Picture
Peter and Brother John in dress whites
Cohasset, 1968

"Family Fun Day” the poster read. “Come meet Secretary of the Navy John Chafee. Games for the children, free food.” It was fall, the trees were turning in Rhode Island and someone nearby was burning leaves. The Lloyd Thomas had set sail two weeks before for Vietnam. Lowell had me transferred to a destroyer tender, a huge floating repair vessel. I was ironically assigned to assist the ship’s Chaplain with the spiritual issues of his crew.

To this day I cannot remember saying good-by to any of my shipmates. Another officer on board, Lt. Henry, had taken over command of Deck Division. None of my men were watching as their unconventional leader walked away for the last time. All I can remember was deciding not to throw my hat in the water as I left.

But as the Lloyd Thomas headed for the Pacific, things started coming apart. Lt. Jay and two other division officers on board decided to leave the Navy and all three handed in their commissions on the same day in protest. Several men in my division had caught wind that I was leaving because of some fallout with the Captain. Lowell and I had discussed the risk of informing my men of the dangers they faced going to war on an unfit ship. If any of them went ‘over the hill’ before the ship sailed, I would be open to charges of encouraging desertion in the face of combat. This would undoubtedly complicate Lowell’s defense efforts.

Yet to just leave saying nothing seemed cowardly and irresponsible. So one evening before my final departure, I was standing watch with my 3rd class petty officer, Pomerantz. An affable young man from Boston, he could easily have been a friend in civilian life. Over the year I had spent with my men, I found that they were very uncomfortable with any conversation that strayed from the clearly defined role of officer and enlisted man.

But Pomerantz was different. He had been on deck the day the MP’s came for me. He appreciated the nuances of surviving military life in the late 1960’s. So one night I chose to tell him what was up with the forward gun mount. His combat station was in the powder room that supplied the gun with shells. He would be directly in harm’s way should an accident occur. He listened intently, saying nothing. I learned later that six men on the Lloyd Thomas went missing when the ship sailed from San Diego for the South China Sea.

Now at Family Fun Day I had a chance to see the Secretary of the Navy in person, up close. The event was held in a large aircraft hangar. Tables of food lined the sides and proud sailors dressed in their finest uniforms paraded their families about till they found a seat. First some marching bands warmed up the crowd. Like church, no one sat in the front row so I made my way there and sat down. Before anyone noticed, a tall, distinguished man with grey hair and dressed in civilian clothing came ambling out a side door and started greeting the sailors, their wives and their children. People began flocking to him like a trout to a fly. He hunkered down to chat with four year olds, taking up to several minutes listening to these kids. I remembered that he had once been a popular Rhode Island Senator and had been considered a political moderate. Finally he made his way to the microphone and began to speak.

Short of an opening welcome, I remember nothing of the specifics of his talk. It was not long, maybe ten minutes. What I will never forget is how his talk ended.

“I have come here today to hear from you about your concerns. We live in the same state and we have all chosen to serve our country in its time of need. So we are literally one family here today. I have asked that microphones be placed throughout the hall. Please raise your hand and someone from my staff will accompany you to a podium from which we may speak to one another”.

I was stunned. Here was the man who needed to hear my story and today he had unknowingly made that conversation possible. All I had to do was raise my hand.

It took a while for the room to quiet down. Someone had said there were 4000 people there yet no hands were raised.  The room grew silent.  Rather than start talking again, John Chafee smiled and remained quiet. He would wait because he knew that this part of his family was not used to standing up and saying what was on their minds.

Finally one sailor raised his hand. His question was followed by one from a Navy wife. I watched my right hand lay on my leg, frozen, unable to move. My mind listed all the reasons why I should not take action. Here was our leader, a compassionate man trying to make the lives of these families a bit lighter if for only a moment.  Many of these men were on their way to war. Some had just come back. This was the real world. What right did I have to interject my own personal drama into these proceedings?

I watched as a drum and bugle corps assembled off stage preparing to say good-by to the Secretary. Chafee was reaching for his closing notes. Before I could stop myself, I was on my feet. “Sir”, I cried too loudly. “Do you have time for one last question?”

Chafee put his papers aside, adjusted his spectacles and looked down at the first row. What he saw was a young officer in summer whites, white shoes, white socks, white pants, white shirt holding a white hat in his trembling hands. 

“Please,” said Chafee, pointing me to a nearby microphone. I can only imagine a Marine Corps colonel somewhere in the room stop chewing his overcooked hamburger and slowly turning his face towards the front of the hall. “Take your time. This is your day,” Chaffee said

“Mr. Secretary,” I began, “thank you for coming to Newport today and offering us an opportunity to speak to the difficult issues that face us as members of the United States Armed Forces.  Thank you in advance for addressing my question. If a member of your Navy finds something wrong that could result in the injury or death of a fellow crew member and he reports this finding to his superior officer and this superior not only fails to acknowledge the problem but in fact punishes this sailor, what would you do, if anything, in response?”

Time now stood still. For better or worse I had said my piece. Where others had sat down after delivering their question I remained standing. Chafee looked at me and understood that what hung between us now was not a question but a statement.  A statement given with respect but one with implications that reached far beyond the walls of this hanger.

“Thank you for your thoughtful question Mr….”

“Hagerty, Ensin Hagerty; U.S. Naval Reserve 0105-289-70524”.

“Thank you Mr. Hagerty, I will have my staff look into the specifics of your question immediately after this meeting. But in practice the Navy will not tolerate information being withheld for whatever reason if it endangers the life or well-being of its members”.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and without thinking I turned, left the microphone and walked out of the hanger. There was already a crowd in the parking lot heading home so I jogged for my car and left the scene as quickly as possible Three days later Lowell called with the news. I had been honorably discharged from the US Navy, effective immediately. The following day I was a civilian.

 





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    Peter Hagerty and Marty Tracy are the co owners of Peace Fleece - a yarn and fiber company focused on uniting historic enemies through trade. Our online catalog- www.peacefleece.com  offers US grown / Native American fine wool yarn and batting, Russian hand painted knitting needles and buttons, as well as many tools and supplies for fiber enthusiasts, teachers and Waldorf educators.

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