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Christmas Patrol by Lew “Duck” Kennedy

Christmas Patrol by Lew “Duck” Kennedy

The October War began shortly after midday on Saturday, October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a concerted surprise military attack on Israel. They had chosen to attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a day when most Israelis were in synagogues praying and fasting. Due to the advantage of surprise, Egypt succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal on October 7th and Syrian forces advanced on the Golan Heights. By October 10th, however, after heavy losses, Israeli forces succeeded in reversing the tide of battle in the North and during the next three days, Israeli forces advanced 10 km beyond the 1967 cease- fire lines into Syrian territory. On the Egyptian front, Israeli forces succeeded in crossing the Canal on the 14th and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. Fighting continued despite a cease-fire agreement on 22 October, which almost brought the USSR and the US to confrontation. Finally, on Oct. 26th a US-Soviet sponsored Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire was accepted by all parties.

On the 6th of October, we had been given our orders to depart the continental United States for what was the beginning of my second deterrent patrol on the USS James K. Polk SSBN 645. Everyone arrived at the airport in Charleston, South Carolina to board a Military Airlift Command flight to Rota, Spain. Our seabags were packed with the minimum of uniforms to last us for the next 105 days. Traveling in our dress uniforms, they would be worn on this day and then folded up and packed away in our personal stowage areas on the boat, not to be seen again until the day we came back to the states. Dress shoes were a burden also, as we wore soft, noiseless shoes on patrol and a pair of shoes just to travel in took up just too much space that would otherwise be used for toothpaste and soap, a favorite book or two, cassette tapes, or precious goodies like packets of Carnation Hot Chocolate and cigarettes. Every day for the next three months had already been meticulously planned. Five days with the Gold Crew to review the patrol they had just finished and perform machinery checkout. Then for the next twenty days we would test, repair, realign, and test again every piece of gear and system on the entire ship. Once everything was put back together and duly signed off, we’d go to sea for ten days of seatrials to shake everything out, just to make sure. Upon return to port, all hands would load stores and weapons to last for 70 days in the silent darkness of the ocean depths, the majority of us not knowing our position or direction. In the Engineering spaces, colder seawater injection temperatures meant northern latitudes, if that was any consolation at all.

We were in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when word spread the Egyptians had attacked Israel. Speculation started immediately; With the United States Military now at DEFCON 3, would the Goldies get extended on their patrol? Would the pilot receive orders to turn around and take us back to the states? We all watched the clouds and the ocean below as the plane hurtled onward into uncertainty. This was not going to be a normal patrol.

When we landed in Rota, we were informed that the Gold Crew was not yet in port. This would normally mean “a night on the town” to see what, if anything, had changed from 13 weeks before. But with the impending status of the world we were told…. “Restricted to base!” There were two boats already along side the tender, which meant that as their duty shifts rotated, the enlisted clubs on base would be packed. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, we stowed our seabags… our worldly possessions on the tender and headed for the clubs to get liquored up and feast on scuttlebutt. Elbow to elbow with the off duty sections of two other crews, the scuttlebutt swirled in a frenzy…. the first and foremost rumor being that the tender was making preps to go to sea. Would they have to get tugs to pull her off the coffee grounds that certainly had built up under her hull? How long had it been since her main engines and screws had turned? Fortunately there was a band in from England to turn our rummy heads from excess speculation. And turn our heads they did. Bruce Danielson fell in love four times that night. With the band playing four full sets over the course of the evening, and the singer changing clothes three times… that effectively doubled the number of women in the club since there were 3 other girls mixed in with the crowd that night. And speaking of the look of love, this was Mumbles’ first patrol, first time overseas, just about first everything. I had never seen an Electrician, or anybody for that matter, puke up so much Sangria in my life!

The next morning we mustered for quarters on the helo deck of the tender, standing at attention in the bright morning sun. The order to parade rest helped stabilize the deck; it kept wanting to spin for some reason. While we awaited news of the conflict and how it would impact our mission, I turned my head over my right shoulder just in time to see the Polk pulling in around the harbor seawall. Flashbacks of my first patrol shot like lightning through my head. OOOhhhhh….. I thought I would gakk right there. Whatever was said, or wasn’t said during quarters, the presence of the Polk answered all questions. The shit had hit the fan.

We immediately started turn over, short cutting machinery check out with verbal reports. The Goldies packed their bags with knowledge that their plane was waiting and they were going home five days early. We changed command, loaded sea stores, sent weaponeers across the tender to another boat to help them load torpedos, and were ready to go to sea in 17 hours! With the reactor critical, turbine generators on line, and the main engines on the jacking gear, we waited. Engineering was in port and starboard watches, six hours on, six hours off. The boat was on 4 hour alert, the world turned, and we steamed. After a couple days we went to an eight hour alert and the forward pukes ( non-engineering ) started hitting the beach, and the Nucs back aft really steamed.

Finally we were allowed to shut down the reactor and take the engineroom into cold iron. Our re-fit period had been severely impacted with the loss of time. We made it though. We busted ass and arrived on station for patrol in time. The one thing nobody was to realize for another six weeks, we had drawn our normal compliment of seastore cigarettes for 10 weeks with the initial stores load under alert. All of a sudden, there were no more cigarettes on board, anywhere, and there were four more weeks to go!

Since we had made the first patrol after completing Polaris/Poseidon weapons conversion last March, we, the Blue Crew, the Bluies would also have to be at sea for Christmas. It was getting pretty close to the end of the patrol anyhow, all the butt kits ( bulkhead mounted ashtrays ) had been raided for un-burnt tobacco, especially those Pall Malls, and most everyone was over their withdrawal symptoms.

The surgeon’s table was erected on the after end of the mess deck and a Christmas tree appeared on top of it. My thoughts were exactly, “How in the hell did that get on board?”. On Christmas Eve brightly wrapped boxes appeared on the table beneath the tree. Again I thought “Isn’t that pretty! It almost looks real!”. At midnight I went to the engineroom to stand the midwatch.. midnight to 6 AM. Santa Claus had been the butt of numerous jokes for a couple weeks. Like… if Santa was hovering overhead when we went to periscope depth, wouldn’t he be surprised to get sucked down our induction mast! Or… would we have to blow his ass up through the diesel exhaust mast so he could get off board? At 6 AM my watch relief arrived and I went forward for grease…. oatmeal and more coffee. The number of boxes under the tree had diminished, but since the display hadn’t really registered with me in the first place, I didn’t notice. As the mess decks cleared out, someone said, “Hey, there’s a gift over there for you”. I looked up; there was a couple still there. “What was with this deal?”. After I cleared my mess, I sauntered casually by the tree and sure enough, there was a package with my name on it. So I picked it up, turned it over a couple times, and headed off to berthing to hit the kip for some well deserved zzzzs.

Once I got myself ensconced in my kip with my reading light on, I turned my attention to this mysterious package. Unwrapped, a cigar box was revealed. It contained a some cassette tapes, a couple tins of tuna, and the extra space was packed in with packages of Carnation Instant Cocoa, with a note from my folks. How had this happened?!

Later I learned that the Skipper’s wife had mailed instructions to the next of kin for the whole crew, with the specified and dimensioned packages to be delivered in September prior to our sailing date. From there they were smuggled aboard in the Captain’s sea chests. Even though I knew that the records for an entire crew and a ships office for administration had to be transferred back and forth with each crew change, I had never given any thought to just how many chests the Captain commanded.

 That was the last time I ever saw this happen, which is a testament to the Skipper’s First Mate. An uncommon woman she certainly was.

Stunned….. just absolutely stunned; I remember the feeling. It brought full circle and closure to memories of a previous Christmas when I was about eleven or twelve. Before the days of commercial Christmases and advertising blitzes three months long, before mad rushes for “Tickle Me Elmos”, “Cabbage Patch Kids”, and electronics of no real service, well…. we didn’t really give any thought to mothers who stayed home, one car households, hand-me-down clothes, and the fact that sometimes groceries had to be bought “on the tab”. On a previous occasion, another “Christmas” was solely contained in a cigar box.

I have been privileged for many years now, to know what joy Christmas in a cigar box can bring.

 

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