Tuesday, February 20, 2024

My Crime Fiction: 'The 30-Day Detail'

The below story, which is about drug dealing and other crimes aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, is a chapter in my crime novel Olongapo, which I hope to soon publish.

The 30-Day Detail originally appeared in American Crime Magazine.  

In my day, we thought the Navy was the coolest military service. After all, bell-bottoms dungarees were fashionable in the civilian world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and dark blue bell-bottom dungarees were part of our working uniform aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

In addition to the dungarees, we wore a white t-shirt under a short-sleeve light blue chambray shirt, with our name stenciled in black just above the left breast pocket.

We also wore ankle-high black leather boots called “BoonDockers,” and when outside, a dark blue ball cap topped the working uniform. My dungarees and chambray shirt were always cleaned and pressed and my BoonDockers were always polished.

My older brother Eddie, who served in the U.S. Army at Chu Lai in South Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, often mocked me for wearing a clean uniform and fighting the war on a safe, clean and air-conditioned ship off the coast of Vietnam.

His life as a soldier at Chu Lai was not so clean, with heat, humidity, mud, dirt, bugs, rats, and Viet Cong attacks. Compared to his time at Chu Lai, my brother thought I served on a luxury cruise ship. In rebuttal, I told him that if it were not for naval air power from aircraft carriers, he and many other soldiers “in-country” would have died in combat. He agreed, albeit reluctantly.

The Kitty Hawk’s aircraft and battle group ships protected the aircraft carrier and kept it safe from attacks from the North Vietnamese while on "Yankee Station" in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam, but life could be dangerous on an aircraft carrier as air combat operations were fast-paced and precarious as the carrier launched and recovered aircraft around the clock. With vast amounts of jet fuel, bombs, missiles and rockets on board, an accident or a fire on a carrier can be a truly deadly affair, as it had been earlier on the Kitty Hawk and on other aircraft carriers, most notably the deadly fire on the USS Forrestal. The carrier was later nicknamed the “USS Forest Fire.”

And there were other safety concerns on a carrier, such as crime.

An aircraft carrier has been described as a floating small city due to her size and large crew. As even small cites have crime, it should not be a surprise that one would encounter crime aboard an aircraft carrier. There were assaults, thefts, gambling and drug trafficking taking place on the ship as the carrier sailed the South China Sea.

While operating off the coast of Vietnam. I worked in the Communications Radio Division’s Message Processing Center. The center was a hectic place, as we handled fast-flowing and fast-action highly classified war traffic. We received and distributed traffic concerning combat missions, tactical reports, naval intelligence reports, and intelligence reports from the CIA, DIA, NSA and the other alphabet soup intelligence agencies. We also maintained radio communications between the aircraft carrier and our pilots as they flew combat sorties against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply routes and strategic positions.

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 the carrier was the designated Task Force 77 Flag Ship. 

The message center additionally received and distributed the famous “Z-Grams” from the then-Chief of Naval of Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Those Z-Grams changed Navy policy, such as letting sailors grow beards and go ashore in civilian clothes. Senior Navy people hated the Z-Grams, but young enlisted sailors like me loved them.

While on Yankee Station, we worked in eight hours on/eight hours off shifts, with about 20 to 25 men working in the message processing center during each “watch.” The center job was grueling and never-ending, sending and processing traffic, but we knew this was a good job. There were far more dirty and dangerous jobs on the aircraft carrier.

Compared to the engineers, called “snipes,” who worked in the hot bowels of the ship, and the flight crews, called “air dales,” who worked in the blistering heat on the flight deck dodging launched and recovered aircraft, we had it pretty good in the message center. And we certainly had it easier than the carrier’s pilots, who braved being shot down and killed or captured as they flew combat sorties over Vietnam. 

During this time on Yankee Station, I was under the dubious supervision of Gerald Hobbs, a newly promoted 3rd Class Radioman, which was the Navy equivalent to an Army buck sergeant. Hobbs, who hailed from Baltimore, was a big guy, around 6’3,” and on the heavy side. He was crude and obnoxious, and not very bright. He was disliked by most of the enlisted sailors in the division.

His sour personality did not improve after he was promoted. With his new “crow” stitched on the left sleeve of his blue chambray uniform shirt, Hobbs became even more obnoxious. 

On one watch in the message center, I told an old joke in the guise of a true story, as I usually did.

“I met a girl in Olongapo,” I told a couple of sailors working alongside me. “She said her name was Angelina. I told her that was a pretty name. I asked her if people called her “Angel” for short, and she replied, “Yes, but not for long.””

The two sailors laughed. Even Lieutenant Junior Grade Albert Moony, who overheard the old joke as he walked by, laughed. I was a bit surprised, as Moony was not known for his sense of humor. The serious young officer once told us that his post-Navy plans were to become a State Department official or a Buddhist Monk.

But humor is not universal. Although I had some good friends in the division and I made them laugh on occasion, I must admit that there were those who did not find me particularly amusing. These sailors disliked me, disliked my telling old jokes that I heard or read somewhere, and disliked my sarcastic asides. My detractors thought I had far too much to say for so young a sailor.

Hobbs was squarely in that group. He overheard my joke and didn’t think it was funny. He screamed at me to stop telling jokes and “turn to,” Navy-speak for get to work. Hobbs puffed up his chest and acted tough as he was older, taller and had about fifty pounds on me. I was not intimidated, and I suppose I gave him a dirty look.  

“I’m a petty officer now and don’t you ever forget it,” Hobbs declared. 

 “I looked up petty in the dictionary and it’s defined as small and unimportant,” I told him. “And your photo was next to the definition.”

The sailors near me laughed. This angered Hobbs and he shoved me. 

Bad move on his part. 

As I had been training and competing as a boxer since I was 12 years old at the South Philly Boys’ Club, my instincts kicked in and I threw a stiff left jab to his nose, followed immediately by a “Sunday punch” to his mouth. The left jab and short right knockout punch dropped Hobbs heavily to the deck. He laid there next to his two front teeth, which I had knocked out of his head. 

Bad move on my part. 

I had punched out a petty officer in the message center in front of officers, chiefs and a number of assorted petty officers. Chief John Helm rushed over and ordered me to go the division’s supply office and wait there for him.   

As I waited for the chief, I knew I fucked up. I was worried that I would be sent to the carrier’s brig. As I was pondering my fate, Chief Helm came in. I could see that the chief was upset, as his large ears were bright red. He took off his glasses and taking a hankie out of his pants pocket, he furiously rubbed them clean.     

“What’s the matter with you? You think I don’t want to punch one of these kid officers in the mouth every day? Especially that tall glass of fresh water, Lieutenant Harrison. You just can’t do it!”   

Chief Helm told me that he went to see Commander Olson, the division’s commanding officer. He explained to Olson that Hobbs had shoved me first, although that was no excuse for me to punch him. We were both in the wrong. But Chief Helm said he put in a good word for me.  

“Is Davis the kid who tells all those dumb jokes?” the chief told me Olson had asked him.

“Yes, Sir” the chief replied. 

“No charges or the brig for Davis,’ the commander ordered. “Get him a 30-day detail out of the division and chew Hobbs’ ass. Tell him from me that he’s lucky that I don’t bust him back to a seaman.”  

I found it curious that it was my telling a joke that caused the confrontation in the message center, and yet it was my telling old jokes that also got me a light punishment.


Although I was happy that I avoided a 30-day stint in the carrier’s brig, I was not happy about being kicked out of the division. Although I was only a seaman, lower than whale shit, as the saying goes, I felt that I was doing important war-related work in the vital communications center. 

Chief Helms told me he arranged for me to be detailed for 30 days to the ship’s vent shop, as he knew the petty officer in charge. The following morning, I packed my sea bag and reported to the vent shop’s boss. Roscoe Davis was a hulking and jovial black 1st class petty officer with a huge gut protruding over his belt.

 “I’m Roscoe,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”

He gathered around the other guys in the shop and as we had the same last name, Roscoe introduced me as his “illegitimate white boy son.”

I laughed along with the others. One of the sailors in the shop asked me the question that sailors always ask when first meeting another sailor, “What state you from?”

 “South Philly,” I replied.

 “Is South Philly a state?” another sailor asked sarcastically.

 “We think so,” I replied. 

 James Green, a tall and lean black sailor from North Philly, laughed.  

“Shit,” he said to the other sailors. “I know these I-Talian South Philly boys. They are bad-ass, motherfucking mafia gangsters.”  

Rather than reproach this seaman on stereotyping Italians, as I was half-Italian, I said nothing, allowing the sailors in the shop to believe that I was a hoodlum. The fact that I was detailed to the vent shop because I had punched out a petty officer added to that somewhat exaggerated image. 

Roscoe teamed me with Green and called us “the Philly boys.” Each day we went around the ship and pulled out the 4x4 air filters from the ventilation system and replaced them with clean ones. We took the dirty filters back to the shop and soaped them up and blasted them with a high-power water hose. The removal and cleaning of the air filters was on a rotational system that Roscoe controlled. 

Pulling out filters, replacing them, and cleaning the old ones was a dirty job, but we worked an eight-hour day, unlike my eight on/eight off watches in the Communications Radio Division. I grew to like the job, although I felt like I was missing out on what was happening in the war. I also liked Roscoe, Green, and the other misfits in the vent shop. 

I soon discovered that Roscoe ran illegal card games aboard the carrier. He also smuggled aboard cases of vodka, scotch and other alcohol from Subic Bay and then sold the bottles at sea for a good profit. He reminded me of the colorful rascal military characters portrayed in movies and on TV series like Sergeant Bilko and McHale’s Navy. In fact, McHale’s Navy was one of the reasons I joined the Navy.   

I was a fair poker player and I sat in on Roscoe’s games. Many of the people I played against were poor poker players, so I made a few bucks on my down time. I always gave Roscoe a cut of my winnings, as he ran the games, just as I would have given a cut to the mob guys who ran the card games back in South Philly.  

Roscoe took the money, shoved it into his dungaree pants pocket and said, “My man.”  

On most days, Roscoe locked the shop’s door after working hours and we broke out the booze and partied.   

Another seaman in the vent shop was Leman Knox, a skinny guy from some small town in Florida. He had a serious case of face acne, which he always picked at, and he constantly scratched himself all over. Having known drug addicts from my old neighborhood, I knew he was a heroin addict. He confirmed this later by offering to sell me heroin. I declined his offer.    

Knox was one of those stupid and silly white guys who spoke and acted like a black street tough. Knox thought this made him cool. He called the black sailors “Bros.” Most of the black sailors did not consider his act an homage. They thought he was an ass and they mostly ignored him.  

Green, who possessed a great sense of humor, thought Knox was funny. He did a fine burlesque of Knox acting like a “brother.” He often performed his impression of Knox for the white and black sailors in the shop, and it always brought on great laughter. One day, Green did his impression in front of Knox himself. While everyone was laughing, Knox was clueless and asked what was so funny.     


As we were pulling out a dirty filter one day, Green told me that Knox went to the “Jungle” in Olongapo during the carrier’s previous visit to Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Jungle was the section of the wide-open sin city that black sailors frequented. The black sailors preferred to be segregated and did not take kindly to white sailors intruding on their territory.  

Knox, who must have thought he was an honorary black guy, visited a bar in the Jungle and was promptly beaten severely by several black sailors. Thankfully for Knox, the heavily armed shore patrol happened to enter the bar and disrupted the beating. Knox was bloodied and stunned as the shore patrol took him to the base hospital. 

Green also told me that Knox sold heroin aboard the ship. He said Knox was supplied by a Filipino drug dealer in Olongapo. Knox supported his own habit by selling the drug to other sailors while we were at sea off the coast of Vietnam. Green said that if Roscoe found out, he would boot Knox out of the shop. Booze was one thing, but Roscoe hated drugs.

When two drug users overdosed and nearly died on the heroin Knox sold them, a civilian Naval Investigative Service (NIS) special agent was flown aboard the carrier from Subic Bay to investigate. He interrogated the two sailors who survived the drug overdoses, and both sailors gave up Knox as their drug dealer.  

After Knox was arrested by the NIS special agent, he wasted little time giving up his Filipino dealer in Olongapo, as well as his many customers aboard the ship. He implicated several sailors. I was one of the sailors.  

I was summoned to the legal office where a tall, lean, and lanky civilian was standing behind a desk. I sat down in the chair across from him. He introduced himself as NIS Special Agent Cantrell and he passed a sheet of paper across the desk to me. The “Lincolnesque” special agent from West Virginia spoke slowly and softly with a smooth Southern accent.

“Sign this,” he said.

“Do you mind if I read it first?” 

The document was a confession that I was a heroin user. 

“Sign it and you’ll get a general discharge.” 

I pushed the paper back across the agent’s desk.  

“I’m not a heroin user,” I told the NIS special agent. “And I’m not going to sign that.”

“Suit yourself,” the NIS special agent said softly with a smile. “But if “Ole Boone” discovers that you are using heroin, you will go to prison.”


“That’s me, Ole Boone Cantrell.”

I got up and left the office. 

Thankfully, there was no blow-back on Roscoe Davis due to Knox being his subordinate. Like me, Knox had been a disciplinarian problem who was assigned to the vent shop. For some reason, Knox did not tell the NIS special agent about Roscoe’s extracurricular criminal activities. Perhaps he thought Roscoe would kill him. 


My 30-day detail was coming to an end. Returning to the vent shop one day with dirty filters, Roscoe handed me the phone. Chief Helm was on the line, and he asked me if I was ready to come back to the division. I hesitated, but then said yes.

Roscoe shook my hand.

“If you ever fuck up again, you’ll be welcome back here,” Roscoe said with a wide grin.                       

Upon my return to the Communications Radio Division, I was greeted with handshakes and back slaps. Hobbs, I was told, was assigned to the other duty section, so we would no longer work together. 

Hobbs was so disliked by most of the guys that some of them told me that they wished that they had been there when I punched him out.  

The event was summed up nicely by Willie Henry, who hated Hobbs.   

“Someone now has 30 teeth and a different attitude.” 

© 2024 By Paul Davis 

Note: You can read other Olongapo stories via the below links:

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Butterfly'

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: The Old Huk

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: Join The Navy And See Olongapo

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Boots On The Ground'

Paul Davis On Crime: Chapter Two: Salvatore Lorino

Paul Davis On Crime: My Crime Fiction: 'Cat Street'

Paul Davis On Crime: Chapter 12: On Yankee Station

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