It thrilled me to learn I was going to deploy overseas with my squadron, Patrol Squadron Eight, the “Fighting Tigers”. My first military deployment! The P-3 Orion is an anti-submarine warfare aircraft; Soviet submarines were their primary targets. Although I was a groundpounder – a mechanic, not aircrew – everyone shared in the glory when our squadron aircrews found and tracked a Soviet boomer, sometimes tracking them at wave-top level for days as our and other squadrons’ aircraft remained on top, dropping passive and active tracking devices, and handing off to new aircraft. Wherever Soviet subs cruised, the P-3 Orion shadowed them. I looked forward to deploying somewhere dangerous, exciting, thrilling, where the hairs on the back of my neck would raise every time I turned a corner.
A little background info: the P-3 Orion is land-based since it is too large to land on aircraft carriers. It is however, an operational combat aircraft and deploys as does any other sea-duty squadron, ship, or submarine. Deployments are six-months or longer depending on circumstances. So, I was a bit surprised to know we were deploying to Bermuda, of all places.
Bermuda? What? Are you kidding me? However, as the most junior of junior Sailors in the squadron, I didn’t ask questions but followed orders (since I was so junior, ANYONE could order me around). Off we went. Most of our nine aircraft flew to Bermuda, while a few flew to a detached operating site in the Azores. This worked well, since Soviet subs transiting south from bases in northern Russia would pass near Iceland (P-3s there), Bermuda (P-3s there), the Azores (P-3s there) and either into the Mediterranean Sea (P-3s all over the Med), or South for the Cape (P-3s near there), or west for the Horn (P-3s all over that area too). The P-3 Orion has long legs – lots of MPG – and can stay up twelve hours or longer by loitering one engine to conserve fuel. I’ve flown in the P-3 hundreds of times over the years, and I love the aircraft.
I love flying in her, and I love maintaining her. Go here to understand how much I love this aircraft: Ode to Orion, or Mechanic’s Lament
Bermadoo, in Sailor slang, was (is) as you can imagine, a vacation and resort destination, and a beautiful group of islands. It’s pretty far north – about 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina – but sits in the Gulf Stream, so the coral reefs around Bermuda thrive, as do tropical fish. Almost paradise. The base (now closed) was shared with the commercial airport. There was a great beach at the approach end of the runway too. (I would never say a group of partying Sailors ever mooned a commercial aircraft coming in for a landing, butt….)
I worked the night shift in Material Control, handing out tools and ordering parts on the teletype. I followed a template when ordering parts: certain fields were the same on every order form, but I also had to fill in information specific to the part I was ordering. This meant I learned certain keystrokes and committed them to muscle memory; the other info I typed faster as time went on (to this day, I’m a hunt and pecker typist- but super fast!). My eight-hour shift ran from 23:30 pm to 07:30 am. What kind of crazy hours are those? Crazy like an eighteen year old Sailor who flies to the barracks in the morning, showers and chows, then hits the beach (awesome beaches on base) all day. Man, I was tanned. And, no: I didn’t feel bad for those poor suckers underway aboard ship – I’d get my chance at that soon enough.
As soon as I arrived in Bermuda, I bought a moped from a Sailor in the squadron we relieved. I could walk faster going uphill, but it carried me off base and into town on liberty, so I was happy. I loved exploring Bermuda – what a beautiful place. I have to admit that I wasn’t that disappointed not going to a more exotic deployment site. They had just wrapped up filming The Deep, and I spent many an hour hoping to bump into Jacqueline Bisset – never happened. Cruise ships docked across the channel from the base in Saint George – the tourists were a nice diversion…. The Swizzle Inn was a great place to go, but hard to leave. Lee’s Gift Shop in Hamilton was owned by…Lee, a gentle, sweet gay man who loved telling me this necklace or that would look “oh, so nice on you.” The White Horse Pub introduced me to McEwan’s Ale, a brew I still love.
Things became exciting when a Soviet sub was detected. From that time on, squadron personnel pulled 12-hour shifts with no days off (this was sea-duty after all) until the sub left our area of responsibility and another squadron took over. Each time an aircraft returned from a mission, we’d surround the aircrew and make them tell us everything that happened. I wanted to be aircrew at those times. After the rush wore off though, I decided I didn’t like the hours aircrew kept – unpredictable with routine 20-hour days: get dressed, preflight, fly, postflight and debrief, clean up, go to bed.
Something we did out of sheer boredom was use homemade cannons to launch potatoes from the barracks at the Marine guard shack. Payback was hell though: Marine guards can frisk a Sailor ’til he cries like a baby.
My favorite sea story involves standing flightline watch. One night we received word of a remote threat of terrorist activity that put the base on high alert. A buddy and I were assigned to patrol the flightline from 23:30 pm to 03:30 am. It started out kind of exciting but Dave and I were bored to tears after five minutes. It eventually turned out to be kind of fun though: we noticed the Squadron Duty Officer hiding behind various flightline equipment to see if he could catch us sleeping. Dave and I kept him hopping by pretending to see suspicious activity and running around looking for terrorists. Had there been a terrorist, I’m sure he would have surrendered without resistance when he saw how heavily we were armed: white billy clubs and heavy, 18-inch flashlights. I weighed all of… …140 pounds at eighteen years old!
Bermuda. The Navy should have charged me for my room and meals, and made me work 12-hour shifts around the clock. Although I was performing a duty for my country, there were guys aboard ship that didn’t see land for weeks on end, labored one month in arctic temperatures and the next in 120 degree heat, and worked fourteen hour days, minimum. When the ships did pull into port on liberty, the Sailors usually had to wear dress uniforms when they went into town. They also had a curfew – called Cinderella Liberty: back aboard ship by midnight. I was free as long as I made it to work on time – no worries there!
So, how arduous was deployment to Bermuda?
Brutally arduous: I couldn’t afford uniforms; it embarrassed me so much I had to hide out at the beach during the day.
As it turned out, arduous couldn’t describe my next deployment either: Rota, Spain.
But that’s a sea story for another time 🙂