In November 1964, a Marine veteran remembers boarding ship in San Diego harbor for the Far East and “The Mickey Mouse Theme Song.”
(SAN DIEGO, CA) – In our starched utilities and white wall haircuts, we all looked alike. A long green line of young men waiting to board ship.
For the Marines waiting to board the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey (T-AP-121), the morning in San Diego had been unusually warm. In November, the temperatures averaged about 70 degrees. Today was an especially hot day for San Diego.
This day the San Diego weather man had got it wrong, it felt like 90 and even though the humidity was low, our utilities were soaked with sweat from moving the one seabag each of us carried, together with a set of dress greens from one side of the narrow dock to the other. A warehouse and only twenty feet of dock separated us from falling into the harbor.
We had left Camp Pendleton by Greyhound bus almost four hours ago, loaded one of our two sea bags onto a dolly, watched dependents and others board the ship, moved our gear from one side of the narrow dock to the other and back again and now stood sweating in a long line waiting to board ship, the USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey.
This was November 1964. The first Marines ground troops into Vietnam wouldn’t go ashore until the following year. For now, both the Army and the Marine Corps used 20 year old former transports to ship replacements overseas. The use of military aircraft and chartered flights would replace slow ship movements in a few months as the need to bring replacements into Vietnam quicken.
The Gaffey was commissioned in December 1942 as the USS Admiral W. L. Capps (AP-121). She saw service in the South Pacific during WW II. Decommissioned in May 1946, she was reacquired by the Navy in 1950 and placed in service by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) as USNS General J. Gaffey (T-AP-121) . She was taken out of service in October 1969 and later sunk by a missile during an exercise off Hawaii in June 2000. The Gaffey was not a “luxury liner.”
There were no stabilizers to keep her steady during heavy seas. Rumor had it that Marines who became sea sick and made it to the forward head were lucky to get out in several hours. Oh, if you vomited, you cleaned it up.
We would soon learn that salt water showers and powdered milk were the norm for most of the voyage. None of us complained about the sleeping accommodations, five high bunks. Being on ship was a new experience and we adapted quickly. But, first we had to get on board.
The line of Marines stretched along the entire length of the former WW II attack transport, all 608 feet. We were in the sun and that didn’t help. We were just in the way of dock workers and ship’s company who were intent on loading provisions for the three week Pacific crossing. Several hundred Army troopers had already boarded the ship.
Most of us were teenagers. We were part of a draft, replacements for the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Marine Aircraft in Japan and Okinawa. With very few exceptions, the bulk of us were Marines just out of boot camp and Infantry Training Regiment. I was one of the exceptions.
A corporal at age 22 I had orders to report to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Iwakuni, Japan. I looked forward to the tour in Japan since I was scheduled for discharge after returning from Japan or so I thought. Little did I know that the need for Marines in Vietnam would result in an involuntary extension and delay “my plans” for college after discharge.
There were less than a handful of junior NCOs in the draft. We really lucked out. No extra work details for any of us. Maybe Corporal of the Guard, but we didn’t have to swab the deck, no mess duty or extra work details. Just keep your area squared away, grab a paperback novel and pick out a space in the aft weather deck or, for the more daring with extra bucks, get into the one of the endless card games with other Marines or the several hundred Army troops aboard the ship.
By now, the sun was more than uncomfortable. We could see several sailors aboard ship at the railing and what looked like dependents looking down at long, green line.
I don’t remember who brought it, but in typical Marine Corps speak, but one of the Corporals in our group said, “This is bullshit Mickey Mouse.” That’s all it took. I immediately thought of the “Mickey Mouse Theme Song.” As kids, we had all watched the Walt Disney TV show. Most of us were in love with Annette Funicello, the best looking Musketeer. It didn’t take long for the entire draft to recognize the double entendre meaning of “Mickey Mouse.” This seemed like a good way to vent some steam and have fun, too. Taking a cue from our small group, one thousand Marines took up the Musketeer theme song in full voce:
“Who’s the leader of the club
That’s made for you and me
Hey! there, Hi! there, Ho! there
You’re as welcome as can be
Mickey Mouse Mickey Mouse!
Forever let us hold our banner
High! High! High! High!
Come along and sing a song
And join the jamboree!
With one thousand Marines singing the “Mickey Mouse Theme” song in full voce, the tourists in the San Diego harbor stopped and stared in amazement, the ship’s company at the rails watched and laughed, the civilian workers on the dock stopped whatever they were doing. We were loud. Some of us couldn’t stop laughing.
The only one who didn’t appreciate the humor was the Marine Major in charge of the draft who stood in apparent disbelief on the forward weather deck of the ship. Within minutes, several staff sergeants were running down the entire line giving out boarding numbers to each of us. We were quickly hustled aboard ship. Who ever said Marines lacked a sense of humor?
Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O’Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base.
Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency.
After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of Salem-News.com to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O’Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Exposure-Marines-Government-Cover-Up/dp/1502340003.