Acquiring A Brand New Gold Stripe

By Don Opedal

OCS is a somewhat trying time for those fortunate enough to be selected for it. This "rite of passage"  becomes part of one for the rest of one's life. Don's class was commissioned fourteen years after my class. I have read his account and see some similarities to my account of the experience. For an enlisted person this is four months that change you forever. - Jack

In 1975 with just 4-1/2 years in the Coast Guard I was an Instructor at the Electronics Technician "A" School at Governor's Island. I applied for OCS twice and finally received my orders to it just after I made Chief Electronic Technician. Eventually I was detached and I departed Governor's Island and went to Yorktown, Virginia to the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center. I had an interesting trip down there which I will relate in another story.

When I first enlisted in 1970 I went to Boot Camp and expected to be welcomed into the Coast Guard, asked where I was from, etc. I was wrong!  I was expecting the same upon arrival to OCS and again I was wrong!  The greeting was cordial, I was called “Chief” and since I had arrived early I was granted liberty that night. The next day I was assigned a duty where I received many of my new classmates. (Months later they were surprised to see my signature on their arrival papers.)

In 1975 there was only one OCS class in session at a time. Class 2-75 consisted of three platoons:  Alpha 1, Alpha 2, and Alpha 3. I’m always amazed at how you can organize a group into random sub-groups and each develops a separate personality. As I recall, offering no offense, Alpha 1 had a reputation of not being able to march and Alpha 3 could be expected to be found polishing their rifles. I was in Alpha 2. I am unaware of how we were perceived.

There were about 75 of us divided among the three platoons. Most were “off-the street” college graduates, many were “mustangs” (current enlisted), and twelve were women. We had a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. Phil Dwyer had been a tank driver in the Army, a computer repair technician in the Navy, and a Quartermaster in the Coast Guard. Judy Wilkerson was a music teacher but had gone through Yorktown in an enlisted reserve program. Paul von Protz was a Chief Quartermaster and there were three other Chief Electronics Technicians beside myself. Naturally, those of us with prior military and Coast Guard experience were expected to help the “civilians” with military matters. I like to think we teamed together well although there was some friction among the separate platoons. In addition, there was one Coast Guard Warrant Officer (who graduated as a LTJG), two officers from the Dominican Republic, and one from Guatemala. The officers lived seperately from us and just only attended classes.

The mix of women and men was something new to me. Although we had separate rooms and heads, we lived in the same areas. Many of the college graduates were used to “mixed dorms” and didn’t think much of it. Guys strolled to the head in their skivvies, women wore robes. I heard one of the females was nervous about going to sleep, as there were no locks on the doors. For the most part, I would say it was a “brother-sister” environment although one marriage followed graduation. I later heard there was more sexual activity in other classes but I never heard of any in ours.

Janice Page had trouble getting the drawer in her locker to slide properly. I had already figured out the problem on mine and she said she’d kiss me if I fixed it. I promptly did but she demurred and still owes me that kiss! (Where are you today Janice?)

The accommodations were comfortable. In boot camp, the entire fifty man company was in one room. The barracks at ET School housed as many as eight to a room. Here there were two to a room, each person had a cot, a locker, and a desk. Smaller rooms had bunk beds.

The first week of OCS involved a lot of “orientation” (e.g., rules, regulations, getting to know each other, getting uniforms issued, physicals.) The treatment was a lot different than Boot Camp. For the most part the staff was cordial. We were given directions and expected to conform. During the first week infractions resulted in pushups. I recall the first night going to take a shower and leaving my watch (a $5 Timex) out. When I returned it was gone and I knew exactly where it was. I reported to the Duty Officer and his assistant, an RD1 as I recall, had an armful of watches!  “Punishment” involved some number of pushups so I joined the others and did mine. In Boot Camp, when you completed your pushups you stayed in the “front leaning rest” position until relieved. I quickly learned in OCS we were expected to “request permission to recover.” Lesson learned!

Week Two started the 16 weeks of formal instruction. Infractions were now rewarded with demerits that were read during chow. Some were “fun”:

I collected more than my share of demerits. None were serious and, as I recall, not many duplicates. Some were out of my control. My rifle was cocked while I was away on a cruise. I broke a string on a legging (the two stupidest things in the world are leggings and neckties) and was “late” for a formation. (Actually the duty officer was early but what could I say.) At one point I was called into the office to be “counseled” about the number of demerits I had. The officer said I had never been in an environment like this and I said, “No Sir, I have”. He looked startled and asked me to explain. I said Boot Camp and ET School were not much different and I understand the spirit and goals of the rules and regulations even if I didn’t always execute them. He told me just try and do better and dismissed me.

Time was usually short. From reveille through most of the day there was little slack. Many decided sleeping in their gym clothes on top of their already made racks would be a good way to save time. My thinking was for those few hours I wanted to be comfortable. Later in the program the blanket served as a good shield as I read in bed.

Overall, the staff knew who the “mustangs” were and did give us some slack. Some of the more junior enlisted did not always recognize that all of us cadets were brand new to the Coast Guard and sought to exert their authority over us. While on a cruise on the USCGC CUYAHOGA, a 125 foot cutter that would later be sunk on a similar OCS cruise, the radar failed. I (as an ET) was asked to fix it. I tried but was unable to do so. Later in port one of the Seamen “asked” me to do something, which I did although it was time for dinner. When I returned he “dismissed” me quickly and I suspect someone pointed out who I was. One night on the bridge of the USCGC UNIMAK a Seaman asked me to get him a cup of coffee. I told him I didn’t believe my duties involved getting coffee for him. He argued he couldn’t leave the radar and I was considering comparing ID cards or telling him I had more radar experience then he did when the OOD asked me to get him a cup of coffee, which I did. The Seaman showed up moments later and nothing more was said.

CGC UNIMAK

Most of the enlisted staff just enjoyed doing what they did and didn’t exert any “authority” over us. Perhaps they recognized that down the road they might be working for us. In particular, I admired the enthusiasm the Damage Controlmen (DCs) showed during firefighting classes. They got dirty and wet but obviously enjoyed what they were doing. A class on weather was adjourned one time so we could go watch a storm developing.

Our 16 weeks of instruction included classes in Operations, Coast Guard Orientation, Seamanship/Readiness, Navigation, Leadership, Physical Education, and Damage Control. There was one planned test that was billed as a “must pass” in order to graduate. I don’t remember the subject (may have been the UCMJ). Naturally everyone was very worried about it. When it was distributed we found all of the questions were “jokes” and there wasn’t really a test at all. 

Naturally those of us with experience in certain areas had an advantage over the others. Quartermasters (QM) and Boatswain Mates (BM) excelled at things like navigation and boat handling. (I had been an underway OOD on the USCGC Cape Small so I had some advantage too.)  I ended up with the highest grade in Coast Guard Orientation and received an award from the Reserve Officers Association at graduation. (Of course I had an advantage of four years of Coast Guard service!)  Many years before as a Boy Scout and Ham Radio Operator I had learned Morse Code. I had to learn the signal flags and our final test involved “reading” flashing light and identifying the signal flags on paper. I was able to do both tasks at the same time (I could even identify the Morse Code by the sound of the signal light being manipulated) and turned in my test (100% grade) in about half the time of the others. On the other hand, the college athletes did much better in the physical areas!

I did OK on the physical tests but wished the swimming tests were graded rather than pass/fail as I could have picked up some points there. Later in the program those that had a certain number of points could skip morning calisthenics; I was never able to. I recall one non-swimmer standing on the diving board for the longest times as the rest of us encouraged her to jump. She finally did and struggled to the side and eventually graduated. Another popular classmate had broken his leg. When he went to take his final physical test many of us went to cheer him on. He really struggled with his pull-ups, using his legs on the wall to help get up to the bar. The physical education staff adjourned and came back in and announced he had passed and we all cheered. I wonder what we would have done if he had failed after trying so hard and while others were “passed” for apparent political reasons.

The officer staff also had their fun. During the first four weeks of class whenever we had a question we were required to stand, identify our self, and ask the question. Monday morning of Week Five someone started to stand and the instructor said “Sit down, I know who you are.”  During one morning formation, the inspecting officer, LTJG Charlie Williams, gigged many people for dirty hat covers. The next time he was inspecting everyone was busy cleaning his or her hat covers. He came out and dismissed us without any inspection.

Our officer staff was a mixture of Academy and OCS graduates. Some of the Academy graduates expected “Academy-like behavior”.  I recall one officer explaining that if he yelled “Swabo” he wanted to see a cadet magically appear in front of him at attention. Saturday mornings we had formal room inspections. We’d stand at attention while the inspecting officer searched for dust, measured the width of the folds of our sheets, ensured books were placed in height order on the shelf, etc. One Friday evening there was a power failure and we obviously couldn’t do our cleaning and other preparations. We did the best we could Saturday morning and “stood by” for the inspection. The inspecting officer, LT Ron Via, arrived late and basically conducted the inspection by walking through the passageway. We didn’t even have time to come to attention and at one point I heard him exclaim, “Come on, Mr. Kluss”. 

We had one drawer in our locker for valuables that was always locked. While the rest of the room could be inspected at any time, this drawer was a place to hide “contraband” (e.g., food). On Saturday morning such contraband had to be moved elsewhere. There were several handy locations, under the locker, in the overhead, in a laundry bag at the laundry. I later asked one of the officers who had gone to OCS. I saw most of the staff later in my career and asked that since they had gone to OCS, knew the hiding places, how did they resolved the issue. The reply was if they wanted to find it they did.

One evening I was in charge of the detail that lowered the flag on base. They didn’t do a “crisp” job. When I returned to the barracks, the duty officer asked me how it went. Of course I didn’t want to confess our sloppiness nor did I want to say it had gone well if he had been observing. I replied there was always room for improvement and it was left at that.

One of our training requirements was periodic “peer reviews”. In this process, we had to list the worst three of our classmates and why. These folks would be further scrutinized by the staff for possible dismissal. Naturally this caused a certain amount of trauma and in some cases personalities came in to play. I recall one guy (an enlisted member) who didn’t get along with many of us but I thought would be a good officer. He was dismissed. Others had strong academics but showed questionable leadership capabilities yet graduated. My attitude was these folks were trying to enter MY outfit and I wanted the best. During one of the reviews I was listed in the bottom three. I asked my platoon officers if I should be concerned and they said they often saw people listed who were doing well because people knew they wouldn’t be hurt.

Going to chow was another experience. Everyone was required to enter the mess but could turn around and walk out if they desired. We marched from the formation area all of the one block to the dining hall. Each column of the formation then filed out with the head of each column following the last person in the previous column. During one period my friend, Paul Kluss, was our guide-on i.e., the individual who led the formation by marching in front of the columns. The guide-on was normally at the head of the left-most column. The dismissal would either start from the left-most or the right-most column. If it were the column on the right, Paul would slide over to the next column and be able to depart early. After a while, the leaders of the column caught on to his antics and held him in place. Paul was also short which may be why he was a guide-on. We often waited near the doors to barracks for a formation to be announced before running out and falling in. Paul would be near the front but someone would pick him up and pass him back.

Since there was only one OCS class, there was no transition from “junior to senior”, no big change in status. In Boot Camp we were given privileges in (e.g., movies, radios) in accordance with a schedule or when our Company Commander saw fit. In OCS, as budding officers, we were expected to write a memo to request privileges or make our own decisions. Again, we were treated cordially and reasonably. For example, a few weeks after we started I received my installment of my re-enlistment bonus. (I had re-enlisted the previous year but even though I became an officer I was still entitled to the bonus.)  I received it in cash, $2,000, less taxes and was given permission to drive off the base to get a money order so I could mail it to a bank. Later in the program we started getting weekend liberty. For those of us with cars, that meant a lot of freedom!  Movies were popular and I found a lot to see and do in the historic Yorktown/Williamsburg area. I recall one night several of us gathered on the beach somewhere and enjoyed a campfire.

One of the customs at graduation was to issue each OC two silver dollars. One was given to the class “anchor” (the bottom of the class) and the other was given to the first person that rendered you a salute. The graduation ceremony was conducted without hats on so afterwards, when we had officially received our commission, we could put them on and be recognized. Many of the enlisted folks knew the custom and hung around after graduation to give salutes and collect a dollar. I declined to put my hat on immediately and the first person to salute me was actually surprised to receive a dollar.

We graduated in June so in the space of just over six months I had been an ET1, ETC, ETC(OC), and an Ensign with a brand new gold stripe.

***

I was assigned to the Cutter WESTWIND out of Milwaukee and will relate more about that tour of duty in another story.

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