OCS WAS NO PICNIC
Newport, Rhode Island, is a picturesque New England town. It is an old
seaport and a summer playground for the rich. The summer "cottages" of
people like the Vanderbilts and the Bouvier (as in Jacqueline Onassis)
are there. Yachting
is a summer pastime for them.
Newport is also the home of Officer Candidate School for surface Naval officers.
The OCS for air Naval officers is in Pensacola. My cousin, Officer Candidate
Gainer, from Chipley, is in Newport (1989)—enjoying the invigorating climate
and learning the "right way" to do things—the Navy way.
The surface Navy, as you may know, is a completely different animal from the
air Navy. For instance, the air Navy will not allow its officers to carry parrots
around on their shoulders. And they do not pay the crew with pieces of eight.
All in all, the air Navy is not nearly as exciting as the surface Navy.
But Navy OCS is bad news for any poor soul—be it in Pensacola or in Newport.
I remember it well. I am a graduate of that institution (barely). In the summer
of 1970, I found myself in this place I learned to hate—OCS.
The poor Officer Candidates get up at 4:30 a.m. every day and run for two miles.
Then they are allowed five minutes to shower, suit up, and report for breakfast,
which lasts for at least another five minutes. Somebody is assigned the job
of yelling at these bedraggled candidates for interminable periods of time.
If the "yeller" can
find a way to frustrate them and make them feel as if their I.Q. is three points
less than a rock, he will do it.
My cousin has a sense of humor, which is good. But OCS is a place so bereft of
humor that a person with normal hormonal humor levels will approach death in
a matter of hours. A recent letter from my cousin confirmed the worst: OCS has
Officer Candidate Gainer reports that "Q-Tips" are ideal for cleaning
out window tracks. Life will never be the same unless the garbage can is exactly
four inches from the radiator. Polishing shoes becomes second nature. A qualified
Officer Candidate can strip a shoe down blindfolded, polish it, and relace
it with only one hand. The Communists had better think twice before they invade!
Besides all the harassment, Officer Candidates attend school eight hours a day,
learning things like navigation, engineering, fire fighting, radio and signal
flag communications, and relative motion.
I never did get relative motion down: If the wind is blowing 15 knots at 063
degrees, the bogie is on course 254 (bearing 171 degrees), and the combined populations
of India and China equal that of the rest of the world, what is the current speed
and heading of your vessel?
I'm glad they made me a communications officer. At least I had turned on a radio
In November my cousin will begin her career as a Naval Officer. She will be a
good one. And, when Stephanie has a chance to breathe, I hope she will take a
look at the beautiful scenery of New England.
Of course, I am no longer in the Navy. It was a brief career for me. A few years
of taking orders was all I could stand.
I have to go now. My wife wants me to take out the trash, vacuum the carpet,
and clean the bathroom.
I studied English as a second language in high school. It was a requirement
for graduation in those days. My native language is "Dixie," of course.
My English teacher in high school, Mrs. Louise Driggers, faced an enormous
"Duh rayn en Spuhayne fawls muhainly own du puhlayn." We said it over
and over again.
Occasionally, I have an opportunity to speak English with a true Brit, but
it is a rarity. I have a good friend, Charlie, who is a Scot. He can't speak
well at all. Another friend, Lloyd, is Australian, and he speaks "Aussie"—not
"G'die Mite (Good day, mate)," says Lloyd.
I now work with a German company (1985), and many of my friends are, of course,
German. Most of them speak excellent English, but it (English) is still a
difficult language for me. Working with a German company in New Jersey creates
set of problems. The Germans speak English, the Yankees speak "Joisey," and
I speak "Dixie."
A Jerseyan might say, "Let's go wark the dwag in the park." (Let's
go walk the dog in the park.)
A Southerner might say, "Let's git duh dawgs and go fishin or sumpin." (Let's
get the dogs and go fishing or something,)
"Sprechen Sie Deutsche?" (Do you speak German?), ask the Germans
"Nein, Ich spreche 'Dixie'," (No, I speak Dixie), I reply.
In 1973 I was involved in a multinational naval exercise in the Pacific. My
ship, the destroyer USS O'Callahan, issued fleet formation directions to destroyers
from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I was the communications officer
spoke the captain's commands over the radio.
"Formashun tern bairing tooh seavuhn zeerow dugreez and foam a lahn abreaust."
The New Zealanders complained loudly over the radio that they could not understand
my version of English. "Sigh agayne mite, owvir," (Say again, mate,
over) they said. "We can't understand you Yanks.
I quickly informed them that I was no Yankee. I repeated the command several
times, but they never got it right, and they would not turn until they did.
The Canadians turned the wrong way, and the Australians simply waited to
see what we did. We needed an interpreter, or at the very least a common
It was when Lloyd, my friend from Tasmania, Australia, visited us a few years
back that I hit upon the new universal language. I now find that I can converse
with people of any nation simply by employing the "new standard."
"Kawasaki, Lloyd San," I said. "Oh! Honda!" he replied.
"Pana-sonic, akai, so-ny," I offered. "Seiko, fuji, nikon a subaru," he
"Honda! Hai! Hai Haibachi, sansui toy-ota," I countered.
"You got it, Toyota."
So, for an upcoming business trip to Germany, I feel well prepared. I speak
very poor German and not so good English. But everybody understands the "universal
language" of Japan. "Ah so."
WE FOUND THE ENEMY...AND
HE WAS US...
Soldiers and sailors throughout the land struggled to reach their units.
Crowds pressed them and jostled them in large cities and small towns. Sometimes
people spit on them. Sometimes people threw rocks. It was common to receive
an unkind, vulgar gesture from the natives. In some areas, they were simply
People pretended they did not exist.
The uniforms were a dead giveaway. These soldiers were tools of U.S. military
imperialism. They were not welcome. The times were troublesome. It was
a dangerous country for American servicemen.
In peril, the young soldiers and sailors pressed on to join up with their
Some anticipated the hostilities. They camouflaged their appearance with
civilian attire. They hoped to blend in with the nation's populace. Often
as not, civilian
clothes were merely a temporary ruse; the short hair, the innocent youth,
and the green sea-bags were telltale identification. They were marked military
Small battles took place. One-on-one encounters between an intellectual
pacifist and the kid in uniform. The intellectual, who was probably a student
world cultures returning to school after a weekend of revelry, sincerely
tried to spark the ideal of pacifism in the young gladiator's heart.
Self-anointed moralists chastised the evil sailor, who was armed only
with a comb, a cigarette lighter, dog tags, and his heavy (very heavy)
sea-bag. " Warmonger!"
In crowded transportation terminals, the boy soldier was accosted by young
religious devotees clothed in saffron robes. The youthful saffron inductees
innocent military inductee about the evils of war. They asked for a donation
to help the cause of peace. The soldier donated a dime. Later, another
tribe espoused world peace. He donated a nickel. By the third time the
was asked for a donation to promote universal peace, his vote came down
decidedly in favor of war.
Were it not for a generally silent but sympathetic underground network
of people who cared, many American soldiers and sailors might have been
could rejoin their units.
This was America in 1972.
I recall the summer of 1972. The USS O'Callahan crew returned to their
ship. Sailors rebounded from their final shore leave. One pink seaman apprentice,
with a smattering of adolescent whiskers standing defiantly at attention
mountainous pimples on his cheeks, marched aboard with a Bible under his
arm. It was newly purchased from a street vendor hawking the imitation
Book. The sailor had paid an extra twenty dollars to have his mother's
on the cover in imitation gold. Others struggled aboard with the odor of
a distillery clinging to the air about them.
The captain ordered the bow line cast off. He ordered the engine back
one third. The ship's horn sounded one long blast, followed by three
backed into the San Diego Harbor.
The O'Callahan steamed past Point Loma and made for open sea. Most were
apprehensive, but the apprehension was tempered with a sense of adventure.
We steamed west
to join the 7th Fleet and do battle with an enemy. It felt good to be among
our own kind, having passed through a nation of hostile strangers.
It was an odd time to be in uniform.
Years have healed the animosity among fellow Americans in those times.
Today, there is a healthy respect for people in uniform.
That is as it should be.
ALL IS QUIET NOW...
New Year's Day, 1973. A cease fire. A small task group of destroyers
and frigates was assigned to shore bombardment in the DMZ area of Vietnam.
It was a quiet
but busy time.
The USS O'Callahan was in the company of the destroyers Morton, Rupertus,
Hollister, Tucker, Blandy, and Wiltsie. Their five-inch gun barrels
were blackened from
action. They were peeling paint. All made use of the quiet time to
re-arm and refuel.
Mr. Kissinger would sign an agreement with Le Duc Tho a few weeks later.
When that happened the United States would end its direct involvement
in the tragic
war. The news was full of talk about negotiations. We anticipated some
kind of ending very soon.
Meanwhile, the forces remaining in combat were to put as much pressure
on their adversaries as possible. Our objectives were to force North
Vietnam to sit in
negotiations. We were also to impress South Vietnam with our unswerving
to their cause. It seemed neither objective was being met.
On New Year's Eve, the Hollister was riddled with shrapnel. It ventured
within range of what appeared to be a 105-mm enemy battery deployed
on a hill overlooking
the DMZ and the Gulf of Tonkin. I watched the Hollister's punishment
with my shipmates from a few miles away.
I have imagined a North Vietnamese officer in charge of that gun. I've
envisioned him dressed in a muddy uniform with a rotting pith helmet
atop his head.
He was probably barefoot. The sighting and ranging device for his artillery
probably a half circle of sticks in the mud, a few yards out from his
position. A second stick nearer to him would line up with one of the
sticks in the
half circle. Firing positions could be plotted from this arrangement.
When a ship
ventured in range and fell in line with his sticks, he would merely
swing the gun to a predetermined angle and let loose a barrage of fire.
Of course, our weapons systems were more sophisticated. Our group commander
aboard the Morton was determined to teach this enemy artilleryman something
technology. He made plans with the Blandy to approach the beach as
soon as the cease fire lifted. They would "smoke out" the culprit—tempt him
to expose his position. Plans were discussed over a secure radiotelephone. Those
of us who could understand the "Donald Duck" talk (voices scrambled
and descrambled over the "RED PHONE") were privy to the plan.
The Blandy's plan was to approach the beach with The Morton "riding shotgun" a
few hundred yards astern, off the port quarter. The Blandy would draw the fire
from our adversary. All hands aboard both ships would scour the mountains with
high-powered binoculars, infrared sensors, fire control radar, and various electronic
wonders. When The Blandy came under fire, The Morton would pinpoint the flash
and "nail the sucker" with computer-controlled rapid-fire,
five-inch/fifty four naval guns.
Air support was never considered. Any destroyer sailor will tell you
the Naval Air Corps is simply not effective in combat. Besides, this
job for the "Real
The cease fire was lifted at 1800 hours. The Blandy approached the
coast, steaming at four knots. The slow speed allowed for accurate
data. The Morton was close behind. They came in range—sleek,
grey, computerized machines of destruction, built to go in harm's way.
Splash, splash, splash, splash, and more splashes!!!
Both The Blandy and The Morton were covered with spray from the enemy
artillery fire exploding in the sea around them. Neither ship fired
round. Gunsmoke covered the gulf waters. For a moment, the heart-stopping
was totally obscured by the smoke and spray. Both ships turned on their
raced for the open sea as fast as their engine order telegraphs could
ring up "FLANK
So much for technology.
have a loud explosion on the port side of the engine room," reports
the Engineering Officer, Ensign Morano.
Even as I hear his voice over the sound-powered phones on the bridge, Ensign
Shanline orders the helm to come about, 180 degrees: Steady on course 080. The
rudder is right— 35 degrees.
Spray from a shell splashing not 50 yards off the port bow is already turning
to a fine mist and a permanent memory.
Ensign Shanline commands the engine order telegraph to full speed. The ship responds
and heels to starboard, making a sharp turn. We gain speed, increasing from four
knots to twenty-five knots in seconds that drag on for hours. The ship's turbines
scream loudly as the 1200-psi boilers make steam to turn them.
Another explosion is report overhead by Signalman Second Class Talamante. He
is in the signal shack above the bridge. Ensign Machino, in the fire control
radar cockpit over our heads, ducks—as though the six inches he can move
will protect him—and reports the same explosion.
Ensign Shanline has the "Conn" this night. My job is that of Bridge
Communications Officer. I report the Captain's orders to fire over the sound-powered
phones. I feed internal communications of the ship back to the Captain. The ship's
captain is Commander Dunham.
Our mission: Coastal bombardment; nighttime harassment; interdiction of enemy
activity (H&I in military shorthand). Our position is "Point Allison,
Station Papa." Four other destroyers are strung out along the coast, separated
by about two miles.
These are the last days of the Vietnam War. South Vietnamese Marines have established
a beachhead at the mouth of the Cua-Viet River, near the DMZ. They need the protection
afforded by seaborne firepower.
We steam a track diagonal to the coast. Computers and navigation aides in Combat
Information Center (CIC) plot the next target. Our speed is necessarily slow
for accurate target data generation. To avoid unnecessary illumination of our
own position, we use flashless powder in our five-inch guns. However, when The
O'Callahan approaches within one mile of the coast, with a clear sky and a brilliant
full moon, it becomes a target of unrestricted opportunity.
Ensign Shanline responds as soon as the first enemy shell splashes. A monotone,
businesslike conversation develops between me and the others connected to the
phone system throughout the ship. In seconds a story emerges. Damage control
teams mobilize. Guns shift targets to seek out a more pressing challenge, and
months of training condense into pure "essence of Navy." It tastes
like a lifetime.
"Bridge..CIC," says Ensign Dave Grimes, our assistant CIC Officer of
the Watch. "Bridge Aye," I respond.
"Can you tell us where the shells are landing?" "We have one splash
fifty yards off the port bow."
"Are there more?"
"Bridge, Engine Room." "Bridge, aye."
"We have a loud explosion on the port side of the engine room." "Damage
Control...Bridge, report to the Engine Room." "Damage Control, aye."
"CIC...Bridge, Engine Room reports an explosion on the port side." "Bridge...CIC,
any more reports?"
"Bridge...Signal." "Bridge, aye."
"Signal...Bridge reports an explosion overhead."
"CIC...Bridge, one explosion reported overhead."
"Bridge...CIC, any more reports?"
"Gun Control, Bridge."
"Gun Control, aye."
"Stand by to fire five salvos, flashless, H.E. (high explosive), after gun
mount, target number four three, range...("Nine thousand two hundred yards," said
a voice)...nine thousand two hundred yards...at my command." (Only the captain
gives the orders to shoot.) The location of the counterbattery was a guess. We
could not see the enemy guns.
The Captain commanded, "Shoot."
"Shoot," I repeated the order, speaking to Gun Control, deep in the
bowels of the ship. The gunners mate pulled the trigger on a computerized handgun
facsimile with a wooden pistol grip.
Five angry salvos responded to the enemy counterbattery. It was surely not an
accurate response, but it was at least an answer in kind.
"CIC...Bridge, after lookout reports a splash one hundred yards off the
The O'Callahan moved out of range.
"All stations...Bridge, report damage and casualties."
By now there was a "less-romantic" distance between our ship and the
enemy gunners. The USS O'Callahan had sustained a glancing hit on the port side
near the Engine Room. Some shrapnel sparked across the open signal bridge. There
were no casualties.
We never saw the enemy coastal battery. CIC tried to plot the fall of shells.
They hoped perhaps to correlate the splash points with a direction of fire. They
were not successful.
Similar actions were repeated with The O'Callahan and with other ships on the "gunline" in
those last days of the Vietnam War. Most passed through these periodic shell
showers with minimal or no damage.
The South Vietnamese Marines courageously held their beachhead until the official
U.S. cease fire was declared on January 27, 1973. But their heroic stand was
American warships moved out to sea—twenty miles off the coast. There they
stood by, passively observing the historic terms of the Paris Agreement. Marines
pleaded for gunfire support over the radio. There was no response. The United
States was, officially, no longer a part of the conflict.
Within days, the North Vietnamese Army overran the Marines and annihilated them.
THE CHRISTMAS BOMBING...
Fellow anthropoids often
try very hard to find something in common. When meeting strangers, we
search for the thread of common experience or knowledge that will link
them to our own small galaxy. People like other people better when they
have something in common.
Not long ago, I visited the offices of one of my customers in Birmingham, Alabama.
My business contact and friend was Steve Collier. I asked him to join me for
lunch. With him was a fellow he introduced as Dave. I asked Dave to join us.
Dave is the corporate pilot.
"Where did you learn to fly, Dave?"
"Air Force," was the answer.
"Air Force," I repeated. "Too bad. Everybody knows the Navy has
the best pilots."
"Some Navy pilots are O.K. I applied to both the Navy and the Air Force,
but the Air Force offer came two weeks before the Navy bureaucracy could respond.
Besides," he offered, "my wife, Mary, and our twin daughters, Karen
and Kathryn, think Air Force pilots are the best."
"Sounds like a biased opinion to me. When were you in the Air Force?",
"From '69 through '74," says he.
"What sort of plane did you fly?"
"Well, at least you had eight engines. Navy pilots get only one engine,
sometimes two....Dave, were you by any chance involved in the 'Christmas Bombing'
of Hanoi in 1972?"
"Yes, I participated in the 'Linebacker Two' operation."
He spoke with precision. No word wasted. I guess pilots are like that. I explained
to Dave and Steve that my ship, the Navy frigate O'Callahan, was in the area
at the time. We were assigned to a search and rescue (SAR) station about 20 miles
off Haiphong Harbor, in the Gulf of Tonkin. We were to wait for damaged aircraft
that might ditch over the water.
We viewed the world from a circular green phosphorescent radar screen. I asked
Dave about his "view from the top," so to speak.
Dave shared with us his experience. Steve and I paid rapt attention.
"The 'view from the top' on December 18 was not so good," said Dave.
He had lost No. 7 engine to low oil pressure on the 3400-mile trip from Guam.
There was an "undercast." The targets were not easy to see.
I remember this part clearly from the radar picture aboard ship. The planes were
in a neat, WWII-style formation. I could see the leading dot (plane) on our scope
placing a pattern of aluminum chaff ahead of the main formation. The chaff confused
the enemy radar over Hanoi and helped in some ways to protect the bomber formation.
Dave continued. "Over Hanoi, the missiles attacked the bomber formation
in salvos. This was not expected, because conventional tactical analysis would
say this is a wasteful use of firepower by the enemy. The American bombers expected
frugal use of missiles, supported by lots of antiaircraft flak."
"The enemy was not held by convention, however, and the massive, wholesale
use of SA2 radar-controlled missiles could hardly miss finding a few B-52 bombers—if
only by accident—in such a flock of aircraft."
There was a bumper crop of bombers for the North Vietnamese to harvest.
"The missiles were easy to detect in the morning twilight; first as a white
flash beneath the dull 'undercast,' and then like gray telephone poles, punching
thought the clouds and reaching for the sky," he continued.
Five missiles had appeared simultaneously under Dave's plane, their radar sensors
looking for a home.
"Two missiles on the right. Two missiles on the left. One on the nose!" Formation
flying left little room to maneuver. The missiles had him boxed in for lunch.
Dave had only one option really—put the throttles (all seven remaining
engines) to the "firewall" with the hope of outrunning the hungry beasts.
He almost did.
One missile exploded in an orange burst of fire off the right wing. Shrapnel
ruptured a fuel cell. Dave killed his No. 8 engine to avoid a fire.
Steve and I were struck with how calmly Dave spoke of his brush with disaster.
I remember this raid and subsequent ones from the radio chatter we monitored
on our ship in the Gulf. It was a tense period. Pilots notified each other of
missile positions. When a plane was hit, the pilot calmly reported the damage
Occasionally, one reported his plane out of commission and begin transmitting
on the SAR radio network.
In the first December raids, fifteen of the behemoth B-52 aircraft were shot
out of the sky or damaged beyond repair. From December 18th to 30th, twenty-six
U.S. aircraft were shot down. Ninety-three pilots and crew were lost.
The emergency airfields in Thailand were already booked up by the time Dave's
plane delivered its own lethal cargo. He and his crew refueled the scarred 1959-model
B-52 from an Air Force tanker plane over the South China Sea. They nursed the
crippled bird all those miles back to Guam. Both tanker and bomber were attacked
for much of the return flight because the fueling nozzle on Dave's plane was
damaged. For a long period, a fog of spilled jet fuel shrouded the bomber as
No planes crashed over the Gulf of Tonkin. We destroyer sailors merely watched
the show by radar and listened by radio. After the first three days of bombing,
no more B-52s were lost to enemy action. The U.S. Air Force decided by then (with
insistence from the pilots flying the missions) that antiquated formation bombing
techniques were now passé. Besides, the Communists were virtually out
A month later—January 27, 1973—U.S. involvement in the war ended.
American POWs in the "Hanoi Hilton," who a month before had cheered
as bombs fell on the city around them, were soon released.
In a matter of minutes, Dave and I stepped back in time and went half way around
the world to Vietnam to find something in common.
"So, where you from, Dave?"
"A little town in the Florida Panhandle. You probably never heard of it."
"Nichol's Seafood, Pond Creek, Blackwater River, Garcon Point, Lapeyrouse
Grain Elevator. Naw! Never heard of it! You ever heard of Chumuckla?"
Corporate pilot William David Robertson, Jr., taught at Chumuckla High the fall
of 1968. (I missed his instruction by two years.) He graduated from Milton High.
My Mother-in-law, Kathryn Gatewood, taught Dave in the third grade. (She tells
me he risked life and limb standing on the windowsills at Bagdad Elementary School.)
Even more! His Aunt Kate Haynes Robertson of Milton is my cousin. We're almost
related. Small world.