Listen, everyone who wears the Uniform of the United States of America is a Patriot, a Hero and a Real Man in my eyes. But, among these wonderful men, seagoing sailors are the manliest.
All military men face the occasional dangers of combat with the enemy, some more than others, but, on a naval vessel, you face the considerable dangers inherent in ships at sea and, most especially, in the unpredictable elements every single day. Following are a few experiences I had in the almost three years of sea time I accumulated in my youth in the U.S. Merchant Marine (It was my summer job during my college years) and the U.S. Navy.
First, while steaming back from the Med on a WW2 Victory Ship, we ran into a furious North Atlantic Gale. I was only eighteen and I was absolutely transfixed by the global violence of my immediate environment when I noticed we were sailing hard on through a squadron of US Navy Destroyers. My ship was about 450 feet long and was pounding heavily, but those destroyers were actually disappearing, from my point of view, beneath the waves and popping up again shedding Niagara Falls volumes of water from their decks. I saw green water waves pass over the bridge of a destroyer diving into the sea hole between monster swells.
“Those guys are spending more time walking on the bulkheads and bouncing off the overheads than standing on the decks” I thought. And I could easily visualize the learned, steady and salty nonchalance which those guys were exhibiting while doing their duty in the face of the insane violence of a small ship in a big storm.
The next year I experienced the violence of the short, choppy, but very high seas of the Arabian Sea in the Monsoon season as the SS Flying Clipper, a WW2 C2 freighter, steamed from Karachi to Bombay. That leg took a week and the weather never let up for a minute.
On my twentieth birthday we were just a day out of Saigon bound for Hong Kong and were pounding heavily into the monster seas of a South China Sea typhoon on the SS Flying Clipper of American Export Isbrandtsen Lines… It was early afternoon on this stormy day and I was a bit depressed because I hadn’t received a birthday card from my family before leaving Viet Nam (that’s how we spelled it then).
I was an Ordinary Seaman on the four to eight watch. A bunch of us guys were huddled in the crew’s mess trying to drink coffee while the ship was pitching and pounding heavily. We were spinning our very best sea stories when the hatch flew open and the Bos’n, soaking wet, burst in and growled, “The antenna is down and I need a man to go aloft, PRONTO.” I jumped from my chair, grabbed my rain gear and answered; “Let’s go!”
The radio antenna is simply a wire running from the radio shack to the top of one mast and stretching to the top of another mast. In a rough storm, when you are heading into heavy seas, the ship pounds and vibrates very heavily because, as the center of gravity of the ship passes the crest of each wave, the bow actually free falls crashing into the trough of the next wave. This violent pounding had snapped the antenna of my ship. It is very serious to be out of radio contact in such a dangerous storm.
The Bos’n, two Able Bodied Seamen – Manny and Henry - and I made our way to the base of the main mast dragging the new antenna. The furious wind howled so loud that we had to shout directly into each other’s ear just to be heard. The hard rain and salt spray stung our faces as the roaring winds drove them over the heaving deck. I shackled one end of the antenna wire to my belt and, dragging the antenna wire behind me, I climbed the ladder to the very top of the flailing and shuddering mast.
Climbing a mast in these circumstances is akin to making love to it. Rung by rung, you wrap your legs and arms around the ladder as needed as the wind buffets you, the rain and spray drenches you, and the mast violently pitches back and forth and shudders, seemingly trying to shake you off like a dog drying itself. Finally, at the top of the mast, I hauled up the antenna wire hand-over-hand while I clung tightly to the dizzily gyrating ladder by wrapping my legs around it. Unlike in the Perfect Storm, there is no wind on this planet that will blow you off the mast as long as you hold on tightly - which you will definitely do. I shackled the antenna to the mast and my task was done as the guys on the deck hauled the antenna into position.
Then, with my chest heaving from breathing so deeply and with my nose tingling from the salt spray, I looked around and was flabbergasted by the hellaceous scene before my eyes. My ship of almost 500 feet in length looked incredibly tiny as it was tossed about among the chaotic crests and troughs of the mountainous seas.
While the swells averaged about fifty feet from crest to trough, they came from different directions and where they intersected swelled up to nearly a hundred feet in height. This was a real life example of the interference patterns I’d studied in physics back at MIT. Simply put, when one fifty foot swell intersects another fifty foot swell, the intersection point is 100 percent in phase and you then add the amplitudes to reach the 100 foot monster wave I saw that day. Isn’t science wonderful?
Somehow, looking out at the maelstrom from eighty feet above the deck, my big black ship reminded me of a large turd being flushed down a toilet bowl. Adrenalin flowed and my heart pounded as the words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy burst from my lips as I sang from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into the storm, even though no one could hear me. I have yet to match that experience for pure excitement. It’s really amazing how many experiences you can have that are actually better than sex.
Early the next morning, under a cloud streaked sky, as rosy-fingered dawn crept over those clouds and the wine-dark Pacific past the stern of the SS Flying Clipper and through the hair of Adrian the Typhoon Master and lover of cities, the wailing winds and chaotic seas stopped abruptly as the Clipper skirted to the lee of the mountains that shelter Hong Kong Harbor.
I was treated to the exhilarating experience of steaming into the world’s most exotic harbor directly out of a ferocious typhoon. The fresh salt air caressed my nose as a light chop dappled the harbor with white spray under a dramatically roseate cloud streaked morning sky as a tangle of junks, freighters and even a large hovercraft churned the waters against the backdrop of Asia’s greatest city.
A few years later I was a Petty Officer in the Weapons Department of the USS Hunley, AS 31 in Agana, Guam as a monster typhoon bore down on the Marianas. My new wife and baby son were living in a rented tin roofed, concrete block house on Nimitz Hill when we were ordered to sea to ride out the typhoon. It was pretty rough but I was overwhelmed with concern for my family because I was very aware of the damage these storms wreak on Pacific Islands.
Fortunately for me, Guam received minimal damage while the nearby Island of Saipan was practically wiped out.
My friends, this is only my opinion. I‘d love to hear about the military experiences of my comrades both in the Navy and in the other services. Please don’t hesitate to use the comment section to tell me how right I am or how full of shit I am.