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Memories of James W. Sternitzky
My tour of naval service was from June 1973 to June 1979, as a Nuclear Machinist's Mate and Engineering Laboratory Technician. I served on the USS Bergall from February 1976 to June 1979.†
My memories and experiences on the Bergall fall into several categories.† Most of the time at sea was boring interrupted by frequent pain-in-the-butt emergency drills. Some of the time at sea was adventurous and even dangerous. The liberty was great, but too short. And there were times for humor, for those who looked for it.
The Northern runs above the Arctic Circle were the most dangerous but had their good points.† The engineroom (where normally one tried to never wander too far from a cool ventilation duct) became a nice warm place to work.† It felt good to have the motors from the pumps blowing on your back while you watched the ice grow in the bilges.† The Northern runs were great for sleeping (no diesel generator tests and no emergency drills) if you didnít mind wearing clothes and a sweater in bed to keep warm.
I have some cherished memories of great times:
● diving off the sail plane and swimming in 400 ft. of clear blue water off the coast of the Bahamas,
● mountain climbing and fish-n-chips in Scotland,
● the great meals at the Trattoria Mangana and fantastic snorkeling at La Maddalena, Sardinia,
● touring Bonifacio (Corsica), Lisbon, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Mount Vesuvius, and Pompeii.
There are some memories of wacky times also.† I had been on the boat only a few weeks, and we were well into what turned out to be a long cruise (a Med cruise and a northern op). I was studying for Machinery Two Lower Level (AMR2) watch qualification, under an old-timer who was probably only 24 years old. He "published" the unofficial boat newspaper titled "The Back of the Bus". At around 0200 Easter Morning he came up with the idea that the boat needed a visit from the Easter Bunny. He had me go forward and raid our bunks of our precious stashes of candy and cigars. Then back at AMR2, I got dressed up in yellow anti-c's. We made a large cotton tail by stuffing a white cotton glove with chem-wipes and attached it to my butt with duct tape. We made ears (that looked more like antlers) by inflating orange rubber gloves from the emergency air system, and taped them to my yellow hood. We made a large fake beard out of white cotton gloves (to hide my identity and embarrassment). I then took a yellow poly bag full of the goodies and handmade Easter cards throughout the boat and passed out gifts, while yelling Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Easter, since I looked more like a demented Santa than the Easter Bunny. The guys on the mess deck were in the middle of movie, and didn't even bother to comment. The guys in the Torpedo Room were jollier (as usual). The Wardroom was empty. Control was rigged for red so I didn't say anything- I just gave out gifts and slinked back to the Engineroom. The Weapons Officer was the OOD. I got back to AMR2 and everything was just about all put away, when the CO showed up and asked where the Santa Bunny was. He was really disappointed that he missed the show, but we luckily had a cigar left over to give him. We never heard anything ever said about that stunt. I went on to be the cartoonist for the "Back of the Boat" and did a series of cartoons about a certain Chief, "The Adventures of Mickey Rat".
Later during that cruise, we were passing through a warm, narrow strait on the surface at night. We got tangled up in a huge fishing net, and had to cut ourselves loose with pocketknives in the dark. When the CO was promoted and transferred, we gave him a plaque with a section of the fishing net on it.
One of my most heroic feats was when I shot down a garbage can that was threatening our screw. I was in the sail with the Engineering Officer for .45 plinking (pick any wave and shoot, son.) when a garbage can floated up along the starboard side from the TDU, and headed back towards the screw. The Eng. looked at me and growled around his cigar: "Do you think you can hit it without putting a hole in the ballast tank?" I knew he was pulling my leg about a .45 slug doing any damage, but I looked at him and tried to look like Clint Eastwood and said "No sweat!" I put three holes in the sucker and it sank like a rock. No commie ever got to snoop through those banana peels.
We learned a valuable lesson when the Bergall went on an extended underwater run. I think it was supposed to be test of our endurance in relatively safe waters before one of our nasty trips. We were literally walking on cases of canned food for weeks. The guys in the bottom bunks had to crawl through tunnels between the cases of food, to get in and out of their bunks. Everything went pretty smooth, except the Supply Officer hadn't ordered extra toilet paper. We ran out of it after around the sixth week. We completed the assignment by improvising. Enough said.
Another Supply screw-up comes to mind. I had ordered a box of one hundred metal laboratory sample dishes (each dish was about the size of a nickel). I received a box of ten metal tubes made of a strange gray metal. The tubes were thick, but surprisingly light, each about a foot long and had very unusual threads on both ends. I tried returning them to the Supply department, and was told to keep the tubes and reorder the sample dishes. I was told that it was too expensive to process the paperwork to return the tubes. So I pitched the box in the corner of my lab. One of my shipmates saw the tubes and was going to try to make a blowgun out of one of them (I don't know if he ever did). About six months later, the Supply Officer asked me to return the tubes because they were fuel lines for a fighter-jet, and quite valuable. He was very happy to get nine back.
One of the most pleasant experiences I had was the beach party our CO (Cmdr. Wyatt) or XO (Cmdr. Mauer) planned for us, as a reward for something I don't remember or never knew we had done. An amphibious landing craft took us, a charcoal grill, boxes of food, and around twenty cases of Heineken to a sand bar off the coast of Sardinia. To keep the beer cool, we put the bottles in plastic mesh bags, tied them shut with white-line. We then snorkeled out about a hundred feet from the sandbar and dumped the bags in deep water, and ran a length of line from each bag back to the party. Whenever we needed a beer, we just pulled a bag back to the shore. By the end of the day we were all burnt red like lobsters, but it was worth it.
The food was always great on the Bergall, but there was one young cook from northern Wisconsin who could make some of the best soups I've ever had. He made a vegetable beef soup that must have been influenced by Italian cooking. We always looked forward to his soups with sandwiches for Mid-Rats.
James Sternitzky, Ph.D. (Sterno)