Aug. 18, 1959 – I shook hands with my Dad “The Duke,” my brother-in-law Chet, and kissed my mother, sister and fiancé goodbye. All had come to see me off to the Armed Forces Entrance Station in Cleveland, Ohio. It was 0500 when the bus left. My best friend Kenny Nemitz was sitting next to me. We passed our physicals and tests, boarded a train, and proceeded to Great Lakes, arriving there at 2200. We were assigned to Company 388, First Platoon, 11th Battalion, First Regiment, Camp Portler, Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois.
Reveille sounded at 0400 after turning in at 0001 that morning. Chow was at 0430 which consisted of hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal, SOS on toast, beans, coffee, juice and bear claw donuts. Then, on to the testing room at 0500 for the most important test you will ever take in the Navy – the General Classification Battery Test. I did poorly and didn’t qualify for a class “A” school.
I wanted to become a jet mechanic but was classified a deck seaman.
One week later, I met a man I truly despised, RDC J. Mello, Company Commander. Ironically, just eight weeks later, I wanted to be just like him! He became my hero. He taught me to be proud, clean, neat, honest, concerned, strong, confident, compassionate, frugal and protective. Most importantly, he taught me to be a team player. Today, I still have all of those traits.
It was nine weeks of hell and one week of heaven. I would cry in my pillow at night, homesick for my family back in Sandusky, Ohio. I would write home every night at the table with my best friend Kenny and new friend Larry Snapp. We would listen to the radio as we talked and wrote. One song in particular would make me sad, “I’m Mr. Blue.” That was all of us.
Our day would start at 0500 and end at 2200 unless we had a two-hour watch in the barracks or the clothesline. Sundays were the only slack days.
Each day we would get a little smarter, stronger, and sharper in appearance and military drill. Of course, they cut off my ducktail on the second day of boot camp. We learned firefighting, different arms positions, mess cooking (scullery), gunnery, marlin spike seamanship, small arms training and range, cleaning, uniform care, damage control, nuclear/biological/chemical (NBC) warfare, survival swimming, first aid, physical fitness, and marching, marching and more marching – 15 miles a day.
We could have visitors during the fifth week. My father, a retired GMG1 from the China and Mexican wars, WWI, “rum runners” on the Great Lakes 22-30 (Coast Guard) and USS Missouri (BB-63) during WWII came to pick me upon Sept. 15 at Main Side with my mother Marge and my fiancé. No better feeling than to kiss those beautiful people. We went to lunch and then on to the State Theater to see “The FBI Story” with Jimmy Stewart. We had dinner and came back to Main Side. I remember it was so sad to kiss them all good-bye.
That night I had the 0001 to 0200 clothes line watch. A figure approached me. I came to “Port Arms” shouting “Halt! Who goes there? Advance, and be recognized.” It was LTJG Drabek, the 11th Battalion Commander – “God” himself. I came to “Present Arms.”
“Sound off, Sailor!” he shouted to which I replied “Seaman Recruit Roberts, service number, United State Navy, Company 388, 11th Battalion, 1st Regiment.” Then he ordered “Stand by for inspection.” He found lipstick all over my whites and awarded me 40 demerits. I spent every night in the drill hall from 1800-2000 for the next 20 nights. Those kisses cost me, but they were so good!
Our next visit was four weeks later for graduation. It was a day I will never forget. Eighty-plus recruits passed in review with my family in the stands. We looked sharp and moved precisely. The “eyes right” was snappy. We were sailors and had made it! Eleven weeks of hell and one wonderful day of glory. Twelve hours of liberty with my family, my lady, and my friends. What a terrific afternoon and evening!
We received our orders the next day. Three of us, Kenny Nigh, Maynard Warman and myself, were to report no later than Nov. 16, 1959 to Naval Ordnance Laboratory Test Facility, Solomons Island, Maryland. My best friend Kenny got 10 days’ leave and then reported to MM”A” School. We had a fantastic leave back in Sandusky. We drove my ’47 and his ’49 Fords with our ladies sitting on our starboard size and buzzed Columbus Avenue. Of course, Ma and Dad wanted me to wear my uniform everywhere. I married a month later, December 1959.
I became a diver, and Kenny did, too. He wound up with Seal Team Six after we converted from Frogmen to Seals. I was a QM2. I went through the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Blockade. We both took our discharges Aug. 17, 1963. I stayed in the Active Reserve until January 1966, then returned to active duty, reporting to New London, Connecticut for submarine school. Kenny became a tool and die maker for General Motors in Columbus, Ohio, and we still stay in touch. He will always be my best friend; I even named my first of five children after him!
I went on to serve on five auxiliaries, six aircraft carriers, five destroyers,(one FF, two DDGs and two DDs), two patrol craft, five Admirals’ and one Commodore’s (DESRON12) staffs and three shore stations – 32 years in all. My next to last duty station was Admiral Sutton’s COMUSNAVLOGFOR. I was his Force Master Chief. My badge was painted black. It was the first time the Navy had females ashore in combat during Operation Desert Storm. We had four CVs, two BBs and 108 other ships in the Persian Gulf the day the war ended. At the time, there were not too many Combat Force Master Chiefs in the Navy. We didn’t have Command Force or Fleet Master Chiefs in Vietnam.
To summarize, I couldn’t tell you my recruiter’s name. I cannot picture his face. I can tell you my Company Commander’s name – RDC J. Mello, USN. I can still see him in his Service Dress Blues, with that Boston brogue barking “Aunt Ophelia’s little darlings are going to march today!” What a total inspiration he was to me and the 84 other wimps who joined up that 25th of August , 1959 in Great lakes, Illinois to become Company 388. When I get topside, I will be proud to stand behind the bar and lift a cold one with that fine sailor, my hero. Kenny, Larry and the other 82 will join me!