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 for much of the Korean War, but the Navy wasn’t even Dad's first choice. He had no clear course in mind after leaving high school in 1949, so he tried to enlist in the Army. Dad hoped to see something of the bigger world beyond rural Montana, but he was turned down due to a missing index finger. An accident involving a .22 caliber rifle and his older brother, Roy, took the finger when Dad was still in grade school. He got along fine without it, but the post-WWII Army didn't really need volunteers.
Dad was working underground in the Butte copper mines when the Korean War broke out in 1950. With a new war on, the Army didn’t care about fingers anymore; the draft board would take anyone who could march and carry a rifle. Dad decided that a sea cruise would be preferable to sleeping in a foxhole, so he avoided the draft by enlisting in the Navy in 1951. He served aboard a destroyer, the USS De Haven, for the duration of the Korean War.
Dad's highest rating on the De Haven was Interior Communications Electrician, 2nd class, but he achieved that rank more than once. Dinwoody spent most of his hitch as a Seaman 3rd class. They both had what you might call 'disciplinary issues', but Dad got a little more leeway due to his having a critical skill. Dad's duties included maintaining the intercom and various electrical systems but his specialty was the ship’s gyro-compass.
A gyro-compass is a sophisticated device with a high speed motorized disk that creates a force at right angles to the axis of its spin (similar to the force that keeps a moving bicycle upright). A cleverly designed mount allows the entire assembly to interact with gravity and align itself with the axis of the Earth’s rotation. This allows the gyrocompass to act as a pointer to true north no matter which way the ship turns. It's more accurate than a magnetic compass, and the gyrocompass 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 then be used for 'recreational' purposes.
One of the positive things about military service is that a random bunch of guys from diverse backgrounds learn to live and work as a team. Dad and Dinwoody were thrown together shortly after 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.
Dad's tour wasn’t all smooth sailing though; he had almost as much of a knack for finding trouble ashore as for tending the gyro. When he was hauled back to the ship by the Shore Patrol, the Captain would sometimes bust him back to 3rd class, but only temporarily. The gyro-compass was required for navigation and regulations required a 2nd class IC man to tend it, so they couldn’t leave port with only a 3rd class aboard. Since Dad was the only one available, the Captain would have to promote him to 2nd class again before the ship sailed. IC Electricians were in short supply and the De Haven didn’t even have another 2nd class, let alone a 1st class. Dad claimed that the Captain nicknamed him 'Yoyo' because of the way he bounced back and forth between 2nd and 3rd class.
Dinwoody 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.
Author's note: ▼