WestPac Cruise 1972 – 1973

The Westpac cruise

The first and only cruise I was on in the navy was a Westpac (western Pacific) cruise. If started out with a flight from Virginia to Chicago O’Hare international, from here as I was informed by my new best friend Wayne Thomas Duncan I had to wear my uniform because we were flying military standby. I was wandering around O’Hare not really knowing what I was doing and Wayne picked me out as a “boot camp” and took me under his wing. I am glad I met Wayne, as who knows what trouble I would have ended up in otherwise. I could have ended up in the North Pole talking to Santa; fortunately we were both headed to the same ship.

We flew from O’Hare to a military base near San Francisco, and then caught a flight to Hawaii, then to Guam, then to the Philippines.  So I can say I have been to Hawaii but I was there less than an hour. On the military flights we sat backwards and did not have windows, reason for sitting backwards, I have no idea.

We arrived at Clark military air base on one end of the Philippines and had to take a bus to the other end of the Philippines to the navy base at Subic Bay. This is where culture shock and my education set in. it was a few hour trip on the bus, the windows had heavy metal grates and the road was pretty much poor, we were told we would not stop for safety reasons. As soon as we left the air base area we saw how normal residents lived. For the most part they lived in raised huts with thatch roofs and no electricity or plumbing. The only signs of civilization were when we passed through Manila. Obviously there were some people who ruled and were rich and the rest of the country. I had seen pictures in national geographic but it just is not the same. All the way along the trip children would run along beside the bus hoping for something to fall out. I felt bad for these people and wanted to do something for them but had no idea what.

When we crossed Mud River we were on the navy base. Even if there was not a gate you could tell because of the manicured lawns and buildings. There was a skeet range and PX and all the niceties of home, plus the docks full of American ships. We settled in and found where we were supposed to be till our ship arrived. It seemed it would be two weeks till the Sara pulled in. so after we got organized we decided to see what the natives were like.

We changed into some civilian clothes because we were not slowed to wear uniforms off base, not sure why it was obvious we were not Filipino. The first thing you see after you go out gate is Mud River, not sure what its real name is but this is what we call it because so dirty you could not see two inches deep. The second thing you see is that the river is full of children day or night begging Joe to trough coins in water. Joe is what all Americans are named. After you get across river you see a street laid out in front of you that glitters like Times Square, mostly bars on both sides of the street with some cheap goods markets and money changers thrown in, a hotel here and there. We are told not to go off Main Street and in fact if you wanted to you would need a flash light because only Main Street has lights. The town has only a couple of streets anyways and off main are resident’s homes. We hit the first bar we came to as we were thirsty, The California number one bar.

Wayne had told me a story he had heard about butterfly girls and butterfly knives, he did not know if it was true but figured he better pass it along. We went in and immediately had two girls escort us to a table and instead of them leaving they sat down and asked us if we would buy them a drink. We said what the hell why not. So we are sitting here drinking San Miguel beer and my girl says she needs to go socialize but would be back soon. I say ok no problem; I did not have any intentions with this girl I just met. A minute later a different girl sits down and asked me to buy her a drink; I’m having a good time and say sure. Ok this is a really bad idea, I did not know it but I had bought the first girl by buying her a drink and had done the same with the second girl who sat down. So out of the corner of my eye I see the first girl in midair coming over the table next to us with a butterfly knife in her hand headed for the second girl who sat down. I hollered at Wayne and we ran out of there as fast as our little legs would carry us. At the California bar number two we did not make the same mistake. The girls who sat down with us were still with us when we left. I received a good education in human nature in the orient. I also fell in love with the culture. We managed to work our way to the end of the street by the time the ship pulled in. I wanted to get out of the city and into the country to meet real people but I only did this one time. I was 17 and being able to drink and being treated like a god by beautiful young women was more than I could resist. Most American women would not give me a second look, or a first one for that matter.

I did meet a woman Terry Ocampo who was about 40 on my second stay in the Philippines. This woman took me under her wing and would meet me when my ship came in, we would go to her house or to her bar if she was working And I would spend all my time with her, we had 7 ports of call in the Philippines during the year I was in Asia, after about six months I told her I loved her and she looked me square in the eye and said no you don’t, this was my first experience with a truly honest woman. Most women in the Philippines would do anything to marry an American sailor, they can’t be blamed as they only see dire poverty at home and most girls are sold into prostitution in order to feed the rest of the family. I kept her picture in my wallet for more than 20 years, till it disappeared one day, I think my second wife was responsible, a very scary woman, more on that later.

We also had ports of call in Hong Kong 2, and Singapore 1. We normally were at sea a month but sometimes we were out two months. When we were out to sea it was strictly business, most of the time. This was the time when the only communication was by mail and there was no women allowed on ships, and no alcohol, so by the time we did get to port we were lonely for companionship and thirsty. I received a couple of letters during the time I was there, one from mom and one from Ariel. Sometimes there was a movie to watch. But you must remember we were at war in a war zone and most days it was 12 hours on and 12 hours off. We ran flight ops all day and all night. Sometimes we were close enough to see and hear the bombs explode. There was a little excitement more than once. I will cover that later.

When the ship finally got there and we were told to report to ship we had to take a landing craft to get to boat. I was looking around and asked Wayne “where is the ship”? There were a couple of ships in the harbor but none I would call an aircraft carrier. Wayne didn’t know and told me it must be anchored out because of low tide. After about 10 minutes in boat we see this ship way out in the harbor, it does not look that big but it has right shape. After another 10 minutes it is looking bigger, by the time we get close I cannot take it all in without turning my head from right to left. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I could not believe that that much steel could float. We get on board and Wayne goes off to find his squadron VA-75 and I proceed to get lost looking for my squadron VF-31, it is very easy to get lost when you are first on one of these ships. I soon learned how to get around and felt at home within a month.

When a new person reports in to a squadron they have to serve a period of time in “mess cooking” each squadron has to donate a number of people to Ships Company to help out. Wayne and I were both assigned to mess cooking. Wayne was not new and had experience on the wasp. A older carrier that had piston engine aircraft. I on the other hand had no experience or schooling. Wayne did not serve a long time in mess cooking before he was working on the flight line; I on the other hand stayed in mess cooking for six months as there was no time during war to train me. Mess cooking for me involved standing in knee deep garbage most of the time cleaning trays. There were 5500 men on this ship and there were 4 meals a day served. All trays went through the same window to be cleaned. When it was busy there was not time to empty trash can and it would over flow.

After I got out of the galley and into my squadron I was assigned to the officer’s mess for the next six months. This job involved making coffee foe the officers and keeping the ready room clean as well as the TV room. A much easier job but not what I was designated as. My squadron was berthed directly under the landing zone for the aircraft. This is how I learned to sleep with any noise going on. There was only a two inch layer of steel between me and F-4’s landing all night long. I very much wanted to learn aircraft mechanics, I wanted to feel useful, I know someone needs to do this job but I thought I had done my share. one day i overheard the pilots talking in the ready room about how they had direct orders from Nixon that they could only bomb dirt airstrips that went operational an hour after they bombed, they were frustrated to say the least. I tried to get to know some of the other mechanics when I was off duty but could not seem to fit in. as it worked out when I was in port I was never on duty so I always had plenty of time to party, this was high priority for a 17 year old.

The only thing I remember about Singapore is the American club and some Indian women we met there. It was absolutely the ritziest hotel I have ever seen. The entry hall was about 4 stories high and had a chandelier in the middle that made this huge room look small. We stayed there for a week I think. Wayne and Jeff Boodle met these wife’s of English businessmen that were Indian. They invited us over to their home for dinner and we had a great time. There is a different occurrence that happened there also. I went out with a few guys looking for a place to get a tattoo and went into a slum district. We found a bar that looked like a good place to wet our whistle. Inside there were sawdust floors and spittoons near bar. I expected to see Bogart come walking in. a girl came to take our order and after we ordered drinks and she brought them I decided to try to see if we could score some of that Thai weed we had heard about. The girl did not speak English but I finally got the idea of smoking across to her. A little while later she came back with a one inch long round ½ inch in diameter tube wrapped in brown paper. I looked at it and none of us could figure it out so after paying her the 1 dollar I put it in my mouth and started to light it. She went ballistic and grabbed it away from me then took a cigarette from me and stuffed a little of what was in package in cigarette. Ok this made sense, we were cooking with gas now. We all consumed the cigarette and I woke up the next day on the street somewhere I don’t ever remember being before. I was alone and made my way back to the ship. I got the sense from the others that they had similar experiences.

Hong Kong was great as well. We were there only a couple of times but a great island. Wayne got a tattoo of a anchor near the beginning of liberty and I really liked it so I wanted one just like it. I got Wayne to bring me to the place where he got his but we had to lubricate the spirit first. By the time we found the place where he had gotten his tattoo we were pretty much blind, to tell the truth we were not completely sure this was the same place. Well this fellow did not speak any English but we felt this was not a problem as we had Wayne’s arm with us. So I showed him Wayne’s arm and thought he understood same. So I talked to Wayne and the artist worked after he was done we looked at my arm and saw with shock that he had the anchor the same but had put the wrong words under it. It was supposed to say Viet Nan 1972 – 73 instead it said never again. So I did the only thing I could do and had him add the Viet Nam 72-73 under it.

The next day we wanted to see something we had not seen so we hired a taxi to take us to the other side of the island. I will never forget how beautiful it was there a resort and a clean white beach without a soul there but us. We could have stripped off our clothes and swam naked because there was not any other person there. I hated to leave.

On a different day Wayne and I were walking around Hong Kong and came across this girl sitting on a railing playing a guitar, A bit of an odd site given the whole area. I don’t remember how we struck up a conversation but we ended up inside a place that sold wigs and trying on different wigs. We felt pretty weird but we also didn’t want to wimp out either. After that we ended up in her apartment with some friends of hers and having a good conversation. Then I went and had two custom tailored suits made for less than a pair of levis would cost at home.

On the ocean, we had some very good times and we had some very bad times on the ocean. The good times were mostly when we had a day off; I remember Christmas we played football on the flight deck in the middle of a perfectly calm ocean.  We could lie in the nets and watch the dolphins lead us through the water 100 feet below. There is a feeling you get out in the middle of the ocean when you cannot see land in any direction that is hard to describe, freedom is as close as I can come. Most days were average 3 foot seas; these are tiny ripples to a aircraft carrier. But some days we were pleasantly surprised with absolutely calm seas not the slightest ripple, this is hard to explain glass like seas in all directions and visible down to 20 feet deep.  Then there was the time we had to hide behind an island and close all the water tight doors, 100 foot waves coming over the bow, I looked out to see even though we were under orders not to, I could not resist. Inside the ship we could only feel a slight movement but when I looked out I could see bow drop down and water come over it and half way back flight deck as bow came up, what a trilling experience.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OhVdEENI9s&feature=player_embedded#!

Flight ops were extraordinary especially at night. To see an aircraft launch into the air in 2 seconds, 0 to over 100 MPH is a sight you need to see. Wayne would explain how things worked to me when we had time off. This is the most dangerous environment on earth, actually on sea. When an aircraft launches it actually has to break a chain there are panels in the deck that raise to keep the jet wash from blowing people off, then the pilot pushes throttles all the way forward to full after-burner, this is not enough to break chain. Then with 10 foot flames coming out of engines and a signal from pilot that he is ready the officer in charge of the launch touches the deck with his hand and a catapult operator engages the catapult, a huge steam powered piston that pulls the aircraft forward, this breaks the chain and launches the aircraft. Both of these forces together are enough to bring the aircraft to flight speed in a couple of hundred feet.

We lost a commander of  a A6 squadron during launch one day, I happened to be near the bridge watching flight ops and The A6 was on the Cat. It launched normally but after launch it went ballistic, this means it went straight up, a A6 cannot go ballistic without losing power because the engines are too small, a F4 has big enough engines to go ballistic till it reaches the outer atmosphere. The A6 climbed about 500 feet before it lost power and did a flip at this point it headed straight down and plunged straight into the ocean about amidships. I was able to see it disappear under the water. None of the aircraft or crew of two were ever recovered. I thought this very strange and could not understand why the pilot would do this or why they did not eject after, until I heard the rumors explaining it. The rumors were thus, the Commander of the squadron had pissed off the plane captain in charge of his plane and the plane captain cut off the screws holing in the radar unit in front of the joy stick then glued the heads back on to make it look right. All the units in cockpit are on slides including radar unit, the joy stick that controls the plane is located directly behind it. During take-off there was too much force on stick for pilot to push forward, if co-pilot ejected he would have ripped off commanders legs. This was a palatable explanation, given the current environment.

About midway on the cruise a plane captain found ball bearings in the air intake of one of the jets. A ball bearing would destroy the engine and anybody near it as it would break all the turbine blades and they would head out in all directions. This discovery caused a great deal of work for all mechanics as all engines had to be disassembled and inspected. It also caused us to miss our flight ops and possibly people who needed air support did not get it causing lost lives. This was very serious. There was strong opposition against the war at home and it had affected the ship as well. It was rumored that the blacks on the ship had done this; I never saw any evidence either way.

We did have a race problem on the ship. There were 5000 whites and 500 blacks on the ship, with this sort of ratio I would have thought if I were a black I would not be inclined to make waves , but apparently these blacks did not use this rational.  Now I can only relate the incidents I am aware of, there may have been others I was not aware of, but this is unlikely given the nature of the situation. First incident I was told about was when a white was walking down a passageway about 3am and was attacked by 6 blacks with mop handles. He ended up in hospital. Then there was a black thrown off the fan tail late at night, never to be seen again. The tension on the ship could be cut with a knife. I was still working in the galley when one day the captain called general quarters, general quarters is when the ship is in danger and all hands must go to assigned duty stations and close all water tight doors. I guess he thought he could defuse the situation this way. As it turned out there was about even blacks and whites on the mess decks about 500 each. After general quarters were sounded all hell broke loose and there was a real riot, anything that could serve as a weapon was used that way salt shakers forks knives. When it was over a few people went to sick bay and I was lucky enough to find a place to hide and avoid the ruckus.

Now I was the least prejudiced guy in the world going into service but coming out I was aware of problems between the races. I have to relate one incident that gave me hope. I was working out in the weight room in the foca’le one day when a couple of blacks started to give a white a hard time for no good reason. I was thinking here we go I am going to need to get involved just to make this even. When to my surprise a third black who just happened to be a guy with a reputation for being very tough got in-between the three and told the blacks if they wanted to start something they would have to go through him. Now this totally impressed me and gave me hope for peace between the races.

One day we were just finished tying up in Singapore, I believe it would be our second visit to this international city. I was all dressed in civvies and just about to step on gang plank when the captain called general quarters and cancelled liberty. We were informed there was a fire in number two engine main and all hands would be needed to be on the ready. So off I went to see what I could do to help. It turned out some fireman( the guy in charge of engine maintenance) had assigned a boot camp the duty of changing the fuel filter on number two so he could go on liberty, he was not trained and did not turn off fuel fist. There are four engines that push this ship along, and as you might imagine they are huge. Two men were fried immediately and more were injured before the fire was put out. When I got my fire training in boot camp I thought how can a metal ship burn, well I got my answer this day, it took two full days to put this fire out. After a short evaluation it was decided that we needed to empty number two magazine as it was too close to number two engine. That meant that every piece of munitions stored in number two magazine had to be brought up to the hanger deck, including bombs, nukes, agent orange, you name it we had it, it also meant that we had to head out to sea to protect Singapore should our nukes go bang. It was like one of those things that never happen so no plans were in place to deal with it, but we did and only two people lost their lives. Of course none of these incidents ever showed up in newspapers at home.

After our time was up and a replacement carrier was on station we started the month long cruise home. We went around the Cape Horn as we could not go through the Panama Canal. I was a long ride knowing you’re going home, before when we did not know when we would go it was a little easier. Going around Cape Horn allowed us the opportunity to make all the pollywogs shellbacks as we would cross the equator. For those of you who don’t know what a shellback is, it is becoming initiated into the royal order on king Neptune and Davey Jones, an order that has existed since the navy began. You are initiated when you pass over the equator and the day before the pollywogs have the right to get even with the shellbacks, if you are smart you don’t do anything as a pollywog, almost anything is possible during the initiation. We were all given a summons and we are required to keep it in our moth, you are not allowed to talk to or look at a shellback and you must stay on your knees until you are finished. All pollywogs must participate no matter rank. On the day you pass the equator all food is green and all shellbacks dress up as pirates. You start by riding an elevator to flight deck where the shellbacks are lined up in two rows you must pass down this row on hands and knees while shellbacks spray you with fire hoses filled with salt water and beat you with straps cut from fire hose. After passing the rows of shellbacks you come to a tunnel made of heavy canvas about 100 feet long filled with garbage. You must pass through this while the outside is beaten. Then you come to King Neptune and must kiss his belly, it is covered with what appears to be axle grease. More beating with fire hose and finally you come to a pool filled with green water and are asked what you are, if you say pollywog or have lost you summons or have looked at a shellback you must go back to beginning and do it over.

But if you declare in a load voice you are a shellback you jump in pool and you never have to do this again. From what my daughter tells me it is a bit more civilized now.

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