Friday, March 22, 2013

Connections

This is the second eulogy for a Cold War Warrior I have written.  The first was for my step father, Robert Eugene Brantly, I pray I don't have to do it again.
My father eloped with my mother in the summer of 1953, just before joining the Navy.  As an engineman, he was assigned to the LST USS Alamo, home ported in San Diego.  A brilliant man, he was rapidly promoted, and when discharged in 1959 he was the second youngest, by one day, man to be promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer in the Post WWII Navy.  


 The claim was my father was the second youngest "Chief" in the post
WWII Navy.   But did I assume "Chief Petty Officer"?  The hat I found
was a "Chief Warrant Officer" which was never mentioned.

He spent his remaining years working in the Post Office.  He divorced one wife, buried another, widowed a third.  He fathered two children, raised five other children, and was Pop-Pop to 16 or so grand children.  In his retirement age, he continued to be active.  He worked part time as a driver at a local car dealership, served as the go-to guy for home work support for the innumerable grand children, and provided support for his sister and their mother.
But this as a Cold War Story and frankly having read this far, you are already lining up the back button and so I will start again.
In the early 50’s, Philip Gardocki heard his country’s call and he volunteered to defend this country’s freedom.  Like every enlistee, he was given a battery of tests to see what skills and potentials existed.  They revealed a very high IQ, and a proficiency with tools and languages.  Since he already was fluent in Polish, Engineman Gardocki was sent to an emersion language school to learn Russian.  Upon completing that, he was sent to his first assignment, the USS Alamo, LSD-33.  Which was home ported out of San Diego, but Phil and his young wife were sent to live in Honolulu.  The reason for this was Phil’s real job was not as an Engineman, but as a listener, an electronic spy, on Soviet Submarine communications with Mother Russia.  And the USS Alamo, unlike the other 7 ships of the Thomaston class, was purpose built and specially equipped for that mission. 
He only revealed this different view on his military service in the final years of his life.  His favorite was that he delayed the departure of the USS Nautilus, SSN-571, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, for 3 days because he had lost track of the Soviet Submarine assigned to follow her.  After he related this to me, my only answer was one of disbelief, “Dad, you’ve read too many Tom Clancy novels.”
His reply took me aback, “Why do you think we lived in Honolulu?”
I connected the dots.  The military doesn’t house its enlisted personnel a substantial distance from their bases.  Usually there is housing available on the base.  It is just too cost prohibitive to house a low grade Petty-Officer, on another island from his ship, where the main method of commuting to work is by aircraft.  It is absurd, unless there was a very good reason for it.
He filled in the reason, “They didn’t want me mingling with the crew and possibly revealing what I was really doing there.”
He mentioned the initial conflicts between his division officer, and the head of engineering, who thought Petty Officer Gardocki should be down in the engine room with the rest of the snipes.  But his work was Top Secret, and there were only 4 men on board with the “need to know” of what he was up to.
Now that he is gone, I have been on a mission to fill in the blanks, and found some very interesting connections.  Why the Alamo?  More to the point, why an LSD for this kind of mission?  How much of this is true?  Wikipedia has offered some insight on some of this.  The USS Alamo has about 4 pages of entries on her.  All her sister ships have maybe a single page.  Only ships with more panache like Battleships and Carriers have longer articles. Now since Wikipedia is written by volunteers, the article could have been written by someone with self interest, like a former crew member, so this does not constitute any measure of proof.  But I looked at the detail listed.  The article says where she went, and what she was doing.  And in the late 50’s, all she was doing was hauling freight! The mission of the LSD is to land Marines on hostile shores.  Usually those Marines are permanently assigned to the LSD.  But the Alamo, seemed to have only had loaner Marines.  She picked them up for a specific training exercise and then dropped them off.  Sometimes she only picked them up just to transport them elsewhere.  The rest of her missions seem to be just cargo runs.  And while the LSD is more than capable of doing this, it is a waste of man power and material.  This is what freighters were for.  If you compare the Alamo’s service history against those of the other Thomaston class ships, you notice 2 things.  The other ships have far shorter histories, and the're missions seem to be dedicated to practicing landing operations.
But this makes sense if the Alamo’s primary mission was really a sub chaser.  You have to operate where the submarines are.  Those subs were not off of coasts of random islands suffering from beach assaults.  The subs we were most worried about at the time were the Soviet Golf and Zulu class subs, with their short range nuclear missiles, off of our shores.  

In a true coincidence, I read this book in the early 80's,
not aware that the main character's ship was my fathers ship.
I have tracked down a copy, and it is still a good read.
I highly recommened Admiral Gallery's books.

Another interesting thing.  I do not think this is a coincidence, but a deliberate “nod and a wink.”  The USS Alamo was commissioned by Vera Lee Gallery, wife of Admiral Daniel V. Gallery.  During WWII, Captain Gallery, with his ship the USS Guadalcanal, CVE-60, captured the German submarine, the U-505, along with the late model enigma machine plus the code books onboard it.  This was the first capture of an enemy warship by the US Navy since the War of 1812.  What better person to commission a future sub hunter?  Captain Gallery also wrote a series of books, all navy based.  In one book the hero is Cap’n Fatso.  A First Class Petty Officer in charge one of the landing boats assigned to the USS Alamo.  Why that ship?  Another nod and a wink?
Other coincidences.  And these are coincidences.  The U-505 is still afloat, in Chicago, and I took an opportunity to tour it back in the mid 70’s.  In the 80’s I read Cap’n Fatso, but at that time I didn’t know my connections to the ships mentioned therein.  I had been inactively looking for this book for more than a decade.  That search became a quest while I was putting the together the other connections.  Alamo, click, Admiral Gallery, click, U-505, click, back to Admiral Gallery, and there was his literary bona fides.  The reason I didn’t find Cap’n Fatso when I last looked was the spelling of the word Captain.  My father would have loved this book.
But how much of this is true?  I don’t know.  Going through my father’s effects, so far have only added to the mystery.  I have two copies of his discharges, and neither list his rank as a Chief Petty Officer, one as Petty Officer 2nd class, the other as a 1st Class.  But then there was the hat, a Chief Warrant Officer’s hat, in his drawer.  That it was his can be little doubt.  My Father had a small head, about a size 7, and the hat had a patent number on it, the patent was from 1958, so it is the correct era.  I sent for his records, so maybe the answer will be there.