the process in November after being diagnosed with two conditions associated with Agent Orange.

Davidson, who declined to disclose his specific health troubles, remembered going ashore for leisure breaks multiple times during his deployment aboard the destroyer USS Brinkley Bass in 1970, but he had no records to prove it. He tracked down the deck logs, which showed the ship spent time anchored in Da Nang Harbor, Cam Ranh Bay and Ganh Rai Bay, but nothing in the handwritten notes mentioned crew members being ferried ashore during those stops.

“That is a problem, trying to get a clear recollection all these years later,” said Davidson, 69, who lives near Chicago. “And beyond that, getting hard evidence. … They don’t make it easy.”

Earlier this year he got in touch with his crew’s reunion group, and a few former shipmates responded with photographs of crew members at a beach party at Cam Ranh.

His memories from that time are a blur, Davidson said, but that afternoon spent drinking beer on a beach 46 years ago could be the difference between receiving thousands of dollars per year in disability benefits and receiving nothing.

“I think we’ve certainly convinced ourselves,” Davidson said. “But we’re not sure what it’s going to take to get us on the VA’s list. We think it’s enough, but we don’t know for sure what the VA requires.”

He faces an uphill battle. Generally, the VA hasn’t accepted photographs to prove a veteran spent time on the ground in Vietnam. Davidson hopes the agency makes an exception in his case.

“I don’t really have time to wait and find out.”

ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot are interested in hearing from veterans and family members for our ongoing investigation into the effects of Agent Orange on veterans and their children. Share your story now at propublica.org/agentorange or hamptonroads.com/agentorange.