Late Summer – 1965, San Diego shipboard…
After I skated out of punishment on Treasure Island, I had to hang around the Oakland airport for a few hours before I flew to San Diego because my original flight was delayed, but I certainly wasn’t going to go back to TI, not after the threat of a Captains Mast. The flight left really early the next morning, my first experience with a ‘Red Eye’ flight, but the delay gave me time to check my orders carefully and what I found was that I didn’t have to report for duty on the ship until 11 pm the next night. So when I arrived at SD just a couple hours after departing SF, I didn’t head straight to the Naval base but took a taxi into town. My memory is that it was 6 or 7 AM when I got downtown. I wandered around getting my bearings in the city, discovering where the famous SD Zoo was, where downtown was, the museums, the symphony, the bus routes, the naval base and the like. I spent lots of my limited money on a simple breakfast and later a nice dinner in a nice restaurant while I poured over the schedules for the bus to make sure I’d make it to the base on time. I can’t remember much else about my day in SD other then it was a chore wandering around with a full duffel bag, so when the time came, I was happy to head to the base and my new home…the USS Oak Hill, LSD-7.
I arrived at the gangplank of the ship, saluted properly, at nearly 10pm as I had planned. The duty watch seem overly eager to see if I was late, since so many new arrivals in his experience tended to be many hours early. He was so eager that he missed something, perhaps he got the date wrong. He yelled at me a bit for being late and actually called the duty officer. Then all stern and military like, he started to threaten me with a Captains Mast for being AWOL. The duty officer arrived before I could protest and they discussed, and then the duty officer asks me why I’m late. I can’t remember exactly what it was about since I still have my orders and they are clear about the time I’m suppose to arrive and I was an hour early. Got to the ship at 2205 hours (10:05PM) as noted by the duty office and my orders said I had to arrive no later then 2300 hours. So I think they had the date wrong. But I was early, not late, damn it. So my first impression of the average intelligence of the ships crew was not a good one. And my impression of the military in general went down 2-3 more notches.
Still, they were pissed to be put out by my late arrival, as it was now 11pm and they would have to find accommodations for me without waking to many people, but I knew what the damn orders said, I’d caught them being dumb shits, and I wasn’t ordered to get there at their pleasure but rather mine, and I stood my ground, and not humbly. They would have to make do. And they did. I enjoyed watching them scamper around, especially the duty watch officer, who was a non-commissioned officer, trying to find me a place to sleep. Idiot. So at 11:30pm, I dropped my head on a smelly pillow and chuckled my way into sleep. Off to a great and ego enhancing start. And when you’re 18, little inadvertent successes like this mean a lot to you, and can really start you off in a new experience with a different, and confident attitude.
Next morning was very busy, what with going to visit most the CPOs on board for interviews…even though I’d flunked out of electronics school, the staff knew that I had a brain since you can’t get into electronics school without a high entrance test score. These interviews were to determine where I was to work…which duty roster I should be on. There are many different groups, like the deck crew, the mess crew, the below decks crews (called, generally, firemen), and many others. Then there are the trained groups, like radarmen, signalmen, radiomen, etc. The interviews with the CPO’s are like a tough form of courting, and several of them mentioned, with a form of respect, the little problem I’d had when I came aboard ship and how I’d handled it. Most CPO’s don’t care for bullshit so I got more attention from them as a potential recruit for their workgroups because of that. The CPO’s that run the work groups try to talk newbies like myself into joining their group, if they feel you might be an acceptable fit. Since I didn’t feel rushed to decide on which of the low trained jobs to take, I was assigned to the deck crew while I thought about it. As you spend time in grade, you earn stripes by meeting certain goals and passing tests applicable to your assigned duties. You have choices of work crew you might want to join along the way and over time.
A few days after I arrived, the ship left port, headed to sea, and dieseled around for a couple days while all the new crew learned their jobs. Since we were going to Vietnam there were another 100 sailors aboard ship then during peace time that needed to be trained that usually wouldn’t be there. We dropped anchor a couple times to learn how without getting ourselves killed and practiced ‘General Quarters’ drills twice a day where we would man the guns at our assigned stations. (Years later I worked with a guy who had had his lower leg ripped off when the chain from a dropping anchor whipped around it).
Then there was a lot of work involving handling lines over the side and on deck…seamanship training. Meanwhile the CPO’s were watching and trying to decide where all the new deck hands would work out best for the ship. The ocean was very calm at that time of year and I didn’t get seasick at all so I hoped that I’d gotten that all out of my system. The year before I’d spent 3 weeks aboard a destroyer that sailed to Hawaii and back, much of the first 3 days I spent puking over the railing. And this ship, being so much bigger then the destroyer, thankfully, didn’t rock as much.
After 3 days of practicing our seamanship, we returned to San Diego and docked at a drydock. This type of drydock had huge doors that closed after the ship entered and then the water was pumped out so the thing rose in the water and lifted us up a few feet. The hull was still in around 3 feet of water. I was assigned to the ‘side cleaning’ work crew. Those newbies amongst our group, including myself, would be lowered, 6′ at a time, over the side where we had to work cleaning or painting the side of the ship. Starting at the top, at 30′ above the water, and working down, while standing on a 9″ wide wooden platform shaped like a capital ‘I’. There were lines attached to either end of the platform and then tied off to the railing on the ships deck. Then another line would be tied to the worker, wearing a maywest, and a forth line attached to the paint bucket, or washbucket as the work required. Two of the I’s short sides would be up against the ships hull and there would be enough room to sit on the platform with your legs dangling. The first few days of doing that job were scary until you got use to it. I had a slight fear of heights so it took me a couple weeks to become comfortable. By that time I had worked all the way down to close to water level so if I had fallen, the drop wouldn’t have hurt much. What you would do is clean or paint the entire area you could reach from the platform, then hang on for dear life to the lines on one side while the other line was detached from the railing, the platform dropped down on one side, flipped over, then dragged up to level again and the line tied off. Then you could go back to work on the new section. When you reached the end of your section, one end of the platform would be dropped down 6′, you would have to slip, slide & crawl down to the other end, screaming inside your head the entire time, get yourself stable, then the other side would be dropped down to level. During break time I often ran into the crews quarters to retrieve something and it was during one of those times that I had my hearing damaged by the incredibly loud air hammers above deck chipping paint. There must have been 20 of the hammers all going at once, pounding on the metal deck above. Hearing protection was available for me if I wanted to wander somewhere back near the fantail and find it. It wasn’t high on the Navy’s priority list. I wish now that it had been ordered…
For the first two months or so I worked as a lowly deck hand and with that experience of shipboard life behind me, I decided that I’d be happy with working as a signalman and a few weeks after arriving at the ship, I applied to join that group. The main reason I wanted to join that crew was because I’d get to be up on the bridge often. I didn’t want a job where I’d be below decks or on a lower deck where you couldn’t see much of the sea.