Who We Are
By: Garland Davis
During a discussion, on FaceBook, with some shipmates regarding political issues I made the following post: “Our benefits, Retirement Pensions, Cola Increases, Tri-Care, Veterans Administration medical care and disability benefits, and etc. are always top of my mind. I can waiver and compromise on other issues, but not those that we earned in some of the God Damnedest situations and conditions asked of a man. We laugh and tell the sea stories about the good times but there is nothing funny about the times between the good times.”
We spend time telling each other sea stories about the good times, about the liberties, about the drinks, about the girls, and about old shipmates. I am going to take a while to talk about some of the bad times.
We didn’t realize the bad in recruit training. We were numb most of the time. Half proud of our uniforms and our newfound skills marching and learning of the Navy and, half regretting enlisting if this was what we faced for the next four years.
My first tour at NAS Lemoore was basically easy. I don’t recall any really bad times there unless you count being a broke, seventeen-year-old Seaman living in the Barracks without any place to go even if I had the money. The Station Library and Theatre were a godsend and got me through many idle hours in the barracks.
The day I reported to my first ship, I was stuck into a gear locker with a chipping hammer and shown how to use it. I was to chip all the paint off the interior bulkheads while another, more fortunate, sailor was chipping on the external bulkheads. Hearing protection? I don’t think it existed in the “Old Navy.” I figure I am fortunate to be able to hear myself fart.
There were things I didn’t understand. Returning from emergency leave, I spent a couple of days at Treasure Island waiting for my ship. One night another sailor and I were issued 45 caliber pistols and assigned the duty of guarding a couple Dempster Dumpsters about two hundred yards apart. That was the longest, coldest and loneliest night I can recall.
I remember many hours on more ships than I wish to list wearing an OBA, carrying and dragging fire hoses, and humping a “Handy Billy” (How many of you remember those Mother Fuckers) and eductors up and down ladders.
I don’t know how many nights I spent trying to sleep when the AC was out and the ventilation seemed to be drawing from the uptakes. The only thing you could hope was the fartsack and mattress dried out before time to crawl back into the rack. Then there were the fart odors from the dozens of others living in your bedroom. All you could do was ignore the smell and add your contribution to the miasma.
Now seems to be a good time to bring up water hours. Fucked up evaporators seemed to coincide with fucked up air conditioning. Not only was I miserable, I was dirty, stinking miserable. With water hours came no Laundry service, which eventually meant no clean clothes. Everyone had almost terminal cases of crotch rot. Being a cook, I was one of the few, granted permission to take a shower every three days. It had to be a fast shower, the Master at Arms was there with a stopwatch, ready to turn the water off.
With the Viet Nam war, the operational tempo picked up. Ships, Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers and the Auxiliaries routinely did ninety days or longer deployments off the coast of South Viet Nam, providing gunfire support to the Army and Marines fighting ashore, or in the Gulf of Tonkin, escorting the Aircraft Carriers. Although I was a cook and baker, I agree with my shipmates that, often, due to sporadic availability, missed replenishments, and yes, incompetent cooks the food was, very often, extremely poor. After a few weeks, meals became monotonous and sailors became unconscious of what was being served and just ate.
There were the all night General Quarters and moving in close ashore to engage an enemy battery or making three nightly runs into Haiphong to shoot up the shipping. There was the sound of enemy artillery rounds exploding close aboard. And the next day there was rearming to replace the rounds fired during the night and refueling to bring the bunkers back to one hundred percent. And then, if the ship was fortunate, there would be the stores ship to replenish food and other consumables. Luck might give a person a couple of hours sleep before going back on watch or preparing for the night’s General Quarters and doing it all over again.
There was the night we ran into Haiphong in company with USS Goldsborough. They took a hit into the Chief Petty Officers Mess. Repair three staging area was in the mess. The locker leader, an HTC, and the phone talker were in the mess with the other members of the repair party staged in the passageway. The Chief had taken the phones to allow the talker to go to the head. The HTC, a drinking acquaintance, was the only casualty. I feel bad that I cannot remember his name.
Z-Grams promulgated by Admiral Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations, to the Navy took a toll on the Command structure and the Chain of Command of many units. All too often, the Z-gram detailed drastic changes to shipboard conditions, uniform and civilian clothes regulations and, personal appearance without any preparatory advice. The lowest Seaman Recruit received the information regarding Zumwalt’s directives at the same time as the unit commanders did. I remember a Seaman who moved his civilian wardrobe out of the locker club, stored them in his locker and left his uniforms on his bunk. These were collected as gear adrift. He was irate, waving the Z-gram around because it said that he could have civilian clothes aboard. He was a pretty good Seaman up to that point but ended up with a less than honorable discharge.
The shooting ended in 1973 and the war in 1975. The Carter administration, like the Obama administration, set out to pay for social programs at a cost to military funding. Many ship’s names disappeared as they were decommissioned and little or no new construction was planned. I remember unending weeks of in port time because there wasn’t money for fuel. I remember “Fast Cruises” sitting alongside with the gangway in pretending we were at sea. I was on one ship that did half of a RefTra tied to the pier. A tanker loaded with fuel, but none to get underway with.
During those years after Viet Nam, racial tensions in the country were high. These tensions found their way into the fleet. There were race riots and near race riots on a few ships. Many good sailors of all races were lost to these problems. The Navy turned the solution to many racial problems and a perceived abuse of alcohol over to contract psychologists and social engineers who had no conception of life in the Navy. These “problem solvers” contributed to many failed Navy careers.
Uniforms were changing faster than one could keep track of. I calculated at one time that with all the “new” and “grandfathered” working uniforms there was a fourteen-year period when I could not muster my whole division and require them to be in the same uniform. I don’t know if the newer Navy has gotten any better. From what I see on my infrequent trips to the base, they are still “churning” the seabag.
With 1979 and the Iran hostage crisis came endless Indian Ocean cruises. There were few liberty ports near the operating areas, so most of the time was spent staying on station and running drills. There were refueling and replenishments, but not the night long GQ’s of the Viet Nam war. The big exception to this was the flight deck on the carriers. They launched and recovered aircraft night and day. The “Roof Rats” earned their Flight Deck Pay.
For the four, twenty, or thirty years of our Navy life, we stood duty. Every third day, every fourth if we were lucky, we stayed aboard and stood watches maintaining the ship and standing ready for whatever was asked of us. My Army and Air Force acquaintances have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of spending every third or fourth day working and then having to work a normal day.
Throughout the whole period, there was the monotony of being at sea or the extreme discomfort of rough weather or losing time with loved ones because of typhoon evasion. And endless days of rolling and pitching. I was never prone to seasickness, so I dodged that bullet. I am sure those of you who did suffer were much more miserable than I was.
Then there were the separations from our families. I married when I had barely four years in the Navy. During the next twenty-six years of Navy life, my wife and I were often separated due to deployments and the operating tempo of the Yokosuka-based forward deployed ships. My wife kept track of the deployments and once told me that she calculated that we were apart for eleven of those twenty-six years, and she didn’t count duty days. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” was first published in Francis Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody in 1602, where the words appear as the first phrase of a poem in the edition. Something made us work for more than fifty years.
Thirty years of a life that those who lived and worked ashore have no conception of nor ability to comprehend. I was always told that a retired sailor didn’t live a long time. I have concluded that a short life after retiring is a falsehood. We are tough because we had to be and the old ships, the turbulent times, and some pretty bad conditions made us Mean Mother Fuckers who don’t quit.
With all this being said, I would willingly do it all over again if for nothing more than the companionship of the hundreds of shipmates who contributed to and shared the hard times and made the fun times. My brief thirty years in the Navy was an adventurous and fulfilling time in my life.
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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.