Key West Memories

Autorotation, submarines, barracudas and face down in the sand

During the summer of 1961 before the start of second class (junior) years at the U.S. Naval Academy we traveled all up and down the east coast working with the Marines and amphibious Navy at Little Creek, Virginia, with the firefighters and damage control men in Philadelphia, and with Naval Aviation at Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida. Sandwiched between Jacksonville and Pensacola was a three day trip to Naval Air Station, Key West, Florida. The exciting three weeks at NAS Pensacola is described in my previous story. The trip to Key West was memorable enough in several respects to warrant its own story.

We flew from NAS Jacksonville to Key West in old Navy R4Ds (also known at various times and places as the C-47, C-117 or Gooney Bird). Somewhere during the trip the plane I was on lost an engine. The pilots feathered the prop, and we proceeded on at half power. The classmate sitting next to me broke into a sweat and prayed the Rosary all the way our safe touchdown at NAS Key West. But we made it, and at least 28 members of the Class of 1963 were spared a fiery death.


After settling into the BOQ we all made our way to the officer’s club for chow and a cold beer. The next morning we proceeded to the helicopter hangars for a ride and a demonstration of the chopper’s ability to autorotate. Autorotation is the process by which a helicopter can safely land after losing all engine power. The rotor is allowed to freely rotate and as the chopper descends, the air passing through the rotor causes it to rotate, create lift and keep the craft from falling from the sky. For a soft touchdown, the pitch of the rotor is changed as the ground nears, slowing the descent and allowing a safe landing. Flying around in a helo and then stopping the engine on purpose didn’t sound like a very smart idea to most of the Midshipmen, but being the bulletproof and indestructible youths that we were, we all climbed aboard for the ride. The engine was cut, scaring the shit out of most of us, but the chopper descended under complete control and made a soft landing. It made believers out of us…well, most of us.

That afternoon after liberty call was sounded Dick Williams, Bob Borlet and yours truly, Sixth Company classmates and the same three culprits from the Hattiesburg adventure told during the previous Pensacola story, decided to check out some masks, fins and snorkels from special services and explore the crystal clear waters of Key West. We puttered around in the near offshore waters of the NAS beach enjoying the underwater scenery, when suddenly I came face to face with a barracuda not three feet away from my mask. He just sat there looking at me. I think I jumped up and walked on water to get the hell out of there. No more playing in Key West’s waters for me. As I recall Dick and Bob exited rather quickly also.


The next day we were going to be introduced to submarines, the primary reason we came to Key West. We boarded a diesel boat…I can’t recall which one, and spent about a half day at sea on the surface and submerged. I didn’t like the cramped quarters and decided then and there that I wanted no part of the Silent Service. Before our class graduated two years hence an attempt was made to draft members of the top half of the Class of ’63 into the nuclear submarine program due to fewer than expected volunteers. I sat in that auditorium and listened to the recruiting pitch and said, "No way…I said Marine, not submarine". No one was forced into the program that didn’t volunteer as I remember.

And so our time at Key West was done. We would spend the night and head for Pensacola the next morning. Dick, Bob and I repaired to the O’Club bar and poured down a few cold ones, then headed for evening chow. After that we headed back into the bar and continued to imbibe, too much, as seemed to be our habit during Second Class summer. We decided to walk it off before hitting the sack so we left the club and headed for the beach where we had snorkeled the day before.

Now you must remember that this was the summer of 1961. In 1959 Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba, and by 1961 had firmly established that he was a Communist and enemy of the United States. An attempted U.S. supported landing at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba to oust Castro was soundly defeated by the Cuban communists when the United States pulled back promised air support. This occurred in April 1961. Cuba was only 90 miles south of Key West, the southernmost point of U.S. soil. The Bay of Pigs was only a few months removed from our trip to Key West.

Thus when three slightly tipsy Midshipmen decided to walk the night beach we were suddenly confronted by an armed sentry who looked quite a bit like Steve McQueen in the picture below from the movie "The Sand Pebbles". He was armed with an M-1 Garand rather than Steve’s 1903 Springfield, but his uniform, cartridge belt, bayonet and canvas leggings were much the same. He may have even fixed the bayonet…I can’t remember for sure. It didn’t occur to us that it made perfect sense to patrol the beaches of Key West with armed sailors under the circumstances. It also didn’t occur to us, or we had forgotten that the beaches were off limits at night.

Sand Pebbles

As we approached the sentry he challenged us…"Halt, who goes there?" It was pretty dark and we weren’t readily identifiable in our wash khaki uniforms. "Advance and be recognized", demanded the sentry. If there was a password, we didn’t know it. Plus we were half in the bag. We advanced and mumbled that we were Midshipmen, but that wasn’t enough for this very alert sentry. "Get down! On your faces! Don’t move!" Down we went, not sure if this was our last minute on earth. He eventually was satisfied that we were, in fact, Midshipmen…drunk Midshipmen at that, but not invading communists. He said something like, "You idiots should have known that this beach is off limits at night. Now get the hell out of here and go sleep it off…and don’t come back or I may shoot". I suppose he had to report the incident to the Sergeant of the Guard, or whatever the Navy calls that position, but I don’t remember ever suffering any fallout.

Anyway, early the next morning we boarded our Gooney Birds and flew to Pensacola for probably the best part of Second Class summer…flying airplanes all over the Florida skies. Overall Second Class summer was the best of our Midshipman experiences between academic years. I look back on it with great memories. And the next time I was challenged by a sentry was in Vietnam six years later. I knew the password then.

  Semper Fi,

 Dirck Praeger sends