Old Corps Camelot
Or, Wild men I have known
I must admit that I stole part of the title and the last sentence of this tale from an old diesel submarine sailor, Dex Armstrong, who is one of the most prolific T.I.N.S. tales writers I have ever encountered. He was a Torpedo Man aboard the USS Requin (SS-481) during the Cold War in the late 50s, early 60s home ported in Norfolk. He is a very funny guy, and is able to capture life aboard the old “smoke boats”, as he calls them, as the diesel boats were being phased out and being replaced by Admiral Rickover’s nuclear undersea fleet. You can find his tremendous treasure trove of stories at http://www.olgoat.com/substuff/abr.htm.
Dex’s greatest talent is his ability to capture the relationships between the sailors who rode the old smokeboats during that time. Those old diesel subs were mostly veterans that had helped put a large percentage of Hirohito’s fleet on the bottom of the Pacific between 1942 and 1945, and many of the Chief Petty Officers who rode the subs during Dex’s time wore the combat patrol pins earned during World War II. He is able to articulate what the crews of those boats felt for each other, and how they expressed those feelings which resulted from the bonds formed while in port, at sea, or on liberty. His focus is mainly on the non-rated enlisted sailors who lived in the after battery compartment of the Requin and their relationships with each other, the CPOs and the officers. He refers to the After Battery Rats as “idiots” who were, to quote Dex, “..young, bulletproof and were going to live forever. We never learned the arts of negotiation and compromise. We resolved disputes by beating hell out of each other. Took less time and solved most issues. Our behavior was a reflection of an attitude handed down to us by the men who pinned the tail on Tojo's donkey.”
I wonder if Dex Armstrong knows that he is describing more than just diesel submariners. He has captured what I feel for a lot of my Marine Corps buddies who spent careers fighting in Vietnam and leaning forward in our foxholes the rest of the time facing down Fidel Castro, the Soviets or the Chinese until the Berlin Wall crumbled to the ground, in large part because of our sacrifices during the Cold War. A friend who is a retired US Army Special Forces senior NCO feels the same thing when he reads Dex Armstrong.
While Dex writes of non-rated sailors, I speak of Marine officers I served with between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the landings in Panama in the early 1980s. After Battery Rats weren’t the only “idiots” in the Naval Service during those times, Dex. We were mostly young infantry officers or Marine pilots who were trained to take the fight to the enemy. Most of us got the chance to ply that trade in Vietnam, and some of us never returned from that God-forsaken land. We worked hard and we played hard. Although we were constantly reminded by our superiors that commissioned officers were supposed exhibit decorum, and while we generally complied, when we were on liberty we were a pretty rowdy bunch. When you train men to stick a bayonet into the throat of the enemy or to burn them out of their fortifications with guns and napalm, don’t expect tea-party behavior while off duty. We were hard drinkers, loud and boisterous revelers who tore up more than one waterfront bistro, got into some nice bar room brawls and bought drinks and more from the lovely ladies of the Far East, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. We had good times on stateside liberty, but throw into the mix ports of call like Subic Bay, Hong Kong, Yokosuka, Taipei, San Juan, Naples, Toulon, Barcelona and Athens and we upped the ante. Waterfront bars in these places were some of the worst dives I have ever seen, and kindled in us a fire that burned far brighter than it did stateside. As we walked through this world together, this perverse Camelot, we formed bonds that will last for the rest of our lives. I would trust my life to any one of these men and would lay down my own life for any one of them.
The Notorious Honcho District-Yokosuka
Eventually most of us got married and were tamed by that work of art called a Marine wife. These gals had to put up with a life that often left them home alone responsible for raising the kids, running the household and paying the bills while their husbands were helling around the Far East, the Caribbean, or the Mediterranean fighting wars or standing face to face with tyranny around the world. When the old man returned from the wars or from deployments he would show up with a bag of dirty laundry and a wild look in his eye that usually resulted in a quick trip to the bedroom. Even when he was not deployed somewhere he would spend most weeks in the field training, so she would see him on weekends…maybe, depending on inspection schedules or other commitments that came up from time to time. As I got older I finally realized that being a Marine wife was a hell of a lot harder than being a Marine.
So I dedicate this to the Wild Men I have known. You are the commissioned equivalent to Dex Armstrong’s After Battery Rats. Here’s to you George Ross, Dick Schwartz, Jess Pugh, Hap Myers, Joe Morra, Scotty Roberts, Dan Phipps, John Roth, Fred McWaters, Jim Mellon, Jack Bowe, Spike Dashiell, Jim Glore, and all the rest of you who shared those years of Marine Corps Camelot with me during our glorious days East of Suez and when we sailed the Levant. Those were the days when we and the men that ran with us danced with the devil and pissed into the wind.
Dirck Praeger sends