A tour of duty on the USS Sacramento
The dream is always the same: I’ve re-enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and I’m on board the USS Sacramento, which has just departed from its homeport in Bremerton, Wash. We are beginning a nine-month tour known as WestPac that will take us across the Pacific and Indian oceans to the Persian Gulf and then back again. In the dream, I am excited because I have completed the tour once before and know what awaits me and my 500 or so shipmates overseas: exotic tropical paradises populated by nubile island girls ready for the taking.
I have had this dream maybe a dozen times since being honorably discharged from the Navy in 1982, and I am always struck by its power over me. “It’s not just a job; it’s an adventure,” the Navy advertises, and my hitch on the Sacramento did not disappoint. I visited a hemisphere I otherwise never would have seen, learning a valuable trade in the process. It still seems like a pretty fair swap for four years of my life, and I have many fond memories from that time period.
After I was discharged, I moved from the Seattle area to San Francisco, where my Navy experience landed me a lucrative job in the shipyards as a machinist, working on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers such as the USS Enterprise and the USS Carl Vinson. It was fun while it lasted, but by the end of the 1980s, Bay Area Navy bases were closing down, and most of the work had dried up. In 1990, I decided to move to the more affordable city of Sacramento to complete the journalism degree I had started at San Francisco State.
It has always seemed an odd coincidence that I wound up in the city after which my ship had been named. There doesn’t seem to be much connection between the two. It’s not like there was a bunch of sailors from Sacramento onboard; most of us were from the Pacific Northwest. Still, the fact that I lived in Sacramento was a constant reminder that I had spent a large chunk of my young adult life on a ship of the same name.
As the war against Iraq began in earnest last month, I once again found myself thinking about the USS Sacramento, wondering if the vessel, commissioned in 1964, was still in service. I plugged the ship’s name into Google, and sure enough, there it was, at www.sacramento.navy.mil. In fact, according to the Web site, the ship shoved off on yet another WestPac last month. My attempts to contact the ship via e-mail have not been answered so far, so there’s no telling just where it is now. The Navy is notoriously secretive about the location of its vessels—loose lips sink ships—but if past practice is any indication, the Sacramento is almost undoubtedly bound for the Persian Gulf.
As the Web site states, the “USS Sacramento … combines the functions of three logistics ships in one hull: fleet oiler, ammunition ship and refrigerated stores ship.” More than 700 feet long, the ship is loaded with food, fuel and bombs it transfers to other ships at sea in a process called “unrepping.” It isn’t exactly the sexiest mission, but it is both vital and dangerous, and we used to refer to the ship sarcastically as a target.
Although the Navy has changed somewhat over the years—for instance, women are now allowed to serve on the Sacramento—I suspect that life at sea remains relatively the same. My watch station was the aft engine room, where one of the ship’s twin 50,000-horsepower steam turbines was housed. When we were deployed on WestPac in 1980, we were short-handed, so we were placed on “six and six” watch duty. That meant we had to spend six hours in the hot, noisy engine room, followed by six hours trying to sleep on a small bed in a hot, cramped compartment with 30 other guys before waking up and doing it all over again. We might spend as long as 60 days at sea without hitting a port. Sometimes, I went days without seeing the sun—just sleeping and standing watch, sleeping and standing watch.
Landing, no matter where—the now-closed Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines, the Pattya Beach resort in Thailand, the military outpost on the small island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean—was a time of great relief and excitement. The former two ports were infamous for prostitution, which was fine by most of us. Often, the married guys who professed their fidelity the strongest were the first ones off the boat. I was politically naïve in those days and participated in such activities with the rest of my shipmates, not understanding that the crushing poverty that led to such prostitution was often a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.
News from home and abroad came sporadically. We learned about the explosion of Mount St. Helens, which is not too far from Bremerton, a week after it happened. That era’s evildoer went by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini, but even though we spent a month off the coast of Iran during the height of the hostage crisis (some of the wreckage from the failed rescue attempt was brought back on the Sacramento), we knew few of the details that had led to the conflict.
In the Persian Gulf, I remember smoking cigarettes on the fantail at the rear of the ship, staring out at the empty silver disc of the sea and wondering if we would be attacked by the fledgling Iranian navy. If we had been attacked, it could have gotten ugly. The Sacramento was equipped with surface-to-air missiles and computerized Gatling guns for defense, but back then, those weapon systems were plagued by chronic breakdowns. We literally were a target, a highly explosive sitting duck. But the Iranians never came. I am positive that at this late date, all the bugs in those defensive weapon systems have been worked out and that the crew of the Sacramento, now steaming toward the Persian Gulf, is relatively out of harm’s way.
A part of me yearns to be over there with them. But the funny thing about my recurring dream is that it always ends the same way, too. I’m standing on the fantail watching a 70-foot tidal wave breaking over the ship. We are about to be smashed to bits by this enormous wall of water. It’s then that I always wake up, thanking my lucky stars that I never re-enlisted.