By Aaron Holst
January 1967 – It seemed like a good idea at the time, enlist in the Navy for four years, serve twice as long as a draftee, stand a better chance of surviving. Student deferment gone, reclassified I-A, time to see the recruiter. Signed up, rode a bus from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Denver, Colorado, swore to defend Constitution and country, got on a plane for the first time, to Chicago, then bussed to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Grew intimately acquainted with lake effect snowstorms, shoveled mountains from parade grounds in the dead of night!
April 1967 – Assigned to the USS Ranger (CVA-61), a 1950’s-built aircraft carrier just finishing its overhaul and refitting in the naval yards at Bremmerton, Washington, it pulled out of dry dock the day before I reported for duty. Spent my entire career aboard Ranger, home port Alameda, California, across the bay from San Francisco, made three and a half cruises to the Gulf of Tonkin, never set foot in Vietnam.
Winter 1969 and 1970 – The Hawaiian, Ron, had never seen snow, so when we hit the Sea of Japan, middle of the winter, the weather changed from hot, sticky, and humid to cold and dry, and I thought it was Christmas. I did two trips to this Sea; both times, we were finishing a thirty-day assignment on Yankee Station, ready to head to port, when orders came in to steam north with a complement of warships and support. Both times, the North Koreans captured American crews, once, when they seized the USS Pueblo, another when they shot down an EC-121 reconnaissance plane. Little changed on Ranger after we arrived. The daily routine of flight operations continued in the frigid, snowing cold, keeping the pilots and crews tuned up for their missions. We also flew to make sure the North Koreans and their allies knew we were around, armed and ready to kick some ass, if needed.
Ron’s exposure to snow thrilled us northerners. He ran around the flight deck, a little kid packing snow into balls, throwing them at any convenient target, laughing in delight. He made a small snowman on the deck’s edge near the starboard elevator, he had to hurry for the temperature began to warm and the sun, by mid- morning, melted it all. What no one else knew: My delight at the cooler weather, the falling snow, bitter wind, and freezing temperatures brought as much joy as Ron’s. It was the closest thing to home, like the sweet- smelling sagebrush leaves and blossoms Mom would pick from the Wyoming hills and place in the envelopes of her letters. It did feel like Christmas in Wyoming, even though it was January or February with miles of sea and land in between.
After each Sea of Japan deployment, Ranger sailed for Sasebo, Japan. At first, we groaned and groused, knowing little of this port. It was neither Hong Kong nor the Philippines where we should have tied up. Sasebo was the closest port that could handle Ranger’s size. Here, the Japanese built supertankers in their shipyards and the piers accommodated our quarter mile length, multistory height. It took little time to steam there and this port kept us in the North Korean neighborhood. It snowed and blew and froze and I loved every minute of liberty I could squeeze from our days there. It had mountains like Wyoming, good seafood like San Francisco, and few sailors besides our crew; I hated running into other Navy guys when I had liberty.
January 1971 – Enlisted men ranked E-3 and below received up to 180 days “early outs” from active duty, so many of my shipmates left Ranger before the start of my fourth cruise. I had attained E-4, a non-commissioned officer in a rating in which the Navy had a shortage, no early out for me. Further, I was a good sailor and this complicated matters. A prime candidate for re-enlistment, the career folks worked hard at getting me to re-up, or extend for the rest of the cruise. I would do neither, so I spent four months and another Christmas in the Gulf before flying back to the US for separation from active duty.
I threw my flight deck boots into the Gulf, one of my last official acts before riding the catapult into the Southeast Asian sky, homeward bound. I flew from Ranger to the Philippines to Japan before heading to the US and I will never forget Mount Fuji, as we glided in to land. Its white cone gleamed in the early morning sunlight, its brilliance highlighted by dark flanks, I knew I would never see this place again. I felt sad, and elated, to say “good-bye.”
July 2010 – A year before my father died, he and I flipped through photograph albums, black and whites of his early life. In one, my father, an Ensign aboard the LST 1130, stands in the debris and rubble of a city. On the photo’s back, ”Sasebo 1945,” his handwriting. It wasn’t until this day I realized we had tread the same ground, years apart, his war, my war. I was so surprised I asked no questions, didn’t know what to say. Why was he there? What was it like? What did he do? How did he feel walking around in the land of conquered people? All these tumble out, now.
May 23, 2012 – I knew and understood my mother’s fear about my enlistment, she lost her first husband, a bomber pilot, in WWII. I didn’t know, didn’t understand my father’s emotions. I suspect he wouldn’t have talked of those years even if I took the time to ask. Cut from the same cloth, we held our respective wars in silence, as if to scratch our surface would be too much, like looking for an answer you already know but don’t want to recall. In all his papers that told his story, those stashed away in an old suitcase, not a single word described his war and I won’t ever know it. On all the pages I have written over the years, not a single word of mine, either – until today. My daughters will know.