Politicians applaud our Veterans during election cycles. Restaurants offer special deals for a day in November and we thank them for their service as casually as somebody holding open a door. But how many of us really know how the veterans in our lives spent their time in the service, or when they did it?
A group of sailors from the USS Clark FFG-11 gathers annually in Wilmington to catch up, trade a few jabs and share some memories. A quiet celebration of service. Their ages may vary, but all share a bond rarely understood by civilians.
The group ironically reunites at the home of one of our crew who never really enjoyed his stint in the Navy twenty-five years ago. Familiar faces age, yet somehow remain the same. Conversations shift to college tours, grandchildren and second careers.
Men from different eras of the ship’s service meet for the first time, but common experience and camaraderie build new friendships. Memories of heroic acts grow like Paul Bunyan and comedic incidents bring heartier laughs each year. But the punchlines remain the same.
This year the group boards a bus en route to the Philadelphia Navy Shipyard (PNSY), and stories flow like the beer in our coolers until the crew arrives at our old homeport. Today, it’s where the Navy puts its ships out to pasture. Abandoned hulls haunt the still waters of the back basin. Masts stand at attention, but no red, white or blue flaps in the wind above the empty decks.
“The Klackring!,” a crewmember points. “That was my last ship.” Heads turn.
They poses for an emotional picture in front of four grey frigates, peaceful ghosts in a somber silence that settles on the crumbling pier. Above rusty anchors, large white hull numbers have faded like the hair on the men who once gave life to the ship. This brief stop sets the tone for what will happen to Chief Dennis Tompkins and the rest of our shipmates.
Tompkins retired just after the turn of the century. Thirty-six years before that, he joined the Navy, if you were from Brooklyn, “that’s what you did.”
“Your grandfather, your father served. Your family expected you to serve. It was a sacred thing.” Tompkins said.
The young recruit from New York to Chicago late one night and caught a cold bus to Great Lakes, Illinois. He and his fellow enlistees arrived looking for sleep, only to be greeted by a screaming drill sergeant with a Southern accent. Attempting to obey unintelligible orders, they failed by design. The old salt’s still remembers the drill sergeants warning — to protect his money under his pillow. Eight weeks later, the young seaman received orders to report to his first ship, the USS Yellowstone.
When our bus leaves the shipyard, we cross the Delaware to visit a much larger ship tied to a Jersey pier. The driver pulls the bus close to the mammoth floating structure, now called a museum. Tompkins trails behind his shipmates using his cane to climb a long, metal walkway across the water. Four stories below a quiet Delaware River caresses the sides of the ship.
Crossing the brow, Tompkins picks up speed, his cane barely touching the ground. And as he steps on the quarterdeck, the ship’s welcome mat, he looks back at me and points his cane at a faded picture displayed on an A-frame.
“When that Captain came aboard this old girl, I dinged him on!” You can hear the adrenaline in his voice.
Navy tradition. When a senior officer boards the ship, the number of bell rings announces his rank to the crew. The same honor is afforded upon departure.
The large framed photograph shows the recommissioning ceremony for the New Jersey in 1968. BMC Tompkins stood watch and rang the bells on that day on the same quarterdeck nearly fifty years ago. He was a 3rd Class Boatswain Mate at the PNSY, where we just left the retired frigates behind.
We enjoy hot dogs and hamburgers outside on the famous wooden deck, but Tompkins doesn’t eat. He walks from side to side, checking valves and navigating ladders like a young seaman.
I ask why he doesn’t need the cane anymore, but he ignores me. He invites us into the massive gun turret that served as the guts of the ship’s famous sixteen inch guns.
As I duck my head in the small metal door, I smell the dank odor of diesel on metal that sailors can’t get out of their uniforms and old-timers can’t forget. The musty walls shrink into a maze of steel closets lined with tubular handrails and supported by grated walkways.
When Tompkins and the New Jersey sailed out of Philly ’68, they headed for Vietnam with no land in sight for 60 days.
On the edge of the Pacific, they fired that gun for hours at a time. After each shot fired, a gunners mate pulled back on the empty “ram”. Their team would guide a 2,000 pound shell into place, then drop a 600 pounds of gunpowder behind it, and ram them into the barrel. Finally, they would secure the weapon in place with a breech. Picture a combination lock on a safe, without the numbers. Once tight, the breech forced the shell to fire forward, preventing powder from backfiring and certain death in the turret.
BMC shows us the exact spot where someone pissed on him from above. We chuckle. The bus driver shakes his head.
One day during watch, they pushed a shell and powder forward to fire, but the breech didn’t lock. Air sucked out of the space and the gun sat silent. The turret could explode.
Tompkins says, “You want to get rid of the shell as soon as you can with all that firepower so close to you.” He pauses. “I can remember the dead silence. Complete dead silence in the room. Deathly quiet.”
He felt a trickle from above. The piss. The physical fear from a shipmate.
Tompkins’ boss ran to a gear locker to find a grinder. Sanding the metal down might lock the breech. As he hustled back to the turret, a fighter jet silently buzzed the ship. A split-second later, an explosion rocked his world.
The young boatswain’s mate feared the worst.
When he opened the hatch he found his shipmates alive, one of them still wet with fear, the rest with sweat. He realized the plane had broken the sound barrier with a sonic boom.
Now the same room goes silent again, but not from fear.
“I often think of the massive explosion on the Iowa years later and the guys that died in their turret. It wasn’t a sonic boom that killed them,” he says. The breech on the Iowa didn’t lock, and it still haunts him today.
As dusk looms, we are invited to perform “colors” on the fantail. In other words, they ask us to take down the flag at the back of the ship at sundown. Chief Tompkins seems like a natural. Lining up as formally as we can, our senior officer says, “Attention to colors!”
Tompkins lowers the flag reverently. The dark river and the grey skin of the ship contrast with the night sky like a World War II photograph.
Back in the Admiral’s quarters, the volunteers toast Tompkins. It’s not often they have a guest like him onboard. Tompkins is a rare “plank holder” of the USS New Jersey, meaning he was on board the day they recommissioned her in 1968. We plan one last honor for the Chief.
On the quarterdeck, Tompkins finds us standing at attention in two lines. A volunteer “gongs” him off with two bells over the loudspeaker. We salute in unison as he walks between us, returning the gesture.
“Chief Boatswain’s Mate Dennis Tompkins, Plank Holder, Departing.”
The last in line hands him the flag, folded in a blue triangle. Another loud gong echoes as he departs the ship alone. We got goosebumps.
Making our way back to the bus, the driver says, “That was pretty cool. I never knew anything about the Navy.”
I remember seeing Tompkins, when I was young and inexperienced. He seemed old to me, just a hard-partying Navy guy doing time until retirement. Like the driver, I never knew anything about him.
He’s still older than me, the years between us remain the same. Now I have more years behind me than he did when we met. My hair grays the same as his.
We reconnected a few years ago at the reunion, and he hasn’t missed one since. They mean something to him, and, now, they mean more to me. I never asked him what he did, I just knew that he served.
Later, he tells me, “I was humbled. I thought about my shipmates. The tribute was to them and to the ship. When I look back, I did it [my service] for myself and for my crew.”
I ask him about Vietnam.
“Nobody talks about the war. It’s usually between Veterans alone,” he whispers.
Everyday, we walk by the Tompkins of the world, and they all have a story they don’t talk about unless asked.
That’s how Veterans roll.
So when you hold the door for an old Vet, ask them what they did. That’s how to thank them for their service.