The LPO as Mentor

The LPO and a few of his troops

Looking at the old tattered and yellow photo he couldn’t actually remember the discussion…hell this conversation took place over 50 years ago. He did however remember the ship and the crew members that were having this talk. Well, maybe not completely but he did remember this particular event. Those were the days when Television was unheard of at sea…movies were shown in smoke filled mess decks on 16mm projectors. He remembered there was always hot coffee and bug juice available and sometimes the stew burner would make popcorn. There were no cell phones to gawk at and captivate the sailor’s time. If a sailor wanted to call home he would wait until the next port visit which could be several weeks or months away. Hell, most of the people on shore were still using rotary dial telephones, push button phones were just now becoming popular. Not only did these conversations take place in the berthing compartments but also in sail lofts or the Bos’n lockers of ships at sea. The sailor in this particular photo who was doing most of the talking was the Leading Petty Officer of the Division. What the sailors listening to him knew was, that they had better damn well pay attention if they expected to enjoy any liberty in the next port. More importantly than that though, was that their lives would depend on what they learned from the Leading Petty Officer

Gazing more closely at the photo he’s remembering names and places now. Yes, the ship was off the coast of Quang Tri City in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. She was an old AKA commissioned around the time of the Korean War…you know the one. The War that many seem to have forgotten. This AKA was now in another war…yes, another forgotten war…the sailor’s on this ships’ war. The crew members he was looking at in the photo were discussing the next mission. Condition 1A would be called away in less than seventy-two hours from now. Boatswain’s Mate First Class Gates, the guys in the division called him Popeye, with his coffee in hand is tutoring the other crew-members gathered around. He is explaining what to expect when they become engaged in what they have been training for day in and day out ever since leaving the comfortable port of San Diego. The LPO continues “You’re going to get tired, you’re going to get pissed off, you’re going to cuss up a storm, but you’re going to have fun at the same time. You’re going to prove to yourself that you have what it takes. You’re going to know in your heart that what you are doing is contributing to the war effort. Whether you are an Assault Boat Coxswain, a winch operator, a line handler, or cargo handler…it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you perform on deck to the best of your ability.” BM2 is intently listening to the First-Class Boatswain’s Mate, interjecting a few words here and there to emphasize what their leader is saying. The Second-Class Boatswain’s Mate stops to take a drag on his cigarette, yes, sailors could smoke in the berthing compartment in those days. In fact, ash trays, commonly referred to as butt kits, were mounted in various locations around the ship. The third person in the photo, the man with the beard, is the Leading Seaman and he is listening intently and taking in every word of what is being said. BMSN knows what his role is in all of this…he is aware of what will be required of him. He knows that he will do the best he can to ensure success. The men in this division are from many different locations in America. BMSN comes from Hawaii, his father owns a Pineapple Plantation. BM2 comes from a farm somewhere in Kansas. The LPO, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Gates, hails from Arkansas. His aspirations are to retire after this tour and go back to his hometown and open an upholstery shop as he has become quite proficient in the trades that one learns in the Sail Loft of a ship. 

BM1 declares that it is time for him to go and play some poker with his fellow First Class Petty Officers. As he gets up from his chair and ambles off toward the poker game, BM2 decides it is time for some lighter conversation to ease the men’s emotions and take some of their apprehension and lay it aside. So he begins…

“Well guys, after this assault landing and we get the Marine’s to where they have to be, we will be getting some well deserved liberty. Talk is we will be going to Kaohsiung, Taiwan”, he continues. One of the newer seaman who reported aboard back in san Diego asks, “where in the hell is that Boats”. Some of the other sailors in the division who’ve been there before just snicker upon hearing this question. “Well, ya see it ’s hard to explain” exclaims one of the more seasoned hands. “We have to moor to a mooring buoy fore and aft as the channel is narrow and once Liberty Call goes down we ride liberty boats into the boat landing. The place where the liberty boats tie up at is called US Navy Pier Kaohsiung…if I remember correctly, the landing is located a few blocks from the EM Club named “Sea Dragon”…piece of cake.” Now BM2 again continues, “I won’t go into a complete history of the place. I don’t want to bore you…so basically Taiwan used to be called Formosa. A long time ago the country was part of Mainland China. The US Navy jumped in and took over the Taiwan Straights and now we get to go on liberty there…yeehaw. Wait until you see these girls…they are great…I mean…wow”, exclaims the Boatswain’s Mate Second Class.

The entire division, well the one’s involved in this conversation, are thinking…this sounds like a dream. They are eagerly waiting for this port visit…little do they know how much this port visit will mean to them. By now it is 2200 and taps is going down on the 1MC. The shrill sound of the Boatswain’s Pipe can be heard now…”taps, taps, lights out, the smoking lamp is out in all berthing spaces,  all hands turn in to your own bunks, maintain silence about the decks, now Taps”. The compartment lights are turned off, the glow of the red night lights can be seen by all hands. The men turn into their canvas bottom racks, there are no privacy curtains…(bunk curtains?). Privacy curtains were the furthest thing from anybody’s mind in those days. Dungarees are hung on each bunk for quick retrieval in the event of the sounding of General Quarters. As each sailor turns in he is thinking of this next liberty port. However, in the back of each sailor’s mind he also realizes that there is still a mission to be performed in less than seventy-two hours.

The old sailor who has been looking at this torn and tattered picture feels a bit melancholy now in reliving those memories in his division berthing that night so long ago. A smile crosses his face and he is at this moment remembering that he was one of the new sailors asking all of the questions. “Damn, was I a gullible youngster then” he says out loud. Now, thinking like a sailor which he still is, he pops a tab on another beer before hitting his rack in this land locked home of his.

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