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
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?)
(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”:
Rita Nesel who was always smiling got one for smiling in formation
Someone else found a note taped to the back of a drawer saying if he turned in the note he would get demerits removed. He was given one for being “fooled.”
Paul Kluss received one
when a Playboy magazine was found under a drawer. (A previous class had actually
hid it there but he hadn’t removed the drawer to clean.)
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.
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
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”.
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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