Jake Ham YN3 served on the York from November '69 through November '71 and his comments are ©
"I was both happy and sad to come across this web page. Happy because "hey look, here is something on my old ship!!" and sad because the memories that flooded back were suddenly overwhelming and mixed.
Anyway, some years ago, at the encouragement of a number of my co-workers and friends, I took up the challenge of writing down some of my "adventures" in the Navy. (I shamelessly admit to being flattered by said parties.)"
I Was In A Hurry
In October of 1970, I found myself standing on a pier in Gibraltar, the mid-morning shadow of the USS York County, LST 1175 casting out and down with the sound of choppy harbor waves slapping off freshly tarred pier posts.
My buddy and I wanted to tour the famous Rock of Gibraltar, so we hired a cab driver to take us up the mountain. At the turn-around point where the bunker caves are, there is one of five or six colonies of free roaming monkeys. (Lore has it that if the Gibraltar monkeys ever die-off or leave, the British will no longer control Gibraltar.)
Anyway, the cab driver had shuttled many a tourist to the see the caves and monkeys and was well stocked to feed them with small bags of malted chocolate. He demonstrated how to hold the malts so that the monkeys would come up, stretch an arm out and snatch one from an open palm – real cute. Only one of them had yawned earlier and displayed a massive set of mean looking teeth, so yours truly was just a little leery and only fed them once. Leo (that was my buddies name), on the other hand, was much braver and wanted his picture taken feeding the monkeys and he handed me his camera and jabbered some quick instructions.
After a couple fairly good snap-shots the cab driver suggested that Leo place a malt-ball on his shoulder and the monkey would climb up and make for an even better picture. So Leo starts enticing a really cute baby monkey to climb up and it’s very close to doing so. Only at the last second, a larger adult female monkey slapped the youngster out of the way and climbed up. (You should know that Leo probably weighed all of 122 pounds soaking wet, and the monkey weighed twenty five pounds or more!) To Leo's credit he did not panic, just bent over a little under the shoulder strain. The monkey grabbed the malt-ball, popped it in her mouth and started happily chewing away, balanced on all fours, tail stuck straight up in the air and looking directly at the camera.
Queue Jake. Only I'm fumbling with the camera, trying to recover from the shock of the baby monkey getting knocked aside and replaced by a much larger one. Leo is looking directly at me squawking to have his picture taken as his posture slowly takes on the shape of the letter "S", what with the added monkey weight. To add to Leo's trouble, the monkey began to tighten its grip in an effort not to slide off the loose fitting shoulder material, causing Leo's facial expression to change from one of "hurry up" to alarm.
As I watched all this through the 35mm viewfinder, trying desperately to locate the now lost trigger, Leo chose that exact moment to turn his head in an effort to find out why the monkey was so busy moving around. The monkey reacted to Leo's head turn by quickly shifting sideways and shoving its nasty huge, red-puffed-rump, smack into Leo's face!
CLICK!! Hellooo! Major monkey butt to face collision!!
Leo yells and the monkey screeches!! Leo yells even louder and the monkey follows suit. Leo begins flailing around in an effort to push the monkey off, while the cabby and I are laughing so hard we're about to pee our pants.
Finally, the outraged monkey is flung free and Leo is literally spitting mad and wiping his mouth back and forth on his sleeve. The monkey struts about on its knuckles, looking a bit indignant but clearly interested in another malt-ball... or maybe another big 'ol smooch!!
I helpfully suggest Leo eat one of the remaining chocolate malt-balls to make the monkey butt taste go away... he does.
I trust Leo still has that photo HIDDEN AWAY, somewhere.
Setting a Storm Watch was only done when sea state conditions were at their worst.
It was almost eight p.m., or in Navy parlance, twenty-one hundred hours (2100). The existing storm watch was about to be relieved by the senior enlisted snipe (engineer) and the lowest ranking deck-ape (me) aboard the USS York County, LST 1175.
Gathering on the ships bridge, Luckenbach and I received our route instructions (map) and a short weather briefing from the previous watch. Our assigned task would be four, one hour, complete tours of the ship, from stem to stern, while carrying a leather bound watch-clock. The trick was to locate various check points, insert a key that dangled from a welded bulkhead chain, punch the clock and set off for the next destination. (A ticker tape inside the watch-clock would incrementally mark our progress and time.)
Once briefed we descended too the port quarter deck and began suiting up. Rain slickers, filthy orange life jackets, flash lights, marlin spike and safety knife each. (All new to me, but Luckenbach seemed to know what he was doing.) At the mid-point of the next port side down-roll we popped the door to the main deck, stepped out, paused and closed the door on the up-roll, pulling hard on the extended handle to making sure all the dogs set tight.
Looking up at the overhead flood light, the driving rain looked like long silver spears and stung when hitting flesh. Beyond the immediate light source, all was coal mine dark. The howl of wind and splattering cold rain mixed with the booming waves crashing over and around the four horizontally chained causeways was deafening. Drenching sea spray flung itself across the main deck, bashing into chained down, canvas topped, Marine Corp green vehicles. Combined with the ships serious flat bottom roll, pitch and yaw, and one could be easily excused for thinking Martini shaker bad. (Yes, there was a higher than normal sphincter pucker-factor here.) After all, how often do you see rope life-lines extended along the ships main deck? Why? So knuckle-heads like Luckenbach and me would have something to hold onto for our lives. Who would have guessed!! Wouldn’t any normal person think that during storm conditions all crew members would be safely tucked away, warm and snug like bugs in a rug, below deck? But no, the Navy insisted that at least two warm bodies actually roam around and check for loose gear, flooding or signs of trouble.
Enter the mighty storm watch troopers... or should I say storm rats, wet rats, and cold. Our task was a simple one; check each griped down vehicle on the main deck and the tank deck, while making sure nothing was, could, or would brake loose. Also, check for any hatches or doors that may have busted open and check the lowest reaches below deck for flooding.
After a quick glance aft at the boat davits, just to be sure nothing was glaringly loose (wouldn't want to lose a perfectly good life boat source) we setoff into the dark and wet, flashlight beams waving about like light sabers, heads bowed and holding on to the ropes with a death grip. Some parts of the main deck had non-skid paths, but greater stretches were nothing more than very slippery welded plates and walking quickly took on the appearance of a drunken Charlie Chaplain. Oh, and don’t forget to side step the many huge white painted tie down knuckles that dotted the main deck and secured the causeways. Deck welded tie down joints were evenly spaced and looked like mushroom caps but acted like land mines because they tripped everyone up. The really scary part came when it was time to let go of the life line and move into the parked vehicles, made up of jeeps, trucks and water buffalos. (I never realized how tall those Marine Corps trucks were until they were swaying over me like drunken bobble-heads dolls.) Grab and pull on each of the vehicle gripes; loose? Use the marlin spike to twist the gripe tighter, and tighter still. Don't slip, don't drop the flashlight or spike, ignore the rain and waves, move, move, move. (A few days later, when the sun was out, I chanced by some of the vehicles that I had tightened down... oops, way too tight, a number of trucks and jeeps had a very noticeable front end dip and squashed tires. I seriously considered going and getting a marlin spike to loosen some of the chains, but what the Hell, all of them were about to be set free on a beach in Spain anyway.) Time was ticking and the route map calling.
Canvas tarps were stretched over the wooden hatch covers on the main deck ramp, soaking wet, but still secure. Move on. Quick climb and visual check of the bow gun mounts and empty ammo ready boxes, nothing moving or swinging about. Move on. Paint locker (what a mess), secure. Deck sweep completed, it was time to head below. Entry was made through the forward, starboard side, fire control tower. We banged and dogged the door behind us and stood dripping. (Warmth and lights, grand, just grand!) Without the sound of crashing waves, wind, rain and snapping canvas, we could stop shouting and talk in a normal voice. In fact, it was almost chapel quite and peaceful, by comparison. Aaah, breathe in that ever present humid smell of diesel fumes, paint, passage way wax, dial soap and ineffable testosterone… home sweet home, and absolutely unique to “my ship”.
We shoved off with puddles forming everywhere from our dripping rain gear. Next stop, the infamous cloths locker. This common storage compartment was infamous because some idiot had tried to smuggle a large block of Italian Limburger cheese into the States. The locker was used by all hands to store bulky coats, winter uniforms and large personal items that would not fit into our small personal lockers. Once the cheese was cut, the heavy wool uniforms did the rest by soaking up the heady aroma. Needless to say, when the hatch was eventually opened the eye tearing, throat gagging stench of Limburger cheese leapt out. Care to guess what happened to the cheese smuggler? (Down the road, he ended up having something even smellier and worse shoved under his pillow.) Clothes locker free of flooding. Move on.
Down a set of steep steps to investigate the ammunition lockers for flooding or loose casings. Nothing. Bone dry and very, very quite. (Compartment lights already on and not a light switch in sight... must be some twenty-four-seven thing.) On too the emergency supply compartment. This little gem had canned water (before the days of plastic bottled water), baby powder, baby food, diapers, blankets and feminine hygiene products. Everything required to assist civilians in the event of an emergency at sea or humanitarian relief ashore. Humm, the lower you go in a ship, the more stable everything is; almost normal at the bottom. Nice place to birth... too bad was so far below and no nearby head. All clear. Move on.
Passing along the starboard side of the ship through our own birthing compartments, there was just the usual crowd of flip-flop and towel-waist types getting ready for some serious rack-time. Everyone seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out what a crappy watch we had and how glad they were to be inside where they were warm and snug as a bug… ah, my fellow shipmates! Move on.
Engine room time; two engine rooms actually. Outside the starboard Supply Office and the Ship’s Office were hatches with very intimidating twenty-five foot vertical ladders. (Each of these two down-shafts was mirrored on the port side.) Luckenbach instructed me to, "stay put", he would descend and turn the keys and check the bilges. LUCKY ME! I hated those ladders. Later, while in the shipyards, I would have to stand many a fire watch in the engine rooms while the yardbirds welded. What could possible catch fire in a steel environment, you ask? Lots. During my welding watch the brooms and mops would catch fire. (Blankets, clothing and rags were other items to keep an eye on.) Damn welding sparks would hop, pop and skittle over the deck plates like sparklers on ice. The extinguisher worked just fine on normal stuff, but not dry mops. Mop strands behaved like fat fire cracker fuses, those suckers had to be stomped on with a boot, and then they would continue to defiantly smolder and threaten to restart! Hey, under normal circumstances, engine rooms are clean and brass-ass shiny bright, but yardbirds add an extra dimension of trouble and mess, not to mention fire. And they steal, too. And they are dirty, and, and... Move on.
Next stop, the mess decks and a chance to catch a few minutes of the nightly movie. Full house, as usual, storm or no storm. (The reel-to-reel projector made more clatter than the storm.) Now showing for your viewing pleasure; The Wild Bunch (No howls, hoots or wolf calls at bodice-ripping young lassies here, no sir, just shoot 'em up action!)
Time to head off too the laundry area, after-steering and a number of storage spaces below. The entire aft section of the ship vibrates like an old off-center washing machine. Each time the aft end of the ship lifted clear of the water the prop blades would grab air and the cavitations caused a deep, sharp shudder that would vibrate your innards and try to knock you off balance. Reefers (refrigerators) working fine... damn things always smelled like cold damp aluminum and bad lettuce. (Nothing like the taste of reefer in your butter on the fourth or fifth day at sea.) Key the clock. Move on.
Further below decks, one storage compartment is worth mentioning. The Okra Locker. So named because it had exactly four huge pallets of Louisiana Okra. Each box on the pallet had nine large cans and the boxes themselves were stacked almost six feet high. What the hell does any ship need with four huge pallets of Okra? Nothing. I saw okra floating in some soup once, but other than that, nada. As luck would have it, each time we hit some semi-impoverished port, the okra was “volunteered” as goodwill food assistance. (Also, any diapers or hygiene products that with near term expiration dates.) Seems a whole lot of people loved that slimy textured veggie, because it was lugged ashore in Greece, Spain, Panama and Columbia. (I truly believe it was the governments’ sneaky way of getting rid of subsidized crops that Americans refused to buy.)
Alongside the Okra Locker was an area normally off limits to me, owing to my being new and having not been invited. The first compartment was the ships radio entertainment compartment, complete with a huge number of Armed Forces Radio record LPs. At the moment, the records were sliding around on their slip covers in a giant heap on the deck. STORM DAMAGE AT LAST!! YAHOO!! What a pig-pen! I couldn't help but wonder who the unlucky swine would be that would have to clean up that mess and re-organize it. (Yep, I wonder... ) Some time later, I would sneak back to the entertainment compartment and play records for my own enjoyment; Petula Clark, Dianne Warwick, Simon and Garfunkle, my first introduction to the world of jazz and big bands. The second off limits compartment was the "recreational den" of the gunner’s mates. Rumors of beer busts, bourbon 'n coke and pot parties swirled around this place, though someone could have been bs'n me. (Like the time they tried to get me to stand at the bow of the ship with a boat-hook and look for a floating pallet of mail.) Once, when I peeked into the compartment, I saw all kinds of tacky cheap rugs (the kind with big antlered elk) stretched on the bulkheads and thrown on the deck, so clearly someone was keeping house. (Looked like a pot den... scary gunners mates.)
Climbing back to the mess decks it was easy to stand off to one side, in the dark, and catch a few more minutes of the action packed flick. (Cheap speakers with crackly volume.) Move on.
Time to enter "grunt country". The mirror image of the starboard side crews quarters, but without the luxury of dividers between isles and bunks. (Navy crew bunks were stacked three high, Marine bunks were four high). What a mass of green clad activity! Four compartments on one level with four more below -- eight large compartments designed to squirrel away four hundred and ten Marines. By inference, NO NAVY ALLOWED. Indian country. The transit through grunt country would have to be fast because hurled insults can hurt. (Ha!) It could have been worse, we were bundled up, still dripping and passed by looking like whipped curs so everyone could tell a miserable watch assignment when they saw one... Hell, better reception on this side than the other. Move on.
Tank Deck Time!
The tank deck on a Landing Ship Tank (LST) looks very much like a giant saltine cracker box; long, square and just as grey. Full of Landing Vehicle Tanks (LVTs). These camo-green tracked beasties were used to hall grunts ashore. (Once, when a "not a drill" fire alarm sounded on the tank deck, I chanced to look out the passageway porthole and witnessed Marines literally popping out of the top-hatch on an LVT, like human pop corn kernels, with flames right behind them. Four were severely burned and one would later die. Very tragic.) Plenty of pale-white overhead lighting on the tank deck. Not unexpectedly, the overhead hatch had some serious drip streams going on. The usual standing water around the bow doors was only a few inches deeper than normal, no reason to sound an alarm. (Besides, everyone knew we were missing the port side bow door mud flap… toothless grin.) The bow ramp swimming pool area sloshes around in any kind of sea, let alone a storm. Yep, many an unwary or careless swabbie got a work-boot full of water, surprise! Move on.
Time to head for the bridge and log in. Not surprising, the higher you go in a ship the more you feel the sea-state. Feet apart and synched up with the rise and fall of the bucking ship -- now that's what I call getting your sea legs!! Good chance to grab a cup of bridge coffee,,, talk about floating a horse shoe!! And that spoon! How old was that thing? In the two years I served on the bridge, I never saw that spoon washed or changed. Reason number one, "not my job". Reason number two, "why go all the way to the mess decks for a clean spoon, too far and way too much hassle." Reason number three, "doesn't the heat and acidity of the coffee automatically clean the spoon?". I swear, the day that ship was transferred to the Italian Navy, that spoon went with the pot, which was never cleaned either! (Damn good coffee, though.)
While Luckenbach grabbed a smoke, I had a chance to glance around the muted red lit bridge. Radio static produced a permanent backdrop of hiss, pop and whistles, owing to the two black boxes high on the aft bulkhead. (Our call signs would be Wardrobe Whiskey or November Victor Whiskey Foxtrot.) Because the bridge is whipped back and forth like a crazed pendulum, everyone has to hold on to something or, stand immediately next to something that can be grabbed very quickly. During particularly severe rolls, there is always a longer than normal pause at the bottom. Each of us would be totally focused on that pause and a collective breath would be released when the recovery began. After a full day and night of bad weather you would think there could not possibly be anything left to fall on the deck. But you'd be wrong. There is always a stray navigation pencil, careless cup, set of headphones, hat or glove that manages to hurl itself into free space. And what's up with the chart table, navigation equipment and maps sliding every which way… why didn’t that tape stick?
Time to retrace our steps through "officer’s country" and return to the quarter deck. Normally, we would not be allowed to travel through officers country, but rather a set of sharp zig-zag steps welded to the exposed outside super structure. But during bad weather and late night watches, if you were quick and quiet, a squid could make a dash.
Round one of four was in the log book. The watch would be relieved around 11:45 or 11:55, and it would be time to hit the mess deck for mid-rats (midnight rations). Horse-cock and pony-pecker sandwiches, with red-lead soup!!! Yummy, yummy!! (Bologna and salami sandwiches with tomato soup and crackers.) Maybe I could talk my cook buddy (Bill) into breaking out some of the leftover barnyard-strutter (chicken) from dinner. Also, at one o’clock in the morning the head would be empty, perfect time for a hot cowboy-rinse-down shower and privacy! Can there be a better reward at the end of a miserable watch?!
Time once more to open the door to the main deck. At the middle of the down-roll (let gravity do the work) step outside, pause, close the door on the up-roll (isn’t gravity great.). Flash lights on -- is it me, or do they look a tad dimmer? Boat davits still in one piece. Crappy weather. Stinky moldy life jacket. Where's that damn life line? Move on.
What can I say, the next liberty port had better be worth it.
Transit Life Started When Boot Camp Ended.
A mimeographed legal size piece of paper, heavily stapled to a thick manila envelope, authorized me to take two weeks vacation prior to reporting too Little Creek Virginia, where I would then await the return of the USS York County, LST-1175 currently deployed in the Mediterranean with the 6th fleet.
Little Creek was home port for the Navy's Atlantic branch of Amphibious Operations. (I would spend two years passing in and out of this snug little gem of a harbor.) My transit time (travel time between duty assignments) was blessed with the first hangover of my life. What a shock, totally new learning experience and certainly unexpected. I spent the entire morning puking and dry-heaving on the sand and scrub brush around the ammunition bunker where I was moving three inch fifty caliber shells to the tailgate of a waiting truck. (That's right, give hang-over-boy a chance to carry live rounds.) So, aside from one unforgettable hangover, the only other thing worth noting about Little Creek Virginia, at the time, was having to step over numerous globs of snot that Navy Seal trainees had hocked up all over the place! No doubt the endless exposure to water and the obligatory flu shots had caused the upper repertory distress that lead to these Seal wannabee's doing the yellow and green nasal gel and lung butter thing. (I feel better having shared that.)
Anyway, after two weeks in Little Creek, I found myself being trundled off to Torahone Air Force base outside of Madrid Spain because the Navy was not happy with my being so “comfortable” visiting the enlisted men's club each evening, after daily work details. After a three day stay in the Air Force’s transit barracks in Spain, the light dawned on me that those fly-boy-pukes live like freak'n KINGS! Who ever heard of civilians waiting hand and foot on military folk, making up bunks, doing laundry, cleaning up barracks and cooking chow? Damn! (Okay, years later, I would advise my son to join the Air Force!)
The next leg of my journey was from Madrid to Rota Spain and took about four hours, with a quick mail stop in Portugal. Ever ride in a military DC-4? All the seats face aft… loud, bumpy, no food, cargo nets strung everywhere, and me suffering from motion sickness! (Just a tad green around the gills -- Question: Which is worse, motion sickness or hangovers? Answer: They're identical.) By the way, I spend the first three days of every single “underway” being sea sick. But that’s another story.
Rota was the transit-hub for all Navy ships and personnel going too and from the Mediterranean and was quite modern and very clean. The transit barracks were brand-spanking-new and newly arrived bunk beds and mattresses were just being taken out of their boxes and set up by, me. All this activity must have been one of those rare instances when the Navy made an effort to gain parity with the Air Force! Unlike the Air Force, however, the Navy transit barracks were NOT hotels because everyone was expected to work. Each morning at roll call, job tasks were assigned to all able body seamen, though not crows (Petty officers): High pressure spray cleaning of mess-hall trash cans while wearing huge rubber aprons… been there. Picking up trash (beer tabs and cigarette butts) alongside roads and runways… done that. Hand wash every motor pool vehicle and semi-truck… done that, too. Unload each (heavy) box from two forty foot long tractor trailers, by hand, without the benefit of a pallet jack, forklift or roller slid… Yep, done that kind of grunt work, too. Staggered rows of five sailors with hand held scythes cutting down tall grass along base roads to create “fire lanes" in the hot Spanish sun like prisoners on a Georgia chain gang, without water or food... seriously, no joke. (Absolutely the most degrading treatment and there can never be enough forgiveness or four letter words for that little “make work” stunt.)
But liberty call was my reward and I had collected enough work detail points and the correct number of transit days to earn a night on the town. MY TURN! Rota Spain is "OLD world". A sprawling town of white stucco buildings with a touch of Moroccan influence and a BIG 'ol Bull Ring. The day I went to town was bull fight day, loudly and proudly proclaimed by all the brightly colored posters and bunting hanging everywhere. The town was pumped up! Not me. I'm not a bull fight kinda guy. And while everyone else trooped off to see the fight, I made it clear that I didn't want to see bulls get stuck with swords. Instead, I walked around town and spent some quality time at the water front. (Admittedly, today, I would not pass on such a great opportunity.)
Wash ladies took my knife. Wash ladies were pinning clothes on lines and didn't think it proper for me to have a folding Boy Scout knife dangling from my key-ring. I do not speak Spanish, but the grandma's were giving me the evil-eye and pointing at the knife while yapping away. So I had to unclip it from my belt loop and toss it into a laundry basket, which promptly brought out smiles and laughter.
I had previously agreed to return to the bull ring at 4:00 p.m. when the fight was over so that a handful of us transit-swabbies could search for food and drink. Damned if I didn't arrive just in time to witness the very thing I'd been trying to avoid all day, slaughtered bulls being hauled away from the ring. A large donkey cart, yes a real donkey cart, was jolting along the cobble stone road next to the ring with that days dead bulls, trailing a stream of blood, tongues lolling, vacant eyes staring, flies and stench. (Oh Joy!)
It was not hard to find the Navy folk since they were the only ones dressed in bright white pressed uniforms! We set off without a clue, other than following the crowd. No problem finding something to eat and drink at a nearby pub, run by a retired Englishman. Low lit interior with two dart boards, pool table and oversized chess board -- the only thing Spanish about the joint seemed to be the jet-black heavy wooden furniture. Good beer, laid back atmosphere, nice English speaking female tourists (from Liverpool) to converse with. All in all, a nice liberty call and it ended way, way too fast. (I often reflect back on the brand new condominiums that were being built just outside of town, along the beach front.... RETIREMENT???)
Surprise, my transit number had suddenly come up! I found myself barely dressed and awake while trying to clear away the previous night’s new found love for dark English beer and cute English female accents. The Navy had managed to hooked a number of us up with a DC-8 headed for the island of Crete. (At least I would not be ridding backwards again and the extra two propellers made for a faster flight.) Crete turned out to be another Air Force base, but shared with NATO and Greece. It turned out to be all desert scrub and rock and just as faded in shades of brown and grey. Dump city.
Just a few hours cat-nap in the terminal and it was helicopter time. Helicopters can taxi like air planes, because this one taxied away from the terminal and out too the flight line. I can not recall if the chopper was Air Force or Navy, but one of the crew shouted over the rotor noise that we would probably have to return to the terminal because we were overloaded! (On second thought, it had to be Navy.) I could certainly see why, the chopper was chock full of huge mail sacks, movie cans, a couple recruits (like me) and a bunch of returning emergency leave salts. We raced up and down the tarmac a few times, burning up fuel. Lift off was a forward motion tilt, shudder and grunt -- womp,womp,womp! Nice view out the large open starboard door, not a lot of height on the altimeter, either. Twenty minutes later we landed on the large aft helo pad of the USS Francis Marion, LPA-249.
From the deck of the Marion I could see my new home, the USS York County, LST 1175 steaming just a scant thousand yards away to port, plowing a huge white churning bow wave. Never saw anything like it. I grew up around aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and the occasional stray oil tanker, but not a single amphib! What the Hell was this gator-navy thing?! Are those trucks on the deck? Damn, what an UGLY brutish thing. Rusty reddish-orange causeways hung on each side giving the appearance of large used band-aids. Slow... wallowing... what raw lousy boot-camp rookie luck!
Why was I in such a hurry to get over to her? Why was I both thrilled and horrified at the same time?
"Honey, I'm Home!"
Bow to stern.
By Jake Ham