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Navy getaway little work, lots of play

One of the benefits of having lived a long life is that one can look back on so many experiences and perhaps benefit from them as “lessons learned” that can influence other decisions, or perhaps help direct the lives of others so that they are less apt to stray.

What follows is an account of one of the more traumatic episodes of my life which admittedly goes back many years which I might title “The Navy giveth, and the Navy taketh it away,” which sounds like Scripture, with the “the Navy” substituting, perhaps not inappropriately, for “the Lord.”

My first duty station after graduating from Officers Candidate School was Naval Station Guam, a small outpost on the 30-mile long, 5 to 8 miles wide island’s Orote Peninsula. Guam is quite tropical as it is located on the 13-degree meridian above the equator, and is located in the Western Pacific some 8,000 miles from the U.S. mainland.

The peninsula was the scene of a suicidal “banzai” attack against U.S. forces by saki-fueled Japanese troops in the 1944 battle to retake Guam, which Japan had seized after attacking Pearl Harbor.

My orders were to relieve an officer named Stewart Mott at the station’s communications facility who had charge of a classified publications library, electronic equipment records and the operation of an electronics (ET) repair shop and of an harbor entrance signal tower.

Mott gave me very good instructions as to my duties, and there was an arrival-departure picnic for the two of us held at Gab Gab Beach, the station’s “swimming hole” which was a pool cut into a reef that was protected by a steel shark net at its open end.

Also attending the picnic were the station’s communication’s officer, Jerry Stoller, his wife as well as Mott’s wife, who had worked at a Navy supply facility while the two were on the island. Stoller, who was also leaving the island, led me in a swim off the peninsula’s reef, which plunged sharply down into the depths of Apra Harbor and was my first swim in tropical waters.

I had little trouble fulfilling my duties on the station, which also included weekly or so security watches on “Nimitz Hill,” where there were quarters for both enlisted men and officers and their families.

One of my ‘“duties” during these watches was to attend the evening screening of films held at an outdoor theater where there was a roofed area for officers and their families. The films were usually poor, and I would often just stand at the upper end of the theater area and gaze out at the twinkling lights of Guam below.

Since my office tasks in the air-conditioned communications facility did not quite fill an accepted working day, I would occasionally drive out the signal tower for a break. (I had my own car, which was shipped out to Guam from San Francisco after I had driven it there from Erie.) I would also stop at the ET shop, housed in a very large Quonset hut which was manned by just two sailors. There were perhaps a dozen quartered at the signal tower.

From the tower, where I would chat with the sailor on duty, I could look down on the deep but narrow harbor entrance channel, and look north over the Glass Breakwall which was built after World War II to protect Apra Harbor. With the aid of binoculars I could see in the distance the rising slopes of Rota, the island in the Marianas Chain closest to Guam, where there are now luxurious resorts which cater to a clientele of increasingly prosperous Asians .

Guam has undergone a somewhat similar transformation, but has retained vital U.S. Navy and Air Force bases.

I do not pretend that my duties on Guam were challenging or even that they were important to the Navy’s needs.

The registered publications library I managed on Guam was an extensive one, subdivided into several safes with combination locks. The library was in need constant attention, as the Pentagon was always sending out changes to its publications. But the library was obviously there for emergency use. Since these were few and far between, its utility was questionable.

“I can’t believe that you are a Class 5 holder,” a young officer who worked in the Guam classified publications distribution center once remarked to me, referring to the size of the station’s inventory.

I contrast my role on Guam to the Navy experience of my childhood friend, Harry Mueller, who died not long ago at the Erie Soldiers and Sailors Home. His obituary in the Erie paper said that Harry had spent three years as an officer on a destroyer deployed to the Mediterranean Sea.

My immediate superior at the office was Lee Hensley, a Texan who replaced Stoller and had majored in theatrical set design in college. Hensley loved to play bridge, and spent much of his spare time up on Nimitz Hill playing that game with the wives of senior officers.

Every afternoon after work I would drive to Gab Gab Beach for a swim, and then enjoy dinner at the station’s officer facility where we were served as we arrived at long tables with white tablecloths by black waiters. The cooks were Filipinos.

The officer quarters at the station were just rows of 4-man Quonset huts. Mine overlooked the station’s inner harbor above which rose Mt. Lam Lam, Guam’s highest peak. Sharing my hut were a dentist who was later succeeded by a Catholic priest, and by a representative of the Red Cross and a junior officer who liked to host poker games in the hut’s common space.

I spent my evenings reading on a comfortable chair and listening to music on a phonograph in a far corner of my bedroom outside of which grew a large papaya tree. The noise of frequent tropical downpours on the hut’s corrugated steel roof was often deafening.

Until conditions that led to a pleasant year or so on Guam abruptly ended, I spent most of my weekends playing golf on the island’s Armed Forces Golf Course, a very attractive layout located on the northern half of the island not far from Andersen Air Force Base.

My almost constant golfing companion was Jake Cummings, a first class radioman who worked in the same facility as I did. Cummings was a competent communications specialist, but had apparently run afoul of Navy brass and spent the remaining months of his enlistment on Guam.

“I’m getting out of this canoe club,” was his rather bitter Irish-tainted refrain.

In my spare time I also enjoyed donning flippers and a mask and swimming along the edge of the reef that extended from Gab Gab Beach to the harbor entrance. The sneakers I fitted into the flippers allowed me to walk back to Gab Gab along a beach littered with sharp pieces of coral.

My “beachcombing” also included a couple of trips to a reef on the eastern side of the island, where the ocean floor sloped off into the Marianas Trench, where the Challenger Deep is the deepest spot in the world’s oceans.

My little world on Guam collapsed after I returned to the island after a short excursion to Japan.

Both my nominal boss, Lee, and my golfing companion Jake, left as their tours on the island were over.

I was given Lee’s job, and a young officer was brought south to the station from his post elsewhere on the island and given my job. I was also taken off the pleasant watches on Nimitz Hill and assigned to evening and night duties at the station’s nearby rather unpleasant barracks.

The switch in job assignments left me with virtually no duties at the station, like one of the “salarymen” in Japan who are given just a desk and a window to look out of by a company seeking to reduce its payroll.

I wish that I could say that my situation greatly improved when I was next assigned to a communication facility in Yokosuka, Japan.

But the situation became difficult there too, as the facility was manned 24/7, and was short-staffed. I spent almost 18 months having to “work” (our duties there hardly qualified for this term) shifts that allowed for very little free time. But I did enjoy frequent train trips to Tokyo on my limited spare time.

I basically joined the Navy to avoid being drafted. Was it worth it? I doubt it, but I did get to live on a South Seas island, and to later reside in Japan where the people follow a way of life so different from ours.

My return to Erie was quite a letdown.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for more than 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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