Thursday, July 19, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Death Paces Carrier's Deck-Hoosiers Aboard Warship FDR

November 13, 1966

Aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gulf of Tonkin—Life on an aircraft carrier at first glance resembles life at a country club, especially if the viewer just left the Viet Nam jungles.

Unlike men fighting in the Vietnamese jungle and mud, the freshly-shaven men of the Roosevelt eat three good meals a day. And if they get to bed, they sleep between clean sheets in a comfortable bed.

But clean-shaven, well-fed men can get tired from overwork, (an eight-hour day is just a starter for them), and they can also die.

The threat of death is no farther away on an aircraft carrier than in a foxhole.

Death can strike at their planes bombing enemy targets, or on the dangerous flight deck, where vigilance can never be relaxed.

The entire carrier, is in fact, a lethal floating arsenal with tons of bombs, rockets, napalm, and ammunition. Also aboard are thousands of gallons of jet fuel, aviation gasoline, and flares, including magnesium flares of the type which recently gutted the carrier Oriskany, killing more than 40 men.

But Jerry Pearson, 20, Indianapolis, was not thinking of the dangers of his job, handling the arresting cables which stop planes landing on the perilous flight deck. His mind was on a "Dear John" letter.

Jerry is a husky youth who smiles most of the time.

Asked what, within reason, he would like to have, he grinned broadly and said: "More mail. But I don't want anymore like I got today. I got a 'Dear John' from my girl."

Pearson had a request: "Couldn't you print a little something telling the girls back home not to write 'Dear John' letters? They're a pain."

A graduate of Shortridge High School, Pearson has been in the Navy 28 months.

Seaman Richard Lovett, 18, said his job as an aircraft handler isn't so dangerous.

"But you'd better keep your eyes open and know what you're doing," he added.

Lovett, a handsome, black-haired boy, is a graduate of Emmerich Manual High School and joined the Navy in November last year.

When the weather is good, the crew—including officers--work 12-hour shifts. But the men spend two hours getting ready to go on duty and a minimum of two hours making repairs or setting things in order after they are supposed to be off.

Not even the Roosevelt's captain, George C. Talley Jr., is spared the long hours. Capt. Talley is always on the bridge when aircraft are being launched or recovered. In good weather his days never end.

Every movement, every consideration, every plan made focuses on two purposes: To get pilots and planes into the air, and to make sure the aircraft are always ready.

It is not unusual to find a youngster asleep on the hangar deck floor or draped across the tail section of a Phantom fighter. They're not goofing off. They are sleeping during their 15-minute dinner break, because they are too tired to walk to the mess hall for a meal.

Among other Hoosiers sharing this arduous life on the carrier are Bosun's Mate Ronald Woods, 21; Radar man Dennis Barger, 20; Machinist Mate Larry Payne, 22; and Seaman James Todd, 19.

Asked how so many land-lubbers ended up in the Navy, the consensus reply was: "We've been asking ourselves about that. None of us has the answer."

All are hanging on, trying to ride out their enlistments, they say.

Woods, a graduate of Arsenal Technical High School, has been in the Navy two years and aboard the Roosevelt since February.

Barger played football for Manual. He has been in the Navy 2 1/2 years and aboard the Roosevelt two years.

Payne, a Roosevelt crewman a year, and in the Navy 15 months, attended Southport High School.

Todd works in the Roosevelt's laundry, which washes 14 tons of clothes every week. No matter what the weather outside, Todd assured, it's always plenty hot in the laundry. He played basketball for Harry E. Wood High School.

Many sections of the Roosevelt are equipped with air conditioning, but others, some of them enlisted men's quarters deep in the hold, are not. They are, in fact, hot, cramped, miserable holes where little air circulates and sleeping is almost impossible.

But most of the crew, loyal to the 21 year old ship, will settle for an occasional fresh breeze through one of the passageways.

The crewmen are particularly willing to go along if the food is extra good, or if they have just received a letter from home.

In bad weather, when the planes cannot get to targets, the worst enemy of all, boredom, breaks down the morale.

Then, working parties, which spread more than 40 gallons of paint a day over the 64,000 ton lady, are increased. Paint chipping and scraping details are stepped up to keep the men busy, but the boredom is seldom eased.

On those long lonely days, the only things to do are play cards, eat, work, sleep, write letters, and practice tying knots—or, start rumors.

The chief rumor starter on the whole ship, according to one officer, is a youngster nicknamed "Port Side Butter Man" because his job is to place a slab of butter on each man's tray in the mess hall.

"He'll put a piece of butter on a man's tray and say seriously, 'The Russians are coming, '" the officer explained. "By the time that rumor spreads it has been embroidered to the point that the men are saying America has been invaded and the Russians have captured two of our ports."

The Hoosiers, being human, join the griping about hot, cramped quarters, "chicken officers," stupid orders and the long hours, (but all look healthy, well fed, neat and cleanly dressed).

It's the lack of recreation that really throws them.

"If we get a little free time," Lovett said, "about all there is to do is write letters, sing, play cards, or try to listen to the radio.

"The very biggest thing aboard this ship is mail call. We never get enough mail. I love to get letters from home and I know the other guys do," Lovett said.

Pearson stopped Lovett: "How'd you like to get one like I got today? I don't think I'll write to her any more."

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