This Day in History
1944 — USS Jason (AR-8) commissioned. A repair ship, the Jason serviced the fleet in the Pacific during WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. She was also deployed to the Persian Gulf for the Gulf War. The Jason was decommissioned as a ship in the U.S. Navy in June, 1995.
In September, 1963, I was assigned to duty aboard the Jason, docked at the naval station in San Diego. Carrying my seabag on my shoulder I walked down the pier with this huge ship looming above me. Although I had been in the Navy two years, this was the first time I was going aboard a ship and I was a little uncertain what to do. The first issue was there were two different places to board. One was at pier level with a gangplank running from the pier into an opening in the side of ship. But a work party of sailors was carrying supplies into the ship there and I assumed it was a cargo hatch. High up on the ship I saw the Officer of the Day (OOD) and an enlisted man standing watch. A metal-framed set of steps, resembling a smaller version of a fire ranger’s tower, led up to them. I assumed that was it and began my climb. My seabag grew heavier with each step. I stopped to rest on the second level, glanced up, and saw they were looking down watching me expressionlessly. Breathing heavily and sweating, I arrived at the top. Ready to salute the ensign at the stern of the ship and the OOD, I was stopped by the smirks on their faces. Then the enlisted man leaned forward, his smirk becoming even more snide, and simply pointed at the other gangplank. Great, thanks guys.
That was my introduction to the Jason and it never got all that much better. Once aboard a call was made to the radio shack and someone was sent down to get me. A soft, pudgy blonde kid, Sills, It was revealed to me almost immediately that Sills knew everything there was to know and had no hesitation demonstrating his superior knowledge to me. After I got to know him better I sarcastically nicknamed him “Admiral.” Admiral led me through a machine shop on the main deck. A large space filled with welders, drill presses, lathes, other machinery, and noise, lots of noise. During the day, I would learn, the noise never ceased.
After the machine shop we began descending. How many decks I didn’t count but I soon realized my new quarters would be below the water line. Not a surprise, what bothered me more was the number of hatches we passed through. Each hatch was an oval opening between the steel bulkheads with a heavy steel door that swung shut to seal a compartment. There was a wheel on the outside of the door to dog the hatch (tighten it shut) and there was no way to open it from the inside. Boot camp training came back to me. A ship was harder to replace than its personnel. A watertight compartment took precedent over human life. Wrong side of the hatch, kiss your butt goodbye. We were expendable, a cold, hard fact ingrained into us that I uncomfortably remembered each time I stepped through another hatch.
Deep in the bowels, we finally arrived at my new living quarters. A sleeping compartment with racks (beds) stacked six high from deck to overhead. Each rack had an aluminum frame with taut canvas stretched across that frame. Lying in the rack was similar to being in a hammock because of the sag. When the rack above me was occupied, all I could do was carefully slide in on my back so not to disturb that person, and there was no turning over. Luckily in those days I slept well so it wasn’t a problem. Another concern, not then but apparently now, was there were pipes running throughout the compartment, and all were coated with asbestos. I must be in some ex-sailors database for I get periodic mailings from personal injury lawyers thanking me for my service offering to patriotically represent me in the event of mesothelioma.
After I unpacked I was taken to the radio shack which would be my true home for the next year. I spent most of my waking hours aboard the Jason there. We had three watch duty section and since the communication center of the ship never shut down, I averaged eight hours of work a day each week for my time on the Jason. We worked in shifts, odd rotating hours and I was sleep deprived much of the time. After a midnight shift ended at 0800, and trying to grab some daytime sleep before starting watch again at 1600 hours, the noisy machine shop was my enemy.
I was promoted in rank and became a watch supervisor, a role I did not relish. Especially given the makeup of my watch section. It included the Admiral, who knew everything but could do nothing, Baker, who relied more on the Bible than the Blue Jackets Manual, and then there was Di-dah and Nordstrum. Di-dah was the sweetest, most good-natured kid in the world, and also one of the most hapless, in a congenial sort of way. While he managed to mess up just about everything he did, it also didn’t bother him much, he’d just shrug and grin. He once broke his ankle doing chin-ups. ??? He received a Dear John letter from his girl back home, and he pinned it up on the ship’s bulletin board. Again ??? Oddly though, it had a positive effect. Soon others sailors were pining their Dear John’s there also. In a pervasive and humorous sort of way new entries on the bulletin board became must reading and improved morale aboard the ship.
And Nordsrtum? Well Nordstrum had an attitude and also was one of the most slovenly sailors in the navy. Nordsrtum took orders as a personal affront and mostly ignored them. We had a senior non-com, Dixon, a large man, who finally had enough. Dixon told Nordsrtum swab the deck in the radio shack. Nordsrtum in a chair, impervious.
“Nordsrtum swab the goddamn deck now, or I swab it with you!”
Nordsrtumstupidly refused to obey. Dixon kicked over the swab bucket, spilling water across the deck. Then he knocked Nordsrtum off the chair, picked him up by the feet, and dragged him upside down back forth through the water. It didn’t exactly improve Nordsrtum’s attitude, but if sullenly, he did obey orders.
So that was my watch section.
We got orders to go to sea, no exotic ports, just a training exercise. A lot of responsibility for me, especially with this band of misfits. I had one normal squared away guy, Clark. He assured me he’d turn to for me. So, middle of the night, in a storm with high seas, and the ship rolling pretty good. Fortunately I didn’t get seasick, nor did Clark. We copied a message that required the Captain’s attention. I sent Clark up to the bridge with it. On his return, instead of using an inside passageway, he went outside in the rain, slipped on the wet deck, banged his head, and staggered into the radio shack bleeding from a head injury. I had the Admiral escort him to sick bay, where they kept him for observation. I had lost the only guy I could rely on and had to do almost everything myself. It was that night I decided I did not want to be a leader, just give me a back row seat in life somewhere.
Also on that same excursion, I learned showering at sea, at least on the Jason, was a weird experience. Our crew numbered around 500 men and that was a lot of bodies that had to be cleaned in the designated, and short, time the shower room was open. Every guy who wasn’t on duty was waiting when I went to shower. So I joined the line of naked young men holding a towel and bar of soap. When my turn came I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. There were twenty showerheads, ten on each side of the room. The process was to get wet, turn off the shower, lather up, then quickly rinse, the idea being not to use too much water. Even with this rationing, the drains could not keep up with the flow of water. The seas were still rather high and the ship was rolling significantly. If the ship rested in a level state, the overflow of water probably would have been ankle deep. However with the rolling there was always a buildup of water on one side of the room or the other. Showering, I stood sideways, my legs braced against the tidal wave of dirty, soapy water that would come surging toward me when the ship rolled in my direction. It would slam into me about thigh level. The trick was to rinse off quickly and get out of there when the water rushed off in the other direction. Even with good timing I really didn’t feel all that clean.
One last story. One day I went to use the head. There were multiple urinals and commodes and I was in need of the latter. Only two were occupied and the guys were sitting side by side. They knew each other and were talking. I sat at the end, away from them.
One guy said, “Wanna hear a joke?”
“What’s round, purple, and makes a buzzing noise?”
“I dunno, what?”
“An electric plum.”
I’m not someone who remembers jokes. In fact that is the only joke I’ve ever remembered in my life. And after all these years I still enjoy it. Maybe because it just may be the most positive memory I took away from my time aboard the Jason.