A Navy chief from USS Gridley past met with Navy chiefs from USS Gridley present in a meeting of more than just an exchange from one era to the next.
There was a distinctive sharing of Navy chief petty officer honor, history, and heritage that took place on Sept. 24, 2016, in Bremerton, Washington.
Despite the passing of time – over 52 years – a ship’s plaque and a few other keepsakes from USS Gridley (DLG-21) originally presented to retired Chief Storekeeper Gene Hanson in 1964 was proudly bestowed upon the current Chief Petty Officer Mess of USS Gridley (DDG 101).
At age 91, Hanson wanted to ensure that the cherished mementos and associated Navy tradition were passed on to a worthy beneficiary.
The meeting happened due to the efforts of Chief Navy Diver Stephen Vanzant of Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport Dive Locker, who initially met Hanson in August as a Navy chief selectee. After learning of Hanson’s career, the idea of linking the past with the present materialized and contacts were made to make it happen.
“It was just a complete honor to be able to organize this,” said Vanzant.
Hanson was one of the initial crewmembers – a plank owner – of the guided missile cruiser Gridley, which was also his last ship. After the guided missile destroyer Gridley changed homeport to Naval Station Everett this summer, he became curious about the compare and contrast of the two ships bearing the same name.
When Gridley Command Master Chief Kassel K. Ndiaye learned it would prove much easier for them to travel to see Hanson, he immediately solidified their commitment to make the visit. A traveling contingent of the command’s chiefs made the trek over to meet and greet the Hansons.
“To travel here and meet Gene Hanson and his wife Adele…this is all very emotional. What’s important is that Gene is so gracious to share what he received with us. That means a lot,” said Ndiaye.
Hanson downplayed his service record and the attention he was receiving, all of which everyone else thought was highly appropriate. His habit is deflect praise and not complain.
“I thank you all for wasting your time here on a Saturday. I’ve had a great retirement. It seems every time I need something that the chiefs from Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) and now Naval Base Kitsap (NBK) are always there to help me navigate. I am glad that I held on to the plaque I got from the Gridley when I retired and that I found it to be able to share with the new Gridley,” Hanson said.
Perhaps to understand the significance of what passing along remembrances means to a retired Navy chief, a glimpse into Hanson’s Navy career is required.
His 22 years in uniform spanned three tumultuous decades with involvement in three wars, from the North Atlantic and Pacific in World War Two to off the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War, to the South China Sea in the Vietnam War.
Before the Gridley, he served on cargo ship SS Frederick L (DAU 851), cargo ship Media (AK 83), attack transport ship USS Calvert (APA 32), aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA 41), landing ship medium USS Oceanside (LSM 175), and destroyer USS Rogers (DD 876).
He was in Shanghai, China in 1946 as part of what was called the ‘magic carpet fleet,’ ships that were assigned to transport the troops home at the end of the war, including former prisoner of war and wounded service members. He even recalls pulling into a port on the Manchurian coast of northern China at the time.
“There was an old ‘China Fleet’ retiree there who had a bar. Boy was he glad to see a Navy ship pull in,” recalled Hanson.
Born in 1925, the Wisconsin native enlisted in 1942 and served aboard ammo ships and destroyers as a gunner’s mate.
Ask Hanson about steaming in the cold North Atlantic during those early dark days of the 1940s and he’ll let whoever once said that salt water doesn’t freeze know that if they’d been in a slow moving convoy out of England, they’d find out the truth of the matter, if they made it through.
In rough weather, there were few places inside an ammo ship that the sea couldn’t reach. Wet gear never dried and damp would spread through a compartment.
Even in good conditions and decent weather, getting a convoy of up to several hundred ships across the Atlantic was a major challenge without a collision or some other mishap. It was worse in winter.
The main convoy route cut through a region of the North Atlantic that had some of the world’s foulest weather for any mariner to handle. Ships that were encased in ice or blinded by snow had to struggle to keep their place in the formation. Seas would run up to 60 feet high and break the backs of some ships and smash lifeboats to splinters. Men who were blown or washed overboard often froze to death in seconds.
Even in the most arduous conditions, peak alertness had to be maintained at all times. At night, crew kept bone-chilling vigils, searching the white waves for a conning tower of a German U-Boat submarine. Hanson’s watches would be 10 hours or more. It was tedious. There were bouts with boredom. The strain and exhaustion were mingled with a combination of fear and fatalism.
The year Hanson joined the Navy, 120 ships were sunk by German U-boats in May and another 119 in June.
“We had a sub surface in the middle of us once and we all opened fire. We did our best, but a lot of our ships at that time had outdated equipment, left over from the last war. Hell, even the ship would complain every time we went through a wave,” remembered Hanson.
There was even one convoy trip that started out in Liverpool, England, got rerouted, and wound up all the way in Calcutta, India, supplying needed ordnance to troops fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma.
Another trip took him from the south of France, with Victory in Europe announced, to south of Manila in the Philippines, where his and 2,000 other ammo ships waited for the orders to invade the Japanese mainland.
Orders that would mean more hard fighting.
Those orders never came.
His ship and many others loaded up as many troops from the far Pacific as they could for the long voyage home. When his ship docked in New Jersey, there was no celebration. No fanfare. No pomp and circumstance. The big celebration was up in New York City.
A young petty officer like Hanson had done his duty and survived, which was more than many could say about those years of war.
“Every day was dangerous,” explained Gene. “The sea was dangerous. The U-boats in the Atlantic and the submarines in the Pacific were dangerous. Hell, being on an ammo ship was dangerous. But after a couple trips, it didn’t bother anyone anymore.”
He was demobilized. After 30 days, with jobs scarce, he came back into the cloth of his nation and the career he knew.
He shifted platforms to become a ‘tincan’ (destroyer) Sailor, steaming off the coast of Korea in 1951, lobbing shells to provide artillery support and help with the evacuation of wounded in a war that began on June 25, 1950. The fighting would go on for three long years.
When Gene and his ship returned to stateside there was no flag-waving, nor has there been any victory parade or celebration noting the end of hostilities between America’s allies in South Korea and the North. It’s not a slight to the American service member, as would be the case in the upcoming decade.
“We didn’t get any welcome home from the war because that war is still going on. There (still) has been no declaration of peace,” says Hanson.
The 1960s then took Hanson from the Northern Pacific back to the South China Sea and Southern Pacific waters.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy increased the number of American military advisors to South Vietnam. Along with them came military supplies that were shipped into Saigon, mostly from the then-giant Navy base at Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines.
Hanson helped provide escort duty and fire support on a cargo ship and aircraft ferry ship taking helicopters to South Vietnam.
On Dec 11, 1961, the aircraft ferry USS Core reached Saigon carrying 33 C-H-21C twin rotor helicopters with pilots and ground crews. They were to support South Vietnamese units but would remain under U.S. Army control and operation. Those 400 men in the two helicopter companies would raise the total number of U.S. military personnel in-country Vietnam to 1,500. “Many more,” the New York Times reported, “are expected.”
“Back in ‘62 most of us didn’t even know where Vietnam was, let alone having heard of it,” Hanson related, steaming from Subic to Saigon, a world away from his home, until his last ship the Gridley.
Hanson retired at Long Beach Naval Station, California in 1964. He was part of a group of six or seven. There was no ceremony. He collected his pay and got his new ID card.
Out of Hanson’s 22 years of naval service, 18 were ‘haze-gray’ underway. The convoys and deployments he went on are simply too numerous for him to accurately remember.
He returned to Bremerton, where he’d been before. He went to work at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as a ship-fitter, completing another career there. He knew Bremerton as a good military town.
“It still is,” he attests.
When Hanson returned from three wars, there was no red carpet. He has gone out of his way to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Over the past dozen years as NHB began sending waves of doctors, nurses, hospital corpsmen and support staff deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hanson was there to render support as they departed.
It didn’t matter if it was well before 4 a.m. He was there with well-wishes and care packages.
He was also there every time the Individual Augmentees returned from deployment.
This time, chiefs from USS Gridley, NHB and NBK were there for him, and will continue to be, as long as he needs help navigating.