Getting to Know You
My prior shipboard experience had been on various destroyers in the Atlantic Fleet for short periods and aboard a destroyer tender homeported at Newport, Rhode Island. A tender is a large ship, but smaller than an aircraft carrier.
I made a point of exploring the ship from fantail to forecastle (pronounced “folk-suhl”) beginning in my first days aboard. But even after I’d been aboard more than a year I had seen fewer than half of all the compartments inside that floating labyrinth, some of which I did not have a high enough security clearance to enter. As incredible as it seems, the newer carriers, such as USS HARRY TRUMAN, have more than twice the displacement of ORISKANY.
When general quarters sounded, it was announced that condition zebra would be set in ten minutes (or maybe less, I don’t remember). That meant all watertight doors and hatches would be closed and dogged throughout the ship, along with the ventilation system being shut down and sealed. They could then only open with permission from the bridge, obtained by communication over the sound-powered phone system, which would operate even if the ship lost electrical power. Such permission would only be given in a bona fide emergency. If you failed to make it all the way to your battle station before the doors closed, you remained where you were until the word was passed to secure from general quarters. And then you stood by for a severe reprimand.
My job on ORISKANY as the senior journalist rating included managing the closed-circuit radio and television entertainment systems. My year at American Forces Radio Saigon provided valuable experience for operating those systems. I had six rated journalists and a couple of seamen who ran the hobby shop, where men in their off-duty time could build models or do other crafts. An attached athletic gear locker provided sports equipment or fishing gear that could be checked out for use when in port. The equipment in the radio booth was old and primitive so I persuaded the officer who controlled the ship’s Welfare and Recreation Fund (financed by sales in the ship’s store) to provide enough money for me to go to the Navy Exchange on the base at Subic and buy a tape recorder, an 8-track cartridge player/recorder and a large selection of LP records. There were no music tapes or CDs at that time. I accomodated most musical tastes – pop, rock & roll, country & western, blues, jazz and even a little bit of classical. I also wrote to some recording companies requesting free records and got a good response from most of them.
I organized the radio operation as much like a commercial radio station in the states as possible. The entertainment systems gave the crew a little taste of home. Each day there were set time periods when a particular genre of music was featured. Of course, rock & roll and country & western were the most popular so they got more air time. A couple of my guys, in spite of having no broadcast training, developed into pretty good disk jockies. Each time we returned to Subic I bought some new records so we could keep our programming somewhat fresh over the months.
The TV operation was more difficult. The TV “studio” was really just half of the fairly large compartment that housed the public information office. We only had one camera and one multi-plexer, a device for capturing the image and sound off film and transmitting them over television lines. Both the camera and multi-plexer were old and subject to breakdowns. I couldn’t get money to upgrade the TV equipment and even if I had it wouldn’t have been possible to get new equipment while deployed overseas.
The movie films we received had often been circulating in the fleet for some time and weren’t always in good condition. When the film would break during a showing of a movie, we’d get irate phone calls from around the ship. The radio and TV were the only serious entertainment available to the crew during our long at-sea periods, which ranged from 30-plus to almost 50 days at a stretch. I understood the crew’s frustrations, but there was nothing I could do.