SIEGEL: Admiral, as we start this sixth session, you’re headed back to the operating Navy as CO of DDG Waddell and I’m looking forward to some good sea stories.
CULLINS: Yes, it was great to be going back to sea duty with a destroyer command, and I’ll try not to disappoint as a storyteller.
SIEGEL: With Waddell homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, I assume there were some extra complications in getting your family moved and completing the relief process.
CULLINS: Yes, there were. I left OpNav in late June ‘69 and went directly to the PCO/PXO Damage Control Course at Treasure Island in San Francisco (it was my first time there since the World’s Fair in 1939). Naturally, I got no leave although I had 60 days on the books. BuPers said I had to get to Yokosuka quickly to relieve the CO. I got there and had a cursory turnover after the 4th of July, and wouldn’t you know, the departing CO then took a leisurely cruise back to the states via MSTS (while my wife was left to pack out and travel by herself). Of course, there was no on-base housing for homeported COs, as there had been previously; and the homeporters spent at least three-fourths of their time away from their families in Yoko. Base housing was occupied by the base people plus the 7th Fleet staffers who only had about one-fourth of their time out of homeport. That was usually on the gun-line, where they would show up for a day or so in the CLG Oklahoma City at the end of the month and a couple of days in the following month, in order to qualify for income tax exclusion and combat pay for two months.
SIEGEL: Your command tour was not getting off to a rosy start. What was your initial impression of your new ship?
CULLINS: Well, I can tell you what my DesRon Commodore’s impression was. He informed me that Waddell was rated as next to the bottom in the squadron, and that I should do something about it.
SIEGEL: Nothing like a blunt challenge to get you started.
CULLINS: Yes, and I got an immediate chance to see the ship in action. In mid-July we were underway for the gun line, where we spent a month. Valaree arrived in Japan during this time and rented a house in Huyama, near the Imperial Palace. (We lived there for the next year). It was a typical Japanese house...paper thin, and colder than hell, with no heating.
SIEGEL: You were fortunate to have a resourceful and independent wife that could cope with that situation.
CULLINS: That I was. Valaree even learned shopkeeper Japanese so she could shop for groceries. One of these days I’m going to tabulate all the deployed days, even including the short two month-type RefTra’s, shakedowns, midshipman cruises etc to show how resourceful and independent she had to be.
SIEGEL: Perhaps you can work that up to be included in a later interview.
CULLINS: Yes, good idea.
On the gun line we fired day and night with very little sleep. We rearmed about every third day, and refueled once a week from the duty offshore ammo ships and oilers. DDG’s were the favorite gun line ships, as they had two 5”54 dual gun mounts, plus air defense capability (Tartar missile), whereas DLGs only had one 5”54 gun, and DDs didn’t have the range with their 5”38s. The LantFlt ‘straight-stick’ DD 931s were great gunships (three single 5”54s), but they had no air defense capability and they didn’t deploy very often. Thus we spent practically all of our time on the gun line, usually in I Corp, near the DMZ. Waddell was probably ‘Top Gun’ in Vietnam since she had had two deployments prior to our present homeporting, and one afterwards, under my relief.
SIEGEL: Admiral, that’s a good recap of the rather slim shore bombardment capability of the surface forces of that era and the relative fire power of the different DD classes.
CULLINS: Slim, yes. I can never forget my weapons officer in CAG 1 Boston in ’55 who proclaimed to all who would listen that the Navy would never need any more guns, due to the advent of missiles.
We did have some fun up by the DMZ, inviting the nurses from the hospital ship Repose over for dinner. (Of course I got stuck with entertaining the LCDR senior ‘monitor’ in the wardroom while the JO’s took the pretty young nurses for a ‘tour’ of the ship).
SIEGEL: How nice you two senior chaperones could enjoy tea and conversation in the wardroom. Was this hosting of the nurses a precursor of things you would do to improve your ship’s performance rating?
CULLINS: Yes, one of them. It became apparent why we were rated as sixth in the squadron. The people were good (many of the enlisted men were classic ’Asiatic Sailors’, as they loved the large amount of sea time, lots of extra pay, lots of girls and cheap beer in WestPac, and at every homeported squadron turnover they ‘crossdecked’ like crazy to stay in WestPac). The officers were good too, but the previous CO was worried about breaking things, so he never had run a full power trial, wouldn’t fire the guns unless on the gun line, and wouldn’t press the 7th Fleet or CRUDESGRU WestPac for ISE (Individual Ship Exercises) time in order to do all of the exercises that had to be done in order to be eligible for the “E”. This was exacerbated by the desire of the 7th Fleet COS to see his son, who was a Waddell officer, in Yoko as much as possible. (Not the son’s fault). Plus the crew was upset in that in 18 months they had not been to Subic Bay (read Olongopo) which they considered the best liberty port. So, I started preaching C1 (Charlie One - the highest readiness rating) ad nauseum. Another thought – under the previous CO, it was mostly the JOs that got the alongside conning time; but not very often the department heads. I had seen too many cases of JOs eventually getting out of the Navy and seeing several previous XOs who were uncomfortable with the conn. So I practically always used department heads to make approaches to replenishment ships and anchoring/pierside approaches. They are the ones who need the conning time – not the JOs who usually leave the Navy when their time is up.
SIEGEL: Those are great words of wisdom on the priority for conning experience. What sort of get-well plan went with the C1 preaching?
CULLINS: Good question. A variety of morale-building measures were started. One of the most significant was obtaining power tools, by purchase or cumshaw. It had driven me nuts for years with ships’ deck forces reduced to nothing but chipping hammers, The bosun mates loved this because they didn’t have to supervise as much since a chipping hammer-seaman could spend a whole day reducing a cleat or some such to bare metal. So I got dozens of various kinds of power tools to equip the deck force, which dramatically increased their productivity. Also, it had driven me crazy in the past with how much time it took to polish brassworks, so I cumshawed a job for all topside brasswork to be chromed. There were other small things, like going to one lookout vice two, (with the signal bridge people and radar you didn’t really need two lookouts). In this combat environment you didn’t really need a formal personnel inspection every week. With the crazy sleeping hours, you didn’t really need zone inspections every week. (And so on – to reduce the ‘John Paul Jonesisms’).
SIEGEL: It’s clear you were getting your crew adapted to the combat climate and the tasks at hand. As ship’s Morale Officer (you), what did you do to add some fun and light moments for the troops?
CULLINS: Beards were authorized by the CNO, at the CO’s discretion, so we did it. (Not me!). We pulled into Danang (quite a sight at night with the AF gunship ‘Spooky’ illuminating the sky firing at VCs around Danang) and next morning a yard craft moored alongside with some spare parts for us. We saw a litter of the standard VNM breed puppies (yum, yum if you were Vietnamese), and I asked if we could have one (to replicate ‘Kaizuko’ from my Carpenter days). The yard craft skipper said fine, but not until they were weaned. So we said OK we’d be back in a month or so and pick one up. So, intending to name our pup ‘Charlie One’ I set about to create a C1 image morale-wise. We started a ship’s rock band, named “The Waddell Revival”, which became famous (as I’ll describe later), designed a ‘Tony the Tiger’ cocktail flag, (flown during high-speed breakaways from replenishment ships, to the tune of “Tiger Rag”) and started a weekly ’Talk to the Captain’ show on the ship’s radio station, where sailors could drop a question into a box and I’d answer it on the show.
SIEGEL: How did the crew respond to this?
CULLINS: It was a big hit. Incidentally I made a big point on getting to really know well the ‘doc’ (corpsman), the barber and the senior yeoman because what these three know is well worth knowing re the pulse of the crew. Also, to refute those who claim that there is no available spare space on a ship, we installed a ‘geedunk’stand with a cumshawed ice cream maker and a coke machine, as well as a library with chairs and a table. Also, a photo lab was set up (which really paid off later – as we’ll see).
SIEGEL: Tapping into those three key contact points with the crew is mighty smart and something that should be taught in PCO courses. Did you have a formal organization to plan your recreational activities?
CULLINS: Yes, with some emphasis on recording and publicizing all the things we were doing as a warship and a fun ship. We keyed to a CCDP (Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force Pacific who was our TYCOM or Type Commander) directive to hit the PAO (Public Affairs) business hard, as he felt CruDesPac ships weren’t in the news enough. So, we established the usual ‘board’, but with a difference, e.g. 10 members of ship’s company, nine of whom rotated every month. I was the permanent member, plus 3 officers and 6 enlisted. Besides using W & R (Welfare and Recreation) funds to equip a fine photo lab, we eventually pumped out (ad nauseum) taped messages to everyone’s home town, six articles to the Yokosuka base newspaper, three articles to All Hands, one to Navy Times, one to Our Navy, one to USNI entitled ’Asiatic Squadron’ (naturally it wasn’t published), and the usual monthly Familygram.
SIEGEL: Your ship became a veritable news network which must have pleased your TYCOM.
CULLINS: Yes, but ironically, a CCDP staff Commander, who was no friend of mine, complained in a letter that we were doing too much (e.g. ‘self glorification’). Then it was back to the gun line for an arduous tour after which we were rewarded with a Hong Kong trip. Of course we used Mary Su, but now she wanted our ‘brass’ (shell casings) of which we had plenty from all our firing. But, we had to be cautious as there had been a Congressional Investigation on the previous CO’s watch about giving away brass nose caps for 5” projectiles to Mary Su.
SIEGEL: I recall that Mary Su was uncanny in knowing what goodies ships had that she could bargain for.
CULLINS: That she did. A memorable, fun thing that happened in Hong Kong is that some of us went to a famous old Repulse Bay hotel, on the other side of the island, where some of the JO’s went to the beach and were throwing frisbees, A riot practically ensued because the Chinese had never seen frisbees before. Hundreds gathered - most wanting to learn how to throw them. We gave them a couple and they went crazy, so to get away from the mob we vanished into the hotel bar for the rest of the day. (You might say that we introduced the frisbee to China!).
SIEGEL: In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine that Frisbees weren’t invented in China. In any event, that’s probably where most are now made.
CULLINS: No doubt.
From Hong Kong, it was back to Yoko for 10 days at the end of August. I got introduced to our ‘matchbox’ house and orienting our car to the daily horror of the thirty minute drive to the ship.
SIEGEL: So much for the R&R aspect of your sojourn in homeport.
CULLINS: Not much R&R with that crazy commute and a pretty high level of activity on the ship. In addition to some upkeep work, we set out to start up softball, touch football, basketball, skeet (which we could do underway too), bowling, and tennis teams, while issuing challenges to other squadron ships to play us. We also established a scuba diving club (which saved our bacon later on).
SIEGEL: How did you manage to fund such a big recreation program?
CULLINS: We had loads of Welfare and Recreation funds, because of the soda fountain, Coke machines all over the ship, a ship’s radio station with an around-the-clock volunteer DJ, and we held a lot of Las Vegas casino nights on the mess decks. All contributed to a massive W & R fund, from which I bought athletic equipment as well as scuba equipment. (Little did I realize that 25 years later I would become a scuba diver). I also bought a Raytheon Pathfinder radar out of the W&R fund, because I was sick and tired of dodging the small fishing boats, (by inches), which were endemic off the coast of Vietnam, particularly around Danang. All too many ‘mama-sans’ shook their fists at us as we frantically maneuvered to avoid hitting them. Our installed surface search radars at that time (SPS 10s) couldn’t detect anything below 2000 yards or so at the time and the commercial Pathfinder would detect contacts right up to the bow. I was afraid to buy it out of OPTAR, (our operational budget), because I knew some TyCom staff pork-chop weenie would go berserk that the Pathfinder radar wasn’t authorized and wasn’t a ‘MilSpec’ item.
SIEGEL: Most ships of that era seemed to find a nefarious way to acquire a Pathfinder…the butt-saver du jour. You had a most impressive recreation program. Were you able to find much competition among the other ships/staffs/base activities?
CULLINS: Oh yes, the squadron had a good athletic competition. We added a few ‘sports’ to the lengthy list, like contract bridge and tug-of-war. Challenge/trash-talk messages flew back and forth as to who would become the squadron champions. I might say that we eventually won almost all of the ‘championships’. As to the shore or staff folks, they couldn’t have been less interested, so our competition was only in the squadron ships.
After the 10 days in port, we were off to Sasebo, thanks to my leaning on the staff for something besides Yoko. Enroute, we got a lot of exercises completed toward our goal of C1, including a towing exercise, which we hadn’t done in two years, This was almost a disaster, as the DD Brinkley Bass misjudged on a crossing-the-bow line pickup prior to paying out a tow line, and I had to back full to avoid a collision, as she disappeared under our bow. The crew had warned me earlier about their questionable ship handling reputation, as the Brinkley Bass had been the DD that had collided with Waddell three years earlier in WestPac, sending our ship to the shipyard in Yoko for repairs.
SIEGEL: It seems there are always several ships around that specialize in running into things. So you were C1 in collision avoidance.
CULLINS: I guess you could say that. We managed to get the wives to Sasebo. There were a lot of ‘ghosts’ for me in Sasebo, as I had torn it up in my bachelor tour in Carpenter. (Our ‘O Club’ in those Korean War days was the Matsu Lodge.) All the old Korean War haunts were now gone.
SIEGEL: Probably it was just as well they had become just memories with lots of curious wives present.
CULLINS: That’s true. From Sasebo, about 10 October, we were directed to go to sea to conduct surveillance on a Soviet Task Force (6 DLG/DD, PCE plus an oiler) in the Philippine Sea. We joined up at night and the Soviet Commander sent a visual message “What Ship?” I replied “U.S. Man of War”. Then “What Name?” I replied “USS Waddell”. Then “What Number?” I chose to tell him because we were in Jane’s Fighting Ships. I asked him questions, but all I got was “Soviet Frigate 565”. We were with them for about 3-4 days, starting off with our attempting to close the PCEs for surveillance, but they were pretty goosey and maneuvered wildly to avoid us getting close. (The previous DD ‘shadower’ had reported that the big Kashin DLG had chased them off every time they tried to approach the PCEs.)
SIEGEL: What was the particular sensitivity about the PCEs?
CULLINS: I don’t know. Probably it was the fact that they were smaller and had more junior skippers and needed the ‘big boy’ (with the Admiral aboard) to keep them from being ‘shadowed’. So, it was time to pull the bull by the tail. We called away the ‘Waddell Revival’ rock band and eased up to the Kashin flagship playing ’Anchors Away’ then the Beatles ’Back In The USSR’. They didn’t turn away so I signaled “How do you like our band?” and got a reply back “Fine, but I can judge better if you play ‘Katyusha’”. We’d never heard of it (other than it being a Soviet multiple rocket launcher in WWII) but the band played their version of the ’Volga Boatman’. This seemed to lighten up things and we were able to make the rounds of the other ships successfully. I signaled “Good Morning” to all as we approached, and got back a “Good Morning”, in English, from one of them. We cooperated with the Soviet Commander when he eventually signaled over to us “To Commander USS Waddell, I am going to conduct exercise together our ships. Please keep out of area, Commander of the unit”. They were in the vicinity of Guam (and about 250 miles SE of Okinawa) but then headed north of Okinawa to go back to the Sea of Japan.
SIEGEL: A nice bit of international diplomacy on the high seas, Admiral.
CULLINS: It was really great fun for all hands as I kept the entire crew cut in on what we were doing. At this point, we were pretty low on fuel and headed back to Okinawa to refuel, but got word that the Buckner Bay refueling site was hard down, for some reason. Weather was up, and it was getting scary for us – pretty far from any refueling. Fortunately we came across a USN LPD and asked if we could somehow refuel from them. Of course he had no standard provider refueling capability so his engineer and ours figured out a way for a single 4” hose to be rigged between the ships, and transfer fuel – relatively in dribbles compared to an oiler. I was on the bridge wing for 10 hours, conning the pitching ship, very close to the LPD, which I believe was USS Vancouver. (I may have the fuel hose diameter confused, but not the 10 hours alongside!). The LPD saved our bacon what with the weather brewing. From there, we headed to Subic (another coup by begging the schedule folks) and the crew was ecstatic.
SIEGEL: That was a much-deserved visit to what was arguably the best USN support base and most-loved liberty port on the seven seas.
CULLINS: You got that right on both scores. Certainly Olongopo was the most ‘loved’ port in Westpac. Then it was back to Danang, where we picked up our pup ‘Charlie One’, who soon adapted to the destroyer ways, as he had never been ashore from his yard craft life. Then we went to I and II Corps gun lines, mostly around Qui Nhon and Nha Trang for three weeks. The “Waddell Revival” was now up to speed and had wowed people ashore in Okinawa, Sasebo and Subic clubs and was most popular in Nha Trang and Qui Nhon. Charlie, who loved hanging around the quarterdeck, disgraced himself when a Korean General (the Korean troops had the area around Nha Trang) came aboard and Charlie One charged him, nipping at his combat boots. The Korean General looked at him (tastefully) and laughed, so the crisis was over.
SIEGEL: A ship’s dog, a rock band…Waddell’s reputation must have been golden.
CULLINS: Yes, we were becoming pretty well known in WestPac. We went back up to the DMZ for the rest of October. There, I got chewed out again by some higher level staff because of a gun shoot. Some Marines up on the DMZ called us to say that there were indications that they could be overrun by a gathering of NVNs, and needed our fire support since they were out of range for support by the long range artillery on the ‘Rockpile’. Trouble was, they were almost exactly 13 miles inland, or at the max range of our 5”54s. So, I picked out the closest area to the beach that I could find with a reasonable chance of not going aground, and with the help of the bosun mates taking lead line soundings from the whaleboat ahead of us, we snuck up to where we were almost aground, in order to fire. We got off 30-40 rounds, close enough for the Marines to say that the NVNs had pulled back. But once again the higher level folks (not my Commodore) chewed me out mightily for coming inside the 10 fathom curve, which was a no-no.
SIEGEL: No good deed shall go unpunished.
CULLINS: My irritation was assuaged when we pulled alongside the hospital ship Sanctuary on a beautiful night and asked them by signal light if they would like us to give them a band concert. We pulled to within 100 yards or so and saw the nurses wheel out dozens of patients onto the decks, so the ‘Waddell Revival’ played everything they knew for about an hour, when we got the word for a fire mission, and had to depart. Later, I got our band ashore to play for a bunch of troops by the Cua Viet River. Our people were on the south side of the river, the NVN were on the north side. The band, and the troops, loved it. (They didn’t get USO shows that far north).
SIEGEL: How were you doing at this point in your quest for C1?
CULLINS: From November through January 1970 we were up north, in and out, doing missile shoots, a full power trial – all the exercises we hadn’t done in two years. We had lots of Yoko time, and some SRF (Ships Repair Facility run by the Japanese in Yoko) repairs. In Feb ’70, we got a nice surprise…the squadron ’E’ for the period ending Dec ’69, plus the Operations and Engineering ’E’s. All the emphasizing of C1 paid off and brought us to the top, from 6th in the squadron.
SIEGEL: Admiral, that was quite a feather in your cap as you’d had command for only the second half of the competitive year.
CULLINS: All of us in Waddell were pretty pleased with ourselves and, more importantly, the crew understood what it was like to be winners. All of February 1970 we were back on the gun line shooting our heads off. To break the tedium I stuck my neck out on three occasions. The first was about two-thirds through the gun line tour when I decided the crew needed some R & R, particularly the gunnery crews and the engineers. Of course, I knew I was taking a chance that could backfire. We pulled into a little bay between Nha Trang and Danang, put a couple of machine gunners on the top of the cliff and boated off 75 or so sailors to a little sandy beach, along with 50 cases of beer. You could carry beer and liquor aboard ship – you just couldn’t drink it aboard. (That’s why some ships do a cocktail hour cruise, for the CO and the wardroom, in the CO’s gig. I don’t like this, because I think it riles the crew). (But the onboard alcoholic beverages were useful to stock our terrific Manila and Hong Kong wardroom ‘admins’, which I had set up). Those of us left aboard got a huge kick out of watching the antics of our ‘beach party’, fighting, drowning etc. They returned via cargo net, with no cases of beer left, and supremely relaxed (although many were supine).
SIEGEL: That gives new meaning to ‘R&R’.
CULLINS: Yes, with emphasis on the “relaxation’ part. The second incident was scary and could have been disastrous. It was in another little bay, where we were doing H&I (Harassment and Interdiction) fire at night, ostensibly against reported VC camps on the tops or sides of mountains, mostly to keep the VCs (and destroyer CO’s) awake throughout the night. Normally, it was just a few rounds pumped off at odd times each hour, throughout the night while barely moving. All of a sudden we couldn’t move, no matter how much power we put on with our two boilers in use. (We had four boilers but seldom used all four on the gun line where speed and power weren’t needed). Fortunately we had our scuba diving club. They entered the water and soon found a huge, thick fishing net wrapped around the screws. It took them about four hours to cut away the net. I wouldn’t have been happy to be stuck there in daylight, since it was heavy VC territory. Thank God for the sports program!
SIEGEL: You developed a great package of collateral resources in Waddell that served you well. How was Charlie One working out for you?
CULLINS: The dog was one of the resources you mention. He was involved in a stunt that was a lot of fun, although I easily could have been chewed out by a senior. I had a theory that the most boring duty in WestPac was to be on a service force ship. Every day ships in waiting station, ships coming alongside, routine, routine, and more routine. I knew that Charlie One loved to be on the bridge, barking excitedly when anything other than shooting was going on (he rapidly disappeared into CIC whenever there was a gun shoot). So, during one refueling, as soon as we got the signal in the waiting station to come alongside for refueling, we put Charlie in the Captain’s wing chair and the rest of us hid in the pilot house, just occasionally popping up to check our distance and steering. Through binoculars, I watched the oiler OOD (Officer of the Deck) turn aft to check us out, and do a double take to see a DDG coming alongside with no one in sight on the bridge other than a madly-barking dog. He hurried into his pilot house and the oiler CO shot out to see what was going on. After our bow passed the oiler stern, we all showed up and watched the oiler bridge dissolve in laughter. As I said, an oiler captain could have chewed (and reported) me, but he told me that it had “made his day”. This created something of a legend for Waddell with the ships that serviced us. As a result we got a better selection of movie lists passed to us. We always hoarded the ‘chick flicks’ like “Beach Blanket Bingo” to extort good movies from the oilers/ammo ships. Movie exchanges between ships were an art form – as it always is in long at-sea periods. A CO who could extract the best action/girlie movies was always popular.
SIEGEL: That’s a great story on your approach to the oiler, Admiral; a new twist on the ‘Flying Dutchman’ ghost ship with nothing but a little dog in sight. Your movie exchange comments strikes a memory cord with me, especially the dire consequences of damaging or losing a movie, even a faded, old class C ‘sea print’.
CULLINS: A lot of this ‘kookyness’ would have been frowned upon by the ‘old guard’, had they known about it, but the gun line tours were exhausting for the 5” gunners mates and the entire crew engaged in the constant refuelings/rearmings and these ‘fun and games’ outlets were important to ‘keep the lid on’. Would I have survived in today’s ‘zero defects’ with its concomitant ‘risk aversion’?
SIEGEL: Did any of this ever come back to haunt you?
CULLINS: Not the fun stuff, but I did tempt the fates occasionally in operational initiatives that got me in some trouble…fortunately it was not intractable. An example is an interesting thing that happened off the Phu Loc district in late Feb ’70. We were patrolling, mostly expecting H & I time and firing, mostly at night, to keep the VC off-balance and awake. Over the ship/shore fire control net, we had a call from a LCol in the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne, asking if they could come aboard for discussion about a possible mission. We didn’t have a helo platform, and weren’t certified for helo ops, but I asked him what he had. He replied he had a ’Loach’ (one of those little bubble nosed helos). I replied that I was willing if he was – that we didn’t have much room. So we trained out the after gun and missile launcher to port, and the Loach squeezed in, with about one foot of rotor distance from the launcher and with the whole tail sticking out over the side.
SIEGEL: I’m fearless and that scares me having watched lots of helos come and go on Tarawa. What sort of mission did the LCol have in mind?
CULLINS: He said that he had a mission to sweep a valley where Viet Cong were held to be, and he wondered if we could provide some pre-attack support, as he had no artillery. We said sure, and off he went. On his command, we opened up, with automatic rapid fire from both guns. In auto, we could put out 45 rounds per gun per minute. We put out about 3-4 minutes of fire, with both guns breaking down on one side. (The 5”54 had two independent sides – one side breaking could leave the other side working). In our entire deployment we never had both guns totally broken, but were down to one gun with one side at least once in our deployment. The 26,000 yard rapid fire 5”54 was a beauty but a maintenance headache, which is why the previous CO was wary about firing any more then he had to. My philosophy was to fire both guns every day at sea, to get ahead of the maintenance problems. Anyway, we put out a couple of hundred rounds, and then the brigade went in. Afterwards the LCol flew out and told us that it had looked like an ‘Arc-Light’ B52 strike with the rounds walking down the valley. Lots of KIA and blood trails, and he had no casualties. He delivered an AK47 to us, with bloodstains still on it and a few rounds in the magazine, and engraved with the date and the name of the army unit.. Of course, I really got chewed out by the TYCOM weenies, who chastised me for violating helo certification standards.
SIEGEL: Did you put yourself on report for taking the helo onboard or did your elders get this information from kudos sent by the Army?
CULLINS: Being dumb, I did it to myself. I wrote a letter, with a diagram, to my TyCom, with a copy to the other PacFlt DDG COs. My TyCom told the other DDG CO’s to disregard it. An Army kudo letter to my operational commanders elicited no response.
Then it was into the Gulf to chase carriers, (including searching for, and ultimately finding, the remains of a crashed flyer), then into Sasebo with CVA Oriskany for a few days. We were back chasing a trawler in the second week of March, (trawlers were the main means of ammo support for the VC) when I heard that Phnom Penh, Cambodia had erupted, with Sihanouk overthrown and the airport being closed. I knew Valaree was supposed to be in Siem Riep (the town next to Angkor Wat) about this time. Valaree had a habit of touring all over the Far East by herself when we were gone. It turned out that she got on the last plane leaving Phnom Penh, the capitol, as the rebels (Khmer Rouge) were marching in.
SIEGEL: How and when did you find out that she was safely out of Cambodia?
CULLINS: I think it was a message from her in Hong Kong when she arrived there. The trawler we were tracking took us down to VNM, so we got a few days on the gun line. The sudden trawler chase and gun line time delayed our arrival in Hong Kong by three days so Valaree chased around trying to find all the wives and girl friends to notify them. A classmate of mine was in Hong Kong as the CO of a destroyer so I sent him a message asking his help in finding and notifying our ‘seagulls’. Some humorous ‘Seagull Sitrepts’ were floating around the Fox (fleet) broadcasts in WestPac, to the amusement of many.
SIEGEL: Valaree was a fantastic resource as your ‘advance party’ and ‘big sister’ to the other gals.
CULLINS: Yes, she was a very resourceful lady.
In Hong Kong I’ll always remember how funny it was to see our seamen there, having gotten their extra combat pay for several months with nowhere to spend it, forgetting their possibly plain little Kansas farm girls back home, swaggering about the Hong Kong Wanchai District with their gorgeous ‘Suzy Wong’ girl friends.
SIEGEL: You couldn’t put this picture on recruiting posters, but when word got back to the farm boys in Kansas, I’ll bet they were looking for the place to sign on.
CULLINS: Truly a sailor’s paradise. From Hong Kong, we headed back to Yoko for three weeks! It was almost like being married. Plus we had finally made the cut for base housing. As I remember, our household effects had been stored on the Yoko base. We only had essential clothes in our Huyama house. Most of our social life was spent going to the athletic events or socializing at the club. Scheduling didn’t permit all of the squadron ships being in Yoko at the same time, so there weren’t any ‘squadron parties’ except at Christmas. (A side remark here – Valaree said she could do the ‘2 months out - 2 weeks in drill’ forever, in exchange for the 6-8 month deployments from the States, which were a killer. Most of the veteran wives felt the same way).
SIEGEL: There is no question that the long deployments were tough on family life and often a disincentive for continued service by young officers and reenlistment by married enlisted members.
CULLINS: Then came possibly our most significant operation, for which we received the most kudos (except for those received after we got the second straight “E”). In early April ’70, Soviet Navy ships had been steaming around the world for the first ‘Operation Okean’ (‘Okean’ is ‘Ocean’ in Russian). Our RAV (Restricted Availability) with SRF Yoko was halted and we were told in an encrypted message that we’d be the surveillance force for the Pacific portion of Okean. We headed south to find the Soviets, who had passed between Okinawa and Kyushu the previous night. We were at full EMCON (Emission Control) – no radar, no radio transmissions (voice or teletype), and darkened ship. We saw a bunch of running lights ahead, and figured it was the Soviets. Imagine my surprise when a signal light from the task force blinked out “Good Morning, Commander Cullins”! My God! How did they know it was us? It was black as pitch, we had no radar on, no lights, and had made no radio transmissions, (A side thought...Many years later, in reading about CWO Walker passing cryptographic code key lists to the Soviets starting in the late 60’s, plus the North Koreans getting the crypto equipment from the capture of the Pueblo I concluded that the Soviets must have read the messages telling us to get underway for the surveillance). Plus, from our previous session with them in October they surely knew my name based on press stories. (Navy Times, TYCOM magazines, All Hands – anywhere)
SIEGEL: Did you include info about this amazing initial identification of you/your ship by the Soviets in your intel reports at the time, and did our spooks have any clues as to how they did it?
CULLINS: Yes, I emphasized it in the almost daily reports. No one that I knew, or heard of, hypothesized about the reason. I never got any feedback.
Some of the Soviets were skittish, as they had been in October, But now we had Charlie One, so I put him in the wing chair, with the band pumping away, and managed to make an approach on the Soviet flagship, at refueling distance (110 feet or so). There were Slavic looks of bemusement, a few shaken fists, but a great deal of attention. Lots of picture taking was being done by both sides. (I didn’t mind – surely they had photographs of us from anywhere, but we had few photographers in Vladivostok to take pictures of them). This time the Soviets seemed to know a few Beatles’ songs, including ’Back in the USSR’. This broke the logjam, and most of the dozens of ships let us come alongside, so we got a lot of photographs for which the Intel folks in higher echelons were ecstatic. (An interesting side note is that I got lightly chewed out by my TYCOM for being much too close). We particularly covered, and photographed, their cumbersome underway astern-refueling, their salt-water showers of their crews on the fantail, and their carrying food back along the decks to their individual berthing areas. They were obviously not capable of lengthy blue-water deployments.
SIEGEL: I’m sure the TYCOM loved the intel data you were recovering, but there must have been some CincPacFlt or 7th Fleet doctrine on how to conduct a surveillance of this kind. Were you ignoring some of it or was the guidance fairly loose on how close you could approach and what comms you could exchange with the Soviet ships?
CULLINS: There may have been, but I don’t remember it, so I just played it by ear. What’s the old saw about ‘better to seek forgiveness than to get permission’, or something like that?
After a couple of weeks we were getting critical on fuel (down to about 15%) and were considering making Guam or Palau to refuel, when fortunately CincPacFlt diverted an oiler, the Caliente, which was enroute to Subic from Pearl, to service us. The Soviets appeared to be fascinated with our alongside refuelings (since they did only astern refueling) and crowded around us, as we had done to them, to observe. Poor Caliente was bored for the remaining weeks, and once attempted to go along the Russian cruiser. They did, but really got chewed out by their TYCOM.
SIEGEL: It must have been a real kick to be the center of attention of all those Soviet ships. Pity the poor skipper of the Caliente who was trying to join the fun and his service force TYCOM wasn’t amused. Oh well, his actions didn’t exactly fit into an oiler’s mission description.
CULLINS: That’s true. It was obvious that the Soviets were in a full scale exercise. We saw Bear and Badger bombers in apparent attack mode (and we got good ECM intercepts on their radar in both search and attack modes) and several sonar contacts on their submarines. We got good photos of their astern refuelings and stores transfers for which they didn’t use helos. We were alongside a repair ship, with a very buxom blonde in a red bikini hanging out (so to speak) over the rail, with half of our crew topside watching her. I put this info in our daily intel report, and got kidded mightily about it when I got back to the Pentagon.
SIEGEL I’ll bet there were lots of guys reading your daily intel reports that were green with envy.
CULLINS: Probably. I got a little ‘slap happy’ after three or four weeks of this and started exchanging visual messages with the Russian COs. Several I remember are my “When do you go home?” answered by “The sailor’s home is the sea”, and my “How are the girls in Vladivostok?” answered by “The girls are good everywhere”. (About that time I figured that Soviet sailors were not all that different from us).
SIEGEL: That sort of restores one’s faith in human nature, the laws of the sea and all that. You obviously had a good rapport with their force/unit commanders and COs. But, Admiral, I’m curious about one aspect. While being engaged with the Soviets for the better part of a month, you don’t mention any kind of confrontation or even minor rubs (disputes, not paint scraping) during all that time. Were there any?
CULLINS: I can’t remember any. My theory has always been that sailors are sailors the world over. Other than a few shaken fists on the first surveillance runs, I saw no more. Perhaps the previous time we operated with them bled over to them trusting that I would stay out of their way when they had an exercise or my frequent visuals (‘good morning’ etc.) had something to do with it. Certainly, Charlie One and the band were fascinating to them and probably the main reason for us not having a hostile reaction. Sailors get bored and any new thing that draws their attention is usually a beneficial distraction..
SIEGEL I imagine at this point you’d collected an intelligence bonanza.
CULLINS: You bet, and we got enormous kudos for this, plus from our several trawler chases, particularly the quality of our photography which was done by a LTJG who was not an Intel officer but had our photo lab’s Leica camera, an interest in photography, and access to our photo lab. (The W & R program again). (One of the interesting kudos came from the Hydrographic Office people because we had kept our fathometer on, and recorded, during our entire tour around the Philippine Sea). (Interesting to me because for years I had done this and turned the results into them. Apparently not many ships do this). An interesting sidelight on our extended dance with the Soviets was relayed to me by my eventual relief CDR (later VADM) Al Herberger who took Waddell to Massawa, Ethiopia in February 1972 for the International Navy Day. Herberger was at a reception when a Soviet Admiral approached him and asked if he was Commander Cullins. When Herberger responded that he was my relief, the Soviet Admiral responded, “Pity, we operated together in the Philippine Sea”.)
SIEGEL: So you were something of an international naval figure. Waddell must have been due for some good liberty after all that work with the Soviets.
CULLINS: You’d think so and after 40 days of chasing the Russians we were madder than hell when we got orders to head for Subic, then Yankee Station in the Gulf. We had been scheduled for Bangkok, Thailand and many of our wives were already there. No dice; we chased carriers for two weeks, then headed to Kobe, Japan for EXPO 70 8 – 10 June, and a reintroduction to our wives. Then it was back to Yoko for a couple of weeks and down in and out of Sasebo as part of the “Ready Duty Sea of Japan” task group, where we managed to become C1 across the board in exercises.
SIEGEL: You were putting lots of steaming miles on that big C1 tin can. What was the main purpose of the ‘Ready Duty Sea of Japan task group’ and did it have permanent standing?
CULLINS: It was a designated TG into which ships rotated in and out, and ready for a transit into the Sea of Japan for possible duty. I assume North Korea primarily was the reason for this TG. One interesting incident occurred when the usual typhoon blew up, and the resident commodore told all of us to go to sea and ride it out. I had long been upset at the kneejerk response of senior officers to do this. Sasebo was a very protected harbor and had a strong carrier pier to which we could tie up. So, I told the commodore that I wouldn’t go to sea and get all beat up, when I could snug up to the pier with double ‘wires’ and be safe. He didn’t like it, and later on told my regular commodore so, but there we stayed, with the O’Club and all the town girls to ourselves for four or five days, until the 5 or 6 ‘sortiers’ straggled in all beaten up.
SIEGEL: So you got high marks for smart storm preparation, but low ones for defying your temporary commodore.
CULLINS: I think that describes my approach to command. It was then we headed back to Yoko in early July for pre-departure for CONUS preparations. Some higher ups (according to my spies) had decided that the homeporters needed to reacquaint themselves with “the flag” and decided to return to the regular six-month deployment rotation schedule, and stop the overseas homeporting. This also meant a return to the Japanese of much of the base in Yoko.
SIEGEL: Over the years, the overseas homeporting philosophy seemed to change as frequently as the rotation of Navy senior leadership. How did your crew react?
CULLINS: Of course, my guys were upset. We had four times the Navy average shipover rate of first termers and got the Golden Anchor Award for it. I’d like to think it was because of my ‘superb leadership’ rather than the obvious truth that our ‘Asiatic Sailors’ enjoyed the life – lots of sea time, many friendly girls, cheap beer, extra money, worthwhile things to do, freedom from the incessant stateside inspections, etc. My only regret is that I hadn’t gone to Waddell in ’68 vice ’69 and had two full years there vice only thirteen months.
SIEGEL: Admiral, I’ve followed your WestPac adventures in Waddell with great interest and I’m amazed that all of that happened in only thirteen months. I’d say, you got your money’s worth.
CULLINS: I certainly did. The last flap was over our homeward route. All of the previous homeporters, after being relieved, had gone home via Australia, New Zealand and Samoa, as a reward for three years of arduous service. I got the other COs behind me, to survey their crews as to the ‘cruise’ or going straight back. Of course it was overwhelmingly for the ‘cruise’. But the commodore was mum on the subject. Word was, from one of his staffers, that he was up for consideration as COS of a Naval Base, where he could play golf every day, but the relief window was tight as the present base COS was retiring soon, and the delay caused by the ‘cruise’ could jeopardize his getting the job. So naturally, off we went, straight back via Pearl, on 29 July.
SIEGEL: The privilege of the commodore’s rank sank the prospect of a southern excursion. I guess you never forgave him.
CULLINS: His picture is not on my mantle. Incidentally, as we headed east, I found out that my TYCOM had a sense of humor. I had scanned his most recent report on exercise completions and fired off a message stating that it was inaccurate, together with a biblical quote. I had used humorous biblical quotes before, from the gun line, in order to lighten the day. For example, one of the gun line ones was in Aug ’69 when we had to miss a refueling with an AO due to an urgent request from a ROK (Korean) brigade, off Danang, for some critical NGFS. I cancelled the refueIing at the last minute and ended the message with “Ecclesiastes 6:5 (which translates into “Who so keepeth the Commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgement”). (I was no bible expert but one of my yeomen was!). In response to my feedback to my TYCOM, he said my exercise updates had been entered into his data base, including at the end “Psalms145: verses 9 and 19”. My ‘religious advisor’ translated it as “9 - The Lord is good to all and his tender mercies are over all his works”, and “19 – He will fulfill the desires of them that fear him. He also will hear their cry, and will save them”
SIEGEL: Perfectly appropriate to the situation. Before we end this action-packed session, do you have any final thoughts?
CULLINS: Yes, here’s a bit of an epilogue. Naturally the Navy changed its mind, and after we got back to San Diego, the call went out for transfers to a new homeported squadron in Yoko. My guys really scrambled to arrange ‘swaps’. Also, the CincPacFlt Operations Officer, who was a friend of mine, told me that if the commodore had requested the southern cruise on the way home, he would have gotten it approved.
And so it goes.
SIEGEL: Admiral, we’ll pick it up next time with Waddell’s stop in Pearl Harbor on the homeward voyage.
CULLINS: Sounds good; see you then.