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Think about taking a sabbatical from working with Jack the Mexican on the climate change fraud to work another topic in which I actually might have some expertise. Looking over Slow Joe’s finances and I saw a reference to his net worth in 2009, before he became VP, as $30,000. I think this is an obvious mistake. I was worth more than that as a Navy Lt. in 1974. I assume it was $300K since he had been sucking on taxpayer money of over $100K a year for 36 years. Maybe Hunter got it. Still not very impressive.
Today Joe’s worth more than $9 million with two properties worth over $4 million. San Fran stuff. How did he get there so fast? He didn’t do much heavy lifting for Obama. MSM says it was his cool $8 million for his valuable insights paid for some ignored books. And his great salary teaching at some college and his wife’s contributions. Does anything smell yet? So, nothing involving Hunter, his Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese pals? The Big Guy got nothing? An IRS auditor seeing this involving a guy named Trump would be at Condition One. I will start doing some checking. Might be a neat campaign ad. The guy is not only senile, stupid, and mean, he is a crook.
Even as a youngster, I was a fan of the Air Force. Dad was a Marine Corps pilot but never forgot his missions working with the Army Air Corps (AF in WWII). He was based in Ulithi, with most of the US Navy and Army Air Corps, before the invasion McArthur pushed for in the Leyte invasion. Army transports stressed getting all the support the troops needed and Air Corps CO asked Dad’s CO if Marine Corps aviators could help. No problem. So several missions via Peleliu, which Marines and Army had finally secured, to Leyte. So on one trip back, dad had an Army general aboard. Then AA fire from Navy ships, not getting the proper message. Dad’s message “Flag aboard,” even though not the proper term for an Army guy, got through and he survived his closest call in the war.
I loved the air shows at Tinker Air Force Base in OKC as a kid. Then in law school, several of my classmates were AF ROTC. Then they got crappy AF JAGC assignments. North Dakota, Marysville, CA, while I went to NY and San Francisco. Sister married into an Air Force family, father-in-law West Point, brother-in-law AFA. AF ROTC rejected me as I had more than five school parking tickets. OK, the Navy looked good to me. It kept me from getting drafted.
Then on the carrier. In the Tonkin Gulf. And found what the real world was like. Not shuffling papers and flapping my gums in a court martial case. As I said before, amazed by the flyboys. When not trying to deal with crazy sailors and their fascination with Olongapo hookers and drugs. So survived 60 days of chaos and, in ’73, the war was over. At least as far as the US was concerned.
Back to the P.I. in Nov. 1973. Oil price craziness so much more time than usual in port, so we didn’t burn precious fuel. Marcos’ midnight curfew was still in place when he thought the good times enjoyed by our sailors might be a threat. Navy Shore Patrol was very good about getting our drunk sailors off the street before the curfew. But they missed one. An AF major. Recon guy. Impressive record. Who got tagged.
Comes to my office. States that the CO of our ship can’t impose any discipline on him as he is AF. I actually was prepared for this. Showed him the DOD instruction that AF personnel assigned to Navy ships were subject to Navy discipline. Not that it was severe. CO only gave him one night of restriction. So he was free three days later to check out the Manila hookers.
From my own experience on a Navy aircraft carrier in late 1972 I was in awe of pilots like most staff officers. Probably the most exciting experience for a Navy officer other than, maybe, Seal duty. But these guys were getting their asses shot at almost every day flying from Yankee station. Very brave guys.
Then I find out Air Force pilots were in our air group. What the hell? Why would a Zoomie flying jets who could land in on a level air field in Thailand want to hook up with a bunch of semi-drunk sailors on a 300-yard platform bobbing up and down in the Tonkin Gulf? Then I found out.
Like most big balls college guys, they were nuts. Wanted more adventures. “Hey, lawyer, landing on this ship is like is a controlled crash landing. AF never showed us this stuff” So shut up and let them do what they wanted to do. Until it came to the PI shutdown and an AF major getting caught in the curfew. My next AF story.
Apropos of Dr. B’s question about public views on abortion, which are now all over the net, I tend to trust Powerline’s Gallup thread. So, two-to-one, the public is ok with abortion bans for the first trimester. In line with Roe. Then it shifts, about two-to-one against for the second trimester, the gray area the Supreme Court has wrestled with for 50 years; then four-to-one against third trimester abortions. I did not see a separate line for “partial birth” abortion but assume at least 90% of folks would say no.
So, other than Catholics like me who were taught at age seven from the Baltimore catechism that life begins at conception (probably most of the one-third against) most people have no problem with the original Roe ruling. And no state has yet to ban all abortions. Texas and my Okies set the deadline at 15 weeks. Since 15 weeks is past the first trimester (I assume 39 weeks pregnancy, trimester a third, so 13 weeks) no extinguishment of a “constitutional” right by any state so far. Doubt there will be any.
So states will set different standards. Imagine that. Hard to see this as a political lightning rod for the Dems. But I am in California, so just wondering how much of our tax money Newsom will give to five-month pregnant gals to vacation in what may become the abortion capital of the universe.
Our oldest son is engaged to a Chinese national who has been working in the Bay Area for several years and we heartily approved. Only child of an artist and she grew up in a large city west of Shanghai. Her family has also approved and is trying to teach him basic Mandarin. Our son and his prospective father-in-law both like to drink into the wee hours even if they can’t understand each other. With Covid the wedding there has been put off indefinitely. When discussing our travel plans in China after the wedding, the fiancé told us her family has a vacation home on Hainan Island and we would be invited to stay there. Which immediately gave me the willies. My son never commented on my story from years ago if he even read it. His lady never asked me about my Navy adventures. I doubt she is a Chinese intel agent as she does graphics for video games. But if we get there I will be sure to keep my lip zipped about a confrontation near there 50 years ago so I won’t get fed to the sea snakes.
WELCOME TO THE PARTY PAL!
“GENERAL QUARTERS. GENERAL QUARTERS. ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS. CONDITION ZEBRA WILL BE SET IN FIVE MINUTES.”
Followed by an extremely irritating klaxon-type alarm.
Phillips rolled over and the clock said 6:10 a.m. Sh*t. What is this?
“THIS IS NO DRILL.”
What the hell? Are the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor again? Just as Phillips sat up in his rack he got a whiff of LT Stinky slamming the door in a hurry to his station in the Engine Room hole. Time to get cracking. As there appeared to be some urgency, Phillips skipped putting on his socks and hustled to his assigned General Quarters space, his office. The ship’s lawyer was supposed to work on shuffling paper in an emergency. As Yates and Clinton were assigned other, more important duties, Phillips sat alone at his desk and wondered what the threat could be. Oh yeah, the bad guys have airplanes. And PT boats too. The latter is supposedly what got this war started although Phillips had his doubts.
He was working a construction job the summer before college when the Tonkin Gulf “incident” occurred in August of 1964. Good old LBJ thought a few bombs thrown the North Viet’s way would send them a message. All it got was a young Navy aviator, Alvarez his name was, in an NVA prison. The older guys Phillips carried pipe with that summer were immediately suspicious. Most had been grunts in the Army and were not looking for a repeat performance. But they loved ribbing Phillips about his possibly now shortened life span.
“Boy, you look like prime meat. Bet you could really hump some ground with a rifle. Ol’ LBJ is going to gin up something good for yo skinny ass.”
Stuff like that. By the end of the summer, Phillips was convinced he would not be safe from whatever foreign adventure the political dumb asses in Washington cooked up until LTJG Alvarez was safely home. But as of September 1972, he was still locked up.
The ventilation fans were turned off. Condition Zebra, locking all the metal hatches and doorways to contain any possible bomb damage, was announced as set. It was going to get very warm in the Legal Office. The ship could not risk smoke being sucked into other spaces.
Then the Captain announced the good news:
“This is the Captain speaking. We have had a little unexpected skirmish and things are still getting sorted out. Here is what happened. About 20 minutes ago two fighters from VF-118 covering the ships in our group got buzzed by a couple of MIG 19s. When the MIGS did not turn away and the lead VF-118 pilot believed they were a threat to the fleet our guys engaged them and made short work of the MIGs. From the fighters’ cameras analyzed after landing it appears the MIGs may have been Chinese transiting to the Chinese airbase on Hainan island. Up to now, all the MIGs we have seen have been North Vietnamese. Our recon aircraft reports a lot of activity at the Chinese airbase. We are now steaming south to get further distance from Hainan and all fighters from our ship and the Midway are in the air and screening the fleet.”
“Frankly, we don’t know what will happen next but we need to be prepared for anything. None of the Chinese planes have taken off yet so it may be just a drill for them. We are watching that base like a hawk. No sign of activity by the NVA or in south China. We will stay at General Quarters for a couple of hours until we have enough distance from the Hainan base. But we have to go back North tomorrow for more missions. So it could get tense. I will give you updates when I have more information. That is all.”
Great. Fighting the NVA to a virtual standstill wasn’t enough. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is now invited to the party. Phillips now thought his 8,000-mile detour to get near California chicks was not such a great idea. He should have asked for a desk job at JAG Headquarters in Washington shuffling claims paperwork or writing briefs. The guys he knew there said there was so much snatch in D.C., mostly government secretaries, that even lawyers could get laid. Too late now.
Two hours later the temperature in Phillips’ office approached 90 degrees. He wondered how the old Navy did it before air conditioning. He was able to puzzle over the sailor debtor problem. With the office’s meager federal law library he was able to find some obscure consumer notice statutes that might have been violated in the usurious engagement ring agreements his poor knucklehead sailors signed. Now he had to figure out how to leverage this into some face-saving 25 cents on the dollar settlement. Maybe some of the Subic lawyers were admitted in California and would have some ideas. Then came a new announcement:
“This is the Captain speaking. It looks like we are in no immediate danger. No Chinese jets have lifted off from the Hainan base. We will secure from General Quarters in about 5 minutes. In a way, this was a blessing in disguise. As much as all of you needed a stand-down day, this was the fastest we have secured to Condition Zebra in any of our drills. So you are getting better at it which may come in handy sooner or later. Enjoy the rest of the day. That is all.”
A relieved Phillips was heading back to his rack to make up for his interrupted slumber when another 1MC announcement:
“Will the Legal Officer report to the Captain’s sea cabin immediately.”
What is this? A ship-wide announcement that the Captain wants his advice? Phillips didn’t know whether to be proud or fearful. What could he add to the Captain’s concerns about a furious dog fight the good guys won?
The Captain’s Marine orderly immediately opened the door for the Legal Officer. The CO was looking over reconnaissance photos of the Chinese airbase.
“Glad you got here so quick, John Law. Quite a furball this morning. I think this is something requiring a JAG investigation, do you agree?”
“Frankly, sir, I am not sure. The Navy JAG Manual requires investigations of shipboard casualties and accidents of a significant nature. But I have never seen it applied to combat issues. I will have to research it.”
“All right then. Get to it and let me know immediately if one is required. This is obviously much more a political hot potato than a legal one but if one is required I want it to be your highest priority. The pilots are now on their way to Saigon. The Navy command and General Abrams are in a bit of a tizzy over this and the White House is asking questions nonstop. Maybe the President got some chits with his egg foo yung when he was in Peking a few months ago that he can cash in now. I guess we will find out soon enough. I have enough to handle getting ready for tomorrow’s mission. And Hainan island will only be about 60 miles off our starboard side if we launch aircraft heading north in the morning. So I hope this gets resolved soon.”
The Captain turned back to the photos so Phillips assumed he was dismissed. He bleated a half-assed “Aye, aye sir” and went back to his office. He was never going to get any beauty sleep. Of that, he was convinced.
Why in the hell would lawyers be charged with investigating a combat incident? All he knew of air combat were Red Baron stories, Bridges at Toko-Ri stuff. But there it was in the JAG Manual; all incidents that could lead to major ship operations and/or engagements have to be analyzed and a report written by some JAG lawyer. Maybe the Navy just wanted the facts sifted. It’s what lawyers had to do for three tedious years. But how could he figure out whether US Navy fighters were justified in smoking some unlucky Commie fighter jocks? Phillips was really going to need some help with this.
A call to the Captain’s cabin led to another quick audience with the CO. The Captain was conversing with a couple of Commanders, probably the ship’s Operations Head and the Air Boss, when Phillips was led into the tiny space. Then the Commanders exited.
“Captain, your instinct was right. A JAG investigation is required. I have never done one before and just finished signing off on the two LT Hansen handed over. I assume I start with the photos.”
“That’s right. Report to the Intelligence Officer, LCDR Benson. He will lead you through the sequence of events and the photos of the debris left when the two Chinese fighters went into the drink. He also has the audiotape of the pilots’ conversations and the film from the gun cameras. It will be like watching a movie. I don’t know when CDR Smythe, he is the XO of 118 and the RIO in one of the fighters, and the other three will be back from Saigon but I want you to interview them immediately upon their return. I don’t care how late it is. Oh, and you will need to review the standard Rules of Engagement. The ship’s secretary has a copy. Grab one. You need anything or have any trouble call me immediately. Understood?”
Jesus, this guy did not waste time. Or words. Phillips guessed barking orders came naturally to him at this stage in his career.
LCDR Benson was another aviator who had been sent to the very competitive Navy Intelligence School to learn all the military spy tricks of the trade. He greeted the Legal Officer cautiously.
“Captain Turner said you would be coming down. I have the material to go over with you but have to ask you a question first. Are you cleared for Top Secret material?”
Phillips gave the Intelligence Officer a blank look.
“I have no idea. Can’t remember seeing any traffic above Confidential classification when I did my night watches at the Naval District. Since my work involved mostly representing junior enlisted, I did not have access to much secret stuff.”
“OK. I can give you a spot waiver given the time issues here and the fact you have to do the JAG Investigation. But I will need you to fill out some paperwork to get a permanent Top Secret clearance. LT Hansen had one. And you have to keep all the photos and other material here.”
Then Benson launched into his spiel.
“The engagement occurred at about 5:58 a.m. from the time monitor on the planes’ gun cameras. It happened here about 30 miles northwest of the ship and about 60 miles from Hainan. As you may know from the Rules of Engagement, anything within 50 miles of the island is a no-fly zone for us and it’s considered Chinese air space. The two F-4s were nowhere near the line. What is odd is that Chinese fighters, who routinely transit from a PLA base in South China here, always take the farthest eastern route away from our carrier formations and land on Hainan heading to the west. To my knowledge, we have never had a close call brushing up against Chinese MIGs before. Both sides have tended to stay as far away from each other as possible.”
“Not this morning. For some reason these MIGs looped to the west and while on an apparent flight path to Hainan got within our comfort zone; roughly a 50-mile arc around the northernmost of our fleet, the screening destroyers. Both Linfield 102 and 104, that’s the call signs for the two VF-118 aircraft, sent warning calls for the planes to divert to a more northern track. They did not respond. One scenario that the fighters always plan for is a North Viet Namese attack on the fleet pretending to be Chinese fighters heading for Hainan. So our guys were trained to pounce on anything that moved too close to the fleet.”
“Had the two bogeys changed track and heading north to loop around the island there would have been no problem. But they turned toward the fleet. That set off the attack alarms in the fighters. They immediately made a bee-line for the two planes and the destroyers below were alerted. I will play the audiotape for you. While we can guess at the identity of the voices, we will need to get verification on who said what. I assume you will interview the pilots and can do that. As you will hear, one of the pilots says clearly ‘They are firing on us.’ That triggered the automatic response of our guys firing their Sidewinder missiles. Four were fired and three hit and destroyed the two MIGs. They went into the Gulf about here, only a couple of miles apart.”
“Here are the photos of the debris. These markings here on the tail are definitely Chinese. This is not a Chinese aircraft given to the NVA that it reconfigured. Why in the hell the Chinese made a feint at the fleet is the $64 question. I am the Intelligence officer and see all the traffic on Chinese military movements. Nothing we have seen indicates any hostile intent by Chinese forces against the U.S. It may be these were inexperienced pilots that had not made the transit before and panicked when our guys challenged them. Big mistake. Any questions so far?”
Phillips felt overwhelmed by Benson’s data dump. How could he just get a drink of water from this fire hose?
“Commander, you have given me plenty of information to absorb. Let me start at the beginning. Can I get a map with positions of the four aircraft noted from the time of first sighting before the dog fight? With a line drawn showing the no-fly area near Hainan. Then I would like to listen to the audiotape. When I am done with that we can go over the photos and the video.”
“OK. Wilson, get a map for the Lieutenant, and let’s start plotting the positions.”
A first-class radioman jumped to attention.
The exercise was starting out like his ROTC navigation classes. He was getting his bearings on a small part of the sea; here is the Tonkin Gulf. Only instead of ships going 25-30 nautical miles an hour these frigging jets were flying at 300 knots. Could close in no time. The enlisted man then noted with red dots the initial position of the “bogeys” when spotted by the ship’s fighters. Then a dotted line plot to where they fatefully turned right instead of left. And the blue dots were the good guys. Pencil marks showed the various ships’ locations.
“Not sure this is exact, sir. But a pretty good approximation.”
“Thanks; now can I listen to the tape?”
“Sure, you can sit at my desk. Might help to use these earphones to screen out the background clattering.” The office’s teletype machines were making something of a racket.
The tape was only about two minutes long. He replayed it twice as the voices were not as distinct as he hoped. First, just desultory and intermittent chatter. Then a higher-pitched voice:
“Two bogeys. 10 o’clock low. Heading 145. Bout 20 miles.”
“Keep your eyes peeled.”
“They are turning in. I say again, turning in.”
“THEY ARE FIRING AT US. FIRING AT US.”
“GUNS UP. ALL PICKLES ARE HOT.”
‘MISSILE ONE AWAY. MISSILES TWO AND THREE AWAY.”
“MISSILE ONE AWAY.”
“BOGEY ONE IS DOWN. OTHER TURNING AWAY.”
“BOGEY TWO IS DOWN.’
“Air Boss. This is Linfield 102. We have a situation here.”
End of tape. That sure happened in a hurry. Phillips was curious what the gun cameras showed. Real herkie jerky. Not surprising given the twisting and turning the pilots were taught when engaged with enemy aircraft. Missiles were just streaks of light but the exploding MIGs made quite a sight. Poor guys learned too late not to screw with carrier fleet air cover. Phillips wondered if the bosses in Peking or Hainan were mulling that lesson over.
The Intelligence Officer then went through several photos of the wreckage taken by the recon aircraft shortly after the air battle. Some big piece of a MIG, one whole tail section with markings that Benson assured him was Chinese. He didn’t see any bodies floating on the water. Maybe the sea snakes got them.
Phillips thanked Benson and left to study the written Rules of Engagement and prepare his list of questions for the aviators when they returned from their grilling in Saigon. Then he had to meet with the XO to peruse the bad guy list.
“Sir, WO Bell and I met again after I reviewed the service records of the fifty or so guys with repeat masts that you wanted eyeballed as potential troublemakers. I was not able to get two records of squadron personnel with repeat masts since the Air Wing office says only you can get access to those. Not sure these two guys are hard-core badasses but if you give them the sign I can at least check them out. I am not sure if there are any Marines you want to think about. I understand Captain Carlotti does his own Article 15s for his troops so I have not seen any records of Marines with spotty backgrounds.”
“Don’t worry about the Marines. I talk to Captain Carlotti almost every day and we discuss his less than top-notch Marines. And he has very few. None of which I think will be a problem for the ship. Let me call the Air Wing office now to get you permission to see the air dale records.”
XO makes a brief call to the Commander of the Air Group’s office.
“That’s done. You get any resistance from the aviators over access to anything see me immediately. I understand why they like to keep their independence in all things bureaucratic but I don’t have much patience for it now. They are part of the ship and subject to the CO’s rules even though they pretend otherwise. So what do we have?”
“Ten guys who could be real trouble. The aggressive, brawling types who drink too much and don’t think too much of sailors of a different color. Four blacks and six whites. The others are borderline screwups but many of them are close to their release date so they will probably scrape by until the end of the cruise. But these guys, and here is the list, are well nigh worthless sailors and get in trouble in almost every port call.”
“I recognize these guys. Particularly Evans. One of the black hotheads. His Chief Petty Officer, who is also black, got every animated at his last Captain’s mast and told the Captain he was a good for nothing who hated whites and could never make it in the Navy. I think the CO took this as a personal challenge and tried to get the kid’s attention. Put him in the Jet Engine shop to give him a shot at learning some real skills. Evans was surprised and the Chief was livid. Said he was wasting a slot that more deserving sailors, white or black, should have a shot at and the Captain would regret it. He was almost insubordinate to the CO. But I thought Evans was OK since then.”
“No other masts but written up for some backtalk to the Division Officer who counseled him about it. But I heard he is really stirring up trouble with the new black sailors coming aboard. Trying to enforce some type of segregated bunks where the black kids have to get a rack near the other blacks in the berthing space. Always insisting the black sailors do the dap, that fist bumping handshake. And he is very vocal about how racist the Filipinos are in the Jungle. I think we need to keep an eye on this guy.”
“I agree. I will take this list and have a chat with the Division Officers and Chief Jackson. You work with the Shore Patrol and the Philippine police to see if any of them act up at the next port call. And then we meet again to see if any trouble is brewing.”
Phillips then dived into working on the MIG shoot-down investigation. While Yates hunted and pecked his way to make a transcript from the F-4s audiotape, Phillips worked up his list of questions for the two pilots and their Radar Intercept Officers while poring over the written Rules of Engagement for aerial combat in or near Chinese occupied territory. After a quick sandwich from the grill near the Flight Deck, he was ready for the interviews at about the time LT Trumbull announced the four were returning to the ship from Saigon.
Phillips wanted to interview Commander Smythe, the XO of the squadron, first. He was the most senior and experienced aviator. Not trained as a pilot but an RIO with hundreds of missions under his belt. The RIOs did all the radar work and readied the weapons for firing.
Phillips hustled up to CDR Smythe’s stateroom after confirming the landing and giving him enough time for a meal. After a polite knock, the door opened and Phillips was staring at a very haggard, short, and mean-looking Commander.
“Who the f*ck are you?”
“Uh, I am LT Phillips, LT Hansen’s replacement as the ship’s JAG officer. I have to do a JAG investigation about the air battle this morning and need to interview you.”
“JAG Investigation? Are you serious? I have just had my ass reamed non-stop in Saigon by a boatload of Captains, a few Admirals, and even a damn Air Force General. I have risked my ass in this man’s Navy for 15 years and almost got shot down twice. And they can squash me like a damn bug. I have no time for this crap. See me in the morning, Counselor.”
SLAM. Well, that was definitive enough for Phillips. Guess the Squadron XO would be the last one interviewed. He went back to his office to go over the list of the other three to try to get some interviews done before the morning.
One of the pilots was an Air Force captain. What the hell was he doing on a carrier? The others were an LT and LTJG so they shouldn’t be too disrespectful. Then the phone in the office rang.
“John Law, this is the Captain. Did you interview CDR Smythe?”
“No, sir. He acted like he was a little put out and said he would talk to me in the morning.”
“Oh he did, did he? Do you want to interview him first?”
“Yes, sir. That is my preference. He is the most experienced and his recollection might carry the most weight in preparing findings. But I can probably get to the same place by talking to other pilots first.”
“You stay there and don’t interview anyone else. CDR Smythe will be there momentarily.”
Five minutes had not passed when a sheepish looking Commander entered Phillips’ office. Phillips thought working for the CO would have its advantages.
“Sorry I chewed on your ass, Lieutenant. It’s been a long day. I thought I was doing my job to keep bogeys away from the fleet and find out I might have stepped in some political crap. What do you need to know?”
Phillips got the Commander to verify the identity of the voices on the tape. It was CAPT Kerr, the Air Force pilot, who saw one MIG firing on them. He had over 300 missions so was likely credible. Smythe was working the plane’s radar and did not see the firing. Then everyone went into combat mode and it was over in less than a minute. The Squadron XO confirmed the planes’ position from the ship’s radar and Phillips quickly typed out a rough statement for the Commander to review overnight and confirm or correct in the morning.
The three other aviators’ interviews went smoothly. Word had been passed from the Captain through the Commander of the Air Group to the Squadron Commanders to cooperate with the lawyer and get the investigation done pronto. The Air Force Captain was adamant that Bogey One was firing its 20 mm cannons at them.
“I have 325 missions. This is my second tour although first on a carrier. I have been in four separate dog fights and now have two MIG scalps. I know what enemy cannon fire looks like. These guys just panicked when they saw us closing. So we smoked them. End of story.”
This guy reeked of cockiness. Must be an Air Force Academy graduate. Phillips assumed those guys got an extra helping of piss and vinegar. And he was junior enough not to give a damn about any threat to his career. He could get a job with the airlines making three times what the military paid him. That sounded definitive enough for Phillips. After Yates and Clinton helped with typing up the statements the lawyer took another hour drafting a rough report with findings and conclusions and called the Captain to advise of the progress.
“Good job John Law. You have done enough for tonight. Give me the final tomorrow so I can sign off and give to the Admiral. We go back to war in the morning. Will be calling for General Quarters at 0530 about half an hour before we launch.”
It was after midnight. 18 hours on a reduced work day. Phillips was now looking forward to Subic as much as the horny sailors.
Another surprise about sailor problems I would have to deal with but at least I got to see how the flyboys worked. A very educational day. I read David Lamb’s book about a war reporter returning to Viet Nam when he went back to Hanoi in 1997 for the LA Times. He visited all the places he wanted to see in the North when he wrote from Saigon in the late ’60s. He wrote that in 1972 the permanent population of Vinh was zero. Great job, A-7 guys!
After plowing through the morning paperwork and setting the appointments for the afternoon, Phillips thought after a quick coffee break, he could have some downtime to wander around the ship and get his bearings. No such luck. When he walked into the office, he noticed a pilot with a file waiting for him.
“Are you LT Phillips, the new legal officer?” “Yes, sir.”
Although the pilot was a Lieutenant, the same rank as Phillips, these were the guys the ship revolved around. 120 pilots required about 5,000 other sailors to do business. And they were the ones risking their asses every day of operations. So, in Phillips’ mind, the guy was owed some deference. Phillips freely admitted to anyone who asked about his status that he was not brave enough to have been a Marine or a Navy pilot, although his nearsightedness would have likely disqualified him from flight school, but he sure wanted to work with and for them. It looked like he might have his first air dale client. The guy was of average height with blond hair and light blue eyes. Probably slayed the chicks when the ship was in port.
“I am LT Draper, an A-7 pilot with VA-211. I am also the squadron Legal Officer. I don’t know how much LT Hansen told you about how we work but I have a legal problem, actually it’s my plane captain, AM2 Simpson who has the problem, and I need some advice. I just had the JAG 7-week course for non-lawyers and handle the routine claims. I also have done some charge sheet work but on this ship Captain Turner wants to handle all disciplinary matters including the Air Wing’s so I will give you a heads up if we have problems. Our squadron is pretty ship-shape and has had no masts yet. Although the Squadron CO does have heart-to-heart talks when some of the guys screw up. But I am not qualified to give legal advice in this situation. I did not want to bother LT Hansen with this when he told me you were taking the California Bar exam, and this just came up. I thought it would make more sense to raise this with you.”
“I did take the California Bar exam in July. Won’t get the results for a few months. So I know a little about California law. How can I help your guy?”
“Simpson is my plane captain. One of the best mechanics I have ever seen. Always has me ready for the next operation. But he got in some trouble and a jeweler in Fresno is threatening to sue him. Kind of a mess.”
“Girlfriend problem. Actually, an ex-girlfriend, and that’s the problem. He tells me the gal was pressuring him to get engaged. Been seeing her for a few months and he was really into her. I actually met her at a squadron function at NAS Lemoore before the cruise. Cute secretary in Fresno; a few years older than Simpson but she looked legitimate. So, the guy buys her an engagement ring on credit. Something like $2500. Making regular payments although no automatic deduction from his paycheck. Gets a letter a month ago from the b*tch dumping him and telling him she is going to marry another guy. Typical Dear John stuff we see all the time. The kid is pissed and stops making payments on the ring. He asks for the ring back and it turns out the girl sold it for cash. So, no ring, no girl, and the poor guy owes about $2,200 and the store owner says he will sue if he doesn’t get all the money by next week. Anything we can do to help the kid?”
“Yes. Sailors, or anyone in the military, cannot be sued while they are deployed. LT Hansen has a standard letter I will send to the store owner. Just give me the file with the information in it. In the meantime, have Simpson come down when he has time, and I will try to figure out if he has a claim against the gal for disposing of the ring. There are some statutes involving gifts in anticipation of marriage, but I don’t have them at my fingertips. Will check that out. In the meantime, maybe we can come up with some offer to settle with the store owner for less than the total demanded. Most businesses don’t want to waste time on collections. Saw this come up a few times when I did some Legal Assistance in my prior job.”
“Really appreciate it, Lieutenant. Would sure help Simpson’s morale to know he does not have to do something until the ship gets back. And I really depend on this guy. By the way, have you been to flight ops or the squadron ready rooms yet?”
“No. This is just my second day. But I would like to. Sure, I wouldn’t be in the way?”
“Not at all. We like to show off for the staff officers. The docs are always wandering into the ready room asking who is bombing today. We have a briefing at 1330 for the afternoon mission if you would like to come. Our ready room is on the Second Deck behind the Repair Shops.”
“Thanks for the invite. Looking forward to it.”
So, Phillips was going to get to look at the business end of the ship. Would sure be more interesting than shuffling charge sheets. But the jeweler problem of the plane mechanic made Phillips curious about how widespread the debt problem might be aboard ship.
“Yates, LT Hansen briefed me on the standard response to wife divorce lawyer letters. Do we use the same one when responding to the claims of creditors the sailors owe money to like the guy in VA-211?”
“Not exactly. They are handled a little differently.”
“When the letters come in about money the kid owes, they are automatically directed here. Then LT Hansen, or one of us, sends it to the sailor’s Division Officer. One of their counseling jobs, about being responsible, staying out of debt. Then the Division Officer may write his own letter and hopefully the problem is taken care of and the guy pays up.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“Then we get another letter. That you will have to forward again. To the Division Officer.”
“How many of these are pending?”
“Let me see. We usually file them in this cabinet over here.”
Yates pulled out a drawer of an ancient gray 1950s-era metal filing cabinet. He fished out a huge file with hundreds of pages of paper.
“This is our creditor file. Quite a few here.”
“And these are all inquiries from creditors that have not been resolved?”
“I assume so.”
Phillips took the file and started wading through the paper. A lawyer’s specialty. Jesus, he thought. There must be over 100 scofflaws on the ship avoiding payments for one thing and another. Phillips noticed that the huge majority were from jewelry stores or collection agents for jewelry stores.
“Yates, most of these claims are from jewelers. Having never bought any jewelry for a girl I am a little unfamiliar with the process. Why are there so many claims like this?”
“Sir, you should see the way these guys operate. Usually have runners just outside the base in Alameda when the ship is in port. Flyers offering cheap gold jewelry, no credit check required. Only $5 a month payment plan type bait. Then the guys buy it on credit at some huge markup and interest rate and are on the hook. Most of the guys are trying to impress their girlfriends; a few get hooked into buying engagement rings. But a lot of the stuff is for themselves: gold necklaces, watches. You know, to look like studs.”
“I don’t get it. Most of these claims are for what look to be expensive items; $500 and up. And the sailors buying this stuff are Seaman rate or below. They could not be making more than $300 a month even with combat-zone pay. And I assume most of their check gets eaten up by hookers, booze, or drugs. Something does not compute here.”
“What can I say, sir? Most of these guys aren’t real sharp.”
“I guess not. So, I assume a lot of my time will get spent on these guys in addition to the mast screw-ups. So be it. Yates, I want you and Clinton to give me a chart of every outstanding creditor claim. I want the date of each letter, identity of the creditor, what, if anything, the division officer has done about it and how much is owed. I need to get a handle on this.”
“OK, sir. We can do that. What do you intend to do next?”
“I don’t know yet. I want to think about it. I have not had much consumer law experience, but I don’t like the smell of this.”
One more unanticipated problem for Phillips. Being a collection agent for aggressive businesses that preyed on young sailors was not a task he was looking forward to. Time for lunch and then an audience with the flyboys.
The VA-211 ready room where the pilots in the squadron got their briefings looked like a cleaner, cooler version of a high school boy’s locker room. Comfy seats with grease boards in each seat for the pilots to take notes. LT Draper introduced Phillips around to the other pilots. TV screens on the ceiling were tuned in to other parts of the ship, including the flight deck showing the recovery of aircraft from the last mission. The large blackboard at the podium was dominated by a huge map of North Viet Nam. Or part of it. The part below Hanoi-Haiphong was the day’s target. Someplace called Vinh. Phillips had never heard of it before. Other than the capital and the port of Haiphong, the only other place in the north he remembered was Dien Bien Phu. Where the French took it up the a** in 1954 before skedaddling back to Paris.
A grey-haired guy with an air of authority took the podium and everyone stopped talking. A Commander. Must be the Squadron CO.
“OK, guys. No surprise here. You see the map. It’s Vinh again.” Groans of “aw, sh**” and “not again.”
“Pipe down. It’s today’s job. We’ve been there before. And may have to go again. Just keep your wits about you. Weather report first. Then the intel briefing. The XO, Commander Johnson, will be the flight leader. He will go over the flight plan last. Good luck.”
The TV monitor then tuned to an officer in front of a weather map. Like the nightly weather report only for a very tiny area. Like 30 miles square. The young Lieutenant JG starts droning on about cloud layers, wind direction, and the usual stuff no one pays attention to on the nightly news. But all the pilots were paying attention and taking notes. The A-7s were the older version of a light attack bomber manufactured by LTV and were not geared for all-weather use like the heavier two crewed A-6 Intruders. These guys needed clear weather to insure hitting their target. Looked like they are going to get it today.
A jaunty-looking intelligence officer was next up. Tall with a handlebar mustache. Looked almost British. Expected to hear “OK, blokes, here is the scoop.” Instead, just the cold facts: “They are getting a little better on camouflaging the anti-aircraft batteries. Used to have 7 now we count at least 9 and under some pretty good screening. Here are a few photos although only the F-4 guys need to study them. Fighters will go in first and clean them out. Only one or 2 SAM batteries on trucks; fairly easy to spot. Two of fighters will hold back during the rest of VF-118’s runs and jump on them when they limber up. I think the fighter cover here will be more than adequate.”
“The sneaky b*stards have moved the red cross sign down a few buildings since we saw this place last time. Now on some warehouse about 150 yards closer to the rail junction. I can’t say ignore it. But if you hit the building and the sign is in tatters it will be on Cronkite by tomorrow night. Don’t do any dangerous turns to avoid it either. That’s about it. Ask any questions of Commander Johnson, if you need additional photos.”
A tall, lean, gaunt-looking guy with a Commander’s oak leaves stood at the podium. Must be the XO and the mission leader.
“OK, guys. You know the drill. We are 10 minutes behind the fighters unless they find something unexpected, and the mission gets aborted. As much as you might be hoping for that, you know it’s not gonna happen. I will take the first flight in and focus on the railroad junction. We have hit that many times so the parameters should be drilled into you by now. LT Stilwells’s flight behind me will be going after the buildings here just to the west. Then LCDR Boston and his crew to clean up anything still standing. Regular angle of attack; bomb release at 1500 feet then get out of Dodge. Two of the fighters will be our rear guard. Any questions?”
No one raises a hand.
“OK, get to it. On the deck in five minutes.”
Phillips watched the aviators file out on their way to the locker rooms just off the flight deck for their harnesses and sidearms. Didn’t look very pissy and vinegary. More like stoic. Another day at the office for these guys.
“Hey, lawyer. See you when I get back in about an hour.”
It was LT Draper. He looked a little more confident than the others. Maybe he was a born optimist like Phillips.
“Good luck, Lieutenant. Can’t wait to hear about the mission.”
Phillips wandered back to the cluster of executive offices near the Legal Office. While his pilot shipmates were bombing the hell out of the fine denizens of Vinh, People’s Republic of North Viet Nam, he had a confab with the Personnel Officer over the dirtbag list. The Personnel Officer was Warrant Officer 2 Jeff Bell. In the meticulous Naval Bureaucracy, Warrant Officers were neither officer fish nor enlisted fowl. The Navy had more personnel classifications than the Indian caste system. Instead of officer commissions, they were given “warrants” which Phillips guessed were about as valuable as Sheriff appointments in the old West. But they could bunk in Officer’s Country and were paid better than enlisted men. Just like the limited duty officers such as Trumbull they were specialists. And Bell was a specialist in analyzing the Navy paperwork for every sailor on the ship.
“So, what do we have here Jeff?” Phillips tried to sound nonchalant. Even though the subject was the possible short-circuiting of scores of young sailors’ careers.
“Not sure, sir. Went through LT Hansen’s list of troublemakers and repeat mast offenders. Not exactly a murderer’s row but some real screw-ups. Compared that to their test scores in their records. As you would expect, pretty good correlation between lack of a high-school education and trouble. But of the 75 or so that had two or more masts and no high school diploma or GED we have fairly wide disparity from the performance evaluations. You know, what the Division Officer says the kid can do or is capable of. Many of them, at least two dozen, show real potential. And it was not just the deck apes. Some of the kids in AIMD, which handle the planes on the hanger deck getting ready for repair work, showed a real interest in their work. So, it’s hard to say all these kids are lost causes. So, I drilled down on the other 50 or so. Not much potential there. Offenses are borderline; some drugs, a few fights and assaults, one theft. Should we start teeing these guys up to get canned?”
“Maybe. Give me the files to review tonight and I will read them and get back to you with a hit list. And then we go to the XO and maybe the Division Officers to get a little more feedback and a final decision before I pull the legal trigger. But I have a question about the race of the 50 on thin ice. Are they mostly black?”
“No. Maybe a quarter of them. A little higher percentage than for the crew as a whole but all with 9th- or 10th-grade educations. And bad attitudes. Several of them are the militants we always hear about. But the white kids’ attitudes in this group aren’t any better. Just screw offs.”
“Thanks, Jeff. I know that’s something the XO will want to know. I will give him a preliminary report and then we can meet tomorrow.”
“It is a stand-down day tomorrow. Can we do it later in the day?”
The ship was scheduled for a day off from flight operations. Which meant a reduced work schedule for staff and crew to rest up for the next 10-day push before a Subic port call.
“Sure. Talk to you after dinner.”
Phillips went to the officer’s wardroom where meals were served. A TV in the small lounge area was focused on the flight deck and the Legal Officer got some coffee while watching the aircraft return from the Vinh mission. The fighters landed first. The F-4 Phantoms sucked down the Av Gas much quicker than the A-7s and there was no refueling on this mission. Then came Draper’s squadron. It was fun to watch the wobbling of the planes as they lined up for their final approach. Not too much crosswind this afternoon and most of them hit the No. 3 of the four arresting cables, the safest place to land. All 20 planes came back so no losses. Another bullet dodged by the good guys. Phillips wondered if they did any good.
At dinner that night one of the line officers who stood Officer of Deck watches invited Phillips to come up and watch the night landings. A separate reconnaissance mission had been launched to check out the Vinh damage and help plan more fun strikes in two days. After the night shift legal assistance meetings, more sailors with the damn Dear John divorce letters, Phillips wandered up the seemingly endless series of steps to the very top of the superstructure which contained the ship’s bridge. The place was so large Phillips could find a corner with a bird’s eye view of the flight deck and stay out of the way of the dozen officers and sailors who were running the ship. Phillips noticed a Marine Corps officer with binoculars slung around his neck barking orders. What is a Marine doing on the bridge? A Quartermaster Chief whose job was to assist the Navigator on this four-hour watch noticed Phillips and came over.
“Evening, sir. You must be LT Hansen’s replacement. I am Chief Decker and have the Quartermaster watch. Your first time up here?”
“Yeah, Chief. I have only seen the bridge of an AFS. On my summer ROTC cruise. This place is pretty roomy. Who is the Marine and what is he doing?”
“That’s Captain Carlotti. He’s the Marine Detachment CO. He’s the Officer of the Deck. He had a real interest in learning about seamanship and got permission from the Captain to be trained as a Junior Officer of the Deck. Took to it like a fish to water and got certified as the OOD several months ago. One of our best ship drivers and the Captain says he is an outstanding trainer of the new crop of JOODs.”
As odd as a Marine driving an aircraft carrier seemed to Phillips, he was sure the crew was safer than if the ship’s lawyer were in charge. He learned a little navigation in ROTC but was hopeless in his summer JOOD training. He could barely tell starboard from port and had no feel for the drift of the ship or how quickly it could turn. Better he was not commissioned a line officer.
Phillips’ attention was focused on the flight deck. Guys in various colored jerseys moving planes hither and yon as they landed. It appeared completely confusing to him. He could sense that there was an urgent need to move a plane that had just landed out of the way so that others could land but the many bodies scrambling around seemed more chaotic than ants on a Tennessee anthill.
“Chief, what are the different colored jersey guys doing?”
“The white jerseys are the Landing Signal Officers and quality control types. They signal the pilots on their final approaches and keep track of where everyone lands. There are four arresting cables that will grab onto the tail hook and stop the aircraft. The planes are always at full power on landing so they can take off if they miss the cables. It’s tough if they land too close to the no. 1 wire. Might be too close to edge of the angle deck.”
“The green jerseys are the arresting gear crews. When a jet hits a cable with its tailhook it drags the cable about 100 yards until it yanks the aircraft to a complete stop. Then the tailhook drops and the cable snakes back into position. They also manage the upkeep and lubrication of the catapults and arresting gear below decks.”
“The yellow jerseys are the aviation bos’n mates; the plane handlers. They drive their little tractors to put planes into position on the flight deck or onto an elevator if being stowed or repaired in the hanger bay. The red ones are the bomb guys; load the bombs and weapons and defuse them if a plane comes back with a full load. Purple people eaters are the fuelers. A few more but that is the basic flight deck line up.”
Phillips was fascinated with the flight deck ballet. How do these guys stay out of each other’s way in such a constricted space? They must have to be constantly looking over their shoulders to see if any planes are close by. Hansen had shown him the photos from an investigation into a tragic accident a few months before when a flight deck officer, an experienced Lieutenant Commander, momentarily lost his bearings and his balance near the forward catapult and was sucked into the engine of an A-7. Upper torso chopped to pieces. Guys often get blown overboard by the tail blast of a turning jet. Yet these 19- and 20-year-old kids were running around like they were on a school playground. And only looked forward to a few days every couple of months to lap up beer and get laid. It looked like the U.S. Navy was in good hands.
Phillips headed below decks for a quick cup of coffee and an early turn in when the jarring alarm sounded:
“FIRE. FIRE. FIRE. FIRE IN THE FORWARD MEZZANINE LOCKER. AWAY THE FIRE AND RESCUE TEAM.”
Sh**. Another reminder he was living on a giant, floating powder keg. Furious pounding of feet as the designated firefighters, among the ship’s most valuable sailors, tore down ladders and hallways to reach the blaze. Shouts of “Make Way” as the path was cleared. It could not have taken more than 30 seconds for the guys in protective gear with foam sprayers to charge into the space and let loose a stream of chemicals. Turned out to be a minor flare-up near the rope storage area. Not near any bombs or ammunition. Two minutes later the relieving announcement “FIRE IS OUT” came over the 1MC. Phillips wondered how many of these dramas he would get to experience. At least he would get to sleep in tomorrow. Maybe he would stay in his rack until 8 and pretend he had a civilian job.
As an old guy (75) looking back, the most notable thing about my life is my long streak of good luck. Good health – early-stage prostate cancer on the mend. I never spent the night in a hospital. Long-time marriage and my wife beat early-stage breast cancer eleven years ago. Parents lived into their late 80s and 90s. Three healthy children all living independently with good jobs. So other than San Francisco homeless and my football team not being Alabama I have very little to grouse about. Will stay out of politics for now.
But much of my luck came in the job challenges I had. And luckiest of all, my draft notice in May 1968 arrived one week after I was accepted into the Navy ROTC unit when I was in my first year of law school. That was the year graduate deferments ended (except for Clinton and Biden; sorry couldn’t help it). Two law school classmates, both honor students, drafted into the Army, got clerk jobs, and returned to finish their law degrees. My experience would be different. So avoiding Viet Nam was at the top of the to-do list and it looked like I was going to make it.
My NROTC summer cruise was on a ship homeported near San Francisco and I fell in love with the place. A few years after the “summer of love” but great food and cool summers. But half the law students who were JAG Corps designates wanted to go there or to San Diego. Drew the short straw and got New York. Two years of trial experience, mostly low-level special courts martial for absences, disobedience, drugs, a few assaults, and a weird gay sex assault case. Sort of like public defender misdemeanor stuff but I learned the UCMJ and got to run my mouth a lot. But salivating for a chance to get to California.
More good luck. My first military judge, Dave Bennett, took a liking to me. He knew criminal law was not my bag but said I wrote good briefs and might do well in civil litigation. And his next job was as the JAGC Lieutenant Detailer at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in D.C. By 1972 no money for shore transfers, at least for lawyers, but my judge pal told some of us hankering for California about the aircraft carriers going into the Hunter’s Point shipyard in San Francisco for extensive overhauls and that could be the ticket to the Golden State. One buddy took him up on the offer and went to the U.S.S. Ranger, just going into the yard and he loved it. So why not? I get the next assignment to a carrier scheduled for a six-month overhaul in 1973 shortly after it was due back from a West Pac cruise and planned to meet the ship in San Diego, where it was homeported, in September 1972 after its return.
Them some rare bad luck. Just before the Ranger was to come out of the yard and replace my ship in West Pac some lunkhead drops a wrench in the ship’s reduction gears during testing. Screws it up and requires more time in the yard to repair. Which means it cannot replace my ship. Which is then extended an extra two months. In West Pac. On Yankee Station. 30 miles east of Haiphong. Where I landed in September 1972 on the USS Thomas Jefferson to start my new job. I became a Viet Nam service veteran by accident.
My judge pal said his service as a carrier JAG in the Mediterranean was the best duty he ever had so I was looking forward to it. I had done little legal assistance work but did manage to get a cute Navy nurse a discharge as a conscientious objector which did not seem odd at the time. My summer ROTC cruise was uneventful; just floating around San Francisco Bay on trials and a short trip to San Diego. I had no idea of the kind of problems sailors were faced with on a carrier that I would have to deal with. But I found out. Real quick.
I wrote this as fiction, with some lawyer exaggeration, for a 40th reunion in San Francisco eight years ago. My shipmates liked it. Mark Alexander and Max Knotts suggested some edits. With their help I cleaned up the chapters you will read. After routine introductions to the CO (Commanding Officer) and XO (Executive Officer, my boss, and the first African American Naval Officer I ever met) I had a half-hour introduction regarding pending issues with my predecessor, Lieutenant Hansen. He told me the only items on the agenda for the next day were the usual Captain’s Masts (UCMJ Article 15; for low-level offenses not meriting a court martial) and an interview with a diver from a destroyer escort that was the ship’s rear guard who failed to save a ship’s sailor who fell off the ship at night and was lost at sea. Sounded like a routine introduction to the ship’s operations. Didn’t quite turn out that way.
Clinton and Yates, my two yeomen (secretaries) were young college graduates thankful to not be in the Army. Both became lawyers after their service. Don’t know if it had anything to do with our shared experiences. My roommate on the ship was an engineering officer. Who worked in the “hole”. And smelled like it.
This is one chapter. Max and Mark are helping to clean up a few more. None of my experiences were as exciting, or dangerous, as what Max went through. Sent the whole story to Susan whose husband is a Navy vet. She said he liked it. Even with all the vulgarity. Annefy’s Marine sons have yet to give their reviews. You may know by now I am a terrible proofreader.
LT Hansen was off at first light. Back to the civilian world of the billable hour and a regular life. But not before running over the Captain’s Mast racial statistics and giving Phillips the list of candidates for administrative discharges to discuss with the Personnel Officer. Then the new Legal Officer had an hour XO Screening Mast sandwiched around approving the new charge sheets for next week’s line up and scheduling of the sailors for legal assistance. Phillips had to bone up on the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act if he was going to give family law advice. Then a two-hour Captain’s Mast where the CO had a heart-to-heart chat with that week’s screw-ups. Phillips was impressed with the CO’s bedside manner. He would emphasize the need for team players, how the kid had let down his division mates and made their jobs harder, he understands how exhausted everyone was from the long cruise, etc., etc. Then docked him $50 in pay and made him lose two days of liberty by restriction to the ship at the next port call. Which was an excruciating punishment. From the little gossip Phillips had already picked up his first day aboard, the sailors constantly talked about their next port call. No one cared where it was as long as there was plenty of booze and whores. Three to four days of drunken debauchery and the crew was good to go for another 45 days at sea.
Only one of the mast cases stood out for Phillips. One of the sailors was caught smoking. In a forward magazine. With bombs in it. While smoking was constantly regulated during dangerous fueling or flight operations – “the smoking lamp is now lighted” was the most inspiring message on the ship’s 1MC public address system for the many sailor hackers – smoking around bombs, for some reason, was always forbidden. The CO reamed that kid but good. And imposed an ancient Naval punishment that Phillips had forgotten had found its way into the UCMJ: three days of bread and water in the brig. Well, at least he could have all the bread he wanted. Maybe it will help him kick the habit. Even though he could refuse the punishment and demand a court martial, something this serious would likely get the maximum six months in the brig and a Bad Conduct Discharge. The kid was probably wise to take the three days and not trade for a longer stretch with better food.
After a quick bite of chow in the wardroom, Phillips was back in his office for the late shift and the interview of the Overlord’s swimmer. He would miss the “Dirty Harry” movie. Maybe he could see it in port.
The destroyer sailor was in his office. Young, stocky looking kid. While all sailors had to be competent swimmers, the guys who did rescue duty on the tin cans were a cut above.
“I’m the Legal Officer, LT Phillips. Thanks for coming over on the chopper. This should just take a few minutes and then you can get back to your ship.”
“No problem, Lieutenant. I appreciate the break. Take your time. I got to go through your chow line. Carrier food is much better than what the destroyers serve.”
“I am curious. How long have you had this duty, going after guys falling off a ship?”
“For most of this cruise. Have been following the Jeff for about 4 months but had screening duty for other carriers. That’s where most of my jobs come from.”
“How many times have you had to fish sailors out of the drink?”
“Probably 10 to 12. Only had one die. And lost your sailor. Most of the time we can get them.”
“From the file it looks like Seaman Kane fell overboard at about 2330. About a 70-foot drop. How were you alerted to him being in the water?”
“Ship’s siren. The forward watchers are always scanning the back of the carriers; particularly during night landings since that’s when most accidents and possible man overboard situations occur. No night ops that night but the watch stander saw him hit the water and alerted the bridge. Rescue alarm sounded and I was stationed just off the forward beam and was ready to go. The ship came around to get me within about 50 yards of the kid. I saw him and hit the water.”
“What happened then?”
“I had him in my sights. He was bobbing up and down and I thought I saw his eyes open so he must have hit the water cleanly. Not splayed out like he was unconscious or anything. Got to within about 10 yards and he went down, and I never saw him again. I dove down maybe 50 feet but never got a glimpse. It was night and not enough light from the ship although the spotlight was focusing on the area where he went under. I didn’t have any diving gear as we are not equipped to do that. Kept going under for about 15 minutes and then gave up. Hate to lose a guy like that.”
“Any idea what happened to him? His medical record looked like he was healthy. No record of drug use or anything like that.”
“I think sea snakes got him.
“You mean like Cecil the Sea Serpent sea snakes?”
The rescue sailor gave Phillips a blank stare. Of course, the kid was probably not even born when Phillips was mesmerized by that stupid puppet show when his family got their first black and white TV. What was it called – “Kukla, Fran & Ollie”? Ancient history now.
“No, sir. Real snakes. I am sure you have officer buddies that scuba dive. The snakes are all over these waters, even in Subic Bay. They are not big, have paddle tails, and swim just under the surface. They are not usually aggressive and have tiny mouths so they usually would not penetrate a wet suit. But if they can latch onto some skin, say around the ankles or the neck, they are very poisonous. Usually travel in schools. Anyone who gets three or more bites would have no chance. The ship’s Hospital Corpsman told me this when I volunteered for this duty. To give me a heads up on what to watch for. So I always had a thick wet suit on. And I saw no shark fins in the water. Sharks are generally not this far up in the Gulf.”
Sh*t, Phillips thought. How in the hell could he put something like this in the report as to the cause of death? The kid didn’t actually see any snakes. Phillips did not want his very first JAG report to make him a laughingstock. The sea snake lawyer.
“Well, thanks Seaman Clark for coming over. Anything else you can think of that might be important about Kane’s death?”
“OK, you are free to head back to your ship when the helo pickup can be arranged.”
After some more desultory paperwork, Phillips shooed Clinton and Yates out of the office and closed up shop. It was 2200 when Phillips finally sat on his rack while listening to his diesel-fume-besotted roommate snore. Quite a first full day. Numbskull risks blowing up the ship and killing hundreds of sailors so he can grab a smoke. Frigging sea snakes. What a sh*t show. Only 18 more months to go.