Carnett: U.S. Naval cruise is nothing like an Alaskan one

My wife, Hedy, and I recently returned from a cruise.

It was our third adventure on an ocean liner.

We've now been to Alaska twice, and have cruised the North Sea and Baltic from Rotterdam to St. Petersburg.

Never one for sailing, I joined the Army in 1964 because of my aversion to things nautical. I turned the Navy down at the last moment because of a queasy stomach.

But big ship cruising, I've discovered, is something else entirely. I don't get sick!

On our first morning at sea during this most recent voyage, I arose early and sat in the open breeze on our cabin's veranda.

As I relaxed, I reflected on another first morning on the deck of a troop ship, 47 years ago. It was May 1965. This soldier was on board a dreaded Naval vessel, through no design of his own.

It was the 11,500-ton USNS General W. H. Gordon — a World War II-era troop carrier — bound from San Francisco to Inchon, South Korea, with 4,000 G.I.s on board. I was to spend the next 18 months in Korea.

We sailed from Oakland Army Terminal one fine afternoon and underneath the Golden Gate Bridge into the blue Pacific. We hit a storm that night and 4,000 soldiers got sick.

You might guess that 4,000 guys ralphing simultaneously would produce havoc of metaphysical proportions below the decks — and you'd be right! To top things off, the urinals and toilets backed up.

The next morning the Gordon's crew got the 4,000 soldiers on deck and into the fresh air, and then swabbed down our sleeping quarters. We were green to the gills and Gordon personnel advised us to either stare at the deck or fix our gaze on the horizon.

The trip was scheduled for 21 days — it lasted 23 — and I knew that if I stayed as sick for the entire trip as I felt that first morning, I'd be disembarking at Inchon in a box.

Fortunately, we all recovered.

Because so many of us were crammed onto that claustrophobic craft, the Navy was unable to feed us three squares a day. We settled for two.

Most of our time was spent standing in line or playing cards. We waited in the chow line most of the morning for breakfast, and stood in line during much of the afternoon and early evening for dinner. Greasy Navy fare was less than appetizing, but we wolfed it down and begged for more.

Oh, what we would have given for a mouthwatering Royal Caribbean buffet!

Consuming a diet almost exclusively of carbohydrates, my gut soon seized up like a lawn mower engine bereft of oil. I found another reason for postulating my pre-arrival demise.

As we neared the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, we encountered Typhoon Carla, tracking up from the Philippines and to the east of Japan's southern islands. At the time, I didn't realize a typhoon was a Pacific hurricane, but I knew it was one humdinger of a storm.

We turned north, eluding the storm, and passed between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. Because we added two days to our journey, we had to stop for provisions in the Japanese port of Sasebo.

As we pulled into the harbor, all 4,000 soldiers assembled on deck. We were heartsick when informed there would be no shore liberty.

As we pulled into the dock, a young woman in a house on a hill overlooking the harbor came out on her veranda and waved pink lingerie in the air. The flower of American youth went nuts. The whooping was deafening!

We finally arrived at Inchon on June 8, 1965. I promised myself never to stand on a heaving deck again.

I pretty much kept that vow until Hedy and I discovered cruise ship luxury. Heck, we like cruising so much, we'll probably embark on another next year!

Sadly, not everything in this story ends happily.

The stately Gordon was sold for scrap in Taiwan in 1987, becoming so many thumbtacks and steel elbow pipes.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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