Friday, March 3, 2023

Here's A Sea Story For You

After going through Boot Camp and then Infantry Training School, I was selected for Sea Duty. Back in those days, the Navy and Marine Corps kept Marines aboard some ships to guard the nukes, run the brig, and be a ground force that could land anywhere if need be. Of course, we also had our assignments during General Quarters.

I came out third in my graduating class at Sea School. And since it was customary for the top three Marines who graduated from Sea School to get their pick of ships, I chose the USS Hancock. The "Hanna," or "Hannah" as some spell her name, was one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II. Her sister ship, her twin, was the USS Hornet which today sits in Alameda, California, as a floating World War II museum piece.

Back in those days, almost all of the top three graduates of Sea School went to the USS Enterprise. The "Big E" was a showboat and went everywhere around the world. Subsequently, anyone who was aboard the Enterprise was bound to see the world.

The old First Sergeant at Sea School thought I was "nuts" for choosing the Hancock. He probably knew that by then the "Hanna" was the oldest carrier in the Navy, it was the last World War II carrier still in action after more than 30 years at the time. She was also in pretty tough shape. 

My First Sergeant still thought I was crazy even after I told him that I had a great reason for requesting that old ship. The fact is that my older brother was a 2nd Class Boatswain's Mate on the "Hanna." In fact, because I used to take my brother to the ship now and then, I used to go aboard that ship before I ever enlisted in the Marine Corps. Frankly, I knew the ship and a lot of the Sailors.

So from April of 1974 to January 1st, 1976, I was stationed on the USS Hancock (CVA-19) as a member of the Marine Detachment. Of the 3,500 men stationed aboard the Hancock, 54 of us were Marines. We were a part of Ship's Company.

I want to tell you about what the Navy did with us Marines during General Quarters. Believe it or not, while we Marines still had to guard the nukes and take care of the brig, and man a few other positions, most of us were assigned as a gun crew on one of her two World War II era 5-inch (127 mm)/38 caliber guns.

Our Marine Detachment manned "Mount 51" on the starboard side of the ship. I was the gun's "Pointer." While the "Trainer" moved the gun from side to side, I made the barrel go up and down. I also made the gun go bang.

Right next to my brass bicycle seat was a small brass plate on the side of the gun that read, "Built 1939." For me, my manning that gun as our "Pointer," and knowing full well that that gun mount was used in so many World War II battles in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945, made me feel pretty honored to have been a part of her history. Besides being the first U.S. Navy carrier to have steam catapults installed, she had the distinction of being hit with 3 Kamikaze during World War II and surviving.

As for what it felt like to fire that gun? It was great! Nothing that I have ever fired since has ever compared to squeezing the trigger on a 5-inch Navy gun. I can still hear Radar Control say to Mount Control, "Advise Pointer, fire when ready." And yes, I made sure that I did just as that crusty old seadog of a Chief Petty Officer at Gunnery School in San Diego told me, "Remember to shoot with the roll of the ship!" No kidding.

There was that day when our gun mount had a "live shoot" off of San Diego during gunnery practice. All we were supposed to do was get the shell burst in the area of the drone. Instead of merely coming close, I shot with the roll of the ship and blew it out of the sky. The Navy was tickled and one officer called it one of the best shots ever made with a 5" gun. 

Fortunately for some, ships don't tell their secrets. And while the official story was "great performance by the Marine gun crew," I told a few of those very close to me the truth of what happened. That shot was pure luck. Shooting with the roll of the ship or not, the truth is that the damn thing went off just as I was about to stand up from my brass bicycle seat to declare a misfire. I was surprised that I hit the thing.

Because the USS Hancock was a World War II carrier, she burned black smoke when she lit off her pipes and grey when she was about to get underway. At sea, she had an oil slick that was 8 miles long. Slop was thrown off her fantail to the sharks that followed us. We took "Salt Water Showers" when the airedales shifted the fresh water to the catapults for flight ops. We had food rationing, drank something called "reconstituted milk," had cockroach-killing contests, and the scuttlebutt water tasted a lot like JP5 most of the time.

I was 18 years old when I went aboard for the first time as part of her Ship's Company. I was 19 when we left for overseas. Because of her, I saw the Fall of Saigon and what thousand of people fleeing a Communist takeover really looked like. I enjoyed Liberty in Singapore, Subic, Manila, Hong Kong, and Pearl. Since some Liberty ports are better than others, it's natural that Marines and Sailors on Liberty in some ports come back with better experiences than in others. 

As for Sea Stories, it's said that the only difference between a Sea Story and a Fairy Tale is that one usually begins, "Once upon a time...," while the other starts out, "This ain't no shit...". And while that may be true, let's remember that there's always a bit of truth in every Sea Story. 

For example, you should know, no one ever did more to further good relations with the local natives as did the crew of the USS Hancock while on Liberty. Frankly, no amount of booze ever stopped any of us from representing ourselves in a way that can only be considered that of "perfect gentlemen" -- all of "sterling character." Of course, there are those who would argue the point of us ever being "gentlemen" or of "sterling character" -- more is the case when recalling how someone instigated a bar fight or that time some were trying to evade the local police over some obvious misunderstanding.

As for being the model of America's representatives in foreign lands, as we were told we were, the Sailors and Marines of the Hancock took extra pride in knowing that we knew how to resolve touchy situations when calm was called for. That was very true when trying to calm down a father of a local young lady who may have wanted to see the ring that a crew member may have inadvertently promised his daughter. Then again, maybe he wanted to see the helicopter that she was promised? Who knows.

Looking back on those days, though still a teenager at the time, it's a safe bet to say that that was about the time when I learned how language barriers can be tough -- but can be breached. After all, contrary to what some say today, biology says there are only two genders. And of course, as nature dictates, men and women have a way of getting past such things as language roadblocks. 

Of course, it was also about that time that I found out how copious amounts of local jungle juice always add to the confusion when you're trying to avoid being arrested for something that you obviously didn't do. But that, well that's another Sea Story altogether.   

As for my story of what happened, I'm sticking to it. I was never there and I did not do whatever was said. That also included what I've said over the last 48 years when it came to giving adult beverages to a monkey that obviously couldn't handle his booze. 

As for what I wanted for the poor guy, all I really wanted was to bring him back to the states for a better life. And no, it's just a rumor that I registered him as a Democrat or that I wanted to see if I could get him into government -- or maybe run him for president. There's also no truth, that I wanted him to end up a no-so-funny Leftist celebrity on late-night television. 

Most who have been there, those who have associated with a medium-sized primate who can't handle his drinks, will testify to the fact that monkeys love freedom too much to become Leftists. And no, I have no idea how he was almost let loose in the Base Commander's quarters -- or why the Base Commander's wife didn't think that was funny when told about the plan. I have absolutely no knowledge of any of that other than what I heard later. That's still my story. Frankly, I'm still sticking to it. 

As for today, well today, if I feel like it, I can go to the old Alameda Naval Air Station where the USS Hornet sits as a museum piece. Once there, I'll remember how it was to live and work aboard one of the Hornet's sister ships. Being sister ships, both Essex-class aircraft carriers, they look alike. So when I first saw the Hornet in port there, it was a funny feeling really. I remember walking up the brow of the USS Hornet and really feeling as though she were the USS Hancock -- and I was 18 all over again. 

I will always remember the good and bad. And while some might not feel the same, for me it was a part of my life that I wouldn't trade for anything. There should be no surprise with that. After all, it's said that Sailors and Marines have a special place in their heart for the ships that they've served aboard. It's also said that that's more true than not when it comes to one's first ship.

Strange how that works. Then again, knowing of the battles and losses that crews back in the day had to endure, Lord only knows how a World War II veteran would feel when he goes aboard the Hornet.  

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. I know the perfect song for a pirate's journey. It's a little funny but bear with me. It's called, "How Could I Not See The Sea?" Here it goes. Oh, how could I not see the sea?/It was right there in front of me./I must be blind./Was it close or behind?/How could I not see the sea?/The ocean was just right there./I guess I was caught unaware./I must tell the captain./About what just happened/For how could I not see the sea?/How could I not see the sea?/It was right there in front of me./I must be blind./Was it close or behind?/How could I not see the sea? Oh, and one more thing. Since we're talking about the sea, do you remember this little jingle? "I'm Popeye The Sailor Man./I'm Popeye The Sailor Man./I am what I am and that's all that I am./I'm Popeye The Sailor Man./I'm Popeye The Sailor Man./I'm Popeye The Sailor Man./I'm strong to the finish cause I eats me spinach./I'm Popeye The Sailor Man. Well, Tom, that was fun. As always, your friend Benny. You know, after reading this article, it makes me wanna track down Blackbeard. Oh, and as always, because you know I'm just gonna say it, GET YOUR OWN DORITOS. Or else, ye be walking the plank! Haha.


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