A boot remembers
17 years old, fresh out of boot camp. They called me a kiddie cruiser but I looked sharp in my new blues, all creases like a razor, white hat cocked just a little, shoes spit shined to a high gloss. A far cry from who I was a year earlier. High school drop out 9th grade.
Couldnít take the harassment anymore, dummy, idiot were words I used to hear often. I stuttered . I would show them. Now I was a real sailor heading for my first duty station: The USS COLLETT DD-730 out of Long Beach was not too far from my home town of Arcadia, in the San Gabriel Valley.
After a few weeks leave and really impressing the girls at the church I was going to, after all every woman loves a man in uniform. I hopped in my car and drove to Long Beach parked the hot rod Chevy in the overflow parking lot and walked about a ľ mile to a side gate at the Naval Shipyard to get my first look at a real destroyer. COLLETT was in dry dock so I really got a good view of her size. My new home looked great. The quarterdeck was in a building on the pier so I went in and reported like I saw them do in the movies. Seaman Apprentice Wapstra reporting for duty sir I said to the O.D. and gave him my best salute. You know what, I wasnít stuttering. I donít recall much of that evening where I slept or ate are a blur. Just excited to be there. Next morning I remember being assigned to the deck crew under BM1 Coria. The ship was a mess. Trash from the yard workers, dust and dirt everywhere. So lets clean it up were the orders and clean it we did. Other then the days I had the duty I got my liberty card and could go home after knock off ships work. It was great.
Coming out of dry dock was about a 3 hour ordeal. The ship was looking really good after a new paint job and things looked like we were on schedule whatever that was. Going on our first sea trail a few weeks later was not so uneventful. The boatswain had me and a shipmate in the scullery cleaning the trays and other eating utensils and testing the scullery machine. I could feel we were up picking speed. We were testing our engines and from what I heard and read later in the ships log 31 knots. A very foggy day. Visibility maybe a 1/2 mile or less. I remember we had a pilot onboard and in command of the ship. The C.O. was not on the bridge. We were steaming in the open ocean when all of a sudden the ship came to a complete stop. I heard some crunching and my shipmate and I were thrown the length of the scullery about 20 some feet against what looked like an asbestos covered boiler next to the door leading to the scullery. We got up and I thought we had gone aground. The ladder from the mess deck area where we were to the main deck was down.
We picked it up and set it in place, we scrambled up to the main deck and I looked over the side. All I could see was a lot of color in the water. Red, green, gray, white. I thought we hit a reef. Opening the foul weather door to the forecastle I saw something completely different, the bow was gone from the anchor capstan forward. I ran to the hatch leading to the boatswains locker and looked down and saw SM2 Mooneyham sitting in a chair that had gone around with the top half of the bow. Not a visible scratch on him. I donít recall much of anything after that other then seeing another ship in the fog. Turned out to be the USS AMMEN she had just off loaded ammo at the Seal Beach ammo depot and was heading for San Diego I was told later. We creamed her port side and I learned later and had taken out her disbursing/ships office and had killed some of her crew. I donít remember going back into port and going on liberty. I do remember being at home and getting violently sick after thinking about what had just happened and I was stuttering again.
Almost four years later, I was down in the forward Boatswain locker where the SMís had their flag and sewing machine storage area in one of the compartments on the port side and I found the old ships logs and the one with the accident was still onboard. Apparently it had been used in a court martial. I remember there being a lot of paragraphs underlined in blue ink.
We get a new bow from the USS Seamen DD-791 a moth balled unfinished destroyer from Bremerton Wash. Collett was put back in dry dock with the Seamen and both bows were removed forward of the anchor capstan. The Seaman's bow grafted to Collett. I think it was about three months of constant work before we were ready to go on sea trial again.
Desron 9 gets orders to change homeports to Yokosuka, Japan. Collett, De Haven, Swenson, Shelton w/Desron 9 aboard join Bennington for the trip across the Pacific. First stop was Honolulu, Hawaii. Beautiful. My first stop after getting some liberty was to see my hometown friend Buddy who was a 2nd class machinist on the Ronquil an older submarine out of Pearl. He said how great it was onboard, but I liked my tin can better. A few days stay in Pearl and were off to the land of the rising sun. A fairly uneventful crossing.
The Bennington was launching and recovering aircraft daily. We were busy with life guard station, UNREPS and lectures on damage control as I remember it.
There had to be more to it than cleaning, chipping and painting. I asked to strike for radioman. Granted. I went to the radio shack, was there about 2 weeks I asked to be transferred to the signal bridge. After a talk with the leading signalman and showing my prowess with Morse code even if I used the light left handed, he must have felt sorry for me. I was on. Shining brass every morning, keeping the sig bridge spic and span was my job along with learning the flags, semaphore and Morse code. I was not as great as I thought I was. We all got along just fine and I loved this job. I was on the signal bridge when we started up the channel to Tokyo Bay. Hey Wop we have to salute all these merchants when we pass them, thatís your job. Long underwear, undress blues, white hat, gloves and a long foul weather coat was my uniform for entering our new home port of Yokosuka Japan. I must have dipped our ensign a dozen times going down that long approach to Yokosuka harbor.
My first liberty was, how can I put this? Interesting. Off the ship, down the pier leading to the main road to the gate. Passing the petty officers club to the gate. Showed my liberty card and I was in town. Where now? Cross the street, hey look out, they drive on the wrong side of the road. Go right to the E.M. club look inside. Find a store to my left. A money changing booth straight ahead of me and to my right was an outlet that sold beer and hard liquor. Upstairs were some party rooms and a large room that was loaded with slot machines. Nickel, dime as I remember. Played a little, went down stairs to the restaurant and ate the best Italian antipasto salad I had ever had. Changed my $20.00 for Yen and went down the ally next to the club hung a left and went to explore honcho street. Bars on my left, bars on my right. There was no drinking age so I was soon acquainted with Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin beer and my favorite Torres whiskey, water and lemon juice. Needless to say my twenty worth of yen didnít go very far. Cinderella liberty so I went back to the ship early but not before chowing down on a few 100 yen corn dogs.
I fell in love with the Japanese people, culture, food and country. I was now an official Asian. There were a few of us aboard that brought the chop sticks and whatever to the mess deck. I loved to go to Japanese hotels with tatami mats, wooden bath tubs, sleeping on the floor under a large soft quilt. Sitting cross legged at a fotatsu table on tatami drinking a few beers talking to my fellow signalman. I decided to rent a house. I found one in Hagashi Hemi. Not too far from the Yokosuka train station. Cab fare was dirt cheap. A 60 yen cab would get you almost anywhere for a few hundred yen. Rent on the house was cheap. We hung out there. I was there when listening to Armed Forces Radio and watching my Japanese TV that President Kennedy had been shot. It was snowing, no cabs were running and I couldnít believe it. Well, I have to get back to the Collett. If her ensign is half mast then itís true. I walked the 4 miles or so back to the base, saw my ship with the flag at half mast and started crying. My rate was Sm3. My kiddie cruise was almost over. I reenlisted for 6 more.
I loved the Collett. The officers and crew. My signal bridge. Well actually it was SMC E.V. Whiteís signal bridge, but I took care of it for him. We chipped and painted. Fancy worked the rails with canvas and turksheads, shined the solid brass ships bell and big eye binoculars. It looked great just great. When I got orders to my next duty station a few months latter, I was totally devastated. Leaving the quarter-deck I saluted her flag and looked at her for the last time. I still to this day miss that fabulous greyhound.