U.S. Navy

6. The Ney Award

In WESTPAC there was an honor awarded each year called the Ney Award. It was for the best feeding ship in WESTPAC. I have no idea how this award originated but, as I remember, the PICTOR was given the award for several years running during my tour aboard. Of course, we were a floating grocery store, and that gave us a leg up on most of the other ships in the fleet. There were, however, a number of other AFs (Auxhilary Refridgerated) in WESTPAC, so what made the PICTOR so special?

Frankly, I am not surprised we received this honor. The food was quite good aboard our ship. In addition, and this may seem counter-intuitive, the enlisted mess was better than the officer’s mess. They had better cooks than we did. In the officer’s mess all the cooking was done by the stewards and they were, to a man, all of Filipino descent. They were good sailors, obedient and conscientious, which is why they made good stewards. Had they been allowed to cook in their native tradition our food might have been more exciting, but they faithfully followed the standard Navy cookbook and its recipes. That book was not a work of art from a culinary point of view, but it did make a point of supplying recipes from all the different regions of the United States. The first time I ever ate okra, a traditional Southern vegetable, was in the ward room of the PICTOR.

Where Good Things Happened

Where Good Things Happened

I frequently heard  grumbling among the officers about the quality of our grub, but I never once heard such a complaint from the rest of the crew. In fact, it was just the opposite, I often heard the sailors say good things about their cooks. Navy regulations required every meal served in the enlisted mess to be sampled by an officer, and this was a duty that we actually looked forward to.

1st Class Cook Eddie Moton ( I think )First Class Cook Eddie Moton ( I think )

How did this unique situation come about? Who gets the credit? Well, I was not a party to all the goings on behind the scenes, but the name I heard mentioned the most was a First Class Cook named Eddie Moton. My cruise book says that Moton was from Oakland, but I seem to remember that he was originally from Texas. Moton was something of a culinary artist, plain and simple, and that kind of artistry is a difficult thing to maintain when cooking three meals a day for 200 men. He was especially good at barbecue, and his barbecued ribs were to die for. If you were the officer who had the duty to sample the crew’s mess when Moton was barbecuing ribs you were the envy of wardroom; and if you used this as a bargaining chip there is no telling what you might obtain in trade.

(click on image for larger view)

So, in my book, the PICTOR’s success with the Ney Award is directly attributable to First Class Cook Eddie Moton and his crew.

For the final chapter of my experience with the USS PICTOR click here.

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Saturday, February 13th, 2010 U.S. Navy 5 Comments

5. Mary Soo

Mary Soo was one of the more remarkable individuals whose path crossed mine. She and her crew of mostly women would contract to paint an entire Navy ship while it was anchored at Hong Kong. Hong Kong was always the high point of every WESTPAC cruise, liberty was generously granted. One of the things that made this possible was Mary Soo and her outfit. Typically, we would stop in Hong Kong for a full week of rest and recreation (R&R).

Here is a panorama of Hong Kong harbor showing Navy ships anchored out in the bay —there were no port facilities:

Hong KongHarbor

Hong Kong Harbor

Upon arrival Mary Soo or one of her lieutenants would come aboard and work out a deal to paint the ship. Sometimes she would do the job just for the right to the garbage from the ship’s messes. Because Hong Kong was a liberty port, and a good portion of the crew was ashore at any one time, much of the food prepared aboard ship went unconsumed. This was carefully packaged and turned over to Mary Soo who sold it here and there in the city. It was sometimes wryly observed by seasoned salts that food purchased by sailors ashore might have been had for free aboard ship.

Because Navy regulations prohibited paying foreign nationals in cash for work accomplished on the ship, other means of compensation had to be found. Garbage was one solution, but the PICTOR was quite experienced in these matters, and we would usually load up with war surplus scrap metal in the Phillipines before proceeding to Hong Kong. Mary Soo was always delighted to see all of that stuff, especially if there was brass invovled.

After the deal was completed, a small fleet of sampans would arrive and an army of mostly women would file aboard to start painting. We provided the paint and they did the work. One reason that most of them were women was because Mary Soo also ran an orphange. She would “buy” unwanted female children and raise them in her orphnage. She probably saved the lives of many girl babies in this way. When the chilren were old enough to work they would join the ship painting effort. As workers they were paid a small wage, but this was put into an account for them which they would receive in full upon reaching adulthood. After that they could stay with Mary Soo or make their own way in the world. Sometimes some of the small children would accompany their older counterparts out to the ship. They didn’t actually come aboard but would stay on the sampans alongside. I remember on one occasion looking over the side and watching several girls of about age five or six playing on the stern of one of the boats. One of the girls was blond and fair. Needless to say that was highly unusual. I wasn’t close enough to see her facial features, but she was speaking fluent Chinese. I assume she was one of Mary Soo’s orphans.

The workers were always dressed in ragged, paint-covered clothes and they all wore the conical coolie hat as protection from the Sun. It was almost impossible to tell what they looked like. Instead of brushes, they used rags or textile waste to spread the paint. The few men there were used long poles to paint the sides of the ship from sampans moored alongside. They were a good natured bunch and there was much laughing and joking between the girls and the PICTOR’s deck force.

Because the PICTOR was such a good paying ship, May Soo always threw a big party for us at the end of the week. It was at this party that I first saw Mary Soo in person. She looked to be about eighty years old at the time (1963), yet she was obviously a very shrewd business person. The big surprise at the party, however, was the girls — they were gorgeous! They all wore their best party dresses, had their hair done and their makeup on. Our first reaction was these can’t be the same girls that painted the ship, but they were.

Several years after I left active duty I read in the newspaper that Mary Soo had died.  It made the news all over the world.

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Saturday, February 6th, 2010 U.S. Navy 9 Comments

4. What’s in a Name

Aboard the PICTOR MARU (as she was affectionally known to her crew) there were usually 17 or 18 officers, and when not on duty, they would congregate in the wardroom which served as a lounge and officer’s mess. Quite a few of the officers were from California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. This being the case many of them spoke at least a little pigeon Spanish. There was one supply officer of Greek descent. His name was Sotir Lukakis (last name changed). Since we were a supply vessel we had a fairly large contigent of personnel involved in supply functions. Sotir had a division of men that reported to him and his top petty officer was a first class of Mexican descent named Jesus Menendez (last name changed).[For the purposes of this story when Jesus is in itialics read it as the spanish pronounciation of Hey-soos, and when not in italics read it as the English pronounciation of Gee-sus].

Sotir seemed fascinated with the idea that someone would actually have the name Jesus. One little scene that took place in the wardroom frequently involved  Jesus arriving with some papers that required Sotir’s signature. Sotir would take care of the business and then Jesus would be on his way, but as soon as he was out of hearing distance Sotir would invariably comment  to those officers that happened to be present, “Can you imagine naming your child Jesus. That is really wierd.” An episode of this nature would repeat itself once or twice a week. The other officers who had some familiarity  with spanish knew that Jesus was a common name in latin American countries, and they saw nothing unusual in that name. Most of them thought Sotir was somewhat strange to bring up the subject as often as he did, but after a while they just started ignoring him when he went on his little rant.

Sometime after our first trip to WESTPAC I went home, on leave, to visit my folks. When I arrived at my parent’s place in the middle of the afternoon my mother and a little old lady friend from across the street were having tea and cookies, so I sat down with them to chat. The neighbor was Greek by birth, and I saw an opportunity to clear up a point I was curious about. I asked her:

“Does the name ‘Sotir’ have a specific meaning in Greek?”

“Why yes, it means savior”

Oh Ho! Now I began to see the humor behind Sotir’s fascination with the name Jesus. After my leave, I returned to the ship armed with this new information, but I kept it under my hat. It didn’t take long. Late one afternoon when most of the officers were gathered in the wardroom  Jesus arrived carrying some documents for Sotir to sign. As usual, after he had left Sotir started in, “Can you imagine naming your child Jesus? That is really weird.” As usual, everybody just ignored him. I let a few seconds pass and then I spoke up:

“Hey, have any of you guys ever wondered what the name “Sotir” might mean in Greek? I just happened to run across this little fact the other day.”

Everybody stopped what they were doing and looked up at me.

“Don’t tell me ‘Sotir’ means ‘Jesus’ in Greek,” one officer exclaimed.

“No, but close. It means “savior'”

Well, that brought down the house.

“HOW DID YOU FIND THAT OUT?” Sotir shouted  over the laughter.

Poor guy, from that day on they never called him anything but “savior” in the wardroom.

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Saturday, January 23rd, 2010 U.S. Navy No Comments

3. Classified Material

My first assignment upon reporting aboard the PICTOR was Assistant Navigator, and this was more or less at my request because the subject interested me, and they didn’t have anywhere else to place me on short notice. Later, however, a new officer came aboard who was a direct transfer from the California Maritime Academy. He knew navigation, but was not really up to speed on things “Navy.” As a result, I was made Communications Officer and he became Navigator. There was no way I could avoid it, I had, after all, been formally trained for that position.

Being Communications Officer meant supervision of radiomen and signalmen. These were a good group of guys, smart and motivated, so not much supervision was required on my part.


It also meant being in charge of encryption and decryption of classified communications, and that consumed  the bulk of my time. Classified communications usually arrive designated either CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, or TOP SECRET. Being as we were an auxiliary vessel and not a combat vessel there was hardly ever anything classified above SECRET. In addition, each message was also assigned a precedence dictating how quickly a message had to be processed. These were ROUTINE, PRIORITY and FLASH. Sometimes it was difficult to understand why certain communications were categorized as they were. For instance, if a message came in while I was in my bunk sound asleep, which was designated SECRET and PRIORITY it meant  a radioman had to roust me out of my sleep to go and decrypt the message without delay. We actually received very few messages with this type of designation, but one that always came that way was the monthly WESTPAC Venereal Disease (VD) Report. This report ranked each of the usual Navy ports of call in the Western Pacific by the number of cases of VD per one thousand liberties. What was so SECRET about that? Why the PRIORITY precedence? After a while I would, upon discovering the nature of the report, shut down the decryption machine, go back to my bunk and finish the process at a decent hour in the morning.

After I had been Communications Officer for a period time, the Executive Officer called me into his office to tell me I was being assigned the collateral duty of Classified Material Control Officer. I reminded him that I was only cleared up through SECRET and I knew that we had at least one TOP SECRET document aboard the PICTOR. “No problem,” he informed me. At the Captains discretion they were giving me an interim TOP SECRET clearance which would be specific to this command. He then gave me the combination to the TOP SECRET safe which was located in the crypto room and sent me off to my new responsibility.

Well. . .okay. I went directly to the crypto room, opened the safe and took out a single envelope stamped, in big red letters, TOP SECRET. I remember reading this document and feeling as if I were privileged to some kind of holy of holies. The nature of this document was such that I can tell you its nature without divulging its secret. In fact, I have long ago forgotten the actual secret. Remember, this was circa 1963 and the cold war was in full swing. The secret was simply a longitude and latitude somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (I never bothered to plot it on a chart). This spot was to be a rendezvous where whatever was left of the U.S. Navy would assemble should WWIII break out, resulting in a full nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR. It assumed that the only thing left of the Navy might be ships that happened to be at sea at the time of the war. How long would such a war last, an hour maybe, an hour and a half? At any rate this was where where the remainder was to gather, scratch their heads and try to decide what to do next.

One is strongly reminded of the novel by Nevil Shute entitled On the Beach (1957). The story imagines a circumstance as described above.

First Edition Cover

First Edition Cover

It was made into a movie with the same name (1959) starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardener. The phrase “on the beach” is a long-standing naval expression used to describe the location of any crew member who has left the ship and gone ashore. I wonder if the book and movie in any way influenced the document I viewed in 1963.

The radio shack also had a machine that was considered okay for use up through SECRET. As I remember it was called JASON. It involved messages which were scrambled by a random number generator when sent and unscrambled upon receipt. It was the wave of the future, unlike the hand operation in the crypto room which, I think, was called ADONIS. I remember one unique occasion when I was awakened in the middle of the night:

“Mr. Mason! Mr. Mason! We’ve got TOP SECRET coming through in the clear on the JASON system!”

“What? That’s impossible!”

“No! No! it’s true. You had better come and take a look!”

I threw on some clothes and stumbled up to the radio shack. I was greeted by the first class radioman.

” Sir, I cleared everybody out there and sent for you. We’re only cleared for secret.”

I went in, sat down in front of the teletype machine and started reading. Sure enough, the message began TOP SECRET, FLAG OFFICERS ONLY (Commodore or above). Whoa! I certainly wasn’t a flag officer, but I read the message any way. It wasn’t my mistake.

At that time the Vietnam situation was just beginning to heat up, and as I remember, the message was simply an evaluation of the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into South Vietnam. My reaction at the time was: “This is TOP SERECT? I read this in Time Magazine.”

As I was reading, the machine suddenly came to an abrupt halt! There was a pause, of perhaps a minute, and then it came to life with: DESTROY THIS MESSAGE IMMEDIATELY! or words to that effect. Apparently someone at the communications center had loaded a tape on the the wrong system and the mistake was caught in progress.

These things all happened almost fifty years ago, and I sincerely doubt that they are of any signifigance today. One thing is for sure, WWIII hasn’t  happened yet so I am still here and  able write Uncle Rob’s Sea Stories.

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Sunday, January 17th, 2010 U.S. Navy 1 Comment

2. U.S.S. PICTOR (AF-54)

After receiving my commission from OCS, I was ordered to Naval Officer Communications School also at Newport, Rhode Island. It was located adjacent to OCS and came under the same general schools command. The training was aimed at qualifying officers to be in charge of communications for a ship. It was a two month program and I lived at the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) where I shared a room with another officer. It wasn’t much but it was a big improvement over the barracks at OCS. The training was mainly in radio communication and encryption. The main encryption device that we used was a copy of the machine known as “The Enigma” used by the Germans during WWII. It was used for classified messages up through the level of SECRET. I don’t have any good stories to tell about that training. It was all fairly routine, and upon completion I received orders to the USS PICTOR (AF-54) at Alameda, California. After a short leave I reported  aboard late one rainy afternoon. The PICTOR was a refrigerated stores ship and it got underway for WESTPAC (Western Pacific) the very next day. Here is what she looked like leaving the San Francisco Bay:

Underway from San Francisco

Underway from San Francisco Bay

The PICTOR leaving SF Bay

The PICTOR leaving SF Bay

As I remember, crossing the Pacific took about two weeks. I was told that it was an unusually rough passage, and I recall being seasick most of the way. However, one does get used to that kind of thing eventually, because for the following two years that I served aboard the PICTOR I was never seasick again. I got my sea legs so-to-speak. The PICTOR was 460 feet in length, had  beam of 63 feet and a loaded draft of almost 26 feet. Her dead weight tonnage was 6946 tons. I seem to remember her maximum speed was about 16 knots. She had five holds, two of which were refrigerated. Her primary mission was replenishment at sea of other naval vessels. We were, in essence, a floating grocery store. Here are some shots of what it looked like when she was doing her job:

Destroyer Approaching to Starboard

Destroyer Approaching to Starboard

Destroyer Alongside

Destroyer Alongside

(Click on image for larger view)

Groceries for a Carrier

Groceries for a Carrier

Being as I was a brand new Ensign, I was junior officer aboard the PICTOR. Among officers, that spot is often referred to as “George.” If there was a duty that nobody else wanted to do it was always “Let George do it.” Somewhere along the line it was decided that a “Cruise Book” should be produced for this particular trip to WESTPAC and, you guessed it, “George” was selected to oversee this effort. Upon reaching Japan, that meant a number of trips to Tokyo to deal with the Daito Art Printing Company. All in all, this was a very interesting experience, and I learned a lot about Japanese culture in the process. Daito had a very nice guest house in which they put me up, and I was treated royally. I can remember thinking “yeah. . .  let George do it.” Here is what the cover of the book looked like as designed by “yours truly”:

Cruise Book

Cruise Book Cover

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Friday, January 1st, 2010 U.S. Navy 1 Comment

1. U.S. Naval Officer Candidate School

Around the beginning of 1961 it became fairly obvious to me that my number would soon come up for the draft. The cold war was in full swing and the draft boards were active. I already was leaning toward the Navy because of my new found interest in things nautical. In addition, there were three reserve Naval Officers in the office where I worked at the time and they went on a campaign to convince me to go for a commission. One of them told me that I might work at it for the rest of my life and never achieve the status of “gentleman” but if I got a commission in the military I would automatically be considered a “gentleman.” I’m not sure how important “gentleman” status was to me, but I was also told that being an officer would give me supervisory experience that would look good on my resumé. Well . . . okay, I decided to go for the commission.

At that point in my life the shortest route to a commission in the Navy was Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. One of the basic requirements for acceptance into OCS is that you already have a college degree, and I had a BS degree in engineering from Oregon State University. So I made the right connections, took the test and was accepted into the program.  Another factor in my decision was that I had read The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk when I was in high school. It  contains fascinating descriptions of OCS at its inception during WWII. I found the whole idea intriguing.  So, come the middle of May I entered the school and began the four month process to make me a Naval Officer. Candidates entered OCS in an enlisted status, SAOC (Seaman Apprentice Officer Candidate) and received their commission upon graduation. If you failed to graduate you remained enlisted for the rest of your obligation. Here is what we looked like early in the program:

I'm in

I'm in This Picture Somewhere

Before I left for OCS I met a fellow who had been through the school before me and he advised me to volunteer for the duty of mail clerk. He said the constant company of sixty other guys can be quite wearing and the only person who gets to be by himself for short periods is the mail clerk who gets to walk to the post office twice a day and pick up the mail for the company. What good advice, and how I relished those walks to pick up the mail. Other than that it was live together, eat together, sleep together, attend classes together and march together every where we went. Here is the barracks in which I lived with sixty other guys for four months:

Home for

Home for Four Long Months

Instruction came in six different academic divisions: Seamanship, Navigation, Operations, Weapons, Orientation and Engineering. My favorites were the first two because they were general knowledge that anybody who was going to do anything at sea should know. Engineering was fairly easy for me because I already had an engineering degree and my former instruction was still fresh in my mind. However, many candidates without engineering degrees often had trouble with that category. Then, of course, there was marching. We were thoroughly instructed in how to march.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the program we were issued OTUs (Officer Type Uniforms). It was the khaki version and was essentially the same uniform worn by Midshipmen 4th Class (Freshman) at the Naval Academy. At about that same time our liberty privileges were increased and we were often free on the weekends.

Newport, Rhode Island was a very nautical town. Besides the Navy presence there were large harbors for boats and yachts. One of my favorite pastimes when on liberty was wandering up and down the docks of the various boat harbors and gazing at the vast collection of boats. People who take part in this activity are sometimes humorously referred to by boaters as the “Shore Committee”.

On one such occasion, while I was engaged in this pursuit, I came across a famous yacht with which I was familiar from reading various sailing magazines. It was the PINTA (name changed) a schooner which every year took part in the Bermuda Race and, as I remember, on at least one occasion, won the race. She was an absolutely beautiful yacht and, although it was basically the same rig as the LA BAÑERA, it was a “swan” whereas my old boat was an “ugly duckling.” It was meticulously maintained and as I was standing there drinking in its every detail, a duffel bag was suddenly tossed from the cabin to the top of the main hatch. On the bag in big broad letters was the word “ANNAPOLIS.” It was followed shortly thereafter by a young man with a neatly trimmed crew cut. He immediately saw me standing there gazing down at the boat.

“Are you a plebe?” he asked. I was wearing my OTUs.

“No, I’m an OC.”

“What’s an OC?”

“Officer Candidate” I replied.

“Well, you look like a plebe to me.”

Plebe is the term for 4th Class Midshipmen (freshmen) at the Naval Academy and is derived from the Latin “Plebeian.” We had a short conversation during which his attitude was arrogant and condescending. It turned out that he was a was on his summer break between his third and forth year at the Naval Academy. When he returned in the fall he would be a 1st Class Midshipman (senior), an upperclassman. During the conversation I realized he wouldn’t graduate until the following June at which time he would receive both his degree and his commission. On the other hand, I already had a degree and since I was more than half way through the four month program at OCS I would receive my commission long before he did. That, in turn, would mean that  in our future naval careers, if all other things were equal, I would always be considered senior to him. I can’t remember my exact words, but I informed him in an off-hand manner of this little circumstance, then I executed a snappy RIGHT FACE and sauntered off down the dock, as casually as possible, making it a point not to look back.

I have to say that after you have marched around continually for four months with sixty other guys you do get rather good at it, and toward the end we looked more like this:

The End Product

The End Product

Finally, graduation time rolled around. We all attended the ceremony and at the end tossed our hats into the air as was traditional. We also observed another little tradition at OCS; after you were commissioned you paid a dollar to the first enlisted man who saluted you. Knowing this, the Chief Petty Officer assigned to our company  stationed himself strategically on the steps of the barracks, and as we all returned from the commissioning ceremony he collected an easy sixty bucks.

One Newly-Minted Ensign

One Newly-Minted Ensign

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Saturday, December 19th, 2009 U.S. Navy No Comments