First Duty – A True Story

Just beginning his career.

My father, just beginning a new career in the United States Navy.

The other day as I was sorting through some papers in my office I ran across this true life story of my father’s first active duty in the U.S. Navy.  Dad would tell this story frequently when we were kids and it always made an impression, enough that he finally put it down on paper.


Dad passed away in June 2006.  I miss him.  My memories of him now are becoming fainter and more scattered.  Maybe that’s why I wanted to share this.  It’s a way to remember him.


The story is about a man just starting out in life who ends up in the middle of an absurd situation—one where those around him turn to him for leadership.  This was back in the early 1950’s and the Korean War was still going strong.  Conditions were a lot different back then, but it seems people were the same.


My recollection of Dad telling this story always brings a smile for he’d become so animated.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.   – B.A.


First Duty

By Harvey M. Anderson


Having just graduated from the Naval Officer Training School in Newport, Rhode Island, my orders read, “Report to the Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Station, Kodiak, Alaska.”  You can imagine my delight as only two graduates received orders with anything resembling “shore duty”.  The other was for Guam Island.


I had requested battleship duty believing that would expose me to the toughest assignment that Navy spit and polish could offer.  I was confident I could handle the challenge of being aboard ship.  On the other hand, shore duty was great news for it offered a chance of having my wife join me.  We were married just three months earlier.  I was sure I could find us a place to live; even though everyone said finding a house in Kodiak was impossible.


At the time, the U.S. was at war with North Korea and I was eager to get to my duty post.  Soon after spending some quality time with parents and friends in Yakima, Washington, I boarded an R4D MATS plane in Seattle, Washington for Kodiak.  It was an uneventful, though bumpy ride.  Nearing the Kodiak Naval Station the plane shook in the crosswinds that blew over the runway.  It was a late Thursday afternoon.


Checking In


At the Air Terminal, I was directed to the Administration Building.  There I presented my orders to Lt. Jim Carneal, permanent Officer of the Day.  He welcomed me to Kodiak and set me to the Officer’s Quarters where I was assigned a room.  It was not the Waldorf Astoria, but I was happy to have arrived.  I unpacked and shortly thereafter found the officer’s mess.


The following morning I met with Commander Barry, Executive Officer.  We had a friendly chat and he took me across the hallway to meet Captain Dusty Rhodes, Base Commander.  I had heard he was a crusty old bird.  He spouted orders to his yeoman while giving me a short handshake.  Back in the Exec’s office Commander Barry handed me a mimeographed copy of the base map.  He said to take some time off to familiarize myself with the base.  Then he told me to report to the OD’s shack for my first duty commencing at 1600.


I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon riding around the base with “Skip” a skinny broom handle six-foot, six-inch Chief Petty Officer with no other name…just Skip.  I soon understood where most of the buildings were located, except those in out-of-the-way security areas.  I took particular notice to what Skip called a secret building.  It contained a huge vacuum cleaner pointed to the sky through a large hole in the top of one of the buildings.  It looked like the opening across the hole measured about twenty feet.  Skip told me it was for monitoring fallout debris from atomic bombs being tested by the Russians.


The main administration building housed all the big brass, Admiral Drake, Commandant of the 13th Naval District, and his staff.  This included a dozen commanders and captains that headed up supply, communications, naval control of shipping, etc.  Together they occupied the entire building with the base Commander and Exec on the second floor next to the Admiral.


The Officer-of-the Day’s shack was located next to the main entrance.  Inside was an office, bedroom and bathroom.  The bedroom and bathroom were across a hall from the office and were set up so the OD could sleep in at nighttime—the Chief Petty Officer would then be in charge.  This made it possible for the OD to spend the night in close proximity to his duty station in the event of an emergency.



Reporting For Duty


At 1530 I reported to the OD’s shack.  I chatted with the permanent OD, Jim Carneal, for around 15 minutes.  He introduced me to his assistant, Chief Petty Offer Bill Robbins.  Time was slipping away as I glanced at the clock…1550.  Being my first duty, I was anxious to know what I was supposed to do, especially with just ten minutes left.  “Jim…” I started to ask.


He smiled anticipating my question and said, “Relax, I’ll check you out in a few minutes.  There’s really nothing to it.”


I was to be the OD for the next 16 hours.  Imagine, I thought to myself, I will be the Captain’s stand-in as my first duty—pretty neat!  Jim then proceeded to tell me about the sleeping arrangement and the requirement that I eat in the enlisted men’s mess hall.  This is an old tradition designed to show that the food is fit for officers as well as enlisted.


Looking a little perplexed, I ask rather sheepishly, “Well, what do I do in case of an emergency?”


“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said.  “Just take your time and read the base manuals.  You can do that after eating.”  He pointed to two 3-inch thick black books stacked against a wall.  “The Duty Chief usually handles everything, but you can spend time whenever you have the duty reading a section or two.  I’ve been here for two years and have never had anything happen except for a couple of small fire alarms.”


Jim went on to say, “The only thing you have to be concerned with is when a message comes in over the teletype.  Just read it to see if it is directed to the Base Commander.  If it is, then call the Exec and tell him you have a message for the Captain.  He’ll tell you what to do with it.  I will deliver all other messages when I relieve you at 0800 in the morning.”


He seemed so nonchalant I figured it must not be too critical.


He then asked, “Okay, will you relieve me?  It’s Friday evening I want to take my wife to the dance in town.”


I snapped to attention.  “Yes, Sir!  I relieve you.”


As he turned to walk away, I decided to take his advice and grab a quick bite to eat.  Walking across the street to the mess hall, I remembered my Father and his resolute care and attention to details.  The more I thought of the relaxed manner Jim displayed, the more I rushed my meal to get back to the office.  I’d read those manuals.  I was going to be prepared.


New To The Job


Upon arriving at the OD shack, I was greeted by another CPO, Lloyd Parsons.  He had just arrived on the noon plane from Seattle.


Parsons was in the process of relieving the Assistant Officer of the Day, Bill Robbins.  Robbins was going through the same routine about how nothing ever happens.  “Just read the manuals when you get around to it.”


I thought, this won’t be so bad as sat down at the desk.  At least, it seems pretty simple.


Robins waved and said “Goodnight, Sir!” as he departed out the main door.


So there we were…just the two of us, a couple of newly arrived personnel in charge of the Kodiak Naval Station, without any real sense of what our duty consisted of.  I kept hearing Jim’s voice:  “It’s all in the black manuals…nothing to worry about…nothing ever happens in Kodiak.”


Parsons and I chatted for a few minutes about our arrival when all at once we were startled as one of the telephones rang.  The new Duty Chief picked up the receiver and repeated the message.  “It’s the marine Duty Officer reporting…The gates are all secure at the west on the road to town.”


As I sat there, I said to myself, “At least, I’ve got a 20 year veteran Navy Chief as my assistant.  He’s bound to have taken care of any number of things.”  It was a reassuring thought.


We Have A Situation


Unfortunately, my complacency was short-lived and abruptly shattered when a sudden loud siren began wailing away.  RRRRR…RRRRR…RRRRR!  Dumbfounded, the Chief and I stared at each other.  “What the heck is that?” I blurted.


“Dammed is I know, Sir!  I don’t know!”


The alarm seemed to magnify. RRRRR…RRRRR…RRRRR!


“Jeez, it getting’ louder!” shouted Parsons.


“Well for Christ’s sake grab a manual and check it,” I ordered.


As I reached for the other manual the intercom blasted my ear.  “This is Commander Barry.  What’s going on down there?”


“This is Officer of the Day Anderson, Sir.  We don’t know, but we could use some assistance.”


“I’ll be there in a couple minutes,” he growled.


Suddenly, the radio perched on the Chief’s desk crackled to life.  “This is harbor patrol.  Waiting your order, Sir.”


I snatched up the microphone.  “Standby,” I announced with as much authority as I could muster.


“Aye, aye,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation.


Way Too Many Phones


At that moment, two Navy captains walked in the door from the 13th Naval District.  “What’s going on Ensign?” asked one. “What are your orders, Sir?” asked the other.


I tried not to gulp.  “Standby captains…we’re checking it out and we’ll let you know in a minute or two.”


Wearing Navy blues.

Here's the author on a calmer day.




That blasted alarm continued at full volume.  My mind was whirling.  I refocused on the manual before my eyes, searching for anything that said “siren” or “alarm”.  As I fumbled with the pages, more phones began ringing.  “How many phones are there?” I mumbled to myself.  “Three?  Four?”


Each time the Chief answered one it was the same question:  “What’s going on?   Is this an alert?”


I kept stalling.  By now it seemed like a bad dream.  There was confusion everywhere, but to make it worse two more senior officers walked in, yet another phone rang and other men began piling into the room.


The Chief waved for my attention.  “It’s the radio station.  They want to know if it’s an alert?  What shall I tell them?”  His eyes pleaded for an answer.


I quickly scanned the room for a suggestion, but with no answers forthcoming I turned back.  “Tell them to hold on.  We’ll let them know in a couple of minutes.”


At that moment, Commander Barry rushed into the office with a battle helmet in one hand and his Colt 45 and holster in the other.  As he dropped them on the desk, the automatic slide out its holster and under some paperwork.  Then another phone went off.  “What’s going on, Andy?” he asked.


“I don’t’ know, Sir, but I’d appreciate it if you’d relieve me!”


Without the least acknowledgment to this simple request, he snatched his helmet back up and plowed through the maze of officers still standing around.  “I’m heading for the Command Post!” he barked as he rushed out through the door.


In an instant he was gone.  Zip.  And I didn’t hear the magic words I needed from him—something on the order of:  “You’re relieved.”




The Pressure Is On


All eyes returned to me.  It was too much at once so I glanced down and spotted the Commander’s pistol still lying mostly hidden under the papers.  I needed to act and soon.  Steeling myself, I looked back up and returned the stares full force.  I knew I needed to appear confident and disguise my innermost thoughts which were anything but calm.


I was about to open my mouth when we were all distracted by two large trucks pulling up in front of the building.  A squad of marines piled out.  They lined up at the entrance and surrounded the building.  RRRRR…RRRRR…RRRRR!


In spite of the alarm I heard a muffled phone ringing somewhere.  “Chief, do you hear that phone ringing? Where the hell is that phone?”


He was too busy with another call to answer. “Chief!”  I yelled.


He covered his mouthpiece and shrugged.  “Sorry, I don’t know, but the radio station still needs to know if this is an alert.”


“A minute, I minute!” I snapped.  Meanwhile, all the officers were now crowding my desk.  I glanced back to my manual and flipped several pages searching in vain for anything that might help me.


I blew out a breath.  The temperature was rising by the second and the air getting stuffy and thick.  I scanned the faces before me.  They were waiting to hear my command…waiting on every word. “Oh, hell,” I thought to myself, “I am the Officer of the Day.  I’m the Captain’s representative.  They’re waiting for my decision.  I’ve got to do something unless, someone relieves me.”   Then I suddenly wondered why with all the stripes on the sleeves before me they weren’t offering help.  RRRRR…RRRRR…RRRRR!


I glanced back down to my manual and the word S-I-R-E-N finally jumped off the page.  There it was—the information I needed was on page 137.  I flipped pages in desperation and finally found the right one.  I started reading.  “There are two sirens.  One is located on the Air Tower and the other on the main Administration Building.  The sirens can only be rung by the Fire Station, the Air Control Tower or the Officer of the Day.”


I shouted to the Chief, “Get the Fire Station on the phone while I call the Air Tower.  There are only two places the siren can be sounded!”


I reached for my desk phone as the chief juggled all the phones on his desk.  “The Fire Station is on the line, Sir.  They don’t know where the alarm came from and are asking us for instructions.  What should I tell them?”


“Hold on,” I said, as I waited for my call to go through.  Ring…ring…ring.  Come on, pick up, I thought.


“Air Duty Station,” reported the voice on the line.


“Yes, this is the Officer of the Day.  Did you sound the siren?”


“No, Sir!  It wasn’t us.  What’s your order, Sir?”


“Standby!” I shouted as I tossed the phone on the desk.


Where’s That Coming From?


RRRRR…RRRRR…RRRRR!  As the alarm continued, there was still the muffled sound of a phone ringing somewhere nearby.  Sudden inspiration hit and I rifled through my desk drawers.  There was nothing in the top drawers.  I slid Commander Barry’s 45 into one open compartment for safe keeping there.  I opened the middle layers.  Nothing there, either, but the usual office brick-a-brac.  Finally, I pulled on the bottom drawer to my right.  It was stuck or locked.  I yanked harder and out popped the drawer.  Inside it, fitting snugly in a cradle was a white telephone with the word “SECRET” stamped across the top.


Blinking hard, I lifted it to my ear as everyone watched.  “This is the Admiral.”  The voice was loaded with authority and I came to rigid attention.  “Is this a yellow or red alert?”  I nearly swallowed my tongue when I heard the question.  There was no doubt those around me knew who was on the other end of the line.


Suddenly, a hundred divergent thoughts were zipping through my brain:  The Admiral had asked for my order.  I’m in command here.  It’s up to me to make a decision.  No one has reported to relieve me.  I can’t get confirmation from anyone and not one of these officers standing in front of me has the grit or even sense to relieve me.  I’m on my own.  Do I take a chance and call yellow alert?  It’s Friday evening.  Everyone is probably in town at the dance.  If it’s an attack, I’d be a fool if I didn’t call red alert.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Hadn’t we learned our lesson in Pearl Harbor?  I followed the manual—the Chief and I had checked both the Fire Station and the Air Tower.  They hadn’t sounded the siren and it sure wasn’t us.


As I turned toward the Chief, every eye followed my movement.  They were all breathless.  The Admiral was still waiting for my response.  I had to make my decision without another moment’s delay!


Trying to choke down the last of my doubt, I squared my shoulders and stood tall. Putting  the phone to my lips I did my utmost to project a confident tone.  “Yes, Sir…this is a red alert, Admiral.  I repeat…this is a red alert.”


Without a moment’s hesitation he replied.  “Understood.  Thank you very much, Sir.  I’m reporting to the Command Post.”


As he clicked off, I repeated my order loud enough for everyone to hear.  “This is a red alert.  To your stations!”  As they snapped to attention and begin to rush out, I turned to the chief, “Notify the radio station.  Tell them all hands back to the base on the double.  They’re to main their battle stations!”


The Navy Comes Alive


RE…RE…RE.  The sirens now seemed more intense in response to my order. And in that moment, things begin happening everywhere.  The hillside literally opened up as huge guns rolled out from under the over of camouflage.  Trucks began delivering additional troops.  Stocks of ammunition were dropped all around the building and at stations down the street.  Troops doubled up around the entry of my building and everywhere within sight.  No one was allowed in or out of headquarters without ID.  Out the window, I could see several aircraft line up as they took off, one by one, from the base.  There was action every way I turned.


A floating dry-dock, locked to the main dock, was released to the waterway.  ARD’s, as we called them, were meant to stay secured and never moved except in an emergency.  A red alert is such an emergency.  The ARD began the laborious struggle towards the sea with the aid of two tugs.  A freighter was being piloted through the channel to the open ocean.  It was headed for the relative safety and better maneuverability possible in open waters.  Five landing craft, freshly fueled, rushed out the inner harbor, their crews at full alert scanning the skies and shoreline.  Through all the background noise I could hear their reports to the harbormaster.  “Position Charlie visible and clear.”  A burst of static snapped my thoughts back to the present.  I was impressed.  Give the word and this Navy goes into action!


Surreptitiously, I felt a lot of satisfaction in believing I had made the right decision.  Without the aid of a single lieutenant, commander or captain I had ordered the red alert.  It frankly astonished me at some level.  Why had no else one stepped forward to take the lead?


As the lowliest officer on the base, I would have welcomed relief from any officer.  Anyone!  Here I was a brand new Ensign, about as green as they come, and fresh from Officer’s Training School on my very first day of active duty.  Why had it fallen on me?  Not a single superior had been willing to take my position—not one.  Not a man among them had the guts to shout, “Go to red alert!”


One by one the reports came in, but gradually both the phones and radio became silent.  Every duty station was reporting “SECURE”.  Curiously, and though I didn’t know why, the sirens kept blasting on and on.  With growing confidence that our ships and planes were safe I began scribbling notes in the log.  “One commercial freighter, three tugs, five LCVP’s, one ARD, 34 aircraft secure off base.  All duty stations reporting safe.  Main and rear gates closed.  Siren still alive.  Source unknown.”


As I looked out the window, I spotted a command car roaring down the taxiway and causally noted a flag on the fender.  Finally, my relief!  Wow, that car is really moving.


The car came off the taxi apron onto the street and headed straight at me.  The rubber burned as it screeched to a halt in front of the building.  As the car door flew open out stepped Captain Rhodes dressed in civvies with a smart looking camel-colored homburg (i.e. a hat).  Soldiers scattered in all directions as he slammed open the door to our office.


He looked directly at me, yanked off his hat, threw it on the floor, jumped up and down on it and shouted, “WHO THE HELL SOUNDED THE DAMN SIREN?”


The chief and I spat out in our denial in unison.  “It wasn’t us!”


He gave us a suspicious glare.  “Well, we’ll see about that,” he huffed.  “Meantime, turn that son-of-a-bitch siren off and call everyone back!”  With his order given, he turned and stamped out before I could even think to get another word in edgewise.


I stared at the spot he stood and saw his magnificent homburg crushed on the floor.  Feeling stunned and baffled, the Chief and I looked at each other in disbelief.


As the Captain’s words replayed in my head I was crushed.  We hadn’t sounded the siren, but I did order the red alert.  Meanwhile, of course, the siren was still blaring away.  I turned to the Chief.  “Better find an electrician and have him secure that siren.”


“Aye, aye,” he replied as he turned to the task.




It didn’t take long before we discovered a new air squadron had arrived early that day.  After the long flight, the crew headed directly for the officer’s bar.  Now, our Captain, as was common in Navy tradition of the day, had issued a standing order that the bar was to remain closed without exception until he arrived.  Nevertheless, one or more of the pilots had demanded the enlisted men on hand open the bar regardless of the Captain’s order.  When they refused, they were given a direct order to open or be put on report.  Naturally, they feared the consequences and opened the bar.


As the pilots stood around drinking and singing, in walks the Captain.  He was livid and swore at everyone profusely.  He ranted, “Get out!  The bar is closed!  You’re all on report!”  That did it.  The lights in the bar went dark.


Though rumors flew about, the person responsible for turning on the siren was never identified.  Most thought that one of the disgruntled airmen shorted an electric wire as retribution after the Captain shut down the bar.  That story took on more credence the following day when a pin placed strategically between two of the alarm’s wires was found.


As for me…let’s just say my brain was on full alert for at least a couple nights and days.


In the end, I decided to hide Commander Barry’s pistol to let him sweat awhile—he never did offer an explanation for his sudden departure in the heat of the moment.  He was always friendly towards me, though; perhaps even a little respectful.  As to the Captain—he never said anything for he was the Base Commander and above reproach.  However, I noticed he always looked the other direction when he saw me coming, a little ashamed, I believe.  Admiral Drake treated me much better.  I received a written commendation for from him, praising my decisive action and wishing me well in my Navy career.  I accepted his good wishes with gratitude, but I have to say there was really nothing that compared to my very first day of active duty.


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