This wasn’t your fathers WWII Navy. This was a new Navy where you could grow your hair and beard out, didn’t worry about polishing shoes, wore your peace sign with your dog tags, head bands but yet still followed the orders given to you. Of course it wasn’t this lax stateside, I’m talking about being in a war zone and under combat conditions. I think our superiors just wanted us to be focused on the job at hand. You kept your moral beliefs about being here and what your mission is, to yourself and just did your job, knowing that it wouldn’t last forever. There was an attitude of “Not sweatin’ the small shit.” Actually, a lot of this freedom and morale boosting came from way up the chain of command; from Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. He was the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and was instrumental in reducing racism and sexism, as well as “relaxing” some of the grooming standards. This was the “New Navy”! All us young guys thought this was really cool, but I really don’t think the older “salts” saw things quite like that.
There were lots of ways to chill-out when off watch. Some guys just hit their rack and slept, others went up on deck, some read, listened to music, write home, etc. There were times when a recent movie would be shown in the evening on the mess deck. We would receive movies from another ship during a vert-rep or an un-rep. We might get 2 or 3 movies at a time. One may be shown for the crew, another one for the officers wardroom and another in the Chiefs lounge. These would then rotate and be all we would have for weeks. Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns were popular at this time. PC3 Overmeyer would open the ships store to sell popcorn just before the film would start one deck below. This same guy that ran the store was also our Postmaster and Ship’s Barber. There may also be card game to join in the crews lounge or on the mess decks.
Catching a sunset was always a nice way to see the darkness arrive if you were off watch. I liked going up to the lookout deck above the bridge and hanging out there in the salty breeze, just to be in some moving air even if it was still high in humidity. Many times late at night I was up on deck with an instruction sheet describing how to play some Bob Dylan songs on the harmonica. I never got past being able to sort of play “Just Like a Woman”. Quite often there would be someone on deck with a guitar, too. I liked being on the water at sea and late night was especially nice with about 14 knots blowing over the bow and the moon lighting the water around you and beyond that, just blackness and stars. The luminous phosphorescence of the bow wave and wake made for some cool light shows in the right conditions. There’s a certain kind of romance on the sea with nothing around but sky and water with the nearest land thousands of miles away. Many times while on deck late at night while looking up at the moon the lyrics of The Moody Blues song Nights in White Satin would run through my head.
Cold hearted orb
That rules the night
Removes the colours
From our sight
Red is gray and
But we decide
Which is right
Which is an Illusion
In the daylight it would entertain you to watch the dolphins (or were they porpoises?) leaping and diving alongside and across the bow as we were underway. We also saw flying fish alongside flying from swell to swell.
We radarmen had our “Lisco Locker” we could go to and hang out in. We had a stereo set up in there so there was usually some music playing. Some of our favorite music at the time was The Beatles, The Who, Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, Moody Blues, CSN&Y, Led Zeppellin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many others. In there you could write letters, read, play games or catch a nap. I think at one time a couple of the guys had one of those hockey or football games with levers at the ends to control the players. Everyone was into reading something at some time or other on board ship. There was always a Playboy, Penthouse, Oui, Sports Illustrated, Time or other magazines laying around. There were also the trashy novels to get passed around, too. I became obsessed with James Michener paperbacks during this time.
One activity when we were in the Gulf was for Scott Gillespie and I to create some comic strips. A couple of my single panel cartoons made it to print in the 1972 Westpac Cruise Book. What Scott and I usually collaborated on were more like small comic books. Scott helped with most of the writing and I did the artwork. A couple of these were about one of our shipmates and his problems with authority, like trying to get a chit signed to be able to go on liberty in Olongapo. These were copied on a machine in the ships office and passed around. One day the word came to me from our chief to cease and desist! He heard from the XO that if any of this stuff ever made it into enemy hands that it could be used to demoralize any of our commissioned officers if ever captured and taken POW. “Ok, we’ll stop”, and did. It was just having some fun for us. “What’s the matter with depicting a large rodent wearing first class petty officer stripes taking a dump in an officer’s hat?” It was all in fun. Disrespectful? Yes, but fun for us nonetheless and a way to blow off steam.
Another popular activity was the ages old tendency to pick on someone. We had a guy in the radar gang, Boyd Thomas, that became our target. Now, he was a nice guy, but because of his size and less than stylish gracefulness, he became the target of teasing. He wasn’t so much as large with fluff, but rather had a “beefy” strength or strong as an ox, as they say. I think he milked a lot of cows or something in Eastern Oregon. If you pulled a prank on him that was heinous enough that a normal man would stomp a mudhole in your forehead, he would usually just punch an inanimate object. That was usually enough for the perpetrator(s) to get the idea and back off. I saw him punch the quarter inch thick steel of a water-tight hatch and distort it. He dented a large brass switchbox next to a radar repeater once, too. It was a damn good thing he was so good natured, because I never saw him actually harm anyone physically! This one time Boyd had a plastic puzzle that he like to assemble, then take apart and start over. It was one of those 3-dimensional things with little blocks of plastic that you had to assemble just right to solve. He left it laying around in CIC when he was off watch. That was just too tempting, so we took some sort of super bonder and put dabs of it on some of the parts, essentially turning it into a useless sculpture. When he found out, he was super-pissed! At the starboard front corner of CIC we had an aluminum stairway that went up to the pilothouse. Boyd took his “uni-puzzle” and pitched it overhand into the stairwell with such force that it exploded into thousands of little shards of plastic. We gave him a wide berth immediately after that one!
Here’s something else I recall that Scott and I were involved in. One morning we are down on the mess decks getting breakfast. Overseas, for some reason we couldn’t get real pasteurized milk on board. It had to be treated with formaldehyde or something making it less than desirable to say the least. There was some reason for not getting real eggs either. Too fragile? They came powdered. So one morning we’re at breakfast and we’re pissing and moaning about the food, so we’re eating dry cereal. It was pretty horrible with the milk so we tried pouring bug juice over it. Bug juice was like Kool-Aid which was always available in a couple of flavors. Gross but at least not the stinky milk. So along with boredom, sleep deprivation and free time comes silliness. We decide to compose a letter to Kelloggs telling them where we are and what we’re doing. We really stressed how much that starting the day with a bowl of Raisin Bran or Rice Krispies could make you feel better and happier. I don’t recall all the wording, but we went on and on about how greatly their breakfast products were appreciated. It was done sort of tongue in cheek but with the serious tone that it did affect lives in a simple way. We got a bunch of the Radar Gang to sign it and sent it off. A few weeks later we get a letter from Kelloggs Manager of Consumer Services thanking us for serving our country and taking time out to express our appreciation to them. Along with the letter they sent a large cardboard box packed with a variety of the small cereal boxes. You can see the letter in the 1972 Westpac cruise book (page 43) over at www.ussfrancishammond.org. Hmmm…, we should have wrote to the American Dairy Commission.
Considering how much time we had to spend with each other, I think the radar gang became pretty close, both personally and professionally, during this “cruise.” You’re thrown into tight quarters with strangers for hours, days, weeks, months at a time. You’d better get along! If you have any differences, deal with it and move on. The one thing keeping us focused was that we were using what we were trained for in a real world scenario. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all sweetness and light all the time, there were down times, there was grumbling about the food, hours, command, officers, etc. There were hours and hours sitting at battle stations fighting sleep, with your ears aching and burning from the SP phones, punctuated by periods of activity where you ran on adrenaline. There was pissing and moaning about some of the regular food that wasn’t the same over there like the milk, meat, eggs and cheese. More about the chow later. The real relief came when you could actually get away from this 438×50′ metal box and hit the beach! Liberty call stories in another article…