“Now hear this, Liberty Call, Liberty Call! Liberty commences at 1600 for sections 2 & 3…”
This was the most welcome sound to come over the 1MC.
It was January 1969, San Diego, California. I’ve just been paid, $45.50 in cash. It’s Friday night and I have the weekend off. I’ve just spent my first week on the ship in the bilge, in Main Control, chipping paint. The recruiter never told me about this. What’s a sailor to do? Since this $45.50 has to last 15 days, I head to the Mess Deck and fill up on some of that good old Navy chow. Cup of Joe, Mystery Meat, Reconstituted Milk, Powdered Eggs and Bug Juice! Ah, the memories.
Now I have my belly full, I hit the rain locker for a shower, and get into my standard issue wool dress blues. Two red stripes and one military service ribbon. Those old salts in their gabardines sure look good. I think I’ll get a set of those when we get to Hong Kong and maybe a tattoo as well. I gather my forty-five bucks, my Liberty Card and head topside to catch the water taxi to the beach for a night of walking up and down Broadway. That’s all there was to do. No money, no car, 18 years old, and not old enough to bar hop either; Just walk up and down Broadway. And man was that weird.
Everyone wanted a piece of you. The Jewelry salesman, for one, would try to sell you a diamond ring for your girlfriend back home. And you know she’s in the backseat of your best friends 1956 Olds Rocket 88, steaming up the windows at the drive-in movie. To add to all this, the tattoo parlors, the transvestites, persons of unsavory character, the Holy Rollers, and the Buddhists tried to get a piece of you as well. To add insult to injury, the street preacher in the Square would tell me they were ready to save my soul. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz on arriving in this strange world. “This isn’t Kansas, Toto!”
After miles and miles of Broadway, my newfound friend, F.A. Booth and I are getting hungry. Booth was from Flushing, NY. I later realized he wasn’t as blown away by all this strange stuff as I was, being a farm boy, and Baptist preacher’s kid from out-in-the-boonies, Michigan. F.A. Booth saw some kind of opportunity in all this, but that’s another story. We are now being approached by a couple of good-looking girls wanting to take us to a potluck lunch at their church. So, with nothing better to do, we hop in a van with them and head off to their church.
When we arrive at the church, either the potluck is over or there never was one in the first place. The smell of food was nowhere to be found, only the smell of overworked underarm pits and cheap perfume. Before we know it, we get ushered in to our seats, those hard, cold, steel folding chairs. F.A. Booth is sitting next to a gas-fired space heater. Being respectful, we remove our white hats. Booth set his on the space heater.
The preacher gets up and starts preaching. It gets hot and heavy. Folks are raising their hands in the air and before long they’re speaking in tongues. Now I grew up in a Baptist church, but I had never experienced anything like this. Booth and I are doing everything we can to keep from busting a gut. The preacher sees this and he starts preaching straight at us. After a while, we just had to get out of there. My friend Booth gathers his white hat off the space heater, and it is scorched brown from the heat. It looks
more like a burned taco than a hat. Him and I look at each other in amazement and silently think it’s a sign from the Lord! Anyway, we head out of that godforsaken place before my friend’s white hat was thoroughly cooked.
I don’t recall if the girls who enticed us to such a painful experience gave us a ride back downtown, or if we hitch hiked. But we did get back to the ship, and Booth got reprimanded for his scorched white hat. I don’t know whatever happened to the girls, but we took the bait and didn’t get the promised potluck lunch, a blessing, or a date.
Well, so much for my first weekend Liberty Call from the USS Saint Paul CA-73, and San Diego, California; to boot.
On March 21, 1969 the “Fighting Saint” was off for the Western Pacific, saying farewell to her homeport of San Diego for a seven-month cruise to the Far East. En route to Subic Bay, the ship stopped in Pearl Harbor for three days, where key crewmembers were briefed by the staff of Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. On April 6 when SAINT PAUL passed near the island of Iwo Jima, the ship’s Marine Detachment honored the 4,300 Marines who were killed while taking this strategic island from
the Japanese during World War II.
On April 10 the ship arrived in Subic Bay for a scheduled 10-day re-gunning period. But, on April 15, after North Korean jets shot down an unarmed Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane off the coast of Korea, the USS Saint Paul received orders for emergency sortie. The ship was underway at first light the next morning for the Sea of Japan to join Task Force 71, the largest naval force assembled since the Korean Conflict.
I just remember being afraid. I had been introduced to the city of San Diego and all its outlandishness at the time. We were now cruising on our way to Viet Nam. The hours were long and the work was hard. The engine room was 135 degrees. There was no air-conditioning on the ship, at least not on any space I had access to, including our sleeping quarters. Mike division was located over the aft engine room and under the number three turret of the eight-inch turrets. We slept on canvas bunks lashed to an aluminum frame. When the gun turrets fired their salvos, it would almost bounce everyone up on our bunks like being on a trampoline. We ate, slept, dreamed and lived with heat rash. I was beginning to think if the Viet Cong didn’t kill us the wartime situation aboard the ship would. I thought I would never see my family again. I was weak as I was still recovering from mononucleosis that nearly killed
me right before going to boot camp.
When we received the emergency order to leave Subic at first light for the coast of Korea, all the deck plates had been removed from the engine room. We had pulled up all the steel deck plates and were going to replace them with aluminum. The ship got emergency orders to get underway and we worked 36 hours strait while underway replacing the deck plates. When we finally finished the job, I was so tired I rested my sore and tired body down on a 135-degree diamond plate deck plate and fell asleep. I remember waking up with diamonds burned into my skin on my back. I was sure I was going to die. The worst thing about it was the diamonds weren’t real.
As soon as we got to the gun line off the coast of Viet Nam, I was sent to Mess Cook duty. Now this turned out to be a good gig. No watch to stand, the best chow, and not nearly as hot as the engine room. I spent most of my time in the Spud Locker, putting potatoes into a potato-peeling machine. It was here I made a new friend, Henry Wayne McKinney (Mac), from Mesquite, TX. He had brought his music with him and I was introduced to Country Music, the traditional style. It was great listening to that music.
We became best of friends.
After 30 days of mess cooking, I was sent back to the engine room. I volunteered for more mess cooking, but no dice. “Back to the engine hole snipe!”
We finished the cruise and went back to San Diego in October. I miraculously, lived through it. I was no longer a BOOT. I was a salty dog. Life had to be better from then on.