A few months out of college, followed by a sixteen-week course on how to be a naval officer, author Thomas F. Jaras found himself standing bridge watches on the USS Vance in the middle of nowhere, providing navigational aid for aircraft flying to the polar ice. Now, almost fifty years later, Jaras recalls the three years he spent aboard the Vance in the 1960s, on the ramparts of the Cold War.
In his memoir, In the Trough, Jaras attempts to understand his love-hate relationship with the USS Vance, an insignificant radar picket ship that supported Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic Ocean for a year and then spent two years on the Pacific Distant Early Warning Line. He describes life on an endurance ship afloat in midocean, battling eighty-foot walls of water crashing over the bridge.
In the Trough chronicles Jaras's transition from a boy to man as he dreamed of life ashore during long weeks at sea that were punctuated by short, intense visits to terra firma. Young, inexperienced, and naïve, he feared the best years of his life were being wasted at sea. He searched desperately for women, love, and a normal existence while ashore for precious short stints in Tahiti, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii. Despite three stressful, unhappy, and difficult years at sea, Jaras acknowledges a tearful departure but promised himself to never go to sea again.
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In the Trough
Three Years on Ocean Station
By Thomas F. Jaras
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Thomas F. Jaras
All rights reserved.
Arrival in Paradise
July 21–August 23, 1961
War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.
—Ambrose Bierce, journalist and writer (1842–1913)
Cold War Living
In 1949, while I was dreaming of the cute brown-haired girl in the front row of Miss Lang's fifth-grade class at St. Jerome's Elementary School, the Soviets went and exploded their first atomic bomb. We, meaning we Slovenian and Irish residents on Cleveland's east side, had lost our leading position in the world now that someone besides us had a nuclear capability. But had we really lost our dominant world position? The commies' bomb achievement led to a second problem. The problem reminded me of the man who built a boat in his basement and then found the finished product too large to get out of the house. The Soviets had the bomb, but they lacked a delivery system capable of threatening the continental United States. Not understanding this fine point about delivery systems, we went about the urgent business of stockpiling canned foods and dreaming about home bomb shelters that only the wealthy could afford. We glossed over the tricky business of how to avoid breathing radioactive fallout. We avoided thinking too hard about what there were no answers for—similar to the approach our parish priest advised when we expressed religious doubts. We let ourselves be guided by government or the church, the organizations with all the facts.
By 1954, when I was painting rooms at the East Shore Motel after school at Collinwood High, the Soviets took advantage of my being preoccupied and introduced a new long-range bomber capable of delivering nuclear warheads to our cities. The boat was out of the basement and threatening to sail. The news didn't stir up the neighborhood because we were already frightened just knowing the Soviets had the bomb. The government had never bothered to explain the need for a delivery system. Stockpiling food and digging bomb shelters continued, but with less enthusiasm. The Korean War came and went. The Cold War remained a threat to the neighborhood, but it was no longer a new threat. The Cold War was now a part of our lives, a necessary familiar part, like dikes to a Dutchman.
While I went on to complete high school and attended college in the mid- and late 1950s, the Department of Defense was busy countering the Soviet threat by establishing a continental air defense system. We civilians were too busy with our daily lives to be aware of these countermeasures, much less the details. We were all familiar with the much-lauded and highly inadequate air defense Nike missile systems that dotted the urban landscape. The Nike base in my Cleveland neighborhood proved to be an excellent relocation, a Siberian gulag of sorts, for some annoying eighty-eight squirrels my father trapped in our yard, transported in the trunk of our 1948 Plymouth, and released in the wooded area around the Nike site—squirrels condemned to life as exiles from our house on East 146th Street. The Nike missile defense, while inadequate for protecting the cities, at the time served to reduce our fear of being incinerated. I had no idea how the squirrels managed.
The Nike was a stopgap measure while the government built a better system, an offshore early warning system that would allow our interceptor aircraft time to destroy the Soviet bombers before they reached the continental United States. Of course, I was oblivious to this massive undertaking, having my own problems to contend with: the social tortures of high school, followed by the academic hell of a college engineering curriculum. My personal problems didn't stop the Defense Department in 1954 from establishing two radar barriers to guard the Atlantic and Pacific sides of America. By 1957, as I was trying to salvage my failing grades in calculus and chemistry at Colorado School of Mines, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was established to operate a developing network of land-based radar stations in Canada and Alaska, with radar ship and aircraft platforms three hundred miles offshore and beyond, and interceptor aircraft bases. In the west by the late 1950s, the Pacific Distant Early Warning System, commonly referred to as the Pacific Barrier or Pacific DEW Line, extended from Alaska to the Midway Islands. A similar barrier was established in the Atlantic.
The US Navy appeared about as excited over this mission as I was over my calculus class, perhaps because of the tremendous resources required, the static task of manning a fixed position in midocean, and most important, the irritation of being under the overall control of the US Air Force. I imagine it was either get on board or let the US Air Force develop its own little navy to man the Pacific and Atlantic Barriers. In the Pacific, the US Navy's task was massive. It included assembling the navy's largest air squadron to fly the route and a squadron of destroyer escort radar picket ships to occupy ocean stations, all to be eventually headquartered in Hawaii.
Thousands of sailors, airmen, civilian technical support contractors, and dependent families arrived in Hawaii and the Midway Islands in support of the mission. In July 1958, as I relinquished all thoughts of an engineering career and transferred to Marietta College in southern Ohio, the USS Vance (DER 387) sailed from Hawaii to arrive on ocean station, the first ship on the Pacific Barrier. How was I to know that the Vance was to leave an indelible mark on my life?
Two years later, I was nearing my immediate goal, a college diploma. Beyond the campus, little had changed. Americans remained preoccupied with the Cold War. Since childhood, my generation had lived with this long -worrisome confrontational horse race. Dad would be in the backyard at night with binoculars to catch a glimpse of Sputnik passing overhead, an effective advertisement of Soviet superiority. The news media provided an unending running commentary on the nose-to-nose arms race for technological superiority. The troublesome domino theory, foreseeing the continued ideological and political expansion of the communist world, was forever in the news. We saw it as a deadly spreading cancer. And there was the mother of all fears, nuclear war.
Accompanying these societal fears was an enduring fixed reality in the life of every young American male, universal military service. This was the norm. We saw our fathers and uncles serve in World War II, our uncles and cousins called up for the Korean Conflict, and now us in the continuing Cold War environment, all so rational at the time. The draft had always been part of our lives. We young males accepted that the draft was as inevitable as the daily sunrise. Upon graduation from college, I had the choice of two years as a draftee in the army or three to four years as an officer in one of the armed services. The choice was mine: to be drafted into the US Army meant two years as an enlisted man sleeping in foxholes on a huge army base in the south or an additional year as an officer in the same foxholes. The US Air Force offered better sleeping arrangements, a longer commitment, and no travel guarantees.
The choice was not difficult at age twenty-two. I wanted to see as much of the world as possible. I had no intention of committing to an early civilian career so that one day I could retire and travel as an old geezer. "Seize the day." "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead." Yes, I was and still am impatient. Where were the greatest travel opportunities for a penniless adventurous young man in a 1960s world, when international travel was expensive and the draft was ready to grab your body? Why, of course, the US Navy. Just read the posters: "Join the Navy and See the World." The slogan appeared to make sense because only the navy was mobile. In the air force or army, I could get lucky and snag an overseas assignment for a year or two in Asia or Europe, but the odds were against it. With no real guidance, I turned down naval air, the brown-shoe navy, thinking I didn't want to visit the airports of the world. Besides, my eyes were not good enough for me to be a pilot. Based on my less-than-well-informed opinion, I selected the black-shoe navy, the seagoing navy, in the tradition of Nelson, Cook, and the long line of illustrious naval heroes and explorers available in Ohio only through books and the movies. I had never seen an ocean. The only saltwater in my life had been in our kitchen.
I can still hear the advice of Bill, my alarmed, older, pragmatic brother, who warned me, "You are wasting three years of your life while the competition is busy developing their careers. Join the National Guard or take the two years in the army." Bill, who would never have to put on a uniform, was safe from the draft. He was in law school, married, and starting a family. He meant well, although I had long realized we lived in different worlds. Bill was content in Cleveland and tenacious over a career. I had no career ambitions and couldn't wait to leave Ohio and the country.
Aloha, Oahu, and Vance
Hot tarmac, a light damp breeze, and the pungent fragrance of tropical flowers came in a rush as I stepped from the Boeing 707, after my first ride in a jet aircraft, into paradise at Honolulu International Airport, courtesy of the Department of Defense. The runways are shared with Hickam Air Force Base, where we deplaned. There was nothing special about the Hickam terminal area—just an open clean terminal softened by palm trees and shrubbery. The welcome committee consisted of two interesting, smooth tan-skinned girls in sarongs swaying their beautifully proportioned hips to the strum of a ukulele. One of the girls smiled at me, whispered aloha, and placed the traditional flower lei around my neck. I was euphoric, certain that I had lucked out and could look forward to three sweet years as a naval officer in the South Pacific before returning to civilian life. I knew this was paradise; after all, I had read everything Michener had written about the South Pacific.
Waiting for my luggage, I had time to reflect on the orders in my folder. They read: Upon graduation from Officers Candidate School (OCS), I was to report as the main propulsion assistant (MPA) to the USS Vance (DER 387) at Pearl Harbor after thirty days' leave. My fairy godmother, the Navy Bureau of Personnel, commonly called BUPERS, struck her magic wand, and here I landed, assigned to spend the next three years on a small unimportant destroyer escort in the Pineapple Fleet at Pearl Harbor. What more could I have asked for? I was several thousand miles from my industrial hometown of unhappy memories, Cleveland, Ohio, and stepping into paradise, the Hawaiian Islands, the heart of the fabled South Pacific. I was ready for the forever-blue skies, quiet lagoons, beautiful dark-skinned women, and clean sandy beaches. Here was liberation from family and Cleveland, a leap into a new and wonderful world, a paradise compared to what I had left.
The other part of the equation was this ship business. I accepted the risk of the unknown without giving the subject much thought. I had never been on a ship before. Yes, there was Lake Erie one city block from our house, and yes, Dad would hook up our Johnson five-horsepower outboard motor to a rented rowboat and we would cruise close to shore, fishing. Now I was about to graduate from a boat to a ship and from a lake to an ocean—no big deal. As for naval vessels, I relied on the navy to instruct me. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, OCS did not include shipboard training or ship visits. Instead, we learned the eighteenth-century naval vocabulary essential to being understood aboard ship: bulkhead not wall, deck not floor, ladder not stairs, overhead not ceiling, forward not front, aft not rear, and a hundred other quaint terms.
I joke now, but this preparation kept me from appearing a total fool my first months aboard ship. A large part of the curriculum was directed to teaching us enough to look and act like naval officers: correct vocabulary to sound nautical, proper wearing of the uniform so as to appear to be naval officers, and the rituals—when and how to salute, how to board and depart a ship, how to address your superiors and subordinates, and much more. These superficial skills were designed to quietly sneak new, know-nothing, sixteen-week OCS wonders aboard ship, while avoiding horselaughs from the crew and dressing-downs from the more senior officers. Once aboard, we were to learn how to be naval officers.
After four intensive months of training at OCS, I knew the pointy end was the front of a ship and the rounded end the rear, but I didn't know what a DER was and here I was with orders to one. I knew about destroyers, those streamlined, low-riding warships bristling with weapons and built for speed. On the naval base waterfront at Newport, Rhode Island, a DER had to be pointed out to me. It was a smallish, strange vessel with an unusually high midsection that destroyed any pretense of speed and maneuverability, more a plow horse than a thoroughbred. I briefly visited the ship, learning nothing and feeling like an intruder. With 150 sailors moving about the cramped decks of a working ship, a green OCS soon-to-be officer was just in the way, and I knew it. I never expected luxury, so the brief, superficial look at a DER didn't depress me. I tended to be optimistic in most situations, especially over future events that I was already committed to.
My assigned position aboard was a second mystery. What was a main propulsion assistant? At OCS I learned navigation, naval terminology, leadership, operations, seamanship, how to wear the uniform, how to shine my shoes and belt buckle, and how to blend into the woodwork, but no engineering and no mention of a main propulsion assistant. The navy posters dealt with fresh air and open deck scenes. OCS addressed the exterior or hull of ships but not what propelled them. Unfortunately Richard McKenna's wonderful novel The Sand Pebbles was still a year away from publication. Were it available, I would have had some idea of what was waiting for me belowdecks on the Vance. I dismissed the implications of being an engineer, again focusing on the positive, an adventure in the South Pacific and the belief that the navy knew what it was doing by designating me an engineer.
There was an additional reason to be positive and excited. I had received a letter from the Vance as I was graduating from OCS and about to be commissioned an ensign in the naval reserve. The commanding officer, or CO, a Commander Harmon C. Penny, wrote that I should report in July because the ship was deploying in August for a year to New Zealand in support of Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic Ocean. Now this was exciting: a polar expedition down under to New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, and who knows where, a rare opportunity to experience areas of the world few Americans had visited. What more could I have asked for? My strategy of joining the navy to see the world was proving to be the correct one.
I left OCS with a commission from the president, a pile of uniforms, a set of dog tags, a seven-digit serial number, and a case of athlete's foot between the two smallest toes of my right foot. Today the commission is history, the uniforms wore out long ago, the dog tags were lost, and the navy dropped the serial number in favor of the social security number. Only the athlete's foot fungus remains.
My baggage arrived, a huge duffel bag and a suitcase, one hell of a load to carry and still appear military in this tropical heat. There was the chance that the Vance could deploy before my shipment of personal effects arrived. Consequently, I had to carry with me as much as possible: white and khaki uniforms for the tropics, blue uniforms and trench coat for New Zealand, work uniforms, three different color pairs of shoes, hats, gloves, civilian clothes, and personal gear. Still more had to be purchased if we were to be gone for a year. I dragged my baggage to a phone booth, found the Vance's phone number via the base switchboard, and dialed.
Quartermaster Beeman, the petty officer of the watch, took the call and stated that the ship was moored in a nest of ships alongside a tender on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. "Just take the Ford Island whaleboat shuttle from the Bravo Piers to the island." Great, where's Pearl Harbor? I was too green and perhaps too shy to insist on speaking with an officer. Later I learned that the captain reamed out Beeman for not passing my call on to him. The officers in the wardroom would have picked me up at Hickam Field and welcomed me to Hawaii. Not much help at the moment. The two long-gone aloha girls seemed to be the only civilians at the terminal. The whole scene was unnerving, a new and different climate, especially the military setting.
Excerpted from In the Trough by Thomas F. Jaras. Copyright © 2013 Thomas F. Jaras. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Arrival in Paradise (July 21–August 23, 1961)................... 1
Chapter 2: Underway (August 24–September 10, 1961).................... 19
Chapter 3: New Zealand (September 10–16, 1961).................... 33
Chapter 4: First Antarctic Patrol (September 16–October 13, 1961).......... 45
Chapter 5: Comrades (October 13–December 14, 1961).................... 71
Chapter 6: Land of the Snipes.................... 93
Chapter 7: The New Regime (December 14, 1961–January 17, 1962)............. 115
Chapter 8: Life at Sea.................... 131
Chapter 9: Tasmania (January 17–March 3, 1962).................... 149
Chapter 10: Heading Home (March 3–April 6, 1962).................... 161
Chapter 11: Back with the Squadron (April 6–July 6, 1962).................. 173
Chapter 12: North Pacific Station (July 6–September 26, 1962).............. 185
Chapter 13: Winter at Sea (September 26, 1962–April 18, 1963).............. 209
Chapter 14: Japan (April 18–July 13, 1963).................... 247
Chapter 15: My Department (July 13–September 7, 1963).................... 263
Chapter 16: The New Vance (September 7, 1963–January 9, 1964).............. 283
Chapter 17: New Ship, Old Station (January 9–May 26, 1964)................. 293
Chapter 18: Request Permission to Go Ashore (May 26–July 9, 1964).......... 305