I will not use his name. Fearing that he might have children or grandchildren who may not want him portrayed as I will tell about him, I will just call him “Old Sailor.” He was old the first time I saw him.
I, myself, a fresh, young just-promoted Radioman Petty Officer Third Class, with almost everyone else from OC Division ashore on liberty, was the division’s senior petty officer on duty aboard the destroyer USS Ernest G. Small (DDR-838) moored at the Bravo Piers in Pearl Harbor that late afternoon now 44 years ago.
I was in the radio shack, and the shrieking sound of the ship’s sound-powered phone went off. I answered and was told that I was needed on the quarterdeck. There, I saw Old Sailor for the first time, without a cover on his head and wearing white bell bottoms and a blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt.
The young ensign who was the Officer of the Deck handed me a packet containing Old Sailor’s orders and service record and said, “He’s a Signalman First Class, get him squared away in Ops. Despite his rank, you are to remain as OC’s acting senior petty officer. I don’t want to see him again until he is in a proper uniform!”
Without a word, Old Sailor hefted his seabag and followed me forward and below to Ops berthing, living quarters for the men of the ship’s Operations Department. The radarmen were starboard, the electronic technicians were in the middle, and OC Division, comprised of radiomen, signalmen and quartermasters, were to port, all in all about 50 men in super close comfort in a space only a little bigger than my kitchen and den. The head was one level above and featured two showers, four sinks, one trough and five thrones situated in a two-facing-three configuration requiring interlocking knees when all used at once.
In the berthing area, the racks were canvas stretched on aluminum frames with one side resting in a bulkhead bracket and the other side suspended from chains, allowing for the racks to be “thriced-up” for access to the square lockers beneath them. The contents of a full seabag would just barely fit into one of those lockers with a little space left over for hiding a sandwich or some other precious personal item. Old Sailor spotted a rack that suited him and flung his seabag upon it, declaring, “I’ll take this one!”
I advised Old Sailor, “That one’s taken.”
Old Sailor asked, “Is it yours?”
I replied that it was not mine but belonged to a second class signalman. Old Sailor sneered and said, “Well, it’s mine now!”
I told Old Sailor that I was going to the ship’s office to turn in his papers and had to stop by radio. I asked, “Are you staying aboard or do you want to go on liberty?”
Old Sailor looked at me as I were crazy and said, “Liberty.”
I told him I would get him a liberty card and told him that the liberty uniform was dress tropical whites. I inquired of Old Sailor, “You got a clean uniform?”
Giving me the same look again and using more expletives than substantive words, Old Sailor informed me that he had what it took to go on liberty. I hastened on out of there, pondering what impact Old Sailor’s arrival would have on things in OC.
After turning over Old Sailor’s papers to the duty yeoman in the ship’s office and getting our new first class signalman an overnight liberty pass, I went back below and found Old Sailor girded in a towel, fresh out of the shower. Straightaway, Old Sailor asked, “You got any hair tonic?”
I answered, “No, I don’t use the stuff, but you can find some there in Gleason’s ditty bag.”
Old Sailor’s eyes followed to where I was pointing and reached into the little bag fastened to Radioman Second Class Gleason’s rack and found a bottle of Vitalis. Unscrewing the bottle cap and wiping the bottle top with his hand, Old Sailor turned it up to his lips and took a heavy pull. Then, offering the bottle to me, Old Sailor asked, “You want some?”
I declined, and Old Sailor took another pull and, before returning the tonic to Gleason’s bag, announced, “Not bad!”
Dressing for liberty
We made small talk while Old Sailor dressed for liberty and, soon, he was ready to go, looking pretty good in well-fitted tropical whites. Snapping to a quick attention, Old Sailor inquired, “Do I pass muster?”
Shaking my head in a “no” motion, I advised, “The liberty uniform is dress tropicals, and you have to wear your ribbons.”
Old Sailor emphatically replied, “I’m not wearing my ribbons.”
I reminded Old Sailor that the Officer of the Deck said he did not want to see him again without a proper uniform. I emphasized, “Given the way you arrived here without a cover and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, I do not think you ought to try going on liberty without your ribbons.”
Old Sailor uttered a string of expletives in describing what the Officer of the Deck could do and headed out. Shortly, he was back, still cursing!
Old Sailor asked if he could wear my ribbons. I told him he could not wear my ribbons. I had only one and that would not fly because obviously Old Sailor had been around long enough to have earned more than a single ribbon, though I was prone to then and there wager that he did not have a good conduct ribbon.
I explained my logic and urged Old Sailor, “Surely, you have some ribbons.”
Very reluctantly, Old Sailor dug into his still mostly unpacked seabag and came out with a little wooden box containing medals and ribbons. He had ribbons!
Old Sailor’s ribbon rack was fuller than displayed on the uniforms of most Admirals. Turns out, Old Sailor had lied about his age to get into World War II, and had all the campaign decorations for countless engagements in WWII, Korea, and already two trips to Vietnam. Old Sailor had more than campaign ribbons. He had ribbons for valor and stuff that I did not even recognize. I realized that I was standing in the presence of a likely hero who had experienced a big chunk of history. Old Sailor did not, however, have a good conduct ribbon!
Old Sailor’s ribbons made the whole side of his tropical white shirt sag. I went to the Quarterdeck with him just to see the reaction of the Officer of the Deck, himself an ensign and, like me, sporting only one ribbon. I carried Old Sailor’s little wooden box with me. It held his medals and other special decorations. With one look at Old Sailor’s ribbons, the young ensign was struck dumb! I explained, “Sir, this man does not want to wear his ribbons because they are too many to comfortably wear on a tropical uniform.”
I displayed Old Sailor’s little box and asked the young officer, “Can’t we just let him put his ribbons back in this box and wait for him to wear them when he has on his dress blues?”
The young officer gave Old Sailor a crisp salute and advised, “Permission to go ashore. You leave your ribbons with Petty Officer Dyre.”
Old Sailor returned the salute, removed his ribbons, handed them to me and ambled across the gangplank. The next morning, Old Sailor returned to the ship, drunk as a coot and wearing another Hawaiian shirt!