Six feet. That’s the length of a rack–just a section of canvas stretched between metal bars–on a warship in the United States Navy. The sailor’s height is irrelevant–a six-foot rack is all he or she gets for sleeping. Supposedly, it’s less space than that required to house inmates in American prisons.
I learned this back in June 2008 when I toured the battleship USS Missouri, which is moored in Pearl Harbor next to the USS Arizona Memorial. I also learned that though the ship was decommissioned in 1991, her austere interior looked much as it did in 1945 when World War II ended on her deck.
But most disturbing of all, I learned that during the Gulf War–the last fight the ship took part in–none of the sailors on board (including the captain) knew what kind of warheads their guided Tomahawk cruise missiles carried, or where they were headed after being fired. For all the crew knew, they could have been armed with armor piercing, high explosive or even nuclear-tipped warheads. But it wasn’t their job to know, or even precisely who they were shooting at.
The missiles were installed on the ship before deployment already encased in their launch boxes. All the captain knew was that he had to get the ship to a certain place at a certain time before he could launch the missiles. “If the crew wants to see what they hit, they go below and turn on CNN,” the tour guide told us.
The mentality of the men (and now women) who lived in such conditions and fired such missiles has always fascinated me. So in honor of Veterans Day, I sat down recently with three U.S. Navy vets: Darrel Smith, the owner of Maui Reef Encounters; Terry Richardson, general manager of the South Shore Tiki Lounge (which is where we met); and Ron Pitts, an artist, maintenance superintendent at the Maui Sunset and MauiTime’s own Eh Brah cartoonist.
Though none of the men knew each other in the service and each had vastly different experiences (Smith was so happy to get out of the service he got a tattoo of a sailor holding his DD-214 Certificate of Separation, the official document declaring him once again a civilian), all three learned very similar lessons about life.
MAUITIME: So Terry, since you’re here first, why don’t you tell me when you joined up and why.
TERRY RICHARDSON: It was March 1973 and I was 17 and living in Davenport, Iowa. I had no job, no car, and I was hanging with the wrong people. My sister worked in the federal building, and one day I got a call from a navy recruiter. And I thought, why not, so I met him. If I hadn’t done that, I’m sure I would have ended up in a cell.
It was the best thing I ever did. The navy put me through college. And a VA [Veterans Adminstration] loan just bought a house for me.
RON PITTS: Now I went in in August 1973. Both Terry and I were at the same Great Lakes boot camp. I joined because in 1959 it was determined that both my brother and I would follow in our father’s footsteps and join the U.S. Navy.
DARREL SMITH: I joined in March 1991 because of Desert Storm. It sounds silly, but it was like 9/11. I felt a twinge of patriotism I’d never felt before. And I wasn’t doing well. I’d dropped out of school and got fired from a job. I thought the navy would be something better.
My dad was a marine, and at first I wanted to join the marines. But the door to the recruiting office was closed, so I went to the navy office, which was open.
MAUITIME: So what jobs did you guys end up doing?
RICHARDSON: I got my orders for the USS Coral Sea, an aircraft carrier then off the coast of Vietnam. The war was winding down, but still. That first month was all kind of a blur to me. Now I had really high test scores in administration. Because I was able to get on board the ship as soon as I arrived, I got a job as a legal man in the JAG [Judge Advocate General] office.
I spent two years there. A lot of what I did was work on marriages of men to Philippine nationals. You have all these 18, 19 and 20 year old kids meeting these really beautiful Philippine women, and they often fell in love. There was a lot of red tape, and I was part of that red tape.
PITTS: I qualified as a machinist’s mate. On the entrance test they had these questions showing gears meshing together, and little arrows pointing this way and that and you had to say which way one gear was turning if this gear over here was turning. I did well on that. So I went to nuke [nuclear engineering] school.
SMITH: Now I was a liberal arts guy in school. I didn’t get past geometry in high school, but on the test I was able to use questions that appeared later to answer previous questions about atomic structure. But I wasn’t really good. I had to do my first school over again. From that point on I was designated a “dummy.” I graduated fourth from the bottom in power [nuke] school. I always thought that if I could find those three guys who did worse than me, that I could be their leader.
PITTS: I graduated fourth out of 113 in power school.
SMITH: See? He was the guy I always hated in school.
PITTS: Yeah. Then I went to submarine school, and then I served on the USS Whale. Then after I got kicked out of the sub service because investigators found my name and address in an apartment where they also found marijuana, they put me on the frigate USS Doris Miller, which was a terrible ship. We ended up selling it to Iran. I was also on the USS Seattle. It wasn’t like the big ships. It had race problems.
SMITH: I served on the USS George Washington, a carrier. I knew a guy who jumped off the ship, literally. See, when you’re on a ship, it’s like a big metal jail. Whatever they do to you, you have to take it. Well, this guy couldn’t take it, so he told us he was just going to jump. Lots of guys said that, but he did. Well, they did Man Overboard and sent out the rescue swimmers. But at the Captain’s Mast [disciplinary hearing] the swimmers said he was doing the back stroke away from them. He got a huge fine.
MAUITIME: That’s all pretty rough. Do any of you miss the service?
SMITH: I miss the camaraderie.
RICHARDSON: You know, I was thinking the other day that if I’d stayed in, right now I’d be on a Master Chief’s salary, fishing. You know what an E3 [a low enlisted rank] made in 1973? $307 a month!
SMITH: Did you know Navy stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself?” Seriously, I wrote my ticket when I got out. If I could get through that, I could learn anything. I had some knowledge I wasn’t aware of when I joined.
PITTS: Here’s what you get out of the service: accountability. I was a chief on tugboats after I got out of the navy. When I moved here, there were no tugboats for me, but I applied myself.
MAUITIME: Sounds like the service could be good–at times.
RICHARDSON: The food was good. We had lobster for Christmas.
SMITH: Yeah! Once the captain announced, “Tonight we’re having king crab legs for dinner–oh, and we’re going to be out here another six weeks. Sorry.” Click.
Actually, my ship was one of the first to have women on board. There were 200 women out of 5,000 guys. We also had ATMs on the ship–we used to joke the marines were there just to guard the money.
RICHARDSON: Still, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a long time.
PITTS: We had a 16-hour day, when underway.
SMITH: We had a big-screen TV in the berthing area. But we slept right over the screw, so it wasn’t that great. And the chaplain’s office and library were right under the flight deck, so it was kind of hard to concentrate. Also, people steal.
PITTS: Yeah, they do.
SMITH: I had an unlocked footlocker, which was my fault. They always tell you to lock it. Well, someone stole my locket containing my father’s ashes. I found the guy and got it back, but then it got stolen again.
RICHARSON: We were six months in, six months out. There was mail, but it was tough.
SMITH: Yeah, now they have email.
PITTS: In the subs we had Familygrams. They were three lines, six lines, I forget which. It was for everyone who wanted to send a message home. You went to the office and they took down what you wanted to write. It was like texting. We would trail an antenna behind us and transmit them whenever the opportunity came.
RICHARSON: We got cassette tapes. Eight-tracks.
PITTS: Remember, there was a lot we couldn’t do. We couldn’t use spray deodorant, for instance.
SMITH: Did you guys hot rack [the process where two sailors would share sleeping racks, each using it when the other was on duty]?
SMITH: You had 18 inches of space on the racks. There wasn’t enough space to turn on your side. For privacy, you had a curtain you could draw. And you learned never to open someone else’s curtain if it was closed.
MAUITIME: Did you do six years like Pitts?
SMITH: They discharged me early.
PITTS: They kicked your ass out! But I would like to have served with you. You know why? Because you are good people.
SMITH: It was kind of serious, but I got a general discharge.
RICHARDSON: Have you used your VA loan yet?
SMITH: No, I haven’t.
RICHARDSON: Well, if you can use your VA loan, you can get a home just like that.
SMITH: That’s good. You know, even though I didn’t really enjoy the navy, it was still good. It made possible things I would never have been able to do by myself.
PITTS: That’s another thing I cherish. I visited places no one ever goes. Having access to the reactor compartment made me feel special.
SMITH: Still, it’s hard to imagine, but they can still put you in the brig and give you bread and water for three days [for disciplinary purposes]. They can shave your head and parade you around. The Master at Arms would stand over you while you were scrubbing stairs with a toothbrush.
PITTS: Once I had a problem with one of my wisdom teeth, so the doctor sent me over to one of the carriers. They have real doctors there. Anyway, the dentist put me under, and when I awoke he shoved some pills in my hand and told me to take some to prevent dry sockets. And I said, “Sockets? Sockets?” They had pulled all four of my wisdom teeth.
MAUITIME: Why did they do that?
PITTS: Because they own you.