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Sea Stories: "Sir? ME?" or Youthful Mistakes


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Sea Stories: “Sir?  ME?” or Youthful Mistakes


Everyone has to start somewhere, I guess.  And the Navy is a complex, unique culture with a lot of strange customs which high school does not prepare you to understand.  My early learning curve was steep.  I look back now and have to laugh at a couple of my youthful misadventures.

I.                  A lifelong dear friend and fraternity brother was a couple of years ahead of me in NROTC at my university.  I was walking across campus one afternoon early in my freshman year, and ran across him, headed to the ROTC hangar building across the drill field from the main campus.  He asked me if I was interested in pistol shooting.  I had only ever fired two rounds from a tiny derringer owned by an early mentor, but as a true blue, red-blooded American male, I of course answered “YES!”  He invited me to come along with him to pistol team practice.  A lifelong love of the shooting sports was ignited that night, and I later became Captain of that NCAA Pistol Team.  Tulane University also had pistol and rifle teams, and they sponsored an NROTC Invitational Rifle and Pistol  Match every year, conveniently scheduled during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  This was, as you might imagine, a very popular event.  The Navy supported it by assigning an Amphibious Transport vessel to dock at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans, to provide no-cost berthing and meals for the competing midshipmen and their active duty coaches.  Big berthing spaces normally full of Marines were an empty floating hotel, the ship’s crew got to go to Mardi Gras, and everybody was happy with the arrangement.

My first year attending this match, the assigned ship was USS FRANCIS MARION (LPA-249).  She was then quite aged, well past her prime, and the first active Navy ship I ever set foot on.  I had been in my 4th Class Midshipman’s uniform for about six months total.  I reported aboard and took my modest luggage down to my assigned berthing compartment to get myself squared away and my bunk made.  I looked around the compartment, found the head, and generally tried to acclimate myself to my strange new surroundings, in wide-eyed wonder.   After a few minutes, the Commanding Officer was going ashore.  His quarterdeck watch followed the ancient tradition of announcing his departure over the 1MC General Announcing system:  (ding ding…ding ding.  FRANCIS MARION, departing”.)

I couldn’t run fast enough to find my way back topside to the quarterdeck and get off the ship.  I thought she was getting underway, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to go with her!



II.                 On my first actual Midshipman's Cruise (3rd Class Cruise), I was honored to be assigned to a ballistic missile submarine for a nuclear missile deterrent patrol.  I had learned a lot by then…or so I thought.  I reported to the Submarine Squadron staff aboard the submarine tender USS CANOPUS (AS-34) in Rota, Spain.  The staff informed me that my boat was at sea on sea trials for a day or two, issued me and my fellow NROTC classmate an empty stateroom in officer’s country aboard the tender, and told us where we could eat.  They then left us alone, having much more on their minds than two wet-behind-the-ears 3rd Class Midshipmen to worry about.

Our uniform at that time was khaki shirt and trousers, with a thin gold chin strap on our combination covers (hats) and a tiny gold fouled anchor insignia worn on one collar point.   At close range we looked as insignificant as we were.  But at a distance, it was easy to mistake us for officers, given the khaki and gold colors.


We decided to have a look around the ship, since we were off the chain of adult supervision.  So we found our way topside and stepped out onto a metal walkway along the superstructure to enjoy the brilliant Spanish sunshine.  We just happened to appear directly above an ongoing weapons handling evolution for another ballistic missile submarine of the squadron, berthed alongside the tender.  Whenever a “boomer” is opening the accesses to tubes or magazines which contain nuclear weapons, a strict “exclusion area” is established, limiting access to those cleared and authorized personnel who are directly involved.  This exclusion area is defined by and guarded by serious, no-BS, not-screwing-around US Marines, with real guns and live ammunition.  And we had stepped into the exclusion area by going outside the skin of the ship onto that walkway.


A young marine noticed us, and yelled “Excuse me, sir, I need you to go back inside.” I took no notice, since as a 3rd Class Midshipman, no one had ever yet called me “sir.”


A second challenge was issued, somewhat louder this time: “EXCUSE ME SIR, I NEED YOU TO GO BACK INSIDE RIGHT NOW!”My shipmate and I looked around, wondering who the young Marine was talking to!  It certainly couldn’t be us, in all our 18-year-old experience.


 Suddenly, the Marine took it to another level.  He chambered a round into his M16 rifle and looking directly into our eyes yelled “Sir, GO BACK INSIDE THE SHIP IMMEDIATELY OR I WILL FIRE!”  We decided that we could clarify our rank and title information with the Marine at a later time, and scurried back into the ship where we belonged at maximum speed.



III.                 A year later, I made my Second Class Midshipman's Cruise with several friends and classmates in a big gaggle of 19 year old officer trainees.  This cruise exposed us to the various arms of the USN, to help us choose what part we wanted to serve in.  We spent a week each with Aviation, Surface, Submarine and US Marine Corps units, getting a taste of what each does for a living.  Submarine week was in Charleston, SC.  After training was done for the day, we were allowed to go off base for liberty, so several of us of course did.  Someone had heard that there was a great beach-side restaurant/club outside Charleston on the Isle of Palms, so we scraped up bus fare and headed in that direction.  We met up with the daughters of a couple of local naval officers who were kind enough to show us around for an hour or so, and then split.  (I guess we weren’t as attractive as we might have hoped.)  We stayed on the beach and tried to find some enjoyable trouble to get into, unsuccessfully.  As it was getting late, we decided to head back to the Base.  Uh Oh.  The last bus for the night had already departed.  And between us, we had nowhere near enough money left to hire a cab for the long ride back to the base. 

One of my dearest friends and classmates is the son of a career naval aviator who had also commanded a Naval Air Station.  He was familiar with the concept of a base having an “Officer of the Day” on duty.  We scraped up a dime and placed a midnight call to the OOD, explaining our predicament.  The bemused duty Lieutenant took pity on us and said he would send “the van” to get us.  We were elated.  We would make it back to morning muster on time and no keelhauling would take place. Woo hoo!

About 45 minutes later, up pulled “the van”…the Shore Patrol van used to take unruly sailors into custody and return them to the base brig.  It had bars on the windows and no handles on the inside doors!  Two uniformed Shore Patrol enlisted men were laughing fit to bust at having a gaggle of midshipmen to load into the back, and had us all sign a “non-custodial transfer” form indicating our consent to riding in the back of the USN paddy wagon.  Of course we all signed, and rode back to base in a manner which I hope none of us ever experienced again.  I know I never have.



Edited by Gunboat1
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