I was well aware of the VietNam War in 1966 when I started my first year at an obscure Missouri state college. I had no particular interest in continuing my education, but it was the accepted next step after high school graduation. My lack of interest was evidenced by my dismal high school grades, but the enrolment requirements were obviously minimal at Northeast Missouri State Teacher’s College providing you were a resident of the state.
I’d moved out of the dorm and away from the roommate I’d been assigned within the first month and was living in a dingy “basement suite” with two friends from my high school. I still had a valid meal card, but found the industrial “food” that was slopped onto our trays was something I’d imagined would be served to prisoners, so our steady diet of “mac & cheese” began…. a bag of macaroni mixed with a couple of cans of cheddar cheese soup. The roiling caldron sometimes included a few tomatoes, but still looked like large orange, comatose maggots. It was normally flushed down our gullets with beer and/or cheap wine.
Within weeks I was introduced to marijuana, something I’d never tried before, and found the overall lifestyle of college pleasing. I attended my Psychology 101 class a few times and may have tried a few others, but none were to my liking. As with most of my high school subjects, I couldn’t imagine that they’d be of any use later in life, so I simply enjoyed my new found freedom without any parental restrictions and nurtured my inner wild child. Over the following summer I was advised by mail that I was on academic probation. This was quickly followed by the notification that I was being drafted and given a date for my physical exam, something that I hadn’t imagined with my relatively privileged upper middle class WASP upbringing.
After doing some quick research about how to beat the draft, I made the decision not to attempt any of them and passed the physical with flying colours as I was quite athletic at the time. My father had been in the Navy during WWII and suggested that I consider the Navy as an alternative to the Army (a bunch of assholes), the only destination of draftees. We found a Navy recruiting office and while my father and the recruiter swapped war stories, I quietly browsed the literature I’d been given.
“Well, what do you think, son?”, the dashingly uniformed recruiter asked. “How’d you like to see the world and avoid getting sucked up by the Army with the other losers?” It actually sounded pretty good with my limited alternatives. The idea of fleeing the country as a draft dodger had already been all but extinguished. I’d been in contact with the Quakers who had encouraged me to flee to Canada and connect with some of their brethren there, but this Navy thing was sounding pretty good. Sensing my obvious hesitation Mr. Navy Recruiter casually said, “I did tell you there are no Navy personnel in VietNam, didn’t I?” He continued his pitch but I still had the four year commitment rattling around in my head.
“If I were you, I’d pick a minesweeper in Japan for your first posting”, he said while stretching out, hands clasped behind his head. “There’s nothing better than Nip pussy”, he said with a sly wink. I began to slip under his well prepared spell as he slid the application and a pen across his desk again, going for the close. “You can leave after your 4 years is up, and the Navy will pay for your college education if that’s what you want. But you might find that it’s a great life with lots of benefits. Hell, I’ve been in for almost 30 years now and after a couple of more, I’ll retire with a nice fat pension for life. Hey, did I tell you that there’s no Navy personnel in VietNam.” He slid the application and pen closer and I started to fill it out while more war stories were swapped. I had the choice of either San Diego or Michigan for my basic training which was easy…. yeah! California!!! WhooHoo!!
There was no place on the application to request the minesweeper in Japan so he wrote it on the back of the application, signed it, shook my hand and gave me a snappy salute. “Anchors Aweigh”, he shouted. A couple of weeks later I received my “orders” in the mail along with a plane ticket to San Diego.
My naval adventure had begun and a feeling of great relief swept over me knowing I wouldn’t be slogging through some jungle full of snakes and booby traps. I had no regrets about losing my college deferment and spent many happy hours browsing the bundle of promotional material I’d been given along with a map of Japan until my departure date arrived.
My parents dropped me off at the airport in plenty of time for my flight. While I was waiting, two sailors walked by in uniforms that looked new. I stopped them and found out they were just returning from basic training in San Diego. They were in a rush to get home, but left me with one cryptic piece of advice….. try to be the APO1.
I was met at the airport and several of us were transported to the sprawling navel base in San Diego. Before the afternoon was over, I’d had my hair cropped and had been issued a new pair of ankle high horsehide boots, two denim shirts, two denim pants and two white t-shirts and underpants, two pairs of socks and the iconic white sailor’s hat. I was put in a barracks with 60 other new recruits and issued a trunk to store my meagre belongings. Lights were turned out and I fell into a fitful semi-sleep only to be awoken by several metal garbage cans hurled between our bunks with two uniformed men banging on the lids and shouting to get our asses up. We were lined up at the end of our beds and introduced to our company commander and his assistant, then told to get dressed and “marched” to the chow hall for breakfast.
We were only allowed a few minutes to eat with several people yelling at us the entire time to HURRY. We were taken outside, roughly put in a formation and marched back to our barracks. On the way back we were asked if anyone could type. A couple of hands went up and a goofy looking guy with glasses was told he was now the “Yeoman”.
“You, Big Guy” the commander shouted while looking directly at me. You’re my APO1. A very tanned and athletic looking young Texan was appointed the CPO1. It turned out that I was now the Assistant Petty Officer First Class and remembered the advice I’d received at the airport with some trepidation. It turned out that there were some awesome benefits to the position. Everyday we were taken to “the grinder” to practice marching in formation and for inspections. I marched to the side of the company calling cadence… a left, a left, a left right left (I’d be the one off to the side in the photo and that’s “the grinder”). I carried a notepad and pen in my waistband and wrote down the names and infractions of my fellow recruits for offences such as scuffed boots, ring around the collar, anything even remotely out of place in our lockers and bunks not properly made amongst them. They actually did bounce coins on our bunks to check for the proper sheet tension. As I was always with the inspector with my notepad, rather than standing at attention at my bunk, I was not inspected.
Most infractions by individuals normally resulted in a punishment for the entire company, commonly push-ups and/or more time on the grinder. I was the lone observer, strolling through the grunting recruits with my notebook in hand. One of the most common offences was any sign of discolouration on the inside of the t-shirt neck, which was nearly impossible to avoid while sweating in the California sun out on the grinder. My clothes were washed and boots spit shined by company members. There was virtually no downside other than being the first to experience the variety of training exercises. These included having your gas mask ripped off in a room full of tear gas, jumping off high platforms into a pool then treading water and holding the nozzle of the fire hose while entering a burning structure. The trade off was more than fair in my book.
Several members of our company broke under the strain and were removed. One, named Willy, regularly failed exams and was beaten severely a couple of times by company members tired of being punished for his constant failures. While trying to coach him one day, I found that he was essentially illiterate. He was eventually removed from our company as well, but would miraculously re-appear months later.
After the initial culling, our company won many awards which were represented by coloured ribbons attached to the flag proudly carried by our strutting CPO1 at the front of the formation, complete with a long cutlass. In a couple of months our training was completed. Our commander had taken our newly issued dress whites home to be washed and pressed and we lined up outside the barracks for his rousing congratulatory speech and then marched crisply to the parade grounds for inspection. Our company was at the head of the assembled companies and as we entered the parade grounds a huge band struck up “Anchors Aweigh”. I was still an All-American guy at this time and felt very proud to be in the Navy (and thrilled that I’d soon be in Japan). This beat the hell out of Missouri. I was off to see the world!! I was given my orders before being flown back home along with a new seabag stuffed full of clothes including a set of dress blues. And sure enough, I’d be heading off to beautiful Japan in a couple of weeks. WhooHoo!!!