Father’s oral history about, well, a digital tool
This past spring, I interviewed my dad, with the Veteran’s History Project in mind. Dad was in the Navy, going to school on a ROTC scholarship, and serving in and around the Korean War. We paged through a scrapbook that his Mom kept for him, and he told me stories about the pictures and items therein. The stories from that interview session mostly concern his beginnings in the Navy. I asked him a question to clarify a term he used about his training, and he told me two related stories about his work in the Navy. (oh, and digital, in this case, refers to fingers, not bits)
I wanted to clarify something he mentioned earlier. I asked, “When you said ‘the physical aspect of naval training’ and that was when you were talking about navigation… when you say ‘physical aspect’ what [did that mean]?”
Well where you learn how to use a sextant, how you use a bearing circle, how to determine the direction—the ship’s compass, and the various aids to navigation that you would have. You could use your sextant to determine the altitude of stars, but first you had to learn how to identify the stars. I still have a sextant; people don’t tend to use those anymore because of the advent of the global positioning system. But I still have the sextant, and can operate it.
(I can remember teaching my son how to do a day’s work in navigation when we went on this cruise in 1983 [from Tahiti to Hawaii]. A sailor friend loaned him her sextant to take along so he could learn a day’s work in navigation. You have to work out your star sights. It’s fairly straightforward once you go through it a number of times.)
I was an assistant navigator on this one vessel. I was a Lieutenant JG—Lieutenant Junior Grade. I had learned how to do the star sights and the sight reduction to figure out the position. The ship’s navigator was the executive officer, and he always had the assistance of the senior quarter master who would help him do the work. I did it myself. I kept track of my sights. I reduced them and figured out the position. I always took pride in being first with the ship’s position to the captain before the navigator [submitted his report]. I just wanted to beat him out. See, he was from the Naval Academy, a year ahead of me. And I’d say, “hey, wanna check your position Freddy?” [laughs] I’d work out the ship’s position and I’d take it to the captain. I knew it was correct, because it was important to have it correct. And also, It was a goodly competition we had going there. [he laughs]
He recites the positions that he’d use to make his sightings
Morning stars while it was still dark enough that you could still see all the stars, and then morning sun line, and then evening stars. So you had three times you could work out your ship’s position. I really liked doing that.
Later on, it led to being able to do the naval gunnery where you had to shoot at a target and hit it with your naval gunfire. I can remember being the main Battery Control Officer on this one ship where we’d fired a 5-inch 38 gun. (It was a 5-inch diameter. And they called it a 38—a 38-caliber—where the length of the barrel was thirty-eight times the five inches.) We had this one gun that was used for anti-aircraft, and it was also used for surface targets. We would go over to San Clemente Island [one of the offshore Channel islands off the coast of Southern California] where we had the naval gun range set up. And also we would get in the gunnery exercises there.
I can recall figuring out—you had a lot of things to do to figure out what the gun was capable of: You had the temperature, you had the correction tables for whatever the velocity was going to be and what the trajectory was going to be and the whole thing. And so I can remember doing that. I made the calculations and then settled up and figured out what the gun elevation order and the gun train order should be. These things became so automatic to me after a while.
We won the Navy E. We were in competition with a squadron of destroyers. They had the Mark 37 Director and fire control system computers—they were mechanical computers. They would make their sights and they would set it up and this [computer] would determine what their accuracy would be.
Well, we also had a fire control computer. I demonstrated to the Navy Inspector my fire control computer. It was a Number 2 pencil, well-sharpened. And I says, “This is my fire control computer. M1, hand-operated.” I figured out gun elevation order, gun train order, set this up, and we beat that squadron.
He laughed at this recollection. I laughed too, and marveled.
[Note: This transcript has been lightly edited]