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Truman, Teddy, Big Eyes and the Mail Buoy

April 5th, 2010 · 5 Comments · General

I picked up a new desktop computer today – the other one was getting a tad long in the tooth and I could hear those hamsters in there running their poor hearts out when I would try to do some fair to  middling photo stuff or two.  SO, I spent most of yesterday and today moving a bunch of gigs worth of digital photos to my back up drive and then re-organizing them on the new terabyte hard drive in this new beast.

AND…as an added bonus, I’ll no doubt find a few more gems (or partial gems, as it may be) from the Truman trip last summer.  The more I think about that experience, the luckier I feel.  Getting to climb back on board one of those ships for 3 weeks of major work-up and Joint Task Force exercising – not just a stroll around a pier side cold-iron sleeping giant – was, again, a kick in the pants.

Looking out the Elevator 2  access at CVN-71, Teddy Roosevelt prior to our getting underway.

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A pair of Mark III Mod 5 20X Ship Binocular, as it is formally called.  We call them Big Eyes.

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Quick, funny story about Big Eyes.  I was on IKE in the early 90’s for my catapult and arresting gear officer tour.  USS John F Kennedy, a sister east coast ship, was in the shipyards up in Philly for what could only be called an uber-extended re-fit period.   Big Jack usually handled all the training command requirements because she could handle the bridle aircraft like the T-2 and TA-4 that came out of the training command fields for carrier qualifications.  Newer carriers lacked the hardware to handle them – except IKE.  We had the capability, so with Jack up in a dry dock till Lord knew when, we would steam down to the Key West Op Area every month for a handful of days to host a bunch of student pilots and their trusty training steeds.  Those were ass kicking times.  We would have training aircraft overhead the ship at sunrise, would run them nearly non-stop till sunset when they couldn’t fly anymore because of night carrier restrictions on student pilots.  We’d get a few hours break – the troops would literally lay down where they were, whether it be steel deck, tile floor or catwalk and try to get a few hours sleep –  then the fleet aircraft from Cecil Field near Jacksonville would come out to get their night quals, flying till around midnight.  Add in the fact that the catapult and arresting gear systems require an hour and a half pre-operational maintenance and checks and the same amount of a post-operational checks, and you are real close to a 24 hour day – in training.  Ouch.

Anyhow, continuing on with the story, the transit down there always took us through the Straits of Florida, that gap between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

Any ship at sea is going to have watches set – man overboard watches, fire watches, integrity watches, whatever.  IKE was no different, and these watches were often time manned with the newest, greenest sailor right out of recruit training.  AND, navy guys being the compassionate and thoughtful humanitarians toward their fellow sailor they are, the newest, greenest sailor standing watch is assigned the most onerous jobs like – you guessed it – the Man Overboard watch, which consisted of long hours looking at water through binoculars.  To liven things up a bit it was sold to the new young seaman as…the Mail Buoy watch!

I never partook in such shenanigans, but can imagine the explanation going something like this with regards to Seaman Schmuckatelli (that particular name being the standard moniker given to any anonymous Navy “everyman”):

“Yeah, Seaman Schmuckatelli, WE have Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft  to deliver and pick up our mail, but what about all the OTHER ships that don’t have that capability?  There are buoys set up all over the place, see, where one ship can drop off some mail in a secure, watertight compartment and pick up any mail that may have been dropped off there by a previous passing ship.  That way mail delivery continues unabated!  Its a Law of the Sea!”

So, Seaman Schmuckatelli, decked out in a kapok life vest, combat helmet, flash gloves, shirt buttoned up to the neck, dungarees tucked into his boots, sound-powered phone mounted around his neck  and for all intents and purposes dressed and ready for General Quarters (mind you this was June and already above 90 degrees), is on the starboard side of the island, 0-10 level, with a pair of binoculars, dutifully scanning the blue Florida straits as the Mail Buoy watch.

After however long it was, Seaman Schmuckatelli, binos scanning back and forth…..back and forth…all of a sudden became fixed on a precise point off to the starboard side.  He dropped his hand held binos and ran over to the Big Eyes and wrestled with that beast for a moment.  You could apparently hear the excitement in his voice as he cued the sound powered phones and said, loud enough for everyone to hear:  “I see it!  I see it!  I see the Mail Buoy!!”  Everyone else around the 0-10 level kind of chuckled, knowing full well that what he is seeing – IF he was indeed seeing anything – was probably some discharged trash or garbage or whatever from some passing freighter.

Sticking doggedly to his task, Seaman Schmuckatelli continued on with his assigned duties, calling out the range and bearing to the “Mail Buoy”:  “Bearing o85 from the ship!   Looks like 2 miles!  And…and….” as he trained and focused Big Eyes on the package “…it has two people hanging on to it!!!”

The chuckles from the strap-hangers and hangers-on’ers up on the 0-10 level gave way to curious interest, and after a few more minutes of Schmuckatelli describing the mailmen on the mail buoy, another sailor took the big eyes and sure enough, what initially had turned out to be some “mild having fun with the new guy” turned out to be two Cuban asylum seekers who had decided to take their chances on a raft in the ocean rather than live in Castro’s Cuba any longer.

They had been adrift in the straits for 4 or 5 days, were naked as a jay bird and sunburned pretty bad.

I was down in my stateroom during all this and I realized something was up when I felt the ship go into a 180 degree turn.  A 90,000 ton aircraft carrier, I don’t care what speed it is going, turning into a 180 degree turn is going to get your attention.

Knowing something was up (I may have called up to our Cat/AG Office to see what was going on), I grabbed my camera (yep…even back then I carried that thing everywhere) and headed up to the catwalk.

The ship’s deck crew launched the motor whaleboat and went out to grab the two lucky drifters.

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We brought them back on board and fired up a helicopter to take them to Key West.  No idea what happened to them after that.  These days they would be sent back to Cuba, probably to spend some time in prison for departing the Island without the proper papers, but then you like to think the breath of freedom felt so sweet to their burned souls.

Thanks Schmuckatelli, whatever your real name was!

I know this sounds like a classic sea story, but as far as I could tell back then, as well as now, it is as true as the day is long!


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Laurie

    It always gives me a funny feeling, both pride and awe, when I read a story like this. For all of our sniping at each other, for all of the little controversies over politics, economics, and what-have-you– it’s still incredible to realize that there are people willing to float naked on an inner tube for days trying to get here, willing to *die* in the effort, to have the tiniest chance of having a piece of what we so often take for granted.

    I hope Seaman Schmuckatelli got a beer out of all of you, or whatever reward passes for free drinks at the bar on a carrier at sea.

  • Steve

    Did he ever find the batteries for the sound-powered phone?

  • Pinch

    Steve, when he was finished looking for that bucket of prop wash and the left handed monkey wrench and the pad eye wrench and the 100 feet of chow line.

  • jhawk

    Great story and photos. Whether he was supposed to watching for a mail buoy, man over, or dolphins mating…guess he got the job done.

    I thought all tales from the sea were true ;)

  • J. Hirst

    Confirm. I was onboard for this event. I thought the guys where washed off of a Merchant Ship though.


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