Sunday, November 15, 2009

Not All Liberty Is Created Equal

SAN DIEGO – In my last column, Navy liberty slipped into the subject matter again.

Today’s Navy has greatly reduced liberty calls. Ship crew swaps at sea, security considerations due to terrorism, and shorter deployments to improve the sailors’ “quality of life” have cut down liberty calls.

In my time at sea, long deployments (nine months was the norm) were simply the way it was. Married officers and sailors groused about being away from their families. But they also considered they had two inalienable rights:

“A griping sailor is a happy sailor” was one such right. Complaining about everything, including long deployments, was exercised vigorously. Another right was hitting liberty ports with gusto on long deployments. Sailors simultaneously bragged and complained about these “arduous” adventures.

Now they can’t.

In previous columns, I have extolled my liberty ports, even bragged some folks might claim. But all liberty was not equal.

USS Hawkins

Allen Ernst, my leading sonarman on the “U.S.S. Hawkins” recalled one which for me was not so wonderful.

In 1969, the “Hawkins” was in Guantanamo Bay for three months of refresher training. Days started at 4:00 a.m. to check spaces for watertight integrity before the inspectors arrived.

By 6:45, I reported to the bridge to stand Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) at Sea Detail entering and leaving port. Once at sea, I was in a five-inch gun mount, in “Underwater Battery Plot” for submarine exercises, or on the bridge for General Quarters. We would get back to the pier around 6:00 p.m., have the wardroom meal, and write training reports, usually hitting the rack (bed) around 11:00 p.m. The process was repeated each weekday.

On weekends, the ship was in “port and starboard” duty sections. One-half of the officers and crew stood duty while the other half went ashore Saturday and Sunday. Liberty consisted of going to the Officers Club pool and bar and an occasional softball game.

When Ocho Rios, Jamaica was announced as our liberty port, I was excited. In addition to the great beaches, the Caribbean Playboy Club was there.

A Long Weekend

We dropped off the trainers 5:30 Friday and turned toward Jamaica. During Sea Detail, the Captain informed me he had qualified me as Officer of the Deck (OOD) underway, and I would be in charge of the ship in one three-section watch rotation.
Being the most junior OOD, my first watch was the “Mid-watch” from midnight until 4:00 a.m.

Sea Detail secured about 7:00 p.m. I grabbed a bite, retired to my stateroom, compiled after-action reports, and hit the rack around 9:30. I awoke at 11:15 to go on watch. Being relieved at 3:45 a.m., I went for some much needed sleep. It was 4:15.

Reveille sounded at 4:30 and Sea Detail was set.

The ship reached pierside about 8:30. As the morale and welfare officer, I greeted local representatives to set up tours for the crew. I was then informed my duty would be Shore Patrol officer for Saturday. I met the local police coordinator and took a tour of potential trouble spots. The tour ended at a police station downtown designated as Shore Patrol Headquarters, where I coordinated patrols and the return of offending sailors back to the ship.

After some wild evening events, the day’s shore patrol duty concluded. Reporting aboard, I then had to deal with a drunk torpedoman who wanted to go AWOL. Sleep claimed me at 3:00 a.m.

Thirty minutes later, reveille sounded. An ore ship came in early, and we had to shift to a mooring.

Liberty: Not

During this five-hour Sea Detail, the watch coordinator informed me the officer assigned Sunday Shore Patrol had not been told and had stayed in a room at the Playboy Club. Consequently, I went back to Shore Patrol.

Liberty ended in the early afternoon. Sea Detail was set, and looking aft, I watched Ocho Rios become smaller and smaller, just like my liberty. We secured Sea Detail at 6:30. I had the evening watch (8:00 p.m. until midnight). I slept like a rock until 3:00 when we set Sea Detail to return to Guantanamo and begin our training day: no liberty and five hours of sleep in 72 hours.

I thought then, “Nobody is going to believe this.” I am still not sure you will. But I know all liberty is not equal.

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