Saturday, June 10, 2023

My Stormy Journey and a Soviet Warship

by Douglas V. Gibbs
Author, Speaker, Instructor, Radio Host

I have endeavored my whole life to do the right thing.  Some friends have told me that I am too honest, to a fault.  Too honest?  That is actually kind of confusing, but I suppose what they are trying to tell me is that some things are better left unsaid.  Those same friends have also encouraged me to sometimes step out of my comfort zone, a challenge I have accepted only a few times during my life.  Turbulence is a typicality in my life, why would I invite more?  Risk-taking is typically outside my nature.  I do tend to leap without looking in some matters, but even then they are usually calculated risks.  Throwing all caution to the wind is not typically my modus operandi.  I am not an adrenalin junky, I suppose you could say, but trust me, my adrenalin and I have had moments together more often than sometimes I'd like to admit.

My letterman's jacket in high school had a descending dove on the back.  I hung out, usually, with the right crowd, and I was generally liked by everyone except the few bullies that liked nobody, anyway.  Then, I met a girl.

This tale is not about the girl, but she does play a part.  It was largely because of her that I wound up serving in the United States Navy.  To be honest, in high school when I wasn't talking to college recruiters, I was talking to the United States Marine Corps recruiter.  The plan was originally to be a Marine, like dad.

This is also not a tale about my whole life, just one stormy part of it.  The girl, the Navy, and a few other things, led me to a moment of adrenalin that was a small part in my journey to become who I am, and to understand that sometimes we have to stand firm on the political battlefield, and stick to your convictions or determinations as the going gets tough.

I am not sure if it was love, or the fact that our relationship ticked everybody off, but the girl and I hit it off quite well.  My parents forbade me from seeing her at one point, and her parents did the same.  Friends told us there was something wrong with our fit, but they loved us as friends so they supported us.  We got home too late from dates, and we literally did whatever we wanted without any concern about the consequences.  One of those consequences was born April 1, 1985.  

Despite having colleges knocking on the door and hoping I would join their athletic programs, I opted for enlisting in the United States Navy, and I went to boot camp on the other side of the country (from my home in Southern California to Orlando, Florida) about a week after I said the infamous words, "I do."

After basic training was over I remained in the South for my schooling, and returned home five months later.  She was swelling with child, and I was a different person.  We were no longer that young couple in love, and we became fierce enemies as the bills piled up and she refused to leave home.  I lived alone for over two and a half years before I finally convinced her to jump out of the nest, and bring our child home to an apartment I had gotten in San Diego.  But, that's just a side note.

Some feelings and thoughts had cooled down, others were fired up.  One thing I knew for sure was that I was no longer the stupid little boy I was when I enlisted.  Now, I was a stupid young man who had no clue about anything.  We were in a Cold War, I knew that, and I was ready to serve my country...even though I was scared out of my mind at the prospect of serving aboard a Guided Missile Destroyer.

So much for calculated risks.

I became a crewmember on the USS Chandler, DDG-996 in San Diego on a mild winter's night.  My father-in-law and my wife's two youngest sisters were there to deliver me to my new military home.  My seabag was at its heaviest, and once on board it turned out that my bunk was at the top of a four-bunk stack.  In Deck Department berthing they stacked them high.  My place to sleep was also right under a vent.  Oh, Joy!  I was not a member of the Deck Department, but Operations had no room for me, and being the low guy on the ranking scale, I had to go wherever they told me to.  So, I was assigned to hang out with the Deck Apes, the Navy's version of Grunts.

New recruits have to do mess deck stuff first, which I did, then I began to work in the office performing my rate.  But, the good ol' Deck Department was short in their number of sailors needed to perform all tasks, so I also performed underway watches.  Four hours on, four hours off; you were guaranteed to never sleep longer than four hours at a time, and usually the only meal I had a chance to grab was breakfast, which out to sea is usually powdered eggs, over-cooked potatoes, dry toast, powdered milk or bug juice, and an enjoyable meal holding your tray with one hand, and your glass with the other, stealing a bite in between rolls on the ocean.  It was fun and frightening at the same time, with the outside parts of the underway watch cold, wet, pitch black dark, and miserable in the middle of the night, or just as cold and wet but at least you could see your hands during the day.  The cool part was steering the ship as helmsman.  On the bridge you were in the heat of the action, watching the seas rolling ahead, water sometimes slamming into the front of the ship, and spray washing across the glass, as your hands held firmly on the helm (or at the ready for the speed lever if you were leehelmsman) spinning the wheel to the proper coordinates if the Officer of the Watch shouted it out to you.  You, then, repeated the order with an "aye aye" at the end, and then repeated it again once the course was set in.  If you were at the stat board then your fingers firmly grasped a wax pencil, ready to update the board if a report came in from the watchmen about the position of bogies.  That was the memory of a lifetime.  I was also on the fire team (pretty much everyone did that except the Supply Department or the "firemen" down below who handled the mechanic workings of the engine room), was the "phone-talker" on the flight deck during landing operations, and I became qualified for a number of other things that are not pertinent to this tale.  What is pertinent is my general quarters station.

In the Navy general quarters means "all hands man your battle stations."  If there are Marines onboard, for them it means, "get out of the way, and jump in your rack."  The alarm goes off, the Boatswain's Mate of the Watch tells you a few things, and off you go, no matter where you are, or what you are doing.  My station was in Damage Control Central.  I was the note taker and phone operator for the Damage Control Officer.  Reports of any damage came to me, I would notate the damage on a special form with symbols (rather than longhand) and then hand it to the Damage Control Officer.  He would then assess the situation, make a decision on what the repair lockers needed to do to resolve the situation, and then hand me back the paper I gave him with more symbols, of which I translated into language and then I told the repair lockers what to do.  They would advise me of status, and I would send the DC Officer's responses.  In a sense I was the liaison between the Damage Control Officer and the crews who performed repairs, as the battle raged.  New damage was constant.  The idea was to repair damage faster, or at least as fast, as we took hits so that we could stay in the fight as long as possible.

The majority of the time my position with the Damage Control Officer was filled by my butt in the seat during drills, but twice, it was not a drill.

The Soviet Union was still around back then.  I was on the Chandler in 1985.  The Pacific Ocean is a vast body of water, but every once in a while Soviet ships and American ships danced an interesting tango out there on the water.  When general quarters is called, and then it is accompanied with the words, "This is not a drill," your heart leaps into your throat, and you feel butterflies more violent than the ones you get when you are in love.

Sailor of the Month,
a matter of weeks
before I got
my Crow
(became a Petty Officer)
The communist vessel had pulled within thirteen miles of our position, and was following us.  At the beginning of the drill the mess decks guy had dumped trash, and the Soviets scooped all of it up, likely searching in the hopes that something classified got dropped into the trash.  Typically, anything that is not for the eyes of anyone on the outside is burned when it is discarded, but accidents, or communist spies on board, is always a possibility.

My heart was thumping a million miles a minute.  This is what being in the military was all about.  All of the training, all of the drills, all of the anticipation had been for moments like this.  The Gunner's Mates had our guns, torpedoes, and missiles ready to go.  The specialists on the bridge had been joined by the Captain who usually left bridge duties to the Officer of the Watch.  Every sailor on the Chandler, regardless of their rate, was at their battle station and was ready to act the moment the order was given.  The word "tension" does not convey the full gravity of the situation, nor how rapidly my adrenalin was racing through my body.  The Damage Control Officer, while always all business, no B.S., was rocking a stern face like I'd never seen on his mug before.  Condition YOKE was set throughout the ship (which means all of the hatches were shut), and we were operating with dead silence.

I was receiving reports regarding the position of the enemy, and conveyed it to the DC Officer.  He looked at the sheet of paper I handed him, and simply nodded his head with a single dip and rise of his chin and a pursing of his lips.  I dared not open my mouth, ask a question, or even move a hair on my head.  For hours we rocked in the ocean, half speed, like that.  The waves maybe had us at a fifteen degree roll, not much, to be honest.  Once we were hitting rolls beyond forty degrees in the North Pacific, and we were practically walking on the bulkheads.  Now that, my friends, was a wild ride for the ages.

Then, without warning, the Soviets changed direction, headed away from us, and the sweat on our brows finally dropped down our faces as if finally given permission to move.  My dungaree shirt was drenched, and the Damage Control Officer was grinning.  "That one was intense.  Those boys did not want to be shaken off."

I just smiled back, even though I was feeling like I wanted to simply throw out the largest sigh in history.

A petty officer walked in after he opened the hatch as condition XRAY was carried out throughout the ship.  "Someone puked on the mess decks," he laughed.  "Damn boots can't handle a little drama."

We all laughed even though I was only about six months beyond the guy who had lost his lunch.  But, by then I was practically an old salt.  At the time I didn't realize my life was about to turn upside down with a head injury that would lead to hospital time, limited duty, and then ultimately full duty on an entirely different kind of ship; a Tank Landing Ship (LST).

Twice we dealt with the Soviets, which was tense, each time.  On the Peoria, LST-1183, however, dealing with Iranians years later became a whole different ballgame, but that's a tale for another time.

-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary

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