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Grandpa's Navy Days
Ever since I can remember my grandpa, Keith, has been my hero. I am going to take you back to the time when he was in the Navy. It all started on August 16, 1966 the day he left for boot camp.
“At the time I joined the Navy the Viet Nam war was in full swing,” Keith recalls. At this time the arms service act was still in place so that meant that he would get drafted most likely to the U.S. army. Before being sent to boot camp however he was able to finish his senior year at Minot State College. “I received my draft notice and my wife, Becky, and I decided that the Army would not be a good place to be as I would most certainly be sent to the jungles of Viet Nam. We felt that the Navy would be a much safer place to be as long as I had to go into one branch of the military or another. I went down to the Navy Recruiter in Minot, North Dakota to see what he had to say. He told me I could enlist but it would be for four years instead of the two in the Army. I felt that it was still the better deal,” he says as one of the main reasons he chose the Navy. After he enlisted with a 90 day program he finished college and headed for boot camp.
Having completed boot camp, the next thing to come was being deployed. The longest he was deployed was for nine months. “It was an extremely lonely and empty feeling when I left,” he says when thinking about the time he was deployed. He got orders to the USS Pollux AKS 4 which would put him in Yokosuka, Japan. This ship was a supply ship which means that each trip it took lasted up to six weeks. They would then return to Japan and start the process over again. Because he was the only person from his previous unit to head to Japan he did not know anyone when he arrived. He travelled by himself and left his wife and three month old daughter at home. His contract said that he could be in Japan for up to two years and to him that seemed like quite a long time. “As the days passed I came to know pretty well the guys that I worked with in the ship's office. I can't say that we became close friends but we were all pretty much in the same position so to speak. So we were at least able to talk and kind of console each other to some degree. We also tried to immerse ourselves in our work as much as we could which also helped to pass the time. We didn't really pay attention to what time the clock said or what day of the week it was as we were pretty much on call all the time.” I am amazed as I think about what it might be like to start relationships in conditions such as these.
So as he is telling me about this, I can’t help but think about his family back home. While on the ship he also thought about his family quite often. With no cell phones or email that left letters, some telephone calls and tape recorders for communication. Even with those forms of communication, it was still not very accurate because the mail would only go in and out on certain days. “Grandma and I would write to each other just about every day so we would sometimes get nearly a month's worth of letters at one time. We also each had a small reel to reel tape recorder that we would make tapes to each other as well as the letters. I always really liked getting them as it was great to hear Grandma's voice. However it also would have the effect of making me quite sad for a period of time, and I would sometimes listen to the same tape several times making myself believe that she was sitting right next to me.” With missing his first baby girl growing up he also received lots of photographs to see how she was growing and what she was up to. He would also call home after returning back to Japan from each trip. The calls were very short because it was $45 for talking as little as three minutes.
Having been on two completely different ships, the bunks he described as being pretty much the same. “The bunks in the living compartments were stacked four high and we had three different living compartments. You hoped that the person above you didn't get sick because that wasn't pretty. The lockers where you kept your belongings were quite small. They were about three feet high, three feet wide and about 3 feet deep so you couldn't keep anything more than the bare essentials. We had one eating area (called the Mess Deck) where everyone but the officers ate. There wasn't enough seating room for everyone to eat at one time so it was done in shifts. The Mess Deck is also where we were able to watch movies at night although you wanted to get there early so you got a seat.” Other than the rooming situation, the ships were actually quite different with one ship having close to 400 crew members and the other having about 40 men.
With all of this going on he still has some very strong memories of certain events. One of the events he recalls as the most terrifying events he has ever been involved in. This event was a storm that took place off the Aleutian Islands. “At the peak of the storm the wind was blowing in excess of 100 miles per hour and seas or waves were in excess of 40 feet high. This storm lasted for about a day and half before we were able to get into a sheltered bay and anchor the ship. The Tatnuck itself was about 130 feet in length and the width was about 40 feet. The storm was so fierce that we had guys that actually tied themselves into their bunks so they wouldn't get thrown out; we had some lockers that came loose from the walls of the ship. There were several different times during the storm that we didn't know if we would get out of it alive as we were afraid that the ship might capsize and we would all drown. It was an extremely scary time although until the storm was over we didn't think a lot about how bad it could have been. During that time myself and 3 of my shipmates did not get to bed at all as we were all busy steering the ship the best we could and standing lookout watches so we didn't run into anything.” This is the only time when the crew wasn’t sure if they were going to survive. My grandpa says that they might not have if it weren’t for the skill of the crew.
There were also times when the waters weren’t so rough. They were sometimes calm which allowed the men to fish and participate in other activities. Another story that he recalled was when another Navy ship needed their assistance in getting a tug boat hooked back up because its cable had broken. My grandpa volunteered to go out on one of their lifeboats and help out. He helped by staying in the life boat while others boarded the other ship and helped secure the tug boat.
Being in the Navy had some obstacles as well. The biggest obstacle he had to overcome was the separation between him and his family. He says the separation was the hardest in the first two and a half years he was in the Navy. The times he was deployed varied between 2-7 weeks and his longest deployment at 9 months. “These periods of time were always difficult to cope with being married,” he says.
After being deployed for nine months it was time to return home. “It was wonderful. Up to that point in my life the only time I was happier coming home was the day that I married Grandma. When I came home from Japan, I came home the 18th of December 1968. I was going to be home for Christmas with my family, and I was going to be home to help celebrate my daughter's first birthday. It was just a wonderful feeling as I knew that I would not be going back on sea duty again, and I would not be separated from my family again.” This is what he says as he thinks about his feelings of coming home and being with his family once again. With all of the happy feelings, sad feelings also came with them. These feelings came when he realized that some people had sour feelings toward the people serving for the war in Viet Nam. It was also sad because many men had lost their lives or been left crippled because of the fighting.
Now that some time has passed since then he still has all these memories and some relationships that have lasted through his Navy days and into the present. Two of his crew members he talked to regularly until one of them passed away. The other he still emails and talks to. They have visited and are still planning visits to this day. Some of his other crew members he still wonders what has become of them.
When asked what he missed the most about the Navy he replied, “I guess that would have to be meeting new friends and seeing new places. Had it not been for the Navy I would have never seen some of the places I saw and Grandma and I would probably never have lived in some of the places we did and met some of the people that we met.” This shows how much the military can affect one’s life.
“I feel very proud of my service and my uniform and the U. S. Flag. I think that you would find that just about all who served in any branch of the armed services feels the same way. We know that we have stood up for what is right about America and our freedoms that so much blood has been shed for.” This is the story of my grandpa and his Navy days. I am so proud of him and look up to him every day. God bless America and those who are still fighting for our freedom today. Many people’s lives can change because of the military just like when my grandpa’s changed on August 16, 1966.