Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cold War Memories - Part 1

Cold War Memories
Jerald Terwilliger (RM1), National Vice Chairman/Treasurer of American Cold War Veterans, Inc. © March 11, 2008

While I was still in High School during the late 1950’s, I was a Civil Defense volunteer. My station during Air Raid Drills was the Grade School very close to my home. I had the keys to the doors in case it was needed as a shelter. Of course the need never arose, so I just stood at the front door with my little armband and steel helmet. I probably looked pretty silly, but I did feel important.

Of course this was a period when the entire country wondered, worried and waited for the possible attack. I am sure a lot of people remember the “duck and cover” drills. School children hid under their desk or in hallway and covered their heads. It would not have helped any if there had been an actual atomic explosion. It was the best idea we had right then. It was a frightening ordeal, and I am sure many can still recall the sound of the siren blaring away. How many people had backyard or basement fallout shelters? No one knows for sure, but there were many. They ranged from a simple get under the workbench in the basement, to more sophisticated shelters dug in the ground; stocked with canned goods, water, flashlight, candles, a first aid kit, and transistor radio.

Our country lived in various amounts of fear and dread of the possibility of “Nuclear Winter”. We had faith in our country, our president, and our military. Fear and distrust of the Communists ran rampant. There was the black list of Hollywood, the McCarthy hearings, some wondering if the man next door was a possible spy. In all it was a very vivid and long lived era of our history.

I think this was a very large influence on my decision to join the U.S. Navy upon graduation. My older brother had joined the Navy which also led me to consider the Navy. I waited almost a year after graduation before taking the big step. It was not an easy thing, and I thought a great deal about it, what it might mean to me and my family.

I felt the need to serve my country growing stronger, wanting to do something right. So I enlisted in 1960, and thus began my ten year journey. I went to Boot Camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Some of the memories include being woken in the middle of the night for inspection, standing next to your bunk in skivvies holding the neck of your tee shirt out to show it was clean. Also standing guard in the rain beside the dumpster, with my rifle (That could not fire) and saluting every officer that passed by. Sure was a lot of fun.

I recall washing our clothes by hand, hanging them in the drying room. To press our uniform we filled empty metal polish cans with hot water to use as an iron, with the uniform turned inside out to get the creases correct. Then the uniform was placed under the mattress and slept on, and you hoped it was not wrinkled in the morning.

Being the assorted clowns and misfits that we were our smoking lamp was out more than it was lit. That mean you can only smoke in certain places at specific times. Our company was well known for several weeks, and not in a good way. I think we did more marching on the parade ground then any other company in camp during that period. Russel’s Rejects I think we were called. But, we eventually got our act together and straightened up, after a few hours of doing PT with our rifles in the rain. We all managed to make it through the 12 weeks and graduate together.

From Boot Camp I was assigned to Radioman “A” school in Norfolk, VA. That was another fun and interesting phase of learning. Norfolk Naval Base is a very large and sprawling base. The Radioman school was about four blocks from the barracks; yes we marched to and from school.

I found that instead of waiting in the chow line, if you just acted like you were supposed to be there, just walk to the head of the line with no problem. There were a few cat calls and “Where are you going”, but I just ignored that and went on my way. Not that the food was that great that I could not wait, I just did not want to waste the time I could use to study.

We had to learn Morse Code and be able to copy at least 40 words per minute. Of course there were other classes, electronics, damage control etc. If I remember correctly the school was sixteen weeks long. There were a lot of nice guys in my class and we had some good times.

I can still hear the dit dah dit of code, something you just never forget. Ten years of sitting there with earphones stuck on my head, with all the noise and static I do believe made me a little batty, and hastened my loss of hearing.

One very vivid memory of attending school: it was December, and we could not get leave. So picture a bunch of eighteen year olds (most of us away from home for the first time) sitting around listening to Johnny Mathis singing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” or Brenda Lee singing “I’m Sorry” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” We were a lot of sad young men, with no place to go, no one but each other to talk to. It was a very lonely time for us all. We shared our packages of cookies and candy from home, or goody boxes as we called them.

After finishing school I was assigned to the USS Donner LSD-20, a big flat bottomed ship that did a lot of rock and roll. Donner was a part of the Atlantic Amphibious Force, also know as the “Gator Navy”.

The stern had a gate that we could lower, and fill the well deck (back part of the ship which was a big empty space) with water. Then Donner could take on LCM’s and LCVP’s (landing boats to carry the Marines to shore.

We also had a flight deck which was used to land and lift off helicopters, as the Marines made their landings. We could carry about 320 Marines for transport. There was more than one green faced Marine in the various detachments we carried aboard ship you had to feel sorry for them.

I spent a little time as Radioman aboard the landing craft, using a little portable radio. Yes, we had “C rations” to keep up our strength. We never knew for sure how old they were, but they were not very tasty.

You can get pretty wet sitting in one of those boats for four or five hours. We would begin by dropping a cargo net over the side of the ship and the poor Marines had to climb down the net into the bucking and rolling boat. That was never an easy task.

Then we would run in a circle till all the boats were loaded, and run to the shore, drop the ramp and watch the marines run ashore. Then it was back to the ship and circle some more, load more marines and off to the beach again.

The Donner was flagship and recovery ship for MR-7, we recovered the nose cone containing “Ham the Space Chimp”. We were very proud of our accomplishment, and had our own little part of history and the space program. Everyone thought that without us it might not have happened in the same way.

This brought about my first encounter with Russian “fishing trawlers” who followed our every move. I will never forget the Boson mate on the bridge at the time as he yelled “General Quarters, this is not a drill” into the loudspeaker. I think he was the most frightened person on the ship.

The Russian ship passed by at about fifty yards, much closer than they should be. They were even brave enough to wave at us. I saw a lot more “trawlers” through the years. It seems as though the Russians were never far away. Of course these supposed fishing boats were really an early version of a spy ship they had a lot of antennas for listening to radio transmissions, also several types of radar gear.

We recovered two more nosecones for NASA. We were also part of the recovery task force for Alan Sheppard’s historic flight aboard “Freedom 7” as the first US Astronaut in space. Even though we did not actually recover the nose cone it was still a part of history, and somewhat exciting.

We made a “Good Will Tour” Solant -Amity III to Africa, we were flagship for Admiral Reed, Commander US Southern Forces, and all the radiomen were considered part of his staff. The rest of the crew thought this was very unfair, but we loved it. This was also my first experience sailing in a convoy, albeit a small convoy.

One of the more memorable events that occurred was when we crossed the equator and made the magical transformation from “pollywog” to “shellback” It was quite a ceremony, complete with crawling through a large pile of slop, running the gauntlet of paddles and kissing the larded belly of the fattest man aboard.

We also sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern end of Africa, which entitled us to “spit into the wind.” During our return to CONUS we crossed the equator at the Prime Meriden, making us “Emerald Shellbacks.”

We visited several ports in South Africa, and the west coast of Africa. While in Monrovia we participated in the celebration of President Tubman’s birthday. That was quite a show, large parades, parties and other ceremonies. The crew actually managed to behave and there was no trouble at all.

In the midst of this cruise we were dispatched to The Congo, where we stood by and eventually landed some of our Marines. I think we spent about two weeks steaming up and down the coast. For our effort we were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

Once again we were being shadowed by Russian trawlers, and a Russian destroyer. They never came close, but we knew they were there. The Russians were always in the back of our minds, we wondered and watched and waited to see what would happen.

We finally backloaded our Marines and continued our cruise. I made a few quick friends in Capetown, most of the people were very happy to see us “Yanks”. The crew was treated like we were special visitors, everyone wanted to know about the U.S. Even though New York and Hollywood seemed to be the only cities they knew about.

The crew learned a lot about some of the African ports we visited, as we attempted to join some of the local customs. We took a few side trips to some very small villages, ate some of their food (and of course some of the local brew), I was always ready to try something new. I picked up a few trinkets that I still have on display today.

Although most of time we were welcomed, it was not always the case. Sometimes we ran into groups of people with anti-American, pro-communist leanings. One or two small demonstrations greeted us in some of the ports on the west coast.

At one point the captain decided to get everyone back aboard ship to head off any huge problem. Obviously it took a little time to find all of those who had gone ashore, and there was one minor fight; but no injuries were reported.

There was on very unfortunate incident that brought a lot of sadness to the crew. We had pulled into a small cove and had a beach party. The crew rode the boats to an island where we had a picnic, with games and some beer. One member swam too close to one of the boats as it was heading back to the ship. He got too close to the boat, was caught in the propeller and died instantly from his injuries. Everyone felt his loss and sorrow for his family. We held a very heart touching and somber ceremony as his remains were airlifted off the ship to begin his journey home.

As we headed home we hit some rough weather, and a ship with a flat bottom does not ride very well in big waves. Eating dinner in the mess hall was a real thrill; you had to hold your tray with one hand, and lift it in the opposite direction of how the ship was rolling.

The weather was so bad that the order was given to “knock off ships work,” which mean everyone could relax. Well, almost everyone; the Radioman Chief told us to keep painting that deck. The ship was taking some very large swells, and at one point rolled about 28 degrees to the port side. Eventually chief Carpenter let us stop painting when it started to rain. To this day I am not sure if we were being punished, the chief thought it was funny, or he just had to have the deck painted.

We lost our “escort” about this time and made the rest of the trip without them, not that they were missed at all.

Our group stopped in Trinidad to drop off the Admiral and his staff. We enjoyed a couple of days of liberty, spent some of that money we had saved while at sea.

Then we pulled into Bermuda for a visit. A few of us rented bicycles or motor scooters to see a little more of Bermuda. Driving on the “wrong side” created a bit of confusion and near accidents. Some of the stories that were told actually seemed quite funny.

We arrived in our home port Little Creek Amphibious Base, in Norfolk, just before Christmas. Everyone who could manage it took some leave time to be with family and friends. Of course not everyone could go at the same time, so there were a lot of the crew still aboard, we had a great Christmas dinner and it was ok, being single at the time, I had volunteered to stay aboard ship so others could get home for Christmas.

New Years Eve was special, many men had purchased alcohol in Bermuda, and although it was put in locked storage for the trip home, nobody bothered to check it as we left ship. So there were quite a few bottles still aboard ship, the cook even put vodka in the gravy.

I was on the signal bridge at midnight; someone had gotten into the ammo locker and stolen some flares, which of course we fired into the air. All the ships whistles were blaring, bells ringing, and people yelling Happy New Year, and we could see some fireworks over the city.

As a part of Amphibious Squadron Eight the ship and crew was expected to be ready at all times. So we would pull out of port Monday morning, and return Thursday evening or Friday morning. The time was spent doing various drills and training to keep us “battle ready”, and you could almost do certain things in your sleep.

Upon returning to port depending how lucky you were and which duty section you were in, you could get liberty for 24, 38, or 72 hours. If you were unlucky you had the duty weekend and spent the entire weekend aboard ship.

Since the radio shack was always manned, we worked in three shifts, and the mid-watch was a long one. The rest of the ship stood four hour “watches”, but the operations department(radiomen, radarmen, signalmen) all stood eight hour “watch”.

With only one or two guys on duty you could get very sleepy. So if you had the mid-watch you were allowed to sleep in that morning when you got off duty, while the rest of the crew worked. The “deck apes” or first division and boson mates always gave us a hard time about sleeping while they had to work.

Then we spent a couple of months in port, with lots of chipping and repainting of the ship. That is a never ending process as we attempt to keep ahead of the rust, especially on an older ship. General upkeep and maintaining a ship take a lot of time and effort.

There is an old joke about sitting in port for an extended time; when you get underway, before you can move you have to break away all the coffee grounds that have built up while sitting tied to the pier. The coffee pot is always on, and everybody drinks a lot of coffee.

Donner also made several cruises to the Caribbean with our every friendly Marines embarked. We would drop them off so they could play their little “war games”. Some of the landings were very impressive to watch. Of course we did manage to get a little liberty while they were busy. We got to see many ports and spend some enjoyable time in the Caribbean.

I was one of the “lucky, chosen few” I pulled two months of “KP duty”, as mess cook for all the Chief Petty Officers. It was easy duty, I just had to make sure the table was set, and they had their meals ready.

One good thing, I made friends with the regular cooks, and every now and then managed to sneak a whole cake or a can of peanut butter for the guys in the radio shack. To go with the peanut butter, I would get some freshly baked, still warm bread. You have no idea how good that tastes at 2:00am.

I advanced from Seaman Recruit (E-2) to Radioman third class (E-4) while aboard Donner, in the Navy you take a test for E4 and above and your scores are compared to everyone in the Navy taking the same test at the same time. No automatic advancement or battlefield promotion. There are only so many open slots for each rate level, so you have to make a good grade on the test, or wait till the next test.

As is always the case in the military, you make friends, get close to someone and then one by one they get transferred. My time aboard Donner came to an end in April 1962, and I was transferred, leaving a lot of good friends. You try to stay in touch, but eventually you lose contact.

Then some thirty years later I found the website for my old ship and found some of the guys I remember from my time aboard Donner.

She was a proud ship and had served since WWII; with a short period of being out of commission, she was later re-commissioned and served faithfully and honorably to the end.

I am proud to have served aboard this grand old ship. Even though it was only about two years, I still have fond memories, even though time has dimmed them somewhat, they are still cherished moments.

The Donner was then decommissioned for the final time in 1970 and spent time in the James River Reserve Fleet, just sitting there rusting away. Attempts to keep her afloat and make the ship into a museum failed and she was sold and converted to scrap in 2004.
To be continued.