July 4, 1978
Once in his life a person
should accompany an overwhelming invading military force. There is nothing like it. I was a deck cadet on the USNS Rigel in
1978 on my Junior Sea Cruise. She was an Underway Replenishment Ship. We had six reefer holds, five we used for food and one
was for paper products. I had a lot of fun on this one. I joined her in Norfolk, my old stomping ground. After two weeks we
headed east across the pond to the Med.
stop Rota Spain for 12 hours. Which is about six too many if you were trying to be a good boy.
Then on to Majorca, in two chunks we spent ten days there. I'm still not allowed to
talk about this place at home, even though I was there before I knew my wife was alive.
Then on to Naples, in between ports we did our navy thing, which was real cool. Big
ships running up to within fifty yards, working up to six high wire stations, ships on both sides of our's and helicopter
vertrep operations at the same time. Usually we were running about ten to twelve knots during these operations but when the
ships were finished they accelerated at a tremendous rate and were gone. It was impressive when the destroyers did it but
when the USS Nimitz picks up and goes it is a jaw-dropper.
We were in Naples about a week before everybody else. My ship and the USS San Diego were at commercial
docks loading fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as, paper products. The other cadet and I took a side trip up to Vesuvious
and then Pompea one day. We were sitting up on the crest of the crater looking down on the Bay of Naples and watched as the
battle groups converged on the anchorage. It was like a movie. There were a bunch of ships. Two aircraft carriers, two helicopter
carriers, several amphibious landing ships and all the other ships that go along with them. For some reason it was decided
that just one battle group would be left at sea over the 4th of July weekend. All the rest came to Naples
except for the flagship, USS Albany, which went to Gaeta. Smart move, there was a reason this guy got the big room. We
had no idea, and I mean no idea, what was in store.
invasion had commenced by the time we returned to Naples. The highways leading out of the city were clogged to a standstill.
The main railway station was overflowing with people leaving. We had trouble working our way out of the station to the street.
Everybody with any sense and means was heading out of town for the duration.
Liberty launches were coming alongside at fleet landing and off loading hundreds of
sailors and marines at a time. It was amazing how many people were within ten blocks of this dock is such a short time. We
were elbow to elbow and this went on for days.
AFEES group had an extinct volcano that they had turned into a recreation area. There was a carnival with rides set up, a
midway, and several athletic fields and, at least, fifty boxing rings set up. We were out there a few days before and it was
dead empty. The crater was at least a mile across. After the invasion you could walk across on the heads of people and not
touch ground. and this area was actually quite subdued. There were a lot of kids and intership sporting events, mostly fast
pitch softball and boxing matches. Boxing matches, the boxing tournaments started the day they got there and went on right
up until they left.
Like I said, this
area was subdued. There was one word that described fleet landing, pandemonium. Pandemonium and chaos, ok, two words. Pandemonium,
chaos, mayhem, bedlam, ok, so one word couldn't describe what was going on. Picture the opening scenes of “Enemy at
the Gate” and “Saving Private Ryan”, any television news coverage of Mardi Gras, Woodstock, Altamont, the
big demonstrations in D. C. during the sixties, any spring break, the liberty scene from "Mr. Roberts", the party scene from
"Breakfast At Tiffanys" and apply a factor of fifteen and this was close to what was going on. Man, It was a good time.
Shore patrol jeeps had guys stacked up like cord wood in the back. We started hesitating before passing in front of doors
on the street to wait for a guy to get chucked out to raucous laughter. When they quit tumbling more often than not they would
get back up and throw themselves right back into the bar. There were campfire girls that put their kids through college
on that weekend.
Ok, so let's review.
We dropped at least thirty thousand sailors and marines, the vast majority under 25 on a relatively peaceful town of an ally.
What were we thinking?
A sidebar was
that two days after this barbarian horde went back to sea the Massachusetts Maritime Academy ship arrived. Now these guys
fancied themselves as a hell-bent-for-fun-group of guys but the streets were empty, most of the bars were closed down for
repairs. Nothing these guys did even raised an eyebrow. By now we had been in town so long that we were locals. We were sitting
is Boston Blackie's with some of the campfire girls and these guys were trying to get something going. Absolutely no interest
at all, at any price. One cadet asked me in Italian (that was how native I'd gone) what was going on here? Where was the action?
The look on his face was priceless when I wearily turned to him and said in American “You should have been here last
week?” The Mamasan poured out shots all around. “Settimana passato.” The campfire girls, my running
mate and I repeated this quietly, knock back our shots and didn't say another word. The Mass boys just left, shaking there