Neal Pearson - Stoddard '66-'67


The Search for Saltiness- WesPac 67
 

The USS Stoddard was the first and only ship that I served on. I claim the record of being the greenest ET1 ever to set foot upon a naval vessel. When I stood on the quarterdeck of the Stoddard in the autumn of 1966 and made my very first request for permission to come aboard a US Naval ship, I did not want to be there. At that time I had 6 years in the Navy with ETA school, 3 years shore duty in Annapolis, Maryland, ET B school and a year of instructor duty teaching advanced electronics at Treasure Island, all under my belt. I had a solid foundation in electronics theory, practical application of shore based radio transmitters/receivers but not a bit of shipboard equipment or sea duty experience.

I felt a little down because I had been assigned to an old rusty destroyer and not some newer, slicker, larger and safer ship. This did little for the illusions of grandeur I had when I joined the Navy. I was also puffed up a little by the extensive electronics background the Navy had given me and just knew they could have better utilized my talents. I had been told the Stoddard would soon be going into hostile waters as part of the Vietnam conflict. I was not of the constitution to believe that I was bulletproof. Oh well, I settled on the thought that perhaps I might be able to become a salty seaman, and trudged on board without knowing what salty meant.

Before I share some of my memories, I humbly give thanks to all of the great ET's, RD's, and RM's aboard during WesPac 67 that had the patience and experience to train Stoddard's very green leading electronic technician on shipboard equipment. I also give thanks to all of my shipmates for putting up with my total lack of shipboard experience.

To offset the feelings of inadequacy, I did the only thing I knew. I pulled the old "fake it till you make it" routine and just acted as if I knew. I also did everything I could to insure the safety of the electronics crew in preparation for the upcoming cruise to hostile waters. After all, a salty sailor takes care of his crew. At the supply depot, I bought survival knifes and survival gear, foul weather gear, and other convenience items for the ET's. The XO seeing that the ET's were all standing around sharpening survival knifes decided that the crew might be safer if these instruments of war were not in the hands of the inexperienced, so they were confiscated. I believe this is the moment that the Stoddard officers knew that they had a nut case as the leading ET. Captain Conolly must have realized my predicament as shortly before departing for the 66/67 WesPac cruise I was scheduled to be sent off to school at Mare Island for 8 weeks to be trained on a voice encryption device (KY-8).

My memory fails as to when this particular event occurred, but I include it here. One of the ET's found a beautiful solid metal Captain's cabin door on shore and showed it to me. My first delightful thought was how much metal it put between the ET shop and those hostile shore batteries. With safety in mind, we carried it back and had it fitted onto the ET office. It was new and made of very thick heavy gage metal and if I recall right it had a double safety glass peephole. That caused a lot of discussion as the officer's own personal doors were old and dented while the ET shop door looked so fantastic. I cannot remember the outcome but it did cause a stir for awhile. I am a bit fuzzy about this memory but I believe we ended up having to have the door removed. I am sure that this reinforced door event did double duty by reinforcing the officer's opinion that they indeed had a nut at the helm of the ET group.

The Stoddard left San Diego on the first leg of the cruise in early November 1966, without me on board. After KY-8 encryption school, I had been flown from San Francisco to Manila via Hawaii and Japan. I remember a fast and dangerous 4 hour bus ride in the dark from Manila to the Subic Bay Naval Station. The driver apologized for the ride but said it was necessary to prevent being robbed by bandits. The only salt in this experience was from the beads of perspiration oozing from my forehead.

I stayed at the Naval Station for several days while awaiting a ride to "Yankee Station". My first liberty in Olongapo was like going to a carnival. One of the most distinctive sights was the jeepneys, which were brightly decorated jeeps, with a variety of colors and designs, streamers and ornamentation. The jeepneys would carry sailors around the city for a small fee. These jeepneys had originally been constructed from jeeps left by the Americans after World War II. There were vast quantities of "mystery meat" on a stick being sold on the street. The common belief among sailors was that it was monkey flesh. Then there was the river that was more like a sewage canal than a free flowing river. Some sailors found it amusing to throw coins into the sludge and watch the competition among local kids as they dove in through the chunks of human waste to retrieve the coins. I won't elaborate on the bars and girls in Olongapo, just simply say they were both in abundance. If there ever was a typical sailor's liberty port, it had to be Olongapo. Perhaps just being there made one salty.

After about a week in Subic Bay (mostly learning to ride in jeepneys without falling out), I boarded an ammunition ship, which to this day I cannot recall the name of. I was so busy thinking about the tons of explosives I was riding with that I failed to capture details. I spent a few days helping with underway replenishment of ammo to other ships while on route to hooking up with the Stoddard.

That event happened on Christmas Eve 1966 while the Stoddard was on plane guard duty in the Gulf of Tonkin. That was the day that this greenhorn got really baptized with saltiness as he was high lined from an ammunition ship to the Stoddard. I had escaped the usual drubbing given to first-timers at the International Date Line but did not escape this drenching. There were many chuckles that day as the greenhorn got his first taste of what being salty is all about. Now it seemed, all I needed was confidence, a big coffee cup, and a nickname.

After boarding, I heard that the USS Obrien hat been hit the day before and that 2 sailors had been killed. That was followed by scuttlebutt that we might be going up a river. This did nothing to improve on my desire to achieve saltiness. Fortunately, we didn't have too much free time to dwell on our fears. Being at sea at Yankee Station is busy. My first task on board was to repair the voice encryption device which had never worked since it was installed. The shipyard had incorrectly installed the device and they had made this mistake on a number of ships. I found this problem in short order but milked the project for a number of hours to take advantage of the air conditioning in the radio shack.

This small success did a lot to boost my confidence of being the leading ET. It was the only piece of equipment that I had more experience on than the other ET's. As I found out later, this total lack of experience mattered little as there were many fine skilled technicians already aboard. I eventually ended up helping to repair many of the other KY-8 units, mostly all with the same problem. In true fashion of the pursuit of saltiness, I was learning to milk tasks to their fullest.

Of course, my ego told me that repairing this unit was the main reason the Stoddard carried Commodore Rogerson, we being one of the few ships with voice encryption actually working. However, it was more likely that it had something to do with the Stoddard being the fastest destroyer in the division and possibly the oldest. He may have thought we needed all the image help we could get. She had earned the nickname "the steaming demon" because she had been known to do 36 knots when pushed. I was very glad about that.

As I recall the Stoddard went into hostile waters off Vietnam three times during this cruise. The first was at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin and consisted mostly of plane guard duty with Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). This tour was from early December 1966 to the first week in January 1967. I missed most of this tour but arrived in time to experience searching for pilots several times. We headed back to Subic Bay during the first week in January where I had the honor of losing my permanent overnight pass. My excuse at the time was that I wasn't aware of the midnight curfew in Olongapo but the real reason was how I reacted to San Miguel beer. I was a little late to go back through the gate and I sure wasn't going to swim across the river. I camped out in a cheap hotel but those marines the next morning at the gate didn't buy the story that I had went out earlier that day on ships business. It must have been my haggard appearance that gave me away along with the lame excuse that had been used by many before.

With a tinge of despair I realized the saltiness I sought wasn't coming fast. It occurred to me that saltiness must have something to do with being able to hold your grog but I hurriedly buried that fear deep into the denial zone. I am certain that the "nut case" theory was proving itself out.

After repairs and upkeep at Subic Bay, we returned to Yankee Station in the third week in January where we cruised on patrol and participated in Operation Sea Dragon. Our first firing mission happened at midnight on the 24th of January when we fired 52 five inch rounds at a cluster of enemy water born logistical craft (junks). As this was happening the thought came to my mind that each shell we lobbed would certainly add a pinch of salt to my seaworthiness. We did 4 more missions by the 5th of February with the primary aim of cleaning up the coastal waters from all the junk that came floating by. These missions typically took place at around 16,000 yards from the target and mostly at night. Each mission had its own abundance of seasoning and saltiness to spread among the crew.

I can remember one incident where the Captain decided to take advantage of the so called peace during the Tet holiday and map future targets. He began to maneuver the Stoddard closer and closer towards shore. Not everyone was on GQ and at the time. I was busy practicing the art of saltiness by drinking coffee and swapping tales with several other shipmates near the galley exit on the starboard side. We kept remarking about how the hills kept getting larger and soon we could see a radar installation and other structures up on the hillsides. The water was beginning to change from green to brown. The "going up the river" fear meandered through my mind.

About that time all hell broke loose and we were being shelled, a pure act of rudeness on the part of the Viet Cong. An explosion in the water directly behind us and not far from where we were literally scared the crap out of us and we scrambled for cover. The Stoddard let off about 125 rounds getting out of there in pure "steaming demon" fashion. I think that incident made the news stateside, since the truce had been broken. This was on February 8, the first day of the truce, and the target was a coastal artillery site on an island. The thought came to mind that being almost killed by enemy fire on the open water might make a person salty. Was I gaining ground?

During this second tour, the Stoddard sank a number of small boats and engaged enemy shore batteries at least once. In mid February, we returned to Subic Bay for rest and shipyard maintenance. The USS Stoddard had a ships party off base on the 20th of February. I cannot remember the location but it was a fancy place in Olongapo. The party was suddenly cancelled when the Mayor of Olongapo, James Leonard Gordon, was gunned down and killed at City Hall by an escaped inmate from prison. Our party and liberty was cancelled as Subic Bay and the city of Olongapo went on high security for several days. This was a major event in the history of this city. I wondered if being there while Philippine history was being made added to my saltiness.

After several days we got underway for a rest and relaxation period in Hong Kong. This was an exciting time for all of us. Riding the water taxis and seeing the sights and eating steaks and real Chinese foods was very enjoyable. I remember a group of us paying the drivers of rickshaws to race the streets with us aboard. They probably laughed all the way to the bank as it was more than likely that it was us who were "taken for a ride". Some of the officers stayed in expensive hotels and some had their wives flown in. This was a good place to make phone call's home to the states as facilities were provided. Hong Kong was full of sights and sounds that will always live in my memories. I received a telegram while there that I had a new baby boy born. Maybe being in a foreign port when one of your children is born was a measure of saltiness.

We returned to Yankee Station the first week in March for our third and final tour of this cruise. Following several days of plane-guard duty for Kitty Hawk, we resumed "Sea Dragon" operations. This was our most engaged tour. We did a great deal of shore bombardment, counter battery fire and destroyed radar installations and ammunition dumps, pounded staging areas, and silenced shore batteries. We all had to learn to get around the ship with our 5" guns blazing away. It became routine as did General Quarters and saltiness was spreading throughout our entire crew.

I also recall an incident where a South Vietnamese patrol boat had taken some damage and requested assistance with injuries. We took them alongside and transferred the injured aboard to try and help them. One poor soul had the top of his head severally damaged and his brains were hanging out. I recall how Joyce Mihecoby, our corpsman, packed ice around his head but was at a loss as to what else he could do. A helicopter soon came and transported them but I believe the one fellow died on our fantail.

I recall that Mihecoby took it very hard that he was so powerless to help this man. He was a full blooded Navaho Indian and it was that moment that had to be one of the lowest points in his life. That was an eerie morning as this potato picking farm boy from Idaho stood in the gray fog on the fantail of a destroyer in foreign hostile waters with this Navaho Indian while a South Vietnamese sailor took his last breaths. The salt I experienced that day came from my own eyes as the reality of where we were settled in.

I also remember that the Captain or Commodore had brought aboard a Vietnamese fishing junk at some point. The scuttlebutt was it was being taken back to stateside. I can't remember what happened to it but we may have lost it in rough weather at some point. It was comical as we walked under it on the port side each time we went to chow. Perhaps seeing the humor in these things is what helps make one salty.

It was in this period on St. Patti's day, 17 March 1967, when Stoddard assisted in the rescue of a downed pilot near the mouth of the Song Giap River. The pilot from our own spotter aircraft was shot down dropping his ordinance. We came under intense fire from a battery ashore while we had slowed in the water to lower a whale boat to pick up the pilot. We sustained one direct hit. Talk about being a shooting duck. We were only 7000 yards from shore so we got out of there fast, but not without leaving behind about forty 5" rounds. We never got the pilot but he was later rescued. Our ship was damaged right at the water line and we had to make emergency patches, initially with mattresses and later by welding with steel plating. Thank God for the wisdom of damage control parties and ship fitters. I pondered over whether saltiness has something to do with salt water pouring through the side or more to do with performing your duties well.

I was on GQ at the time in a radar room and remember the power going off on all of our electronics. I had short term fears until I realized we had not lost steam, just electrical power (so much for saltiness). I have nothing but praise for the skills of the engineering crew. The familiar shuddering of the ship as our twin propellers revved up was a welcome relief to the outside noise as shells were exploding and guns were a blazing. The USS Ingersoll was also firing over us and around us. The guys preparing to man the whaleboat had the closest experience with this event. They deserve a special mention as they earned their salt that day. We were fortunate that no one was hurt. The entire ship was using all of its excellent training and skills during this incident. After temporary repairs, we were made operational and spent several more days shooting and plane guarding for the Hancock (CVA-19). The Stoddard received a unit commendation for this action. That's worth a ton of salt.

Towards the end of March we went to Sasebo, Japan and into dry-dock where permanent repairs were made. It was amazing to see how efficient the Japanese workers were at ship repairs. There was lots of liberty and good times in this port. We also visited Yokosuka before returning to the states. The thought came to mind as we left Japanese waters that visiting foreign ports might make one salty.

Somewhere during these operations the ET's and some of the other shipmates had started calling me "Cactus". My best guess why is that I had a prickly side to my character. In Sasebo, I had a special coffee cup made with a green cactus hand-painted on it. I got a special kick out of saluting others with the cup with the cactus in their direction. The cactus was shaped like the middle finger salute. It was not planned; the Japanese artist just did it that way. I cannot remember to this day where I lost it but I had many fine cups of coffee and silent laughs with that cup. I surmised that getting a nickname and having a unique coffee cup might elevate me to an "old salt" status.

Stoddard got underway on 20 April to return to the United States. Heading via Midway Island with its goony birds and Pearl Harbor, we arrived at San Diego on 5 May. My father met the ship and we spent a day in Tijuana. All San Diego sailors pursuing saltiness are required to liberty in Tijuana. We spent the remainder of May and the month of June training midshipmen; then resumed local operations for a period. We also participated in ASW operations and during one exercise we were theoretically blown out of the water by the USS Cusk (SS-348), the world's first missile submarine. Our embarrassment was not ours alone but shared by the USS Constellation (CVA-64), the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-32) and others. See the USS Cusk crosshair pictures here.

In late September we entered Long Beach Naval Shipyard for overhaul, which we needed. We completed overhaul in mid December in 1967 and returned to local operations out of San Diego. Refresher training followed which we did very well with. By this time, experience was beginning to set in and things became routine. In the early summer of 1968, I chose to resume civilian life, a decision I often question as being unwise. I had a good offer from a major computer company to teach electronics which won out over the attempts by the EMO, the XO and others for me to reenlist again. I think by this time my "nut case" syndrome might have worn off. However, those that know me today might debate that.

The night before I was to leave the ship, I ticked off a self appraisal as I asked myself the following questions in an attempt to measure the progress I had made toward the pinnacle of saltiness.

Had I grown into an experienced, squared-away sailor?

Had I kept calm no matter what was tossed at me?

Had I been through both good and bad and "handled it"?

Did I have enough sea time to make me salty?

Had I experienced liberty in foreign ports?

Had I been high lined and baptized?

Did I learn well from others and freely pass it on?

Had I grown to not grumble about unreps of beans, bullets, and black oil?

Did I still wince when expelling the bullets?

Had I grown used to next door neighbors while expelling the beans?

Had I been through a typhoon and experienced greenness both inside and out?

Had experience erased my memory of the location of most barf buckets?

Had I learned how to use Navy slang?

Did I have a nickname and a coffee cup?

Did I have a real taste of the salt by peeing off the side at 30 knots?

And had I improved on the efficiency of the navy shower by peeing while wetting down?

Finally, and, most important; Had I acquired the ability to tell true stories, mostly true stories, sort-of-true stories, and outright tall tales about life in the Navy?

I was still pondering these as I prepared to depart the ship for the last time, but mentally believed that I had the tall tale requirement pegged. On the quarterdeck, as I was requesting permission to leave the ship for the last time, I suddenly welled up in pride as I was flooded with the memories of having been a very small part of the history of this battle experienced ship and its generational crews of fine sailors. It was then that I finally understood what it meant to be salty. To me it's not all of those other things. It is the sentimental feeling of having been a part of something greater than ourselves, something one cannot acquire falsely and that requires genuine humility…this has to be the real essence of naval "saltiness". This same feeling comes up forty years later as I reflect, and I am thankful for it.

Overall during my time on the USS Stoddard, it was the WesPac cruise that leaves the most lasting impression on me. It is remarkable that so many of us from different backgrounds, skills, and experiences all worked so well together under battle conditions and never had anyone killed. The USS Stoddard with its rich 54 year history from World War II, the Korean conflict, the cold war, the Vietnam experience, its last use as a target in weapons testing, and its final sinking in 1997 near Hawaii causes one to reflect fondly about their own memories. It is fitting that her eternal resting place is in the same salty sea that she and we actively lived on for a brief time. She touched a lot of us for a small part of our lives and one couldn't be around her very long without acquiring true "saltiness".

Best wishes to all of my former shipmates and all who served aboard this great ship. My memories aboard the USS Stoddard are illuminated by the excellent website dedicated to the USS Stoddard and the reflections of those who were privileged to serve aboard her and who I was privileged to serve with.

Neal Pearson, ET1 January 2008