The Admiral's Flag
By Don Spence
|There is that time and place where you must make
a decision; either do it or always wish you had. Well, that time had
come for me the night before we weighted anchor and departed Norfolk
for the Pacific. It had to be now or never. The time for talking was
over. It was time for action.
The whole thing started when we reported aboard the ship. We were
docked over at the supply depot pier. I think they said all the ships
docked there before sailing to load supplies. There was only one
problem with it: Location. They had us docked at the end of a long
warehouse; no problem, the Marine gate was just on the other side of
the warehouse and over a little. The problem was that to get to the
gate from the ship or to the ship from the gate you had to walk, no,
hike all the way down the warehouse, cross over to the other side and
hike back to the gate. Normally not a big deal but for some of us who
walked everywhere on liberty, getting back to the ship seemed like a
2-mile trek. And what got to bother us was that little parade ground
in front of the warehouse.
You see the 2-star Admiral that was in command of the supply depot
had his offices in the end of that building. So every time we hiked
out to liberty and staggered, ah walked, back we had to go around the
end of the warehouse and through that little parade ground. Now to
visitors, and us at first, that little area with its fenced off grass,
(which we had to walk around), it's white painted benches, flowers,
and a big flag pole with this 2-star Admirals flag flapping in the
breeze, was really a nice area. But that flag became the symbol of why
we had to walk all the way around that stupid building. Slowly,
through the haze, someone hatched the plan of the century, "Let's
take his flag".
Now actually who came up with the idea, it may not have even been
one of us, but Bob Heidinger, Gary Harger and I adopted it as our own.
We would sit and plot how and when to do this "deed of
honor" for ship and crew. There were times when we would just sit
on the bench in that little parade ground and actually time the coming
and going of the SP jeep and any other regular traffic. But our nights
of liberty were always just that, watching and planning. Until finally
the last night in port came.
We had liberty that night and so off we went, going into Norfolk to
try and rid it of its 3.2 beer. At the end of our evening, as we were
heading back, the time line is a little fuzzy so the story picks up
with me sitting on that stupid bench again listening to the flag
flapping in the wind. Bob, it seems, stopped somewhere to tell a
waitress bye, and Gary, I don't remember. The other function for that
parade ground and its little bench was as a gathering place before the
last trek to the ship. Sometimes waiting was a good idea because two
or three were a little less likely to walk off a pier as one would.
Anyway while I was sitting there Gary walks up and flops down on the
bench. "Tonight's the last night", he says. "Yelp and
it's our last chance", I replied. With that little exchange we
both knew what had to be done.
With our usual (well almost) timing and precision we knew that as
soon as the SP jeep disappeared around the corner we had 15 minutes
before he came around again. "Where's Bob?". "Should we
wait for him? ". "If we wait too long the SP is gonna know
who we are". "Right." "Let's do it next
pass". "Well, OK next pass". As the jeep turned the
corner, our courage mustered, we jumped up, grabbed the halyard, and
with the jerk that would make any signalman proud, jerked down the
Immediately we had a problem we hadn't foreseen, THAT DARN THING
WAS HUGE! It fell over both of us like a blanket, then came the sudden
urge to run it back up and get the h*** out of there. But we gathered
it up and stuffed it between us as much as possible and then
arm-in-arm walked as fast and as straight as possible for the ship.
We were getting close when we heard the roar of a jeep racing up
behind us. As we stepped up on the gangplank, a voice from the jeep
froze us in our tracks. Or at least one of us anyway because as I
stopped, Gary (now former best mate) released his grip on the flag and
kept walking. "Excuse me sailor," the SP said, "What's
that you're carrying?". "The flag", I said as I watched
Gary step into the Ops quarters not missing a stride.
Back at the SP station a SP Chief with a million hash marks was on
the phone and he was standing pretty stiff. (To this day I believe he
was talked to the Admiral whose proud flag we has just swiped.)
"Yes Sir.....We recovered it......Yes Sir.......two enlisted, we
have one.......Yes Sir........They sail tomorrow.........Yes
Sir....Yes Sir....Aye, Aye Sir". With that exchange he hung up
the phone and left the room. I sat there and could see my short career
getting even shorter, huge piles of potatoes to peel, or making little
rocks out of big ones. All this was going through my head as the SP's
led me back out to the jeep and off we went; probably to enlisted
man's hell, never to be heard from again.
As we were driving it dawned on me that we were heading back to the
ship! I was ceremoniously headed over to the OOD (who had to be woke
up). That didn't help my case. He was told to handle the incident
shipboard and to ensure that I didn't leave the ship again that night.
Because of our
pending departure in the morning, the OOD handled the matter himself.
I ended up doing extra duty for a couple of weeks each evening. During
the day I was put on galley duty. (It seems my two assistants have
willingly supplied the photos.) I definitely didn't have any sea legs
and the rough water off Cape Hatteras and down the east coast didn't
help. So because of the wonderful cooking aromas and the time spent
doing the prewash on dishes, I spent a whole lot of my time taking the
voyage by rail.
This could easily end the story but it leaves out a point or two.
How did the jeep come after us so fast? And how did he know to come to
our ship? On the way back, the SP told me that the departing ships
spend their last days at this dock. And it seems that this brainy idea
to swipe that flag was not a new one. So to slow the losing of that
flag the trees had been cut away so that the Marines at the gate could
see it. (A point we missed.) So as soon as the flag dipped the Marines
called the SP's and they headed for us.
One last thing.
Bob, really got ticked off when he saw the flag was gone and he wasn't
involved when he helped plan it, hasn't fully forgiven us for not
waiting for him. And Gary, probably due to extreme guilt, later gave
me a 2-star Admirals flag, which I still proudly have. Thankfully it's
of smaller size.
The Seabat Encounter
By Don Spence
|Crossing the date line in the Pacific Ocean
complicates a lot of things. You cross it one way, you lose a day;
cross it the other way and you have the same day twice. Just like
crossing the equator for the first time then is an initiation involved
with the crossing of the date line.
On March 14th, 1967 the U.S.S. Noxubee and her crew crossed the
180th Meridian. First of all you have to understand I had no idea what
was going to happen. I was just an innocent young sailor. At first I
didn’t even believe in flying fish, but it didn’t take long
sailing in those Pacific waters before I saw lots of them. I remember
having to go down on the tank deck to throw the ones that hit on the
deck during the night overboard before the cook got to them. It was
rumored that he put anything and everything into the pot that was or
once was breathing. So it seemed like a good idea to throw them back
On this particular day, right after supper, one of the Petty
Officers from our Department came to me and told me, rather excitedly,
that old so-and-so had caught a seabat. Now just catching something
was not unusual since there always seemed to be somebody fishing
somewhere. We did manage to hook several really weird things so when
he seemed rather excited about this “seabat” I was naturally
curious. So off I went (like a lamb to the slaughter) to see this
demon of the deep.
When I got to the foredeck I saw a group of several mates talking
about the catch, one of them even proudly held a fishing rod. “Hey
Don, come and look. Bet you’ve never seen anything like this back in
Texas”, they said. There were about 6 or 8 huddled around something
on the deck. As I elbowed in a little one of them, on the other side
of the group, was holding up the edge of a towel and looking into a
large bucket was saying, “Man I ain’t never seen one this big
before.” Now I really wanted to see the seabat in the bucket. “Don,
come around on this side and you can see it” he encouraged. And so
around to the other side I went.
As I drew close to the bucket with its mystical prisoner I found it
a little hard to see what was under the towel. “Get down real close”
they advised, “And you’ll get a good look.” Well the key words
here are “you’ll” and “get” because when I bent over to view
the seabat………….”Whoosh----Splat”…..I got nailed in the
rear end with the wettest, the slimiest, and the grimy mop these
partners in crime could create. And the topping came when I
straightened up they threw the bucket with its demonic contents on me.
I thought Satan himself had me. Well, anyway, something did. It was
all over me. Its long stringy tentacles-TENTACLES, on a seabat! On
clearing my eyes, straightening my glasses, and regaining my feet I
saw two things. Everyone else was falling all over themselves with
laughter and the dreaded seabat, that was, in real life, a mop head.
“Come on “, I said, “Let’s get set up again and go find
Rough Seas and No Water
By Don Spence
| If you
have never been to sea it is hard to imagine the feeling you get when
all you can see for 360 degrees around you is water. The steady rising
and falling of the swells and the whitecap waves is something that has
to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Even the wind brings a
whole freshness to it that compares with nothing else. And knowing how
deep the ocean is and how vast it is makes you realize just how small
you really are. It always did amaze me that our ship, built with iron
and steel, would even float. But She faithfully served us and got us
where we needed to go. Maybe that's why sailors after being at sea,
day after day, week after week, develop such a love for their ship.
One of the things to be managed onboard a ship is, surprisingly
enough, water. Seawater must be processed into fresh water. And if
your freshwater evaporators go on the blink you have a problem,
especially on a smaller ship.
We departed the
Panama Canal on October 23, 1966 and headed for Acapulco for
replenishment before crossing to Hawaii. As you can tell by the chart,
things went normally until the 3rd day out. Way off to the southwest
of us a typhoon was building up and was expected to make landfall near
Acapulco in a few days. That would mean we would still be in port when
it hit. Not a situation any sailor wants to be in. So on the morning
of October 27, 1966 the decision was made to skip the stop in Acapulco
and head for Pearl Harbor thereby skirting the storm on the north and
Any rough weather can be bad on a small ship, but since She was a
little flat-bottomed She would ride up the swells and then coming down
She would slap the water like a board on a pond. The whole ship would
shake and shutter and the mast seemed like it would snap at the next
slap. The swells and waves were washing over the tank deck catwalk
with enough force no one was allowed to cross it. It's only 8-10 feet
from the waterline to the level of the catwalk so you can imagine the
amount of water that washed across her middle with each swell and
crest. In fact we rigged a safety line along the catwalk when we
readied for foul weather. The only one I remember crossing the catwalk
was the cook with a bag of sandwiches and a couple pots of coffee
twice a day. It was a risky trip. The storm, if memory serves me
right, also knocked out the freshwater evaporator.
The storm passed and the seas returned to normal, but the problem
with the FE was not repairable until we got to Pearl. (Side note:
Normal seas are kind of like the opening scenes to that old show
"Victory at Sea"). We went on immediate water rationing.
This was a real bummer. Any fresh water left was saved for cooking,
drinking, and stuff like brushing teeth. Bathing was less glamorous.
If you ever have the opportunity to take a saltwater shower…….RUN.
It may beat not taking one but not by much. But even that had a bright
the water situation we would heave to (stop moving) and have a
swimming party! This was great, even if the shark lookouts did make
you a little nervous. The other more humorous side to this story was
that we were constantly trying to get in the path of any rainsqualls
that came near us. And if we were lucky enough to catch one everyone
that was able would hit the open deck, buck-naked and working that bar
of soap and shampoo as fast as they could. Now the mental imagery may
warp you forever but try to picture the scene; 25-30 men with tanned
arms and necks buck-naked covered with soap and shampoo trying to get
in the heaviest part of the rain. It was a sight to behold (well,
once, at least). But somehow we made it into Pearl on November 8, 1966
and were able to "Man the rail" for the arrival and give
proper and respectful honor to the Arizona Memorial as we passed.
By Don Spence
hear this. Now hear this. General quarters, General quarters, all
hands man your battle stations. This is not a drill". These
have to be the most feared words a shipboard sailor can hear. At the
sound of those words being piped through the overhead speakers, your
heart triples in beats and your stomach is suddenly in your throat.
You don't think, you don't allow yourself to think, you just react. It
seems like only seconds and you are standing at your battle stations
with your battle gear on. Now you can think, you try to calm yourself
down a little. Focus on what happening, remember and trust your
training. And most of all; "What the h*** is going on?"
With all of our training from Virginia to Viet Nam, going to battle
stations as a drill was nothing new. We practiced it over and over,
day or night until we got it right. And then we did it some more. Our
very lives and the life of our ship might depend on how we did this.
But nothing really prepares you for the words, "This is NOT a
I don't remember the exact date or which pumping station we were
at. (I think it was the one at a river's mouth.) The Marine base was
just off the beach but close enough you could hear their shouts and
the sounds of everyday life. Hearing a few gunshots and seeing a
parachute flare or two during my mid-watch as radioman was not
unusual. A lot of the time I would take the long headset cord and move
out of the confines of the radio room and stand on the starboard
bridge wing. It is hard to describe how beautiful the night sky
usually was. The stars were always so bright. The waves and swells
that rocked us gently and the sound of the water lapping around the
small boats added to the serenity of the scene. The small boats,
usually bladder boats from the Marine Depot came out to feast on our
mid-rats (midnight rations). This usually consisted of peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches on fresh baked bread with some soup made from
anything left over from that day. And this was that scene that night
when suddenly all hell seemed to break loose on the beach.
Suddenly, from the Marine base, came shouting , parachute flares,
and a hellofa lot of gunfire. My headphones suddenly erupted with
hurried, excited voices telling of an attack on the perimeter of the
base. The sky, so tranquil a moment ago, suddenly looked like a
ballpark after a 4th of July ballgame. In seconds the marine that was
onboard as a communicator (with his buddies at the fueling station on
the beach) bounded up the ladder (stairs, for you civies) asking for
the OOD. Before he even got the words out the OOD (Officer of the Day)
was suddenly on the bridge. They talked back and forth for a minute or
two then the marine went back to his station (to assist in stopping
the fuel transfer) and the OOD headed for the Captain.
In a few minutes the Captain came up, talked by radio to the
Marines ashore, then turned to the other officers that had assembled
by there and told them that we needed to go to general quarters. He
told us to resume pumping, but to standby for emergency disconnect and
departure. The Marines had requested we standby in case the Viet Cong
tried to attack from the beach side of the camp. I wondered what we
could do. Our armament was not all that impressive. We had several 50
cal machineguns, some rifles and pistols, and some grenades. We
probably would be shaking so badly we wouldn't hit a thing but maybe
we'd scare them a little. I remember glancing over the bridge at the
3" gun and wondering what we were going to do with that? The
beach was so close you could also spit and hit it. Well, it sure
seemed that close that night. Adding to all the commotion was all the
small boats from the base coming out to the seaward side of the ship
for protection. Yeah, I thought, put us in between you and them. This
was starting to get a little spooky.
I think the attack lasted for about an hour before, as suddenly as
it started, it stopped. But for that hour I was closer to the war than
I had ever wanted to be. It's a strange feeling to stand there so
close to a firefight that you can hear the shouts of orders being
given, see the tracer shells flashing off into the darkness, the
parachute flares popping and floating down, the whine of the ricochet
(some out our way), and worst of all the sounds of pain as someone got
hit. It was like I was watching a battle scene from the movie
"Green Berets". No matter how hard I tried I couldn't
swallow that lump in my throat.
Things got deadly quiet for a little while, waiting I guess for
another assault, then the Marine walkie-talkies start chattering again
and the small boats headed back. We stood down from general quarters
and within minutes all was quiet, I was again alone on the bridge, and
it seemed like it never happened. Except I still had that lump and my
knees was shaking from knowing just how close I had been to things I'd
only heard about or had seen on the T.V. news.
Soon my watch was over, another day had started, and everything
seemed as it had been. But I wouldn't be the same and I'm sure that
most of my shipmates wouldn't be the same either. We didn't talk about
it much after that night, we being salty sailors and men after all,
but I imagine that firefight made all of us stop and think. We all got
closer to the war than we wanted. And one last thing;
I'm just grateful I'd gone to the head before starting my watch
that night. Amen.