What It Was Like to Be Stationed on a US Navy Destroyer Out to Sea
By Vince Stead
The first time I ever laid eyes on her, the USS DAVID R. RAY (DD-971), a Spruance class destroyer, I was in the Philippines, and the ship was going to be pulling up alongside, our submarine tender ship, I was presently on. I was standing outside on deck, leaning against the rails, and I could see two officers standing amidships, watching their destroyer, getting tied up to us.
It looked small, compared to the submarine tender I was on already. The two officers who were standing on deck, were smoking big cigars. I later learned it was the CO and XO, who had a love, for cigars.
A couple of months later, I would be transferred to, and stationed on the destroyer, I was looking at right now. When I finally did transfer to the USS DAVID R. RAY, I caught up to the ship, while it was on a WESTPAC, which meant, it was out to sea, in the Pacific, and Indian Ocean. When I did get to the ship, and landed on the helo deck, the XO came out, and met me. He gave me a brand new, USS DAVID R. RAY baseball hat. He turned out to be one of the coolest officers in the Navy, that I worked for.
The USS DAVID R. RAY was a fun ship to be on. It had a little over 300 guys on it, and they called it the Cadillac of ships, because it was designed with the enlisted guys in mind. It had more recreational room on board, than most ships in the Navy. On the ship, most everyone is in a duty section, and when you are out to sea, most guys have to stand a watch, maybe once a day, along with their regular work, they perform each day. We were pretty lucky, when we were out to sea, since we were yeoman, our duty, was to be on call, in case the CO or XO, needed something typed up, or something else performed for them.
One example would be, since our ship is small, we also perform the legal duties on board the ship. On a larger ship, you usually might have a legal department, and even a legal officer, who is an attorney. On the USS DAVID R. RAY, the yeoman’s had to take care of all of that. One of my jobs was working at captain’s mast, where the captain passes down punishment, to anyone that has been in trouble, for the week, since captains mast, was usually once a week. Captain’s mast was usually on Fridays, be it at sea, or in port, for our ship. Most of the offenses, were for drug abuse, drunk and disorderly, and things of that nature.
On this particular Friday, It was my job, to write down the punishment handed out at captain’s mast, and make sure it was typed up and all properly done. Well, there must of been 20 different people in the room, when the Captain was chewing out this one guy on the ship, we all knew, who always borrowed money from people, and never seemed to pay it back. It was pretty common for guys to loan money out, they called it “slush” money.
The going rate was usually always 20% interest, on whatever you borrow. There were a few guys, that loaned money out like that, on a regular basis. These days, I guess they call them, check cashing stores now. Anyway, the captain was chewing this one seaman out really big time.
This guy had borrowed money from a lot of people on the ship, and he was in trouble for some other things he had did out in town. The captain was making a list, asking the seaman, “Who else do you owe money to?” The seaman was thinking, and telling the captain, “I owe such and such, this much, and such and such, that much.”
When the seaman was done, the captain asked him, “Do you owe anybody else any money?” He thought about it, and he said, “No.” The captain stood there for a minute, and everybody was quiet, because he was kinda mad, and he was thinking of what punishment to hand out to the seaman, standing at attention, in front of him. I said, “Excuse me captain, but seaman Alma owes me $25 also, that he never paid me back yet.” The captain got so mad. He left the office, captains mast was being held at.
A few minutes later, we all heard the captain on the 1MC, which is the loud speaker system, for the ship. He said, “If seaman Alma, owes anyone on this ship, any money, report to the XO immediately.” The captain had Seaman Alma, call his mother, and explain to her, that he owed lots of people money on the ship, and if she could send him any money.
Later, the next day. The XO calls down to the office, from the Squak box, which is a two way communication system with loud speakers. He said to come up to his office. When I got to his office, he handed me $25, and said I was the first person to be paid back. The captain ended up ordering a discharge from the service for Seaman Alma. This guy knew he owed me $25 still, because I was looking at him, and he knew he owed me money, but did not say anything. I knew I would not get my money back, when he told the captain he did not owe anybody else, so I spoke up.
One time, we were out to sea, and everything was going fine, when there was a fire, in one of the compartments. It ended up being a small trash fire. The petty officer of the watch, who is supposed to sound the fire alarm, and announce over the 1MC, that there is a fire, so the guys on the ship, can immediately take care of it. The worse thing that can happen at sea on a ship, is a fire breaking out, or flooding. We are trained non-stop about fighting fires, and the Navy takes it very seriously.
There is no one that is going to come out and put a fire out for you. All the guys on the ship, are trained in fire fighting, in order to qualify for watches, and new pay grades. Well, when someone called the quarterdeck, to report the fire, the petty officer of the watch, who was a Philippino guy, grabbed the 1MC, and he was so excited, he started yelling his announcements out, in Tagalog, his native language.
Well, all the Philippino guys, were running around, and the American guys, did not know what was going on, but we figured it out eventually.
Being on a destroyer, is pretty cool from a young guys standpoint. We are one of the deadliest ships in the Navy. We can blow up stuff underwater, because we have torpedoes, and, we can blow up other ships or targets, far away. We can hit airplanes, missiles, and rockets, right out of the sky. A destroyer has a ton of different kinds of weapons systems on it, and they’re just cool.
We were also a nuclear weapons ship. Since I had a Secret clearance, it was one of my jobs, to be a key holder to the nuclear weapons magazine. You cannot open the door up, to work on anything, unless you pass by a security person sitting in front of the magazine. Just to open up the magazine, it took two keys just to turn off the alarm, to go into the compartment, we were called, FZ key holders.
It was supposed to be performed by senior enlisted personnel, and young officers. Well, since my duty section leader, thought I was above the average person for regular work, he had me standing petty officer of the watch, when I was just a seaman still. I liked being a FZ key holder, as my watch, there were two teams, gold and blue, and we took turns each day.
Now I don’t know anything about nuclear stuff, and I don’t even have an interest in it, pretty much. All the guys, that were in that department, seemed like they were all the kind of guys, that were nerdy, in school, and now they were nuclear guys. But man, they sure get a lot of bonuses from the Navy. If you have a kid, and they want to join the Navy, or you want to join the Navy, you should do something with nuclear stuff, and you will make a lot of money. They give some guys, re-enlistment bonuses, more than I would even make in the Navy in a year. Those guys were spoiled, with extra money.
When you first leave port on a ship, the food you eat is really, really, good. You usually get 4 meals a day, breakfast, where they will even make your eggs to order, in the morning there will be one cook, and if you want your eggs special, he makes them for you, to order. Then you go threw the chow line, just like a buffet at a restaurant.
If you are still hungry later, you can put your dirty tray away, you eat on, with your plates and stuff, and go and get another tray, and get back in line, to eat again. You get breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then a 4th meal, that they call, mid-rats, is when they usually serve more food, around midnight, for guys still hungry, and people coming and going off of watches. The 4th meal is usually just a cold cuts, and hamburgers.
When you go out to sea, you have fresh milk, fruits, and other items, that won’t stay that fresh after a week or so on the ship, so we eat those items up first. If you ever have to stay out to sea for a long period of time, you eventually start to run out of food, and each meal seems to be a cold cuts, and whatever else they could find. Then eventually you will get new supplies from a port visit, or a supply ship will meet us in the ocean, that has all your favorite things on board, and then we have good meals again.
In our berthing, that we all sleep in, we shared it with the guys from the supply department, who are the cooks, barbers, store keepers, and the quartermasters, who are the guys that actually move the ship, from place to place. And then there is us, the executive department, who were all pencil pushers. Life on a ship for a pencil pusher, was pretty easy really. We did not have to stand any watches, well rarely ever did we have to stand a watch. We all had do perform duties during emergencies and drills on the ship, as everyone would have some task or assignment during emergencies.
We had a helicopter, that went with our ship, whenever we would go out to sea. So we had to always have about 20 guys on the flight deck, that do certain jobs, like crash and salvage, rescue, fire fighters, and they get paid extra flight deck hazardous duty pay, in their paychecks. Well the teams where supposedly called blue and gold teams, again. Each month, since the ship was trying to save costs, and they were always on a budget, it seemed. They said, they wanted to pay, each team, flight deck duty pay, every other month.
One month, the blue team is supposed to get paid, and then next month, the gold team is supposed to get paid, but both teams, do the work together, each month. Well, everyone from our office, that was on the flight deck, made sure we got paid every month, since we typed up the paperwork, to submit to disbursing, for our paychecks, and we made sure our names were on it each month.
The captain had 2 sleeping quarters on the ship. He had one amid ships, that was a big stateroom, with private bath, living quarters, and separate bedroom. Not like the 100 or so guys we had packed into our berthing space. The enlisted guys, sleep 3 racks tall. If you were a kid, and had bunk beds, you would of had 3 of them high, as a kid. Your bunk lifts up to a locker underneath, about 1 foot deep, and as long as your bed, and you would also get a stand up locker, to keep items in, and that was it for storage space, aboard the ship.
The captain’s other stateroom, was called his “at sea cabin”, which was smaller, and was right next to the bridge. The captain used both quarters all the time, and they were very nice quarters, for a smaller ship.
On the USS DAVID R. RAY, we liked to play poker when we were not working sometimes, and we were out to sea. We used to use one of the dry storage food rooms, that one of the supply guys had a key to, and was in charge of. It was way down low in the ship, and nobody would ever hear a bunch of guys, swearing, cussing, and playing poker. No officer ever figured out that a bunch of guys were below, playing poker for money. We also had, at times, when out to sea, we would have teams, and we would play the game monopoly, for money. We would play in teams, and gamble, to see who wins.
When we played poker, the supply guy in charge of the room, would have a big box of sugar packets, and you had to buy your sugar packets from him, and that was your poker chips. If anyone ever did come, we would of just said we were playing for sugar packets. I won a lot of money, playing poker on the ship, sometimes.
One of the weirdest things a bunch of guys might of did, for a long time, aboard a U.S Navy Destroyer, was when we were in port. About 15 of us, would stop at lunch time, and take long lunch breaks. We would all go down to the berthing, and watch the TV show, The Young and the Restless. I guess that show has been on for so many years now, as I have never watched soap operas before, and you could go down in the berthing during lunch time, while you were in port, and there would be 15 or so guys sitting there, with the lights off, watching the Young and the Restless, including me. I can still tell you most of the characters from that show. A bunch of Navy sailors, caught in TV drama land.
Half of the office took 90 minute lunches most days, so they could eat, and then watch the soap opera, TV show. The only shows we got to see, out to sea, were movies that the ship showed, in the crew’s mess, each night. And then there were TV sets, in almost all the working, and sleeping rooms.
They showed TV shows or movies, that the ship had already recorded earlier. Only one time, did the ship allow the guys to use the ships powerful ships antennae’s when we were out to sea, and that was because the captain was cool, and let the ship link up, so we could all watch, the world series, live on TV, and everyone watched those 5 games out to sea, had a blast.
We had this one black cook on the ship, that everyone thought was gay. He for some reason, had no eye brows, and he was just different, everyone thought. One night, the police arrested him in downtown, San Diego, dressed up as a woman, for soliciting men on the street, and they arrested him. The police turned him over to the shore patrol, which brought him back to the ship, and into our berthing. They searched his locker, and found all kinds of woman’s panties, bras and more. He was transferred from the ship that night, and I assume discharged from the service.
One time, my friend Mark, who I ended up opening a store up with, we were both out of the Navy, was having a party, because he was getting married. We were at his apartment, and I lived on the ship still. We were all wearing ties and nice clothes. Well, through out the night, somehow, we must of all got so smashed, because all the guys were all wearing just ties now, and no shirts. I was one of them.
Well, I must of been so drunk, because I remember trying to put my keys in the car door, but I could not do that, and I passed out right there, in front of the car door. Well someone must of called the police, and the Navy shore patrol, which usually patrolled the streets, since there were so many navy guys everywhere, found me. They took me back to the ship, in just my tie, and handcuffs. I did not get in trouble for that, it was only for my own safety that they take you back to the ship. These days, I’m sure you get in a lot more trouble than the punishment they used to give us.
When I was still new on the ship, and it was stationed in San Diego, I decided to buy a car. Well, if you live on the ship, they don’t really like you to have a car, unless you are an E-4 or above, because there is limited parking at the base. Well I bought one anyway, and I would park it in various spots on the base, while I was there. Sometimes I would get caught, but most of the time, I would not. I ended up with 6 tickets in all, for parking violations, on the base.
I was an E-3, and my car would keep getting tickets. One day, I finally had to go to the Navy court, and the judge that had my case, told me, he was kicking me off base for 6 years, One year, for each ticket I did not take care of. There was nothing I could do. I parked my car outside the base, where it was in more of the seedy side, part of town, in San Diego. It is where, the hookers used to walk up and down the street, right next to the base. My car, ended up getting broken into twice, but never stolen, while I parked it right outside the base, for one year.
My commanding officer wrote a letter on my behalf, when I asked him if there was anything he could do, to help me. So they lowered it to one year for me to not be allowed to drive on base, and then I finally was again allowed to drive on base, and park with no problems, because I moved up a pay grade, over that year time frame.
Vince Stead has 13 books up for sale so far, and one called “Navy Fun”. He was in the navy for 8 years as a Yeoman, and he visited 16 countries, and went around the world in 1986. He was on a destroyer, a submarine tender, a short stint on an aircraft carrier, and 4 years shore duty at a VAW squadron.
He has worked for himself for the last 20 years, and lives in San Diego.
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