Closing out my Navy Years
In 1971 I graduated from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi with an Associate’s degree. I had been lucky enough to be chosen for a new Navy program that sent selected senior petty officers to one of six community colleges around the country. Besides having a wonderful educational experience, I became a father for the third time while at Corpus Christi and had my second up-close-and-personal experience with a hurricane, two overlapping events.
My first hurricane had hit the New England coast while I was stationed at Newport, Rhode Island. That had seemed pretty exciting but was tame compared with Hurricane Celia, which hit Corpus Christi dead-on in 1970, with winds up to 160 mph. My wife went into labor just two days after Celia came calling. We had been worried that it would happen during the hurricane, when it would have been impossible to get her to the hospital. But, as things turned out, my wife was able to stay in the hospital several days post-natal because of the condition of the city after Celia. She was able to enjoy electricity, air conditioning, cold drinks, ice cream, regular meals, etc. while our other two children and I hunkered down at home with none of those things, until the electricity was restored to our area on the tenth day after Celia. The power came on about a half-hour after I brought my wife and our new baby home from the hospital. Of course, we were far luckier than the families made homeless by Celia.
With graduation impending, I contacted the man at the Navy Bureau of Personnel (BUPERS) in D.C. whose job at that time was as the “detailer” for the journalist rating. He would soon be assigning me to my next duty station. As it happened, he had gone through Navy Journalist School with me in 1957 so I wanted to cash-in on our relationship to get a favorable posting. I was due for either shipboard or overseas duty and among the billets coming open at the time was the Armed Forces Radio & TV station at Naval Base Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. After my phone chat with him it was all set that my family and I would soon be heading to Puerto Rico. I was looking forward to having another broadcasting job, as I had greatly enjoyed my assignment in 1964/65 to the Armed Forces Radio station in Saigon.
I was chagrined a short time later to receive orders, not to Puerto Rico but to the Fleet Public Affairs Office at the headquarters of the Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But my wife was very happy to be going to Hawaii instead of Puerto Rico.
When I arrived at CINCPACFLT I learned what had upset the deal I thought I had made. The newly-arrived Fleet Public Affairs Officer told me he had been given permission to choose as his senior enlisted journalist any chief, senior chief or master chief who was available for transfer. After reviewing service records at BUPERS he told my detailer pal to cut my orders to CINCPACFLT. My “in” had been trumped by “rank has its privileges.” But, as things turned out, my final duty station was a good tour of duty and, in the end, I had no complaints.
The work situation was very interesting because the Viet Nam war was raging full-bore and we dealt with both local and national media reps on an almost daily basis. It was not unusual to answer the phone and find oneself talking to a network TV news person calling from New York or a BBC correspondent calling from D.C. or someone similar.
Because of the time differences between Hawaii and the U.S. West and East coasts, or Japan, Guam, Saigon, the Philippines, etc., we were as likely to get calls at 4:00 in the morning as 4:00 in the afternoon. I and the four officers in the office (the captain exempted himself) took turns carrying a pager during off-duty hours. At times I was forced to be one of those inconsiderate people who don’t turn off their pagers in restaurants or movies. If a Navy official called from D.C. or Japan or wherever, I damn well had to answer.
Besides taking work home with us much of the time, our office hours bore little resemblance to an 8-hour day or 4o-hour or 5-day week. For the first time since I was aboard the carrier USS ORISKANY off the coast of Viet Nam in 1965, I was sometimes putting in 80-hour-plus work weeks. More than once the office was fully manned and operating for 20 to 30 consecutive days.
Shortly after reporting for duty at CINCPACFLT I was notified that I had been selected for promotion to Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted ranking. It was especially gratifying to receive that promotion with just over 15 years of service time, since the Navy-wide average for promotion to Master Chief at that time was 19 years. Some of my fellow master chiefs did not approve of my “premature” promotion.
Among my most interesting experiences during my final tour of duty was when I went aboard the carrier USS HANCOCK, the primary recovery ship for the return of the first Skylab astronauts. I managed the media support center, providing assistance to the dozens of radio, TV, wire service and news reporters, photographers and production people from around the world. The recovery operation went so perfectly that people aboard HANCOCK could watch the capsule float down less than a mile from the ship. HANCOCK could actually have been much closer to the splashdown point but stood off as a safety precaution. Because I was at work in the media center, I didn’t get to go on deck to see the splashdown.
I almost got an even more interesting and unusual experience. At the conclusion of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, part of the peace agreement with North Viet Nam involved American assistance in clearing out the thousands of mines we had dropped in Hai Phong harbor and other waterways. A U.S. task group of minesweepers and support vessels was organized for deployment to North Viet Nam. My boss, the Fleet Public Affairs Officer, was assigned to the task group to handle media enquiries and control the release of information about the operations as they proceeded. He wanted to take me along but the North Vietnamese were wary of U.S. personnel in their territory and would approve only the bare minimum of people necessary to coordinate and carry out the mine clearance. So, much to my disappointment, I didn’t get to go.
Another interesting experience in Hawaii had nothing to do with work. President Nixon came to Hawaii for a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone. There was to be an official welcoming ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base when both leader’s planes would land. The White House wanted a friendly crowd of well-wishers to cheer as TV cameras recorded the scene when the two men shook hands. It was easy to ensure there would no protestors or hecklers in the crowd by limiting it to military personnel and family members.
I took my oldest son and we got a place right at the rope holding back the crowd. As some buglers played an appropriate fanfare, the President appeared, trademark smile on his face and arms upraised, playing to the crowd. He got the loud cheers he craved.
Right on cue, Nakasone’s plane taxied up close to the crowd and the waiting President. The Prime Minister came down the steps and shook Nixon’s hand. Nixon led Nakasone along the rope to press the flesh with some of the onlookers. I was surprised at how short both men were. I was a little under 5’10” and the two world leaders were much shorter than me. I put my son in front of me so he could see well and he shook hands with both Nixon and Nakasone. As fate would have it, both men were later tainted by scandal and left office in disgrace.
One of my most satisfying experiences came when I was part of a detail assigned to Hickam AFB for the return of our repatriated prisoners of war. The transport planes bringing the ex-POWs from North Viet Nam stopped at Hickam to refuel and let the men get out and stretch their legs. There was an informal reception in a building near the flight line where a number of officers who had flown with one or more of the POWs were on hand to become reacquainted and welcome their old comrades back to U.S. soil. After a short time on the ground, the POWs reboarded the planes and flew on to D.C. for the official welcome home.
After an eventful and satisfying four+ years in Hawaii, by the summer of 1975 I was anticipating 20-year retirement the following year. I planned to attend the University of Washington to add a BA to my AA from Del Mar and then go into teaching. I had reason to believe I had some skill in that line and I enjoyed it. In the event, however, after completing my BA the economic realities of supporting a family of six on teacher’s pay caused me to choose a different road.
In 1975 the Viet Nam war wound down and, suddenly, the Navy, like the other services, had a lot more personnel than were needed. To reduce manpower, the Navy initiated an “early out” option for enlisted people and mandatory departures for many officers. Enlisted people could apply for an early out of up to a year. I was happy to learn that the early out was available for retirements, as well. In fact, the Navy especially desired to have more senior people leave because it saved them the most in pay and benefits.
Because of the “constructive time” I had accrued over the years, I was eligible to take 20-year retirement at 19 1/2 years. (Constructive time was gained by reenlisting up to 90 days before one’s current enlistment expired. That 90 days counted on both the expiring enlistment and the new enlistment, giving credit for an extra three months of service time.) That gave me a retirement date in January 1976 instead of June. I applied for an “early out” retirement in September of 1975 and it was approved.
When the day came, my family and I rode a big Boeing bird back to Seattle. It was not my wife’s favorite trip because our plane’s departure from Honolulu was delayed while an extra engine was hung under the port wing. It seems the engine was needed in Seattle. My wife didn’t much like flying in any case and looking out the window at that extra engine hanging under the wing didn’t help.
It was an uneventful flight and all ended well, closing out my Navy years, except for the required 10 years of Fleet Reserve time, during which I could have been recalled to active duty. But I never was.
With the help of the educational benefits provided by the Cold War GI Bill, I was able to complete my BA at the University of Washington and graduate in 1977, after which I was employed in the Home Office Marketing Department of SAFECO Insurance Company in Seattle. I retired from SAFECO in 1999 and since then have worked as a volunteer with various non-profit organizations. I find it hard to grasp that it has been over 60 years since I swore my first enlistment oath, but the calendar and my mirror confirm that it is so. When I think back on all that I experienced during those 60 years, I guess I have little reason to complain. All was not perfect, for sure, but was mostly pretty darned good.