Monday, February 11, 2008

Ship board violence

Richard DeNoble was a friend of mine. Like me, he was a Seaman (E3) in the deck force of a destroyer (USS Hull) on the VN Naval Gunline. He was a real nice guy. Big, quiet, unassuming. I let him down.

Our Division Officer was ENS Joseph Santarlasci, a real piece of work, a twit. None of us really had any meaningful respect for him.

We went to Vietnam short-handed of Petty Officers in the deck crew. We had one BM2 and one BM3. The BM2 was a lifer, the BM3 a reservist. We had a BM1 until right before we deployed but he had just gotten out of the Navy to accept a Warrant in the Army (driving Army supply barges on rivers). He wasn't replaced until we got a BMC and two more BM2's about 4 months after we got to Vietnam.

This happened when the BM2, his name was Duck, was a senior division petty officer. He was your typical 8th grade educated boatswains mate from the hills of Arkansas. He was from Mountian Home, Arkansas. Just a big, dumb redneck. But Santarlasci depended on him heavily.

One morning at quarters DeNoble muttered something insulting about Santarlasci and a couple of us standing near him laughed. Santarlasci glared at us then whispered something to Duck. Duck ordered DeNoble to go below.

As DeNoble started to climb down the hatch Duck stood behind him and kicked him in the back, knocking him down the hole to the deck below. Duck then climbed down the ladder, following him. We could hear the sounds of a scuffle below.

Santarlasci stood there trying to look all tough. Nobody moved to help DeNoble, and I really thought I should. But there really wasn't anything any of us could have done, at least that's what I'm sure we all were telling ourselves.

In my case, Duck was a lot bigger and meaner than me. Any attempt to help DeNoble would have gotten me hurt. In those kinds of situations at sea in a war zone you can't really dismiss the possibility of just getting killed. And even if a bunch of us helped and most of us didn't get hurt, when it was over the story would have been told by Santarlasci and we'd have ended up in a brig. Nobody would have asked any non-rated sailors accused of mutiny what had happened, that's just not the way the Navy I was in worked.

I felt terrible. I still fell terrible. Helpless. My chest is trembling as I type this, 40 years after it happened. I wanted to help him so badly. But I was afraid.

DeNoble was okay afterwards. He had some kind of rib injury, I don't know if they were fractured or bruised, or what. He wasn't allowed to go to sick bay, he was threatened and there would have been more retaliation if he'd have gone on sick call. For a couple of weeks he had some pretty severe pain whenever he moved his upper body. But it healed itself eventually.

Joseph Santarlasci was a real piece of work. A real loser. A scared little boy with no ethical backbone at all. But we couldn't really touch him. The Navy is very class conscious and on board ship officers are pretty much untouchable, the punishment for retribution against Santarlasci would have been severe, no matter how worthless a human being he actually was.

There was small amount of retribution against Duck. A couple of nights after it happened someone broke into Duck's locker and threw everything he owned over the side. After that Duck posted a guard on his rack every night in two hour shifts. The guard had to wake him up when he was relieved. After a week of that Duck negotiated an early re-enlistment in exchange for a transfer to another ship. I think him having everything he owned thrown over the side in the dead of night scared him as much as I was scared that day. Probably more so because he knew there were 20 men who would like nothing better than to throw him over the side.

I want to apologize to Richard DeNoble for not having helped him that day.

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