Commentaries, Reminiscences and Sea Stories
Gary Hooper

Reminiscences of USNS Bowditch, 1963-64
Posted on 9/24/2008

In July 1963 I completed ETB School, Treasure Island CA, and received orders to GMS DNECK to attend an 4-week introduction to computers course starting in August. I was newly married; but we agreed she would stay in San Francisco with her family and friends. So I went off to VA by my lonesome just as I had done in my single days.

In the mysterious workings of Navy detailing, at the end of the 4-week course I was ordered across the street to NAVDAC C School. My GMS stay turned into 4-months. After completing NAVDAC, I received orders to USNS Bowditch via San Francisco. The Navy there had never heard of the Bowditch. They told me to stay put and muster by phone. Staying at home with my new bride was not bad duty. Finally, they sent me to local MSTS headquarters.

At MSTS, I was shuffled through several Navy admin types who knew nothing about the Bowditch or what to do with me. Finally, a WO told me to follow him. We snaked our way through a dark warehouse to a small office in a remote corner of the warehouse. A civilian was seated at a desk. The WO exchanged a few words with him and was dismissed. Then, speaking in whispers, the man thoroughly checked me out, before he told me that if I were to go to Yokosuka Japan I might – MIGHT – connect with the Bowditch. With only this tidbit, I went back to the admin office. They were all too happy to get rid of me and arranged for me to fly out of McGuire AFB via military charter. My short honeymoon was over.

The made a midnight pit stop in Anchorage before the long trip across the Pacific. We landed at an air base near Tokyo early the next day. Navy liaison at the terminal checked my orders, gave me a train ticket, and sent me on my way. When I checked into Yokosuka Receiving Station, they told me the Bowditch departed that morning and would not be back for a month. They were delighted to have another E5 at their beck and call. They assigned me a bunk and told me to report for Shore Patrol duty in one hour.

Fortunately, there was some problem, and Bowditch had not departed that morning. However, she was departing that afternoon. The yeoman made a check of the Receiving Station for new arrivals as an excuse to make a last call at the club. Lucky for me, he found me just as I was putting on my gear in preparation for patrolling the lively sailor bars in lovely Yokosuka. So I arrived onboard just before the lines were cast off.

In those days survey ops were not as automated as they were after overhaul. We laid out a transponder pattern which served as a reference point. A QM and an ET stood watch in a room behind the pilot house. The QM plotted the ship’s track and passed course adjustments/changes to the MSTS Officer of the Deck. The ET monitored LORAN-C and logged position data which placed us somewhere on Earth. SINS and NAVDAC played a role in this formula. A basic SONAR provided ocean depth data. NAVOCEANO cartographers manually plotted depth data on sheets of Mylar and connected the dots using those Rapido-graph pens we all had to have. If data was missing, they deftly filled in the gaps by professional PIOYA.

Our XO Mr. Moss had only 6 months in the Navy when I came aboard. He joined the USNR in college and reported to Bowditch directly from Knife and Fork U – Officer’s School. He was the first/only African-American officer I served under, but one of the finest officers I knew during my Navy career. The Navy lost a good man because the prejudices of the day led him to decide to leave the service when his obligation was fulfilled. His Navy future was severely limited.

A funny incident involving Mr. Moss occurred while we operated in the tropical South Pacific. Every quarters we nagged him to modify the uniform of the day to T-shirts. Those of us who had been on other ships knew this was allowed. Mr. Moss was not sure and would not give the OK. One morning after another round of nags he exclaimed: “Wear whatever you want. I don’t care if you don’t wear anything at all.” - or words to that effect.

One of the ETs was a real character named Merrill ‘Pigpen’ Stone. He got the nickname from the Peanuts character and for the same reason. It was a Friday morning, and while many things about TAGS duty was not typically Navy, Friday field-day was not one of them. Mr. Moss came around to see how the cleaning was progressing. In the lounge he found Pigpen stripping the deck – totally naked except for his sneakers. Mr. Moss said: “Pigpen put some clothes on”. Pigpen came back: “But Mr. Moss you said . . .” Mr. Moss ambled off muttering “I’ll never say another word to those sailors.”

I’m sure anyone on the Bowditch at that time will never forget Chief Sam Dear. He was recalled from the Fleet Reserve when the Navy ran into one of those periodic shortages of senior petty officers. Sam was a short, wizened old man who shuffled about in old felt carpet slippers. He thought he was in great physical condition and would often strike a strong-man pose and ask: “How old do you think I am?” He would then add: “You wouldn’t believe I’m 65 would you?” We’d usually reply with some smartass answer like: “No Sam, we thought you were 85.” He’d then stammer in disgust and shuffle off to his stateroom.

Sam was not from a technical rating so he understood little about our work. He created a job for himself by setting up a locker to keep consumable items secured under lock and key. If you needed a pen, a sponge, or a tweaker, you had to ask Sam to get it from the locker. But his system had one basic flaw. He set high-low limits for each item. When an item reached its low limit, he refused to issue the item until new supplies came in. You had to get the EMO to open the locker with the spare key and issue a needed item.

Sam’s stateroom adjoined the lounge, and he often complained of the loud music and noise, which encouraged us to crank up the volume. Once he let us know he hated the Beatles, who were just coming into popularity in the US. A new guy brought a 7” reel-to-reel tape of Beatles music. We immediately set up a round-the-clock watch and kept that tape playing around the clock for 72 hours. Sam never mentioned loud music or the Beatles again.

Everyone knew I was newly married and my wife was in San Francisco. At all hours of the day and night, I’d get called to the lounge for a message. When I picked up the phone, I’d hear: ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ or ‘California Dreamin’. I came to hate Tony Bennett more than NAVDAC, but I still enjoy the Mamas and the Papas.

Mid-tour I advanced to ET1 and moved to the E6 stateroom, where I joined Dale Wiggins, ‘Freddy’ Fredericks, and SK1 Frank ?

Frank, had emphysema. Each morning he sat on the edge of his bunk for about half an hour chain smoking and emitting sounds not unlike a WWII era hand-cranked aircraft starting up. He’d spit and sputter, cough and wheeze until finally his engine kicked in. The steps leading up to the level where our mess was located were a challenge for Frank. He had to stop halfway up and catch his breath before he could manage the last three steps. The storeroom was in #4 hold. When he had to go there, it was an all day event. Frank was still on active duty because he almost had his 20 years in. The Navy was more benevolent in those days.

The unit usually gathered in the lounge after evening meal for relaxation and socialization. We often played games. Movie trivia was a favorite. LCDR Overton, the OCDET Commander, was a whiz at this. As a teen he had worked in a theater, and he had a phenomenal recall of movies, actors, directors, etc. – sort of a living ‘Videohound’. No one could stump him.

Scrabble was another favorite. Commander Overton decided the dictionary in his stateroom was the official reference source. If a word wasn’t in IT, it wasn’t a legitimate word. Needless to say, he was often called on at odd hours to verify or deny a word. He didn’t seem to mind.

Sperry NAVDAC Rep Jean Brief, a Chess Master, taught the game to all interested in learning. He would take on and usually defeat all challengers, sometimes playing two or three games simultaneously. Frenchy’s habit of placing empty Grenadine bottles outside his stateroom door irritated our officers. They felt it violated their ‘official’ disapproval of imbibing alcohol on the ship. He ignored their protests saying he used it as mouthwash.

Movies were a major form of entertainment. Once we got ‘The Guns of Navarrone’. Doc Gibbs, loved it and watched it every night – more often if he could get someone to run the projector for him. Doc also had a keen sense of humor.

IC Duncan was a naïve 19-yo from West Virginia. Apparently he never practiced self-abuse as he developed a medical problem that required attention when we got into port. Doc let it be known that the doctors ordered Duncan to masturbate nightly under his supervision. So every night after evening meal, when he was sure most of the crew were in the lounge, Doc would say: ‘Come on Duncan. Time to go j**k o**.’ Duncan would turn beet red, but dutifully follow Doc to sick bay. When they returned, Doc would report to all: ‘Duncan did a good job tonight’.

At that time, the Navy required us to exercise regularly and be tested for physical fitness under a program implemented by order of President John F Kennedy - informally referred to as JFKs. Some played volleyball in #4 hold. The more agile jumpers knocked their heads on the steel beams running across the low overhead. Being wiser, I chose to do exercises. Once as I did a sit-up the ship took a large roll. I fell backward several feet further than I expected. Later, I felt some lower back pain, but did not tell Doc. We were entering port in a few days, and I didn’t want to spend my time at the base sick bay and miss out on that fabulous Yokosuka R & R.

I had first watch when we went back to sea. After 4 hours sitting in front of LORAN, I stood up but couldn’t walk. The QM sent for Doc who thought I was faking it. When I convinced him I wasn’t, Doc got help to get me to my bunk. I stayed there for several days until the pills he gave me relaxed me enough that I could sort of walk. For several days I floated about the ship holding onto the handrails to keep from bumping my head on the overhead. Was I ever high!

Doc had a large jar full of those pills, which reminded me of dark chocolate M&M’s. He said the Navy won’t let corpsman have them anymore, so he stocked up while he could get them. There have been many times since that I would have loved to have a handful of those wonderful pills. My back still gives me problems from time to time. Thank you JFK.

Speaking of faking it – Another young newly-wed reported on board. He made it clear from the start that he was not happy being away from his new bride. He was also certain that he would not take to life at sea. Sure enough, as soon as we left port, he starting heaving and took to his bunk. He refused to get out no matter how direly he was threatened – even to eat. We sailors took mercy on him and brought him crackers which seemed to be the only thing he could keep down. Next time in port, he saw a host of doctors who apparently agreed with his personal diagnosis. One day, he came on board, packed his gear, and left the ship with a big smile on his face. We never saw or heard from him again.

Another shipmate named Oakley expressed his feelings about TAGS duty in a different way. After a few drinks, he’d start pounding away with his fists on any handy hard object – stone walls – whatever; but he never struck another person. His hands would be a bloody mess of open wounds after one of these episodes. Doc took him to see the base doctors for a medical evaluation. Those shrinks determined his idiosyncrasies were no more abnormal than those of the rest of us, so Oakley remained on board for his full tour of duty. Go figure.

On a different note, LCDR Overton had to be relieved at sea. He took up station on a wing of the bridge and stood there staring fixedly into the distance for several hours. The Ship’s Captain was called and tried to coax him below, but he kept saying he couldn’t because ‘they would get him if he moved’. OCDET officers and Doc finally got the Commander to his room. He asked to be relieved of command.

Mr. Moss said he would be hanged for mutiny if he took command. However, after several days of deliberation and indecision, the change took place in accordance with procedures. There was a formal inquiry when we got into port. The Board found the action was justified and necessary. Mr. Moss was commended, and LCDR Overton departed.

LCDR Pendergast came on board as the new OCDET Commander. He graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in Oceanography. Commander Pendergast passed along his enthusiasm for our work to all of us. I recently saw his obituary on the web.

By the way, Mr. Hess was the First Mate at this time. His is an interesting story in itself.

Toward November, we set sail across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, and ended up in Hoboken NJ in preparation for going into Brooklyn Naval Shipyard for overhaul. I left for San Francisco on annual leave. When I returned after Christmas, I had orders to NAS Pensacola. After several days of shipyard fire and security watches, I departed the Bowditch.

Does anyone remember the partially eaten hamburger and soda can that was found in the overhead of the OCDET living quarters - apparently left there during a previous overhaul?

Reminiscences of USNS Bowditch, 1967-68
Posted on 9/24/2008

I enjoyed my first tour on the Bowditch so much that I requested a second TAGS tour at the end of my tour at NAS Pensacola in 1967. The detailer granted my request; so once again I reported to the Brooklyn Naval Receiving Station for further transfer to the Bowditch. I was informed I would be enjoying their hospitality for at least a month.

At the Receiving Station I met two other sailors headed for Bowditch, Chief John Grewe and ST2 Magee. When the appointed day arrived, we flew to Heathrow then traveled by train across the English countryside to Swansea. Most of the crew were already enjoying the hospitality of the local pubs, and we were soon on our way to join them.

John made a mistake sailors are warned about – he packed his personnel and medical records in his seabag, which got lost in transit for several months. He had to live on a small stipend and the kindness of others until his seabag and records arrived. Later, John and I ended up at GMS DNECK as Instructors in the A School; and we both worked for Sperry after we retired.

And yes it was that same Magee who came back to the ship one night - drunk and upset. He kicked open the Commander’s door and sat down by his bunk for a midnight tete-a-tete. Only on Bowditch could he have gotten away with a dressing-down and a warning not to do it again.

From Swansea we traveled to Malta for a shipyard period, with intervening stops in Rota and Naples. The Maltese treated us kindly – one bar near the shipyard bought a refrigerator to chill beer for us Yanks. Five of us rented a flat near the Casino – how convenient. That Greek temple reminded me of a set out of a James Bond movie. Those prone to gamble played alongside high rollers betting 100 pound chips as if they were the minimum-bet 50 pence chips.

Our flat, which was approved for up to six persons, had a water supply of 85 gallons per day. The amount was controlled by the State. Once you used your daily allowance, you were out of water until the tank on the roof was refilled at night. The good part was that the water was undrinkable due to the foul smell and taste given it by the sandstone cisterns which collected rain water, the only source of water on the island. Fortunately, the wine was very potable. A tanker truck filled with wine came to our neighborhood so residents could fill their bottles and jugs. It was sort of an adult version of the ice cream truck without the music playing.

The shipyard period was an overwhelming failure – the workers were unaccustomed to the US work ethic and military standards. They had tea mid-morning, broke at 11 for a two hour lunch, took afternoon tea, and stopped work around 4 PM. Most of the work they did had to be redone - some on an emergency basis. The new steam lines they installed blew out as soon as they were pressurized. They did not use any sealant or solder – just butted metal to metal.

New Year’s in Barcelona is only a vague memory. I recall eating 12 grapes at midnight, but the rest is a blank – no doubt due to the several bottles of sherry I drank that evening. There was one negative incident to mar the festivities. Our yeoman was accosted by a couple of Spanish thugs who forced him up a dark alley, roughed him up, and relieved him of his wallet. He said he thought he was a dead man until he heard voices calling to him. When he opened his eyes, he saw two Gardia Civil with the culprits in tow. They never made it out of the alley. The Gardia returned his wallet intact and asked him to identify the thieves. Case closed. There’s something to be said about law and order in Franco’s police state.

Another incident involving police authority occurred during our February stay in Barcelona. Several OCDET members went skiing in Andorra. John Prough bought some scuba gear that was on sale. When he tried to re-enter Spain he learned the spear gun he purchased was contraband. After some negotiation, John was placed into police custody and driven from the border to the Bowditch. They released John into the custody of the ship’s officers with the understanding that the spear gun was not to leave the ship. To insure this arrangement was carried out to their satisfaction, armed police were stationed near our brow until we departed. The spear gun came in handy during our search for the Scorpion. John used it to retrieve interesting flotsam, such as a styrofoam cooler cover.

I’ll digress for a moment to give other examples of Spanish justice. In the 1970s, I was on a sub which operated out of Rota until Spain threw us out. The road between the main base and the piers was long and winding. A shortcut via railroad tracks was !OFF LIMITS! because they ran past the Spanish admiral’s house. One night two sailors coming from the club decided to take the shortcut. They were shot - dead. A radioman off my boat got into a brawl in Rota and slugged the Chief of Police. He was held in the local prison for six months until his case came up before a judge. He lived in a small cell with a stone platform to sleep on. The only facilities were a water pipe hanging from the ceiling over a hole in the floor. The Navy provided him food, bedding, etc. The judge released him to US authorities IAW agreements, but he had to leave Spanish soil. Maybe the justice wasn’t always swift, but it was certain.

Lisbon was a terrific port call. Remember the Manila Hotel? The boat that ferried us from our anchorage in the Tagus to the shore also provided chilled beer for those who had to stay on board for some reason. It was liberty at the foot of the ladder. A highlight for me was to be invited to dinner by Jack Barrone, the senior tech rep. It was considered quite a privilege. I also enjoyed a day-long tour of the surrounding area, including a visit to the summer palace, a trip across the Tagus to a ruined castle, and an evening of food, drink, and merriment in Estoril. I later learned I was out of bounds under the Nato agreement with Portugal. My military ID was valid only in Lisbon. I needed a passport to travel to those other places. I was relieved justice wasn’t as swift and certain as in Spain.

Bremerhaven was a bonanza for buying German-made products. A representative of Wollensack set up shop on the ship and sold many crew members electronics equipment. The quality of the equipment was far superior to Japanese-made equipment of the day in sound and appearance. When we arrived in Amsterdam, the rep was waiting on the pier. The company flew him there to correct a design flaw in a tape recorder he had sold to several crew members. He used our workshop to replace the faulty transistor in each unit. That’s standing behind your product.

Food plays an important role in my memories of the port calls we made. I can still taste those sautéed veal cutlets which were always served on a wood board with tomatoes and French fries stacked like cordwood – a basic menu item in many restaurants. I also remember those Dutch hamburgers - large patties of uncooked ground beef with a raw egg broken in an indentation on top. You had to order an American burger to get it cooked . A group of us went for a 40-course Indonesian feast in Amsterdam. That was a meal to remember.

And the fresh fish in Spain and Portugal. Most restaurants had elaborate displays of their catch of the day. In La Coruna, where we made the unscheduled stop when a MSTS crewman had a heart attack, one small bodega had only a large octopus in its window. I wonder if it became calamari? I never tried a sea urchin. The lunch bunch at the Quo Vadis restaurant in Barcelona seemed to enjoy this spiny delicacy.

Ah Barcelona! Fresh strawberries from the Montserrat monastery in February, the rotisserie chickens cooking on the street in the alley, and the calamari tapas served with those little black pots of boiling oil at The Black Cat.

Speaking of The Black Cat, on our last night in Barcelona a group of us leaving there caught a taxi to go back to the ship. A MSTS sailor remembered he had unfinished business, so we took a detour to a house of questionable repute in the gutt across The Ramblas. We waited outside while he took care of business. A nearby condom shop displayed their wares on appropriately sized and shaped forms in the window. What a surprise in Catholic Spain.

Alas, all good things must end. My expenses-paid European holiday courtesy of my wealthy Uncle Sam ended upon arrival in Belfast. After I left, I tried to finagle another TAGS tour, but the detailer had other plans for me. My final sea duty assignment was SSBN, not TAGS.

I treasure the time I spent aboard Bowditch – the best sea duty a sailor could have. But, you know what they say: As you grow older, you forget the bad and remember only the good.

Back to Top
TAGS Ship Website Home Page