The Cold War had raged for about 20 years when I threw my hat into the air, collected my commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and later that summer reported for duty on board USS Lawrence (DDG-4), a guided missile destroyer homeported in Norfolk, Virginia. You have read some sea stories from that ship, and there are more to tell. But this week the subject is the Cold War, fleet security, and my very distant connection to that legendary commander of the US Sixth Fleet (COMSIXTHFLT), then-Vice Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Jr.
Ike Kidd was one of only two naval officers I know who had a higher proportion of sea duty in his career than I did. He was sent to the US Sixth Fleet in 1970 for the express purpose of increasing fleet readiness. Frankly, it’s rather hard to keep readiness on a wartime footing for 20 years, but if anyone could toughen up the two carrier groups constantly patrolling the Mediterranean, it was the nail-chewing, hard-talking, rough-and-ready Ike Kidd. In 14 months he accomplished his mission, and in the process stepped on so many Allied toes that his relief, Vice Admiral Gerry Miller, was sent in to mend fences. Ike Kidd was promoted to four stars and asked to do the same thing to the entire Atlantic Command. Meanwhile, I was sent back to the Med to serve on Gerry Miller’s staff. Ah, but I digress…
In addition to extensive training at sea, Ike Kidd revitalized the requirement for ships in port to hold security drills on each other. The Allied code name for these drills was Z-5-0 (the fifth drill in the Z series). Simply put, personnel from one ship would impersonate an unauthorized intruder and try to board another ship. Theoretically, the quarterdeck should catch the would-be intruder. Suicide bombing had not been developed yet, but at least a half-dozen fanatical groups were very busy throughout Europe, planting bombs in airports, train stations and other public places.
In any other context, the “Zulu Five Oscar” would have entertained Boy Scouts at summer camp, but in a peacetime Navy, flunking a simple test like that could tarnish a ship’s reputation just enough to cost the commanding officer his next promotion. At first, it was not hard to talk your way past the quarterdeck and then go around the ship planting 3×5 index cards with the word “bomb” on them. But a blistering message (or a visit) from COMSIXTHFLT changed attitudes overnight.
Lawrence pulled into Naples, Italy, in May of 1971, and gracefully backed her stern to the submarine piers across from the passenger terminal. With our “Med-moor” successfully completed, the signal came down to my station at Main (Engineering) Control to secure the main propulsion plant. We left one boiler steaming for auxiliaries (electricity, heat, water), and the Sea Detail stood down.
When I came on deck, I found an early morning sun burning through the haze of a cool Neapolitan spring day. Memories flooded back to me as I looked across the skyline that included the Angevin Castle, the apartment buildings climbing the Vomero, and Vesuvius rising in the distance to the south. I had left this city almost six years before, but the smells and noise had not changed a bit.
I headed for the wardroom, where the Executive Officer (XO) usually held a briefing for the officers about the port visit. After the routine of detailing watch sections and duty officers, he got around to special events.
“We have to do a Z-5-O on Bagby,” he said. “The last one on Ashland with Petty Officer Schwartz did not go so well. I’d like to use an officer this time. Any volunteers?”
“Everybody in Bagby knows us, XO,” the Chief Engineer said. “None of us could pass their quarterdeck.”
There was a silence around the table as the XO eyed each of us. I had been the little boy with his hand up in the front row through 16 years of school, so I could not stand the silence.
“What if they’re expecting an American intruder, but not an Italian?” I asked. The XO arched his eyebrows, and motioned me to continue. “Every ship in the squadron has a lot of repair work during this port visit. The ship should be crawling with Italian contractors and their workers.” Naples and Piraeus were our two major ports for maintenance.
“You think you can impersonate an Italian contractor?”
“Yes, sir, I can do that. The question is, can I make the disguise thick enough so that they don’t see me under it?”
That afternoon I was down in my stateroom, changing my appearance and working on my “cover script.” I knew something about stereotypes, and what average Americans thought Italians should look like and sound like. And so Lieutenant (junior grade) Jonathan Hine became Giuseppe (“Beppe”) Ruscello, recently bereaved fiberglass contractor, sent to USS Bagby to inspect a hole in her whaleboat, and prepare an estimate for repairs. The olive oil in my hair and the thick black frames on my safety glasses changed my basic appearance; a copy of the Il Mattino newspaper, a mourning band on my sleeve, and a pack of really terrible MS Nazionale cigarettes completed the disguise. Eight years of high school and college theater were not wasted.
The quarterdeck watch, as I expected, could not read the phony Italian requisition documents that I waved at them, and had difficulty understanding my broken English. One of them was from deck division, however, and he knew about the hole in the whaleboat. They pointed to it, and I was on my way, unescorted, and soon out of sight.
I dropped into a passageway and left an index card in the chow line, then I walked out on deck to where an escape hatch led to the forward fireroom. Just then, I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“J.T. Hine? What the hell are you doing?” My Naval Academy roommate Dan Kasich came sauntering along the deck, grinning even as his eyes registered his surprise.
“Well, Dan, if you need to know, I was just moseying down to your No. 1 fireroom, to leave my lunch behind a boiler.” I held up the brown package.
Dan stared at my “lunch”. “Oh, s**t!”
“That’s right, Dan, Zulu-Five-Oscar. Let’s go see your XO.”
Trip update: no trip this week, but I have been out every day riding around the Valley. Spring is in full bloom on both sides of the Sangro River. Rain and high winds most nights, but the days feature bright sunshine balancing brisk breezes. On Thursday, I rode a particularly pleasant route to the hilltop town of Castel Frentano. Apart from its view of the Valley and its scenic historic district, the town is famous for the bocconotto, an 18th-century pastry with a charming legend of its own. I bought a box for each of the families in my building.
Next week could be about shopping for bargains on the road or something you suggest. This blog is for you: what would you like to read about?
Smooth roads and tailwinds,