A tribute to my Dad for Veteran's Day
Dad & Dinwoody
My Dad, Gene Fisher, told us a lot of stories about his time in the Navy, and many of them included his buddy Dinwoody. The two of them served together aboard a destroyer, the USS De Haven, for much of the Korean War.
Dad's highest rating on the De Haven was Interior Communications Electrician, 2nd class. Dinwoody spent most of his hitch as a Seaman 3rd class due to 'disciplinary' issues. Dad's duties included maintaining the intercom and electrical systems but his specialty was the ship’s gyro-compass. A highly sophisticated device, the gyro-compass has a high speed motorized disk that creates a force at right angles to the axis of its spin. A cleverly designed mount for the disk allows the entire assembly to interact with gravity and align itself with the axis of the Earth’s rotation. This allows the gyro-compass to act as a pointer to true north. More accurate than a magnetic compass, the gyro-compass is also unaffected by the massive amount of steel in a naval ship’s hull.
Dad had to take additional training beyond the standard IC Electricians course to qualify for gyro maintenance. Electrical circuits were part of the job, but the mechanical aspect was even more complicated. It was quite a process to bring the gyro safely to a halt, clean and lubricate the high speed bearings, and then spin it up again. One of the perks of the job was that he could requisition grain alcohol from medical stores to use as a cleaning solvent. Careful application of the solvent to the gyro bearings would result in a bit left over that could be used for ‘recreational’ purposes.
One of the more positive things about military service is that a random bunch of people from diverse backgrounds learn to live and work as a team. Dad and Dinwoody were thrown together during basic training in San Diego and immediately hit it off. Although they were quite different physically, they shared a similar attitude toward authority. To be tactful, let’s just say they were a bit skeptical when it came to officers and military discipline. Dad was smallish, about 5’ 7” and maybe 150 lbs. Dinwoody was at least a hundred lbs. heavier and more than a foot taller. Sometimes, just for fun, Dinwoody would extend his arm straight out to the side and Dad would stand underneath. At the time, everyone knew the Mutt & Jeff comic strip, so their pose would always get a laugh (the kids will have to search google images to understand).
The De Haven spent weeks at a time on patrol sailing up and down the coast of Korea. They came under enemy fire on numerous occasions. The stress of these wartime operations was relieved by visits to the naval bases at Sasebo or Yokosuka for maintenance and resupply. Dad always looked forward to shore leave in Japan and enjoyed his time there. The ship would get its R&R at the docks (refueled and rearmed) while the sailors got theirs at the gin joints (rest and recreation). Dad said it was good to have a guy like Dinwoody along when you got shore leave. Getting drunk was the first priority of a sailor ashore for the first time in weeks. Finding trouble was next on the list and the ports were full of sailors, soldiers, and marines who were looking for a fight. Few of them wanted to take on an intimidating figure like Dinwoody, however. When they saw him looming head and shoulders above the crowd, they’d usually decide to look for a little less trouble somewhere else.
Dinwoody also liked to intimidate the officers whenever he could get away with it, and he often made the ‘90 day wonders’ feel nervous. Much of the military had been dismantled following WWII and the Navy was still scrambling to rebuild its forces even toward the end of the Korean conflict. Many of the junior officers were just college kids who received a commission with barely 3 months of training (hence, 90 day wonder). Some rose to the occasion and some didn’t. They found it difficult to get respect from sailors who had more time in the Navy than they did. It was even more difficult to get respect from a couple of wise-asses who liked to crack jokes.
Once, probably at Dad’s suggestion, Dinwoody went a little too far. He and Dad were being chewed out by an Ensign who was a bit full of himself, a bit unsure of how hard to push, but determined to enforce discipline. The incident began with some minor infraction - maybe an unbuttoned shirt, maybe a stray butt that hadn’t been properly ‘policed’. The Ensign didn’t care for their attitude, however, so he tried to bait them into saying or doing something more serious. Something that would justify putting them on report. A chewing out was like water off a duck’s back to most sailors. But going on report could result in loss of shore leave; a much more serious punishment.
“Sailor, do you have something you’d like to say to me?” the Ensign challenged.
“Sir,” said Dinwoody with exaggerated respect, “If I was to call you a son of a bitch you’d put me on report, wouldn’t you?”
“You’re goddam right, sailor!” The Ensign was already starting to steam.
“But if I was only thinking it, sir, you couldn’t put me on report for that, could you?”
The Ensign glared, then grudgingly admitted “No, I suppose not.”
“In that case sir, I think you’re a son of a bitch!”
Some stories have a happy ending, but this one does not. Because it turns out that a sailor can be put on report just for thinking. Or even just for laughing at what another sailor thinks!
On the other hand, maybe the happy ending just takes time. Maybe a story that lasts a lifetime is worth a couple of days of being confined to the ship.