MY LIFE IN THE NAVY

CHAPTER 5

Court Martial

If you happen to stumble across this page not knowing to what else it is connected, go to My Life In The Navy and start at the beginning with “Chapter 1- Boot Camp”.

On Saturday, October 18, 1969, I took a bus from the Poconos to Wilkes-Barre and called my buddy Jess Peiffer.  He picked me up at the bus station and took me to my Dad’s house in Sweet Valley.  I’ll never forget Dad’s first comment: “I never thought I’d see you again in THIS life!”  “Oh, hell, Dad, I didn’t want to make you decide whether to turn me in or not, so I couldn’t let you know where I went.  Where do you think that was?” “California?” he guessed.   “DAMN!  I’m glad you didn’t tell them that!”

I laid out my most immediate plan.  Jess and I would go “chasin’ wimmin” that Saturday night.  I’d spend Sunday telling Dad all I’d done the past couple of months and then, on Monday morning, I’d turn myself in at the Navy recruiting station in Wilkes-Barre.  That afternoon was spent in and around Sweet Valley, visiting friends and acquaintances, relating my adventures. 

The plan failed.  On Sunday morning, the “local yokel” cops, Mickey Niemchik and Junior Holcomb, showed up at my Dad’s door.  Even today, when I answer the question “Have you ever been arrested?” I say “No”.  Mickey and Junior never used the word “arrest”.  They just said something like “Ya know, Ronnie, you kinda have to go with us”.  I’d known these guys all my life and didn’t give them any grief.  They didn’t bother handcuffing me, just had me climb into their back seat, and we headed to the Luzerne County Prison.  SOMEONE had obviously “dropped a dime” on me, calling them to tell them that the deserter had come home. They wouldn’t tell me who had done that.  I later found out who the informant was, but that name is withheld here. 

At the prison, I guess I was “booked” with a mug shot, fingerprints, and all but I don’t recall all the details.  I know they did take away my belt but I think I got to keep my shoelaces.  I was assigned a cell but its door wasn’t closed and I spent my time mingling with the other prisoners in an open area.  Most were just playing cards or sitting around BS’ing.  No one bothered me.  I did learn one lesson; let the coffee cool off considerably before sipping it from the metal cup.  That cup itself gets darned hot and I burned my lips!

My memory of the prison is brief because my stay there was so short.  The Navy sent a van with two petty officers up from the Philly base to get me that very afternoon.  They were what we called “chasers” and, when they saw I presented no threat to them, they cut me some slack.  Yes, Navy regs said they had to handcuff me, but they did so with my hands in front of my body and the cuffs were quite loose.  We stopped for coffee somewhere along the turnpike and they even removed the cuffs while we were inside the restaurant.  From where I sat in the van’s back seat, I guess I COULD have reached forward and, using my cuffs, strangled either of the PO’s in the front seat.  They didn’t seem the least worried about that and our trip went quickly.  I regaled them, telling of my journey “over the hill”, and they told what happened to previous prisoners accused of the same charges as I was facing. 

The first deck (Navy talk for “floor”) of the brig DID have red lines painted on it and I was filled with trepidation.  A nasty-looking “gunny” (grunt-speak for “gunnery sergeant”) was in charge and barked out orders.  “DON’T CROSS THAT LINE, MAGGOT, WITHOUT PERMISSION, OR I’LL SMACK THE SH** OUTTA YA!!”  I soon learned that the brig was similar to boot camp in that respect: as a fresh incoming boot, you lose all your hair and are made to dress and walk funny, all to break you down so they can re-mold you.  In the brig, they scare the living hell out of you so as keep you meek while you’re in their “care”.  I entered wearing only civilian clothes on my back and with no sea bag (“luggage”), so I was issued new dungies and shoes charged, of course, to my future paydays.  I had ditched my “uni” in various park trash baskets around LA and my Navy ID, for all I knew, still lie on the streets of Vandalia, Illinois (see Chapter-3 )  I was issued a new ID card but I don’t think I got charged for that.  I got to keep my hair.

Life on the brig’s second deck was a breeze, even easier than boot camp.  While there were maybe half a dozen actual cells that housed really bad guys, I only saw them when I delivered chow to them through their cell doors.  (On metal mess trays, of course, with only plastic utensils.)  The brig compound itself consisted of outer walls with, I think, barbed wire atop them, and barred windows on our barracks.  Despite being technically “prisoners”, the other 98% or so of us spent the bulk of our time just lazing around a large dayroom.  Oh, the grunts guarding us would prod us, from time to time, to keep busy by constantly cleaning up the joint but, for the most part, they ignored us.  Once a day, they’d run us outside for some exercise, which consisted mainly of jogging in place (when there was no ice), doing push-ups, and jumping jacks.  This was late October and early November and the cold wind blew in from the nearby Delaware River.  I’d left my pea coat behind on the Conyngham when I boogied off in July and they didn’t issue me a new one, so naturally; I came down sick. 

The brig’s sick bay was on the first deck and, after getting permission from my second-deck guard, I ventured down to red-line territory.  The gunny did his usual rant-and-rave routine but, failing to scare me, waved me on through.  Later, sitting on a bench outside sick bay, an interesting event happened.  Gunny approached, in step with another man.  Grunts had a strange system of stripes on their sleeves, a much more complicated one than we squids did.  I always found it hard to count up the number of stripes to see if they were senior to me or not.  The man with the gunny, though, clearly had NO stripes whatsoever and I immediately thought “That poor S.O.B. – kinda old to have been busted way down to E-1”.  No sooner had that thought entered my mind than the gunny screamed, “ON YOUR FEET AND SALUTE, LAD!”  Gee, I was right about the no stripes but had failed to notice the guy’s collar devices.  He was only the Inspector GENERAL of the whole danged grunt corps!  LOL

In the three weeks or so I spent in the brig, I also visited sick bay on one other occasion.  They had a shrink on duty and I volunteered to go see him.  I wasn’t feeling the slightest bit nuts but could sure use some intelligent conversation with another educated person.  He could see I really didn’t need his services but he went through the motions anyway and we must have spent an hour together.  Just to humor him, I agreed that I probably went over the hill because I hated my mother who had died and left me when I was only six years old.  He could have made some notes on that in my file but I really didn’t notice.

We were guarded, if you can call it that, by only one gyrene at a time, fellows no older than most of us and younger than some of us.  The guards weren’t armed and spent most of their time reading magazines or otherwise goofing off.  The gunny very seldom ventured up to the second deck to check on them.  One guard in particular, would even engage in horseplay and, to his great dismay, once ended up getting tossed, fully dressed, into our shower. 

About the only time we saw the gunny get mad was when the Navy had to ship out a “ringer” they discovered among us.  The guy was from Ohio and, before coming to the Philly brig, had spent time in the “Cleveland workhouse”.  I guess northeastern PA didn’t get that many AWOL’s at any one time and I had gotten my very own personal, chauffeur-driven van ride down to Philly.  In Ohio, they’d collect their AWOL’s and let them sit, sometimes for weeks, in the “Cleveland workhouse” before shipping them out by the busload.  Well, this enterprising young fellow had decided to tweak the system.  During his stay there, he’d connived with another AWOL to memorize each other’s life stories.  When the Navy bus for Philly was loading, he climbed aboard and spent at least ten days with us.  Gunny was MOST unhappy to learn this fellow was an AIR FORCE dude!!  The Navy AWOL was somewhere off in an Air Force stockade.

The Navy had, to the best of my knowledge, four levels of punishment that could be meted out.  For the most minor of offenses, one could get non-judicial punishment which was also known as “captain’s mast”.  Your commanding officer could assign just certain limited penalties such as extra duty for a month, a $50 fine,  or maybe no liberty for six weeks but that was the limit of his authority.  (Lucky for me, after a 30-day absence, your original command loses jurisdiction over you.  I am positive that, HAD I  been returned to the Conyngham, I would have been treated  no more fairly than I had before.)  For anything deserving more punishment than the captain could hand out, one gets into the three-tiered system of courts martial.  The lowest level is a summary court martial, next up the chain is a special court martial, and, reserved for things like murder or treason, a general court martial.  I was initially charged with desertion and “missing ship’s movement”, charges that warranted a special court martial.

My pay records were once again charged for a uni, and this time it was a set of full-dress blues to wear to court.  I was assigned a court-appointed defense counsel and went off to meet with him once before trial.  He spelled out the charges and I argued that “missing ship’s movement” was somewhat of a double charge for the same one underlying event, desertion.  After all, how could one possibly join the ship as it sailed to God knows where when one had already deserted?  I likened it to a drunk being charged with DUI and also charged with littering if his stupor led to his losing his lunch on the roadside!  The counsel got a real hoot out of that analogy and said not to worry.  The “missing ship’s movement” would most likely be dropped and, even better, the desertion would most likely be lowered to mere AWOL.   He fully explained court procedure.  I’d be tried by a lone military judge rather than a jury.  After being read the charges, I could make one of two types of statements: sworn or un-sworn.  The difference lie in the fact that, with a sworn statement, I’d be subject to cross-examination by the prosecutor.  I told him I had nothing to hide and would make the sworn statement.  I explained how badly I’d been treated on the Conyngham and why I’d left.  He must have listened for a half hour as I related the adventures I’d had on the road and seemed to get a kick out of it all.  He could see I’d be a real easy client to defend.  I really didn’t hate my country, was willing to admit I’m made a big mistake, and was willing to go back to duty on a new ship.  He said “Good, truthfully answer whatever they ask, but, for God’s sake, DON’T tell them about going to the Swedish embassy!!”  I agreed wholeheartedly.

The trial turned out to be quite simple.  I gave my statement and then even the prosecutor seemed to ask only puffball questions.  The hardest was “What would you do if you again found yourself in a similar situation?”  I thought just briefly and came up with the answer they wanted to hear.  “I’d go talk to the XO and tell him I had a personal problem.”  (The “XO” is a ship’s second in command, its Executive Officer, in charge of personnel matters.  On the Conyngham, I don’t think I even knew its XO’s name.)

The judge announced my sentence: “You are hereby sentenced to the confines of the Philadelphia Naval Base for a period of sixty days.  Additionally, you are fined $100 a month for two months.”  That’s ALL there was to it!  The fine left with me with only about $15 a month, which the Navy figured would buy toothpaste, soap, razor blades, and shaving cream.  That really was no big deal, for they gave me three squares a day and gave me a place to sleep.  Assigned to the restricted barracks, I couldn’t go (legally) to the enlisted men’s club for a beer even though it was on-base, so I had nowhere else to spend any money anyway.

What the judge did next took me totally by surprise.  As the others filed out of the courtroom, he called me back behind his bench and spoke to me.  “You know, Hontz, I really cut you some slack here.”  “Yes you did, sir!”  “Although you clearly did wrong, I have faith in you.  I think you have the ability to be a fine petty officer and will serve with distinction. Taking away one or two of your stripes would have been counterproductive.”  “I’ll certainly do my best, sir” I replied, teary-eyed, and pumped his hand. 

The bus took me back to the brig to pick up my meager gear and then delivered me to the restricted barracks.

Being “on restriction”, like being in the brig, turned out to be way easier than boot camp.  About fifty of us were housed in one large room with bunk beds.  We had to “muster up”, i.e., be present for a head count, four times a days.  The musters were held before each of our three meals and then again before “lights-out”.  In between, we were sent out on “working parties” at various sites around the base and our assignments varied from day to day.  I might find myself in the morning at the “CPO club”, which was a bar where only Chief Petty Officers could go or at a similar “Acey-Deucey club” for first and second-class P.O.’s.  I’d be part of a crew of five or six guys and we’d clean up the place; wiping spilled beer off the tables, vacuuming popcorn off the floor, and even washing glasses behind the bar.  There may have been one P.O. supervising us but he was such a minor bother that I’ve forgotten if there even was one.  As in our barracks, wherever we worked, the “smoking lamp” was always lit and, at the “clubs”, we even played the jukebox while we worked.  On nicer-weather days, we might even ride all around the base, picking up trash.  More than once, I found myself cleaning the “head” (bathroom) at the CPO barracks.  One chief would come by from time to time to check on me but I soon learned how to get rid of him.  At least one of his barracks mates was a real sloppy hog who’d tossed his cigar butt into a urinal.  I’d let it lie there until the chief came by and then I’d reach it and grab it with my bare hand.  “Damn, Hontz! Use your rubber glove!” he’d cry out, nearly gagging.  “No biggie, chief!  I can wash my hand later.”  He’d turn and leave.  Another time, I wish he HAD come by, because I nearly killed myself.  I had to scrub down their tiled shower stall, an enclosed space of about 15 feet square.  I again disdained using rubber gloves but he hadn’t told me to DILUTE the cleaning fluid with water.  I got minor burns on my hands and nearly passed out from the fumes.

Back in our restricted barracks, we were overseen, generally, by a PO3 who, like the grunt guards in the brig, spent their time reading magazines or even engaging in horseplay with us.  These PO3’s were all from the “transit” barracks where they laying over awaiting new orders to go elsewhere.  There was simply no telling when their orders would come through.  Sometimes, we’d see a guy for just one muster and then he’d be gone or maybe another guy might be with us for a week.  As a result, they didn’t know who was who among us. They’d just read names off a list and we’d answer up “Yo!”.  More than one of our assembled multitude was from the Philly or south Jersey area.  It wasn’t at all unusual for one of them to pay some guy $50 to stand in for them over a weekend and then they’d just boogie on home.  The PO3 had no idea exactly WHO was answering up.  By breaking restriction, the wrong-doers faced being stuck in the brig but I don’t recall any of them ever being caught. 

My sixty-day sentence was to run from November 7, 1969 until January 7, 1970.  Thanksgiving Day fell on November 27, 1969 and I was totally dismayed to find myself assigned to a working party on a holiday.  A crew of about five of us was assigned to paint the “overhead” (ceiling) of an office.  Two guys atop a scaffolding did the actual painting and two of us would just move it as they finished each area.  A fifth just opened the paint cans and stirred the contents.  The Chief Master At Arms came to check on us and I complained to him bitterly.  “Damn it, Chief, what am __I__ doing here on a holiday?  You KNOW you’ve got guys who you’ve caught over at the “geedunk” drinking beer and otherwise breaking restriction.  You could slam them back in the brig or, at least, use THEM to staff this working party!  You’ve got guys who have gone over the hill five times trying to get discharged.  THEY should be here.  I went once and am willing to go back to duty! ”  Surprisingly, he saw my point and asked “How long is your sentence?”  “Sixty days.”  “How long have you been here?”  “Twenty.”  “Come see me when you get to thirty.”

I reported in to him on exactly my 30th day and found that he’d already talked to the Legal Officer.  My restriction sentence was being, essentially, cut in half, even though the fine remained.   I was moved out of the restricted barracks to another housing unit filled with, mostly, pot heads and the like who HAD succeeded in earning dishonorable discharges and were just awaiting their final paperwork.  No more daily musters for me and no more working parties.  Each day, I’d just work at the Navy Exchange cobbler shop.  I’d cover for the cobbler when he took a bathroom break, collecting money and handing out repaired shoes.  For incoming footwear, I’d say “He’ll be right back” for I had no idea what was worth repairing and what wasn’t.  I’d also clean the place and just keep him company as he worked.

I don’t remember what occasioned me to go see the Chief Master At Arms again shortly before Christmas.  I expected to get some leave in January after my sixty days was up and I certainly wouldn’t have gone to ask him for any more favors.  Getting my sentence reduced was way more than I’d had any reason to expect, but, here I was, in his office hearing even more good news.  “You’re from up near Wilkes-Barre, right, Hontz?”  “Yes, Chief.”  “Well, just go ahead and make it.  Go home for five days!  I won’t even charge you with leave but you’d BETTER be back on time or I’ll put you back in the brig.”  I was on the next bus.  I told Dad all the stuff I’d meant to tell him back in October when the unnamed informant had “dropped a dime” on me and I was back in Philly on the THIRD day.

The Navy obviously had some overall plans for me.  I got new orders on exactly my sixtieth day.  There were no reasons given, but I was to report to Newport, RI aboard the USS Hammerberg IMMEDIATELY.  I had to tell them, “It’s snowing like hell here in Philly and I hope I can get a flight out.  I don’t want to be AWOL again!”  They modified the orders to make me reportable the next day but then the weather broke and I made it to the Hammerberg by 9 PM.  There I found the reason for the big hurry-up.  We pulled out for Cuba the next morning!

Next up: “Navy 6: Gitmo”

Written in December, 2007 by

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

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