When I flew to Munich, Germany, in 1966 I had already been in the Navy a year. That included nine weeks of boot camp in San Diego (now closed), a summer of working in the Marine scullery in Memphis, Tenn., until my billet for eight months of avionics school came through. Then I spent another couple of months swabbing down the chief petty officers club before I was sent out to the fleet.
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From Germany I flew to Rota, Spain, a naval station. After a few days a flight was ready to take me to the island of Malta. I’m not sure how I got from the airport to the port, but when I saw the side of the USS Saratoga with a gangplank attached to the shore, I was a little bug-eyed. It was the biggest darned hunk of steel I ever saw. It towered above the buildings on shore. At the top of the gangplank was an ensign, wearing a plaid jacket, waiting to receive my orders and clearly anxious to be relieved and go ashore himself.
Once aboard I found out, as usual for the Navy then, I was assigned to the scullery, just the place to put my high-priced electronics education to work. The only advantage of the scullery was during general quarters myself and another person were assigned to the forward garbage room. Our job was to close the door behind us and make sure nobody sent any garbage down the grinders and chute into the sea. In other words, we read books. We even found some paint and custom-painted the forward garbage room.
Once I was finally assigned to a squadron they sent me to the line shack. These were the brown shirts. Everyone on the flight deck had a different color that designated their duty. Red shirts loaded bombs and ordinance on the planes. Glad that wasn’t me. My squadron was A-4 jets that also had a 30mm cannon attached to each jet. As part of the line crew it was my job to oil the planes. Yes, there are parts of a jet that need oiling. When we weren’t sitting in the line shack wearing our Mickey Mouse ears because the twin engines of an A-3 Vigilante were revving right over the line shack’s door, we were out oiling A-4s. Oiling the A-4 attack jet meant looping a strap over the cannon and tying it to your waist because the planes were all parked on the forward flight deck and the ship was moving along at about 30 knots. In other words, if you weren’t firmly secured before climbing up on the wing with an oil can you would be blown into the Mediterranean.
The Navy wasn’t OSHA, but it had a number of safety procedures that worked pretty well.
Eventually I was assigned to the avionics shack. It wasn’t under a jet exhaust and I became a green shirt. It was a quiet place inside the ship with a wide counter covered with plastic under which were neatly arranged Playboy centerfolds. No more oil cans. Now I changed black boxes, did radio checks with the tower and rearranged the art in the radio shack. I assume there would be no counter with Playboy centerfolds in today’s Navy. That would be politically incorrect.
Going on liberty when the ship arrived at a port was a challenge. Malta was the only place where the ship was docked, other than Mayport, Fla., its home port. To get ashore elsewhere entailed riding a launch. With 5,000 sailors and officers on an aircraft carrier like the Saratoga, an airman like myself had a long wait when half the ship got liberty.
A Mediterranean cruise was exciting. I missed the visit to Palma de Majorca, which was the ship’s first stop before Malta. Other ports of call included Palermo, Sicily (looked like it was still recovering from World War II); Naples, Italy (trash in the fountains and hustlers everywhere); Genoa, Italy (12 percent alcohol German beer); Athens and Thessalonica, Greece; the Island of Rhodes (beaches full of Swedish women); and Istanbul, Turkey (truly exotic).
After eight months in the Mediterranean we crossed the Atlantic. Despite the waves the ship barely moved — just a slight up and down movement that could hardly be felt unless one stood on the fantail to watch the horizon.
When we returned to Florida our squadron began training for deployment to Vietnam. We would be going to the aircraft carrier USS Essex. The Essex had no air-conditioning and the avionics shop was a post on the hanger deck where you chained your toolbox. By this time I had made petty officer. Before we were to deploy I made petty officer 2nd class and received my orders to the Antarctic squadron based in Quonset Point, R.I. That began a whole new series of adventures, including being sent to some specialized schools and actually working on UHF radios and radar on the bench.
I’m writing about the Saratoga because it is now about to be shipped to Texas to be scrapped. About seven years ago my wife and I toured the mansions of Newport, R.I. At that time the Saratoga was docked at Newport Naval Station. I saw it from across the bay but didn’t ask to enter the naval station since I lacked any current military ID. Quonset Point, where I was home-based for the last two years of my four-year hitch, was now an industrial park full of Toyotas. It was a rather prosaic end for what was essentially a seaplane base, with each hanger having a ramp into Narragansett Bay.
The USS Saratoga, the 60th aircraft carrier built, is 81,101 tons. Before I even entered the Navy it had played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. With a nickname and insignia of the Fighting Cock, the Saratoga was built in 1956 and was the sixth ship to carry the name Saratoga. It later was posted to the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, then tangled with Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and launched the first strikes against Iraq in the Gulf War.
It was docked in Newport for a long time as a local group sought to keep it as a museum like the USS Hornet in Alameda and the USS Midway in San Diego.
Sammy King, secretary of the USS Saratoga Association, said his group had raised several million dollars, but was defeated by “bureaucratic obstacles.”
That’s too bad. For pure nostalgia I would have loved to tour the Saratoga. Now the only aircraft museums on the East Coast are the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., and the USS Intrepid in New York City.
Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears biweekly.