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When Missing the Word Really Matters

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I was with one of those contingents of Marines that was shipped overseas, not by Braniff Airlines, but by travel arrangements courtesy of the United States Navy on an old troopship, the U.S.S. General J. C. Breckenridge in 1964.

USS General J. C. Breckinridge  birthing area sleeping racks
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the Military Sealift Command Collection at the Naval Historical Center.

I can still recall in vivid detail boarding ship that day in 1964, scrambling down the ladderwells with our heavy seabags, trying not to coldcock the man in front of me with it. The sergeants were bellowing directions, which units were to go where;  their voices bouncing off the gray steel bulkheads like someone yelling with a steel milk bucket over their head at the far end of a large gymnasium. When we arrived in our area, deep in the lowers decks, the racks were suspended by chains from the bulkheads and from the overhead. We stowed our gear anywhere we could find space which was not much.

To get out of the way, I slid into my rack, the second one up from the bottom to rest until the NCO’s figured out what they were supposed to do with us. There was barely eighteen inches or two feet between my rack and the one immediately above me. As I lay there, wondering what had prompted me to enlist in this madness and watching the knees and calves of guys scurrying back and forth, I remember my Dad speaking of being held in reserve off Saipan in 1944 for 52 days aboard a troopship like this one. I was appalled at the idea anyone could tolerate these conditions for nearly two months. I had been deep in the bowels of this ship no more than five minutes and already I wanted off.

Sending steady streams of troops to Vietnam was still some years in the future but we were all replacements for various units on our way across the Pacific. Most of the Marines were bound for Hawaii to the 1st Marine Brigade and others, I assumed, were bound for Guam or Okinawa. In the decks immediately above us were replacements for the 82nd Airborne. We could hear them constantly thumping and banging around up there at all hours.

Many of us were on deck when the ship cast off and started across San Diego Bay. I considered how massive our troopship was as we sailed smoothly across the bay. We soon passed near an aircraft carrier anchored in the bay and I recall looking up at the bow far above and how it dwarfed our own ship. It was a wonder knowing that man could actually build things like this.

Soon, we reached the mouth of the bay and headed for the open sea. I stood at the port rail watching the city of San Diego get smaller and smaller on the eastern horizon, until it faded and sank from sight. When we passed over the continental shelf, the ship began a slow roll in that part of the ocean; the romance of going to sea came to a halt. For me, anyway.

USS General J. C. Breckinridge  ship To someone who has never been to sea on a troopship and experienced of seasickness, it is something that is never forgotten. Some of the Marines had no queasiness at all. I did. I spent the better part of the next two days barfing in the head.

After the second day at sea we began to encounter rough weather. I could see the black clouds on the horizon coming our way and the waves grew taller ahead of the storm. The ship began to roll in the heavy seas and quickly enough, they announced over the PA system for “All hands to lay below! The decks are secured!” (I seem to remember that’s the way they said it, anyway). I did not argue with them as the decks were already awash with some of the bigger waves.

I lay for some time in my rack trying to read, but I kept rocking from side to side with the constant rolling of the ship. Each time the ship rolled, I could hear a low pitched but heavy WHOOOOM!….. WHOOOOM! When the sea smashed into the hull outside. I only hoped someone responsible had constructed this vessel and was not thrown together by the lowest bidder. I had momentary visions of the hull plates giving away under the relentless pounding of the waves and visions of the ship sinking straight to the bottom with all hands. Marines walking down the narrow passageways on their way to the head, had to hang on tightly to the racks on the sides to prevent having their head bashed in against someone’s rack or into a bulkhead. None of us had really found our “sea legs” as of yet.

As an aside here, during my time in the Corps, we quickly discovered in every unit there was always that “ten percent” of people that never got “The Word”. These were the “Foul-ups”, the “Ten per-centers” or, as the old salts referred to them, “The Shitbirds”. I think I qualified as one of the Shitbirds. Not intentionally, you understand, I mean I never went out of my way to get into trouble, but it always seemed I was the last one to get “The Word”. The Corps always arranged everyone in alphabetical order and because my last name began with a “W”, I was always at the end of the ranks along with the Xavier’s, the Zazachovich’s and the Zizinazowski’s and couldn’t hear all that was being communicated. I really never did get the word when it was passed. I always seemed to find out the hard way.

Immediately after chow on that fateful, late stormy afternoon, I decided it would be relaxing to go up on deck to have that last evening smoke before Taps. When I climbed the ladderwell past all the decks, including the deck where hundreds of men of the 82nd Airborne were quartered, I got to the main deck hatch and noticed it was secured.

“Hmmm..” thought I, “who the heck secured this hatch? And why? It had always been open before..” The ship was still rolling in the heavy seas when I grasped the wheel and began turning it to open the hatch to go out on deck. At last, when the latch clicked open, I pushed the hatch open.

At that same instant, a monstrous roller crashed across the deck and hundreds of gallons of seawater burst through the hatch with massive force knocking me down the ladderwell. All that seawater flooded through the deck area where the guys from the 82nd Airborne were ensconced. I’m sure there wasn’t much more than two, possibly three inches of water that sloshed through the 82nd’s area, but it soaked a lot of duffle bags and I am told sea water does absolutely nothing for spit-shined Airborne jump boots they were wearing or that were sitting on the deck.

Immediately, I could hear a din of horrendous yelling, screaming and profanity from the deck below. They all sounded rather upset. I thought it best if I sought another route back to my own area. Those guys sounded pretty angry and if I were to pass close to their deck to get down to my own, I would not pass through unnoticed. While sea water sloshed around the 82nd’s gear, I decided it would not behoove me to try to go anywhere near them. Especially with my soaking wet utilities; It would have been rather damning evidence. They might have been mad enough to pitch me overboard. Happens all the time in stormy seas, I was told.

However, common sense prevailed; one soaking wet, skinny U.S. Marine facing some 300 very angry paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne? I decided I would give them a rebate on their lives and did the one sensible thing any Marine might do when faced with a grim situation. I raced back up the ladderwell and out the deck hatch into the teeth of the angry storm. I slammed the deck hatch shut behind me and clutched the lifeline or whatever that coated inch-and-a-half cable is called… the one you’re supposed to hang onto for dear life when a pitching deck forbade normal walking. Wave after wave of seawater splashed over me as I made my way aft along the starboard side of the ship. I hand-over-handed along the lifeline, white-knuckled, while gut-wrenching terror had turned my innards into a massive ball of ice that one wave might sweep me overboard and my final resting place would be some three miles down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I don’t know exactly how far I had progressed. I was looking for an opening of any kind to reenter the safety of the interior of the ship. I had since removed my glasses and put them into my breast pocket so the sea wouldn’t slap them of my face. Now I was truly blind.

An eternity passed; I suddenly heard a shout above the roar of the sea; “HEY, YOU DUMB-ASSED JARHEAD! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING OUT THERE? GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!” I vaguely saw a figure a few feet away holding a hatch door open. I made a lunge for it and caught the hatch wheel and he pulled me inside. When the sailor slammed the hatch shut and secured it, it was then I noticed his white duty belt and the holstered weapon. An SP. Oh, Lord have mercy, I thought, now I get to spend the rest of my life on Mare Island.

“Thank a lot, pal,” I said fumbling and putting my glasses back on, “I .. ah… had fallen asleep up on the prow and the pitching ship woke me up and I was trying to find my way back to may area.”

I don’t think he believed a word of my story, but he told me, “you better get your ass back to your own area. The decks have been secured for over two hours.”

“Thanks, man, I owe you one,” I mumbled and took off down the ladderwell. The problem at this point, I realized, I hadn’t the faintest idea where I was, only that my area was somewhere up near the prow and I was racing down the ladderwell somewhere amidships. I thought.

For some time I wandered the passageways hoping eventually I would find my way back. Several times when I asked a sailor bent to some task where all the Marines were, more often than not, I was told, “I dunno pal, but yer not suppose ta be in this area!”

When I had all but given up, it was then I saw a sergeant from the 2nd platoon. “Sarg!” I said gratefully, “where the hell is our area? I seemed to have gotten lost somehow down here.”

“Right over there,” he indicated the direction with a nod of his head.

And, true to his word, there it was. I found my rack and sat down. I immediately picked up my other pair of boondockers, my Kiwi wax and began furiously working on them. My buddy, C.P. sat a few feet away and eyed me suspiciously. “Where th’ hell yawl been? An’ how come yer all wet?” I quickly held my finger to my lips and shook my head slightly. C.P. understood immediately. A couple bunks away, we listened to the chatter of several Marines..

“Yeah! You guys hear about some dimwit who opened the deck hatch and damned near drowned a bunch of the 82nd Airborne guys?”

“…yeah! An’ when all that water washed over all those guys’ spit-shined boots? Man! They were highly pissed!”

“I guess one of those guys even came down in this area asking if anyone had opened the deck hatch above them. The gunny told him to get out of here..”

..And so on the scuttlebutt went. C.P. stared at me in my wet utilities with a slight knowing smile. I just smiled back weakly, like the cat that had gotten caught eating the canary.

With the first opportunity that presented itself, I dug into my seabag and took out some dry change of utilities and went into the head to change.

To this day it is still unknown who the guilty party was who cracked open the hatch and flooded the 82nd’s area. This is a first admission of a transgression I committed over 50 years ago. I have never told a soul before this moment.

To all you guys whom I nearly flooded out and ruined so many spit-shined boots, I am truly sorry and I apologize. Please forgive me.

..and no, I will not publish my address.

****

Jack Wise usmc marine corpsAbout the Author: Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day. Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife quietly live in Colorado.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I was on a Destroyer shortly after Vietnam, still a little green myself ,but well versed in ship nomenclature. A recent boot Marine, T.A.D. On the ship approached me and ask where the Marines were mustering at ? I replied on the ” Poop deck” he looked stunned, and as he walked away mumbled something to the effect of ” Damm Navy, no wander squids and leathernecks don’t get along !!!!!

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