A MEMOIR

nagasaki

Atomic bomb cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945.

Building A Movement

DIPLOMACY

by Jim Dorenkott

The admiral came out of his cabin to the navigation bridge, and because of what was going on, I was carefully eavesdropping

The day was stagnant and suffocating; the Indian Ocean was breezeless, and the temperature was blistery hot. Sailors who wanted to relax and try to cool off were instead sweating as they fueled and pushed fired-up planes around the flight deck. After the long and demanding cruise. everyone was wondering why the ship was conducting this drill at such an extremely high state of preparedness with guns manned and everyone at general quarters. The heat coming out of the jets’ tailpipes took the already hot day up another 10-20 degrees. The gunnery hands loaded the ammunition. But it wasn’t conventional ammo; it was nuclear! In all the time I had been on the ship I had never before seen the planes armed with nuclear bombs that had been taken out of Marine guarded storage. The nuclear bomb-loaded planes were connected to steam-spewing catapults ready to be hurled screaming off the end of the deck to obliterate their target. We were prepared for nuclear war!

I didn’t know exactly what was going on, all I had was that India and Pakistan wouldn’t let us pull into port because we had nuclear weapons on board. Sometimes officers seeing a “dumb enlisted man” with earphones on would speak unguardedly. Knowing this, I cocked one of the cups a little off my left ear so I could hear them better. It was after all very boring work, since most of the ships were moving very slowly.

My job was to track on a Plexiglas chart the movement of ships and planes in the area. The chart was updated around the clock so the admiral could see in an instant what was going on within several hundred miles of the task force. The positions of the ships and planes were given to me over the phone by sailors who worked ten floors below in the eerily semi-darkened CIC (Communication Information Center). They hovered over radarscopes tracking movements and reported to me and other trackers any changes in direction and speed, especially if they were headed toward the ship.

A captain on the admiral’s staff asked him what we were all wondering: why wasn’t the crew on “holiday routine,” (i.e., kicking back, sunbathing, etc., a normal break after such an arduous cruise)? Most important of all, why were we doing a drill with this very unusually advanced state of nuclear armament, as if ready for WWIII.

In response, the admiral stiffened, walked to a map on the wall, and pointed his finger to India and Pakistan. He said, right now, we are at the closest point to them. I didn’t know what was going on exactly, but I had heard that those countries wouldn’t let us in with nuclear weapons aboard.

The captain, referring to the nuclear alert state we were in, almost incredulously gasped, “Do they know?”

“They know,” the admiral gruffly replied, saying all that needed to be said.

I was stunned. So here we were, sweating like dogs, ready to launch nuclear warplanes, just to make a political statement, to thumb our nose, and to intimidate a country with which we were not at war. To find that American diplomacy was so whimsical was a chilling lesson.

In early June, the ship had a major propulsion system casualty 160 miles southwest of Sasebo, Japan, and it lost 50% of its power. Sasebo is on the farthest southern island of Japan and a major navy base. We pulled in for several weeks of repairs and lots of interesting liberty. In Sasebo one of my favorite spots was a friendly bar which had a lot of great jazz albums and tasty fried rice available next door, but I was never satisfied with the bar scene and so I took tours whenever I could.

Not too far from Sasebo, I visited Nagasaki and the Atomic Bomb Museum. The second atomic bomb was dropped here leveling an area of 2.5 square miles, killing 75,000 and injuring an equal number. It was very emotionally moving to visit, as an American sailor, this city which suffered so much because my country dropped a nuclear bomb here. I half expected the Japanese here to be less cordial, at least to sailors, especially after seeing the pictures of the gruesome consequences of the attack. The ones I met didn’t seem to be hostile even though I learned that the aftereffects of the bombing were still killing people.

Not everyone was so sanguine about what happened, and there were generally small demonstrations when the ship pulled in because of the possibility there were nuclear bombs aboard. This was neither confirmed nor denied by U.S. officials, but all of us on the ship knew we had them and so did everyone else. It was a diplomatic convenience that masked the truth.

Another great tour in Japan was visiting Mt. Fuji. Climbing Mt. Fuji, 12,388 feet high, sounds more rugged than it is. Thousands of grandmothers make the trek; the way is carefully marked. That is not to say that there is no effort required. Most people don’t climb all the way from the bottom or make it to the top. We rode a bus halfway up and climbed during the day to 2,000 feet below the top. There we spent the night in a small hut, which holds about fifteen people. We had hot sake and some nourishing food before going to bed early. The next morning we were up at 4:00 and began climbing the last 2,000 feet. The trick is to get there before the sun comes up so you can see the sun rise from below the clouds and burn off the haze. It is truly one of the most beautiful sights I have seen.

Eventually the ship was repaired. After some test runs we began our usual routine, cruising from the Philippines to Hong Kong and back to Japan.

–Jim Dorenkott

This piece was first published in the San Francisco Call on 3/31/03.

Further Reading:

A Memoir: Eve of Destruction by Jim Dorenkott, 8/22/09

A Memoir: Boot Camp by Jim Dorenkott, 8/16/09

A Memoir: My Generation by Jim Dorenkott, 8/8/09

A Memoir: George by Jim Dorenkott, 7/25/09

A Memoir: Leary by Jim Dorenkott, 7/20/09

A Memoir: Disneyland by Jim Dorenkott, 7/17/09

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