Sunday, June 9, 2024

Missing The Boat

As I’ve noted here before, I grew up in South Philadelphia not far from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the USS Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1961. 

My late father, a former WWII Navy chief and UDT frogman, took me to see the commissioning of the U.S. Navy's new aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, when I was a young boy. I recall the grand ceremony that launched the new, majestic warship, with banners flying, bands playing and people cheering.  

I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970 when I was 17. I reported to the USS Kitty Hawk after two weeks leave after graduating from Boot Camp in 1970.

Prior to shoving off to Southeast Asia for the aircraft carrier’s 5th Vietnam War cruise and serving on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, and visiting port of calls in Hawaii, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo, Japan and Hong Kong, the aircraft carrier was undergoing a major overhaul in Bremerton, Washington.  

With memories of the new carrier that I saw at the commissioning in my head, I was somewhat disappointed as I looked up at the ship and walked along the port side of the ship tied to the pier.

The aircraft carrier looked to be in major disarray. The Kitty Hawk was undergoing an overhaul, and the ship was being taken apart and put back together.  

But things soon looked up. Rather than being assigned to mess cook duties, a rough and dirty job, like other new sailors, a petty officer in personnel who hailed from Philadelphia took pity on me and assigned me to Special Services. I performed a variety of duties there, but my main job was to assist in the running of the shipboard TV and radio cable throughout the ship. The Kitty Hawk was the first warship to have cable TV and radio.

After some weeks aboard the carrier, I took a break one day and left the ship to go for a hot dog and a soda. When I returned to the pier sometime later, I discovered that the aircraft carrier was gone.

I was in shock. I sat down on a shipping crate, looked at the vacant pier and pondered my fate. I heard much talk about the carrier sailing to San Deigo once the overhaul was completed, but I didn’t recall anyone saying that this day was the day.

I thought of what the penalty was for missing ship’s movement, which I knew was a serious offense. I was worried. I was a seaman apprentice, “lower than whale shit,” as the saying goes. Could I be busted in rank? Tossed in the brig? Kicked out the Navy?

But mostly I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be ridiculed and thought of as a stupid “Boot.”

I thought of myself as a street-smart South Philly kid, and although I had only been in the Navy a few months, I thought I knew a lot about the Navy. I learned a good bit about the Navy from my Navy veteran father, my many conversations with former and active-duty sailors, and from my voracious reading about the Navy.

Yet here I was sitting on the dock of the bay like the Otis Reading song, wondering where my ship had gone.

I was about to turn myself in to the first Navy chief I saw, when I saw the Kitty Hawk coming back.

 I was elated.     

The tugboats helped the carrier return to the pier and backed the aircraft carrier in, stern first. Apparently, the carrier had pulled out to go to wider water so the ship could maneuver and then return to the pier and be tied up on the starboard side.   

As my terror subsided, a joke ran though my head - the ship's captain realized I was not aboard, and he turned the carrier around to come back and get his missing seaman apprentice.  

I then thought of the expression, “missing the boat.”

For a brief awful time, I thought I did in fact miss the boat.

I would not tell anyone this story for 20 years.

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

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

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