26 July 2017

Navy Memories: First Orders

Navy recruits are asked to fill out a "dream sheet" while in boot camp. This form allows those who work in the Bureau of Naval Personnel to assign sailors to commands as far as possible from where they'd like to be stationed. (/sarcasm)
Since I was from Missouri, I naively requested a post in the Ninth Naval District, a region of nine states mostly in the central and upper Midwest. Surely there were lots of Navy installations in that area, right?
Initial orders are handed out after graduation from basic training: many go to training schools, and those with no school guarantee are sent directly to their first station, usually aboard a ship somewhere.
Mine were to the school in Orlando to which I referred in an earlier post. As graduation from that school approached, we were handed a second set of transfer orders, to our first permanent commands. Mine was to a ship. "Okay," I thought, "it's the Navy. A ship assignment isn't surprising. How bad can it be?"
USS William M. Wood (DD 715) - a destroyer. "Okay, that's kind of cool." Having spent my first 18 years in the Midwest, I'd never seen the ocean. Then I noticed the location of said ship: Athens, Greece.
Sidebar: I spent a half-hour walking along Lake Michigan while in Milwaukee, and four of us rented a dune buggy there in Orlando. We drove the 55 miles to Daytona Beach, and walked on the sand by the Atlantic. But as I was about to find out, there's a HUGE difference between standing on the beach, and sailing out of sight of land on the ocean. The two are practically unrelated, but I digress.
So in late November, 1973 I boarded a flight from St. Louis to JFK. I had the Navy-provided tickets on TWA (remember them?) from New York to Athens.  What could go wrong, right?
But TWA was on strike that fall, and had reassigned me to Olympic Airways, the Greek state-run airline. Okay, I didn't know anything about airlines, and had - at that point - flown exactly once (from boot camp back to St. Louis, where my parents picked me up for the 90-minute drive home).
Culture Shock #1: After sitting in JFK for a couple of hours, I managed to find the proper gate, checked my sea bag, and got on a plane which smelled ... different. (I'd never smelled Greek cigarettes before; Winstons, they're not.) And ALL of the announcements and the menu were in Greek.
Yes, Virginia, they used to serve real food on airplanes. Well ... sort of.  :)
I didn't speak, nor understand, a word. Fortunately, my seat-mate took pity on me and translated what was being said. 
We had a layover in Paris, of which I saw nothing. All passengers were herded into an empty room, where we stood around for 45 minutes while the plane (either a 707 or perhaps a 727) was refueled.
I took a chance, and dropped a post card to my folks in a metal box on the wall. It was painted blue, white and red, but had no writing on it. But that's okay; I didn't speak French, either. Noticing a pattern here?
My parents confirmed, later, that they received the card ... almost three weeks later.
Back on the plane, we headed to Athens. After a total of 11 hours in air, we landed at the Aerodromio Athinas, or Olympic Airport. It's across the highway from Athens International, but I didn't know that then, either.
It was November 21, 1973.
Culture shock #2: The government of Greece was ... unstable, in those days. On November 17, there had been a junta, as students rose up to protest the military dictator then in power. and the airport still had bullet holes in the walls. There were Greek soldiers patrolling with black machine guns.
For the record, there were three more military coups while I was stationed there. There's nothing as exciting as awaking to find tanks rolling down the street in front of one's apartment. But that was a month later, so not a part of this particular tale.
I'd been told to present my military I.D. card at Greek customs, and it was accepted in all NATO countries in lieu of a passport. Son of a gun, it worked, too.
But now what? I couldn't read the signs, and had no idea where to go.
Once again, the Lord kept His hand of protection on me. There was another sailor on the flight (I hadn't seen him before this) who was on another ship in the same squadron, who offered to get to "the pier". While I was traveling in uniform, he was in civvies.
For the first time, I found out that the "Athens" on my orders didn't really mean Athens. The squadron was home-ported in a smaller town called Elefsis, 16 miles to the west.
We took a city bus to a stop at the Faliron Delta on the beachfront in Athens, used by Navy personnel to change from public busses or taxis to a military shuttle. As we exited from the bus, my new-found friend was explaining all this ... until he was interrupted by the Shore Patrol.
They were shouting at me (!) to go inside, and get out of sight. Why? "Because the snipers are shooting at white hats."
I would have changed right there on the sidewalk, but wound up changing in a large broom closet. Freshly attired in civvies, we took the shuttle through the industrial port city of Piraeus, and on to Elefsina (as the Greeks pronounce it).
We arrived just after sunset, had our I.D.s check by security, and walked onto the concrete pier. There were a number of ships there, including several destroyers and a much larger repair ship called a destroyer tender.
It felt like I had just landed on an alien planet; I'd never seen Navy ships in real life. But my ship wasn't there.
I wound up spending the night on the tender, and awoke the next morning to fumble my way around to the mess deck for breakfast. On the way there, a sailor I passed said, "Happy Thanksgiving." I'd completely forgotten what day it was.
To be continued...


drjim said...

Great story, Rev.

I can barely wait for the next installment!

Rev. Paul said...

Thanks, Jim. I was going to continue this post, until I saw how long it was getting to be. Always leave 'em wanting more, I guess. :)

monalisasmilesnow said...

Big nod....my former husband was in the Navy and was on the Saratoga...Greece. I learned how to toss plates and yell Umpa! And that licorish wine....OMG. This is going to be fun to send him....Write on Rev. Lovin it.

threecollie said...

This is a great story and I hope you will continue with more if you have time. If you want to write another book these stories would make great fodder.

Rev. Paul said...

Mona Lisa - you may be referring to ouzo, or at least the ouzo-flavored version. The real stuff (not what they sell in the States) is black, made from poppies, and one shot is supposed to last all night. The Greeks sip at it; sailors tossed back shots & had to be carried back to the ship, where they'd sleep for two days.

threecollie, that's a possibility. It crossed my mind while working on this post, this morning.

MO Bro said...

And this I did not know... so, the book is a MUST! Seems strange they left it to you to figure out how to get to the ship... Wonder how many got hopelessly lost? Sheesh...

Rev. Paul said...

Bro, perhaps I'm too charitable, but always figured that BUPERS in D.C. had no idea I'd wind up on a different plane at a different airport. There were probably U.S. personnel at the Int'l Airport, across the way, to provide a bit of info.

Or perhaps not. Heh.

Ed Bonderenka said...

At least you weren't declared AWOl for not being on the right plane :)
I don't remember being in uniform in Italy or Greece around that time.
Communist unrest.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Awesome story Reverend! Thanks for sharing!

LindaG said...

I remember TWA. And Braniff. I am thankful that It was never quite that bad in the Air Force.

The Air Force was the same way. The recruiter says, you can be anything you want. Then you get to basic and you can be anything within the range of the scores when you tested at the recruitment center.
And it wasn't until I got to Tech school that I figured out my school wasn't any of my choices, haha. I was one of the first two women accepted into my career field back then.

My first assignment was at Randolph AFB, right next door to Lackland (Air Force basic training), with a Lt. Col. in the chain of command that thought all women belonged at home barefoot and pregnant. :-)

Great memory. Glad you are sharing this with us, Reverend.

Ed Bonderenka said...

LindaG, what career field, tech school?

Rev. Paul said...

Ed, I'm not sure the Navy had any idea where I was, until I reported to the Wood on Thanksgiving Day. But yes, the cold war had its own tensions, and things were ... tricky, then.

TB, I'm very glad you liked it. I hope you like the rest. :)

Linda, somehow none of your story is surprising. Wasn't all that different from the Navy, it seems.

Old NFO said...

Ah yes, 'fun' times... And it's no wonder they were called "dream sheets"...

Rev. Paul said...

"Fun" is one way to describe it, NFO, although it was all just one big adventure at the time. And the trick with dream sheets was to, ahem ask for areas where something was going on, or that the Navy was having a tough time filling. I volunteered for Alaska, and had orders to Adak less than six weeks later. :)