A) Spring 1965

A) Spring 1965

There’s the main gate at the old Naval base of Treasure Island:

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Just beyond the gate and that white building, (the old Navy Admin building), there is a Christian church. One fine Sunday morning I was walking by the church on the opposite side of the street when a Lt. JG (Lieutenant Junior Grade) stops me. I salute and stand at attention. We know each other vaguely from shared work details around the base. He then proceeds to ramble on how I’m suppose to be in church, how it’s good for my soul and other crap. While he’s talking I think “Whoa, what if I was a Jew, would he, could he, be ordering me to a christian church?”. When he says, “I think I’ll order you to church, sailor”, I say, “No sir, I don’t think you can sir”. He starts sputtering, eventually ending the conversation with “Well, you certainly NEED church”. To which I answer, “No sir, I don’t think so sir”. He turned and stomped off. You can get away with most anything if you say sir. When I told this story to friends later, they say that it’s good I didn’t go into the church because it surely would have burst into flames. I disagree.

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There’s my old barracks, in the shot directly above. While I was there waiting for my orders, I would muster out in front of the building at 7am with everyone else. Then the CPO (Chief Petty Officer) would ask for volunteers for various jobs all over the base. I’d wait until a large group had agreed to some job and then, when they were marching back up the stairs to get ready, I’d follow them into the barracks, and right out the back door. Then I’d spend the rest of the day just goofing off. They called me ‘Super Skate’ because I was always ’skating’ out of duty. Never peeled one potato. The day I got caught was the day I got my ship orders so I lucked out and didn’t get a ‘court marshal’.

When I was here, I was waiting for my assignment to a ship. I’d volunteered for Viet Nam and they were having trouble finding me a spot so I spent several weeks here. The year before I’d gone down to San Diego for boot camp, I’d been here for Electronics school (I flunked out – it was too fast for me, I needed a slower pace). While here, I became a member of the “US Naval Military Precision Drill Team of Treasure Island California” (that’s really it’s name), which is the main reason I flunked out, too much time with them practicing drills instead of studying. We practiced after school and on weekends went and marched in parades. One parade we were invited to was in San Francisco. We only had two speeds, slow & slower, and when we did a drill, that also took time. The parade officials were yelling at our drillmaster but each time we stopped in front of a crowd and did a drill, people would go nuts! Screaming, standing ovations, riotous applause, the whole bit. The officials would lay off us for a few more blocks. Eventually we got to the reviewing stand and while we did our drill, the news people were looking for quotes from members of government and all. The stand had the SF mayor, US & state dignitaries, big wigs & family members. Since we had been causing such a ruckus with the crowd & the officials, the press swarmed around the stands asking for quotes about us just after we had done a special drill in front of them all. The mayor’s 22-year-old daughter happened to be asked what she thought of our drill team. She called us a “moving sex machine” that quote was in the nightly news and appeared in nearly all the next days’ papers so the drill team staff had many phone interviews. Then just after we had been reviewed, the parade officials kicked us off the parade route for marching to slowly. But we made the news. Hah! It would be cool if someone that works at a SF paper could look that up for me and email me a link…yes, very cool.

Weeks later, we were invited to be the ‘entertainment’, along with a band, at a party for Admiral Nimitz. This was after we had been on several trips to local area parades, each time either winning or almost winning the drill team contests. During that time, we also developed several unique and thrilling drills that just wowed the crowds. I’m pretty sure that we only received one 3rd place trophy. All the others were 1st or 2nd, the majority 1st place. We tossed the 3rd place trophy.

The party was his birthday party, I believe, so we would have performed for him near Feb. 24th, 1965. We performed at the Hilton in downtown SF on an upper floor, in a large room filled with friends of Adm. Nimitz. Since he was such a respected navy guy, as you would expect, the place was filled with naval officers and their wives and families. I think around 500 people all sitting around tables surrounding a large dance floor in the middle of the room, bandstand at one end.

We staged out in the hallway while they finished dinner and before the band was to play. Several famous senior officers came out to give us encouragement and calm our nerves (we had never performed in such a small space before, before such a distinguished crowd, and most of us were teenagers). At the end of the dance floor was a raised bandstand. We entered, in our dress blues, perfectly pressed, with spit shined and polished shoes and rifles since the team prided itself on such things. With our pieces (rifles – plugged so they couldn’t be fired), clothes and shoes being perfect, we entered through double doors marching four columns of four abreast.

We had practiced modified drills, since we usually marched outdoors, that we could do in such a tight space. Just after starting in that small space, we did a drill where we rapidly drop our pieces from our shoulders down to waist level, WHAM, into our palms, like slicing the air with a sword. Then we get it to where we can slam the butt on the floor twice, drag it up and spin it like a propeller before dropping it on our shoulder. Our second drill, with many of the same moves, was very close to the bandstand, I was directly facing the drummer and was around 12″ away. He started sweating as we did our drill, knowing that he was probably in the wrong place. We never talked during a drill, using numbers to communicate. I expected a shouted ‘ONE’ from the drillmaster which was the ‘everyone freeze’ command since I didn’t seem to have enough room for the sudden and sword like arc my piece would make during the maneuver…I thought I could whack the guy on the head, if I wasn’t sharp. But the drillmaster (DM) trusted me and during the drill, stone-faced, I watched as beads of sweat formed on the drummer’s forehead. When I got to the part where I slam the piece down into my palm, I pulled the butt of it way back and just caught the end of the barrel in my palm, just missing him by an inch or two. The drummer was visibly relieved. (Remember that he was navy too, he was standing at attention, and he wasn’t supposed to cut & run). Anyway, we did several drills to thunderous applause, and exited after about 15 minutes of drilling to take a break (very hot in there with all those people, very loud too with the applause and us in our tapped shoes and what with banging the butts of our pieces on the hardwood floor several times). When we returned to the hall, it was to do two very special and spectacular drills for Nimitz.

We had practiced our hearts out…since we knew how special a guy he was and our respect level for him was so high. We marched onto the dance floor, four rows by four columns, and did a rather nifty drill where the columns do a syncopated drill with pieces twirling and being slammed on the floor and such. After that, we took a couple steps and needed to do a turn around. I wasn’t the best at this, and when we took two steps we were supposed to stop, I took another step. That put me right at the edge of a table with two officers and their wives. My next drill move was supposed to be to slam my piece into my palm, do some fancy drill moves, then spin the piece. I knew that I didn’t have room to do the spin without hitting the table, so I shouted ‘ONE’ in mid step. Every one on the team, except the drillmaster, froze in position. My piece is held by both hands, across the middle of my body at a 45 degree angle, and my next move is suppose to be a twirl of the piece, and I’m in mid-stride. The drillmaster matches over to where I’m standing. Makes a big show of looking my hazardous position and me over. Whispers in my ear, “May I touch your piece”. I say, “Yes”. He removes my piece from my hands. Then he barks an order to me alone to resume the drill where I left off…sans piece. I resume. Since we are a precision drill team this means I behave as though my piece is still there, eventually, my forearm is parallel with the floor, my hand appearing to cradle the missing piece and I stop. He orders me to ignore the following portion of the drill (we had single digit orders for this sort of thing). Now that I’m at attention, he turns to the rest of the team and orders just them to resume. Meanwhile I’m standing still as ordered, facing straight ahead, into the crowd. At just what he deems the right moment, he shouts ‘ONE’ and the team instantly stops in mid drill. Then he turns his attention to me. I’m facing away from the team and at attention with my arm positioned as though I was holding my piece. He looks at me, looks over at the squad, and looks back at me. Marches over to a naval officer, asks him to hold my piece, and then returns to me. Wraps his arms around my waist, picks me up, walks me over to the squad and plops me in place. Then orders me alone to commence a drill, when I get to the right part, he barks ‘ONE’ and then returns my piece to my hands to a roar of laughter, applause and murmurs of approval. Then he orders the entire team to proceed. We are now all in sync to a roar of approval from the crowd. Now we have turned completely around and we’re all 16 of us marching slowly to towards the bandstand. We had just three steps to take before we started our most spectacular drill.

When the DM barks the command, the outer two columns immediately stop and began a drill while the inner two columns march one more step. They then stop and began a drill sequence. If you can see this in your mind, picture 16 young men, in dress navy blues, with white spats and impossibly shiny shoes and guns (pieces) while we all do a drill in cadence but seemingly at odds, inner columns with the outer. The nature of the drill routine is to always be in cadence and during this drill two columns would always be slamming the butts of their pieces on the wood floor while the other two were doing some other maneuver. Then it would revert to the other columns. Very satisfying noises.

Suddenly, after we have done this entire routine at odds while in cadence, we turn to face the other columns. So now we have the two outer columns facing the inner two columns. We are all now in sequence and doing the same moves during the drill with the inner columns one-step beyond where the outer columns are positioned. The last sequence is; remove piece from shoulder and drop it over the chest to the left hand, swing piece so it is straight up and down in front of the body, move the right hand to the upper portion of the piece and grab, drop the left hand smartly to the side while simultaneously with the right drop the piece to the floor and tap the floor smartly twice in cadence. Pull the piece back up over the chest and grab with left, drop the right hand to your side then back up under the piece. Remove the left hand and…(this is the big finish and happens all in cadence, all 16 of us at the same instant, it’s called a Queen Anne Salute)…spin the piece 360 degrees into our left hands while dropping to a one knee stance. The four columns mesh into two columns as the shiny and chromed pieces spin towards each other, like airplane propellers. Sort of like shuffling two packs of cards in a blender, only cooler. And with spinning, flashing guns. Then, when we all get our knees on the floor, we precisely and smartly move all 16 pieces so the butts are pressed to the center of our chests and the barrels are all pointing at a 45 degree angle up to the ceiling, our left hands resting on our left legs (our right knees on the floor).

Whew, we did it. You can’t imagine all the things that can go wrong with a drill like this. It was a new drill for us, it had only been invented a few weeks before, we’d only performed it in public 3 times, we had foreshortened the movement to account for the small space so that was new too, and most of us were teenagers not accustomed to that kind of performance pressure. But we did it and did it perfectly in every possible way. While we were all marveling at that, we were getting a standing ovation. Most of us said later that we didn’t even hear it for a while, we were so astonished at the beauty of the drill in that setting and at doing it perfectly…in practice, we had screwed it up many times.

The standing ovation went on for several minutes. When it quieted down, we continued with the end of that spectacular drill and smartly marched out of the room to the sound of continuous applause that went on long after the doors closed.

While we were out there in the hall amazed at our success, with the DM slamming me on the back for my screw up that everyone in the audience loved, Adm. Nimitz (and some of his staff) came out and congratulated us his own bad personal self. What an honor. We were all so stunned, I can’t remember if he shook my hand or not…seems he did. Later we were invited into the hall where we mingled and met with many senior officers who were amazed that they really didn’t know much about their own Navy drill team.

And then, sadly, I was sent to San Diego to meet my ship. I wouldn’t meet any of the people from the drill team for months. But it’s something I’ll never forget. I’m pretty sure I can still do most of the drills. I know I can still do a Queen Anne Salute.

Click here to read some history of Adm. Nimitz.

“Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz died at his home on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay on February 20, 1966. He would have been 81 years old on the day of his funeral at Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno. He was the last surviving five-star admiral.”

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One Response to A) Spring 1965

  1. David Cochran says:

    I was there in 1950 soon after the Korean War started for nine months of ET school. I joined the drill team to avoid watches. I loved the practicing and the parades, we always got to meet with the whatever Queens and their princess runner-ups all around the bay area. The Halfmoon Bay Matadors were our main competition.

    Ahh, yeah, I’d forgotten about getting to meet all those Queens & princesses. But you’re right, we did get out of lots of boring details by being on the team. I got hooked when a small group of them came by our barracks and did a couple drills. So my main reason for joining them was because of the cool drills.

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