LIFE IN THE NAVY
Lake-Lehman High School, I first thought of joining the Navy right after
graduation. Though I was near the top of my class and “Birdy” Johnson, the
counselor, HAD spoken to me of college, he spoke chiefly in terms of loans and
not scholarships. “Loans” were simply not attractive to a young man whose
home lacked running water and whose father worked for fifty cents an hour.
Pals Benson and Fred and I had resolved that all three of us would join
the Navy. I don’t think we were
imbued with an overwhelming sense of patriotism or a desire to not die in
Vietnam. The war, after all,
wasn’t yet a big item by our graduation in June, 1964.
it turned out, Benson was the only one who enlisted right after school.
Fred’s folks somehow came up with the funds and he attended Wilkes
College in Wilkes-Barre. I will eventually write more at length about how I won
a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to King’s College, just up the street
had a draft deferment all though college but, within two months of graduating
with a B. S. in Accounting, Uncle Sam came calling.
I was instructed to appear for a physical back at my old draft board in
Kingston, PA at 7 AM on a weekday morning in August, 1968.
I called them to say that such would be impossible, for I now lived in
Warminster, PA, outside of Philadelphia. Further,
my job as an Assistant National Bank Examiner took me all over the state and I
seldom knew my schedule for than two weeks in advance.
“Not to worry,” they told me, “We’ll arrange for your physical to
take place in Philadelphia.”
Philly AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examination) station stood on North
Broad Street, not far from Temple University and old Shibe Park where the A’s
used to play. In my first 22 years
on this planet, I had never really studied my feet or compared them to other
guys’ feet. I was delighted,
then, to see the doc make notes as he studied mine.
Curious, I asked what he saw and he replied that I had flat feet.
Sure ‘nuff, I have a sincere lack of arches!
“Yay!”, I said to myself, “they won’t draft me because I can’t
march!” No such luck.
I’ll never forget the words I heard from a grizzled old sergeant when
the doc was done. “Well, lad,
you’re fully qualified for induction.”
“Wonderful”, I replied, I’m going down to Willow Grove to talk to
the Navy!” “But, that’s a four-year hitch!”
“Yeah, but I could be dead inside of two years in your silly damned
war. If I go to ‘nam, I’m gonna
sit off the coast and go ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ with my big guns and the Cong
ain’t got no frogmen to swim out to get me.”
This conversation took place on an October day.
didn’t wait for a formal draft notice to arrive.
My departure for Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, IL, was set for just five
days before Christmas, on December 20,1968.
I got out of my furnished-apartment lease and hauled my meager belongings
back to my Dad’s house in Sweet Valley. I
left my car there, rode a bus back to Philly, and spent my last night of freedom
at a YMCA. The telephone rang
with my wake-up call and I promptly smashed my foot against the desk getting to
it in the strange room. Dang! I
thought I’d broken a toe. “Ohmigod!
Now the Navy WON’T take me and I’ll end up as cannon fodder
anyway!” Back at the AFEES, I
tried hard not to let them notice my limp and I apparently succeeded, for I was
sworn in and officially relinquished my civilian status.
event occurred immediately after I took the oath, an event that later turned out
to be quite hilarious. Social
agencies like the Red Cross and Salvation Army handed us personal-care items to
put into our “diddy” (or “ditty”) bags. (I was learning to pronounce
Navy lingo already even if I couldn’t yet spell it.)
They gave us toothbrushes, toothpaste, and, most notably, after shave
lotion that came in glass bottles. No
sooner had we arrived at boot camp than we told that glass bottles were UA
(which, I soon learned, stood for ”Unauthorized”.)
Boot camp was rife with stories of recruits who, unable to stand the strain, had
slit their wrists and the Navy wasn’t about to let us have any glass. We were given two choices: “Sh**can ‘em (throw them in
the trash) or donate them to Navy Relief.”
Not wanting to offend our new masters, to a man we donated them.
I later learned that, you guessed it; Navy Relief donates such items back
Red Cross and Salvation Army!
I have no doubt whatsoever that some bottles have been making the rounds
ever since bottles were invented.
We boarded a train bound for Chicago and, during the overnight journey, got
acquainted with our new “shipmates”. We
were a motley crew, of all races and social stations.
A good number were like me, college grads who had lost our deferments and
ducked the Army’s draft. The
young inner-city blacks were a curious lot, dressed in their finest suits and
ties. I think I wore sweatshirt and jeans.
The next morning, following a change of trains in Chicago, we arrived at boot
camp. We were issued uniforms and
assigned to decrepit old WW2-vintage wooden barracks where we sat for two weeks,
bored out of our minds. There was
no training going on where we were, for the trainers were all on holiday leave.
All day long, all we did was endlessly clean our living spaces and ponder
when we’d start doing some actual training.
The only relief from the boredom were the 2-hour “fire watches” we
stood around the clock. Given the wooden buildings in which we were housed, someone
had to stay awake at all times watching for fire.
We also got our “GI haircuts” which brought some of the more vain to
near tears. Heck, I didn’t mind;
I’d had a crewcut all the way up to high school.
Shortly after New Year’s Day, 1969, the Chief Petty Officers (CPO’s) who’d
ramrod our training companies began dropping by daily.
I imagine the Navy uses staggered starting dates so as to avoid crunch
time six weeks later when large masses would otherwise all graduate on the same
day and need transport to their new duty stations.
Each CPO had had a chance to review our skimpy personnel files and, based
on that limited info, chose the 70-or-so men who’d make up one company.
I didn’t get picked until about the 4th day.
Chief Smiley, it turned out, was a CMCG (Chief, Master Chief, Guns) and
we were his first boot company. We
were told to address him as “Mister” even though he wasn’t a real officer.
His status turned out well for us, for I think he was much more tolerant
than older and more experienced trainers may have been.
We fell in and followed him through a tunnel and “across the road” to
our new HQ. I recall being so far
out of shape that, halfway across, I was reduced to dragging the seabag
containing all my worldly possessions, thereby wearing a hole in it.
Our new barracks were just that; of modern cinder block construction, they were
two-story, H-shaped structures that held eight companies which, in toto, equaled
one battalion. We became Company
761 with our “sister” company, 762, housed across the first-floor hall from
us. Companies seldom went anywhere
alone; our “sister” company always traveled with us.
Chief Smiley immediately set about choosing his “officers.”
Within that first day, he interviewed us individually and made his
decisions, posting the results on the bulletin board. Not surprisingly, all of his “officers” were college
grads, as we made up about two-thirds of the company.
The RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) was an English major named Ted and
he was, thereafter, in charge of us, junior only to Chief Smiley.
Our Master At Arms, in charge of maintaining order, was a massive brute
whose name I don’t recall but I’m pretty sure he’d been a Phys Ed major.
I doubt that my GPA of 2.29 was the highest but, somehow, I was chosen to
be the Education Petty Officer. My
job would be to hold after-hours classes in the barracks to help our
academically-challenged shipmates. It
was announced that anyone failing the exit exam after six weeks would be
“recycled”, or assigned to a new company to begin training all over again.
We lucked out by having enlisted during the winter months.
Although we missed the
holidays with our families, we also missed any outdoor physical activities.
January and February at Great Lakes were quite icy and Mr. Smiley would
have been chastised had any of his charges fallen and been hurt.
Daily, we just marched back and forth to class with our sister company. Classroom sessions were interspersed with physical workouts
in a Quonset hut gymnasium structure. We
did some running on the tile floor but mostly, we’d just workout with our
“pieces”, old WW2-vintage dummy rifles with which we’d lift, bend, and
stretch. (Surprisingly, it worked
and I was able to carry my seabag all the way to a waiting bus six weeks later.)
There was also a bit of military stupidity.
We’d sometimes have to stand, perfectly stock still without batting an
eyelash, in the parade-rest position, for up to five minutes.
I guess there was some point to that but it totally escaped me.
With my flat feet, I was often compelled to shift my weight a wee bit; a
movement that the eagle-eyed overseers caught.
I apologized profusely to Mister Smiley for having caused our company to
be assessed demerits and, when he saw my total lack of arches, he understood.
He was a smart cookie and soon found a job for which I was far better
suited. On days when we were to be
tested on standing still, he’d leave me behind to guard our “compartment”.
Someone always had to be there and, with my excellent memory, I never
flubbed answering the “7 rules of a sentry” posed by overseers who’d visit
the compartment in the company’s absence.
I didn’t even have to go to graduation.
I had no family coming to see me graduate anyway, so I again guarded our
home away from home that day.
I must admit that I failed miserably in my duty as the Education Petty Officer.
I only managed to hold after-hours classes about twice a week.
I tried to impart knowledge the best way I knew how; by teaching memory
devices. “How many letters in the
word ‘port’? Four.
Same number as in the word ‘left.’
The left side of a ship is the port side!” I couldn’t make it any simpler but they simply couldn’t
learn. In frustration, I reported
to Mister Smiley, “These guys need a Special Ed teacher!”
The Navy was quite generous and let the slow ones take the final exam
three times but, even so, I think we left one poor chap behind to be
Our actual boot camp “training” really only occupied five of our six weeks
at Great Lakes. Midway through, a
full seven days was designated as “service week”, a period during which our
entire company (along with our sister company, of course) was assigned to the
mess hall. Every company in the
entire training facility served their own week thusly, feeding the rest of the
camp. Having spent so much time in
class and everywhere else with our sister company, I had become chummy with a
fellow college grad in that company named Ed.
The first day at the mess hall, we shrugged and said “What the hell?
Let’s take a chance!” when they asked if any of us could type.
We had both heard that it was foolish to volunteer for ANYTHING in the
military but we bravely raised our hands. In
reality, from my half-year of typing at Lake-Lehman, I barely qualified as a
“hunt and peck-er” but the Navy didn’t know that.
Out of sight of the rest of the company, Ed and I giggled mightily when
we found ourselves assigned to the mess hall OFFICE!
The rest of our companies spent 18-hour days preparing food, serving it,
and cleaning the dishes and pots and pans.
Ed and I sat back and “smoked and Coked and joked” the entire time as
we typed up duty rosters for the “ship’s company” regular enlisted men who
ran the mess hall. Our toughest job was to make a daily run out in the weather,
carrying trays of donuts to the lady at the Navy Exchange dry cleaners across
the street! The rest of our guys
were worked so hard that many of them came down sick.
The Navy expected this and our entire company received a massive
injection of penicillin known as “bicillin.”
One could always spot troops who’d had their shots within the past week
for, as they marched along, they were all limping, i.e., doing the “bicilllin
bounce.” I can’t recall exactly
how many cc’s they shot into us, but it was enough to leave one helluva knot
in your butt.
Cigarettes were permitted in boot camp but the “smoking lamp is lit” was
heard only infrequently in our compartment.
For some unknown reason, I became one of Mister Smiley’s favorites and
the guys were always after me to go get another smoke break authorized.
I’d knock on his office door and he’d invite me in. “What’s up,
Hontz?” “Have you noticed, sir, that the troops seem kind of fractious
tonight?” “Yes, I have seen
traces of that.” “Well, I
think, sir, that they could be calmed down considerably if they had a smoke or
two.” Smiling, he’d most
often reply, “Go ahead you silver-tongued devil.
You’ve got ten minutes.” Had
I not seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed a man could puff away
THREE cigarettes in that short a period of time, but quite a few managed that
feat. We were never sure when the
next smoke break would come.
Aside from the poor learners, I felt sorriest for the “NQS’s”; the
non-qualified swimmers. I had
learned to swim at North Lake in Sweet Valley but many of the inner-city guys
had never seen a lake. They were
lucky if they’d had a municipal pool deep enough for anything more than
wading. NO ONE got out of boot camp without being able to swim or at
least float enough to avoid drowning. We
were taught how to convert our denim “dungies” into water wings.
Even inverting a “Dixie cup” white hat, swooshing it above our heads
to capture air, and then holding it in an inverted position above our pelvis
would keep us afloat. As the Education Petty Officer, I often drew a collateral
assignment of marching the NQS’s up to the pool for more lessons.
There were always two or three lifeguards on duty but, I swear, they
darned near drowned a few of our guys.
The Navy also tested us to determine which of their jobs would best suit us.
Except for the Morse Code test which was, of necessity, aural, the
remainder were written tests. The tests had
probably not been revised since WW2, a time when the bulk of its members were
high school grads or possibly even dropouts.
Those very same tests were now given to all recruits, regardless of
scholastic achievement level. Needless
to say, we college grads aced them. [About
1980, I briefly entertained the idea of joining Mensa. In 1964, not anticipating
attending college, I hadn’t taken the SAT’s.
Not to worry, Mensa had many other standards against which one could be
judged eligible for membership. Eagerly,
I scanned down their list. WAY down
the list, at about their “18th tie-breaker”, I found that I could
use my boot camp test scores. “My
God”, thought I to myself, “you’ve GOT to be kidding!
They were scaled for about a C-average high schooler and I took them
after I’d attained my B.S.!” Turned
off by that idea, I didn’t even send in the application.
As Groucho Marx once said, “I don't care to belong to a club that
accepts people like me as members.”]
The Blue Jackets’ Manual is the Navy “Bible” and we were told to pick from
it much as one would scan a newspaper’s “Help Wanted” ads.
We were to pick five jobs that interested us but, at the risk of being
chastised, I found only four I liked and bravely submitted them anyway.
My first choice was CTI (Communications Technician Interpreter) for I had
earned about a 3.85 overall GPA in eight years of studying French, Spanish, and
Latin. I figured that even if I did
get sent to Vietnam, I’d end up interrogating prisoners in the rear rather
than facing danger in the front lines. Wow! The Navy was hot for interpreters and I was immediately
summoned to an interview. I’d be
sent to the Army language school at Monterrey, California but the “Catch-22”
proviso was that I’d have to extend to a 6-year hitch.
“Golly, sir”, said I, “I just got here and I’m not even sure yet
if I like this man’s Navy. I can’t see extending for two more years.”
End of interview. Sure that I’d just condemned myself to life as a “deck
ape” (Boatswain’s Mate), I glumly headed back to my company.
Shocked! I was positively shocked
when I got my orders. They had
given me my second choice! I was to
report to Quartermaster “A” school in Newport, RI.
I would be taught navigation and would have, essentially, an important
“white collar” job on the ship’s bridge among the officers.
For the record, my third and fourth choices were SK (Storekeeper) and DK
(Disbursing Clerk) – both related to my accounting background.
Ed, my buddy from the sister company, got orders to go to SM (Signalman)
“A” school which was also in Newport, so we looked forward to continuing our
friendship. High school grads
coming out of boot camp had only two white stripes as SA’s (Seamen
Apprentices) but, since, Ed and I were both college grads, we earned a third
stripe. As full-fledged Seamen, we had some real “rank” (LOL) and
felt quite good about ourselves.
Our bus full of “squids” was a merry scene on the ride from Great Lakes to
O’Hare Airport. For the past six
weeks, we’d been on the alert at every turn lest we cause our company to get
demerits. We’d even been
reduced to saluting garbage trucks, for one never knew when there might be an
instructor hiding inside. On the
bus, we were back in “the world” and we filled the air with singing, joking,
and enough cigarette smoke that it’s a wonder the driver could see the road.
The Navy had provided me an airline ticket to Philly and thence on to
Wilkes-Barre, where my buddy Jess picked me up and took me back to Sweet Valley. After a week’s leave, I was on my way to Newport.
Written in December,
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
Shrewsbury PA 17361