Ravings of a Half-Baked Coot

by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

I keep returning to the impersonal nature of naval engagements in our technological age.

Two hundred years ago, naval warfare took place at 'biscuit-tossing range'. Men stood behind gunports and slammed shot down heated bores, ran the guns 'back to battery' and jerked lanyards that sent salvo after salvo across a small expanse of ocean. They watched the immediate effect of their effort… Masts fell… Tackle and sail crashed to the deck… Chunks of smashed gunwale flew everywhere… Broken railing sailed through the air… And the toll taken in blood and bone was plainly evident.

In the ensuing years, the range increased to the radius of the horizon. Ship to ship… Men to men… Only aircraft carriers did their business beyond the visual limit of the horizon. I never had to deal with any 'out of sight' targets during my tour. Once combat contact extended beyond the horizon, beyond visual confirmation of effect, naval warfare lost something. Submarines became seagoing platforms to UPS packages of extraordinary devastation to impersonal destinations where entire multiple zip codes disappeared… And there was absolutely no risk or interruption of the boat's scheduled routine. No longer did a four-fish spread guarantee a boat would enjoy several hours of depth charge evasion… No longer did men in the conn rotate to get a scope view of a target going down. No longer did crews get instant confirmation of their combat effectiveness.

The World War II submariner did not have to await battle damage reports gathered by daylight photo flyovers by the Air Force… He simply counted the number of Jap bluejackets doing the breast stroke in the burning oil and applied the multiplier required by the class vessel… And the Old Man pulled out his copy of Jane's and drew an 'X' through the appropriate name and description.

This generation of boatsailor cut his teeth on Nintendo games.

Our generation grew up in a world of highly personalized adventures where the good guys sunk the bad guys and RKO brought it to your neighborhood movie house, to bait the gang hooks supplied by local Navy recruiters.

There was no GI Bill… There was no 'Let us pay for your education' either… There wasn't even a 'We want you and will do whatever fifty doo-dah dance you require' in order to join.

No, in the fifties, they said they would give you $34 every two weeks, three squares and a flop a day, a world of unique wonders… And a free bus ride to Great Lakes.

We watched 'Silent Service'… We recognized that Dolphins didn't come cheap… Atomic propulsion was still a novelty and at eighteen, your view of the future ended 'next Wednesday'. We knew that the new subs wouldn't last… Ships were supposed to slice through the water, not push a fifty-yard bow wave. Arleigh Burke would never buy a concept where his ships would leave a wake wider than the Los Angeles freeway.

My view of combat sailoring always involved sweating, powder-blackened or greasy bluejackets, loading, firing and reloading. Victory was decided within sight.

No slight intended, but I feel fortunate that it was that way all during my tour. I was an old fashioned kid… Grew up on pirate books… 'The Romance of Fighting Sail'… Scrapping toe-to-toe… Slugging it out… Boarding and bringing about a result by pistol and cutlass.

And Silent Service the TV show was the flypaper that sucked in a daydreamer from East Tennessee.

Interesting thought… Do high school girls daydream in algebra class of sweating in a forty-millimeter gun tub, slamming flak up at Jap planes? Do they ever write 'Handling hot shell on a five-inch thirty-eight' in the blank that reads 'Occupational preference'? Did they ever go up and down a busy highway searching for enough empty pop bottles to buy a movie ticket for Operation Pacific? Do they stay an extra hour at the beauty parlor to hear an old gal tell about rough days and hard times in the service? Do women have 'No shitters'? Just a thought. I'm not trying to light the fuse to bring out the lunatic fringe, I truly wonder. If they are going to put 'em on combat boats… Undersea war vessels, you wonder when the 'Call of the Bluejacket' hits them. It's sure going to make peeing down the forward room pit log well during battle stations an interesting event.

It's a good thing the Dept. of the Navy doesn't send some clown to your house to pick up your Dolphins when you grow old and start rubbing folk's fur the wrong way.

Great thing about the boat service… You can always find five or six guys who'll agree with you if for no other reason than the enjoyment submariners get from bar brawls…

None of this will get me on Hillary's Christmas card list.