Monday, January 11, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 20- USNS Jupiter and Diego Garcia

The CIA had many “fronts” in the 1970’s. Among them were different airlines. Evergreen Airways was one of those. They would be taking us to Diego Garcia on a 21 hour flight from Butler Aviation Terminal in New Jersey via a fuel stop in Athens , Greece. But first you had to get on that plane.

From the moment I approached Butler I knew that this was not going to be an ordinary flight. To begin with there were traffic cones placed to narrow the traffic down to one lane- checkpoint. Then there was the long line to wait for your pre boarding search, conducted by man, machine and dogs. Guys were literally throwing out any drugs they had stashed. Diego Garcia was owned by the British and known to be drug free. And I mean drug free.

The tossing away of good drugs seemed such a waste to me and so I set about picking them up. I even picked up the discarded cocaine, which I did not use. I’m too skinny and nervous for that. Before long I had quite a stash! But what to do with all of this windfall? I had long considered myself to be adept at getting things through, but with the dogs and extensive screening I was perplexed. But not for too long.

I got a hero sandwich and some aluminum foil. I opened the sandwich and placed all the drugs I wanted inside. I rewrapped this twice in foil. This would blur the x-ray imaging sufficiently to pass. I then took a qualude so that I would look and sound drunk. Then I got a shot of Jack Daniels and poured it on my clothes and rubbed some on my face like after shave. Presto- I am an average drunk!

After waiting in line it was my turn to approach the dogs and the x-ray machine. The dog went crazy! I reached out in a drunken fashion, slurring my words as I said, “What a nice doggie! Want some of my sandwich?” The dog began to bark and strain at the handlers leash. I was made to put the sandwich and all the other junk I had bought on the conveyor to be x-rayed. While this was happening a pre cursory inspection of my sea bag was taking place. No worries there. Stepping through the x-ray arch I was asked to open the sandwich. They saw bread and told me to close it. Due to my slurred speech and drunken demeanor I was signaled out to be served no liquor in flight. Mission accomplished.

Settling into my seat at the rear of the plane I surveyed my fellow passengers. 300 government employees ranging from Regular Navy to Military Sealift Command personnel, like me, with a smattering of State Department employees thrown in for diversity. This was going to be an interesting flight!

I immediately recognized an old shipmate named Slim, from the Pawcatuck. His real name was John R. Battle and he was a Third Engineer. But at 6’7” tall he was known as Slim. He was black and from Philadelphia. He was also a friend of Mr. Eldridge and the 3 of us had become fast friends aboard Pawcatuck. He got a seat near me in the rear of the jet. We had good access to the toilet and so we could slip in and catch a buzz whenever we wanted during the flight.

The poor stewardesses really caught hell on this flight. They were approached by every guy aboard seeking to join the “mile high” club. The ladies smiled but you could tell they were annoyed. And as time went on the guys got more and more drunk. This made them even more crude in their behavior towards the stewardesses.

There was a jump seat behind the last row for the stewardess to sit in. I noticed that one particular stewardess was using this seat almost exclusively. Thinking nothing of it I went about my business, listening to music, reading, getting high etc.

As it became dark the cabin lights were extinguished. I was looking out at the stars and kind of talking to myself as I identified the ones I knew. A gentle tap on my shoulders caugt me off guard. It was the stewardess. She asked me what I was doing and I started to point out stuff that let me gauge our course. She then slipped into the seat next to me. She told me that I was the only guy aboard that had not asked for sex. I laughed and told I her I never fished in barren waters. Besides, with 300 guys and only 6 stewardesses I could be in Diego Garcia before my turn came! Not to mention that I was sure the girls were really turned off by all this attention.

So we spent a lot of the flight together, chatting about our lives and travels. We also shared a love of writing poetry. I was really beginning to like this flight!

Landing in Greece we were told we had a 3 hour layover. I set out to get a cab and take a spin about Athens. I had been there before but wanted to go back to the Parthenon for a quick photo. Big mistake!

First I had to clear Customs. Arriving from the US and then going through Customs with no baggage caused some concern. But I got out. Grabbing a cab I imparted my intentions to the driver. About an hour later I had a funny feeling and signaled the driver to turn around and head back to the airport.

When I got there and went through Customs all sorts of red flags stood up. I had just gotten to Athens, deplaned with no luggage and one hour later I’m going through Customs to leave Athens. I was grilled in some form of English by the head guy and then cleared when they realized I had US Government orders to catch a flight. These flights were priority flights as there was only one every 8 weeks.

Racing through the airport I arrived at my gate only to find everyone gone! Worse was the fact that I could see my plane slowly taxiing to the departure line! Thinking fast,or not thinking, I sprinted through the emergency exit and onto the tarmac. Racing out toward the plane and flailing my arms while shouting was the only thing I could think of to do, so I did.

Two jeeps with machine guns and soldiers appeared, converging on me in a vee formation. Raising my hands and holding my Orders aloft I pointed at the plane and myself. They finally got it- I had missed my plane.

A tanker truck was produced and I climbed atop it just at the area of the forward hatch to the plane. The hatch was opened and the co-pilot, laughing, reached down and pulled me up. I walked down that aisle to my rear seat amid applause and cheers from 300 amused Americans, some of whom I knew!

Safe aboard we took off and headed South. That night we crossed the Equator by air. Jane sat beside me and later wrote a poem about it- and me. We were becoming pretty friendly- not sexually- just friendly. And it felt really good to be the only guy in 300 that she really would spend time with. Towards the end of the flight we exchanged contact info and she said we would see each other again. Right…

Arriving in Diego Garcia was a very tedious affair. Diego Garcia was run by the British and drug free. I mean it. They even confiscated tee shirts that said Panama Red! They took my photo of a friend named Helen smoking a hash pipe! They were nuts! It was only by carefully shuffling things about that I was able to retain my stash. The entire process took 12 hours inside a sweltering airplane hangar with no food. We kept reminding the Brits that we had won the Revolution and saved them twice from the Germans, but they were unsympathetic to anything we had to say.

Diego Garcia was a strategically located harbor in which to place a Pre Positioned Force. We needed to be able to insert at least one combat Division and all it’s logistical supplies into the Middle East. The down side was that the private companies sent their oldest ships and least qualified personnel there and collected millions for it.

We were anchored on station, about 4 miles from shore in the middle of the most beautiful lagoon. This meant we almost never went to sea. I spent most of my time swimming, running, playing handball against the superstructure and fishing.

Diego Garcia is in the British Indian Ocean Territory where commercial fishing is banned. But fishing for pleasure is not. So we had a great diet of red snapper, shark, octopus, and everything that we could catch. We also had C-5’s landing daily with steaks and lobsters from South America and mail out of the Philippines. A letter from the states took about 9 days to arrive. It was heaven except that there were no women!

In the evenings I ran through the jungle screaming, coming out by the shore and swimming about ½ mile a day. I also did push ups every mile on the 7 mile run to the airport. I was gaining weight for the first time ever. I was about 146 pounds! I used to tell the Bosun, a mean Cajun fellow from Louisiana who was about 6’3”and 225pounds that when I hit 150 I would kick his ass. Every night when I came back from running I would weigh in. Bosun was always there looking over my shoulder and he always had a cookie for me to help me reach that goal. I am glad I never did!

But Bosun had a separate feud going with Eldridge. And soon it would involve me! As I have stated previously, Eldridge was 1/8 black, or Octoroon, making him legally white. Bosun, who was also from Louisiana was ¼ black, making him a Negro. No kidding, this was law in Louisiana when they were kids growing up. Although it meant nothing to me, it meant a great deal to them.

Realizing how close Eldridge and I were infuriated Bosun. He would never tangle with Eldridge as they were both of equal size and strength. But one day things came to a head.

Bosun had tasked me with a garbage detail. It was not mine to do but I didn’t care and went to do it. Eldridge saw this and was infuriated. Approaching Bosun he demanded that I be relieved of this duty. Words were exchanged and they parted. A few minutes later Bosun approached me with a length of timber and said, “Here, hold this.” As soon as I took the timber Bosun hauled back to punch my lights out! Quickly I stepped to the side and back. With a quick movement I landed the timber on his feet and took off. This man could kill me with one punch! I went to the Captain to report the incident. He asked me if Bosun had “connected” with the punch. When I said he hadn’t the Captain said- “Well then, no harm done.” Infuriated at this I picked up a paper weight and swung at him with it. He flinched before starting to yell at me about assault and filing charges on me. I smiled as I said, “What’s the problem? I didn’t connect.” I was thrown out of his cabin but count it as a victory. A truce was arranged between Bosun and I by Eldridge.

The Jupiter was not an oil tanker like I was used to. It was a Roll on/Roll Off vessel used to carry and transport vehicles like cars etc. We carried tanks, jeeps, cherry pickers and all things military. And accidents happen. And when they do I have found that your enemy will sometimes come to your aid faster than a friend.

It was about 3 in the morning when I slammed a hatch on my hand and the pain was unbearable. I was sure to lose a nail or two- but the pulsing pain was really a problem. Bosun saw me walking the deck and asked me to come to his cabin. Taking a pin he heated it up with his lighter and then twirling it like a drill bit he bored through my nail, releasing the pressure. I have to admit that I didn’t trust him, but I was in such pain that I would have tried anything.

Around this time there were pirates in the Indian Ocean as well as the Straits by the Phillipine Islands. Just like today. These were the only times we went to sea; looking for pirates. Several years ago I wrote a short piece about this. If you will excuse some redundancy I will reprint it here and then pick up the narrative.

Her Majesties Law

Back in 1981, the summer to be exact, I was stationed in the Indian Ocean as part of the US Naval Logistical Supply Force in Diego Garcia. It was there that I first observed those characteristics so unique to the English; the “stiff upper lip”, and “never say die” etc. for which they are known the world over.

I tell the tale with some trepidation, in that over the years since these events occurred, I have, at the urging of family and assorted friends alike, told and retold the story; and as the old adage notes- All tales get better with time and the re-telling.

And so it is with this; that I may have inadvertently created the classic yarn- a “sea story” if you will-without ever having meant to do so. For in my mind this is the story exactly as it happened.

One of our collateral duties that summer of 1981, as support to the British Governor of Diego Garcia, Lt Cdr Wells of Her Majesties Royal Police, was to go out on pirate patrol every two weeks and scour the seas and neighboring islands in the archipelago for gun runners and drug smugglers. Our story concerns the gun runners.

Diego Garcia is the main island in an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is located 900 miles from Madagascar off East Africa, several thousand miles west of the Philippines, roughly 1200 miles from Sri Lanka to the North, and of course to the South by thousands of miles is the Antarctic.

Now Diego Garcia is literally a speck in the midst of the great vastness of the Indian Ocean. It is horseshoe shaped, and at 34 miles long with its’ widest point one quarter of a mile, it is not very large at all.

Our closest neighbor was some 60 miles to the Northeast, a sister island, considerably smaller, named Peros Banhos. While Diego Garcia had been used by the French as a coconut plantation up until World War II, when it became an outpost manned by India under the auspices of the British; Peros Banhos had never been anything but what it was- a volcanic eruption in the midst of nowhere-destined for nothing.

Now our story begins with the Governor of Diego Garcia, the aforementioned LtCdr Wells of the Royal Police. A short (4’11”) knock kneed man who wore khaki shorts and knee socks, Lt Cdr Wells was known, despite his appearance, as a tough man. We were about to find out just how tough.

As I said before, we were tasked on the USNS Jupiter with the twice monthly blessing/curse of conducting pirate patrol to the Northeast at Peros Banhos and as far East as the Philippines. I say cursed/blessed to make clear the point that while no one really enjoyed all the work involved in “getting underway”, we were quite glad to be going anywhere at all, as we were officially “on station”, welded to our anchorage in the lagoon at Diego Garcia as part of the Rapid Deployment Force for instant insertion in the Middle East in the event of another crisis on the order of the taking of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1978.

Sometime in July 1981 we received word from aerial reconnaissance that there were people on Peros Banhos and we were sent to investigate.

The 28,000 ton Jupiter was gotten underway with all the usual stress/strain attendant to such an endeavor, for the 60 mile journey to Peros Banhos. Once there, we put the engines on standby and lowered the 40’ utility boat away. We headed toward the island with Lt Cdr Wells attired as usual in his khaki shorts, knee socks and combat boots.

We had intended to go as close in as possible with the 40’ boat and use the Zodiac raft we had trailed behind us should it become necessary to cross over shoals or coral. We never got the chance however, for just as we were about 15 feet off the beach, at that point in these islands where one can stand thigh high in the water, where small shark play and feed, we observed ashore, a man startled by our arrival, jump up and race away into the jungle growth. He was carrying an automatic rifle, what looked to be an AK-47.

Now make no mistake about it, we were well armed ourselves, with several M14’s and 16’s. In addition we each carried a .45 caliber automatic and plenty of spare clips.

My clearest memory at this point is of LtCdr Wells jumping out of the boat and into the water, running through the maze of startled shark and fish alike, toward the shore, shouting at the very top of his lungs, “Halt! In the name of Her Majesty the Queen!” The man paid no attention to this and lit out for the jungle with no hesitation whatsoever. LtCdr Wells was off and running.

I looked at Joe Cardinute, the bow hook, and he at Jeff Kindle, the boat officer, who looked back at me in incredulity. Should we be following the unarmed Lt Cdr Wells into the jungle in pursuit of the armed man, who had by now surely warned his compatriots and who was now undoubtedly waiting in ambush?

It is with a modicum of shame that I report to you that we did not follow Lt Cdr Wells into the maelstrom. I did, however, gain the courage to shout after his retreating form, “Cdr Wells-You are unarmed!” Never breaking stride he looked back and fixing me with a contemptuous glare replied- “Williams- I am armed- with Her Majesties Law!”

More incredulous looks passed between us still on the boat as Lt Cdr Wells disappeared into the jungle, and as afar as we could tell- to his certain death.

We sat- quietly rocking in the boat, as the waves lapped at the sides, waiting for what we felt was the inevitable eruption of gunfire. We were fully prepared to get underway if necessary and beat back to ship at a moments notice.

Fifteen quiet minutes passed; minutes with no sound save that of the waves licking our hull. We were now completely puzzled, 3 Americans, all young and full of piss and vinegar-who on any other occasion would have no qualms about getting into a fight-ANY fight, yet here we sat-armed to the teeth-immobilized as we waited for this ugly scene to play itself out; when out of the jungles edge came a single file of 6 men, hands clasped behind their heads, eyes lowered and looking as if the principal had just caught them smoking in the bathroom.

Behind them marched Lt Cdr Wells, 5 riles slung every which way on his small frame, casually holding the sixth rifle in one hand, pointed at the sky. His calm expression gave way to a boyish grin when he saw us-in the exact same position as when he had left.

No one spoke a word as we loaded the prisoners into the 40 footer for the return to the Jupiter; with the exception of Lt Cdr Wells, who, regarding me with a bemused look said “Williams, I told you I was armed!”

End of her Majesties Law

By November my contract was up and I flew back to the States. We arrived at Newark Airport at 5:30 in the morning. Customs was there to greet us but we had nothing to declare. Diego Garcia was considered isolation duty so Customs was a mere formality.

As I stepped out of the terminal Bosun Browning approached me and asked me to watch his bags. He went to the bathroom. Quickly I took his bags and threw them into a waiting cab. Handing the driver a $50 bill I said, “Here, take these and I don’t care what you do with them!” I grabbed the next cab in line and headed to Brooklyn.

It was 6:30 AM by this time but still too early to wake Mark and Lois so I checked into a hotel in Sheepshead Bay. I was freezing! I had gotten so used to the warm weather that anything below 70 degrees chilled me. It was 28 degrees outside!

I stayed with Mark and Lois for a few days and then headed South to see friends in Florida. But they were having mild weather so I headed West to see my cousin Mary Ellen and her Dad, my Uncle Roy in San Diego. He was a retired navy Captain. I stayed with Mary Ellen and we went down to Tijuana and shopped abit. I really liked a little leather jacket and was getting set to pay for it when Mary Ellen stopped me. Looking at the man who owned the place she indicated that we were newly weds and rubbing her tummy indicated we were expecting! This cut the price by about a third!

From San Diego I went to visit Joey Hickeys old girlfriend Debbie in L.A. where she was living with the guy she would eventually marry. After a week there I flew back to New York and stayed with Mark and Lois for a couple of weeks.

My plans had been to get enough sea time to enable me to sit for the Coast Guards Third mate Exam. This license would allow me to serve as Third Officer on any ship, any tonnage and in any ocean. I was going to brush up my navigation skills at Captain Ellisons’ Baltimore School of Navigation, located on Commerce Street across from the Customs House in Baltimore. It was also down the street from Baltimore's famous “block.” This was the remnant of a once bustling Vaudeville and Burlesque district.

On January 11th I left New York for Baltimore and the next step in my journey.

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