The President Is Dead
Way back in 1963, while stationed on board the USS Piper, we pulled into the port of Djibouti, Africa as one of our scheduled Med cruise port calls. Djibouti, is a country located in the Horn of Africa in East Africa. It is bordered by Somalia in the south, Ethiopia in the south and west, Eritrea in the north, and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in the east. Due to it’s history of French colonization, the country still had a big racial divide between the very poor Black population and the rich White Europeans. For example, Blacks were not allowed into the better hotels unless hey worked there as servants. As a result, the only place for a Black U. S. Navy sailor to party was in one of the interracial bars in the native section of the city. White tourists were afraid to go there.
Standing topside watch while moored along side the pier usually drew a crowd of native dock workers who were amused to see a Black man carrying a rifle, a side arm, and a baton, seemingly just strutting around while White guys did all the physical labor. and I did play this up somewhat , being the only Black in my crew, by harassing our all White deck crew doing the usual paint chipping and painting we did during every port call. Once or twice during my rounds, I’d walk over and tap one of my shipmates on the head with my baton which would draw a big round of applause from my audience.
My mentor, Beetle Bailey, the senior first class engineman, was a huge person with the temperament of a lamb. Beetle took me under his wing from the moment I reported on board and taught me all I needed to qualify as a diesel engine throttleman. Beetle also took to calling me his little “spear chukker”, to which I would just call him a stupid honky. We often exchanged racial slurs. I had decided early on that I would not go through life with a chip on my shoulder and as long as the jokes were meant to be humorous and not derogatory, I would simply respond in kind. However, I did let it be known that there was a thin line that shouldn’t be crossed and in fact did go after one of my shipmates with a jacking wrench when he crossed that line.
But in response to Beetle’s calling me his little spear chukker, I found a souvenir shop in town and purchased a twelve foot native spear, although a reproduction and not authentic. Since our only mode of transport around town was either taxi or motor scooter, I rented a Lumbretta scooter to get back to the boat. I guess the European tourist were pretty amazed to see a navy sailor in uniform, a Black navy sailor, riding a moped and carrying a twelve foot spear. I hung that spear in the forward engine room over the number one main engine where it hung long after I had transferred and up until the day Piper was decommissioned.
One day, we had to move the boat so a U. S Navy destroyer, the USS Bigelow could moor alongside the dock. We had to move since the Bigelow was the senior ship as as the senior ship could moor directly to the pier. While we were moored in Djibouti, we needed to refuel. Now the old diesel submarines used fuel ballast tanks to maintain a stable ballast. As the fuel in the tanks was used, it would be replaced with sea water. When fueling, we take on diesel fuel into the tank that would in turn push the sea water out through an overboard pipe that had a sight glass. The sight glass going black meant that the fuel tank was full to the brim and would soon be going overboard into the harbor which would be a no no. So, as we fueled, someone would have to sit topside watching the sight glass to notify the men below to stop transferring fuel.
This night, as we sat alongside the Bigelow, performing our fueling operations, the night was peaceful and quiet until alarms started going on all over the Bigelow. Some sailor in a drunken stupor had climbed the Bigelow’s radar mast and got instantly fried. We were all wondering what the heck had happened. The Bigelow had lit up all of a sudden and we watched men scrambling all over her decks, some crying “Oh my God”. One of our crew came rushing back to the boat and said “The president’s dead. The president’s dead… Somebody killed JFK”.
This sent shock waves through the Piper also as some guys went through the boat turning on the lights and waking people up. We were all in shock. Were we going to war? Our radioman was in town getting drunk like all radiomen did in those days, there was no internet, email, cell phones, and diesel submarines didn’t carry televisions. The only info we received until our radioman got back was all second hand from the guys on the destroyer who didn’t know much more than we did. That was November 22, 1963.