In 1968, the crew of the USS Independence spent 2 tumultuous days in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Ensign and the Turks
It was the fall of 1968 in the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Navy Attack Carrier USS Independence CVA-62 was due to spend a few days anchored in Istanbul, Turkey. The crew had earned a few days to relax. It had been nearly six weeks since its last liberty in Athens, Greece. Since then, the Independence had been flown over by Russian Bear bombers in the middle of the night sending the entire crew into General Quarters status. Russian spy trawlers shadowed the Big I, as it was affectionately known by its crew, and sometimes the USS Never Dock. Unbeknown to 95% of the crew, a Russian nuclear submarine spent the entire six weeks submerged just a few hundred yards to the port quarter. Its sole mission: in the event of war, vaporize the carrier. Make it merely a memory. If that were to happen, the submarine, too, would be just as much a memory. There also was a United States nuclear submarine near the Independence, and its mission was to terminate the Russian submarine.
The other five percent of the crew who were “in the know” included line officers and the Navy Intelligence section. Line officers wore a star just above the gold thread rings that encircled their sleeves. Only line officers could take command of a ship.
When the Independence dropped anchor, it was a sign to relax, take a break, go up on deck and take in the scenery and take many pictures of the scenic harbor. It felt like the ship took in a deep breath and sighed.
Liberty would commence at 1600 hours. The anchor was dropped at noon. Liberty was divided into port and starboard, meaning one half of the crew had liberty one day and the rest had liberty the following day. Each sailor knew to which liberty section he was assigned.
Liberty was also nicknamed Cinderella Liberty, because it ended at midnight for enlisted, but continued until morning for officers. Officers had civilian clothes on board and could wear them on liberty. Enlisted were restricted to dress uniforms. No civilian clothes allowed on board.
Prior to any liberty boats headed for a pier, sailors assigned as Shore Patrol were ferried from the ship to the enlisted landing pier and were informed of any restricted areas, any trouble spots, and anything else that might pose a problem for the crew. The only protection/weapons Shore Patrols were allowed to carry were nightsticks. No firearms. On their right sleeves they wore black armbands with the letters SP in bright yellow.
A token force of two Shore Patrol sailors were assigned to the Officers’ landing pier—just in case. Rarely was any need for them there, but—just in case. At both the enlisted and officers’ landing piers a Chief Petty Officer and one lower ranking petty officer were assigned.
One of the benefits of working Shore Patrol was free meals. The patrols consisted of two sailors assigned to “patrol”. The duration of the patrol began just before the crew was brought to shore and ended after Cinderella Liberty expired. During that period of time, the pair of sailors were allowed to eat at a place of their choice. Often, restaurant owners understood while Shore Patrols were dining in their establishment, there would be no trouble, so the restaurants refused to allow the sailors to pay for their meals. Knowing this, the sailors assigned as Shore Patrol would order the best meals on the menus and leave a generous tip.
The first night of liberty in Istanbul went smoothly. The only trouble was the usual: drunken sailors on the last boat back to the ship at midnight. Some puked before they got on the boat, and some puked in the boat as it puttered back. No fights, but plenty of song as the sailors sang maritime tunes, which carried far across the water.
“What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
Early in the morning.”
The answers to those questions are not fit to print.
In 1968 the United States was involved in a bitter war in Vietnam and many people, both U.S. citizens and people in other countries, saw the Americans as the aggressors rather than defending an ally. There were people who claimed they did not understand what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam. The answer was simple—perhaps too simple for some. South Vietnam and the United States were allies, and South Vietnam asked for help in defending their country, not wanting to be overthrown by communists. So, as an ally, the United States agreed to help defend South Vietnam and curb the expansion of Communism.
On the second day of liberty, everything seemed normal just like the day before. The Port Liberty section began heading to shore at noon, eager to get their feet on solid ground.
After being at sea and walking on a moving deck sailors developed their “sea legs”. Then when trying to walk on Mother Earth, which normally doesn’t move, sailors looked drunk as soon as they stepped ashore. They had to readjust their gait for a non-moving floor.
In the Port Liberty section was an Ensign. An Academy man. He was a Cherokee native Indian from Wyoming. His complexion was closer to that of Hispanics than Europeans. Dark hair, dark eyes, 5 foot ten inches in height. He could be easily mistaken for a Turk.
And his name was Ben Lightfoot.
Ensign Lightfoot was assigned to the IOIC (Integrated Operational Intelligence Center) section. It was the NSA of the Independence. Every crew member assigned to IOIC had no less than a secret clearance. Consequently, those crew members were not allowed to leave the ship while in certain ports in the Mediterranean. Istanbul was a borderline port. There had been no trouble in the past, and verifiable/credible threats to Americans were remote. Therefore, Ensign Lightfoot was granted permission to go ashore along with four of his officer shipmates, but warned to be vigilant for people asking too many questions.
Once ashore, the five officers grabbed the first taxi in line and requested a lift to the best restaurant in town. They had the money and freedom to eat at the best places and not worry about getting back to the ship by midnight. They were also in civilian clothes, which meant they were a little harder to pick out in a crowd.
At the enlisted landing, there were many “Hey, Joe’s.” That is what vendors near fleet landings were called by all Navy personnel. That name derived from how the vendors would call out to the sailors. Everyone was “Hey, Joe” to them. They were selling cheap trinkets and souvenirs, but you had to be very careful not to let them touch you. One of my shipmates was grabbed at the wrist by a Hey Joe and later discovered his watch was gone. Slipped off without him knowing. Pissed him off a lot.
There were a few rumblings, a few stories in the news about how some countries, mostly Muslim, were unhappy with the United States. The trouble in Istanbul began slowly, almost unnoticed. A few demonstrations with signs in English appeared near the enlisted landing. Shore Patrols were doubled and instructed to keep the demonstrators away from the sailors. The ship’s commanding officer ordered liberty to be shortened to sunset. No more midnight liberty. This, of course, upset the crew who were hanging out at the bars frequented by prostitutes and busy getting drunk.
Additional Shore Patrols were ordered to enter all the bars and remove any sailors found in them, sending them back to the enlisted landing. Some of the sailors complied while others were itching for a good fight. Occasionally, Shore Patrol had to use the nightsticks but were ordered to never hit anyone above shoulder level. This was a rare occurrence, fortunately. Usually, shipmates stopped their drunken buddies from getting into a scuffle with Shore Patrol.
Often, Shore Patrol had to go into the back rooms and interrupt a sailor from—well, you know. Sometimes, they’d let the sailor finish.
The word was passed onboard by the Captain liberty was canceled. After six weeks at sea, those who thought they had a week to go ashore but hadn’t, yet, were deeply disappointed. Those already ashore had not heard the word, yet. Much to their disadvantage.
It was in the afternoon all Hell broke loose. The protesters decided to become violent and started throwing rocks at sailors. Many sailors suffered serious head wounds. The Shore Patrol forcibly removed the Hey Joe’s from fleet landing, clearing it for the removal of sailors by boats back to the ship.
Some sailors were jumping into the bay and swimming back to the ship. Seeing this, the Captain sent out his boat to pick up those sailors. His boat was meant for a commanding officer. It was decked out real nice. It wasn’t ever used to transport enlisted personnel, but this was an emergency.
Not aware of the trouble, Ensign Lightfoot and his compadres returned to the Officers’ Landing, but the crowd would not allow the taxi to get that far. The four officers exited the taxi and began running away to safety. All but Ensign Lightfoot were light-skinned and easily identified as not being a Turk.
They ran into alleys trying to avoid the crowd. At one point, a protester handed Ensign Lightfoot a rock and said something in Turkish to him. Ensign Lightfoot made a face like he, too, was angry at the Americans and made a gesture like he was going to throw the rock. Instead, he slowly backed up while the attention of the crowd was focused on the Americans.
Ensign Lightfoot made it safely back to Officers’ Landing and hopped into a boat headed for the ship. Along the way back, the boat would stop to pick up any sailor who was attempting to swim to the Independence.
The last of the crew to make it back to the ship were the sailors assigned to Shore Patrol. Many had been hit by rocks, stones, and various debris the protesters could lay their hands on.
Eventually, when a count of the crew assured the Captain all men were present on board, he ordered the ship underway.
Sick Bay was overflowing with injured sailors, mostly with bleeding wounds. No one was seriously injured. Many required sutures, though.
The Istanbul mayor sent a message to the Captain via the U.S. Embassy apologizing for the melee, but that did not appease the Captain. He was very angry.
The Captain communicated with Washington D.C. asking for an alternate liberty port for the crew. It was after a couple of days back at sea when the Captain addressed the crew to tell them the ship was granted ten days in Thessaloniki, Greece. That was a port very rarely visited by U.S. warships, so great anticipation spread throughout the ship this port would likely be a very nice one, indeed.
Ensign Lightfoot relayed his experience with the protesters to the crew in IOIC. He joked about it then. His skin color was what saved him. He even kept the rock he was given to throw.
As far as I know, there was no news story in the United States about this encounter with the Turks. Not everything that happens with the military overseas gets into the news, and I’m sure you can guess why.
Thessaloniki did prove to be an exceptional liberty port. The people warmly welcomed the crew and many brought back souvenirs to remember this rarely visited Greek port.