I believed it when I first heard it in 1961, and I believe it now: “Sailors belong on ships, and ships belong at sea.” I was excited about going to sea for the first time. I had been onboard the USS COLLETT for all of a week. Throughout the ship were noises of machinery running and fans blowing and deckhands chipping paint. There were the smells of lubricating oil, diesel fuel, and fresh paint. I was beginning to learn names and locations of spaces on the ship. The spaces had strange names like: “Radio Central,” “the Bridge,” and the “Mess Decks.” Spaces were reached along narrow passageways, or up a steep ladder, or down a steeper ladder. I had also learned my assignment for important evolutions like “General Quarters” and “Abandon Ship."
I was also learning the names of my shipmates, and who the officers were. It seemed as if everyone knew their job and what was expected of them -- except me. I was still very much “Tag-along Pete.” Wherever Mel Post, the lead Electronics Technician (ET) went, Frank was sure to follow.
The big day had arrived. Over the ship’s loudspeakers came the announcement, “Now set the special sea detail.” That announcement was followed by other commands related to leaving port. I went out on deck to experience the process. The ship was now alive with activity. At last the deckhands cast off the lines, and we were underway. We pulled away from the dock as slowly and as powerfully as a great locomotive. New noises began, old noises faded. The ship began gently swaying. Skillfully, the captain guided the ship through the confines of Tokyo Bay, and toward the open sea. Soon, the special sea detail was secured. The wind picked up. The clean smells of the sea replaced the smells of port. It was refreshing.
I went inside to the ET shop and was quietly talking with Mel, when we were startled by the first of 20 jarringly loud gongs. “Oh,” said Mel, speaking calmly but moving quickly, “we have to go to ‘General Quarters’ now.” He opened the door and led the way into the already crowded passageway. Over the sound of the maddening gongs, came the spirited announcement from the loudspeakers, “General Quarters, General Quarters! This is NOT a drill. All hands man your battle stations! Set Condition Zebra.” At the words “this is not a drill,” and on top of the cacophony of the gongs, some sailors hooted, and others excitedly repeated the phase about this not being a drill, and others cursed. But everyone broke into a run, as if they were being chased by mad dogs. Mel and I made our way through this chaos, forward on the ship to the bottom of the narrow ladder to the deck above us. We waited for a pause in the downward-bound traffic, and then bolted up the ladder and ran aft to RadioCentral.
Seated on the deck of Radio Central, Mel and I tucked our pants legs into our socks in the prescribed Navy way, and we rolled down and buttoned our shirtsleeves. Yes, having our pants tucked into our socks looked dumb and felt dumb, but it was required for the limited protection it afforded from the possible flash of a fire in battle. “What do ETs do at General Quarters?,” I asked Mel. He paused and smiled and said “We wait for something to break, and then we fix it.” “Oh,” I said, nodding my head.
We then joined in conversation with the four Radiomen. They were nervously speculating why we were called to a real General Quarters. Was it the threat of an air attack, or potentially hostile submarine, or what? We all knew that Tokyo Bay was not that far from Vladivostok, a Soviet naval port. The sound-powered phone talker, who was on a network with the talker on the Bridge and some other spaces, now told us that Sonar had detected a possible submarine and that we were tracking it. (Mel explained to me that we had to treat all submarines as hostile until identified.) I kept my thoughts to myself, but I could see the tension in the faces of my shipmates.
After what seemed like a long time, the phone talker said that Sonar had determined that the possible submarine was only a whale. What a relief! A few minutes later, a welcome announcement came over the loudspeakers: “Now secure from General Quarters. Set Condition X-Ray. Set the regular underway watch.”
Mel and I stood up and then pulled our pants out of our socks. Mel said to me, “Let’s go back to the shop” and he headed out the door. “Tag-Along Pete” was close behind.