Ready on the left, ready on the right, ready on the firing line

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

I was born in Vienna, Austria in July 1952. I am eligible for the Presidency and have a letter from the Library of Congress to support my campaign, if necessary.

As a member of the 796 Military Police Battalion, my father opted, actually begged, for this European assignment rather than be ordered to Korea in 1951. He found himself in this predicament because he used his GI Bill to attend Loyola University in New Orleans where he joined the Army ROTC program for a few extra bucks. The GI Bill benefit resulted from his service as a Signalman Third Class on a sub-chaser in 1944 and 1945. He enlisted on his 17th birthday because his mother, my grandmother, would not permit him to enlist any sooner. He never dreamed that he have to serve in combat after college having been mustered out of the Navy in 1945.

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One of his initial assignments as an MP was to supervise the firing-line at Camp Gordon, Georgia qualifying infantrymen for their own assignments to Korea. He described with some relish and a good deal of relief of the early weeks of that duty where the men were not doing particularly well in their qualifications as Marksman, Sharpshooter and Expert. Apparently, the word amongst the troops was that if you didn’t qualify, you would not be sent to Korea. This backlog was such a problem that his superior officer counseled him that if the scores didn’t improve ASAP that he’d find someone who would improve the situation, reminding my dad that MPs were needed “over there as well.” Dad convened immediately his own rifle range staff which consisted of senior enlisted men, most with combat experience in WW2. Threatening and cajoling, my father was in desperate need for an immediate program improvement process. One senior sergeant, without much explanation, volunteered that he’d ‘take care of the problem.’

The next morning as the long line of shooters adopted their prone positions, aiming at the raised targets down range, ready to commence fire, my dad observed the senior sergeant pause from his inspection walk down the line and literally kick one of the prone-positioned shooters out of ranks. This sergeant took his place on the line in a prone position like the rest of the shooters. As the firing commenced, sarge shot bullseyes into the targets of those suspected of purposely underperforming. My dad described the responses as stunned and immediate. If a shot was wide of the mark, the sarge shot through the center of the target and the score was announced as a bullseye by the spotter. At first, the firing infantryman was made incredulous by the outcome; after several repeated episodes, he would inevitably zero-in his weapon and fire with purpose. The word spread rapidly up and down the firing line that no matter if you qualified or not, the Army was sending you to Korea.The scores improved immediately; the daily and weekly through-put goals were achieved; there was never such a problem again.

Of the innumerable evolutions during our Naval Academy Plebe summer: PEP, forming-up in T-Court, lectures in Mahan Hall, marching in circles through and around the Yard, memorizing rates, chow call, folding laundry, the sailing and YP classes, my favorite or the one that I remember the fondest compared to all of the ones that I despised was the two weeks on the pistol and rifle range. I have no idea today where those facilities were located, although I recall that a daily Mike boat ride was part of the program. I qualified as an expert with the .45 pistol and as a sharpshooter with the M-1 rifle. Irks me to this day that I was but one errant shot away from being a double expert. My left eyebrow aches thinking about it.

Six or seven years later after that summer of 1970, I had the collateral responsibility as the security officer aboard the USS Joseph Strauss, DDG-16. We may or may not have had nuclear capable weapons aboard, and we sure had plenty of procedures for protecting them in case that we did. These procedures included qualifying 20 to 25 sailors of every above decks rating, e.g. no engineers, as weapons-carrying members of the Security Alert Team (SAT) and Back-up Alert Force (BAF). This is when I-realized how privileged that we were on the rifle and pistol ranges at Annapolis.

Larry Sobel was my partner for the .45 pistol qualification. Our instructor was enlisted Navy, tall, laconic, friendly, patient and capable. His match-quality weapons were polished, well-balanced, easy to handle with the smoothest of trigger mechanisms. I learned this because the standard issue from the Joseph Strauss’s armory were none of these. So good did Larry and I become at handling and firing these weapons, that on one live-fire for time and grade, something like a full clip of 7 rounds in 20 to 30 seconds, before the target rotated 90 degrees to present the bullseye, Sobel fired, hitting the side of the target, the thin edge initially presented. You could see where the bullet hit the ‘side’ of the target.

I fired and fire a side-arm in my right hand. I fire a rifle from my left shoulder. I also bat right and throw left; I play golf right and putt left. One office colleague commented, “you may not be left-handed, but you certainly act that way!”

In the second week of our range qualification, after the days of fam-fire and clicking-in and learning how to sight, breathe and squeeze, we got our chances to fire the 7.62mm rounds from these gas-operated, air-cooled, semi-automatic shoulder weapons. An odd recollection is that we’d each possessed such a weapon, unlocked in our rooms for 4 years, and never again fired an M-1 while at the Academy.

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Given the expert instruction and the match quality of the weapon, hitting the target down-range at 200 yards was merely a plug N chug exercise. Sight, breathe and squeeze. Except my routine was sight, breathe and squeeze, ejected heated cartridge hits me about an inch above my left eye since I shot left-handed. I am able to point to the spot right now. Somehow in the heat of the qualifying competition and having had dozens of hot, brass casings ricochet off of my brow, I was not the expert as I was with the .45. I even tried a clip or two from the right shoulder without satisfactory results. I qualified as a Sharpshooter.

Like everybody else, I wore the blue marksman ribbons with the E for expert and the S for sharpshooter next to my National Defense Ribbon on my service dress uniforms. After a year or so aboard ship, I stopped wearing them as I didn’t feel as though I was still the same shooter that I was 5 or 6 years ago on the range.

I mentioned in a previous note that I transferred on sudden notice, like 30 days, from San Francisco to the Joseph Strauss in Pearl Harbor to relieve as Anti Submarine Warfare Office, the Brigade Commander from our plebe year. Let’s just say that his files and records and the overall condition of his nuclear weapons safety and security program were not of 6 striper quality. I believe the material and administrative conditions as well as the pending annual inspection of the ship’s Nuclear Weapons program, NWTPI, caused the sudden back-problems that necessitated his medical transfer from the ship.

I was also in charge of the ship security force which we tested daily by issuing M-14s, riot shotguns and .45 caliber pistols. Live ammo, of course.

To maintain morale amongst these security teams, e.g. have them fire the weapons in case, well, they ever had to fire the weapons, we reserved the naval base pistol range one morning. We signed-out weapons and ammunition from the Strauss’s small arms locker, 15 or so sailors and I headed by launch to the Halawa Pistol Range. Nothing dramatic occurred except that the safest place to hide would have been as near the targets as possible. These .45 caliber weapons were old, stiff and out of calibration. Targeting was accomplished by shooting first to see where the round landed, then walking the rounds to the fixed target. These were not the match grade weapons of Plebe Summer and I was not an expert instructor. A testament to the standard issue M1911 was that despite the nearly terrifying short-comings in the marksmanship of the shooters, I don’t recall that a single weapon jammed or was otherwise required to be taken of service.

We returned to Strauss, returned the weapons to the Duty Gunner’s Mate and decided that the riot shotguns would probably be the weapon of choice if we truly needed to deploy tour security teams.

To pass time and enliven a Sunday afternoon while peddling across the Pacific on deployment to Japan, we slowed to headway only, tossed the large bags of accumulated cook-out trash over the fantail, laid-out the M-60 machine gun – the ultimate weapon in our nuclear weapons security arsenal – and gave those huge bags of paper plates, plastic forks and hamburger debris the full nine yards. You are correct. The safest place to hide would have been sitting on top of this trash as the belt-fed, high velocity 7.62 mm rounds sailed into the far distance or shot-up the water just aft outboard of the life-lines. Would have been no problem for that Army sergeant.

Stifts Kaserne 4

You Can Take the Man Out of the Navy….. Part 1 of 2

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

My body clock still on London time after a week in England, looking out of my Durham office window into London-like weather, I consider a drive to NC State University for the Change of Command ceremony of the local Naval ROTC unit. 4pm. Traffic. Not attractive. I persuade myself that I would be better off out of the office. Added benefit is that I would get to see all of the Navy lieutenants in one location. Plus, the incoming commanding officer is a graduate of the Naval Academy, class of 1987, and as VP of the USNA Alumni Association I’d like to begin on his good side.

I arrive as the Star Spangled Banner begins, sit in the back row amidst the young, young officers and younger midshipmen and enjoy the quiet, the trip down memory lane and even a few of the leadership bon mots from the podium.

Staring down a file of heads in the audience. I recognize a face in the VIP section at the front. As I just returned from a trans-Atlantic flight and see plenty of familiar faces at this stage of life, I presumed that I’ve known many and many look alike. This VIP profile resembles Bill Tucker, my Navy, USS Joseph Strauss DDG-16, roommate. Uncanny the resemblance. At the near end of the ceremony, the arriving Commanding Officer in his own remarks of welcome thanks his parents, his family and his dear community and church neighbors, Bill and Martha. It’s them! Bill Tucker and Martha Ratchford. They comprise one of the most remarkable coincidences of my life.

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Newport, Rhode Island June 1972. My third summer at the Naval Academy. The training program for that summer is to spend a couple of weeks each with the destroyer Navy in Newport, Rhode Island; the submarine service in Groton, Connecticut; the Marines in Quantico, Virginia; Navy Air in Pensacola, Florida.

In Newport, my Academy friend, Yorke Warden, and I head to the Officer’s Club for a Thursday night mixer of some sort. Not really for midshipmen and there are girls (older) and the drinks are inexpensive. The band plays Dixie. Why, I do not remember. Three people in the crowd stand from their tables to cheer the anthem of the Old South: me, Yorke and a slightly built guy at the adjacent table. Rallying the minority, we sit together to discuss our common bond. I’m from New Orleans and Mr. 3, introduced as Tommy Ratchford, is from Pensacola, Florida.

Tommy is a lot of fun; in Newport to qualify as a Navy legal officer (JAG Corps); and generously invites Yorke and me to have dinner with his family when our training takes us to Pensacola. In between, he helped us to call a list of local girls who are invited to US Coast Guard Academy dances in hopes that we might find a date or two. I remember that Charlie Cannon and I got dates from this list. The parents went along; the girls were sisters and pretty. Very cordial. Fun. Nothing happened. Not what we were looking for.

Yorke and I contact Mrs. Ratchford as we arrive in Pensacola. Invited to a restaurant dinner including her daughter, Martha, and family friends, we have a memorable time. Lots of laughing and friendly discussion. I did not meet Mr. Ratchford and learned that he was the PT Boat Squadron Corpsman who treated John Kennedy after his PT-109 collided with a Japanese destroyer.

I graduate from Annapolis in June 1974. Assigned to a destroyer in San Francisco, I spend 12 months in the Bay Area. In early December of 1975, I am assigned to the Joseph Strauss, DDG 16, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii just as the ship prepared to deploy for 6 months to the South China Sea. My quarters were above one of the two boiler rooms and outfitted with 6 bunks or racks in the space known as the Junior Officer Locker. Hot, crowded and a zoo of constant activity around the clock. In late December, another junior officer reports aboard, Bill Tucker of Pensacola, Florida. He tried to qualify as a pilot and despite his exceptional balance and inner ear equilibrium, he opted-out of the training and was sent to the fleet to join the Strauss as the Main Propulsion Assistant, MPA.

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Bill and I hung-out both on the ship and ashore. One evening, I learned that he opted for a ship far from the East Coast Fleet so that he could have some time and distance from a relationship that wasn’t working out. Then or later and not much later, I mentioned to Bill that I knew one family in Pensacola who had been so kind to me during a midshipman visit, the Ratchfords. He stared at me and replied, ‘that’s the family of the girl which didn’t work-out.’ Oh!

Bill and I had many personal and Navy adventures over two years before I transferred from the Strauss to my final assignment in Washington, DC. We played golf in Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Hawaii. We roomed together once that we were allowed to break-out of that ever-warm JO Locker. He drove me around in his Datsun 240Z. We played on the ship’s softball team. We tried to date every bar-girl in every bar in every port from South Korea to Hong Kong to Subic Bay to Taiwan to Yokosuka. We patrolled the beaches of Honolulu on our free days.

The Strauss was in terrible material condition due to its overuse on the gun-line of Vietnam; her engineering plant was based on a complex system of 1200 pounds of steam pressure. Powerful and difficult to maintain. On one cruise, we hobbled overseas, only to break-down in Subic Bay. The repairs required 100+ days in port, much too long for a crew of 300 young men. But our wardroom softball team got so good that we won the Naval Base championship, including a defeat of the traveling Army team of semi-pro players.

Bill and I had one last dose of liberty in Tokyo with Miki Marubayashi and Ako Shimomoto. I departed the Strauss in Tokyo Harbor in February of 1978. As Ship’s Admin Officer, Bill signs my orders.

I suppose that Bill and I exchanged a few letters and not much more. My belief is that we all wanted to put all of that DDG-16, Pearl Harbor, mysteries of Asia well behind us.

Our paths continued to divert. Divorced, living in an 800 sq ft apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina in the winter of 1994, I received a call from Bill. He was thrilled to inform me that he and Martha Ratchford of Pensacola, Florida found one another one again. They planned to marry nearly 20 years after our introduction in the JO Locker aboard the Strauss. Life is strangely wonderful, indeed.

I never heard from nor communicated with Bill and Martha since that telephone call until last night when I looked down the aisle and across the room to see someone who looked like him.