There was only a month left before my long, four years of service to the U.S. Navy would come to an end. Quite frankly the last two years had been a strange form of hell with eighteen hour days and the stress of the Viet Nam war. I had a few days of rare down time in front of me at our squadron headquarters in Iwakuni, Japan, but my peace was ruined by a summons to appear in the captain’s office. I’d been there before, so, being ordered to drop everything and “report to the captain,” made me pretty nervous. I couldn’t help but wonder what I had done this time to piss him off.
When I arrived, Lurch, that’s what we called him, “Lurch,” because he looked like the character from the Adam’s Family. Lurch, sat behind his desk and after we had gone through the formalities of Navy hierarchy, he invited me to sit down. That was a red flag. Protocol dictated that I should either stand at attention, or at ease in the captain’s office, but, to be asked to sit meant something was up. I couldn’t help but worry about the possibility of bad news from home, however, to my surprise, the subject of our meeting was my upcoming separation from the Navy. He said, “I need to talk to you about your plans for the immediate future.”
He gave me his famous death’s head grin, the one that served him as a smile. I nodded and said, “Yes sir.”
“Well, I have a problem with you deserting your crew right now, I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“Sir?” I inquired.
“You’re an integral part of my flight crew, Wilson, and this deployment has three more months to run. I require your commitment and I want you to extend for the rest of the cruise.”
To say that I was stunned by his request would be a gross understatement. For a long minute, I was speechless, worrying about the possibilities, about whether, in time of war, he was planning to order my extension if I didn’t comply.
Lurch was, how can I put this delicately, a lunatic, not a man you wanted to cross swords with, but extending my service for another three months was not something I was very pleased to do, not for him, not for my crew, and certainly not for the Navy. You see, the Navy had not been especially kind to me over the years, and much of the abuse I had suffered left a lasting impression. For example, there were the nine months I spent in the janitorial service, cleaning bathrooms, after graduating from Electronics ‘A’ school. And, how could I forget the threats of a Captain’s Mast and possible imprisonment over the nuclear arms school debacle for which I was the only innocent participant. There are many more examples, but you get the idea. Most of all, however, was my failure to attain pay grade because of the Navy’s poor planning with regard to filling the technical rate I was in. Any simple seaman can understand that, when you open five slots for promotion and have twelve thousand sailors applying for them, the odds of a promotion are stacked against you. That was the situation I found myself in year after year in my brief, Naval career.
With that in mind, I suggested to the captain, “Well, sir, I can’t see myself extending as an E2, it just wouldn’t be fair.”
“What do you mean?” Lurch wanted to know.
“I mean, sir, that I would consider extending as an E3, but not in my current pay grade.”
Lurch gave me a dark and threatening look. He said, “That would mean a promotion.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
He paused, his brow creasing even further. “I can’t do that, Wilson.”
“But you can, sir,” I corrected, informing him, “You’re an acting captain, in command of a Naval unit at war. It would be a battlefield promotion, sir.”
Now the look became dangerously threatening and he repeated himself, enunciating each word, “I can’t do that.”
Perhaps I was being flip, I didn’t intend it that way, but time in close association and the circumstances we shared had proved the axiom, “familiarity breeds contempt.” I responded to him by saying, “Well, sir, I won’t extend my service as an E2.”
To my surprise, the conversation ended right there and I was summarily dismissed without threats or further intimidation. As I stood to leave, we hurried through the formalities of Navy protocol and then I quickly found myself standing outside his office, relieved that our encounter was over. Perhaps, at this point, some background on our “shared circumstances” would be in order.
In the year before our deployment to Iwakuni, we had been transitioning aircraft, from the Martin, P5-M Marlin, to the new Lockheed, P3 Orion. As such, naval regulations required that each flight crew be requalified in the new aircraft. Qualification was a long, expensive and arduous process of training, practice, and testing. At that time, three squadrons of twelve aircraft, each with a twelve man crew, were making the transition to the P3. Two of those squadrons had begun the process in the year before us, but, unfortunately for the Navy, for the trainers and for those in command, none of those twenty-four flight crews had yet qualified in the new aircraft. In fact, they had all failed their “quals” repeatedly by the time we arrived on the scene to begin our training.
To be fair, there were many difficult challenges throughout the qualification process, some that affected me personally, but those are for another story. What’s important for this story is the qualification portion of our transition. In fact, I can truncate the story even further by focusing on the single mission that resulted in every crew’s failure to qualify. That point of failure for the twenty-four crews ahead of us became obvious to me at the end of the long process. It was a mission called harbor mining and, whoever it was in the training squadron that designed the mining mission, they almost certainly must have some diabolic connection. The mission parameters and the chosen location were so challenging that it must have been designed with the intent to produce failure.
As radar man for my crew, the harbor mining qualification test was a challenge that lay directly in my hands. Not that the other crew members weren’t needed, we work as a team, but the primary burden for success was on my shoulders; in much the same way as the kicker in a football game that is tied in the final quarter and running out of time. The carefully chosen location for this qual-test was a small, fjord-like harbor on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, far north of Vancouver. Our navigator had been given a small, incomplete illustration that depicted the layout of the harbor entrance and a portion of the interior, as it might appear on our radar screen.
The entrance to the harbor was a narrow cut through a three hundred foot wall of coastal cliffs. Inside, the harbor spread open and, as depicted on the illustration, there was a small island, to the south of which lay the target box where we were to drop our practice mines in. On the far side of the small, lozenge shaped harbor, the eastern shore rose quickly from sea level to a mountainous terrain, peaking at the three thousand foot level. All of these features created a significant challenge for the cockpit, but to make matters worse, the entire coast was socked in by a thick fog that made VFR flight impossible the day we were to make our run. The only eyes available to us for this mission was my radar screen, and the whole crew was forced to depend on me to guide our aircraft safely through the maneuvers required to succeed in this mission.
Though Lurch, who was flying left seat that day, could see absolutely nothing from the cockpit, we managed to navigate the harbor entrance, at a flight level of three hundred feet, without difficulty. That said, Lurch was white knuckled all the way in and near apoplexy by the time I gave him his new heading. That much-anticipated command was delayed, however, until we cleared the coastal cliffs because, before that, I had no radar image of the harbor’s interior. Once we leveled out on the new heading, however, the small island I thought was depicted in our illustration came clearly into view on the radar screen, just north of our heading. Upon seeing it, I began to lay out the coordinates for our mining run. I had no sooner done that, than the sweep of the radar began to reveal another island in the southern portion of the harbor, an island that, in appearance, was much more similar to the illustration I had been given than the island I chose initially.
Things happen fast when you’re moving at three hundred and sixty knots and changes in plans can consume a good deal of distance over the ground at that speed, but I made a quick decision to change heading and go for the newly revealed southern island. Unfortunately, that change required that I first confess my mistake to the entire crew, over the plane’s intercom system. It went something like this:
“Sir, I’ve made a mistake and I’ll have to give you some rapid course corrections. I need you to make them as quickly as possible, sir.”
There was no response from the flight deck, but it didn’t matter, I had no time to wait, so I launched into a stream of course changes that began with, “Turn hard to starboard, sir, and take up heading 196.”
With the command given, the plane remained steady on its current heading, forcing me to recalculate and reissue the command.
“I need you to turn RIGHT NOW, sir, hard starboard, and take up a new heading of, 210.”
At that, the plane snapped hard to the right, pressing the entire crew into their seats with about six “Gs” of gravity and driving the navigator, who was standing behind the flight engineer’s seat, to his knees. No sooner had that happened than the plane snapped back to level flight on a compass heading of two hundred ten degrees. I didn’t know at the time, that Lurch was so terrified by the required maneuver that he’d frozen, white knuckled, on the yoke, (the planes steering wheel,) forcing our second pilot, J.J., to take the controls from him. While J.J. flew blind, down the two-ten heading, to our next course correction, I was frantically laying out the rest of our mining run on the radar screen. I didn’t have time to finish, however, before I was forced to give a new heading to the flight deck.
“Sir, on my mark, I need you to turn hard to port and take up heading, 068. Standby, …and, mark!”
Again the plane snapped into a sharp turn, this time left, pulling about the same G-force. At this speed there would be little time for me to carry out the rest of the necessary steps to complete the mission, but I finished marking the critical points on the radar screen and, as soon as the plane leveled out on heading, I called over the intercom, “Standby to mark on top IP. On my third mark… standby, mark, mark, mark. On top IP, sir, and take up heading 092.”
Again the plane leaned right, softer this time, we were in the right place now, but again, there was little time to think or maneuver at our current speed.
“Open bomb bay doors,” I commanded, then, without a breath, “target in ten, etc… three, two, one, drop, drop, drop.”
Whatever the outcome might be, the mission was done, and there would be no changing it. I heard my own voice coming over the intercom then, calmer, even subdued, knowing I had put pilot, aircraft, and crew through a mini hell. I could only hope that I was right in doing so.
“Close bomb bay doors,” I commanded, hastily adding, “remain on heading and climb, climb, climb, sir.”
The plane pitched sharply upward and the intercom fell ominously quiet. A moment later the navigator approached my station, lifted my earphone and said, “Well, you f….d up this time, Wilson. The Captain wants to kill you, you’d better hide.”
“Hide?” I asked, indicating the fact that we were crammed together in a flying tube. “Where am I going to hide?”
The Nav suggested, “Head to the galley and take a seat back there in the booth.”
Now that we were well above the harbor fog, above the mountains, above the clouds and safe, on a heading to our base in California, the ticking time that was in such a rush during our mining run, dragged slowly by, as I awaited my execution. After what seemed a very long while, but still came sooner than I would like, I heard Lurch’s booming voice coming from somewhere forward in the plane. “Where’s that radarman of mine?”
It seemed strange to me that he actually sounded joyful. He repeated his inquiry, in the same jovial manner, so, feeling compelled, I stepped out of the galley and started forward to take my punishment. “There he is,” he said, seeing me and smiling, his arms open wide.
I wondered what could account for this drastic change in demeanor. I learned then, that the call had come from training command that we had dropped three practice mines right into the center of the invisible box where they were intended to go. In fact, we were the only crew out of thirty-six, who had done so, meaning, that soon we would become the only alpha qualified P3 flight crew the Navy had in WestPac. That was a real feather in Lurch’s cap and the fact is, he owed me for it.
So, what was my reward? Two weeks after our meeting in Iwakuni, concerning the subject of my separation from the Navy, I got my orders and flew out of Tokyo to San Francisco, leaving my crew, our plane and the Vietnam war behind. I was assigned to exit the Navy from a little base near the Golden Gate Bridge called, Treasure Island. It sounded good to me, but what did I know?
When I got off the bus that picked me up at the airport, along with forty other sailors and marines, I was directed to the admin. building, where a yoeman looked over my encoded orders, wrinkled his brow, then looked at me and shrugged, saying, “You need to go over to building 139 and check in there.”
He kindly gave me directions, so I picked up my baggage and went on my way. At building 139 another yoeman followed the pattern of the first almost precisely, wrinkling his brow, looking me over, shrugging and saying, “Keep your dungarees, your douche kit, and your skivvies and give me your bags for storage.”
Now it was my turn to wrinkle my brow, but, considering it was the Navy, after all, I didn’t try to make sense of it, I just complied as I had been so well trained to do. He, in turn, handed me a blanket and a pillow saying, “Take your orders with you and go across the street to building 140. At the gate, ring the bell and the Master at Arms will come out to let you in.”
The instructions were simple enough, but as I approached building 140 I noted that it looked an awful lot like a prison. Turned out that it was, and that’s where I spent my last two weeks in the Navy, cleaning pots and pans and scrubbing floors with a scrub brush.
Thanks a lot, Lurch. I’ll remember you in my prayers. Fortunately, good behavior got me out on the day of my scheduled separation and, though my stay was brief, it was enough to give me the feel of prison and the knowledge that I would never want to return, neither to prison or the Navy.