The man who got me through the navy

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USS Mauna Kea
  • USS Mauna Kea
My college roommate came to town recently and handed me a letter I'd written him years ago as I sailed west across the Pacific Ocean. It was an unhappy, sardonic letter—which probably describes every word I wrote during my two years in the navy, aside from the notes telling my parents I was fine.

My naval experience is something I rarely talk about, or much care to think about, although the places I saw, the cast of characters I met, and the quasi-captivity I thought I was enduring constitute a trove of seed corn I've drawn from ever since. But it isn't pleasant to revisit immaturity. When I washed out of officers' school, the navy sent me out to the fleet to finish my hitch. I landed on the deck force of an ammunition ship, chipped paint for a few days, and then got a desk job shuffling papers in the office of the first lieutenant, the officer in charge of the deck force.

The belly of our ship, the USS Mauna Kea, bulged with bombs and missiles, all addressed Hanoi. I hadn't been on board long when I received a glamorous second assignment: they gave me a .45 and a clip and I stood four-hour watches at the entry to the "special weapons" hold. These were the weapons above and beyond. Only a small, elite group of crewmen could enter that hold under any circumstances, and I was to allow absolutely no one to go in alone. I understood "special weapons" to mean tactical atomic weapons, although I don't think anyone explicitly said so. Maybe I was guarding nothing more lethal than napalm.

I have two distinct memories of special weapons watch. One is how boring it was. I didn't literally stand it—I sat in a folding chair and read the Katherine Anne Porter novel Ship of Fools. The other is the time a bumptious electrician's mate first class showed up by himself, said he'd be only a second, and bounded down into the hole. He was only a second; even so, I've wondered ever since why I didn't shoot him. Nobody liked the guy; the ship would have been a happier place without him. But I didn't even blow my whistle.

At sea, the big events aboard the Mauna Kea were the underway replenishments—the unreps. An aircraft carrier would pull up alongside and for the next several hours we'd pass them ordnance. Otherwise, we sailed completely alone. If the Mauna Kea blew up—always within the realm of possibility—no one would be vaporized but ourselves. When we pulled into a port we lowered anchor at the most distant anchorage in the bay. I remember getting off a liberty boat in Japan and encountering a massive demonstration ashore—the locals marching and chanting to protest the arrival of the USS Enterprise, simply because it was a nuclear-powered carrier.

If they only knew, I thought.

But about my letter . . .

It laid out, for my old roommate's edification and amusement, the predicament I'd faced. We'd left California a month earlier for a six-month WestPac (Western Pacific) cruise. Under way, every sailor on the deck force was expected to stand frequent routine watches, and it was my belief that life at sea was rigorous enough without them. So I came up with a plan. Instead of standing watches, I'd put out a daily ship's paper. The ship's communications office received news of the world via the AP, UPI, and the Armed Forces Press Service. I could type it up at night, mimeograph a few dozen copies, and scatter them around the ship by morning chow. I discussed this scheme with the junior communications officer, a lieutenant junior grade by the name of Fred Axley (my letter describes him as a "jolly fellow"). An English major from Holy Cross College, he shouldered a collateral responsibility appropriate to his liberal arts education, that of public information officer (PIO). Being PIO meant that if there were a press release to get out, he'd be the one to produce it. There were few press releases to get out, however, as the only thing remotely interesting about the Mauna Kea was the contents of its special weapons hold, about which the less said the better.

It would be up to LTJG Axley to approve a ship's paper and oversee it. I put the question to him: If I do this, can you get me off the watch bill? It wasn't his call, but he asked my boss, the first lieutenant. Mr. Axley reported back that the first lieutenant gave the paper his blessing, but he wasn't making any promises.

Says my letter to my roommate: "I still wanted to put out the paper just to be doing something worthwhile but realized I could never keep it up while on watches. But I chose to try. I worked from 6:30 to 12: p.m. grinding out a 3 ½ page 8 x13 rag. I hit the rack and got up at 3:15 for the 4 to 8 [watch]. Really felt dead. But! Next day everybody was impressed. 1st Lt. said good show and asked me how much time it took. PIO [Axley] said X.O. [executive officer, the ship's number two] impressed."

Before the day was up I'd been taken off the watch list and I'd learned a lesson that has served me well through life: nothing beats journalism as a way to avoid actual work.

The XO's approval would have been decisive. In the navy, the captain is the big picture guy, but the XO runs the ship. Ours was a martinet whose idea of keeping morale at a high pitch was to remind us, whenever the Mauna Kea was ordered unexpectedly to sea, that it was the price we paid for being "the ship that's counted on to do the job." An informed crew is a gung ho crew, I suppose he thought, and in the weeks ahead, as my paper shifted to something other than an objective news source, his feelings about it changed. In fact, one of his last acts before being transferred off the Mauna Kea was to replace Mr. Axley as PIO for failing to clear the contents of my newspaper with him ahead of time.

The problem I'd run into was this: on too many days our overburdened comm office, which was short a teletype, couldn't provide me with any fresh news. In terror of returning to the watch list, I decided to publish anyway, and that required writing off the top of my head. It meant—if you prefer—making things up.

My letter describes some of these forays. The lead story to the "Make It to Guam" edition began: "From a sailor's point of view, perhaps one of the major reversals of World War II occurred July 27, 1944. That was the day the United States took the island of Guam away from Japan and liberty parties have been trying to figure out what to do there ever since. Perhaps fortunately, the men of the Mauna Kea will have only one day to wrestle with this problem before returning to the role of the ship that's counted on to get the job done." The only local point of interest, I noted, was the Mariana Trench, and it was under six and a half miles of water.

I described a confrontation between a sailor in Sasebo, Japan, and a native who tried to pick his pocket and failed because the sailor was so horny he couldn't stop shaking. I introduced Dr. Oscar Throck, whose new theory challenged the conventional wisdom that illness was a bad thing. Quite the contrary, said Dr. Throck; it's frequently the only thing that stands between being healthy and being dead. And then, according to my letter, I ran an article assailing the low quality of the movies shown at night on the afterdeck, and another "about sweating in the soup."

I caught a lucky break when the XO was transferred in Hilo, Hawaii, our first port of call. He was succeeded by a Michael Scott of the high seas, an ingratiating nincompoop who liked to pop into offices and announce, "Hi, there! How's it going?" But I heard from Mr. Axley that the captain himself now wished to vet each issue before it was distributed.

The captain was a Harvard grad morosely concluding his naval career as skipper of a crummy supply ship. (Men of equal rank commanded carriers.) I heard from Mr. Axley that the officers started a pool with their best guesses of when during our cruise the captain would drop dead of drink. What would eventually happen (several weeks after my letter was written) wasn't far from it. The captain went ashore one night in the Philippines, got drunk in the officers' club, slugged the duty officer who suggested he return to his ship, and fought off the shore patrol. When he finally staggered back to the Mauna Kea and was greeted on the quarterdeck by our unctuous new XO, he reared back and threatened to punch the "son of a bitch." The Mauna Kea had been scheduled to return to sea the following morning, but we stayed around for "extended upkeep," and a month later our captain surrendered his command in a ceremony in Japan that no one attended but the ship's crew. Mr. Axley had had some helpful things to say about the captain and his demons, but the most telling information came from the stewards who handled his laundry. Nothing reveals a man's character like the state of the skivvies he drops into the hamper at the end of a long day. The captain's were heavily caked.

It was an insight I could easily have turned into a major think piece for the ship's paper. Alas, there was so much two-fisted journalism that could not be written. For instance, there was no reporting the scandal I heard about from Mr. Axley. It seemed the new XO had got his hands on a letter informing the John F. Kennedy Memorial Fund that 92 of the Mauna Kea's 242 officers and men had made contributions. This struck the new XO as a response unworthy of our fine ship, so he inserted a 1 in front of the 92 and sent the letter on its way.

Still, I published what I could when I could. My letter describes a meeting of the ship's recreation committee at which the senior petty officers unanimously "tore my paper apart for turning into a bitch sheet." Some party unknown promptly responded by posting a broadside on a ship's bulletin board. It railed at the attempt of "a few members, that seem to have no sence [sic] of humor," to muzzle the press, and went on (in all caps):

Has this freedom of the press, that we have come to think of as part of the rights of men, become a farce!! Has it degenerated so far that no one person and/or persons can speak up or poke innocent fun at something. Has this dictatorship taken away one of your basic rights as free men, living in a free country, we believe it has.

The ship's master-at-arms ripped this declaration off the bulletin board and thundered into the first lieutenant's office waving it. The master-at-arms liked my paper and it made him apoplectic that others didn't. Actually, this is a statement of support, I explained. It's only people like the captain who are complaining. The master-at-arms stood his ground. He didn't care who my critics were. It astonished him that anybody could object to "a little harmless kidding."

It was at this hour of maximum drama that I found out the old XO had stripped Mr. Axley of his duties as PIO. This, I suppose, was a significant reprimand, but Mr. Axley hadn't bothered to mention it to me.

It all blew over. The comm office stopped receiving any news whatsoever, so it was an easy decision to stop publishing for a few days and catch up on my sleep while things calmed down. Aboard ship, the only interesting doings were the funny slogans the officers decided to put on their hats one day. Mr. Axley's said "Pray for Peace." If it's good enough to cancel mail with, he told me, it's good enough for the Navy.

Mr. Axley
  • Mr. Axley
What I encourage you to infer from the preceding is that LTJG Fred Axley kept me sane. He pointed out constellations to me on the open bridge, lectured me on border issues between the Soviet Union and China, and regularly came by the first lieutenant's office to drop off the latest issue of the Saturday Review of Literature, which he subscribed to. Thanks to Mr. Axley, I could nourish myself on the liberalism of Norman Cousin and his stable of upper-middle-brow critics and maintain the fantasy that I was still living some sort of life of the mind (not that I'd ever lived it before).

Somehow I got myself promoted to journalist third class and received orders to report to a carrier. This meant flying back to the States a couple of weeks before the Mauna Kea sailed home. And it later meant driving out to the Mauna Kea — berthed in its utterly desolate home port of Port Chicago, California (google "Port Chicago ammo ship explosion 1944" for details)—to collect the stereo system and various other articles I'd bought in Japan and Hong Kong and left in ship's storage. Mr. Axley helped me carry this gear out to the car and filled me in on the portion of the WestPac cruise I'd missed. He told me there was a line of gibberish that ships routinely transmitted to each other each day to make sure the lines of communication were in order, and as respect for the XO disintegrated, this gibberish became what the communications crew took to calling him behind his back. Mr. Axley made the end of the cruise sound so madcap I almost wished I'd stayed around for it.

As grateful as I was to Fred Axley, he belonged to a part of my life I turned my back on as soon as I was done with it. At least 40 years went by before we talked again; but after discovering he'd also wound up in Chicago, practicing law and living on the North Shore, I gave him a call. When it turned out he belonged to BPI—Business and Professional People for the Public Interest—and in fact had been a board member since 1984, I made a point of going to a BPI dinner a couple of years ago to meet him. And when I read my old letter I had an idea. I'd excerpt the parts he figured in and send them to him. Surely that WestPac cruise must seem as distant to him as it did to me.

But instead of Fred Axley, I'm sharing the letter with everyone else. It turned out that Fred Axley was ill a long time and in March he died. The program for his funeral service said he'd been 19 years on the board of Friends of the Chicago River, he'd served on both the school board and the housing commission in Wilmette, and he'd taken an active role in expanding the stock of affordable housing in the northern suburbs. "Fred was a trusted mentor who brought his intellect and social conscience to many endeavors," said the program. He was "always a dedicated advocate for the underdog." I wasn't an underdog in the navy exactly, and he didn't mentor me exactly. I was a mope he kept an eye on. But the man in the description was the man I remember. And I owe him.

His wife, Cinda, sent me the picture.

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