The Navy

The summer of 1967 I was working full time at WJET but happening outside the bubble of Erie Pennsylvania was the war in Vietnam. Troops were being called up as the escalation of the war continued. My draft card arrived and that had me thinking. Would I be drafted in the Army and go to Vietnam? Or should I enlist in the Navy and be stationed on a ship in the Mediterranean and be a photographer in the Navy?  

If I enlisted in the navy I could be a photographer because I also loved taking pictures. While in high school I was the yearbook photographer at Erie Tech so we spent a lot of time in the darkroom and I think the chemicals probably got to me after a while. So I joined the Navy in September of 1967 and went off to boot camp in Great Lakes boot camp just north of Chicago.

The official swearing in took place in Cleveland, we rode together, several of us in a Navy van. Had our physicals and was declared fit to be in the Navy. I guess the broken vertebrae I suffered as a sophomore in high school didn’t matter. So my first ride in an airplane was from Cleveland to Chicago. We landed in Chicago were we boarded a bus for NTC, the Naval Training Camp at Great Lakes. We arrived a night, I remember huge, 2 or 4 story brick buildings. The person greeting us welcomed us then proceeded to loudly shout commands. We were marched into a room where we were told to put all of our belongs into a box, address it to our home and say goodbye to our personal effects. That night we would be filling out forms, and then sent to a barracks for the night. This would be a temporary “bedroom” and later after getting out seabags with clothing we would be moved to a training barracks. 

The morning came quickly, probably only 3 hours of sleep. We were awakened by the sound of empty garbage cans being kicked down the aisle. The Navy alarm clock. The next few days were spent getting dental work done (no novacane), haircuts and general lets get you ready to be in the Navy. Over the next months we would endure a cold Chicago winter, multiple vaccinations for every possible disease known to man and training in the ways of the Navy. You know first your first couple of days in in boot camp are pretty traumatic because they’re trying to trying to get you to listen to them and not have to think about things but just do things by instinct.

Back in those days they were using i think it’s called an air gun, they didn’t use an actual needle it was a gun that that shot jetted air with the medication into your skin and if you tightened up your arm in anticipation your muscle would react to it and you’d slice your arm open. There were a lot there were a lot of guys there we could see walking and holding blood coming. We would get shots in both arms then for three or four days later more shots. I still have my shot record it’s a little yellow card that says every shot that I got in boot camp.

The one that we hated was I think it was a vitamin b2 shot. They put us in this room it looked like a ballet room it had mirrors on all four walls and it had a like a ballet bar so we would have to face the mirror hold onto the ballet bar and drop our pants and then if we look to the side we saw the size of the needle and we saw the size of the syringe you are going to put that in me and they jab it in the top of your backside and it it feels like it’s filling up you. They made us march for a mile in the freezing cold to to kind of work it into our system. 

At Boot Camp everyone who joins is an E1 and gets one white stripe. because I had technical training in high school I was classified as an E2 and the blue indicated I was going to be a Seabee. Having the two blue stripes, everybody would be saluting me. It was weird. I was the only guy out of the 80 that had two stripes. That also meant that I did not have to do what they called service week. Where are you worked in the galley or mopped the floors or did that kind of work

Petty officer in charge of us, EM1 K. E. Reinhardt, Company 566, made me the master at arms so I was in like charge of the whole group of around 80 men. I was chosen not because of my ability to lead people it was because of my big loud voice. With that responsibility came dealing with the individuals of varying abilities and personalities. Every morning we had inspection, bunks and clothing and some of the guys decided to eat a bag of peanuts. They decided to put the empty shells underneath their bunk, that’s where the next day during inspection they lift the bunk and there’s 100 peanut shells underneath this bed. So who gets punished? Not them but me. I had to spend two hours holding a rifle straight out on my arms straight ahead of me for two hours that was my punishmen. I was allowed to punish them, not physically but to give them a task. So they cleaned the huge dumpster in their dress whites and their dress whites of course were absolutely filthy so the next morning they had to bury them in the sand and then the next day they had to dig them up and wash them.

I did manage to survive boot camp and managed to survive with the rest of them we only had two only had two people die in their sleep in boot camp. It might have been the drastic change of lifestyle for them, we never were told. We physically were challenged, had to learn how to tie knots. A lot of the instruction was by way of television which is kind of like a first. It was it was a way of communicating to a large group of people many times using just one professor/instructor who had recorded the instruction. Videotape technology was just coming about and this was kind of cool. When was in boot camp I had two blue stripes on my on my uniform, everybody else had one stripe and they were white but mine were blue. Since I had those stripes people were saluting me. 

We got liberty (free time away from the base) two times we would leave on a Saturday morning come back on a Sunday night. We could either go to Chicago or Milwaukee, one time I went to Chicago and the other time I went to Milwaukee. The train station was right there so you could you can hop on train and get either and usually involve heavy drinking. I don’t remember heavily drinking I didn’t come from a family that drank a lot so I probably was eating more than I was drinking. I remember riding on the train, coming back and then having to go back to the dorms or the buildings where lived. We of course we had to do our own laundry we didn’t have washing machines or dryers. We wash them with a scrub board in this big room called the washroom which appropriately named and then when after we washed and used so much bleach on our clothes then we would bring the clothes and put them in the drying room which was appropriate in the name it was a room heated with forced air. It very nice in the wintertime, very comforting and of course I had to keep watch to make sure guys weren’t going in there to sleep. We didn’t use clothes pins, you had to use little ties that would tie up your clothes.

Graduation, January 19, 1968

Next stop-Port Hueneme California, the home of the U.S. Navy Seabees.

I made it through boot camp and that’s when I had no idea that what I was going to be assigned to do and was under the impression I was going to be a photographer because I had a lot of photography experience. On the last day of boot camp they give us our orders where we’re going and I’m going to California and a place called Port Hueneme, it’s actually pronounced port ‘why-ah-nee-me’ but we didn’t know how to pronounce it and we had no idea what the hell is a Seabee?

I wasn’t thinking I was going to Vietnam so I went home for 30 days and told my parents that I was going to going to California to what was called “A” school for construction electrician, which was my designated rate. I would discover that after “A” school I would be going to Vietnam, so I said goodbye to my girlfriend and figured I wasn’t coming back vertical but probable in a bodybag. I figured I was going to be coming back because they said well you’re going to be trained how to fight, you’re going to be a Seabee and you’re going to have some training with the marines and I go, oh boy that’s not I wanted to hear.  

In “A” school I would learn about how the Navy construction electrician do work, including climbing telephone poles, 90 feet poles they had a pole yard had 90 footers that were spaced about six feet apart in a grid. The idea was you learn how to climb using spikes (gaffers) that you attached to your your legs ,you had to climb up to the top and you would play volleyball.

If you dropped the ball, you went down the pole got the ball and had to climb back up. The poles, first of all, they’re covered in creosote and they’re swinging back and forth as well. We were going to be installing electrical lines, transformers and things on top of telephone poles so that’s where that training came in and also we learned about generators and how generating systems work, house wiring and electrical safety.

At the Seabee base at Port Hueneme we learned how to fire M16s, M60 machine guns and we learned rocket launchers, grenades and we actually fought the marines on a simulated battle where the marines were at the bottom of the hill and we were at the top of the hill and the object was we were to go down and they were to go up and we would meet in between somehow and the survivors would be the ones with the most men not “killed”, we didn’t have live ammunition, kind of like flag football but training for combat in Vietnam..

I think it was friendly competition between the two because the navy Seabees and the marines get along very well, so we had we had marine training on the rifle range, survival training, it was intense.

I managed to find a girlfriend out there in California, Susie Lebonski, oh I wish I knew she where she was now. I’m sure her name probably isn’t Lebonski, she may not even be alive anymore but her and I got to be good friends and we did some surfing on the weekends and had some had some good times, so I had company out there and I also managed to work part-time at a radio station in Ventura. I would do a weekend show, I had a motorcycle so I’d ride the motorcycle out the Ventura highway, I think it was called and ran out to the radio station. 

The smell the eucalyptus brings back memories of California and I’ve been out to California a bunch of times including some family trips in a car which is a whole other story.

The music brings back so many memories like a group called People, a song called “I love you” every time I played that now in my radio shows it brings back memories of those warm California nights. I just remember the culture of southern California back in the 60s it was a lot different than what it is now but I have good memories of that other than I knew we were going to eventually board a plane and head to southeast Asia 

The base of port Hueneme, the Seabee west coast headquarters was connected to a town called Oxnard we referred to it as ox cart and it was it was a tiny little town back in back the day and since growing up a lot with ocean front being now occupied by marinas and condos. The unit I was assigned, CBMU 301 (Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit) had a couple reunions and one of the reunions was at port Hueneme and it was interesting to go back and see what’s happened at the town, but back then it was kind of a small military town. 

My stay in California was short because they needed bodies in Vietnam, they needed people over there and the Seabees need to be building like the bases. The Seabees have been in Vietnam since 64 or 65 and if you needed something done in Vietnam go to a find a Seabee. They’ll either get it done for you with the materials they had, or they’ll steal it, I’m sorry they’ll requisition it for you and we were we were famous for. I pulled off a couple things that, well I’m proud of it and the statute of limitations has already expired.

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