Enjoying our homeport in La Maddalena, Italy

By Craig Johnson

The summer of 1981 and I had just become the new division officer for W-3 USS Orion AS-18, stationed in Italy, our NATO Ally.  The Orion was moored in a Med. moor configuration at the Island of Santo Stefano which was part of the Maddalena archipelago.  La Maddalena was the primary town for the archipelago and could be seen from the ship.

I had just reported aboard and had not yet settled into a routine that offered me a chance to find an apartment ashore, so I was living aboard.  This offered me a chance to observe and talk to the sailors in my division as well as the rest of the weapons department. I noticed that quite a few of my younger Sailors never seemed to leave the ship.

Since the division chief had just retired and his replacement had not arrived; I called the Leading Petty Officer (LPO) up to my office, one deck above the shop.  I asked him, “why don’t these young sailors ever go ashore on liberty?”

He informed me,  “they don’t speak the language,  and seem a little apprehensive about it being a foreign country.”

Back when I was a young enlisted sailor, QMC Daniels had taught me to read the local instructions any time I reported aboard a new command. This had worked well for me over my Navy career. Here and now it gave me an opportunity to help my Sailors.

I had found an instruction that authorized a Division to draw supplies to have a party on the beach. This instruction was left over from the Orion’s days in the Pacific during WWII. Since the instruction was in effect, I felt it was high time to use it.

I decided to go gather some additional ammunition before executing my plan, so I went to see TMCM Putnam, the weapons department Leading Chief Petty Officer.

I walked into the office and asked the Master Chief, “can I talk to you about an idea that I have?”  I used to work for the Master Chief as an enlisted man and had done things like this before. He was well aware of my modus operandi.

He responded suspiciously. “Mr. Johnson, I have seen that look in your eyes before. Now, what are you up to?”

Especially because I was new to the ship, I needed his help in putting together justification for this three-day party before proposing it to the command. I explained, “I want to have a three-day Division party on the beach to force the young sailors to go ashore and get over their anxiety about it being a foreign country.”

Master chiefs have attained this esteemed position for a reason. Without a pause, he stated an inarguable fact and came up with undeniable justification by saying, “the weapons department is suffering a very low reenlistment rate in the lower ranks.” Then he added, “this is primarily a result of this homeport being advertised as isolated duty.” It was true that most sailors showed up here, thinking it was a bad assignment, and with their bad attitude and outlook, kept it that way until they left.

I went in to see the weapons department head who told me that he wanted me to get the Executive Officer (XO) in this discussion to forestall any potential problems later.  The XO told us to come up and see him right away.  When I explained what I wanted to do and that I was hoping this would fix these reenlistment issues for weapons guys, he said, “let’s give it a try!”

The XO called the Supply Officer and 1st Lieutenant to help grease the skids for our effort.  Both of these officers jumped on this trial effort wholeheartedly.  The Supply Officer had the stores officer give us everything you could think of for living on the beach for three days.  The most impressive to me (and other partygoers) was that according to the instructions, the supplies included beer.  We still had to subsidize with some additional beer and wine. The 1st Lieutenant arranged for a Mike 6 to deliver the supplies and then to return to pick up the trash at the end of the long weekend.

I had to go see the local government to get permission to stay on the beach for three days. Permission was granted by the Italian authorities.

At morning quarters the following day I gave this notice:

W-3 Division is having a mandatory-attendance, division beach-party this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

As usual, a few of the sailors wanted to play “sea-lawyer” and proceeded to tell me that I could not order them to attend a party.  I replied, “That is fine, but I can order you to make morning quarters, all three days, on the beach, and order you to stay until morning jobs are complete, before you will be permitted to leave.”

Friday morning dawned, as the grumbling sailors were loading the Mike 6 with the party supplies, while complaining about being ordered to live on the beach for three days in La Maddalena. Considering La Maddalena is the Italian equivalent of the French Riviera, and is considered one of the top resort areas in the Mediterranean, where the world’s richest travelers moor their yachts and enjoy “La Costa Smeralda” (The Emerald Coast) TMCM Putnam and I were just looking at each other and trying not to laugh.

All of the sailors that lived aboard were then loaded on the Mike 6, and off we went to the site that the local government authorized for our beach party.  The sailors that lived ashore met us, with their families, at the site. The Mike 6 ran up on the beach and dropped the front ramp. We started off-loading all of the supplies as the people on the beach watched from a distance.  It was early and it was not too crowded at the time.

I had the sailors set up the grills on the upper part of the beach, next to the grassy area and the shelters on the area above the beach line.  We brought a volleyball set. Instead of putting it on the beach, we put it in the surf so we could play in the water. We also had wire baskets made to keep the bottles of wine cool in the surf.

It was getting late in the morning and some of the sailors started the charcoal grills that supply had provided so we could start making steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs. This was beyond the attention of the young sailors, who were staring, by this time, completely focused, at the beach-full of Europeans in typical, female swim-gear for the area: Bathing suit bottoms. No tops.

Our cooking had attracted the attention of the beach goers. I informed the sailors. “We have tons of hamburgers and hotdogs! Why not invite the locals over to join us.”  It took mere minutes for a line to form, as best as Italians can form a line, for American chow –hot off the grill.

This interaction between the sailors and beach-going locals went on for three straight days. They all joined in the fun, playing games during the day, swimming, enjoying food and fun in the sun, and gathering around the bon fires in the evening, eating and drinking and making friends despite any language barriers or cultural differences.

The following week, when I had just dismissed the division from morning quarters, I was asked “When can we have another party?!”

I smiled at them and then responded with, “We can get supplies from the ship once a quarter. However, we can and should have a division party, at different locations in the area, every month. Then I put up a challenge, saying “I planned the first one. Who can beat me?”

My division reenlistment rate went through the roof while they did their best to outdo each party, every month, for the entire next year. The other weapons divisions started having parties after that too.

After that, you would seldom find a sailor onboard during liberty, unless they were ill, broke or on duty. Instead, they were on the beach, enjoying our homeport.

Here is a little more info about this “undesirable” duty station that some sailors couldn’t wait to leave, and this “bad assignment” that they refused to re-up for (from Wikipedia):

Costa Smeralda

The Costa Smeralda (Italian pronunciation: [ˌkɔsta zmeˈralda]GallureseMonti di Mola) is a coastal area and tourist destination in northern SardiniaItaly, with a length of some 20 km, although the term originally designed only a small stretch in the commune ofArzachena. With white sand beaches, a golf club, private jet and helicopter service, and hotels costing up toUS$2000–3000 per night in the peak season, the area has drawn celebrities, business leaders and other affluent visitors. In a study released by the European luxury real estate brokerage Engel & Völkers, Costa Smeralda is the most expensive location in Europe. House prices reach up to 300,000 euros per square meter.[1]

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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