Friday, January 15, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 16- Leave and My First Ship

With orders in hand I went home for 30 days leave. I was scheduled to join the USS Neosho, AO-143 (a fleet oiler) in Cadiz , Spain on January 14th.

Nothing much had changed in Brooklyn during the time I was gone. The same people were still on the same corners. I became aware for the first time of Faulkners’ credo “You can’t go home anymore.”

The most memorable thing that occurred during my leave was a chance meeting with Mark Shorrs’ mother Estelle on Kings Highway. I was at H and A Foods paying a visit when I ran into her. She was very surprised to see that I had joined the Navy. She also had some astonishing news to tell me. Mark had married Lois Lefkowitz, the girl who lived across the street from him since they were kids!

What made this discovery even more astonishing was the fact that I had seen Mark for the first time in 3 years just before leaving for boot camp. After high school we had gone down separate paths, he went to college and I worked and generally did nothing productive. He had been working at Ripley Clothing on Kings Highway but we rarely saw one another.

When we did meet we attempted to catch up on what each of us was doing. He said he was getting married to Lois Lefkowitz. I didn’t believe him as they had been fighting since they were 14! And when I told him I was joining the Navy he just looked at me and said, “After 3 years of not seeing each other you give me this bullshit?” And we walked away- saying we’d see each other soon, which of course we didn’t.

So now Estelle Shorr was telling me that they were married and telling them that I was in the Navy! And that’s when we started being friends again. They had moved to Canarsie and I went to visit them. It was like no time had passed and our friendship was renewed.

Things at my parents house were still the same old crap. Nothing I did pleased them and they annoyed the hell out of me. So I began staying at Mark and Lois’ place whenever possible. Eventually they bought a house in Belle Harbor, a residential area in Rockaway, Queens. Mark and I had gone there with my Uncle Irving one day when we were about 17 and Mark fell in love with the area. Little did I ever dream that he would eventually buy a home there.

Anyway, leave finally ended and I was dropped off at JFK by my Dad on January 14th, 1977 to catch a seaplane to Philadelphia. From there I would catch a plane to Madrid, Spain. From there I would catch another plane to Cadiz and the USS Neosho. Things didn’t quite work out.

The seaplane couldn’t land in Philadelphia due to ice so we turned back to NY and I got a commuter flight to Philadelphia. My plane to Spain was late so I had no trouble catching it. It was a 757 I think. It was the first time I had been on a plane with a lounge and an observation deck above the passenger area. To top it all off there were so many empty seats that it was possible to take the 6 center seats and fold the armrests up to create a bed! There were plenty of pillows and blankets to use. All in all it was a great flight.

Landing in Madrid was an eye opener. There were citrus trees everywhere. I had just picked an orange when I heard a clicking sound- like a safety being switched off. I turned and faced a Spanish soldier wielding a machine gun and jabbering at me in Spanish. I wish I had a picture of myself as I tried to re-attach that orange to the tree! Even the soldier had to crack a smile as he lowered his weapon and motioned for me to walk away. I thought to myself- “Toto- we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

The plane to Cadiz arrived and we flew to Rota, the Naval Station on the Atlantic Coast. The Neosho was gone and I spent 5 days in the Transit Barracks. Orders finally arrived for me to join the ship in Augusta Bay, Sicily and so I flew there on a Navy C-130.

There are no seats on these cargo planes so we sat in cargo nets and dined on “boxed lunches.” These are cardboard boxes that each contain a bologna sandwich, an apple and a container of warm milk. Get hungry enough and it’s actually pretty good. We were hungry enough.

The plane landed at Siracusa, a Naval Air Station on Sicily and about an hour or so away from our destination of Augusta Bay. At the Siracusa airport I had my first real Italian food- Rigatoni in meat sauce. It was fantastic! And cheap!

From Siracusa we boarded a bus that would take us all to the Neosho, which was waiting with boilers on line to get back to sea. We arrived at 11 that night and were housed in Sick Bay until berthing arrangements could be worked out. Some of us- most- were going to be transferred to other ships. There were only 2 of us assigned to the Neosho.

I fell fast asleep in Sick Bay with the sounds of whistles and bells and people running all around. I wondered what was going on so late at night and whether this was a typical night aboard. Then I fell into a deep sleep.

I woke to the sound of a Bosuns Pipe and the 1MC crackling “Reveille, all hands heave out and trice up. Breakfast on the mess decks.” I got up, washed and went in search of the mess deck.

This was my first ship and it seemed huge! I found the mess deck and had my first meal aboard. French toast, bacon and tea. There were lots of foods to choose from, like fried bologna, eggs, pancakes, potatoes and everything else from fresh fruits to soda! I ate and then decided to look around the ship. I asked someone how to get to the main deck. They told me to step out that hatch at the rear of the mess deck. So I did.

I was dumbfounded, shocked and awed! Unknown to me, we had left Augusta Bay immediately after I stepped on board the night before. All around me was sky and ocean in a big circle! There was no land in sight and the sky was like a dome over my head. This was the first time I had ever been out of sight of land. Every science lesson I had ever had suddenly jelled in my head and I recognized that we are indeed a sphere in the midst of something larger. And consequently we, as people, were quite insignificant.

One of the first things a new crew member is required to do is to work on the mess decks, in the scullery or in the Officers Ward Room as a waiter. I was tapped to work in the Ward Room. This was like an insult to me. So I was determined to get out of this assignment.

Ships at sea roll and pitch. Serving food is not an easy task. I decided on a short course of action taking advantage of nature and the ships roll. The first meal I was required to serve was lunch. I brought the bowls of soup to the Officers table with my thumb in the soup as if I were having trouble holding the bowl. When this was called to my attention I replied not to worry as the soup was not hot. When the steaks were served I held one hand beneath each plate with my other hand on top of the steak itself. When I was admonished for this I replied that I didn't want the steak to fall off the plate- again. So my Wardroom experience, by design, was short lived and I went to work in the crews galley as an assistant to the cook for 5 weeks.

After mess cooking was completed I was assigned to a Deck Division. This is the part of the crew that takes care of the ships rigging, winches, cargo gear and mooring lines. They also are responsible for painting the ship, stripping it and painting it again in a never ending process to battle the salt erosin from the sea. Deck Division also stands watch, manning the helm,lookout positions and the ships small boats. We had a 24 foot Captains Gig and two 40 foot utility boats which were primarily used to ferry the crew back and forth from anchorage to the ports we called on. And on an oiler like Neosho we also manned the "rigs."

I was asigned to Rig 8 as a line handler for the refueling hose. A short lesson is in order here to explain what we did with these rigs.

When ships are at sea it is vital, in the military sense, that they be kept "topped off" with fuel so as to allow them to stay at sea longer. This also applies to the delivery of food and ammunition. In the 1970's the United States had fewer ships than the Soviets but we could keep ours at sea longer due to our expertise in the art of Underway Replenishment.

Ships like the Neosho are contacted by Task Group Commanders to meet at certain positions and refuel the Task Group. This requires ships to come alongside the oiler and carefully maintain course and speed while running 150 feet alongside one another at about 15 knots. The forces of hull suction and bank cushion are constantly at work- trying to throw you off course and cause a collision. Now a days this is all done by computer. Not when I was in. We had a course to maintain but it takes a special helmsman to "feel" the ship and counter those forces to avoid a collision.

After taking station a thin nylon line is sent over to the other ship by means of a specially fitted M-14. The end of this line is attached to a larger rope and then a steel cable. When the receiving ship gets the cable it is attached to a padeye welded on the deck. At this point the oiler "tensions" that line by means of a Hydraulic Ram Tension Rig. This raises the line on the oilers side, enabling a hose on "trolleys" to roll across to the receiving ship. It is then "seated" and the pumping of fuel begins. The whole time this is happening there are 5 guys on winches controllong the tension of the steel cable and the trolleys that hold the hose. Too much slack and the hose goes in the water and the rig is lost. Too little slack and the cable will part with a supersonic crack when 15,000 pounds of tension is exceeded. The potential for damage to the ships as well as the crew are very high. But this is what gave us our superiority over the Russians during the Cold War. The Russians still had to stop and refuel from astern, making them sitting ducks for an attack.

So I was at sea at last- something I had dreamt of since I sat on the beach as a child, wondering what was beyond the horizon. Now I knew.

We visited so many places in that time it would be hard to recount them all. One of my favorite port calls was in Kalamai, Greece. We would be the last US Navy ship allowed in that port for over 10 years after our visit. I have always maintained that this was the result of a mis-understanding. Here is what happened.

We went ashore from our anchorage using the 40 foot utility boats. When we arrived in this small Greek town we were a bit disappointed at the lack of whores, drugs and a proper "red light" district. There was no understanding on our part that Greece had just come out of a long period of dictatorship. The Beatles had been banned in 1967 along with alot of other things, so really this was a clash of 2 different worlds with neither side prepared.

Shortly after arriving ashore we discovered Ouzo- a clear and opiated liquor to which most Americans are not accustomed. Now American sailors tend to go ashore in groups- African American with African American, Hispanic with Hispanic, Whites with Whites etc. This is where the misunderstanding comes into play.

Some of the Mexicans hung out with the African Americans. After a bit of Ouzo one Mexican started fighting with an African American crewmate. It is not uncommon for crew members to duke it out while drunk so no one thought much of it. But just then some of the Southern boys from our ship turned the corner and saw dark people fighting with not so dark people. And they jumped in on the lighter side. At this point the Greek Army Patrol rounded the corner and saw what they thought was a riot. So they stepped in with clubs flailing. And now here comes the American Shore Patrol-comprised of Neosho crew members. They saw the Greek Army beating up American sailors in the street. So they began to fight with the Greek Army.

At the same time there were bands of drunken sailors marauding through the streets making unwanted advances towards anything that walked, crawled or flew. I mean it- there was even a report of a rooster being molested that night! And the Mayors car was somehow driven off the pier. We were amazed at how long the lights stayed on under the water as the car sank.

The next few hours are a bit hazy but eventually the Greek Army and American Shore Patrol formed a wedge with one another and drove us all back using batons, to the fleet landing. There we were loaded into the 40 footers and after several trips we were back on board- still fighting.

The next morning the Mayor of Kalamai came out with the Greek Orthodox Bishop and ordered the Neosho to weigh anchor and depart. The Captain was furious with us and we were denied liberty for the next several ports. And, as I said, it would be more than 10 years before another American Navy ship would be allowed back into Kalamai. Chalk one up for our side!

During my time aboard Neosho I would make 2 voyages across the Atlantic to the "Med" seeing all of Southern Europe and even North Africa. We had a fire in after steering which left me very grateful for the firefighting training in bootcamp. We also learned how to load and fire the 3" - 58's that we carried along with the 5"- 30's. We even made a cruise down to Brazil, crossing the Equator and making me a Shellback.
On the day of the crossing the crewmembers that are already Shellbacks wake up extra early and haul down the flag, replacing it with a Jolly Roger. Then they roam the ship dumping sleeping "Pollywogs" from their berths and ordering them topside. The scene is remarkably like a Mutiny. The Shellbacks are dressed as pirates and it was hard to tell who was who under the disquises. The Pollywogs that do participate are then lined up on deck where they are made to crawl through a 40 foot chute filled with rotted garbage from the mess decks. It's best to be one of the first so you can avoid the puke of the others that go before you. You are then forced to crawl along the entire metal deck in the blazing sun barefoot and in shorts. While you are doing this you are beaten with cut off lengths of fire hose. And at the end you are required to kiss the Bosuns belly before the Chaplain annoints you with crude oil. And when it is all over you are a Shellback.

In April of 1978 the Neosho was sold to Military Sealift Command, a civilian component of the Navy. In order for the ship to undergo a "yard period" in drydock we had to "de-fuel" the ship. After pumping out all the fuel the tanks are aired out with huge fans and then men are sent into these tanks with dust pans and small buckets to scrape the sludge out by hand. You are actually working in a 60 foot by 60 foot tank which is 60 foot deep and still filled with visible fumes. It is a thankless task.

And so after 16 months aboard my first ship I was going to be transferred to another oiler. The USS Neosho was my training ground but the USS Milwaukee- AOR-2 would be my home for the next two and a half years. And she would remain in my heart forever.

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