On Being a Navy Radioman in 1966

                            USS BOXER (LPH-4)      

                  From my earliest childhood recollections I was always fascinated by aviation and radio.  Both seemed magical to a youngster; both able to transport one to interesting destinations albeit in vastly different ways. 

                 Aviation was clearly beyond my reach when I was 11 years old in 1960 but ham radio was a real possibility.  I’ve told that story elsewhere so let’s pick up in 1966, the year I enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  By this time, I had my General Class amateur radio license and I was copying Morse Code at over 20 words per minute.  I had taught myself enough electronics theory to successfully build several transmitters out of discarded television sets.  I had a high school diploma and I had joined ARMY MARS (the Military Affiliate Radio System) over a year earlier.  As MARS station AL2LQF I learned military radio procedure and traffic handling fundamentals.  The Vietnam War was getting more intense.  Since I wasn’t going to college because there was no money for that, my options were realistically limited – wait to get drafted or volunteer for military service.  Aside from my Buddy Holly glasses I was in excellent health. I wasn’t getting a pass on that account!  The pressure was on to make a decision.
 

                The Navy appealed to me more than any other service.  I thought their uniforms were really neat.  Diane Renay had a hit record “Navy Blue” and the possibility of having a girl in every port was overwhelmingly approved by my teenage hormones.  Besides, a foxhole that ‘moved’ was a harder target to hit!

                My “Elmer” Grif Griffin W2LOR had encouraged me to pick the Navy because the training was top notch.  He explained that the other services broke the job up into many different occupation or ‘job’ codes.  In the Air Force, according to Grif, one person might operate the radio while someone else operates the teletype.  A third person only works the Morse circuit.  Yet other people work on antennas or handle the transmitters.  Grif, a World War II navy vet himself, said that navy ships didn’t have enough room for that compartmentalization nonsense.  A navy radioman gets the best training, the most responsibility and the greatest respect.

                That was enough for me.  Down I went to my friendly neighborhood recruiter.  There I was told that because I had an amateur radio license I would be guaranteed enlistment as a “radioman striker” (E3), sent to navy radioman school, and then promoted to 3rd class petty officer upon assignment to the fleet without further testing or examination.  Now he really had my attention so I signed on the dotted line.

                After boot camp in Great Lakes I was sent to San Diego where I attended Basic Electricity and Electronics School (“BEEP” school), Class “A” Radioman School, Class “B” teletype school, and Class “C” High Speed Morse school.  Going to school in San Diego was a real treat for me because I quickly discovered that I knew it all.

                Don’t take me the wrong way.  I’m not trying to be a wise guy.  It’s just that the navy schools were designed to take someone off the street who had no experience, start at square one, and turn out a sailor qualified to join a ship’s company and go to sea.  I already had seven years experience as a licensed ham operator, a slew of successfully built projects to my credit, I could copy Morse code well over 20 words per minute, I already knew how to touch type, and my MARS experience in military traffic handling transferred almost directly to navy procedure.  I could “dip” the plate and “load” the antenna as fast as anybody else could on those Navy 1625s that were just like my 807 at home but with a different filament voltage.  So I just kept my mouth shut, aced every quiz and test and became determined to graduate with honors.  I did.  With no worries about studying complex electronics and learning how to use math formulas that I already knew, I was free to enjoy my time off exploring San Diego, La Jolla, Chula Vista, and I enjoyed spending time at Mission Bay.  Life was Good!

                A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned Class "C" High Speed Telegraph School.  A cute story about this school follows:  Because I already knew Morse at over 20 words per minute - and because the goal of this school was to train students to copy at 20 words per minute - check out this little article that Navy Public Relations sent to my hometown newspaper. 

You have to click on the picture an then click again to make it a readable size.  Use the back button to return here.


                I could have graduated on the first day but the practical test was only given on Friday of the first full week of class.  My family and friends back home thought I was a freakin' genius!

                Upon graduation I received orders to report to Commander, Marine Amphibious Squadron Four embarked in the USS BOXER.  In the Navy, one lives “in” a ship and “on” a boat.  My unit, whose acronym was COMPHIBRON FOUR was commanded by Commodore Joseph B. Drachnik.  We were the staff function that oversaw the operations of the squadron.  Our commodore was actually a full navy captain but addressed as “commodore” in keeping with tradition.  Even though he might outrank the ship’s captain, it was the ship’s captain who was in command of BOXER at all times even though the “flag” officer was Commodore Drachnik.

                Once aboard BOXER it became apparent that this was actually a city that never slept.  Boxer was 888 feet long and it was about 60 feet to the waterline from the flight deck. She displaced about 27,000 tons.  Boxer had started out as an Essex class carrier in 1944 and was subsequently converted to a CVA to a CV to a CVS before becoming the first experimental LPH.  I joined her when she was LPH-4.  My duty station was in Radio Central up in the island.

                One surprise was that although I was supposed to have been promoted to 3rd Class Petty Officer upon graduation and assignment to the fleet, one little detail had been withheld – the command I was being assigned to needed to have an actual ‘opening’ for an E4.  It took a couple months but eventually I received my promotion when someone else was transferred. 

                As a navy radioman I had a darn good deal.  My job was relatively safe and routine.  It was always warm and cozy up in Radio Central.  Cameras were, of course, strictly forbidden in any of the communication spaces and a court-martial offense.  That’s why I have no pictures of the gear and my old navy buddies.  Radio Central itself was a rather small space with a cipher-locked door.  Racks of Collins R-390 receivers as well as the (then) newer R1051s were always up and running.  All transmitters were located in other spaces in the ship below decks.  The transmitters were keyed remotely.  In fact my General Quarters battle station was in one of these transmitter rooms.

                Teletype was the most frequently used mode.  Our circuits were not clear channel but rather all encrypted using the old ORESTES technology.  I seem to recall our equipment included KW7s and KLB-47s.  Sometimes, I guess just to keep us sharp, we’d get an encrypted Morse communication – or send one out – which required manual encryption using something called “Penelope”.  I suppose back then it was all super-secret-highly-complex-incredibly-fantastic- stuff but today, the average secure wireless network in a home makes it look like amateur hour.   Whenever we would be engaged in any actual operations we’d make greater use of phone and Morse.  Our routines included sending out “movement reports” at regular intervals giving the ship’s coordinates and various states such as fuel and stores, etc.  One nice thing about Radio Central is that those of us who worked there always knew what was going on because everything coming in or going out did so through us.  Of course we all had appropriate security clearances and we knew it wasn’t a very good idea at all to shoot off our mouths!!! 

                 Several times each day we would receive the current reports of world news via teletype.  Frequently, it was my job to put them into a courier’s pouch, put on my white guard belt, hat and spatz and deliver them to the Commodore.  Walking into Commodore Drachnik’s quarters was like walking into another world.  It looked like the inside of a world class yacht with wood all over, music playing softly, and absolutely no sense of being in a navy warship.  The Old Man did OK for himself!
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From The Sacramento Bee (California), July 25, 2010:

DRACHNIK, Joseph Brennan Capt., U.S. Navy (Retired) Died peacefully in Concord, Calif., on July 13, 2010, at the age of 91. Joe was born July 11, 1919, in Ross, Calif., and grew up in Vacaville, Calif. He attended the University of California, Berkeley and then won an appointment to the Naval Academy, graduating in June 1942. Joe served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years. Early in his career his responsibilities spanned Executive Officer for the U.S. Third Fleet, inaugural staff of the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, gunnery officer, and destroyer commander. He was assigned as Chief Naval Section Military Assistance Command, VIETNAM at the beginning of the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his efforts in establishing a force of small native boats (''junks'') to counter infiltration by sea. In 1967, he attended George Washington University for an M.S. in International Affairs. Later in his career he was on the staff of the Secretary of Defense and selected as Chief of Staff to the Atlantic Fleet. He ended his career in charge of The Joint Navy-Marine Amphibious Forces Study at the Pentagon and retired in 1972. After retirement, Joe became Executive Assistant to the Lieutenant Governor of California in Sacramento, Calif., and then Administrative Officer for Governor Ronald Reagan's Cabinet. When the Administration changed, he went to McGeorge Law School, passed the California Bar at age 62 and practiced general law for ten years. He loved golf and creating things in his wood shop. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Cay Drachnik, Daughter Denise Coyne, son Kenneth and three grandchildren. Memorial services will be held in at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 2425 Sierra Boulevard, Sacramento, Calif. on July 30 at 10:30 a.m., with military honors.  CAPT Drachnik's name comes up fairly frequently in books about the early days of the USN in Vietnam.

 

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               Chow time was always looked forward to.  All the things I heard about navy chow being the best of all services seemed to be true.  There was always plenty of it too!  Take all you want; eat all you take!  When leaving port, there was always whole milk…for awhile.  Then it was powdered milk…for awhile longer.  Finally if replenishment was delayed we had the famous red ‘bug juice’ also known as Kool-Aid.  At sea, our drinking water was from large desalinators.  Sometimes they worked better than other times!  Showers were short – very short.  Wet down, soap up, rinse off,  and get the hell out.  It’s been a long time but I seem to recall there was no ‘constant on’ position.  It was more like the handles in the Home Depot Mens’ Room – Hit it once and it stays on for a few seconds only. Now here’s an indelicate morsel – in a navy bathroom which is called a ‘head’ there are no doors.  Ships roll and doors slam which could hurt someone.  At least that’s what they told us. Since there were no doors the Navy apparently saw no need for walls to hold the doors either.  So if you really feel like it, try visualizing a row of toilets early in the morning with no doors on them and no walls between them.

                In a navy warship there are different ‘zones’.  The highest ranking officers like the captain and the executive officer have their private staterooms.  The rest of the officers live usually two to a room in “Officers’ Country”.  The Chief Petty Officers have their own space where their accommodations are similar but not quite as nice as the officers.  Pecking order is important in the military.  The rest of us, from E6 down to E1 lived in “living spaces” that could be just about anywhere in the ship.  When a ship rolls, the worst place to be is up forward because the movement is greatest.  A carrier’s bow doesn’t ride out as much as a destroyer but it’s still a roller coaster up there in rough weather.  Amidships is where the center of gravity is and that’s more comfortable.  Toward the fantail tends to be noisier. In fact there is no such thing as ‘silence’ in a navy ship but one gets accustomed to it over time.

                Time actually passes very quickly at sea.  I seem to recall that we stood 12 hours watches while underway.  If you wanted to grab eight hours shuteye, that only left 4 hours to fill with eating, personal activities, and maybe a game of cards, a movie, or some reading.  We had a ship’s store where there were all sorts of things one could purchase.  I remember buying a very nice Seiko watch with 24 time zones in different colors.  Wish I still had it. There was also a store that sold snacks like canned Vienna sausages.  Such snacks were referred to as ‘gedunks”.

                Flight operations were always exciting if for no other reason than all the noise and activities going on simultaneously.  All the ship’s antennae had to be lowered to horizontal positions off the flight deck for obvious reasons.  No one was permitted on the flight deck during operations except for those who had a specific job. Since BOXER had by now been converted to an LPH we only had rotary winged aircraft aboard – a couple Hueys and everything else was a CH-47 Chinook twin rotor.  BOXER made two trips to Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 primarily to deliver both rotary and fixed wing aircraft and troops.

                I cannot recall any ‘bad times’ in BOXER.  Things were always quite predictable and routine for the radiomen.  Being a radioman was actually more of an administrative job.  It turned out to be a ‘good’ job but not quite the stimulating, broadening, technical experience quoted by the recruiter!  Consider this:  All the equipment was top shelf and manufactured and installed by the likes of Collins Radio Corporation.  Everything was overbuilt and militarized to withstand not only the harsh saltwater environment and risk of battle damage in action, but also designed to safely absorb stupid and careless mistakes. Like laying a heavy book on a Morse key and walking away from it for an hour.  When something broke, we just brought up a spare unit and tagged the malfunctioning one.  When we got to port, some manufacturing reps would show up to do a swap.  Truly, it’s a lot more difficult and technically challenging to operate a ham radio station than to have been a Navy radioman back then.  The real focus on the job was communication, not technical.  Getting messages passed with absolute accuracy and speed was the ultimate goal.  This is probably as it should have been too!  It’s just that as a youngster, I was promised a technical job and lured into an administrative job.  All that technical training I received?  Never used it aboard ship...

                 Ah well, all’s well that ends well they say.  Coming out of the Navy with their technical schools under my belt impressed the New York State Police recruiter who hired me as Dispatcher F7 at the newly built Troop F Headquarters in Middletown, NY.  And the fact that the NY State Police thought I was “good enough” to work for them most likely led to the IBM recruiter “stealing me” out from under them a few months later.  So in many ways I owe much of the success I’ve enjoyed in life to the doors initially opened by my military service.

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                 Time has managed to erase a lot of the detailed memories I once had of life in BOXER.  I adopted BOXER as ‘my’ ship because I spent the most time on her and joined the USS BOXER Veterans Association a few years ago.  Because I was a member of COMPHIBRON FOUR I was never ‘ship’s company’ on any ship.  Being ‘ship’s company’ means one was actually assigned to the ship’s crew.  We were always ‘guests’ for specific operations over specific periods of time.

                I remember a few of the people I served with but never kept in touch.  I remember we had two radio officers, both Ensigns.  One was named Hardy and the other was named Stewart.  Mr. Hardy was an LDO.  This stood for Limited Duty Officer and it mean he had worked his way up from the enlisted ranks.  LDOs were different from line officers in that they could never command a ship or an operation.  They were technical specialists only.  He was an OK guy.  Mr. Stewart was a “proper officer” with a college education and everything.  I remember him talking about wanting to volunteer for PBR duty.  BOXER was "too safe" for him.   PBR stands for Patrol Boat, River and they were otherwise known as “Swift Boats”.  They patrolled the Mekong Delta.  Mr. Stewart got his transfer and was killed in action not long after he got there.  I remember RM2 Howard, RM1 Lines, and Radioman Chief Vernon D. Fair.    I can remember more faces but the names are gone now.  There was the fat guy from NYC who talked with a lisp, the yeoman from Baltimore who played Joan Baez records and thought Jane Fonda was "boss"; there was “Andy” the guy from Alabama with the wiseguy attitude, and Harry, the Illinois State Trooper who thought being a cop automatically excluded him from eventually going on active duty.  He says that’s what they told him when he joined the Naval Reserve two years earlier to avoid getting drafted!  Quite a melting pot but that was a benefit of military service – it transported the serviceman to a place where you had to learn to get along with everyone. 

                Being in COMPHIBRON FOUR meant moving around a great deal and spending varying amounts of time on different ships as required by the mission.  In addition to BOXER, I also spent time on The USS RALEIGH, USS LASALLE, USS GRAHAM COUNTY.  I spent a short time on the USS GUADALCANAL.  I even managed a very short stay on a Sumner Class destroyer, the USS COMPTON, but not when attached to COMPHIBRON FOUR.  Thanks to invites from navy buddies, I was also able to visit the carriers USS WASP, USS JOHN F. KENNEDY, USS ORISKANY, and the Fletcher Class destroyer USS GYATT.

                But my time in BOXER will always be special.

 
Below is a link to a Picassa album of some surviving 35mm slides I uploaded.  I was too young to realize how important photos of my military service would be in my later life and was too careless to store them safely.  Somehow, at the age of 21, becoming a senior citizen seemed a lifetime away.  In fact, it didn't take that all that long to arrive here!