Saturday, March 12, 2022

Navy Coffee: A Sea Story

Unlike today’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the USS Kitty Hawk was powered by fossil fuels when I served aboard her in 1970 and 1971. 

During those Viet Nam War years, the Kitty Hawk’s aircraft were powered by JP-5 fuel, and the Kitty Hawk’s 5, 500 sailors were fueled by strong Navy coffee. 

I was an 18-year-old seaman when the carrier was stationed on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China off the coast of North Vietnam. I was assigned to the Radio Communications Division, and I had an admin job in the Message Processing Center. 

The center was a bustling place, as we not only handled fast-flowing and fast-action highly classified war traffic for the ship's company, we also handled highly classified traffic for the Task Force 77 admiral, who commanded the entire fleet off Vietnam. The Task Force 77 admiral and his staff were stationed aboard the Kitty Hawk as we were the designated Task Force 77 Flag Ship.  

While on Yankee Station, we worked in eight on/eight off shifts, with about 20 to 25 men working in the message center during each shift. Coffee was important to us, as we worked hard and fast, and many of us had trouble sleeping during our eight hours off. The strong coffee helped keep us alert and able while on watch. 

I had the top rack above two others in the berthing department, which was good as the top rack was open and I didn’t feel like I was in a coffin. But just above me were pipes for the steam catapult system that launched our aircraft. During flight operations, the gush of steam that ran through the pipes and the thump of the aircraft launching above me often prevented me from sleeping or woke me if I were already sleeping. So when I had to report for my watch, a cup of coffee was essential. 

We had a three-foot long coffee urn in a cubbyhole in the center. The low rank seamen (we were lower than whale shit, as the saying went) had to refill the urn with water and make fresh coffee for the officers, chiefs, petty officers, and other seamen in the center. 

Once filled with water, the urn was quite heavy and awkward to carry from the head (what we called the space with toilets, sinks and showers) to the center. We had a deep sink in the head and several new seamen spotted it and laid the urn in the deep sink and filled it with water. They would then lift the urn and carry it into the center and make the coffee. 

It usually did not take long for one of the chiefs to gag on the fresh coffee and demand to know what numbskull made the coffee. 

That unfortunate and severely chastised seaman was duly informed that the deep sink in the head delivered salt water. 

I was fortunate to have several older sailors as friends, and I had been warned about the deep sink. I was told that the proper but difficult way to fill the urn with water was to stand in the shower and direct the stream of cold water into the urn. 

I recall one unpopular chief who often ordered seamen to refill his coffee mug, which we resented, muttering, “why don’t you get your own fucking coffee” under our breath. None of the other chiefs, or even the officers, ever asked the seamen to get them coffee. 

One seaman, a jokester who truly resented getting the chief coffee, smiled at me while he was in the cubbyhole filling the chief's coffee mug. He said, “Watch this,” as he placed the tip of his penis into the chief’s coffee mug. 

His jokester’s grin disappeared as he screamed out in pain and dropped the chief’s mug. 

“The coffee’s hot, you fucking idiot,” I said as the seaman collapsed against a bulkhead. 

A petty officer who heard the seaman’s scream rushed in. He took the seaman to sick bay, leaving me to inform the grumpy chief that the seaman broke his old, beloved, and scroungy coffee mug. 

I told the chief that the seaman burned himself and dropped his mug. I didn’t tell him how or where the seaman had burned himself. The chief grumbled and cursed the seaman for breaking his coffee mug. He did not inquire about the extent of the seaman’s injury. 

The seaman recovered and he happily told all the enlisted guys his “dick in the cup” story. I’m not sure if the story reached the chief or not. If so, he didn’t take disciplinary action against the seaman, or even mention the incident to anyone. 

But the chief never again asked that particular seaman to get him coffee.

Note: You can read my other sea stories, vignettes, humor pieces and short stories via the below link:

Paul Davis On Crime: Sea Stories: Vignettes, Short Stories And Humor Pieces About My Time In The U.S. Navy 


  1. I Was an In Flight Technician (Naval Aircrewman) on P-3 Orions. We had a crusty old AW Chief on our crew and one of the Officers on our crew asked the Chief (in no uncertain terms) to get him a cup of coffee. I was shocked that the Chief didn't seem to put up a fight. He went back, got a Styrofoam cup, wrote something in it and showed it to me before filling it with coffee and delivering it. In the bottom of the cup, in ballpoint pen, he wrote "how does my dick taste"? A few minutes later I heard the most God awful spitting, sputtering and cursing over the ICS. One of the funniest moments ever...

  2. Eric, Good one! I can understand asking a seaman, but a chief?