The story begins in the early summer of 1969 while I was deployed on the USS Shangri-La (CVA-38) as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.
I was near the end of my four-month temporary tour of duty as part of the detachment of communications technicians (CT’s) inhabiting the SUPRAD (supplementary radio) spaces on the “Shitty Shang” as we affectionately referred to the oldest attack aircraft carrier in the Navy. Our unit was involved in one aspect of the cat and mouse activities that passed for the Cold War in the Med at the time, using the radio spectrum to try and keep tabs on Soviet naval and air forces and their allies while at the same time trying to protect our fleet’s communications from exploitation by the bad guys. My permanent duty station was the naval base at Rota, Spain, and my two-year tour there was due to be completed in September of that year. I was 21 years old and still had another year of my active-duty obligation, and I was anxious to see what the Navy had in store for me that final year.
I was off watch when one of my shipmates came up to me and said I needed to come to the work spaces in SUPRAD because someone in Rota wanted to talk to me on our point-to-point teletype link. The point-to-point worked much like today’s instant messaging (IM) system but at the time it was about the only way other than amateur radio links to communicate with someone in real time. I was a little nervous as I made my way up the ladders and passageways to the compartment, not sure what news my Rota friend had for me.
I remember looking at the teletype as it slowly clacked out the message – “Bumgarner has received orders for his next duty station. He is to report in October to the U-S-S Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42) at its home port in Manila, the Philippines.” All I could think of at the time was that I did NOT want to spend my last year in the Navy floating in the western Pacific. I had already volunteered almost nine months of the two-year Rota “shore” duty at sea aboard the Shangri-La, Francis Marion (LPA-249), and Norris (DD-859), and it just did not seem right that I would be rewarded by another year at sea. This was particularly annoying since the majority of CT’s never deployed on ships but served their time at shore stations. Our detachment lead NCO, Chief Ward, after observing my tantrum, suggested that I had some options, but should probably wait until I returned to Rota and talked in person to the administrative chief there.
After returning to Spain, I decided to refuse the orders to the Roosevelt – sometimes you got lucky and this permitted option worked. But BUPERS, the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel, was determined to send me to the FDR and denied my refusal. I was desperate, so I consulted the administrative chief at Rota who convinced me that my options were disappearing. Chief Loomis suggested that I might volunteer for Vietnam, and after talking to some other fellow CT’s in my division who had served a year there and said it was not so bad, I figured what the hell. Interestingly, I joined the Navy in part to avoid being drafted into the Army or Marine Corps as Vietnam bait, and now the irony of volunteering to go there was rich. Within a week of my request I received a reply that said my orders would be conditional on extending my original four-year enlistment by three months so I could complete Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school before deploying for my one-year tour to Vietnam. Despite some reservations about subjecting myself to the simulated POW (prisoner of war) experience, I agreed to the extension and accepted the orders. The 1968 capture by North Korea of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), an intelligence gathering vessel manned mostly by CT’s, served to sharpen my focus on SERE school. The Pueblo incident resulted in the crew of that ship being held as POW’s for 11 months (January-December 1968) before their release was negotiated.
Written by Fred Bumgarner