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Building a Movement

By Jim Dorenkott


March 21, 2003

Eve of Destruction

When we got to the flight deck a big screen obscured our view, but from behind it we could hear the screams and hellish laughter. Ordered to go down on all fours, we had to crawl between a very long line of men with big wet straps that they vigorously whacked our butts with. Then we were tossed into in a salt-water tank, through which we had to swim underwater to the other side through human porpoises. Then there was the visit to Royal Barber where our hair was chopped. Finally we had to crawl up to a big, fat chief petty officer sitting on a throne and we were told to kiss the "Royal Baby's" belly, and when he did we would rub our face in a goo of peanut butter, jelly, oil, ketchup, mustard, and spices. Some were singled out for special treatment and rebellion was treated harshly.

All of this humiliation was highly unusual because ordinarily any of this kind of corporal punishment would have gotten these guys time in the brig. For this day the ordinary restraints on abuse were seemingly suspended, and as we were rushed to each new ordeal not knowing what to expect, our only hope was that good judgment would prevail. There were lots of stories of people being hurt, but one never knew.

We had left Subic Bay, after loading supplies onto the ship for a long voyage as rumors or "scuttlebutt" about what exotic part of the world we were headed for swirled around the crew. The crew was very excited when they got the news that we would be going to the Indian Ocean because that meant we would be crossing the equator. This seemed to especially please the old salts. After some drills and equipment testing at sea, the ship departed on March 31, 1964. We crossed the South China Sea, going between Malaysia and Sumatra through the Straits of Malacca into the Indian Ocean.

As we neared the equator two weeks later, we kept seeing glimpses of strange costumes, and things unusual for our ship were being constructed in secret. When we asked them what was going on, we got vague answers with suppressed giggles. We began to realize we faced some inevitable initiation, the likes of which was sending these ordinarily stern and stoic petty officers into almost hysterical giddiness. With all the whispering and innuendo, our anxiety was amped as we went to bed the night before. Even then we still only knew that we were about to join the Royal Order of the Deep.

From the moment we woke up, we were treated as lowly Pollywogs, the uninitiated, and the Shellbacks, those who had previously crossed the equator, were the rulers no matter what rank they had. We were told to wear our oldest clothes, and to be prepared to deep six them.

The initiation completed, we sailed on as the "Concord Squadron," which was a "goodwill" cruise to African and Middle Eastern ports of call. Several "ugly American" incidents occurred in which I began to see firsthand the heavy handedness of our foreign policy.

Our first port of call, Diego Suarez, Madagascar, was uneventful other than pulling into the wrong town, which was 90 miles from where they were expecting us. So everything had to be improvised. It isn't every day that a giant aircraft carrier, three destroyers, and a couple of supply ships pull into the wrong port. Talk about getting lost!

Next was Mombassa, Kenya. The first day we painted and refurbished a schoolhouse. Our "goodwill" activities continued the next day. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the Hajj, a sacred time when millions of Muslims visit Mecca. The local officials and clergy begged us not to disturb their day, but our "goodwill ambassadors" insisted and pushed ahead with their plan to distribute toys to grade school students.

The gift giving started out smoothly: the students in different lines were coming up to the truck, receiving a gift, and returning to their line. Then some sailors, probably not having enough fun, started tossing the toys into the group. Pandemonium broke out, and within seconds the kids were clamoring all over the truck. Girls, struggling over dolls, were tearing them apart, basketballs were flying all over the place, and the teachers were trying to restore order. By this time most of the sailors were laughing, as this turned into a public relations disaster, and I saw how our western attitudes even among the Christian clergy impacted those of Islamic faith.

The next day I rented a bicycle to see the city better. I was pedaling along, enjoying the scenery, when I was startled by some people who ran toward my bicycle, throwing a few rocks and screaming "Yankee go home." I got out of there, and went back to the ship.

I thought the stone throwing was pretty unusual, but I found it hard to discuss the incident with anyone. No matter, I was now, at the age of 20 realizing, why not everyone loved America. The local administrators were not happy, and the local newspapers reported the incident as typical of U.S. interventionism -- disruptive. In retrospect, I see that this was one of the times that I realized most of my shipmates weren't paying attention to much of what was going on, unless it was booze and women.

We sailed up the east coast of Africa, and at one point the Shah of Iran flew aboard to watch a gunfire demonstration. Everybody was excited that we were having a royal visitor. He was given a full-dress reception, reserved for the most important dignitaries. When I finally got a chance to meet him, I was surprised how uncomfortable I felt with his vibe and demeanor. That was confusing to me because everyone else seemed to be all a-twitter. It wasn't until much later that I learned how the CIA had installed the Shah and how complicit our country was in his torture and murder of thousands of people. When his subjects had the chance, they overthrew him and seized Americans as hostages to make sure that never happened again.

The last port we stopped at was Aden, which was at the mouth of the Red Sea. Rumor had it that we were scheduled to go further into the sea, but our cruise was cut short and we were called back. On our way we passed by Pakistan and India. We were not too far off the coast and the ship was preparing for war, operating at the highest state of nuclear alert, which included loading nuclear bombs onto the planes instead of regular ordinance. That day I was standing watch in the admiral's cabin, high up in the ship overlooking the flight deck. I could see all the activity going on, with Marines guarding the nuclear bombs as they were loaded onto the planes.

The following events conspired to change the course of my life.