Safe and Secure
By: Garland Davis
Sidney walked slowly into the post office building and searched the directory of offices. The military recruiting offices were all on the second floor. He found the number of the Navy office and decided to take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. As he topped the stairs to the second-floor hallway, he saw that he would have to pass the Army, Air Force, and Marine offices to reach the Navy office. As he passed each office, he saw each recruiter watching hopefully as he passed. He paused just before reaching the Navy door. His uncle Dale had promised to meet him here.
Dale had enlisted in the Navy 1949 and had served as a Machinist Mate until 1960 when he was medically retired because of an ulcer. Uncle Dale told him to join the Navy. He had spent the Korean War on a carrier. He said that while the Marines and soldiers ashore were fighting the North Koreans and suffering terrible winter conditions, the sailors were safe, warm, and comfortable aboard the ships. He told him it was the same for the Navy fighting in the Viet Nam war.
He didn’t really want to be here. His Uncle Thomas, a political appointee, who served on the local draft board had told him his name had come up for induction because he had lost his student deferment by dropping out of the University. His mother was beside herself and didn’t understand that the only reason he had wanted to go to college was the chance to play baseball. When he had been cut from the team, he stopped going to class and a few days later moved back home.
Two cousins had been drafted into the Army. One was killed during the Viet Nam Tet Offensive and the other was injured in a motor pool fire at Fort Benning. His mother was afraid of him going to Viet Nam and begged him to go to Canada or Sweden. But uncle Dale had talked with his mother and convinced her that the safest option was for Sid to enlist in the Navy. He had promised to meet him at the recruiting office and help him over the hurdles.
As he was waiting in the hallway, wondering where Uncle Dale was, he heard his uncle’s laugh from the recruiting office. Evidently, Dale was already here. Sidney straightened his shoulders and walked through the door.
“Here’s the boy I’ve been telling you about. Come over here Sid and meet Aviation Machinist Mate First Class Hanson and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jones. They will help you get signed in.” Dale said to Sidney.
Chief Jones offered his hand and said, “Welcome aboard. Hanson here will get your information and give you a short test to establish your eligibility. But first, I have to ask, have you ever been in trouble with the law? Dale here says you haven’t and we will check with the police, but I have to hear it from you.”
“No Sir, I’ve never had any problems with the police,” Sid replied.
“Don’t call me sir son. You can call me Chief. Hanson, while you’re getting the testing and paperwork started, I think Dale and I will step around the corner to Tony’s for a little refreshment. Hanson you and young Sidney come on down after you finish up. We’ll see you there.” The Chief was saying while getting a pack of cigars from his desk drawer and his hat from a rack in the corner.
The next hour and a half were taken up with Sidney filling out a myriad of forms after taking a fifty question multiple choice test on mimeograph paper. Petty Officer Hanson told him the test was just used to determine if he was capable of passing the official tests that would be administered at the Armed Forces induction center. He seemed very pleased with Sidney’s test score and proceeded with completing everything.
Finally, after finishing typing the information Sid had provided onto the proper forms, the sailor said, “Well, it looks as if you are good to go. All I have left to do is call the Induction in Raleigh and make arrangements for you to take the tests, get a physical examination, and get you sworn in. Right now, I can offer you a choice of going to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center or the San Diego Training Center for Boot Camp. If you pass everything in Raleigh, which one would you choose?”
Sidney thought for a moment and thinking of the movies and the beach scenes of Southern California said, “San Diego.”
“Let me make this call and we will go down to meet Chief and Dale. Today is Friday. How does Tuesday sound for going to Raleigh? I’ll pick you up at your house and drive you down. All you’ll need to bring with you is a change of clothes and underwear. When you get to San Diego, you will be issued uniforms and everything else you need.”
Sid agreed that Tuesday would be okay. Hanson was on the phone for about five minutes. Finally hanging up and reaching for his hat, he said, “Okay we are good to go. Let’ go find those two and have a beer.”
Sidney followed Hanson down the stairs, out of the building, and around the corner into Tony’s Tap Room. Since the age to buy beer in North Carolina was eighteen Sid was old enough but had never been here before. They joined the other two at a table. Hanson gave them the information that the paperwork was done and everything was scheduled for Tuesday. There was a round of handshakes and “Welcome aboard Shipmate” from the Chief and Dale.
After a couple of beers, Dale and Sidney left the bar and Dale offered him a ride home. They arrived just after Sid’s mother returned from work. After going into the kitchen, they informed her that he would be leaving for San Diego Tuesday morning. She said, “that is so far away.” As a tear rolled down her cheek.
Dale said, “Now Edna, we agreed that Sid will be a lot safer and removed from the war by joining the Navy instead of waiting to be drafted into the Army as cannon fodder.”
Now that he was committed, Sidney felt an exhilaration about his choice and was looking forward to San Diego and his Navy training. Of course, his mother made for an unpleasant weekend between bouts of crying and recrimination for his quitting college.
Finally, Tuesday came. He was waiting on the porch with a threadbare bag that Dale had brought him Sunday. He had called it an AWOL bag and it contained his change of clothes and underwear. Just before eight o’clock, he saw the gray Navy station wagon turn into his street. As the car pulled into the drive, Sidney called into the house, “Ma, he is here, I’ve got to go.”
His mother came out the door, a handkerchief clutched in one hand, hugged him for a brief moment, and said to him, “I am going to miss you. Now be good, do what they tell you, and write to me.”
He promised he would and walked to the station wagon. There was one other boy in the car as well as a Marine in uniform. Hanson introduced them as the Marine recruiter and a Marine recruit. Since the Marine Corps was a part of the Navy department, they shared the Navy vehicle.
Sid climbed into the back seat with the Marine recruit and Hanson backed the car into the street and headed for the Capitol.
Arriving at the Induction Center in Raleigh shortly before noon, Petty Officer Hanson directed Sidney to a desk with members of all branches working. He handed Sid’s paperwork over to another sailor there, said, “They will take care of you from here.” Shook his hand and said, “Good Luck, Shipmate. Maybe I’ll see you in the fleet.”
The sailor behind the desk issued him documents he called ‘chits’ which he could exchange for meals at a nearby café and for a room at a hotel one street over. The rest of the afternoon and the next morning were taken up with a number of tests and a physical examination. At three o’clock Wednesday he was directed to fall into line with others who were enlisting in the various services.
An Army Captain came from an office, directed them to raise their right hands and administered the Oath of Enlistment. He then said, “From this moment until you complete your contract you are members of the U.S. Armed forces and are subject to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Failure to report to your next duty station as ordered will result in you being declared AWOL or possibly a deserter.”
The sailor from the desk gave him an envelope and told him that it contained all his records. He was also given a plane ticket to Chicago where he would change planes for a flight to Albuquerque and on to San Diego. He was directed to report to the Shore Patrol booth in the San Diego airport and they would arrange for transportation to the Recruit Depot. He was also given a paper with a seven-digit number. It was his service number. He was told that if he didn’t have it memorized by San Diego he would be in a lot of trouble with his company commander.
Sidney arrived in San Diego after flying all night from Chicago in what must have been one of the last of the propeller-driven airliners in the Delta Fleet. The next eleven weeks were filled with marching, swimming lessons, classroom studies, marching, physical training and even more marching. Uniforms were issued and altered. Sid and his shipmates learned to clean, fold and store the uniforms between the periods of marching.
About two weeks before boot training ended, came the day when each of them would receive orders to their first duty station or school. Sid had asked for Machinery Repairman School, but because of no vacancies in the next class, he was ordered to a destroyer stationed in Hawaii as an undesignated engineering striker.
After two weeks leave in North Carolina, Sid reported to Travis Air Force base in California for a flight to Clark Air Force base in the Philippine Islands for further transfer to his ship somewhere in the South Pacific.
Upon arrival at Clark, the Navy desk told him that a group of sailors and Marines would fly to Da Nang South Vietnam and from there a helicopter from the fleet off the coast would collect the sailors and transport them to the ships.
When they arrived at the airfield at Da Nang, Sidney was stricken and amazed by the heat, humidity and the amount of activity. There were countless jet and propeller driven aircraft as well as helicopters landing and departing the base. A truck with a Marine Corporal picked up the Marines and their gear to take them to the Marine encampment. An Air Force Sergeant told them that a helicopter from the carrier would arrive in approximately four hours to carry them out to the fleet. In the meantime, they would form a working party to help move some leaking drums.
He showed them to an area with about four hundred fifty-five gallon drums. He pointed out five of the drums setting off to the side and said, “These are leaking. I need you to move them onto the lift gate of the deuce and a half truck and then move them from the lift gate into the truck so I can drive them over where they can be used first.”
The drums were difficult to move and were leaking pretty badly. By the time they were eventually loaded into the truck, the sailors and a couple of airmen had been liberally splashed by the contents. Sid was going to ask the Sergeant where he could wash his hands when another airman came in and said, “Hey sailors, your helicopter is inbound. You got five minutes, get your gear and standby.”
Right on time, a gray helicopter settled outside. As they walked toward it, he could read USS Oriskany stenciled on the bird. After climbing into the aircraft, they were handed life jackets and helmets and given directions how to exit the aircraft in the event it went into the water. A few minutes later it lifted off for a forty-five-minute ride to the ships. Sidney and two others would be dropped on the USS White Plains, a stores ship, for later transfer to the destroyers.
After arriving on the store’s ship, they were shown to some empty bunks and went to supper. The Chief BM told them they would be helo’d to their ships the next morning. After chow, they got a shower and were sitting on the mess decks waiting for a movie. Sid was feeling good about experiencing Viet Nam and escaping without harm. Uncle Dale was right. The Navy was the place to be, safe and secure while the war was miles away. He was in no danger from the war now.
Sidney said, “I sure was glad to get that stuff from those drums washed off. It smelled pretty bad. wonder what kind of stuff was inside those barrels, I spilled that crap all over my arms and clothes.”
The other sailor said, “I don’t know. I asked the Air Force guy. He said it was something they sprayed on the jungle. He called it Orange something. Did stink, didn’t it?”