The Greatest Generation
We got underway from Subic Bay in the first week of May, 1965, and launched our first air strikes over Viet Nam on May 8th. Over the next seven months in Southeast Asian waters, ORISKANY compiled an outstanding record. Between the April 5th sailing from North Island and our December 16th return: ORISKANY spent 210 days at sea; our embarked Air Wing 16 flew 14,700 air sorties, including over 12,000 combat sorties and dropped almost 10,000 tons of ordnance on Viet Cong targets in South Viet Nam and on communist North Viet Nam. In addition to the heavy demands of air operations, there were 230 “unreps” (underway replenishments) when we brought aboard fuel oil, food and other supplies, bombs, rockets and ammunition, aviation fuel and mail from tankers and other support ships steaming alongside. In turn, we often provided fuel oil and other supplies to our escorting destroyers in the same way.
In the 1990s, newscaster Tom Brokaw wrote a book he titled, “The Greatest Generation,” in which he claimed the veterans of World War II surpassed the American armed forces of any other period of history in dedication and faithful service to country. It is no disrespect to the valiant men and women of that war to say that Tom Brokaw overstated things. If he had been aboard ORISKANY during 1965, I don’t think he could, in good conscience, have given that title to his book.
During each 30- to 50-day at-sea period, every day was a work day. There were no weekends or holidays or time off for anyone. The work day averaged about 18 hours. Sometimes some men who maintained and repaired the aircraft, for example, would go two or three days without leaving the hangar deck. They would sleep an hour or two on the wing of a plane, eat cold sandwiches with grimy hands, then get back to work to meet the impending launch time.
A steel ship steaming on a tropical sea, under a blazing sun, had a normal interior temperature in the mid to high 90s. At night it might cool off to the high 80s. With humidity almost 100%. We sweat so much that we were under orders to take eight salt tablets a day. There was a salt tablet dispenser next to every scuttlebutt (drinking fountain). The boiler rooms were significantly hotter. The only air conditioning on the ship was in the electronics spaces, to keep the equipment cool, not the men.
With all that sweating, water for showers was not always available. The ship’s evaporators couldn’t always make enough fresh water from seawater for the ship’s boilers, the steam catapults (for launching planes), drinking, cooking and laundry and have enough left over for 4,000-plus men to take showers. Many men had heat rash under their arms and/or in the crotch areas so bad that the flesh was raw and spotted with blood for days at a time. The best-selling item in the ship’s store was Ammen’s Medicated Powder. It helped, if used often and generously, but it wasn’t a cure-all.
During the last days of one at-sea period, I began to dream, and daydream, about the base swimming pool at Subic Bay. As soon as I could get off the ship after we tied up I got on a base bus to the pool, bought an icy can of Hamms at the concession stand and plunked down with my legs in the water. For a little while, I was utterly content. I stayed in the pool until dark, wrinkled and happy.
Remarkably, under these conditions, the crew’s performance was magnificent, almost to a man. As we got into the rhythm of Viet Nam operations, disciplinary problems became rare. It would not be unusual for a ship with a crew of 4,000-plus getting underway after a port visit to have up to a dozen men miss movement (fail to be back aboard when the ship sailed). During that deployment, every time ORISKANY got underway there might be a few men not aboard or, sometimes, not a single man missed movement. The men of ORISKANY in 1965 were in no wise less dedicated and faithful in service to the country than Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”
Not all was relentless toil and hardship, however. ORISKANY was the first ship ever to receive a Ney Award while engaged in combat operations. The Ney Award recognized the ship of each type (carrier, cruiser, destroyer, tanker, tender, etc.) that did the best job of feeding its crew. And ORISKANY fully earned that award. Despite the limitations imposed by being in a tropical climate and a war zone (shortage of fresh milk, eggs and vegetables, weevils in the flour and so on) the ship’s cooks did a great job and going to chow was a treat. That’s not true on all Navy ships, even in peacetime and home waters.
An amusing sidelight to the supply problems was our reaction to the weevils in the flour and, consequently, in all our bread and other baked items. At first we tried to pick them out but it wasn’t long before we said, “Oh, to hell with it,” and just accepted the baked weevils as a little extra protein.