Monday, May 3, 2010

Lies, lies and more lies, Navy reunion approaches

For the first time in 43 years, I will be reunited with some buddies from my Navy days next week. My first ship, the USS Cogswell, which was affectionately called a "tin can" by those of us who served on her, has been out of U.S. service since 1970.

The reunion, which is in my second favorite city, Buffalo, New York starts Sunday. Joan and I are both going. Many of them have been meeting for years, but I have only recently had the time and availability to join them. The Cogswell was transferred to the Turkish Navy in 1970 and has since been turned into razor blades.

Buffalo is the host city for the USS The Sullivans, DD 537, which is a sister ship to the Cogswell. We'll get a chance to tour her as a group. That will be fun re-living memories. The Sullivans was named for five brothers who drowned during World War II while serving on the same ship. Following that tragedy, the Navy didn't allow sole surviving brothers to serve together.

When I was an 19-year-old sailor I didn't appreciate the old "Cogs" history. Built in the crucible of World War II she was on duty for many of the crucial battles of the South Pacific and was arguably the first ship into Tokyo Bay following the surrender of Japan. Arguably, because a number of destroyers claim to be the first ship leading the convoy into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony. But the Cogswell was there.

She served during Korea and then again in Vietnam and I served on one of her Vietnam cruises. The reunion will include crew members from her entire history, including a "Plank holder," which is the designation for a crew member who served on the very first crew. I'm very excited to talk to him.

My tour of duty about the Cogswell started in 1966 and ended in 1967, a total of about nine months. I reported aboard just days before she left for a "West Pac" (Western Pacific - Vietnam) cruise. My previous experience at sea had been a trip to Catalina Island, 26 miles off the California coast.

Fresh out of boot camp, my uniforms were pressed and polished and I was eager for the adventure. The adventure started with three straight days of puking. Basically I had my head over the side from San Diego to halfway to Hawaii.

My first night I was awakened at 11:30 p.m. to stand my four-hour bridge watch at midnight. Sick beyond belief my request to be excused was met with an angry "no" and a helpful gift of a bucket to carry with me on watch.

Mercifully, they put me on starboard lookout so the cool wind would blow in my face and keep me awake when my head wasn't in the bucket. I was supposed to be looking for ships and obstacles in front of the ship, but I don't think I would have seen the Queen Mary if she was 50-feet off the bow.

Three days in, and about three boxes of saltine crackers consumed to keep something in my stomach and sop up the green slime that seemed to burn all the way up and out, I started to feel like I didn't want to die. It was the last time I would ever suffer from any kind of motion sickness. That includes a typhoon we hit just outside of Japan.

The bridge of the ship is about 30-feet off the water and the top of those waves were higher than the bridge. We rolled side-to-side to the point we were concerned we might roll completely over. (It has happened)

You ate with one hand holding your tray. If someone spilled something, it would slide back and forth across the deck as the ship rolled. Ocean water seeped through the hatch on the fantail and our sleeping compartment had an inch of salt water on the floor sloshing back and forth.

For fear of being swept overboard you made your way through the ship through the inside passageways. I loved every minute of it.

More than 100 men lived in a space not much bigger than a very large living room. Bunks were hung on a pole with three racks on a side. It was close quarters and the head (bathroom) was just as small. (Photo below shows the racks from USS The Sullivans)

My favorite times were at night, after the work was done, sitting on the fantail looking at a sky almost solid with stars. Later in my Navy career, both on the Cogswell and the USS Hoel, DDG-13, I was a quartermaster, which unlike the Army, is a navigation rate. Those stars were used to navigate. Today, I'm sure satellite navigation is the preferred method of establishing where you are.

The methods we had then were not so precise, although a good star fix using a sextant would put you within a mile of where you are. A sexton is an ancient seafaring instrument that was incredibly accurate. The star charts have been used for hundreds of years. The math and track of those stars was known by sailors in the middle ages.

Ship life was often routine, custodial chores and later when I moved to the bridge, keeping navigational charts filed and up-to-date. During underway refueling, I was the ship's helmsman, as well as during battle conditions and going in and out of port.

Speaking of ports (both ships), there was San Diego, Hong Kong, Pearl Harbor, Yokosuka, Subic Bay (Phillipines), San Francisco, Vallejo (California), Midway Island and Kaohsiung (Taiwan).

Visiting exotic places was pretty heady stuff for a young man who had only been to one other foreign country, Mexico, and then only the City of Tijuana.
During her entire history, about 3,500 crew members served aboard the Cogswell. Only 300 at one time, so about the equivalent of eleven crews. I'm proud to be among one of them.
More later.


Cooley's Dictum said...

Thanks, Jim. The adventures of our youth....

Chris Flynn said...

Don't forget the "Captain's having tea" flag.

MSgtEd said...

Your best "sea story"........a line from your mother while visiting the ship on parents day as you were manning the helm.

"Don't hit the little boats Jimmy"

sparks_mex said...

Missed you by a few years. I was on the 'Gogs' from '61-'64 with two Westpack trips. Sure looks like my bunk in there. Forget the department but was an FT across from the Deck Crew