Changes of direction in life can sometimes sneak up on you. A woman’s smile will do it, and so will a baby. It strikes you somewhere in your genetic code or from life experiences. Other times the change will be dramatic as in a breaking point or epiphany. Something has to give. That was me in the summer of 1965 after starting to law school with the intent of going straight through to my future law practice. After all everything was in order for that to occur. I had worked year around in either a job or at school with outside employment from the time I turned eleven. I had a job promise from my girlfriend’s relatives. What was there not to like? It is not like I had never been challenged. Certainly Grinnell had been an outstanding experience where I had met some of the greatest minds and had learned much. I did not have the highest grades but had taken away more than I could have imagined. I had support and was thankful. But, it felt like a velvet trap. Doing what other people wanted or what I felt I wanted seemed right. Who was I? As the Bard said; “To be or not to be, that is the question”.
I remembered the stories about Captain Harry Blount, the courage of my British relatives during WWII, or of my older neighbors, such as Captain Eugene Hill USMC in the south Pacific. There were others in every generation of my family. Vietnam was calling. So one night I had way too many of my favorite spirits and the next morning went to the federal building and volunteered for service in the Navy and applied for officer status. I also asked for combat. I was not sure where this was going, but I felt free because I was outside the box. I left law school and worked for a pipeline company, working hard manual labor waiting for my commission.
Right after the first of the year I had my first airplane flight to Newport RI, where I spent the next eighteen weeks in training. The physical and mental requirements were not difficult for me, although some in my battalion did commit suicide. I have told some that no drill instructor could dress me down harder than my mother. I did do one thing wrong. I started my first morning by doing one-handed push-ups and the war was on with the trainer. So lesson one was don’t stand out too much. Second lesson is don’t volunteer. If you put combat service in an intelligence unit in Vietnam, you just might get it. And I did. I had to go through a CIA sponsored intelligence course and an additional current update before I left through Travis AFB in California to a base seventeen flight hours away in Subic Bay PI where Air Wing Eleven and the USS Kitty Hawk awaited. I was an ensign with a combat intelligence designator.
Although I was attached to the air-wing, I worked in the IOIC (Integrate Operations Intelligence Center) which was the nerve center for seventh fleet intelligence collection for the Vietnam effort as well as any other threat. One of those was the cultural revolution in China where our Hong Kong stores and R&R facility was located. There were also hostiles in the PI. There were others outside the scope of this discussion.
Longer than three football fields and carrying a crew of five thousand, the Kitty Hawk is a massive ship. The first task after reporting aboard was to figure out how to get from my state room to the flight deck in case of a disaster. Carriers are prone to fires and explosions because of the fuel, tires, and bombs that are stored below decks. Sabotage can be a problem but accidents are more common. One of these occurred on the USS Ranger when an armed missile on one aircraft accidently fired up the tail of the plane in front causing all of its bombs to go off. The ship was heavily damaged with many lives lost along with many aircraft. There were large holes in the deck. It wasn’t more than a day after I came aboard when a fire started in a tire locker storing magnesium wheels. Tires cause heavy dense smoke. I was glad I had counted all the steps, knee knockers, directions and ladders to get on deck because I had eleven guys behind me, all of us blinded by smoke and low crawling as we made our way out. Others were not fortunate.
After sailors made repairs we went to Hong Kong. I found myself with a briefcase hand-cuffed to my wrist and a 1911 Colt 45 pistol in my belt transporting classified documents from ship to ship. Accompanied by a body guard we made our way across the harbor by water taxi to make deliveries. Thought we were going to have problem when the helmsman appeared to be heading up-river to Canton in the PRC until he was persuaded otherwise. Hong Kong was dangerous because of the uprising just across the border crossing to the north and other foreign intelligence agents working the area.
After we left Hong Kong we headed for Yankee Station where we joined two other carriers doing flight operations. Combat operations are generally grueling days of little sleep, much anguish, and many duties. Mine included target analysis, review of intelligence operations, mission briefing, debriefing, and planning of operations for both strikes and search and rescue. Sometimes we did joint operations with the Air Force and Marines. We also had to stay out of the way of other activities, as you might bomb your own people or friendly forces. It is a complex problem with absolute attention to detail. On occasion and after some experience I worked with small groups who carried out highly sensitive or hazardous operations. The hard ones were when you worked with people who had little or no chance of returning. These men showed me what real courage is and what is not. One small error can mean life or death. I started turning grey as did most everyone else. The only relief was week periods of R&R in the PI. After the last line period in June we sailed for San Diego. I had been nominated for a commendation medal with combat V. I loved the work.
We spent about three months in San Diego, during which I got thirty days leave, got married to a wonderful young woman, trained in Fallon, Nevada. I barely had a chance to take a breath before we left San Diego and headed back to Yankee Station. We thought we were going to be gone for seven months but it turned into eleven. I had been promoted to full by January. In the meantime it was operations as usual. Then there was the TET offensive of 1968. We had known something big was going to happen starting in December. I had photos taken along the Ho Chi Minh trail that were persuasive. Warnings were sent up the chain of command, but were ignored. This was discouraging to those of us who suspected that something big was going to happen. But the information was held back because we were winning the war. As it turned out we spent sixty-seven days of constant combat in support of every combat unit where possible. LBJ decided not to run for president again. Many lives were lost. In the meantime the North Koreans had captured one of our intelligence assets with the entire crew. It was the USS Pueblo. During that period I extended my Navy career to a state-side position at Miramar Naval Air Station, where I was an instructor. In late 1969 The crew of the Pueblo was released by the North Koreans and I was among the five officers selected by Admiral John McCain, commander-in-chief Pacific to conduct the de-brief if the crew. This took several months and by that time I departed the active Navy and was assigned to a reserve unit in Long Beach. I received a letter of appreciation from Admiral McCain. And I began to move on with my life.
I must add that I could never really adjust to civilian life. I had changed. In many ways I was a harder more disciplined person. In others I was more grateful. Do not thank me for my service, but do a random act of kindness. As a footnote I ran into one of our operators, a former Marine, when we moved to Anaheim. But for the most part we went to this war alone and came back alone. The church that once accepted me now rejected me, but that is another story.