The USS Columbus (CG-12) was a former heavy gun cruiser of the United States Navy which had been converted into a Guided Missile Cruiser. At the time she was the heaviest armed ship in the U.S. Navy (excepting Aircraft Carriers ) with two Talos long range missile batteries forward and two aft. There were also two short range Tartar missile batteries on both port and starboard sides. I served aboard this ship from September 1965 to December 1967.
When I was assigned to the ship, my family and I lived in Virginia Beach, VA and I knew that the ship would be coming to a new home port of Norfolk within six months. After lots of discussion, we decided that it would be better if I went across country alone and kept the family at the beach.
I located an automobile moving company that was looking for someone to drive a car across country and deliver it in Los Angeles. They already had a black Air Force Captain and were looking for someone else to help with the driving. I took the job and we had a most unusual trip over the four day drive. We often found that I could get a motel room but he couldn't because he was black. This was especially true in the mid west states. We finally arrived and parted company after which I took a bus to San Francisco.
I reported aboard in San Francisco, California as a Lieutenant in 1965, and was spot promoted to a Lieutenant Commander and assigned as Talos Battery Officer, with a collateral function as Sea Detail officer of the deck. After taking the ship down the west coast and through the Panama canal, we finally arrived at our new home port of Norfolk , Virginia where my wife and children still lived.
One thing I remember in particular was an old German helmet, of the kind worn by Kaiser Wilhelm in earlier days with a long pointed spear on the top. Russ used to say that he would like to have one of those to wear then he could dive into the floor and “booooiiing” reverberate like an arrow. Stupid things like that represented the bulk of our conversation.
I was well accepted there, especially after I told the Brits that I had been stationed aboard HMS King George V for four months during WWII in the Pacific. Some of the customers remembered others who had served in that ship when Admiral Sir Bruce Frazer was Commander in Chief of the British Pacific Fleet. Some of the Aussies also came to this bar and we talked of people in the Australian Navy that I had met when attached for several months to HMAS Battaan during the war. All in all, they were a great bunch of folks at the Castle and we enjoyed spending every Saturday evening with them.
Several times, I had the RAFA President and several retired British officers out to the ship for dinner on board and they enjoyed it thoroughly. As a result of this, when Queen Elizabeth II visited San Francisco that year, I was invited to attend a reception in her honor. The affair was to be formal and I was required to wear a Dress Blue Formal uniform. When the captain heard that I was attending the affair, he reported it to the Admiral who was then commandant of the naval district in that area and I was ordered to report to him. I did and was told that I was apparently the only US Naval Officer in the entire district to receive such an invitation and that I would be the formal representative of the United States Navy. The Admiral wondered why I, of the many senior officers in the area had been invited. When I told him of my friends at the Edinborough Castle, he understand and gave me strict orders on how I was to behave and had his aide instruct me on the proper method of addressing “Her Majesty.”
The affair was wonderful with all kinds of celebrities in attendance. You could smell the mothballs from some of the older folks clothes that had been brought out for the occasion. Those authorized to wear uniforms did so and medals from several wars were to be seen. Cocktails and Hors d’ouvres were served and the place was packed. My introduction to the queen was quick and consisted primarily of the President of the RAFA telling her that I was a special Anglophile from the U.S. Navy who had befriended many of the British people in the area. The queen shook hands and said she was pleased to meet me. I thanked her and was quickly replaced by the next in line. At the end of the evening I headed back to the ship were I wrote a full report of the affair to be delivered to the Admiral the next day.
My association with the San Fran British people was a very rewarding one and I will never forget their friendship.
We had been having problems with our steering system so the captain ordered me to try extensive shifts in the rudder from one side to the other. I informed the After Steering station to be prepared to take control manually should we have a problem and commenced shifting the rudder from side to side immediately after coming out from under the bridge. It stuck in the starboard stops and the Aft Steering station took control as directed and brought us back on course. Returning control to our station, the rudder once again seemed all right. We never could discover the cause of the problem.
Late that night I had the Mid Watch from Midnight to four AM and was cruising south toward Acapulco. I was standing out on the wing of the bridge looking for possible ships in the area when all of a sudden I noted that the ship was swinging wildly from port to starboard. I quickly ordered “Mind your helm, helmsman!” and went into the enclosed bridge only to find that the Captain had the helm. His long years of training prompted him to respond “Mind my helm aye sir” and once I saw who it was I announced to the entire bridge “The Captain is on the bridge and has the Conn.” this is a very unusual situation and I was sure the CO was still trying to figure out what the problem was with the steering engine. He soon said “Mr. DeLong has the Conn,” came over to me and apologized for not having notified me properly and retired to his quarters with no further comment.
The Las Brisas consists of a group of some 100 small cottages laid out all over the side of a hill overlooking the harbor. Occupants are issued a pink Jeep with awnings to go back and forth from room to the main building near the water. Each room had its own small swimming pool just outside the main room. Each morning maids would float rose petals in the water and the smell was delightful. Rooms were equipped with every conceivable kind of liquor which for us was free. The place is obviously designed for honeymooners and lovers. We enjoyed the amenities whenever we weren't working. Gandy was to work for one day and I would take the next. Whenever we were off, we could use the Jeeps to run around the city. On my day off, Captain Joslyn and I went to the bull fights at the local arena and watched some of Mexico and Spain’s top Matadors dispatch six bulls in one afternoon. Bloody but extremely interesting, especially the response of the crowd to the matadors performance.
We were invited to several receptions while here but the one I remember most was an evening around the Las Brisas main swimming pool where we met a number of the astronauts who had been sent there to relax. This was while space flight was still in its infancy. I was thrilled to meet and talk with these men who were unassuming and friendly. They readily answered our questions about how it felt to be weightless and to fly around the earth in hours. In later years I would watch one of these men set foot on the moon.
The train ride to the middle of Panama was an experience in itself. It was what one would call a “rinky dink” “Toonerville trolley” type railroad which bounced and swung along the ancient tracks. It got me to where I was going though and Rita and Pat were waiting as promised. They took me to their Quarters and we had some snacks and started telling stories of our various adventures. Rita told about living with the jungle in the back yard and sometimes going to the car port only to find a three toed sloth there hanging over the car or maybe a giant Anaconda just leaving the area. Having been a Green Beret officer and Enlisted, Pat had many stories, most much more dangerous and adventurous than mine. We were drinking Beefeaters Gin on the rocks and all the while Pat was polishing brass to get ready for a Generals inspection the next morning. By 4:00 AM , I was smashed as was Pat. Rita and Pat drove me back to Balboa where she deposited me on the pier and promised that they would be watching the ship as she came thru the locks the next day. Knowing how Pat would feel the next day, I doubted he would make it... He didn't.
Transiting the Panama canal is an experience. Several pilots board the ship at various points to take you through the locks. Although I was Officer of the Deck, I had little to do since the Pilot knew how to do it much better than either the Captain or myself. The pilot also announced interesting information to the crew as we traversed each lock, describing how and when they were built and how many men died in the process. When the ship reached Gatun Lake, a very large fresh water lake, we turned on our sprinkler systems which were designed to wash down the ship after a nuclear attack. This area is one of the few places in the world where a ship this size can be in fresh water. The crew in bathing suits went out and scrubbed down the entire ship and the chief Engineer pumped fresh water through every pipe on the ship to clean out the salt water residue. It took a full day to transit the canal and move out into the Caribbean Sea. The water was a beautiful azure blue and flat as could be. Large Manta rays could be seen sunning themselves on the surface, some as large as 15 or 20 feet across. Occasionally one would jump out of the water and land with a loud bang as it struck the surface. It sounded like a shotgun and we were all amazed at the number of these incidents we witnessed.
The remainder of the cruise up to Norfolk was uneventful and we were all glad to get to our new Home Port.
Most of the following year was spent in the Caribbean firing Talos missiles as part of an Operational Test and evaluation force project. Between firings we had port visits and some good times to remember.
When we pulled into Ciudad Trujillo (now called Santo Domingo) in the Dominican Republic we were the first US Navy ship to visit in many years. The countries president Trujillo was making giant strides in bringing his island nation into the 20th century. Kids were in school and tourism was beginning to catch on. Trujillo was black but powdered his face with white powder to appear more white for photographs. It was forbidden to say anything negative about “El Presidente” and we often saw local police beat up and arrest people who did so. Lt. Al McNelly and I went ashore together and decided to go to the islands number one tourist hotel for the weekend. Our dollar was strong and prices were extremely cheap. While lounging around the pool that weekend we met Emmet Ashford, who was at that time the only black umpire in major league baseball. This sport is considered number one in the Dominican Republic and during off season in the US, many players come here to play. Emmet had been here for three months and was something of a local hero to the populace. We made friends quickly and he offered to show us around the island that evening. As we bar hopped from place to place, we found that we were greeted as celebrities and drinks were always on the house. We met many locals and really got to understand these people.
I also remember that while at that hotel we went to lunch one day and the Matre d’hotel was a German who advised us that the chef was also German and the specialty of the house was omelettes cooked many different ways. Today’s special was cooked with chicken livers and when we told him we didn't like chicken livers he said that we should try his and if we didn't like them we would not be charged for them. We agreed and were served the most tasteful omelette ever with a sauce made of some kind of liquor which was absolutely wonderful. Needless to say we did not have them free.
Later during that cruise, we pulled into Guantanamo Bay Cuba where the Admiral commanding the base was John D. Bulkley, of Bataan, PT boats and MacArthur fame. He had been informed that he was being assigned as Commander Cruiser division eight and Columbus would be his flagship. He sent us several extremely critical messages regarding the appearance of his new flagship and advised us that we had better get squared away before he came on board. Our C.O. Captain Lew Stecher replied only with “aye , aye sir.” When Bulkley did come aboard later, the two never got along and Bulkley’s fitness report on the skipper probably prevented him from making Admiral.
Columbus made several Mediterranean cruises while I was aboard and I have written about my shore patrol officer experiences in another chapter but during another cruise, I recall the ship being anchored in the harbor of Valletta Malta during the period when the Israel and Egyptians were about to go to war. Valletta was the stronghold of the Knights of St. John and later headquarters for the British Mediterranean fleet. There is a very tight entrance and ships are moored with anchors both forward and aft. Entering and leaving harbor is particularly difficult. One calm Sunday afternoon, I was Command duty officer and the Captain had taken a number of Department Heads out on a cruise around the island in his Gig. They planned on swimming, fishing and generally enjoying themselves. About two that afternoon I received an urgent message saying that we may be ordered to leave Malta on short notice and proceed off the coast of Israel for possible action. I was flabbergasted. The CO and XO plus many of the department heads were somewhere that I couldn't reach and if ordered out, I would be responsible for taking the ship thru the narrow harbor and head toward Israel, whether these officers were aboard or not. I certainly didn't want that responsibility and ordered the Helicopter crew to take off and “Find and bring back the Captain and as many of the Department Heads as he could hold as soon as possible.” In the meantime, I gave orders for the ship to make ready to get underway on short notice. Fortunately, the Helo found Captain Stecher and brought all of the Department Heads back on board. We got underway and I was one very relieved Naval Officer. As it turned out, the Israel/Egypt problem never happened and we went merrily on our way to our next port.
The Columbus was in Norfolk having just returned from a Midshipmen cruise to England and we were preparing for the annual Midshipman ball which at that time was always held at the old NOB officers club called the “Green Door” it was the Pennsylvania House, one of the old homes left over from the Jamestown exposition near the turn of the century. Others along that row were all filled with Admirals. We called it “Menopause Row.”
Admiral Jim Calvert, who as the first skipper of the submarine Nautilus had sailed under the ice to the north pole was CruDesFlot 8 Commander with his flag in Columbus. He asked me if my wife and I would consent to being chaperones at the ball that evening. We agreed and Ruth dressed in her off the shoulder white evening gown with her hair up. She was absolutely beautiful. Our job at the ball was to see to it that each midshipman who entered was introduced to a young lady, many of whom had been invited tot he affair, and escorted that young lady into the receiving line to meet the Admiral and his lady after which they could dance, sit and talk or leave one other as they wished. As the line progressed we noted that some of these extremely young midshipmen were trying to look ahead to see who they would get. If they did not like the girls looks they would try to get out of the line and even went so far as to go out the windows. Ruth was doing the introductions and I was catching them as them came out the windows and putting them back in line. These were first year midshipman and most were about 17 years old. When a Lieutenant Commander gave an order they stood at attention and followed it precisely. We had a full evening getting them together with Ruth telling some of them, “You don’t have to marry the girl, just escort her through the receiving line!” By the time we had them all inside, we were worn out and needed a drink ourselves. The Middies tried to get drinks but being only 17, were not allowed. We had to supervise that one too. It was a successful evening. The next day on the ship, Admiral Calvert called me in and complemented Ruth and I on the wonderful job we had done then sheepishly asked if we might do it again that evening for the second group of midshipment to attend the ball. After a call to Ruth she agreed and this time was in a red evening gown. She did yeoman work on that effort and once again had a successful evening. Navy wives are often required to be part of the celebrations too. This whole event happened more than once during my tour in Columbus.
I stayed aboard Columbus for over two years and when Captain Bill Arthur relieved Captain Stecher as Commanding officer, he asked if I would stay for the forthcoming Med cruise. I had been working on getting transferred to the job of Director of the Surface guided missiles school at Dam Neck and had it in the bag. I informed Captain Arthur about this and said that if ordered, I of course, would have to stay but I would request retirement if that happened. I asked that he allow me to take the new job and advised him that I had a trained relief on board ready to assume all of my duties. Fortunately, he was generous enough to allow me to be detached. I really felt that my tour in Columbus had been worthwhile and had enjoyed it immensely.