Within weeks of my arrival on board the ship the Executive Officer, second in command to the captain, asked me into his office for a friendly chat. He suggested I put a little more effort into my public demeanor, i.e. trim my curls, polish my shoes, and press my uniform. I tried to tell him that being in the Navy was not really my idea. He told me that I had better shape up because we had just received orders to proceed to Newport, R.I where we would join with a convoy and head to the Tonkin Gulf and the war in Vietnam.
“Folks over in Nam won’t cut you much slack so get your act together!” he smiled.
Several weeks later we left Boston to join the larger squadron. It was then that my captain over my suggestion signed the combat ready form for the 5 “ gun barrels, I had a college friend who was on the sister ship to the Lloyd Thomas birthed just down the pier so I took a stroll over to see Ed. It was on a Friday and as it happened he was in his stateroom getting ready for a short weekend leave to see his folks.
“Do you know,” I asked him “what would happen if our 5 “barrels cracked while we were doing fire support?” Ed had been at Harvard with me, we had done a summer intensive Naval ROTC training together and both our parents were 100% Boston Irish.
“What are you up to now?” he asked, looking at me over his glasses that were perched at the end of his nose.
I explained what had happened on the Lloyd Thomas.
“Well, what do you plan to do about it?” he followed up.
“That depends on the answer to my first question”, I replied. It turns out the Weapon’s Officer of Ed’s ship was still on board. Ed asked Lt. Jim to join us and when he did, Ed presented him with my question straight up, no explanation.
“Well, said Lt. Jim, “first you have to understand that what you are shooting from the 5” barrel is not your standard bullet that comes out of a rifle barrel. These projectiles are filled with explosives that are timed to explode when they are about 8’ above the desired target, sending out shrapnel in all directions to tear body parts off the enemy.”
“Just imagine if the projectile accidentally explodes prematurely in the ship’s gun barrel itself. A new barrel is designed to direct the shrapnel forward to harmlessly fall into the ocean or on the deck. An old barrel with cracks might be technically unable to accommodate such a failure. The explosion could be directed backwards into the gun mount where a firestorm could result with heavy casualties”.
“Now remember, I said technically,” Lt. Jim added. “Thank God I have never seen that happen”. I thanked Lt. Jim for his thoughts and he smiled and departed.
“So now what?” asked Ed. “You know Pete, probably nothing is going to happen over there. If you make this a big deal, you are going to find yourself eating a ‘ration of shit’. This is not Social Relations 101. These captains are keen to get over there so they can have the Vietnam Commendation Medal pinned on their chest. They are not going to take very kindly to your concern for detail”.
Actually Soc Rel 101 had been one of my favorite classes in college. I took it during the fall of my junior year when I was just about flunking out. For the first time I found students and professors who were willing to put aside the pretenses of an Ivy League education and wrestle with the emotional and sometimes spiritual issues that faced all of us. I had been spending more time protesting the war than studying and my grades reflected this. I scrambled to try and climb out of the bottom quarter of my class from where my draft board would send me to the Army. I already knew a classmate of mine who had died in Vietnam. Joining Navy ROTC ensured that I could stay in school. Graduation was still two years away. I would worry about the war then.
The day after my talk with Ed and his roommate, I found myself ringing the doorbell of well-kept brick home in the nearby town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It was on a ridge, one side sloping east to a view of Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod and to the west over rolling fields filled with sheep. I remembered that when I was a young child I had come to a nearby monastery with my father to visit a Franciscan monk who had a border collie that worked these very sheep. As I stood wondering if the monk were still alive a pretty middle aged woman in a tartan skirt opened the door. She was the wife of the Squadron Commander of our Pacific bound flotilla.
“Hello”, I said with as much courage as I could muster. “My name in Peter Hagerty and I am an officer on a ship here in Newport that is part of your husband’s squadron. I was wondering if I might have a word with him.”
I was warmly welcomed in as if I might well have been a college friend of one of her children. She invited me to sit in a sunny room with copies of Turner and Constable paintings hanging on the wall. I knew these artists because my Uncle John had been an art collector. She offered me a cup of tea and assured me that her husband would be down shortly. This was not going to be as bad as I had thought. I smelled a roast of beef cooking in the kitchen.
All at once the Commander of our destroyer squadron was standing in the doorway.
“Good afternoon Mr. Hagerty. How do you like Portsmouth?”
Well that was the cue for me to talk about how I had played soccer against a school just down the road. And I brought him up to speed on my visit to the Portsmouth Priory and of course I told him how much I appreciated the romantic influence of Turner and Constable. He joined me for tea and I soon felt that we were becoming the best of chums. Then all at once I heard the sound of my own voice and slowed to a stop.
“So how can I help you on this Saturday afternoon?” he asked kindly. My host was dressed not in military attire but in summer weight wool pants and a light blazer. He could have easily been the Commodore of the local Yacht Club.
“Well sir, I am the Deck Officer on the Lloyd Thomas, a ship in your squadron and as you know part of my duty is to make sure that all my crew and the equipment we operate are in safe condition.
“I was asked by my captain to certify that our 5 inch guns are combat ready. During an inspection, I detected problems with the barrels of the forward gun mount. When I reported this, he refused to address this concern and signed the combat readiness sheet over my objections.”
My host reached into his coat pocket and took out a pipe, lit it and filled our corner of our bright little room with smoke.
“In addition I recently learned of the dire consequences that would result should these barrels be compromised during firing.” The volume of smoke increased.
“How long have you been on the Lloyd Thomas?” he asked.
“Just under a year,sir.”
“Very well. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will discuss it with my squadron staff and I will let you know of the outcome as soon as possible.”
The meeting was over. I made my way to the door and we shook hands good-by. No invitation to stay for lunch but in any case I hoped that I might see him again. I truly enjoyed meeting him and his wife.
Monday morning came along and my country jaunt to Portsmouth had already taken a back seat to the pressing issues being discussed at 8:00 am staff meeting. I stood at ease and listened to the Executive Officer’s work orders for that day. Unexpectedly one of my enlisted men appeared. He politely interrupted the meeting.
“Excuse me sir,” he announced to the Exec. “There are some men here to see Mr. Hagerty”
“What men” queried the Exec, slightly amazed that anyone would want to see me.
“Sir, they say they are from the Squadron Commander’s office”.
I was excused and as I made my way to the upper deck I was pleased to think that my new friend the Commodore of Portsmouth was so fast acting. I was surely on the way to meet his staff and give my report first hand.
Standing at the gangway of our ship were two burley military policemen with very serious and somewhat nervous expressions on their faces.
“Yes, that’s correct”
“Sir, we are under orders to escort you off the ship now. Please come with us.”
Something in their tone just did not sound like they were escorting a valued member of the Naval Service to the Commander’s staff meeting.
“Let me just get my briefcase, I have some notes I would like to bring with me.”
“I am sorry sir, but we are under orders to escort you off the ship. We must leave now.” Out of instinct, the older of the two found his hand going to his handcuffs. He stopped however and slowly tried to regain his composure. Something started to smell like a ‘ration of shit’. Before I was to leave with these men I needed to let my fellow officers on board know that something was up.
I turned to the quartermaster who was standing nearby on the gangway, checking everyone who came and left the ship. He happened to be in my division and a very smart young man.
“Pomerantz,” I beckoned. “I am being escorted by these two men off the Lloyd Thomas. Would you kindly take down their names, ranks and serial numbers and report that to the Captain?”
“Yes sir,” said Pomerantz smartly. Then I turned to our two guests.
“Gentlemen, am I under arrest?”
“No sir, not at this moment.” Now these guys were really getting nervous. They had probably never had to “escort” an officer before and even as I tried to control my own rising fear, I felt sorry for them. Pomerantz was also quickly realizing the implications of what was going on.
After my escorts had given the quartermaster their ID particulars we headed up the gangplank and down Pier #7. Someone once had told me this pier was 6 football fields long. In spite of all the comings and goings of trucks, jeeps, and men getting ready for war, I felt that everyone on all these ships was watching our little parade.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Just a little further, sir”. Sweat was running down my back as we reached the end of the pier. I realized that my poorly polished shoes and my curls were not about to work in my favor no matter what lay ahead. I was suddenly overcome by an image of my disappearing and no one ever finding me. Just at that moment a sign on the building that we were about to pass came into focus.
Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG)
I had been to a workshop here months before about the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a set of rules that lays out the legal process in all branches of the US Armed Forces. At the time I felt it was pretty boring stuff but as I veered off to the left and up the stairs, I saw this office as a refuge.
“Gentlemen,” I said, reaching the top of the stairs and facing my alarmed escorts. “With all due respect (and I meant it) if you are going to charge me with an offense under the UCMJ, then charge me and arrest me now. Otherwise I am going in here to consult with my attorney. You may either wait out here or come inside. I suggest you do the latter as it probably cooler inside and I am sure there is some refreshment here as well.”
The tables quickly turned. My respect for their awkward situation coupled with my authentic concern for their comfort caused them to acquiesce. I was now the officer and they were the enlisted and I was making a reasonable suggestion. They chose to remain outside.
Twenty cubicles comprised the layout of the first floor of JAG headquarters. And in each cubicle sat a Navy lieutenant with a law degree. The vast majority had joined the service as combat desk jockeys. This would be the closest they would come to shrapnel and gunfire. Their days were filled with representing naval personnel involved in automobile accidents, drunken brawls and divorce. I chose the seventh cubicle on the left and introduced myself to Lt. Lowell Noteboom.
“Excuse me sir, I am in some kind of trouble and I could use some help.”
We talked for a full hour, or rather I talked and Lowell listened. I told him everything that had gone on over the last year from my gun barrel incident to getting sprayed in the face by a skunk in the garbage pail out back of my Newport apartment. When I had exhausted my historical repertoire, Lt. Noteboom stood up and walked toward the window.
“I have been waiting for someone like you to walk into my office ever since the first day I arrived here in Newport,” he said enthusiastically. “Don’t you worry; we will set this all straight.” I knew then I had an ally and a new friend and things for just a moment looked brighter than they had in a long time.
He went outside and sent the guards packing with an order that they return with formal charges. But they never returned. He gave me his office and his home phone number, told me to return to my ship and to call him every four hours to “check in”.
Back on the Lloyd Thomas life was busy. Chipping paint, checking anchor lines and covering the ever-present rust, my deck crew continued to get the ship ready for the first leg of the voyage to Vietnam. Then several days later the captain announced that we would go to sea to test our engines. After lunch in the wardroom he asked to see me in his cabin. I had not been in his stateroom since that fateful morning months ago.
“Mr. Hagerty, we have a guest on board for this sea trial. I would like to berth him in your room. You have a spare bunk I believe.”
“Yes sir, I will make sure he is comfortable”. That was it. Dismissed, I made my way below. No mention of my unorthodox visit to his senior commander. I called Lowell.
“Look Pete, it may be nothing. I regret that we will be out of touch while you are at sea but I can’t imagine anything sinister happening. You have some good friends on board, just stay close to them.”
It was now approaching early Fall. The weather had been unusually warm and I prayed that no storm systems came our way. We got under way on a Friday morning and I was on the bride watching the Jamestown Bridge pass overhead when a friendly voice announced, “Well, I guess I am your new roommate”. I turned to find a Lieutenant standing to my right.
“Jack Braiden” he smiled and stuck out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you sir,” I replied.
“Let’s forget the ‘sir’ if it’s alright with you. I live in up state New York and am in the Naval Reserve and I am doing my two weeks active duty so I am barely a ‘sir’.”
I liked Lt. Braiden right away but I remembered Lowell’s cautionary advice so I kept calling him ‘sir’ in any case. My morning watch ended as we passed Martha’s Vineyard and we went down to the wardroom for lunch. Because Jack had no apparent assigned duties, he ended up hanging out with me, helping where he could. He thought nothing of running an errand for me and I found myself relaxing and looking forward to his presence.
The weather was holding and the early fall nights at sea were spectacular. We ran into the New Bedford fishing fleet off the Grande Banks and their lights lit up the dark ocean like a remote city on the prairie. I was on the bridge on Saturday standing my midnight to 4 am watch and was surprised to have Lt. Braiden join me.
“Can’t sleep on nights like this,” he said. “Never was much good at sleeping at sea. What got you into the Navy?”
He had an easy way of getting me to talk. The ocean was calm and we just had one radar contact we were following that was 12 miles off the port bow. I told him about growing up, then about Harvard and how I went there because it was the only place I got in. He thought that was hysterical.
“This guy from Harvard,” I explained, “he came to interview the students at my boarding school. It turns out that he was an alumna and wanted to see what the campus looked like after 20 years of being away. Because I was one of the few in my class who hadn’t applied to Harvard, I was chosen to take him around. We went to his old dorm room, the hockey rink, and the chapel. He told me stories of his time there, just typical stuff but not building himself up at all. In fact he was pretty modest. It turned out that we had similar interests and so we got along real well.
“Then he tells me that he sees a lot of him in me and says that I could go to Harvard if I wanted. Of course I was complemented that he said this but didn’t think much more of it and we finished the tour and went to supper.”
“Then three weeks later a letter arrived at my school and it was signed by this same guy. His name was Fred Glimp and he turns out to be the Director of Admissions. He writes in the letter that I have been selected to go to Harvard the following year if I want. Of course my parents flip out because their ultimate dreams have been met.”
“It never really occurred to me not to go there. I mean I hadn’t even applied. So I ended up going by default when my other college applications were rejected.” Jack hunched over with laughter.
The night slipped on. I was happy to pass the 12-4 watch talking with my new friend. Over the next three days we talked a lot. My guard would sometimes go up in the cool light of the morning but as the days drifted along I came to look forward to these “casual conversations” around the ship. On some level I was eager to find someone with whom I could share my fears and frustrations.
The last morning we were at sea we talked about the war. We were back by the stern of the ship and I was supervising my men getting ready for the ship to enter port. I finally decided to tell him of what had happened with the 5 inch guns and what I might do if push came to shove. I told him how I had secretly and illegally traveled overseas to England and France several months prior while on two weeks leave to see if I could handle the idea of deserting. I found I could not. I saw him draw back into himself. Maybe I had misread him. Perhaps I had crossed a line and for a moment had lost his respect.
“Look Peter,” he said. “Thank you for sharing your stories with me. I have truly enjoyed our conversations over the last few days very much. It is clear to me that you are sincere in your beliefs and your concern for the safety of your men. But in the end it doesn’t matter what I think. You have chosen to enter a very dangerous situation and you have to be very careful from now, especially choosing what you say and to whom you say it. Be very careful!” He shook my hand rather formally and was gone.
I was busy with my crew for the remainder of the morning as we entered port and secured our ship to the pier. I was also watching out of the corner of my eye for anyone on shore that might be looking for me. When I finally got to my bunk, my roommate was gone. When I called Lowell and gave him an update, he did a search of Naval Reserve officer personnel and no Lt. Braiden surfaced. He told me that we were now to resume our daily check in’s and not to leave the base for any reason. Fear once again became my daily companion.