I was seventeen years old when I arrived in San Diego on a hot summer day from San Francisco on June 23, 1965, aboard a Pacific Southwest Airlines Lockheed Electra turboprop. It made its descent into downtown San Diego, banking right around the Hotel Cortez, heading north up over the freeway and dropping onto Lindberg Field.
San Diego was a small town at that time. There was no bridge over to Coronado and only two ways to get to Coronado. By land, it was driving down I-5 and exiting at Imperial Beach and then driving up the Silver Strand. The other, more scenic way, was to cut across the bay by the ferry (or “nickel snatcher”) at the foot of Broadway.
Lindberg Field was a small airport. But it was the home base for the PSA stewardesses, known for their outrageous clothing—hot pants, bright colored boots, and bright uniforms, with all the attitude to go along with the spirit of the sixties. For all of us flying down to San Diego about to enter boot camp, we knew it would be a long while before we saw any women that could fill those boots!
My summer had been filled with surfing, girlfriends, sunshine, and fun. My parents were not enthusiastic about me going into the Navy instead of going to college. They were concerned because the Vietnam war was just heating up. And because I was so young, they actually had to sign for me. I wanted to go into the Navy because I wanted to be my own man. I wanted an experience that would challenge me and give me a chance to see if I could measure up to wear the uniform. My world did change, but little did I know at that moment how much I would be changed in a way that I could never have imagined.
A Chief Petty officer was waiting for us inside the terminal to collect our orders and escort us out to the curb to wait for the bus to take us to the U.S. Naval Training Center. While we were standing on the curb waiting for the bus, a couple of us used this time to check out the women driving by the airport and signal our earnest appreciation of their Southern California beauty.
I barely noticed the khaki uniform approaching me from my right side. The spit-shined shoes stopped right in front of me, and in one quick movement the man had cuffed my head hard enough to send me reeling into the guy standing next to me. The Chief Petty Officer’s face was nose-to-nose with me and he was barking, at full volume: “Hey, boy, pick out something right straight in front of you and stand at attention. Do not wiggle, do not move and do not breath too loud. Do I make myself clear?” I responded, “Yes.” “What the hell did you just say?” I stood there just staring ahead. Silence was better than saying anything. His answer came lightening fast, “Yes sir – that is what you say, you maggot! You are in my world now and I will tell you when to do everything, including breathing. Do you get this, smart ass?” I bellowed, “Yes, sir!” And so it began.
The first days of boot camp were filled with the normal R&O (receiving and outfitting), issuing of firearms (we were issued the M1 carbine), haircuts, shots, dentistry and tests. It was a world of hurry up, shut up, and then get the hell going. From being woken with the banging of baseball bats against trash cans, to taps and lights out, our ears were filled with a constant stream of color commentary from our company commanders, and our thoughts were consumed with only the next step in our evolution from civilian to seaman apprentice.
I did not have any problem with the discipline aspect of boot camp. I had gone to a Catholic school and had nuns who were hardcore, so I understood the program right away. All company commanders and any other person with stripes on his sleeves was a god—act accordingly.
But as in any organization of people, there were the few who could not deal with this discipline and decided to rebel. This was a very bad idea in Navy boot camp. There was a special unit for these people who had gone AWOL or just would not fit into the Navy way. It was called 4050 and they all wore red hats. They were escorted everywhere by two men carrying batons, and when they entered the chow hall a whistle preceded their entry and the rest of us had to about face away from them and not look at them because they were a disgrace to the Navy. They had to eat a square meal and they were only given so much time to eat. They lived in spartan conditions and were treated with the gloves off. I do remember marching to a class and seeing these guys running with a shovel balanced across their folded arms, with a pail they had filled with sand on each end of the shovel. They then ran to another site about fifty yards away, dumping the sand and then starting this process all over again. This continued for hours. The lesson was that you were in the Navy and your ass belonged to them.
Among all the time on the grinder doing PT, at the range, rowing in small boats, the infamous gas chamber, marching drills, inspections, and class time, there were two incidents that really stand out in my mind from that time.
The first one I would like to call: ‘How not to save a life when someone is terrified of the water’.
We were at the pool for swimming qualifications and abandon ships drills. We had all completed a swimming test and made life preservers out of our pants, when we lined up at the tower to jump off and simulate abandoning ship.
I had no problem with the water stuff. I swam above and below water before I walked so I was a natural in the water. I also had been a surfer and diver for about six years. I was surfing in the northern California waters before wetsuits were really made for surfers. I was out at dawn in the middle of winter in a thin neoprene vest in Santa Cruz for all my surfing years. When it got really cold we wore ‘beaver tails,’ which were really the tops to a diving wet suit. This was a time before leashes on a surfboard, so if you wiped out you swam in to get your board. Sometimes it was a very long swim in very big surf.
Jumping off the tower was nothing for me. You had to cross your legs, hold your nose and cross your arms over your chest. It was about as high as a high dive in school. We were waiting for everyone to jump when one guy got up on the tower and just froze. He looked down and just freaked out. We all looked up at him and at the instructor, who was holding a long bamboo pole and watching him from the side of the board. He told him in a sentence full of expletives that he was to get his ass off the board now and into the water. I looked at the guy and I knew he was losing it by the minute. He would not move. The instructor started poking him with the pole and screaming at him to jump. He did not move. The instructor started to climb up the ladder toward the guy and jabbing at him with the pole. The guy kept backing up when the pole came at him and in he went! He came to the surface and was completely freaked out. He was screaming and I realized immediately that he needed to be pulled out of the water right away. But that was not the Navy way. The instructor was popping veins screaming at the guy to swim to the side, but the guy was in shutdown mode and screaming for his life. The instructor then put the pole in the water toward him and he was on that pole, climbing like a monkey shot in the ass, but the instructor just pulled the pole out of this grip and continued to howl at him to swim to the wall. This continued until everyone realized that this guy was going to drown and he was allowed to grab the pole and was pulled to the side of the pool.
Now you would think that there would be some concern for the guy as he was choking with water, but think again. The instructor, who was an old first class Boatswain’s Mate, was like a pit bull with a rope in his jaws. There was absolute silence in the whole pool area while this guy, who was puking and choking in the gutter of the pool, was called names I did not even know existed. We never did see the guy again after this incident. Old “Boats” was never going to pass his Welcome Wagon class!
Damage Control School, with author at bottom left
The next highlight of training was our day at the blockhouse for Damage Control schooling. At this school the main point was how to fight fires on board a ship, and how to man a firefighting hose as a crew and as the nozzle man. This was one of those classes that everyone seemed to pay particular attention to considering the consequences of a fire on board any ship. There were many different types of fuel, ordinance, and oils that made fighting a fire in a very small space a potentially deadly task.
Handling a fire hose with full pressure on is like handling an anaconda on steroids. We had three men on the hose itself and one man on the nozzle. The nozzle was a big brass beast that required a swift and strong pull to slam the handle back down in the “on” position to get the water flowing. You were doing this while a fire of oil and gas had been ignited behind a mock bulkhead that was about ten feet in front of you. The heat that erupted was unreal. What you were doing was cooling the bulkhead down while everyone with you in the blockhouse was on the deck with the “best air to breathe”. While this was going on, the instructor observed us, through a window on the right side of the blockhouse, to make sure we were doing everything in the correct manner. We rotated until every man had been on the handle and on the hose crew.
The incident started when one of our guys got on the handle and I was the second man on the hose. They told us to prepare for the fire and we all got into position, with the instructor’s head in the window as observer. The fire was ignited and then the nozzle man was supposed to hit the handle, but he couldn’t do it. It felt like hell in that small space in an instant. He kept yanking on the handle and was starting to panic. There is that old expression: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, which usually refers to using a weapon, but it would have worked very well in this instance. Of course, while all this is going on, our instructor is going ape and howling at the guy to get that handle pulled back. Again, language that I have never heard come out of a human being’s mouth peppered his conversation.
Meanwhile, just when I felt like just pushing his body to the floor and grabbing the handle and doing it myself, the guy yanks the handle and the water starts to gush forward. This would have been the end of the story except for one detail – in the recruit’s panic, he was not looking where the nozzle was aimed when he hit the handle. Yes, it was aimed right at the window, right into the face of the instructor framed in that window.
In the few minutes before the fire was extinguished, I heard phases like: “I am going to castrate you, you fucking fool” and references to other acts I had never conceived of in my 17 years of life! The instructor came dripping wet into the blockhouse and grabbed this guy by the neck and tossed him out of the blockhouse. In the dim light of the place, I was biting the sides of my mouth to suppress the laughter erupting inside of me thinking about what had just taken place. All of us were trying to keep a straight face, which kept us from thinking about how we were almost french fried in that place. Panic is never your friend.
I graduated from boot camp in September 1965 as a Recruit Petty Officer, and my Company 294 went on to win the highest awards for the whole Brigade. We took the Brigade and Academic flag, plus the Sixth Week Award flag and many other ribbons and streamers for being the best of the graduating companies. We were competitive and pushed one another to be the best. What is amazing is that most of us were very young. We had come from different parts of the United States, all different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and we were molded into a cohesive unit that wanted only to be the best at everything we did in training.
Yes, the training was brutish and very physical, but it did eliminate the people who were not made to serve in the Navy. Yes, we were constantly the butt of jokes and language that would curl the ears of a truck driver, but the message got through and the system worked. Yes, there were definitely excesses and some bad judgement on the part of our company commanders and instructors, but in a perverse manner it prepared us for the fleet and the real world in general.
This type of training would not have been possible in today’s world of political correctness and women in the ranks. It is fair to state that since I never served with women, I do not know what that is like, and that’s a fair criticism. On the other hand, I know that at that age, for me, women would have been a massive distraction. I also know that having been aboard two ships and one air unit, life was relaxed with an all male crew. I don’t care how you put it, throwing a woman into the mix with men changes the equation. That is a fact of evolution. I am glad I served when I did.
The experience of recruit training changed my life in ways that still help define the man I am today.
- Responsibility: I learned to take charge and lead from the front. Always step up and be counted when asked what has happened. Never be afraid to say: “I do not know, but I will find out!”
- Attention to Detail: I learned that if you are going to do something, do it right the first time and pay attention to the task at hand. I also adopted that phrase: “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” It has changed my life under stressful situations.
- Punctuality: Time does matter. Learning to be on time and do things in a timely manner is the mark of a responsible man.
- Loyalty: Always cover the back of your friends and shipmates. No man is an island. No matter what the odds, stand tall and take the best course possible, but do not abandon your friends or shipmates. Make fear work for you instead of against you.
Leaving boot camp, author third from left