USS Independence

| July 18, 2019

uss independence
USS Independence

Nate’s back. Our favorite journalist sends us an autobiography of sorts, a boy-to-man story as told by Nate’s very good friend, Mr. S. R. S. USS Independence plays an important part twice in his life. Here’s his story, written with a simple elegance I can only wish for.

It was early summer 1968. The past school year had been spent playing football for Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach. Va. The previous December, Princess Anne had beaten Hampton High in a contest that decided the Virginia State High School championship. Christmas had brought a new Dewey Webber surfboard and when summer emerged, most waking moments were spent riding whatever waves were available.

Being an eighteen year old I was flying with a much enhanced self image. After all, as a defensive back I had played for a school which was now the reining State Football Champions. Coupling that with my surfing partner owning a 67, navy blue, GTO. my perceived 18 yr old “Wizard” status, was pretty much off the grid.

Within the past year, my mother had more than her share of drama trying to assert a degree of control over me. By early summer she had pretty much given up and would only counter my antics with an occasional “Your father will be home soon”. My Dad, LCDR Robert Smith, had been deployed for the past year aboard the U.S.S. Independence (CV— 62). He had joined the U.S. Navy at age 17, immediately after High School and was now moving towards a thirty year retirement. Twenty seven years of active duty had resulted in two years service on Guadalcanal during World War Il followed by twenty five years of shore duty and service aboard five different aircraft carriers (Wasp, Intrepid, Saratoga, Essex and the Independence).

True to my Mother’s warning my Dad returned home to Va. Beach in late June of 1968. He had •received transfer orders assigning him to shore duty at NAS Whiting Field, Milton, Fla. Between packing out efforts and my father spending more time than usual discussing my future plans, what remained of the summer evaporated. Due to my Dad’s reporting date it was decided that he and I would proceed to Whiting Field and my Mom would follow after the household items were packed and shipped.

On our way out of town my father stopped at the Independence which was anchored in Norfolk. He had told me he needed to pick up some items and asked me to accompany him aboard. After being shown most of the ship (berthing area, hanger bay, Ward room, enlisted mess, flight deck, etc.), I started to understand that this was not about picking up anything. What it had evolved into was a less than thinly veiled enlistment discussion/inducement.

On the way off the ship my father told me that he could promise that the Navy would provide a place to sleep and three good meals a day. I immediately countered with “I’ve been thinking about being an Army Paratrooper”. My Dad paused and then responded by saying he was unsure as to what the Army could promise, but that if I did join he felt sure that being cold, wet, and hungry was in my future. He followed by telling me that since I had missed my High School senior trip the Army would most probably accommodate me with a trip to South East Asia.

Fortunately, the subject of our talk changed and discussions of previous assignments to the Pensacola Fla. area prevailed. I had missed my father terribly during his deployment on the Indy and we were now trying to reunite and catch up. It took us two and a half days to arrive in Pensacola. Most of our talks centered on my father’s recent Med Cruise and the high lights of my senior year at Princess Anne.

After about three days in Pensacola, I looked up an old friend. When I found his house I saw Army fatigues drying on the clothes line. When he answered the door I started laughing for I could see the skin on the sides of his head and one or two short sprigs of hair on top. A short time passed before my friend explained that he was on home leave and that he was in route to Vietnam. From that point our reunion was tempered to a more somber tone.

Not to be outdone, the following day I visited the Army recruiter. Upon entering his office I saw a large poster of a Paratrooper preparing to land. When he asked me if I was interested in the Army I answered by saying “l am interested in doing that” pointing my finger at the larger than life poster. My comment was met with a grin and within a short time I had signed papers enlisting in the Army for three years. As I left the recruiting office I had to remind myself that three years in the Army was a good thing for I now had a guarantee for Airborne Training. My father’s reaction, after being told of the day/ s events was priceless. Without uttering a word he deflated my belief that I had truly become a “Wizard” in his absence.

The next year zinged by at an incredible speed. Basic training, Advanced Infantry Training, NCO School, Ranger Training and Jump School had blended to paint me into the Paratrooper poster that was hanging in my recruiter’s office. At 20 years of age, I was now a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger Staff Sergeant (E-6) with papers in my possession ordering me to Vietnam. Having received leave in route I traveled by Grey Hound from Ft. Benning, Ga. to my parents home in Milton, Fla. After burning my days of leave my father drove me from Milton to Jacksonville, Fla. so I could catch a plane to Tacoma, WA.

Arrival in Vietnam was early Nov, 69. Follow on assignment was C. Co., 1st of the 506th, 101st Airborne Div. The NVA siege against Firebase Ripcord ignited in the early spring of 70. On 17 May, 1970 while participating in combat operations in support of Ripcord, I was wounded and subsequently evacuated to the hospital ship U.S.S. Sanctuary. Additional medical treatment at Camp Zama, Japan and Ft. Gordon, Ga., followed and after release I received orders to the 82nd Airborne Div. Ft. Bragg, N.C. Spending a little over a year with the 82 nd my term of enlistment expired (Sept. of 1971) and I returned to my parents’ home in Pensacola, Fla. Shortly before arriving home, my father retired from the U.S. Navy after completing thirty years of active service.
A year or so of patch up surgery, attendance at Florida State University, seven years working as a State Bureau Agent in Oklahoma, and two years as an Agent with NCIS, found me sitting on a rooftop watching helicopter gunships roll in on Marcos’s compound in Manila.

The year was 1986, eighteen years had passed since my football and surfing days in Va. Beach. While at Subic, i was exceptionally lucky to have been involved in a multi faceted investigation which had been dubbed l/Bloody Mary. After more than a year, the case was coming to fruition and it seemed like a PCS departure was in order. After a conversation with Tom Fisher at NISHQ, I volunteered for the Agent Afloat position aboard the U.S.S. Independence. At the time the Indy was in the Philly Ship Yard undergoing refitting.

I had been in Philadelphia just a few days when I was introduced to the Commanding Officer of the Independence. His name was Capt. “Buzz” Needham and upon my introduction a flash thought came to me that it was going to be a long year. We were in Capt. Needham’s quarters aboard the Indy and the Captain was leaning back in his chair. The conversation had slowed a bit so the Skipper pipes in and asks if I had ever been on an aircraft carrier. His manner and tone indicated that he expected a “no” from me so I took a breath and said “yes I have” The Skipper raised his brow and inquired which ship. My reply was, “Captain it was this ship”. His follow up question was, “when was that” and I told him that I had come aboard in 1968 with my father who at the time was the AIMD Department Head. He then jumped up and went to a book rack that held cruise books. He pulled one down and started flipping pages stopping when he stepped forward towards me. He had his finger on a picture and asked is this your Father?

When I responded yes he loudly said “you’re shitting me”. I smiled and told him again that the picture was of my father. The Skipper then laid the cruise book down and reached over to again shake my hand. As I thanked him and started to depart he commented that if you “need anything Steve let the XO or me knoW’. As I traversed back to my quarters I was thinking that my year on the Indy might not be as long as I initially thought.

In June of 88 repairs to the Independence were completed and a home port change had been ordered (Norfolk to San Diego). As a result, a Dependents day cruise was scheduled. My father flew into Philly for the occasion and after picking him up we had dinner and spent the night in the BOQ. The following day I accompanied him aboard the Indy and immediately introduced him to Capt. Needham. We spent the day finding his old state room, talking with AIMD personnel, eating in the Ward Room, and drinking coffee in my state room/office. At the end of the day things had quieted some. I then asked my Dad can you believe it was twenty years ago this month that you brought me aboard in Norfolk? His reply: “the years passed far too quickly”.

As we were leaving my state room I said to my Father that back in the day, I thought I was a “half- ass Wizard”. He responded by saying, you may have been, but as your Mother has said you have always “had a Guardian Angel on your shoulder”. Without responding, I thought how proud I was to have I-CDR Smith as my Father and how blessed I was to be standing after traveling the “twenty year road” that led me back aboard the U.S.S. Independence.

S. R. S.
Special Agent (Ret.)
Naval Criminal Investigative Service

Great story. Thanks, Nate.

Category: Army, Feel Good Stories, Guest Post, Legal, Navy, The Warrior Code, Viet Nam

Comments (10)

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  1. 26Limabeans says:

    Great story.
    Makes me miss my dad.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Cool. Like this kinda stuff. Thanks Nate!

  3. J Wright says:

    WOW !


  4. If your dad was on board the “Indy” from 1963-1967 before the Oki 3 left Norfolk NOB to San Diego, he would have seen the Oki 3 (LPH 3) tied up at pier 12 across from him where the carriers were berthed. Christmas time, the Indy would have Christmas light strung up on her island structure.

  5. H1 says:

    If you look at my TAH avatar.
    Taken on the flight deck of the Indy at Norfolk.
    Around 1977.

  6. Just An Old Dog says:

    Awesome story! My Brother was chewing the same dirt at the Same time you were with the 2nd of the 506th.

  7. AO2(NAC) says:

    I was on Indy for that voyage around the horn. I remember Buzz Needham would hold captain’s mast on site tv. He went everywhere on his ship with a Marine guard. I have a pic of him giving me my 2nd class crow somewhere.

  8. Some Guy says:

    Really cool story. I was wondering about his making E-6 with only one year TIS, though. How was that possible? Maybe the (in)famous “shake-n-bake” program? I know you can still enlist at higher grades today under certain circumstances (e.g. college degree, musician MOS, etc.), but going right to E-6 seems crazy to me.

    • Stephen R.. Smith says:

      You had it correct. Boot camp,Infantry AIT, NCO School, Ranger School, and them jump school. E-5 out of NCO school and E-6 after completing Ranger school. 3 year enlistment and had 2 yrs time in grade when mustered out.

      “Shake and Bake” is not an endearing term for me. A squared away 11B could end up in NCO school after AIT without asking.

      Take the time to read about the graduates that were awarded the Medal of Honor/and the number of graduates that lost there life after graduation.

  9. butch searle-spratt says:

    I was onboard the Independence from March 1968 to September 1971. The Independence left Norfolk in April 68 for a 9 month Med cruise so she was not at Pier 12 Norfolk in the early summer of 68.