Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

No, this isn't a post about Clint Eastwood, the movie, or Spaghetti Westerns, although it does have one of the best theme songs from a movie ever!  If that's what you were hoping, I'm sorry to get you all excited.  However, I'm borrowing the title to describe a few of the positive events I witnessed during my career (THE GOOD), which do outweigh the negatives (THE BAD), but I would be amiss if I left out the downright bad stories (THE UGLY). 

"INDY" Flight Deck with an HS-12 "Wyverns" SH-3 Spotted for Launch


The picture above would be the flight deck of the Great Ship INDEPENDENCE (CV-62), where most of my stories begin, not because it was my first time underway, which it wasn't, but it was my first operational fleet tour, where I went on my first deployment (as well as my second and third), and where I received the majority of my flight time.  Indy was the home of CAG-5, callsign BADMAN, and we saw ourselves as the Navy's Foreign Legion.  While a couple Air Wings had been recently integrated with women at the time, we were still an all-male crew.  It was also the mid-90's, and times were different.  It's not like we were living Tailhook '91 day in day out, but there was less oversight, no Internet or 24 hour news cycle, and no one was worried about being politically correct.  


Operationally, it was a very positive tour.  The Carriers in Japan- first Midway, then Independence, Kitty Hawk, George Washington, and soon to be Ronald Reagan, have never had the typical work-up and deployment cycle of other boats.  The crews essentially go from one at-sea period to another, always remaining at a high level of readiness.  And if you’re not at sea, you’re preparing to go again- and soon!  Regularly patrolling the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea is the neighborhood watch duty for our Forward Deployed Naval Forces in the far east.

That can be a bit monotonous I suppose, but during my time there, things got a bit exciting.  We saw the North Korean Dictator Kim Il-sung die, leaving the North Korean sabre-rattling to his crazy son Kim Jong-il.  This happened almost immediately after the power shift, posturing himself to show he's as tough as dear old dad, which quickly put us to sea to show that we were just as unafraid of him as we were his father.

 You are worthress Arec Barrwin

Flying far north into the Yellow Sea, then re-positioning near the edge of the territorial limit on the east coast of North Korea was an awfully fun way to put such a lonely  ronery guy back in his box. We weren't too concerned with starting the war up again either as we knew he was all bluster, despite being an absolute lunatic.

I heard that the crew of the George Washington had to do the same thing when fat-boy slim himself, Kim Jong-un took over.  Same bat-time, same bat-shit channel.  I'm sure the Wolf Pack in Kunsan stepped up their flights each time as well, but we didn't see 'em as I'm pretty sure F-16 guys are afraid to fly over water.*

A year or so later, China decided to fire some missiles over to Taiwan.  Fortunately, this time we were already underway for an exercise off the coast of Okinawa, so we just re-positioned ourselves in the middle of the two countries until China simmered down. Nimitz joined party as well.

It was exciting to be part of the nation's 911 force, as we called ourselves, jumping into the fray quickly since we were already on station due to being home-ported in Japan.  It was a very tight-knit Air Wing as well.  While other Air Wings come together from multiple bases in CONUS, CAG-5 is all based in Atsugi Japan.  Although there are plans in work to move to Iwakuni.  Since we were all on the same base and so often at sea, we were very close and work was quite fun.  The O-Club was always hopping when the Air Wing was in town.

CVW-5 Circa 1996, after VF-21 and VA-115 had departed the pattern.  
Showing the flag was also one of our missions in the region, so pulling into liberty ports was an important part of the job!  We would hit Hong Kong a couple times a year, Pusan, South Korea each January; although that lands that liberty port somewhat in THE BAD category, mainly due to the weather.  One of my squadron brethren said it was so cold there that the Russian Hookers on Texas Street were charging 20 bucks just to blow on our hands!  Pusan was the only liberty port I saw where everyone was back aboard by 1600 when liberty didn't expire until midnight.  Pattaya Beach Thailand and Manila were visited twice during that tour; Singapore, Bahrain, and Dubai hosted us during a deployment for Operation Southern Watch, and I departed the squadron for shore duty when the ship pulled into Sydney Australia.  

My wife and I visted Macau when she met me during one of my Hong Kong port calls.
Visited Sydney in '96 while in VS-21 on Indy, and '08 on Peleliu,**
I definitely had a ton 'o fun in those ports, with sightseeing, shopping, and bar-hopping with my squadron-mates being the standard activities, always leaving the extra-curricular ones in Manila and Pattaya to the single guys.  The Squadron Admins*** were always a blast.  Later on in my career, the port visits included Perth Australia, multiple stops in Pearl Harbor, and one to Aqaba Jordan where I had the chance to visit Petra.  I've heard people make the joke "I joined the Navy to see the world, but what did I see?  I saw the sea."  I definitely saw a lot of ocean, but the land was plentiful as well.
The Treasury at Petra

It wasn't all fun and no work though.  The places with port visits also offered many an opportunity for community outreach. COMREL or COMmunity RELations projects were popular and sign-up lists quickly filled up.  Seems like for every sailor that just wanted to drink and carouse, there was at least one who wanted to help the locals.  It was the Amphibs that seemed to do the majority of UNITAS and Pacific Partnership deployments where COMREL is the primary mission though, leaving the Carriers to more aggressive work.  Doing charity work really does feel good if you allow yourself the time.

USS Carl Vinson sailors rehabbing a school in the Philippines

Another significant entry under THE GOOD heading is how I was able to see my son after he was born, but this was previously documented here.  Seeing the world and having fun doing it also made for some great memories.  However, I take immense pride from my service, being on the tip of the spear out in Japan, and being a part of our National Defense Strategy, confronting aggression around the world.  There are so many more positives which I may share at another time, but it's time to move to...


Every time a ship pulls into port, the crew is cautioned about two things- STDs and improper behavior, which may or may not be related!  It was beaten into us to remember that we represent the United States and our behavior reflects back on the ship and the country.  As for STDs, the Nurse on Vinson once told me that a new (and large) box of condoms placed in medical would only last a few days (both in port and underway!) so the crew was taking that warning seriously.  As for behaving? Not always.

Other than a sailor getting into a car or scooter accident, which was rare due to the usual prohibition against renting vehicles in port, every single liberty incident I remember hearing about involved alcohol.  From the highest level of Strike Group leadership, through Squadron and Ship COs, their Department Heads and Chiefs, down to the most junior sailors, each of us faced a nearly constant barrage of warnings and cautions about drinking and how to prevent a sailor from damaging the good reputation of a ship or squadron.  However, I'm not sure a single port visit in my time was left with the impossibly pristine characterization of avoiding even a minor liberty incident.

While a sailor acting like an idiot and embarrassing himself is bad, what I find even worse is the zero-defect mentality that Fleet, Strike Group, or even Squadron leadership expects when it comes to the behavior of 18 year old sailors who are allowed to drink.  While I'd never advocate for a prohibition on alcohol, mainly because overwhelming majority of sailors have no problem at all with following rules for acceptable behavior, the only way to truly prevent someone from over-imbibing is to stay at sea.  I'm quite sure a ban on booze in port would fail as well, and we'd still find one or two sailors who would break the rule and become drunken fools.

I'm not sure COs were held accountable in their fitness reports for the behavior of their sailors, but I didn't like the restrictions placed on 99.9% of the crew for what .1% did during the last port visit. After we PCS'd from Japan, and after a few high profile incidents there, those folks even had to brief their leadership on their weekend plans, and this was while at home, not in a liberty port.  I think that's going a bit too far, and the Navy internalizing despicable behavior as reflective of the entire crew, the Navy, or the USA, is just wrong.

During one port visit to Hong Kong, my squadron did have a sailor get into trouble.  He had been drinking, but what he did can't completely be attributable to the one or two drinks he had.  His mistake was stepping into an argument between a local and his girlfriend when the incident escalated into the boyfriend grabbing her arm and dragging her off a bar stool.  After pushing the offender away, one of the local's drunk friends smacked him over the head with a beer bottle, cutting his scalp, and knocking him down.  The bartender called the police, the locals quickly left, and our sailor, who knew he had done nothing wrong, was left holding the bag.  Despite his buddies telling the police what happened, he was taken to jail and spent 30 days there until the Fleet JAG got the local authorities to drop the charges of whatever the Hong Kong equivalents were for assault and drunk and disorderly conduct.

Of the three years my wife and I spent in Japan, the last year with our son, I was at sea over two years of that time.  And that doesn't count the detachments to Barbers Point, Iwo Jima, and Kunsan.  That makes THE BAD list since I was almost never there during the first three years of our marriage.  That wouldn't have been so bad had I not gone to sea almost immediately upon checking into the squadron, leaving my wife alone in Japan, in the Navy Lodge no less, with the duties of the house hunting, navigating the confusing and windy streets to and from the base, and getting our dog out of quarantine.  Not that I really had any other choice though.  Thank God for the Wives' Club.
Another entry into THE BAD column was a horrible mishap on Indy.  Immediately after starting down the catapult, the right tire of an F-18 Hornet blew, possibly due to the pilot's feet on the brakes, causing the right main-mount to collapse.  This allowed the wing or CATM rail to hit the open hatch where a sailor was sitting as he monitored the steam pressure for the cat.  The hatch slammed shut, nearly severing his legs.  I didn't see the event, but I heard that they were able to save his legs after a MEDIVAC flight.  Deaths of shipmates, while relatively few, also fall into the bad category, but I've mentioned a few of them here before.


To be perfectly honest, there isn't a whole lot of ugly I saw in my career.  Sure, I saw some lousy leaders, some making it to ranks far beyond what they deserved, and a bunch of crunched aircraft on the flight deck (blue on blue incidents due to slick decks or cavalier aircraft directors), but not much rises to the level of downright ugly.

There was an in-flight emergency on Vinson back in 2001 which left this Viking with a bad nose job.  After 9-11, with our pilots flying up to six or eight hours from the Northern Arabian Sea to drop their ordnance in Afghanistan, the S-3s were used as a mission tanker, meeting aircraft at the border and refilling from the USAF tankers, just to put more hoses in the air.  During one of these missions, "Sped" and "Cantstandya" had the inadvertent rhinoplasty.  The brackets securing the radome housing the AN/APS-137 ISAR Radar must have had some undetected fatigue which led to the nose cone departing in flight and falling somewhere near the Afghanistan Pakistan border.  It wasn't an ugly mishap, but it made for a fairly ugly Hoover.

Before the Hornet gear mishap, we had a really bad one in CVW-5.  An A-6 Intruder crashed on a low-level and my XO was part of the mishap investigation.  I happened to see some photos shortly after the incident including one which was quite gruesome- a flight boot that...I'll just say it wasn't empty. These mishaps were hard on the I-5 (Indy/CAG-5) team since we were so close and knew everyone in the Air Wing fairly well.

While liberty incidents usually just fall into THE BAD category, there was one unforgettable, if not downright epic incident another sailor in my squadron got himself into.  He was the best Aviation Electronics Technician my CO had ever seen, and other than having a major-league drinking problem, he was a top-notch sailor.   He could fix even the most troublesome system problem in the jet and do it fast.  That skill led to the CO keeping him in the squadron, even after a previous incident had led to six weeks of mandatory in-patient treatment at a Navy Counseling and Assistance Center (CAAC).  Retaining a CAAC Level III sailor was against policy and most sailors are given an Administrative Discharge.  The CO justified the action by stating in writing that the squadron Drug and Alcohol Prevention Advocate (DAPA) failed to provide proper after-care following his treatments, despite the DAPA advising our Skipper that the Sailor was not following the after-care guidelines.  The DAPA was the best man at my wedding and remains one of my closest friends. While the incident, which I'll get to momentarily, was very ugly, throwing my friend under the bus and lying about his work was absolutely disgusting.  But I digress.

AT2 Schmuckatelli ditched his liberty buddy and found a bar during another port visit to Hong Kong (my squadron seems to have had trouble there!)  After drinking himself stupid, he broke into a Hong Kong resident's house, stripped down, did his business right there on the rug, then passed out next to it.  He was woken up by the police the next morning and promptly brought to jail.  The ship's security officer and my XO left the ship later that day with a briefcase full of money and brought the still hungover sailor back to the ship.  My buddy never said the proverbial "I told you so," nor did the CO ever apologize to him.

We sailed back to Yokosuka Japan and never saw Schmuckatelli again.

Do you feel lucky punk?  Well yes Skipper I do!

All in all, there are far more items to add to THE GOOD column than any of the others, however, they're all memorable and made it a very rewarding and very interesting career.  I could write more, but that's enough of THE GOOD THE BAD and THE UGLY.

*   My apologies to Juvat, Sarge, or any F-16 guys out there.  Ok, not really.
**   CV-63 vice 62.  Couldn't find a photo from Indy's visit.
*** Admin: When a carrier pulls into a foreign port, the crew gets liberty.  If the boat will be in port for more than a couple of days, a squadron's gentlemen officers need a place ashore to sleep off a drunk, or whatever. A J.O. is given the responsibility to rent an apartment or hotel room for the in-port period. A most useful custom.
Other helpful terminology here:


  1. Superb collection of stories and photos Tuna.

    Great title too!

  2. One of the first days of pilot training, the class started with the instructor telling us to take off our shoes and socks and then went around distributing a form. Somebody then went around and inked our feet and told us to stand on the form. When asked why, the instructor said the feet inside the boots are often the only thing left. A bit sobering at the start of our flying career.

  3. Golly, except for the fact I was on a 'can,' it was a lt like that in the early 60s, too.
    Overdrinking was handled a little differently.
    The miscreants were usually just sent to mast, busted, fined, given restriction, and sent back to work.
    The only forward deployed ships over there back then were a tender, the 7th fleet flag (I think it was the Okie City), a degaussing ship (the Surfbird) and some coastal minesweepers.

  4. Speaking of soundtracks: whenever you think about Kim Jong-Il, just invoke the following and have a good laugh on the lunatic.

  5. Yep, you ALWAYS get all three, whether you want them or not. Hopefully the good outweighs the bad and the ugly...

  6. That's a great shot of you at Petra. That place used to be "on the list" in the wayback but isn't any longer due to safety considerations. (sigh)

  7. Well that fired up the old memory machine. Great stuff! The thing that sticks in my mind is the kaleidoscope juxtaposition of good-bad-ugly. There weren't good and bad and ugly days, there was an ongoing three ring circus, ashore and afloat. I think that's a function of living life to the full. Of course that was 70's-80's, back before we discovered that living life is just...wrong.

    1. Good observation PA regarding the '70s and '80s. Those were my halcyon days. All we were doing was living. The authorities made sure things didn't get out of hand. Sometimes you got to climb the promotion ladder a second time. No one made the YourServeNameHere Times for being an idiot.

      Different times nowadays. Some of that is good, some not so.


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