This memoir describes my amazing first few days at VRC-50, a US Navy squadron based at NAS Atsugi near Yokohama, Japan. The photo above was taken of me in front of my barracks in the fall of 1969.
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As dawn began to illuminate Mt. Fuji, I entered the squadron barracks to check in at my first duty station. The light was on in the master-at-arms’ office just inside the door, but no one was there. At that moment, the room across the entrance hall exploded into what was clearly a fist fight. Just as suddenly, silence, except for some guttural cursing. A second-class petty officer walked out of the room brushing himself off.
He was a tall, meaty man with a lustrous black mustache and “Martinez” stenciled over the pocket of his denim work shirt.
When he saw me a smile lit up his face. “You must be the new guy,” he said. “Four more next week. We’re staffing up.”
I tilted my head towards the recent melee and raised my eyebrows.
“Oh, that.” Martinez said. ”Just waking up that asshole Janaszek, who can’t seem to hear an alarm. He comes up swinging at the poor slob on duty who has to rouse him for his flights. First time I did it, he hit me without warning and I hit him back, automatic-like. I thought I’d get court-martialed, but nothing happened. Now I kind of like to wake him up because I get to punch a jerk who outranks me a few times with no repercussion. Janaszek doesn’t remember anything before coffee, and everyone knows he’s an ornery son-of-a-bitch anyway.”
Martinez sat down behind the desk in his office. Sitting open on the desk was a thick book with dozens of torn paper bookmarks hanging down. It was propped up on a copy of Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.
“Weighty tomes,” I said.
“So close to getting my bachelor’s degree,” Martinez replied. “College man?”
“One year of state school,” I replied. “Planning to finish on GI Bill.”
“All right! We’ll talk. Let’s get you a place to stay, Smitty; then you can check in with Personnel.”
“Any chance of getting some sleep?” I asked.
“Tonight. You might as well adjust to time on the other side of the world,” Martinez said while looking at a chart on the wall. “Here it is. You’re in with Ray Hill.”
He rose and motioned for me to follow. We walked down the main hall between cubicles with dark drapes for doors.
With a flourish, he opened a curtain. “We hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Call me Marty,” he said as he walked away.
I stepped into the cubicle and set my gear down. My roommate was standing in front a green Naugahyde chair. Hill wore the traditional Navy white hat perched atop the beginnings of an afro. His starched and pressed dungaree work shirt sported third class petty officer insignia on the left sleeve. He wore black, Navy issue socks, and despite the general gloom of the barracks, he had on dark glasses with thick black frames. No pants. He was holding a paperback in his left hand.
I spoke first: “Hi, I’m Smith. New guy. Uh, nice legs.”
Hill said nothing.
“New guy?” I continued,” This rack OK?” I pointed at a bare lower bunk.
Hill spoke: “Smitty, come the revolution, you’re gonna have to go up against the wall.”
I looked at him askance before returning to inspecting the empty lockers. “Well, you wake up cheery,” I said.
Hill continued: “You should be aware that because of Vietnam, America is training thousands of black men in all aspects of war. We are learning to speak the white devil’s language of violence.”
“Everything is hopelessly wrinkled,” I said after dumping the contents of my seabag onto my bed.
Hill sat down, held up the paperback, and began reading:
“The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a ‘militant’ because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely the unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.”
Hill’s voice had gotten louder, and his hands shook a little toward the end.
“That sounds about right,” I said. “So, where you from?”
Ray glared at me, then softened, shaking his head in disbelief. “Houston. You?”
“Dallas,” I replied.
“Texas, too? Where’s your redneck accent?” Hill asked. He picked up a pair of dungarees that lay folded on his bed.
“Educated parents, but I can put it on when I have to deal with bubbas.”
“Don’t we all,” said Hill with a snort. He stood and pulled on his pants.
Meanwhile, I shifted my possessions from the bed to the locker. “Is there a laundromat?” I asked.
“Across the street and down a bit,” Hill said, waving his hand in the general direction. He sat back down.
Hill laced up his flight boots and I arranged my stuff.
“I’d like to think that things are changing,” I said.
Hill jumped to his feet. “Martin’s down, Malcolm’s down! JFK and Bobby are down! Angela and Eldridge on the run! You think things are changing, Smitty? I’ll tell you what’s changing: Black America has finally realized that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!”
“Wow, Mao,” I said.
“I’m trying to be serious here,” Hill said.
Scowling, Hill said: “That’s just disrespect, man. Making a joke out of this is yet another example of whitey dismissing a black man’s concerns because you’re so important and we don’t matter!”
He clenched his right fist and bared his teeth a little.
“You waltz in here thinking you can own me like your great grandaddy owned my ancestors. I’m…It’s just that this indefensible murdering and terrorizing of these people, my people, is…” He stopped. His fist relaxed and fell to his side.
I held out my hands to Hill. “I’m sorry. Sorry. Been awake for two days.”
Hill collapsed into the chair.
“Look, smart-ass remarks are just me,” I said, “And I didn’t move in here because I think I own you. It’s Marty’s fault. He assigned me here.”
I grinned, but Hill merely stood up and without looking at me reached into his locker and pulled out a gym bag.
“I’m just saying that there’s a lot of noise about civil rights,” he said softly, “but it ain’t manifesting on the street.”
He moved his shaving kit and changes of clothes into the bag.
I sat at the steel writing desk and turned the chair to face Hill.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“Know many Black authors, Smitty?”
“Uh, I’m aware of Ellison, but haven’t read him. But I’ve read the ‘Ballots or Bullets’ speech by the X guy, and parts of Reverend King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Hill gasped. “You, a southern white boy, read a speech by Malcolm X?”
I could see the whites of his eye’s through the dark glasses. I shrugged. “A year of advanced English at North Texas State.”
Hill zipped up the duffel and sat it on the bed. “It’s Robert F. Williams’ book, Negros with Guns.”
“Yikes,” I said.
“Yeah. The white reaction. Williams talks about that in the book. But all he’s saying is that it is the right of Americans, when the police won’t, to act in self-defense against lawless violence.”
I nodded. “It is our right. But Reverend King had some things to say about that.”
“King is dead,” Hill interjected.
“Maybe he died to save our souls.”
“Or maybe he just got gunned down by a dumb ass cracker!”
“Maybe both,” I said.
Hill paced the cubicle. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered.
“Oh, and I’ve read Cleaver. Soul On Ice.”
Hill stopped pacing. “What?”
The doors at the end of the hall banged as they opened and closed. Footsteps echoed. “Ray!” someone called. “Truck’s out front. Let’s move!”
Hill looked at me. “Doing ops out of Cubi Point. Be back in a couple of weeks.”
“I’ll keep a watch over the place,” I said.
“Here,” Hill said as he handed Negros with Guns to me. “Read it. Tell me what you think.”
A smile broke across Hill’s face. “You know, I like you, Smitty. But come the revolution, you’ll still have to go up against the wall.”
He turned and walked through the curtain.
I laughed and called out to him: “Nice to meet you, too!”
Hill’s short laugh merged into the sharp sound of footsteps on waxed and polished asphalt tile. Doors banged open and shut.
Two days later, still on California time, I was up early. I wandered down to the master-at-arms’ office to chat before heading to the hangar. Martinez was slumped in his chair, staring at nothing.
“Marty? You OK?”
His eyes looked much older as he looked up.
“I just heard.” He paused. “Just heard. Our flight went down. South China Sea. Approaching the Constellation.”
He paused again. Then in a whisper, “No survivors.”
“Hill?” I asked.
Martinez nodded. I felt a cavernous ache inside. An ache I would experience again.
He continued. ”And Dilger, Livingston … .” There was a catch in his voice. “And Tye. And Moser!” An audible sob erupted from his chest.
Stunned, I said nothing, and later, at work, grief-saturated silence filled the vast squadron hangars.
For the next few days I lived with a phantom as best I could, greeting and saying goodbye to Ray as I came and went.
Early in the evening on the fourth day after we received the news, Officer of the Day Lt. j.g. Piersanti and Yeoman Johnson came to my cubicle with bolt cutters and a couple of corrugated boxes. I flinched when they cut the lock.
Piersanti, whose courage and flying skills would soon save lives in a recurrence of the mechanical problem that downed Hill’s aircraft, carefully removed Ray’s personal effects from his locker one by one, announcing aloud what each was. Johnson, usually prickly and outspoken, recorded the data on a form attached to a clipboard in respectful silence. They filled up one box, taped it shut, and began filling the next.
I sat on my rack and watched my ghost slowly get exorcised.
As Piersanti handed the last item to Johnson, I stood and handed him Negros With Guns.
“This is his,” I said. “It’s a sad book, it’s an angry book, and it’s a good book. His family needs to have it. They need to know that, come the revolution, he was ready to fight for them.”
The officer of the day took the book and handed it to the yeoman. Johnson noted its title on the form and gently placed it into the box. The strapping tape made a mournful shriek as he pulled it from the dispenser.
1861 words – ©2017 Scooter Smith
On October 2, 1969, a C-2A from the US Navy squadron VRC-50 went down into the South China Sea en route from Naval Air Station Cubi Point, Philippines, to the aircraft carrier, USS Constellation. Five VRC-50 crewmen and 21 Navy, Marine and civilian passengers lost their lives.