In this memoir, I recount the somewhat crazy end of my tour of active duty in the Navy. I hope it also conveys the conflicted emotions that often accompany personal gains and losses. The photo at left was taken by my friend, Aviation Machinist Mate Third Class Doug Honspberger, as we were going ashore at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.
I could barely contain my longing anticipation as I rode the U.S.S. Ticonderoga into San Diego Harbor. The sailors, airmen, and marines of the aircraft carrier were completing a six month, 28,000-mile voyage. Not only did we traverse the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine and South China Seas, but we also made significant forays into the Indian Ocean and the Bering Sea. All with the intent to track and harass Soviet submarines.
As we rounded the channel’s bend, the North Island pier came into view. It almost overflowed with the families of my shipmates. Most of their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers were soon to join them and go on leave. My seabag was packed; I was eager to be going home for good.
Just the day before, I had been issued the coveted pink military I.D. of reserve status, replacing my green active-duty card. These I.D. cards are critical to one’s ability to come and go in the armed forces. After forgetting my wallet in a grocery store near Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan, I experienced the harshness of this requirement.
Getting hassled and detained for that sort of thing was just one of the many indignities a regimented system was likely to dump on its personnel, enlisted and officers alike. Sometimes I thought a long-forgotten planner engineered the entire military for irritation. Everybody I met who intended to serve only one hitch, myself included, endlessly complained about it. To no avail, the Navy didn’t care. As one of my Chief’s said: “A bitching sailor is a happy sailor.”
Those few moments not consumed by useless carping were spent imagining idyllic civilian life. After years of griping and dreaming, the end of one’s enlistment would draw near. The one-hitcher then entered a state of mind called being “short.” This was a psychologically fragile time when the short-timer wound a little tighter and tighter every day, hoping that nothing would go wrong.
Ah, but their faces when the waiting was over!
A sudden ruckus in the shop pulled me from my reverie at the porthole. A posse of master-at-arms wearing sidearms were taking I.D. cards from one and then another of the men in my division. I knew one of the M.A.A.’s, but he was curt when he asked for mine. I handed it over while Chief Roney, my immediate boss, loudly demanded an explanation. “It’s an investigation” was their sole response.
I started slipping into shock but was still aware that most of the guys in our unit were trying to console the detained while a few raged at the M.A.A.’s. This panoply of concern and righteous anger demonstrated the loyalty and affection a bonded military unit displayed when their brothers were under threat.
Of all the detainees, the guys in our division sympathized most with the short-timer. They knew that the anticipation of slow-coming freedom was hard enough on me without some ominous convolution of fate. We suspected that this as yet mysterious occurrence was one of those convolutions.
The M.A.A.’s vacated our shop as the gangplank swung out to the pier. The other detainees and I wished our shipmates a pleasant leave, and I said my last goodbyes to close friends as they left to join their loved ones. Among the hardest to part with was Chief Roney. He had become my father at sea. Bald like my real father, too.
Although I was trying to hide it, he felt my turmoil. He even volunteered to stay aboard with me. His wife and daughter, who I knew almost intimately from his stories, were on the pier. There was no question about where the Chief needed to be. I thanked him and wished him well.
Soon, most everyone was ashore while I just sat stunned, silent, stewing.
My subconscious dredged up and started dwelling on the memory of another short-timer. Killer was an aviation electrician in my department crushed by a falling ten-ton hatch a few months earlier. At the time of the accident, he only had four days left before the end of a six-year tour of duty. His story summed up the short-timer’s greatest fear.
The M.A.A.’s came back and rounded up the detainees a little while later. They led us ashore and marched us across base to a small, single-story building. Once inside, we were ushered one at a time into an interrogation room. Before and after questioning, we were kept separated and silent.
When it was my turn, I sat at a table opposite two men wearing civilian clothes and the practiced, icy demeanor of professional lawmen. On the table was a small, open, screw-top jar with some black goo inside. Only one of the men spoke to me. He asked me about my jobs and duty stations. I told him.
Next, he asked, “Do you know what’s in the jar?”
We had just been to the Far East. Remembering the Opium Wars in China from my high school history class, I guessed: “Opium?”
OK, I was a little naive and more than a hundred years out of date. After news reports on the subject years later, I realized it must have been black tar heroin.
The investigator pressed on: “Do you have access to the utility space just forward of your shop?
“No,” I replied.
“Do you know an Airman Neale?”
“Yes.” I explained that before we met again aboard the Ticonderoga, he and I spent a few months together with VRC-50’s detachment in Vietnam.
Neale and I had shared the occasional joint out on the Da Nang Air Base ramp at night.* There was no reason to bring that up. I did tell them that we had taken refuge face down in the same sandy ditch near our hangar during a rocket attack. I added how he cracked me up with exaggerated mock fear. “These buttons are too thick!” he yelled as he hugged the ground.
I also did not mention that the incident followed one of our smoke breaks, which I’m sure made his antics seem funnier than they were.
When the investigators completed all the interviews, we were marched back to the ship and ordered to stay there until further notice. At least we now knew what the stir was all about.
Late that afternoon on the semi-deserted ship, I continued stewing at my desk. I was still packed and ready to go. For no reason. Nobody was coming to rescue me from this nightmare, even though I had nothing to do with the black goo.
Knowing how capricious and potentially ponderous military justice could be, I began to succumb to the cold weight of helplessness. Then the memory of a funny, system-defying friend forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness. While having a muted chuckle about his antics, I remembered who I was and what I had learned about how the military works.
I stood up. “I’m a Third Class Petty Officer in the world’s largest nuclear navy!” I said out loud. Grabbing my gear, I stepped outside the shop and shouted: “I’m a veteran of a foreign war, and I don’t have to take this crap!”
Hoisting my seabag onto my shoulder, I strode across the cavernous, near-empty hangar deck to the master-at-arms office. Behind the counter, a bored seaman was reading a paperback while reclined to an impossible degree in a taped-up office chair.
He looked up as I approached. What little rank I had was easily visible to him in my dress white uniform. More to the point, he would immediately notice my service ribbons. These brightly-hued pieces of cloth tell other members of the armed services where you’ve been and hint at what you’ve experienced. Having “color” on my chest when I reported to the ship had earned me a little extra respect.
Not wanting to give him time to think, I barked: ”You’re supposed to give me my I.D.”
“Uh,” he replied, not getting up. He looked a little confused.
I leaned over the counter and glared at him with stony, unforgiving eyes. “S. M. I. T. H. Daniel B.”
“Ah, OK,” he said, rising.
He looked around, thought about it, and unlocked a steel cabinet. After checking a couple of folders, he opened a small, oily, wooden box. A little shuffling through its contents produced my precious pink I.D. card. He checked my face with its picture.
“This your card, Smith?” he asked, placing it on the counter.
Feeling wildly over-caffeinated, I replied in as calm a manner possible: “It’s mine.”
I wanted to run, to get off the ship and off the base before someone figured out that I was officially in custody. Nevertheless, turning toward the quarter-deck, I slid the I.D. into my chest pocket with casual indifference.
Proud of my ruse, but with a substantial knot in my gut, I approached the Officer of the Deck. As required, I saluted and requested permission to leave the ship. He inspected my I.D. and returned the salute.
Having passed a formidable gauntlet, I saluted the ensign, traversed the gangplank, and strode down the pier to a launch that took me across the bay. From there, I grabbed a bus downtown and then another to the airport. After booking a plane home, I called my parents. I didn’t explain the delay.
A pair of shore patrolmen passed through the terminal while I waited for my flight. Their presence seemed odd, and a jolt of fear raced through my body. I held my breath as they came near. One of them nodded at me, and I nodded in return. As they passed, I started to exhale with a “whew!”, but caught myself, afraid that my noticeable relief would tip them off.
My folks met me at Love Field in Dallas around two or so in the morning. It was good to be home, but the specter of imminent arrest haunted me.
Almost three tense weeks later, I received a letter from Chief Roney. Along with two handwritten pages, it contained my final active-duty paycheck that in the stress of the moment, I had left in my desk’s top drawer.
Naturally, the Chief ribbed me about being so wealthy that I could afford to walk off without it.
He also filled me in on the convolution. He said there had been some static from the investigators about my disappearance. Nevertheless, our division and department heads argued on my behalf that I must have misunderstood the directive to stay aboard the ship.
“I think they like you just because you worked hard and set a positive example for the younger men,” he wrote. “Maybe they had you confused with someone else! (haha!)”
After some news about his family and my closest shipmates, his letter ended with: “Have a nice life, Smitty. — your friend, Chief J.P. Roney.”
I choked up. Blinded by my fervent short-timer craving to get out, I hadn’t considered the inevitable torment of never again seeing my shipmates, my friends, my brothers in arms.
Yes, the same Neale: