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Sailors, soldiers, airmen and conundrums

Conundrum: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.

Over the span of my lifetime—not the complete span, because I’m still adding to that lifetime—I have heard a certain conundrum repeated an astonishing number of times, and I’ve always wondered why it refers only to a certain branch of our military services, namely the United States Navy.

The term that is always used is on the order of spending money like a drunken sailor or like drunken sailors. I have never heard anyone say spending money like a drunken soldier, or airman, or coast guardsman or marine—not even spending money like a National Guardsman. I consider the term a conundrum because any answer given would be purely conjectural.

What particular feature, what aberration, whether physical or mental, can we attribute to sailors to explain why we hang that peculiar phrase only on sailors and not on other uniformed personnel? Is it predilection on our part, or in it animosity toward them? Why not on members of the other services? Other military service members—not all, but some—are prone to imbibe strong drink in generous amounts under certain conditions, namely being off-duty at the time, but invariably we toss that bomb at sailors.

I will at this junction attest that I have seen members of the other services in conditions that would rival—nay, perhaps surpass—the conduct of any drunken sailor in any situation and I am prepared to sign an official document to that effect. As a retired member of a military service other than the US Navy I have a right to speak, particularly because I have seen non-sailors spending money like—well, like a drunken sailor.

Why sailors? Perhaps there is something about naval personnel that causes them to over-imbibe and recklessly, generously, blindly spend money like—well, like a drunken sailor. It may be the fact that after spending weeks without touching port, their pay accumulates because they have nowhere to spend it, so when they manage to land in port, regardless of the location, they spread the money around faced with the full knowledge that soon they will again be at sea.

I considered the US Navy for a career before I enlisted, but was daunted by the thirteen buttons—one for each of the original thirteen American colonies. I was also advised by my brother, a salty seagoing sailor veteran of World War II, that the tibia of my right leg, shattered in a baseball game but nicely repaired, would preclude me from sea duty assignments because volleys fired from a ship could aggravate my injury. He told me that sailors on deck when the big guns were fired were told to put most of their weight on their heels or their toes to avoid damage to the lower extremities, that if one stood flat-footed the vibration could possibly cause damage to one’s lower extremities, particularly to lower extremities with previous damages.

I had a problem imagining sailors in wartime standing and walking around either on their heels or on their toes, and I had serious doubts as to the veracity of that advice. The real reason I did not join the navy was the 13-button trousers worn by enlisted men. Had the trousers been opened and closed with a zipper I probably would have joined the navy and seen the world through a porthole, as the old saying goes.

Sailor’s joke: Have you heard the one about the young sailor that was told by a well-seasoned old salt that if he stuck his head through a porthole he would see a submarine. He complied, and a moment later exclaimed to the old salt, I don’t see no su-UB-marine!

If you’ve already heard that one, just skip the previous paragraph.

I enlisted in the United States Air Force and I have never regretted my decision. I spent 22 years in that service and not once did I spend money like a drunken sailor, primarily because I was never paid enough to enjoy such actions. I joined the United States federal civil service and made more money in wages the first year than I did in my twenty-second year in the US Air Force, including overseas pay, separate rations, and housing and clothing allowances. Today the lowest enlisted rank with two years in service is paid $17,616 in base pay plus all the other benefits. My total pay for my twenty-second year of service, with a wife and three children, including all benefits totaled $14,400 per annum—before taxes.

I may bring all sorts of condemnation on myself, but I’m going to say it anyway. Our military people are paid well—extremely well. Let the barrage begin—fire at will!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A two-week boat ride to Japan . . .

In 1950 I traveled from San Francisco to Japan in 14 days, and back to San Francisco in another 14 days, with a considerable amount of time spent in Japan and South Korea between the trip to the Orient and the return to the United States, somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 months. Fifteen of those months were spent in bad neighborhoods—they were spent at Taegu in the south and Kimpo in the north, two of our US airfields in South Korea during the Korean War.

I refuse to call it a conflict. It was a war, one in which more than 40,000 members of our armed forces died during four years of fighting—that qualifies it to be called a war, not a conflict.

I traveled by bus from my mother’s home in Midland, Texas to Alpine, Texas, then by train to Los Angeles and up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. The month was April, and the trip up to San Francisco—a distance of almost 400 miles—with the blue Pacific Ocean on the left and the green mountain slopes on the right was memorable. In San Francisco I boarded a ferry and was taken to Camp Stoneman. I was quartered for a week or so before boarding another ferry to the Port of San Francisco where I boarded an army troop ship bound for Japan.

Camp Stoneman, located in the city of Pittsburgh some forty miles from San Francisco, was a staging facility for military personnel traveling to foreign destinations to the east from the Port of San Francisco. Arrivals from oversea assignments and those departing for such assignments traveled by ferry to and from the Port and Camp Stoneman. Opened in 1942, the camp was shut down in 1954. Click here for images of Camp Stoneman and its brief history.

We departed for Japan on the USS Daniel L. Sultan, a U.S. Army vessel named for an army general, a ship that on this voyage would be loaded with 5,000 troops, 500 dependents and an indefinite number of cats and dogs, pets of the dependent members. When we pulled away from San Francisco, we headed north instead of west to pick up the dependents and their pets in Seattle, Washington.

My brother Larry, an army Warrant Officer, was stationed at the Yakima Training Facility and I obtained permission to debark in Seattle—yes, debarking, that’s what they called it—in order to make a phone call to him. No, I did not have a cell phone—they had not yet been invented. Our conversation was brief, limited to expressions of how are you, how have you been, how is everyone else, where are you going, and good luck.

On my return to the ship I ran afoul of the Officer of the Day, the worthy that stands on deck by the gangplank to greet boarders, to inquire as to their reason for boarding and to ascertain whether contraband is involved in their boarding. I had no problem answering the questions, but I committed a serious breach of military protocol.

As any sailor knows, when one boards or debarks a military vessel, courtesy must be given by saluting the United States flag flown by the vessel. I had been briefed on that courtesy and I saluted accordingly, but I was chastised—chewed out—by the Officer of the Day. It seems that I saluted the prow of the vessel instead of the stern. I had been below decks ever since boarding the ship and had no idea which end was which, so I took a guess—I guessed wrong.

Other than that, the two-week voyage was uneventful. I was seasick for the first two days and spent a lot of time hanging over the rail, and I learned to gauge the wind—one had to watch one’s output closely because one’s output had a bad habit of almost reaching the waves and then riding the wind all the way back up, often to its origin. I learned early to heave and then quickly step back from the railing. Some others weren’t that lucky. There’s an old joke that goes like this: The admiral asks a young sailor if he has a weak stomach, and the sailor says, No, sir, I am throwing it just as far as the others are.

Every GI on the ship had a daily detail. Some worked in the galley, some in the heads, some did laundry and various make-work tasks, but I was one of the very privileged—I was assigned to the poop deck detail. No, not that poop deck, not that flat-roofed cabin that is erected at the stern of old-time ships for storage and to serve as an observation point. The word poop is derived from a French word poupe, meaning stern, the back part of the ship.

No, my detail involved poop, the real McCoy. People with pets were required to exercise them every day on the rearmost part of the top deck, and the poop naturally followed. Every morning the call came over the intercom—first a series of shrill whistles, then came the words, Now hear this, now hear this—sweepers, man your brooms, clean sweep down fore and aft.

I never knew what was swept down at the fore, but I learned over two weeks about sweep down aft. It wasn’t that bad, though. There was always a strong breeze, if for no other reason than the forward motion of the ship. We used high-pressure hoses to wash down the deck, and we used the brooms to loosen poop reluctant to go into the Pacific Ocean.

I was quartered on Deck 4C, four levels below the top deck and three compartments aft of the head, or latrine. My bunk was second from the floor in a tier of four canvas bunks stacked from the floor to the ceiling. I was lucky because the fellow in the bunk above me was slightly built. The unlucky ones were those with a heavyweight sleeping in the bunk above them. In some cases, it was difficult for them to turn over without bumping into the weight hanging above. Bummer!

Speaking of the head—it’s at the extreme front end of the ship, but it would have been far better situated for use had it been located amidships. The bow of a vessel rises and falls with every wave, and one that is urinating must be ready to stop and restart the stream as the bow rises and falls. If not, one will be hitting one’s shoes as the bow rises, and splattering the wall as the bow falls.

If you have traveled on a ship you’ll understand what I mean, and if you have not, just ask any seasoned sailor how the system works. In the event of heavy seas, one would be advised to perform the act in a seated position—not very manly, but much safer and much easier on one’s shoes—and the wall.

We arrived at the Port of Yokohama, Japan two weeks later and docked in a harbor festooned with jellyfish. Just form a vision of Monet’s ponds covered with lily pads, then multiple it by thousands, perhaps millions, and you’ll have a vision of the Yokohama harbor.

A short time later—oops, let me rephrase that. The words short time have a very different meaning in military lingo, so I’ll say that a bit later a dozen or so of us were on a GI bus headed for Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo in Northern Japan. The bus ride, Yokota Air Base, Fussa and Tachikawa merit a separate posting—stay tuned!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2010 in Military, Travel, wartime

 

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