Navy Blue at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital

Jim M

Driving to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California one weekend to pick up a friend who was still in the Navy. I had to wait at the main gate since I was already a civilian. He had broken his leg during one of our previous motorcycle drinking sessions and was almost mended, he just limped a bit. The Naval Hospital at that time was laid out like most World War II facilities. To allow wheel chair access in this very hilly location, covered ramps, walkways and bridges were constructed which connected the various buildings.
As I waited a legless man in a wheel chair was rolled up to the gate by his mother to obtain his ‘liberty card’. A pretty obvious Viet Nam casualty. The petty officer at the gate said, “I’m sorry the Chief has pulled your card because you didn’t show up for the ‘working parties’”.
I could see by his mother’s stare that she couldn’t believe what she just heard. “How do you expect a disabled man to show up for a working party, especially some one with no legs?” I could see she was totally pissed and wasn’t going to put up with this military crap. “I don’t know madam; I just do what I’m told”. After which she demanded to see the ‘officer of the day’. I wasn’t there but I knew what would happen next as I watched the woman push her son back up the hill to the OOD’s office. On most bases the able bodied are required to serve some time on what is termed a ‘working party’. You get to do some menial task like picking up cigarette butts and the like. If you are termed ‘able bodied’ then not showing up will get you put on report. I couldn’t see any way this guy was going to go around picking up garbage, someone was being stupid.
Now the petty officer’s attention was diverted to my friend who had just arrived. Tony dressed in his civilian clothes, which was allowed at this base, was looked over by the PO. I could see this guy was some kind of butthead and this was confirmed when he said, “Tony I am not going to give you your liberty card because you don’t have a belt on.” Tony was pissed and started to go back inside, I pulled him over to the corner. After which I pulled off my belt and handed it to him. He returned with the belt on and his hand out for his card. It took a second for the PO to realize what had happened,
“You better have that belt on when you return”, he hissed. He was now very pissed that his ploy to keep Tony on base was not successful. What’s this guy’s problem? Looking at me he started muttering something about me being a goddamn hippie. How could this be, I still had short hair since I had only been out of the Navy for a few days?
“I’m a World War II hero,” were the next words out of his mouth. Being totally amazed by such an asshole statement I immediately retorted, “So, I’m a Viet Nam hero.” This served to piss him off even more and I could see he wanted to punch my face. Since it was 1968 this person wasn’t even old enough to have served in WWII. This guy really has a problem!
Things like this really propel decision making processes. I had already decided that I and the military would part ways. This just reinforced my decision even more. The liberty card incident pushed me backwards in time, some of the chickenshit put upon us by a few petty officers came flooding back. I think that my time as a E6 was served with respect to my fellow shipmates. But perhaps this is a false memory, only my division shipmates might know the answer. But I also know that those who did their best to make things miserable for others were very few, most petty officers I knew were good guys.

REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946: Jim, this one sets my mind spinning. I was hospitalized for two weeks at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Virginia around 1969. It was an open bay dormitory style ward. The rule there was if you were able to get out of bed and move around under your own power then you were considered "able bodied". You might have limitations but you could still get up and participate in essential tasks.  Those of us who were able bodied were assigned to Working Parties - the daily clean up details, changing the bed linens, gathering up trash, cleaning heads, etc. When it was meal time, they wheeled in a big food service cart, loaded down with meal trays, and parked it in the middle of the dorm. The able bodied people automatically got up to fetch the meals for the ones who couldn't get out of bed. After we got them all set up, we ate. It was a good system and no one complained about it. A wheel chair case was never considered to be able bodied there. As for the butthead PO, I remember a cantankerous old Chief Gunner's Mate on the Hancock. He didn't like me - I think he caught me goofing off when I was assigned to one of the ammunition handling working parties he was supervising or something. Anyway - it wasn't just me, he didn't like a lot of people - it was just the way he was. When he had the JOOD watch on the enlisted brow, he would not let me leave the ship to go on liberty. He would find something wrong with me. He even made me roll my white trouser legs up one day, to check for shoe polish marks. He found a few black marks and sent me back. Now that is being totally asinine! There was nothing I could do about it - he was in control. I just had to wait until his watch was relieved then I would get off with no problems.

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