The timing is perfect. It is 11:11 AM on 11/11/2018; Veteran’s Day. Unlike Memorial Day when we honor our fallen military heroes, Veteran’s day is THE day for our veterans who are still with us. And as such is supposed to be a more cheerful holiday.
It warms my heart to scroll through Facebook and see all the posts that my friends have put up with pictures of their time in military service. My personal post this year is a memory of one that I put up last year. It was taken back in the summer of 1964 when I was a young Midshipman beginning my third class year in the University of South Carolina NROTC Battalion. I am standing in front of a fountain in Cherbourg France. I had just noted to my shipmates that all the buildings surrounding the square are probably older than The United States. Indeed some parts of Cherbourg predate Columbus’ voyage. Sort of puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it.
During the first couple of decades after WW II, my veteran uncles and aunts did not speak much of their war years. But as time passed, stories began to flow and I began to understand what it was like in the Sands of Northern Africa, on the battlefields of Italy with Patton, on the flight decks of aircraft carriers in the South Pacific and bulldozing runways in New Guinea while under enemy sniper fire. The home front was interesting too with my aunts ferrying planes around the US for the Army Air Corps, serving in the WAVES and coming out of the homes to fill the jobs vacated by men who were in the armed forces.
I tended to think of these events happening some distance away from where I grew up in Jacksonville, FL. But a story my Mom told made me realize how close to home it all was. She had gone out to Jacksonville Beach to visit one of her cousins. One evening, they were sitting on the front porch of her cousin’s blacked out home looking out to sea. The beaches were blacked out so that they did not backlight the tankers and freighters making their nightly run into the port past the hunting packs of U-boats. The entrance to the harbor was a target rich bottleneck as the ships converged at the jetties outside of the St. John’s River. So all the beachfront communities, including Mayport and the Naval Station there went dark from dusk to dawn. Unfortunately, sometimes they saw explosions then fires as some unlucky freighter passed between the U-boats and some flicker of light on the shore. At that moment, it dawned on me that the small silver dollar sixed globs of “tar” that we found on the beaches in the ’50s and ‘60s were remnants of those war time attacks. Wow, I thought, it happened right here! I never looked at the ocean the same way since.
I was fortunate in that my own military service in the Naval Reserves never took me to an active war zone. The closest I came to real action was in May of 1968. I was on a “vacation” from my job at WCOS on my two week training cruise aboard the USS Soley out of Charleston. We had sailed to Ft Lauderdale and early in the second week of my deployment, we had left Florida under calm seas and sunny skies expecting a slow cruise back to Charleston executing anti submarine drills. Imagine my surprise when I was ejected from my bunk by a violent heeling motion. A handful of us were lying on the vinyl tile floor of the berthing space wondering what was going on. Despite still being a hour or more before Reveille we made our way to our duty stations wondering if we missed General Quarters. As it turned out we had not. Shortly after taps we received a flash message with orders to proceed at flank speed to the Virginia Capes area and to begin a sonar sweep for a missing US Nuclear Submarine, the USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Despite several very uncomfortable days in rough seas, our search was fruitless and we returned to Charleston. At the end of October 1968, the Navy's oceanographic research ship Mizar located sections of the hull of Scorpion on the seabed, about 460 miles southwest of the Azores, under more than 9,800 ft of water.
I will make one other comment about that cruise. This was in the middle of the Vietnam War and there were a lot of protests stateside. When we were preparing to debark, usually done in our dress white uniforms, the Executive Officer came down to the compartment were a handful of reservists were getting ready. He asked us if we had civilian clothing with us. I told him that I had driven to Charleston in my civilian clothes as I had just completed an air shift just in time to get to Charleston for departure. He told us not to leave the base in our uniforms but to leave in our civilian clothes. “Civvies” were provided for the one of my shipmates who had none with him. He told us that there was an active protest going on at the main gates of the Naval Base and all the cars driven by uniformed personnel were targets of bricks and rocks being thrown by the protesters. We exited the base by a gate onto Spruill Avenue base and then onto I-26. There were protesters present but I escaped the bombardment. One of the other reservists from my squadron suffered minor facial injuries when a brick went through his windshield. All I could think about was those 99 men who were missing and presumed lost. The results of the U.S. Navy's various investigations into the loss of Scorpion are inconclusive. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the theory held my friends who are former submariners is the one where she got caught up in an underwater duel with one of the Echo II-class submarines that was operating with the Soviet task force she was shadowing.
As interesting as this story is to me, it pales in comparison to those that I hear from my high school and college classmates and military service peers these days. As they get older, like my parents generation before, events long held inside are being shared, along with tears and laughter.
There is a civilian side to my story of the Vietnam War. During the height of the war, I was working at WCOS, doing a live radio show from Doug Broome’s Drive In near the corner of Two Notch Rd and Beltline Boulevard. Fort Jackson, the largest basic training base in the Army was just a few miles away so it was not all that unusual for a soldier to come by and request a song or two.
Probably the most requested song was Fortunate Son by Credence Clearwater Revival. This one came out in late 1969 and several Drill Sergeants back fresh from the war held it reverently in their hearts as the song that defined their Vietnam experience. They could not get enough of it. I think they would have been happy if that was the only song I had with me.
The other most requested song by soldiers was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and recorded as a 1965 hit single by The Animals. At the time, recruits had only a single night of “liberty” during their six weeks of hell, better known as basic training. This was their favorite song, despite the fact that Barry and Cynthia did not write this song about Vietnam but instead about the frustrations of big city life. The words “In this dirty old part of the city, Where the sun refused to shine, People tell me, there ain't no use in tryin'” were changed by the servicemen to lyrics that expressed their feelings about the war and military life in general. A completely different set of meanings came along around prom time each year. It was a very popular number to be played at high school senior proms and graduation parties.
Even after these songs fell off the top 40 and out of rotation, I kept personal copies of them with me, just in case a soldier came along and requested one or the other of them. Oh MY!