Those who hadn’t, quickly heard from their shipmates. Bangkok

indisputably was a great liberty port, and throughout the evening every

bull session on board had but a single topic. Four off-duty sailors sat

at one of the round-topped tables in the crew’s lounge. They weren’t

the only ones in the room. Other small groups were scattered about the

area, reading, watching TV, or playing war games. A gentle rumble rose

from the deck, more felt than heard. The lounge was located far aft,

almost directly above Jefferson’s four massive, twenty-two-foot-wide

propellers, and the room pulsed with their throbbing strokes. No one

noticed, however. The ship’s pulse was part of the background, long

since accepted and forgotten.

Seaman Apprentice David Howard had enlisted in the Navy in April, three

days after his eighteenth birthday. After twelve weeks of boot training

at the Recruit Training Center in San Diego and two dreary weeks in a

holding company, he’d been given his orders for sea duty and his first

ship: the U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson.

He’d been at sea for five months now, less two weeks in Yokosuka. After

all that time, he still wasn’t certain whether his luck at drawing the

Jeff had been good or bad. Most seamen hated carrier duty, where the

ship was big enough to get lost in, quarters were as cramped as in a

holding barracks ashore, and twelve- and even fourteen-hour workdays

were the norm rather than the exception. Howard didn’t mind the hard

work, and there was an undeniable romance in the air each time one of

Jefferson’s aircraft was hurled aloft in steam and raw noise. His

hardest adjustment was in his social life.

Howard was quiet, even shy, and had never made friends easily. His

shipmates seemed a decent enough bunch, if a bit loud and profane, but

Howard still hadn’t learned how to let down his own inner barriers with

them. He found himself drawn to their conversations, though, wanting to


“Aw, shit, man!” Signalman Third Class Charles Bentley leaned back,

hands clasped behind his short-cropped blond head. “Ten fuckin’ days in

bee-you-ti-ful shit-hot Bangkok! Gentlemen, we have got it made!”

“You been there before, Bentley, right?” Radarman Third Fred Paterowski

chugged the last of his Coke and crumpled the can. “Tell, man! Tell!”

“Hey, man, it was fuckin’ A-numbah-one! That was … lessee, ’88, I

guess. When I was on the Arkansas.”

Howard sipped his Coke, listening. He didn’t know how to take Bentley,

who seemed bright but who was only a third class after eight years in

the service. He’d probably been busted, since most ratings could make

second class before their four years’ enlistment was up. Howard

couldn’t help wondering what the guy had done … or did he simply not


The lounge was a large room, with paintings drawn from Navy history,

with comfortable tables and chairs under fluorescent lights and a wooden

lectern at one end. Howard remembered sitting in this room five months

before, listening as Captain Fitzgerald stood behind that lectern and

talked about responsibility, about making something of their time aboard

the Jefferson.

In five months, Howard had done his best to be a good sailor and fit in

with the routine … doing what he was told and staying out of trouble.

As a seaman in the deck division, he was one of hundreds of enlisted men

available for general duties which ran from standing lookout, serving as

roving fire and security patrol, participating in FODs and field days,

and keeping lines and gear up on the roof shipshape. His previous daily

assignment had been a dull but undemanding one: cleaning and stowing the

dozens of wire-frame Stokes stretchers which the medical department kept

ready along the starboard side of the island on the flight deck. A week

ago, though, he’d been transferred to Air Ops, where he stood by as a

message runner.

“Runner,” in this day of radio and satellite communications, meant that

he fetched coffee for officers and chiefs, but he enjoyed being in what

he thought of as the carrier’s heart, a huge room where earnest ratings

bent over radar screens in semi-darkness, murmuring into radio headsets

as they talked with aircraft hundreds of miles away. It gave him a

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Categories: Keith Douglass