NOTE: This story is about my time in boot camp from beginning to end as best as I can remember. The timelines may not be exact, in fact at times they may even be out of order, or appear to be out of order. For those events for which I have the date, I will include it. A warning: This is about my time in Navy boot camp and the way “I” remember it. My shipmates may or may not remember it the same way, and could even possibly have additional memories that I have forgotten (and are welcomed and encouraged to share those with me in the comments here). There will be vulgar language and situations. If those things offend you, then please do not read this story.
My Navy enlistment actually started even before I signed up. It was tradition in my family, although not a strict tradition. My Great Grandfather, Grandfather, Uncle and older Brother were all Navy guys. And so I may not have made a conscious decision to join, but it was a natural leaning on my part…plus at 17 years of age I had no idea what I was going to do after I got out of high school.
The local Navy recruiter (Rick Nelson) was actually a friend of my Mom’s as well as my older Brother, Tommy who he helped reenlist in 1970. Rick would eat lunch at our cafe several times a week, so he was someone we knew without any regard to the Navy. The recruiting office was just a couple of blocks down from our restaurant and I may (or may not) have visited Rick in his office prior to making my final decision to join the Navy.
In January of 1973 I was still working at the Food Giant grocery store in Blytheville and also attending Blytheville High School. When I finally decided to go see Rick and join the Navy, I had to take a test to see what kinds of schools I would be eligible to attend. After testing in his office, Rick told me I could become a Corpsman. At that point, I made the decision to go ahead and take my physical for the Navy.
Tuesday January 2, 1973 – Little Rock AFEES station- initial physical for Navy
The day after New Years in 1973 my recruiter, Rick Nelson took me to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station (AFEES) station in Little Rock to take the physical and be sworn into the Navy under the “delayed entry program” (DEP), but we actually called it the CACHE Program back then. In other words, this would allow me to finish High School before reporting to boot camp.
Wednesday January 3, 1973
Bright and early on January 3rd in Little Rock, AR I spent the day undergoing a battery of tests, submitting to a physical, drug testing and having my blood drawn. Of course I had the usual physician holding my testicles and then telling me to cough. I started laughing when I was standing there with about 40 other naked guys and the physician told us all to bend over, spread the cheeks of our butt and don’t laugh. I had to laugh! Finally at the end of the day it was all over.
Thursday, January 4, 1973 – Passed physical – accepted for duty in the US Navy
The next morning after passing all my tests, I was officially sworn into the Navy (Delayed Entry Program) DEP program and was ordered to report for Recruit Training on June 11, 1973.
Sunday June 10, 1973
About noon on Sunday June 10th, my Navy recruiter Rick Nelson drove to our house at 208 E. Kentucky St. to pick me up and take me to Little Rock where I would be put on a plane to Great Lakes, IL. I hugged my Mom and Brothers and said my goodbyes. I was crying like a baby as I slowly walked out to the drab gray government car with US Navy imprinted on the side of it. I don’t remember the 3 hour ride to Little Rock, but I know that Rick dropped me off at the Downtowner Motor Inn (which has since been torn down), and he told me he was going to get a beer. I was still too young to drink at barely 18 years of age. It would be more than 40 years before I would see Rick Nelson again (see end of story). So here I was just 16 days after graduating high school, and only 21 days after my 18th birthday heading to Great Lakes, IL to attend Navy boot camp. Life changed IMMEDIATELY.
Monday June 11, 1973
I began the day at AFEES station in LR where they put us through another physical to make sure we were all still in good physical condition and once we passed the physical, we were all sworn into the regular Navy, hand up and reciting the oath. Shortly thereafter we were taken to the airport and I boarded a plane (my first airplane ride) to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, IL.
I was seated next to a tall nice looking girl of about 30 years of age. After we took off, she started some small talk and I found out that she was an off duty stewardess. I told her she looked just Carol Burnett and she said she got that comment a lot. She asked where I was going and I told her I was headed to Navy Boot Camp in Great Lakes. When I told her that, she said, “Then let me buy you a drink”, but I said she couldn’t because I wasn’t old enough to drink (I had just turned 18 years old 16 days prior). She snapped back that if I was “old enough to serve my Country, then I was old enough to have a drink”. So this nice Carol Burnett look alike bought me a Seagram’s Seven and Coke.
When the plane finally landed at O’Hare, I was directed to a specified area for the recruits to gather with other recruits from all over the United States. I think we were there for several hours…maybe even close to 8 hours or more. Finally, sometime around 11pm, they rounded us all up and put us on a bus and headed for the Recruit Training Center (RTC) which was about an hour away. I remember the bus was noisy and everyone was having a good time and joking with each other…some of us were volunteers and others were drafted as Vietnam was still going on at the time. I think we all knew that things would change once we got on base, but none of us were prepared for what happened when the bus pulled up outside of the guard shack about midnight. (NOTE: I have never met a Navy person that arrived at the training center during the day). I’m pretty sure that it is the FIRST step in tearing down your mental faculties and personality…so they can be rebuilt the Navy way.
The bus driver opened the doors and all hell broke loose. A Navy petty officer stomped on the bus, started yelling for everyone to shut the hell up. Someone was chewing gum and the Petty Officer started yelling for the guy to get rid of the gum. He shouted instructions and yelled to us as they lined us up outside the bus.
After a more yelling and cursing (for no apparent reason), the officer placed us in a marching formation and we headed over to Camp Barry which were temporary barracks for the next few days. The mattresses were only about 2 inches thick and rolled up on the bunks. The guy told us we only had a few minutes to get everything stowed away, make our beds and get to sleep…by this time, it was probably close to 2am. Finally the yelling stopped and we could get some rest…NOT.
Tuesday June 12, 1973
That morning (because we didn’t get to bed until about 2am) and only a couple of hours later after falling asleep, all hell broke loose again when our Company Commander came into the barracks (I think around 4am). He began hitting the bunks with a billy club and yelling for everyone to get up…When he finally got everyone up, he introduced himself as Company Commander Hambrick, we later came to know him as Blue Beard, and he had a reputation as being a hard ass. Company Commander (CC) Hambrick then then introduced his assistant Company Commander HM2 Atz (although we rarely saw him).
This first day in boot camp included lots of paperwork, sending our civilian clothes home, and of course being FORMALLY sworn into the US Navy active duty by reciting the oath of enlistment and raising our right hands. It was pretty intense!
We had a lot of down time during that first day, although we were assigned to both our battalion and company (22nd Battalion, Company 73-192). Even though much of that day is a blur, there are a few things I remember pretty well. One vivid memory was a trick that my older (Navy) brother told me about. We were all laying around waiting on the next thing they would make us do, and none of us really knew anyone else in the company, but there was this one guy that was napping up against the wall. I took some shaving cream and put it in is hand and then tickled his nose. As soon as he swatted his face, he got shaving cream all over his face and he woke up. He woke up MAD as hell. In fact, he started chasing me around the barracks, but never caught me. I still remember his name…his last name was Titus and we called him tight ass.
At some point during this first day, they ran us through the barbershop. I had long hair prior to going to boot camp, but I had heard that if you came in with a “normal” haircut, they were easier on you, so a few days before I went to boot camp, I went to my local barber and got a “normal” haircut. However, these barbers didn’t waste any time zipping through what hair I had left. I think it took less than a minute and my head looked like a cue ball. Everyone in the company had their heads shaved down to nubs.
Next we headed down to the “stores” to get measured and given our uniforms and seabag contents. And then we were directed to this large machine with a typewriter in front of it…it was an embossing machine for making our dog tags. The picture at right are my actual original dog tags from June 12, 1973. We were issued a pair on a steel chain. I carry one of them with me on my key chain to this day. I have kept them all these years…
Later that morning the Company Commander (CC from now on) mustered us up in a group. We were all setting on the floor while he spoke to us…first a joke that really wasn’t that funny, but all of us recruits laughed like hell. Then he proceeded to call us pussies, and mama’s boys. He told us that if we had any bright ideas like trying to commit suicide by slitting our wrists…he would show us the right way. He said to be sure and slit the wrist lengthwise as opposed to across the wrist, because he wanted to make sure we bled to death. That kinda gets your attention.
And the last thing I remember doing that day was getting our TB skin test. They had a table set up with a couple of corpsmen up there with an alcohol burner and some syringes. They would administer the skin injection to a recruit, then run the needle over a flame and get it ready for the next guy. I hate SHOTS, I hate SHOTS of any kind, so this was a little concerning to me, but I also didn’t want to be a cry baby in front of my shipmates…so when my turn came, I took my shot…not a big deal. But when I started walking back to my seat, I started feeling faint and the last thing I wanted to do was FAINT in front of 66 other guys, so I bent down (thinking that would help) and pretended to tie my shoes. I think it worked too…I didn’t faint.
We stayed in these temporary barracks for only a few days, I think they called us “raisins” and “maggots” until we walked under the bridge to our permanent barracks and that was about 3-4 days after arriving at the training camp.
The next few days before we moved to the new barracks our day consisted of haircuts, physicals, dental checkups, shots, getting uniforms and a whole lot of hurry up and wait. LOTS of HURRY UP and WAIT. We finally began the short march to our new barracks. These were much newer and better than the old wooden buildings from World War II we started out in…and the 4″ mattresses at the new barracks was a helluva lot better than the 2″ mattress at Camp Barry.
After we made it to the new barracks, we were assigned bunks and lockers. My bunkmate was a black guy named Cannady and we got along very well. He was on the top bunk and I was on the bottom. After we received our bunk assignments, the Company Commander called us all to parade rest…basically standing with feet apart and your hands are kept behind you, one on top of the other. It was slightly more relaxed than standing at attention. This is the position we would take whenever the CC wanted to talk to us or instruct us. At one point, we were issued our rifles, although we were to only call them “pieces”.
After about a week or so, we marched down to a building and upon entering the room in this building…the first thing we saw was long strips of tape on the floor in rows. We were told to line up along the lines. Then we were told to drop our pants and skivvies (underwear). So here we are, 60 plus guys with our underwear around our ankles, funny but it was no big deal back then. Several corpsmen entered the room with a big cardboard box that had nothing but these HUGE needle and syringes in them. They told us to put all our weight on our left leg and then they proceeded to systematically go down the line and “popping” each recruit in the ASS with this huge shot. We later found out it was called a Bicillin Shot…a penicillin type shot that killed EVERYTHING infectious you could possibly have in your body. Supposedly the shot was for gonorrhea, or as we called it, “The Clap“…and it didn’t matter if we had the clap or not…we were cured. After the shot, they made us march and run. The next day…it felt like someone put an anvil on our asses, and we were all sore as hell.
The next week or so…maybe even 2 weeks, we spent in classroom instruction, marching, probably some more vaccinations and shots, and lots of getting yelled at by the CC. We were all dummies and rarely did we do anything right (even if we did it right). We would take turns standing watch both “fore” (in the front of the barracks) and “aft” (at the back of the barracks) and these watches went 24-7 until we graduated from boot camp. We weren’t allowed to make phone calls, and getting letters (mail call) every evening was the highlight of the day. On the days you didn’t get a letter…it was depressing as hell.
The only foods we were allowed came from the chow hall…however a few weeks into boot camp, Mom sent me a care package with gum, suckers, crackers and other candies in it. The CC gave it to me and then he left the barracks. I tore into it, and started handing out the goodies to some of the other recruits, when all of a sudden we hear “ATTENTION ON DECK”. That meant the CC had returned. He looked down the row of bunks where we were at, I know he saw the box of goodies, but he ignored us guys around the care package and yelled at someone else to drop and do pushups (I don’t remember who)…I thought we were in big trouble. After he yelled at a couple of the recruits, he left as quickly as he entered and we proceeded to finish off the box of candies.
Holding up my Piece
On our first day in the new barracks, right after we were introduced to our new bunks, the Company Commander had us standing at parade rest with our pieces (gun) in front of each recruit. At one point the the company commander was speaking to us and he turned to see one of the recruits not paying attention. He yelled at the recruit and told him to grab the piece (gun) and hold it out in front him. The piece only weighed 9.6lbs, but holding it out in front of you made it much heavier in a very short period of time. In the beginning when the Company Commander wasn’t looking, the recruit was laughing, smiling and mocking him, and when the CC would turn around the recruit would straighten up. However (and I think the CC knew this)… the piece began to get very heavy and the gun would list to one side, and the recruits arms started to shake, he began to sweat and we could see the strain on his face. The CC would turn around YELL at the recruit again to “get that piece back up”. When it was all over the recruit was on the verge of tears because he was so tired of holding the piece up…finally the CC let him off the hook.
Mail call could make your day or ruin your day in boot camp based on if you get a letter(s) or not. Also, many of us thought the Navy was “holding” our mail, both incoming and outgoing. I actually lost track of the letters I wrote to send out…so I had no idea how many I really sent out (although Mom did save a few of my boot camp letters I sent to her)…I don’t really think they ever held the mail, but when that guy has a handful of letters and starts calling out names, he’d better call my name out or you’re gonna blame someone. If he did call your name, you’d grab the letter like it was a piece of bread for a starving man, but if he didn’t call your name, we would head back to our bunks and sulk. I assume many of the guys felt the same as I did about mail call.
Sunday June 24, 1973
I’m not gonna lie… I thought I had made a mistake going into the Navy and at one point I got a severe sinus infection (I thought it was severe anyway). So I went to sick call to be seen by a doctor. I also thought this might be my one chance to get out and go home, so I began to tell the doctor that I had a hole in my eardrum, I had high blood pressure and also severe sinusitis. That doctor looked at me like I was freaking crazy! He checked me over and when he was done he said to me, “Sailor, you have a scar on your eardrum, but no hole at this time. Your blood pressure is only slightly elevated, probably because you’re nervous and sick. And finally, yes you have a sinus infection”. He told me to take some antibiotics for 10 days, but to come back in 3 days if I wasn’t better, and they would reevaluate me and possibly HOLD ME BACK IN TRAINING for a week or two. I thought HELL NO, I wasn’t gonna spend MORE time here just because of a sinus infection…needless to say, I made a decision that day, a conscious decision to give up fighting boot camp and to start enjoying it (OK, maybe enjoying is not exactly the right word). I never went back and recovered fairly quickly and I finally got my head on straight and accepted I was in for the long haul.
One day they told us to bring our swimming trunks with us and they marched the company to the swimming pool. After we got inside the pool building, we had to strip down naked and stand in line. In front of us was a 1″ water pipe coming out of the floor with a 45 degree elbow that stretched maybe 10 feet and then back down into the floor. The top of this water pipe had holes in it, and they made us straddle this water pipe so that it shot water between our legs and up into our butt crack…The Company Commander said it was to knock the CRABS off of us before we got into the pool, but I guess it really was to just make sure we were all clean. On the other side of the room after we had been hosed down, only then could we put our swimsuit on.
It was time to make sure that as Sailors we all knew how to swim, and yes..there were some that did not know how to swim. We climbed a 10 foot platform, and were told to fold our arms in front of ourselves and tuck our head down (to simulate jumping off a ship). We then would step off the platform into the pool and swim to the other end of the pool. Regardless if you could swim or not, you had to JUMP off the platform where other sailors would be waiting with a long pole to fish you out if you couldn’t swim. At one point, I remember one guy standing at the edge of the platform, but he would not jump. Our company commander got behind and shoved him off the platform with a swift kick to the ass…they ended up rescuing him and fished him out with that long pole. They took those recruits that couldn’t swim to the shallow end of the pool to try and at least teach them to dog paddle…if they didn’t learn to at least dog paddle right away, then were held back in boot camp till they learned. We lost a bunch of guys that couldn’t swim…I always wondered why they joined THE NAVY if they couldn’t swim.
One day we had an inspection. Each recruit stood in front of their bunk as the company commander would come by and inspect your locker and your bunk for various things. One of those things was the way our ditty bag (a bag for toiletries and personal items) was tied to the end of our bunks. They had to be on a certain side depending on if you were top bunk or bottom bunk and they had to be tied with a square knot (I think it was a square knot). When the CC got to my bunk, he called out my bunkmate for tying the ditty bag with the wrong knot, and told him he would be punished by sending him to “Happy Hour”. What the Company Commander did not know was that I had inadvertently swapped sides with my shipmates ditty bag. His was on my side and mine was on his side…and tied INCORRECTLY. Once the CC saw this error he called out my bunkmate for his mistake and said he had to attend “happy hour”. Now happy hour wasn’t what it sounds like in this context. Happy hour consisted of 8 hours of intense exercise rolled into ONE HOUR…and it all had to be done while carrying your piece (rifle). My bunkmate never spoke up, and neither did I. When inspection was over, I said, “hey man, why did you take the blame?” He told me I looked like poor little skeered white boy with that “deer caught in the headlights look”. And he said for him it would not be a big deal. I will always remember that guy, it didn’t matter that he was black and I was white, he stood up for me…and although this is off the subject a little…I learned MORE about PEOPLE, not color with that simple, and some might say insignificant gesture on his part. BUT, it was significant to me and changed me for the rest of my life and even up till today.
Unfortunately, I got in trouble a few days later and had to go to happy hour anyway…it wasn’t near as bad as legend had made it out to be though. LOL In fact, I ended up going twice to happy hour during my boot camp time, and neither time was a big deal to me.
About half way into boot camp, I was in the chow hall finishing up my meal and sat next to one of the newer recruits. I was telling him all the ins and outs of being in boot camp…thinking I knew it all. One of the petty officers heard me, and he said to me, “Sailor, do you have a dime in your pocket?” I said, “NO SIR, that would be gear adrift sir”. Then he said loudly and very methodically so those around us could hear, including the new recruit…”Sailor, go back to the barracks, grab a dime and call someone that gives a fuck what you say”. I said, “YES SIR” and sheepishly went my way. There’s always someone more powerful than you around, especially in boot camp…never forget that. There’s ALWAYS someone more powerful than YOU.
Jumped Out the Window
OK, our company was not the best company in our battalion. I think we may have been the worst one. The guys in our company had a difficult time getting out of bed in the mornings…even as strict as boot camp was, there were a couple of guys that just lagged behind in some areas. I’ll get back to reveille in a moment, but to set this up, I need to tell you about one of the guys in my company, named Dunbar. He was having a really tough time with his girl back home. His girlfriend was pregnant and the girls mother was giving her daughter hell about him and her being together. Also, he just no longer wanted to be in the Navy. He ended up getting a “dear john” letter from his pregnant girlfriend, and she was breaking up with him.
One night shortly after he got the letter, and everyone was in bed, I heard a bunch of commotion in the barracks. When the lights came, I saw one of our guys named Green, a big black guy in our company sitting on top of Dunbar, the guy that got the dear john letter. Dunbar had tried to jump out of our 2nd floor window and commit suicide. As quickly as the lights came on, they went right back off again and I think our RPOC (Recruit Petty Officer in Charge) talked Dunbar down and some sense into him. We did not report his behavior to anyone, we just handled it ourselves as a company of recruits.
A couple of nights later, Dunbar was scheduled for his regular watch duty from 4am-6am. But he did not show up to relieve the guy from the previous watch. The RPOC was notified, and he began looking for Dunbar to see what had happened to him. They finally located another window that was propped open. The RPOC Knauf yells, “Jesus Christ, that stupid FUCKER jumped”. NOW, everyone in our company popped out of bed!! And sure enough, here’s this guy laying on the lawn two stories below in a swastika position until the ambulance came and got him. The rumors were that he hurt his back, but was not seriously injured, although he did manage to get a General Discharge from the Navy. I never knew what happened to him after that episode.
Fire Fighting School and the Smoke House
Towards the end of boot camp we attended fire fighting training. We had to learn how to use hoses and the proper way to approach fires as simulated on a ship. One of the other things we learned was to navigate in smoky conditions. The way they did this was to make us walk through a pitch black smoky building. In this case, I was the lead guy and we march to this large quonset hut type building with a single door on each end and no windows. The instructor told us to walk through the building, holding onto a rail on the right side and for each sailor to hold onto the sailor in front them by the back of their shirt. I was told to walk along holding onto the rail until I came to the door at the other end, and once there, I was to bang on the door. I started my long journey of walking in and immediately the smoke was terrible…my eyes watered and the guys behind me were yelling to hurry up. It seemed like forever to get to the other end, but I finally got there and when I felt the door, I started banging as hard as I could and yelling at the same time to let us out. The guys behind me were also yelling and telling me to hurry up. I just kept banging on the door until I finally heard this nice calm voice say, “Whooooo issssss itttt?” I yelled, “It’s HR Jarratt sir, please let us out”, I think he made me answer two or three times. After my repeated replies, he finally…SLOW AS HELL…opened the door and we all piled out of the smokehouse coughing with our eyes burning like hell.
Almost Killed a Mouse
Standing duty was lonely, especially in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping. Most of the time, you are alone with maybe one other person in the barracks with you, but they were all the way on the other end of the barracks, and you can’t talk to each other. During the day, most of the recruits are out of the barracks marching, going to classes, or doing something else related to recruit training. And at night when the lights went out at 9:30pm, it was quiet, dark and again, lonely. One night I had the 2am-4am watch and I was in the “aft” watch (at the back of the barracks), and so I’m standing there at parade rest when all of a sudden this little mouse started running around my feet. I watched the little guy for close to a minute and finally I thought to myself, maybe I should get rid of the mouse. I wasn’t scared of it, and he wasn’t hurting anything, but it was a mouse and I was bored. So I picked up my piece (rifle) just a few inches off the floor and try to slam the butt of the gun down on him…I missed, but I kept banging it on the floor which made a loud noise. I missed, but being the persistent asshole I was, I picked the gun up again and slammed it down a second time…damn, I missed again. The guys in the barracks started yelling for me to be quiet, and by this time the little mouse had scurried away. Neither the mouse or myself were harmed in this little adventure.
Menial Tasks and Daily Chores
A lot of what we did in boot camp was nothing more than “busy” work. Besides the marching almost every day, we attended classes and took notes (although I don’t remember tests), we had to learn certain general rules and sailor etiquette like announcing when our Company Commander came into the barracks…by yelling, “ATTENTION ON DECK”.
On a daily basis we would wash our clothes in a big battleship gray bucket and then hang our clothes in the drying room (a large open room with drains that was heated), or hang them outside on clotheslines. To hang the clothes we would use a small length of rope that tied the garment and line together. Once the clothes were dry…we would take them down and iron them on one of the small tables we had in the barracks.
In the first days of boot camp we stenciled our clothes, seabag, ditty bag, hats and other items with our name and social security number. We spent lots of time spit shining our shoes and boondockers (a boot like shoe that was our work boot).
Cleaning and keeping order was one of the major things we did every day. This included sweeping, mopping and polishing ANYTHING that shined. I remember some of the guys had “specialties” in regards to what they cleaned. One guy (named Highlander) was great at polishing the water fountains and anything brass or chrome. Then there were those of us that got stuck in the HEAD (bathroom), we’d clean every crack and crevice in those bathrooms…and we were DAMN proud of the job when we where done too. (Yep that’s me after a successful cleaning of the toilets). On Thursdays (Field Day), we would clean extra well and then the barracks would be inspected to a pass/fail grade by the company commander.
Mid way into boot camp training, around week 3 or 4, you go through something called service week. Recruits are assigned menial jobs, some of which require you to get up even earlier than the normal time of 4:30am. Some were lucky enough to get an office job which was easier, and then some were not so lucky and got a more difficult job (like I had) which meant you were assigned to galley duty and had to get up at 3:45am every morning. Our service week lasted an entire 10 days and with us working that hard and getting up so early…those 10 days really flew by (which was a good thing).
Those of us that worked in the galley (kitchen) went to work at 3:45am. We would work the food lines, peel potatoes, assist the chefs in making the food and take out food scraps to the garbage. The one event that happened to me personally was one of the chefs that was cooking liver steaks (yuck) told me to bring him another tray of liver to grill. The trays held probably 25-30 liver steaks on a large aluminum flat pan. I was walking over to the grill with the pan full of the liver and I tripped on something. I dumped the entire pan of liver on the floor. Immediately the cook started yelling at me and calling me names. When he got through yelling he said, don’t just stand there maggot, pick that shit up and put it back on the pan. So I picked up each piece of liver that was laying on the floor, put it back on the pan, took it over to him and he slapped it on the grill. That didn’t matter to me, cause I wasn’t eating no damn liver anyway!
During service we had very little time to write letters, read our letters or enjoy “smoke and coke” breaks. But time went by very quickly and in a sense it became the pinnacle of boot camp because we knew the rest of boot camp would become easier with each passing day. So all that was left to do was to look forward to the day we graduated and could go home for our first leave in the Navy. I was counting the days as you can see in the photo on the right. Yep, that’s my middle finger on the day I was to leave Great Lakes and head home for 10 days leave.
There were several athletic competitions during my time in boot camp. I think we had a tug-o-war competition, but the most memorable athletic game was the swimming meet with the other companies. I was a participant in the swimming meet we had…I wasn’t the fastest swimmer, but we did come in 2nd in the swim meet thanks to this one BIG guy from Minnesota named Gunderson (Gundy). Gundy had a killer butterfly stroke and he was the main reason we came in 2nd place.
Official Photo and Band Tryout
My naval band career was over before it started. The company had assembled for the official Company picture and official individual pictures. But before they dismissed us from taking the photos, we were asked if anyone in our company could play a musical instrument and would be interested in trying out for the band. Well, I played drums in the 8th and 9th grades even though I was never any good at playing, plus I hadn’t played a drum in over 3 years I thought…what the heck. I raised my hand and they called me down to audition. They gave me a drum and some sticks, then told me to play something…anything. I did a few beats on the snare drum and performed some of the strokes I remembered from years back. When I was done…I think I even saw them laughing, they told me that I didn’t make the cut…I still think they were laughing. Thus my career in the Navy band lasted about 30 seconds.
Liberty in boot camp is your first “real” chance at freedom since arriving at the base. It’s a kinda “stand down” and relax sort of time off that can last from a few hours to a few days, but doesn’t count against your leave time. Approximately 3 weeks into our training, we were allowed to go and make a phone call. Man, that was a great time. It only took a dime to call home collect, but you could also make a call to another number and charge it to your home phone, IF the person (Mom) at the other end would approve the charges. Thankfully, Mom always approved those calls and I could call and talk to my girlfriend.
In our 5th week of training, we got an “on the base” liberty that allowed us to roam around the base…but I think we were limited to the just recruit side of the base, still it gave us a freedom we didn’t have before. The best liberty came about 2 weeks prior to graduation, the Company was taken to an All-Star Football game at Wrigley Field. I barely remember going to the game, but I’m sure we had a great time.
Drunk and ID card
At the end of the 7th week the Company Commander told us we would soon be allowed off base liberty. But before we were allowed to go on this OFF BASE liberty, he wanted to sit everyone down and read the riot act to us about the DO’s and DON’T’s of liberty. He proceeded to tell us when we were supposed to be back at the base and some general information and safety guidelines for our first off base liberty. One of the most important tips he gave us was to never offer our ID card to anyone…why anyone would ever do that I have no idea, but the Company Commander warned us about it….which also meant he planted it in each recruits mind. (Don’t ask me how I know that – Yes I did some stupid shit in boot camp).
I remember getting on the train with a couple of guys and us going to Kenosha, WI. Once off the train (and in our dress blues – cracker jack uniform), we walked the streets and finally found a bar. I wasn’t much of a drinker then…maybe only trying beer a few times in high school and maybe a mixed drink or two in my whole life. But, I sat down at that bar and ordered myself a SLOW-GIN FIZZ. Hmmmm, that thing was good. It was frothy, sweet and had a cherry on top. I was in heaven and after a couple of those drinks I had a pretty good buzz going…later when I tried to order another drink, the bartender cut me off!!! I was pretty well lit by then anyway so we left that bar. My buddies and I met some girls on the street, and wouldn’t you know it…the first thing I said to one of the girls is, “hey, you want my ID card?” Luckily, my buddies wasn’t as stupid as I was at the time, nor as drunk…and they made a joke out of it and made sure that my ID card stayed in my pocket.
August 3, 1973 – Graduation Day
This was graduation day. It was our day to march in front of the Battalion Commanders for a ceremony to complete our training in boot camp. It consisted of our company marching in formation to the tune of “Anchors Aweigh”, and then passing directly in front of all the Officer Staff…when directly in front of the officers, our RPOC shouted, “Company Eyes RIGHT”, and everyone in the company would quickly snap their head to the right towards the Officers. The flag men in the front row would continue to look forward without turning their head (that’s me to the far left on the flag line).
Wednesday August 8, 1973 – Stepping off that Plane
To be honest, I don’t recall the last few days of boot camp other than being anxious to get the hell out of there as soon as I could. I don’t even remember how I got to O’Hare Airport, but I assume a group of us were taken by bus and dropped off with our orders and seabags.
But I do have a vivid memory of landing and stepping off the plane, then walking into the waiting area at the Memphis International Airport. Wow…what a feeling. I was in my dress blues, my white cap, my neckerchief neatly tied and shoes spit shined with a mirror like finish. I couldn’t wait to see my girlfriend, Mom and my two younger brothers. As I entered the waiting area, I don’t know if I ran to my girlfriend or if she ran into my arms…but it was one helluva hug! Same thing with my Mom…I remember hugging her so tight. It was great to be back in a familiar place without someone yelling at me.
We left the airport and Mom took us all out to eat…as we are sitting at the table talking, one of my brothers tried to swipe my hat off my BALD head. I quickly grabbed his hand and said something like, “Shit man…leave my damn hat alone”. Everyone at the table looked at me in amazement (this was the first time I cursed in front of my Mom) and my brothers said, “Mom….Wally cussed!” Mom didn’t even look my way and told my brothers to be quiet! I knew then, right then is when I realized I went into boot camp as a kid and now Mom saw me as a man…I was a US Navy Sailor!
My reasons for even memorializing this personal boot camp experience was two-fold. To begin with, every year my memory gets a little fuzzier on this chapter of my life and I wanted to recall the parts I remember now since I can still remember some of the details. Secondly, I got the idea after watching a 6 part docu-series video the Navy produced recently. In that video series they followed the progress of several recruits from beginning to end. I wanted to compare the video to what I remember when I went through boot camp and see the differences.
For the most part, the psychological part was similar to the present. But now the Company Commanders are more restricted in how they deal with the recruits. The Company Commanders are not allowed to touch them, head butt them, push them or grab them in any way, plus now they are co-ed which has advantages and disadvantages.
The new recruits seem to exercise more than we did when I was went to boot camp, and my memory is that much of the exercise was from marching and attending happy hour…maybe there was more that I have forgotten. But all in all, the video series depicting “today’s Navy” was similar enough to me to invoke emotions and memories I hadn’t felt in a long time. I believe it is also much easier to just “quit” the Navy if you don’t like it now…just because you can’t comply with orders. During my time in the Navy you didn’t have much choice BUT to comply orders.
My ONLY REAL CRITICISM is that now the Navy has switched over to those god awful
Un-Navy looking digital camouflage work uniforms and ditched the dungarees and Navy shirts…I hate them damn things, they look nothing like what a sailor should wear. My hope is that at some point the Navy will realize (again) the importance of NAVY TRADITION and the NAVY UNIFORM. I was never more proud than when I wore my dress blues. Go Navy!
So boot camp was just a chapter or stage in my life. One that I did not enjoy in the beginning, but one that I have come to understand was pivotal in “growing up”. Its a chapter for which I have ZERO regrets.
I have to mention one last thing about joining the Navy. The guy that recruited me, Rick Nelson was a family friend, honestly he knew my older brother more than he knew me…their ages were closer, but I always had respect for him. Yeah, it was his job, and I was just another recruit to him, but the feeling of respect was always there.
After I got out of the Navy, I didn’t see Rick again until 2013, some 40 years later. He was in bad health but still well enough to share a beer or two with me and my brother Tommy. We had some great conversation and stories, I mean…what Navy guy do you know who DOESN’T have these old stories. It was a fun time. Unfortunately Rick passed a couple of years ago, so to him I say…”Rest your oars my friend, we have the watch”. SALUTE.
One final note about my time in boot camp. I was in Company 73-192. We started out with 66 guys, but only graduated with 47 total recruits. This is the least amount of graduates I found graduating from Great Lakes in my research while looking for my own boot camp yearbook. In fact, I spent over 19 years on a DAILY basis searching for our company yearbook called, “The Keel”. I finally found it earlier this year, but that’s a whole different story (see this link for that story). After obtaining “The Keel” for my company, I was able to search for some of the guys in our company, and after 45 years…I found (so far) 12 guys (Company 192 Biographies) still around and some on Facebook, and another 7 guys have unfortunately passed. The lessons and friendships of boot camp had very little meaning at that time, but little did I know the impact of boot camp, and the guys I spent time with during those 2 months would have over the course of 45 years. I salute those sailors that continue to serve this great country as retired sailors, veterans and those we have lost, and most of all I SALUTE MY BOOTCAMP BUDDIES. SALUTE!