An Onion In THE

 

Petunia Patch

By Jack A. Eckert

 

In December 1962, after completing Student Engineering Training on the Cutter ESCANABA, I was assigned to the ten week Damage Control Assistant training course at the U. S. Naval Damage Control Training Center (USNDCTC), Philadelphia, Penn. It was to be a turning point in my career.

My wife Joana was pregnant with our third child and was due in March 1963. We lived at the end of a dead end street on Sconicut Neck, Fairhaven, Mass. Fortunately we had two cars, neither of them that great, but serviceable. On a nasty Sunday morning I drove our 1957 Metropolitan down to Philadelphia, about a five and a half hour drive. I hoped that there would be sufficient time to drive back and forth at least every other weekend. It was somewhat difficult for Joana who, in addition to being PG, was scheduled for orthopedic surgery during the time I would be gone. We also had two other children, one of whom was in second grade. A kindly neighbor, an elderly Portuguese Grandma, Mrs. Braggart, took over and made sure everything was going OK as she had over the previous year and a half.

I arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in the early evening and checked in at the BOQ. Accommodations were two-man rooms with a bathroom shared with the two occupants of an adjacent room. I had lived in worse. To ease the financial pain I was given a subsistence allowance to cover meals away from the ship on TAD in addition to my normal mess allowance, plus a small stipend for being on TAD. So there was a little pocket money to jingle.

Across the parking lot from the BOQ was a small closed mess bar that was a warm and friendly place to while away the hours swapping sea stories and drinking Brand X (Miller Highlife Beer.) A larger Officers Club was located an easy block away at the Main Gate. There were about ten other Coast Guard Officers attending school and living in the BOQ, so I wasn’t the lonely onion in the petunia patch. The school was located in a separate compound immediately outside of the 26th Street gate, an easy drive down through the Reserve Fleet to the gate and the school.

The course was broken down into three separate sections: four weeks of Damage Control, both practical and theoretical, one week of firefighting, and five weeks of NBC Warfare Defense. The course was well taught by excellent instructors. One had to be a real dunce to flunk out of this school. Some of the material was quite difficult, but the teaching was of such quality that the students were reached. The weekly exam was such that no one was thrown any softballs. Practical training broke up the monotony of an eight-hour day classroom session. Fire fighting was 90 percent practical and everybody ate smoke. There were a couple of opportunities to sink the BUTTERCUP as well as other little things, such as giving yourself a shot and learning what tear gas could do to you. The school was as well organized as Coast Guard OCS and certainly as well taught.

My good friend, Whitey Whiteman, was also was in this DC School class, lived off base. A native Philadelphian and an OCS classmate, Whitey was stationed on the ESCANABA. Under his guidance, I got acquainted with Philly, cheese steaks, hoagies, and fat pretzels, but I did not acquire a taste for scrapple. In the class that started the following month, two other officers from the ESCANABA, Bob Ingalls and Lloyd Burger, began the course.

At the end of the second week, school shut down for two weeks for the Christmas and New Year holidays. We were told that there was nothing going on at the school and that two weeks of leave would be granted. The leave actually amounted to about 17 days. We were also told that if we returned unscathed and ready to begin school all over again after the holidays, the leave papers would be torn up. I had never heard of “basket leave” but learned about it then. We got out on Friday noon before Christmas and I headed north to New Bedford. The ESCANABA was out on weather patrol, so I didn’t have to worry about dealing with anybody on the ship.

We had great holidays. Joana was beginning to get quite large and was happy to have me home. On New Years Day I drove to Philadelphia. I remember this day in particular because I listened to the Rose Bowl on the way down, Wisconsin vs. UCLA. For three quarters, the Badgers were blown out of Pasadena. In the fourth quarter they came alive with Ron VanderKellen throwing bombs to Pat Richter, almost pulling it out in the last few minutes. On the next day school resumed, and true to their promise we were told to tear up our leave papers. Go Navy!

The school progressed well. Bob and Lloyd checked in and now I had someone to share the expenses chasing back and forth on the weekends. Lloyd had his wife in Philly but Bob’s was at home in Massachsetts.

At the end of January, Whitey and I were promoted to Lieutenant (jg). Being an Ensign and a Half is better than being an Ensign. Having duty on a Navy base made it easy to get our stripes sewed on, and we did so, post-haste.

Two weeks before the course ended I was summoned to the CO, Commander Muller’s office. “My God, what did I do? What kind of sin was brought to his attention, and what would be the punishment.” I was escorted into the office where not only the CO was present but also the XO and the Officer in Charge of the DC School, LT. Katzen.

“Mr. Eckert,” said the CO, “How would you like to join the Navy for three years?” I was startled to say the least. He handed me a copy of a set of Coast Guard orders, ordering me to detached duty at the DCTC to report no later than 1 July 1963. I was absolutely flabbergasted; I was due for a transfer the next summer but had no idea to where it would be, but I suspected that it would be Marine Inspection as that was the Karma of former enginemen and machinist mates.

Once I got over the initial shock, I said it was OK by me. WOW! I was given a hearty welcome aboard and instructed not to flunk the class. From that point on the older Navy LDO officers began spending time with me. These guys were my age or a little older and I knew we would get along well.

On Thursday that week, I got a call from Joana who said she was being admitted to the Newport Naval Hospital on the following day to have the baby. She left the boys in the care of Grandma Braggart and drove the old Metropolitan from Fairhaven to Newport when she got her first labor pains. My wife is a headstrong woman. The ESCANABA Captain’s wife told her which hospital in New Bedford she was to have her baby. True to form, Joana rebelled. “I won’t have a baby born in Massachusetts,” she told me, so she drove to Newport to have it in Rhode Island. I told her that I would start for home from Philadelphia about noon and come by way of Newport to see how she was doing.

I had the 1959 Ford, aka, Fix Or Repair Daily with me. Bob Ingalls and I left South Philadelphia at 12:15 p.m. in a blinding snow-sleet-rain storm. It took almost an hour to get across the Walt Whitman Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike. There was a lot of slow moving traffic, the roads were slick, as if greased by a goose, arriving at the Tappan Zee Bridge about 6:00 p.m, normally a 2-1/2 hour drive. and continued through New York into Connecticut in poor visibility and slick roads, exiting at New London about 9:00 p.m. and continued to Rhode Island on SH84 and up to the cut-off road to catch the Newport Ferry. When I made the cutoff I had only about 20 minutes to make the last ferry of the night. The visibility had improved but the road was slippery. There wasn’t much traffic so I poured on the coals. We got to the Ferry Dock just in time to be the last car loaded. Had we been five minutes later we would have had to drive around Narragansett Bay through Providence and then to Newport.

We arrived at the Naval Hospital at 11:55 p.m. I saw Joana at the window a few stories up. She told the nurse I would be there by midnight and I didn’t disappoint her.

I think Bob had his heart in his mouth the last 50 miles or so, and I don’t blame him. The ride was scary for me, and I imagine how my passenger felt. I went into the hospital and visited with my wife for a few minutes and was asked to pick out our baby. There were several, but I picked the right one, a big healthy boy.

I left the hospital and drove Bob to his home in Matapoisett, then went home to Sconicut Neck, arriving about 3 a.m. Grandma Braggart was staying at the house with the boys. I went in and hit my bed and went under from total exhaustion.

On Sunday morning, Dick Rose and his wife drove with me and our two boys down to Newport to bring Joana home. In spite of hospital objections, she checked herself and the new baby boy out and we all drove home in our two cars.

Sunday night, Bob and I drove the Metropolitan back to Philadelphia in reasonably good weather and clear roads. On Monday morning I was again called into the CO’s office. He told me the Red Cross had advised him that I was a new father. Did I want to go to Newport to see them? I said I was way ahead of him, everybody was home in Fairhaven.

“You didn’t drive up in that storm Friday?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said, and left to finish up the course.

When the course was over, I checked out and said I would be back. Quite a thirteen-week period. I arrived as an Ensign and left as a JG, knew where my next job would be, and was a father for the third time; my morale was at an all time high.

The New Job

Mid-June rolled around soon enough. I made one more weather patrol on the ESCANABA and did a TAD stint on the YAKUTAT going to GITMO. There wasn’t much for me to do when I got back to the ESCANABA as my duties had been divided up amongst the other Assistant Engineers. The day of my detachment finally came and I left my first ship as an officer for good. I never looked back and never saw her again.

I got back to DCTC in mid-afternoon and was made welcome; an upgraded room at the BOQ was appreciated and which I settled in, ready for my new duties.

I was assigned to LT Lou Marvak, a WWII veteran who had sailed mostly on battleships, to take over his class work when he left in a few months. I was amazed at the easy work schedule: at the podium for about ten hours a week and assisted in the practical exercises. It was a far cry from the 30-35 hours a week as an Engineman School Instructor at Groton before I was commissioned. Here there were more than enough instructors; two of them had a real estate business going on the side. We could come and go as we pleased, within reason of course.

We wore dress uniforms all day, every day, so I had to get a few more to always be presentable. The Navy thrift shop was a boon; after a few alterations, changing the buttons, adding a shield and sewing the stripes on, I had a new uniform. It was handy to wear Navy-type uniforms.

Because of the amount of chalk we had to use, we were allowed to wear white shop coats when we were teaching. Sometimes we just wore them on general principals to keep our uniforms clean.

In the Coast Guard, from as far back as I could remember, the word was watch the budget dollar, stretch it as far is it could be stretched; if you haven’t got the money, get what you needed and get the job done, no excuses. The Navy boggled my mind, they seemed to have unlimited resources and endless pots of money. The budget wasn’t the topic of everyday discussion as it was in the world I came from.

Duty was one in 23 days. It amounted to being the OOD for the training center and for the adjacent Navy Brig, stood in an office at the main entrance to the building. On the other side of the complex a Chief or First Class from the enlisted schools also had a duty as the JOOD. Sometimes we wouldn’t even see each other. About all there was to do was to watch TV and work on my correspondence courses. If someone rang the bell at the Main Gate, either the OOD or the JOOD would let who ever wanted to come in, come in. If the OOD wanted supper, or any meal if it was a weekend day, he ate at the Brig with the prisoners for nothing as he was “sampling the chow.” When I stood my first duty, the Marine guards were astounded that the OOD was a Coast Guard officer. I believe l could have gotten out of standing the duty, but why generate that kind of discontent when the duties were so infrequent and so easy?

When Lou was detached, I took over his teaching duties and required only a few scanty notes. I continued teaching classes and backing up the Navy instructors as needed.

Our CO was a full Commander who had been a blimp pilot, and was the last operations officer on the battleship Wisconsin. He was a friendly and personable person, as was his XO. He was passed over for Captain and retired. A new CO reported aboard, and we got also got a new XO who was a different breed of cat. For one thing he didn’t like the Coast Guard and didn’t like the idea of Coast Guard officers excelling in the course in every class attended. He actually thought I was tipping off tests, although he never accused me of it. I saw clearly that he wasn’t the man I wanted to deal with and avoided him as much as possible.

The Navy officers were junior Ensigns and JG’s, OCS graduates who had entered the Navy directly from college. Most had a year or so of sea duty with little time in Engineering. There were some LDO’s (Limited Duty Officers) who had not attended OCS but instead went from the enlisted ranks directly to officer status after a short indoctrination in wardroom etiquette. I never had a Naval Academy graduate in any of my classes in a three-year period. The Coast Guard officers were 80 percent Coast Guard Academy graduates who began their careers on deck, rotating through the chairs for a year and a half before going into engineering training on a Cutter. Upon completion of this training, they were sent to DCA school for ten weeks in either Philadelphia or Treasure Island, Calif. The other 20 percent were “mustang” officers who had completed engineering training, and warrant officers who were being assigned to buoy tenders and small Cutters after serving in the engineering department of a major Cutter for a couple of years. In other words, the incoming Coast Guard student officers were better educated, better trained, and more experienced than their Navy counterparts.

As part of my duties I had a couple of sessions with the Coast Guard student officers during their ten weeks. We talked mostly about some of the differences in shipboard organization they should be aware of. That took some of the pressure off the Navy instructors.

If there were thirty students in a class and ten of them were Coast Guardsmen, eight of the ten would be in the top ten in grade ranking for the course. This was a pattern that was repeated in class after class. The XO didn’t like the numbers and convinced himself that I was slipping the answers to them. In his mind that was the only explanation. With everything considered, this was ludicrous, these guys didn’t need anybody’s assistance to ace the tests; they came to the school better prepared than the Navy officers

CDR Mike Martini was the new CO. This was his last job before retirement and one he had really pursued. He had been on the staff when the school opened in the early part of WWII after the carrier Lexington was lost due to fire. He was glad to be back, loved his job, and was proud of the place.

Mike liked me, and he liked his noon hour martini at the “O” Club. He asked me to join him a couple of times a week when I wasn’t busy. We became very good friends.

Mike had a problem. The Navy Bureau of Personnel was considering closing down the school because of low enrollment. There wasn’t much refit activity and little new construction at the shipyard, traditionally the source of the enlisted students going through the two week DC Schools and the fire fighting classes. He asked how good my contacts were within the Coast Guard and whether we could get a steady flow of students from them. I took that ball and ran with it.

For administrative purposes, I was technically on detached duty from Coast Guard Headquarters. As a matter of course, I got one day TAD orders every three or four months and went there to snoop around and conduct business between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This kept me abreast of what was going on in the Coast Guard and gave me contacts that I could call. Readiness was particularly helpful as they were tired of Cutters having damage control problems at Gitmo and the other Navy Ship Training facilities. This dilemma was made to order and the seeds were planted. About the time Mike asked me about getting students, Readiness was asking me if we could get more students into the schools.

From the standpoint of money exchange, there wasn’t any. I was the payment to the Navy for the use of their services. All it would cost the Coast Guard was travel and per diem and the loss of a man’s services during the training period. Coast Guard commanding officers are reluctant to release engineering type personnel for short-term schools during an in port period because of repairs always in progress and heavy operational schedules.

The school needed the students and Headquarters was interested in sending men to the schools. Districts had some interest but they were day-to-day operationally oriented and CO’s were reluctant to lose key people for two weeks out of a three to four week in port period between patrols. Obviously the men didn’t really want to go as they had families to be with. Somebody had to get things off the dime.

The school for many years had put on a special two-week course in the winter months for Coast Guard Regional Inspectors, and Ship Training Detachment personnel. The course was somewhat didactic in that it was thrown together using available instructors and training facilities. There was no curriculum that was adhered to. While the procedures were good, the Navy Instructors had no concept of how the Coast Guard was organized and what made it tick. The real value in the program was residual¾it gave the Regional Inspectors a chance to get together with the trainers and compare notes. The Western Inspectors and Ships Training Detachment Three from Alameda did not participate. I was thrown into the instructor mix the first winter I was at DCTC and did about 50 percent of the course and thereby gained considerable credibility with these people.

The following year an internal reorganization killed the Regional Inspector concept and introduced the Operational Evaluators. In the Coast Guard the two Areas, Eastern and Western, were purely operational commanders; logistic support was the responsibility of the various District Commanders as well as operations within the confines of their own districts. I didn’t realize it at the time but herein lay the answer to how to motivate students to fill the many vacant slots at the school.

When a ship went on patrol or to a Fleet Training Group, it “CHOPPED” (changed it’s operational commander from a District to an Area). Thus the Area Commander had an interest in Readiness Training, more so than a District Commander. Feedback from the Fleet Training Groups indicated the Coast Guard vessels, while proficient in other areas were not doing too well in damage control training. Here was I sitting on the very key to improve this situation.

By the time the special Coast Guard course came around during my second winter at the school, I had done a lot of work improving the scope and material and was given my head to teach most of it, augmented by other available instructors when other duties took me away, or in areas where I didn’t have sufficient expertise to do it properly. This worked well. Even though I was a “mustang” JG, I had attained credibility beyond anything that I had ever dreamed of having. The course went along beautifully. I sold the idea of sending more people to the school, particularly before a GITMO, and they bought it. I arranged for the Eastern Area Captain and Commander attending the school to have plenty of time with Commander Martini, who I had cautioned not to say too much about his problems obtaining students for his facilities.

Within a month or two, Coast Guard enlisted students began flowing in for training. Headquarters was happy, Eastern Area was happy, and most particularly my boss, Commander Martini was happy. I made sure that LCDR Rogers, the OinC of the Officers School and my immediate superior was cut in on the action. The one unhappy person was the School XO, who took potshots at me every chance he could. Nothing assuaged him at all. He didn’t like the Coast Guard and that was that.

One of the ways the XO tried to stop me was requiring all correspondence to go through him. He also required me to get his permission each time I used the AUTOVON for telephone calls. I got an access number from Eastern Area and used the FTS lines instead. He had no control over that. Every quarter I would get a set of TAD orders from Eastern Area or Headquarters for a couple of days for “conferencing.” Thus I was able to thwart the effort to get me under control. Man, that guy didn’t know Coasties. I never brought the subject up to the CO, or anyone in the Coast Guard for that matter, because I didn’t want to show a chink in the armor.

The fitness reports I got from the School were outstanding to amazing. It was a real boost to my career.

I went to OCS as an Engineman First Class. The rate was pretty jammed up in those days. After I was commissioned as an Ensign For Temporary Service, I took the test for Chief Engineman. I wanted that to fall back on in the event I didn’t cut it as an officer. I absolutely aced the test. I had doubts on only one or two questions in the entire exam. I thought no more about it. Several years later when I was in Headquarters checking my fitness reports, I enquired about the Chief’s test. I knew I should have heard something about it, having seen a copy of a letter to the DCTC making me a permanent Chief Engineman upon the letter being acknowledged by the command. The letter was never acknowledged. I can only guess that the Navy XO filed it in the round file. By this time I was a Permanent Lieutenant on the list for Lieutenant Commander. It didn’t make any difference in the long run, but I would have liked to have made the hat while I was a Temporary Service JG.

Being the only Coast Guard officer in the group, I was the butt of many jokes, most told in a friendly manner. I had a good tolerance level, particularly when I kept hearing the same old stuff time after time.

The Navy Officer Instructor tour of duty was usually 18 months. Some stayed two years. My tour was three years, so I lived through a lot of turnover and attained the longest longevity there. This had advantages and disadvantages, the never-ending jokes were one of them. Like the Coast Guard though, good instructors tended to go away and come back again. I said farewell and hail to several, mostly LDO’s. The XO I had problems with hung around for almost two years. He reported aboard after me and left before me, so I can say I outlived him.

A couple of interesting events occurred while I was there: One winter Sunday afternoon I had the duty. After reading the paper, I settled down to watch TV, but soon received a call from the Philadelphia Police Department reporting that a box containing radioactive materials had broken open at North Philadelphia Railroad Station and wanted to know what to do. This was before Hazardous Material (HazMat) teams were in formal existence. I told them to cordon off the area, get everybody away from the materials, and to keep track of everybody in the event they had been exposed. I then asked the dispatcher to stay on the line with me. I called four of the NBC warfare instructors and told them to come in, get their protective gear and equipment and report to the scene and take whatever action they deemed necessary. This they did, picking up additional Navy personnel help as they could. Within thirty minutes a trained team arrived on site, inspected the contents of the box, took readings in the entire area, determined that no one had serious radio active exposure, collected the box and contents in a safe crate and brought it to the Training Center with a police escort. Interesting day to say the least.

After completing an early class on Monday, my favorite XO called me into the office and demanded to know where the written instructions were that I acted under, he couldn’t find them. I said there weren’t any. He said that I didn’t have the authority to do what I did. I replied I did what the situation demanded. He said I was going on report for my actions. Meanwhile one of the police commissioners was in the CO’s office congratulating him on the professional response that the department received from the training center. The yeoman told me that that afternoon the XO had the rough log out using it to develop an instruction on what to do in the event that a request was received for assistance of that nature from an outside agency. The CO bought me a drink for lunch and was as pleased as he could be. The XO continued his dislike for me in particular, and Coasties in general.

After I initially reported, in I took a couple of weeks to house hunt. After a month and a half I found an affordable house in Wenonah, NJ and put a deposit on it. My wife and kids were in Rhode Island visiting friends that following weekend, so I drove there to tell her about the house. We could occupy it in about four or five weeks. While there I took a twelve-foot fall off a porch and landed on my right hand, breaking it. I had it cast at the Navy Submarine Base, then called Philadelphia to report the incident. They told me to return there as soon as I could. My wife went back to Fairhaven with the kids and the station wagon and I took the Metropolitan to Philadelphia. What fun that was. My right arm was in a cast above my elbow. The car had a small manual shift that I had a heck of a time using. Somehow I did the five-hour drive without wrapping myself around a tree. I continued to teach but couldn’t hold a piece of chalk.

When it came time, I drove to Camden to the location of the house closing. By this time the cast had been reduced to one, covering my right hand and wrist. I had the last joints of my fingers available but the thumb was completely covered. I had to sign my name almost a hundred times, and was that fun. What compounded everything was that the closing costs completely wiped out my cash. The realtor gave me a dollar so that I could pay the bridge fare back to Philadelphia.

LTJG Ken Cary, who was attending the school at that time, came to the house and worked with the movers to get the household goods into the house. For that I am forever grateful to him. Joana and the boys arrived a couple of days later and we started our lives in Wenonah. LTJG Bob Kramek came a week or two later and helped do some of the things I still couldn’t do. Again, my thanks.

I made full Lieutenant while attached to the Navy. I financed a traditional and expensive stripe-wetting party, and that was OK. For the most part, the people I worked with at the school were pretty good people who had never been too close to a Coastie in the past and were surprised how versatile they found Coasties to be.

The three years at Philadelphia went fast. I had a chance to meet about 30 percent of the academy officers who went through the school from the 1960-65 year groups. This was of help in later years. I think I did about as good a job as could have been done, and I am pretty hard to convince being my own worst taskmaster. I grew on the job, which laid the groundwork for other jobs.

I was the right guy at the right place at the right time.

 

 

Postscript: The center has long since closed its doors. I had occasion to conduct a commercial training course at the Navy Boilerman’s School at the Naval Shipyard about 1988-89. It saddened me to go over to the 26th Street gate and see the remains of what once was a fine facility that trained hundreds, if not thousands, of Navy and Coast Guard people over it’s lifetime. I am pleased to once have been a part of it.

The facility was moved to the Naval Base at Newport, RI and is still in existence but not wholly as a separate command it once was. For kicks and grins I contacted the Coast Guard JG that held my job a few years ago and we had an interesting exchange of emails. The location has changed. The Coastie’s tour has been reduced to two years. For all intents and purposes, he is just another Naval Officer without the liaison responsibilities I had.

The same tired old jokes continue.

 

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