I have been a traveling man most of my professional life. Mostly the unpleasant bag-dragging sort of travel in which you never really get to unpack, and wind up humping the luggage through elevators of varying reliability to cabs of uncertain hygiene to oppressive air portals of embarkation. Remember the stunning invocation of luggage with wheels? Technology on the march!
To the degree that there were no bags to drag, the cruising life represents travel in the grand manner.
On the big decks, it was remarkable. Someone would make Africa appear alongside the gray steel, or sampans ply the harbor below the big steel beach, or some exotic beach with rich land smells of flowers and crap and bus exhaust. You only had to drag your bag on at the beginning of the trip, and drag it off again some indeterminate time later.
The cast of reprobate Birdfarm sailors with whom I communicate have sailed the seven seas on aircraft carriers, which are funded by the Congress of the United States and managed by the hoteliers of the Department of the Navy. We began with a general attempt to provide a Michelin Guide to lodging in the Airdale Navy, but of course it got quickly into a recitation of a whole sub-culture, framed in showers and load noises and chow and broken sleep, and living amid machines already four decades old the first time we saw them.
So, the Michelin people would not actually visit the big ships to see how the button-crushers in the CV laundries were doing their jobs, or the quality of the Nairobi Trail Markers in the Dirty Shirt Wardroom, or where the coldest beer on the ship might be found in one of the Blind Pigs that operated sub-rosa in the old pre-Tailhook service.
Most of us were WESTPAC sailors, and most of the accounts I have are of the ships that went to the wars in SE Asia and the Persian Gulf. It was a busy time out there, but painfully different. Then, the South China Sea had no issues of sovereignty, nor a resurgent China with its own (albeit re-cycled) aircraft carrier. There is no doubt in my mind that it was more fun to serve on ours rather than theirs, but I will wait and see if the PLA-N issues me an invitation to review the wardroom fodder.
Anyway, this is not a case of Motel 6, where they leave the light on for you, but much closer to a review of Best Western Motels than a real Michelin Guide. You know the BW chain- often quirky, wildly different in amenities, uniquely themselves rather than some cookie-cutter corporate Holiday Inn Express. Some of us are old enough to have served on an actual Essex-class carrier, the mainstay of the WW II Navy.
(USS Ticonderoga, a 27C mod Essex hull. Photo USN).
Depicted refueling off of Vietbam 1966
My first ship was Midway, a late construction WWII ship with an armored steel deck and bristling with guns. She had two sisters: Coral Sea and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Having dozens of the Essex hulls to spare, a modification was introduced (“The 27C mod”) that added an angle deck and steam catapults. Then came the FID-class boats- the Forrestal was “First in Defense,” (sisters Sara, Ranger, Indy) and they were quite remarkable in their day, and controversial, since the great debate still echoed about the role of the new Air Force and whether Navies (and armies) were still relevant in the Nuclear Age.
As it turns out, they were. But that is a matter for another day, and another discussion of whether past is prologue or just past. The old force was oil-fired and steam driven.
(Kitty Hawk wasn’t really for sale- but the Chinese could have bought a better ship). Editors Note: The original illustration showed the KITTY HAWK with the crew speling out "FOR SALE" on the flight deck. The image didn't transfer from the original and we couldn't find another copy in the public domain. This is the sort of thing you miss when you don't read the DAILY SOCOTRA ....well....daily!
The needs of empire spawned the workhorse ship of my time on the waves: Kitty Hawk and her kin (Connie and America), and the original Nuke, Enterprise and the remarkable sleek conventional JFK.
(USS Enterprise. First of the nukes. Photo Military Today).
Then came the ten ships that form the core of today’s carrier navy- the Nimitz-class ships. Cadillacs they are, by comparison with what came before, hybrid nuclear-steam machines that are wonders of 1970s technology.
Now, the USS Gerald R. Ford class is abuilding, and it will be a nuclear-electric beast, as will the two programmed sisters, the new Enterprise and JFK. I have the luxury of being skeptical about the whole thing. There is zero chance that I will wander down to the Dirty Shirt for a cup of cappuccino on the Ford when the hours are small and the horizon dark and impenetrable.
Regardless of the technology, one thing was common for the Airdale community, as opposed to the Surface Line and enlisted troops who lived below the hangar bay. We lived downstairs, if I may permitted the lubber term, but above the hangar bay, a palpable stratification of birdfarm social life. The air wing folks were lodged in bunkrooms and tiny staterooms wedged into spare space along the asbestos-lined catapult tracks. If you could learn to sleep through a launch cycle, you could properly call yourself a member of the extended-stay community.
My pal Point Loma wrote to support one of one of the old boats- the Coral Sea. I have to agree she got fairly short shrift in her treatment, and she had an advantage that the others did not have for me, personally. As the sister to Midway, I could always find my way to the dirty shirt and knew what they meant when they gave me a frame number and deck to navigate to. My pal commented thusly:
“Coral Maru was a good ship - I spent a day aboard her in the IO during a Gonzo Station turnover. But although she was a sister ship, she was not Midway.
(USS Midway Photo USN).
On Hotel 41, our mustang wardroom officer had been a Mess Specialist aboard the Pueblo, or People’s Museum Number FIVE as she is known in Pyongyang these days. The Mustang was a serial WESTPAC rat, so he may even had been there when you were. I wrote a review on a book about the Pueblo incident several years ago and mentioned him in the context that we weren't done with the North Koreans, yet, and they had a habit of reminding us of that at inopportune moments.
One of our doughty Naval Academy grads decided one evening to rip the wardroom officer a new asshole, maybe because he had the duty and couldn’t eat in the dirty shirt, or his shrimp were overcooked or whatever. At any rate, he got up and publically started to berate the Mustang - we couldn’t believe it. You don’t do that sort of stuff in the dirty shirt, much less the formal Wardroom.
That provoked one of the older Mustangs seated at a table nearby. He walked up, got in the middle, and then proceeded to enlighten the Lieutenant as to whom he was abusing, as if his bullshit even was a pale comparison to the punishment he had endured from the DPRKs. There were all sorts of exiles and pirates associated with the Maru- they were there for the most part because part of themselves had been given to Asia and the Land of the Big PX did not hold the same allure as it did for the tourist sailors.
She was an interesting ship.
I remember well flinching at the shock of bleed air steam coming unexpectedly out of the handheld water devices in the showers- an exciting treat during the perfect Navy shower; that coming after various random blasts and spurts of hot and cold water.
Better yet - when you were totally soaped up and expectant of a semi-soothing hot water wash down, there was the reward of the “oh fuck” gurgle of nothing from the plastic beast, usually before a GQ was scheduled.
That experience was mostly aboard conventional (oil) powered carriers (and the Command Ship Coronado). Nimitz-class ships, being nukes with unlimited desalinization power- were much more reliable for hot water. And of course, there was the sweet fragrance, emollient and laxative effects of Jet Fuel #5 that only enhanced the CV spa experience.
This brings back a great memory. Around the corner from my stateroom aboard Midway on the starboard side inboard of Cat One on the 0-2 level (and just forward of the Switchbox Ready Room Two) was a semi-private head that had no outward compartment markings. It was four right turns out of the bunkroom (BK). Inside, there were three Hollywood shower stalls and in there you could turn on the taps and luxuriate under torrents of hot water just like at home - no fucking hand-held nozzles that forced compliance with the hated Navy wet-soap-rinse routine.
The head was a hidden, semi-private oasis and I never stood in line to get in, as if anything like that could be a secret aboard an aircraft carrier, ever, but it was. Another reason why I love and will always treasure that ship. I had almost forgotten that.
I became a shellback in 1981 aboard Kitty Hawk after joining VA-52 during a mid-cruise port call in Perth (a sea story in its own right) on the way back up to Gonzo Station. It was not a pleasant experience, but it is what it was. After that, I had the pleasure of being a sadistic trusty Shellback during a few more crossings. My outfit was typically pirate with a homemade bandana, sunglasses, shorts, flight boots, a t-shirt with a cartoon on it with the caption “Nuke the Wogs” and my shillelagh emblazoned with “I love sweet Wog ass” upon it, which I wielded with gusto.
As I was still worn out from the war (Clausewitz was right about the whole Friction thing), I skipped the last crossing aboard Midway Maru, choosing instead to sleep in. We were returning from DESERT STORM and dipped down south after passing Singapore to put an exclamation point on the combat cruise before a well-deserved port call in Pattaya Beach, Thailand.
(I began to chuckle at that, since my son is making his first port visit there soon. On the same ship in the same port, our A-6 Intruder Squadron had rented an Admin suite in one of the high-rise hotels. VA-115 prided itself on their bombing accuracy, and decided to conduct proficiency operations by precision-dropping some of the furniture off the balcony. It became their opportunity to “meet the Ambassador,” but I missed it, being ensconced at the Nana Hotel on Soi 4 up in Bangkok, and exploring the quite remarkable world of the Grace Hotel Coffee Shop, which after 0200 became the prototype for the Star Wars Cantina.)
My pal continued: “As we had missed several “beer days,” the Skipper (he was famous later) and XO (later an author) decide to combine the two. Since our CAG didn't drink, I managed to talk our Admin Chief into giving me his beer tickets that I shared with the CVIC Supervisor (Carrier Intelligence Center) in his stateroom.
We had something like 15,000 cans of beer onboard which we couldn’t take back to Japan and instead of dumping them overboard, the XO ordered us to “drink it all.” During dinner down in the wardroom, I think I had another four beers - sort of like being back at the Atsugi O’Club. As we used to say, there is the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and the Midway. God, I love that fucking pirate ship.”
What is most remarkable is that you can visit her in San Diego Harbor. See, the point of this guide is that a handful of these ships will survive. Navies are expensive things, and the way of ships is to return to the iron oxide from whence they came. They become inconvenient and hard to keep from sinking on their own, and hence are scrapped for razor blades or sunk for reefs. So thanks for coming along for a visit to the lost world.
This won’t be the end of these stories, of course. There are a million of them. And the way you can tell a sea story from a fairy tale is that one starts out “Once upon a time,” and the other “This is a no-shitter, really….”
We will leave the light on for you.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra