Dress blues, hullabaloo dimensions, irenic intentions, soul-stealing apertures, considerable torment, Babels of rites and observances, corsairing sailors, autocephalous schisms & Baalbek.
“The charm of the Mediterranean dwells in the unforgettable flavour of my early days, and to this hour this sea, upon which the Romans alone ruled without dispute, has kept for me the fascination of youthful romance.” —Joseph Conrad
“Nothing looks more innocent or reassuring about human nature than sailors lined up to go on liberty. Few things look more depraved or less reassuring than when they return.” —Alvin Kernan, Crossing the Line
“The people stared at us everywhere, and we stared at them. We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.” —Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
The airport in Jerusalem was closed due to sporadic shelling, so the flight from Beirut landed in Amman instead, where we received VIP treatment, a pass through security and a fleet of Mercedes waiting to speed us to the Holy Land. Literally. Our driver was hell-bent for Jerusalem, easily doing 90 mph, the long descent to the lowest elevation on Earth clocked in no time, the ascent heavenward likewise, no letup on the accelerator, the godforsaken terrain of the Old Testament—the Dead Sea and Jericho— suddenly delivering up the River Jordan and the tremulous landscape of the New Testament, Jerusalem the revelation moldering at the summit. We arrived in record time, barely a pause for check-in at our modest hotel overlooking the Temple Mount before being force-marched through the Old City by a saturnine tour guide who in retrospect bore a striking resemblance to the actor Ben Kingsley. An imperious Sir Ben, a Palestinian taskmaster who proved a whirlwind in his determination that we see it all.
Hurry hurry hurry—in three days we visited one Biblical site after the next, in a harried tramp that left us fluent in the tripartite claims on this ever-besieged, ever-bedeviled place. You name it, we saw it. Mosque and church, church and mosque, Arab Bethlehem as well as Christian Jerusalem, the Koran and King James translated into cheek-by-jowl proximity, this gate to Calvary and that portal to Paradise.
Money money money. The mendicants were brazen in the temple, hawking sanctimony, icons and relics and pieces of the true cross, the last utterances of the Prophet. Monotheism as practiced on the Via Dolorosa was a flea market of sectarian claims and counterclaims, a Babel of rites and observances, the one true church truly Byzantine in autocephalous schism, exegesis be praised, speaking in arcane tongues anathema to the Sunni writ of Allah. Heaven was too close for comfort. The Jewish claims were left sotto voce, since the Old City still resonated to the muezzin, still garrisoned the Arab Legion, still paid fealty to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Bow into the onslaught, we literally fought our way across the Atlantic, in frenzied stop-start motion, heaved-up plunged, heaved-up plunged, the bridge taking the brunt of the seas, the screws lurching out of the water, the stacks in peril of immersion, the roll at the unnerving limit of rollover.
Innocents abroad wielding soul-stealing apertures, we defiled worshippers outside the third-holiest mosque in Islam despite repeated warnings, compelling manic ablutions, and we gamboled our way through the narrow alleys leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, gangway, stopping an Eastern Rite procession in its tracks. On our best behavior—no liquor and no women—we still acted as if we owned the place, which in a very real sense we did. The Pax Americana extended well into the Levant, and the Middle East, and since we wore the dress blues of the United States Navy, we fairly expected genuflection, at least deference, for the mighty Sixth Fleet, then paying an extended port visit to Beirut, ruled the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum. No wonder the Roman city at Baalbek proved so popular with sailors on tour.
In April 1966, when our group photograph was taken atop the Temple Mount, the prestige and authority of the US was still paramount, the American Eagle still basking in the afterglow of WWII, and though Vietnam was more than a specter, it remained over the horizon, not yet the all-consuming black hole that it became a year later. Fourteen months before the exultant Israeli Army would seize the Temple Mount and unify divided Jerusalem we stood on its rampart, the Dome of the Rock providing the scenic backdrop, and beamed for the camera, our grimacing guide impaled in his front-row crouch.
Of course, to get there you had to cross the Atlantic, and in early March 1966 the North Atlantic was in the throes of a tremendous storm, and all 3,300 nautical miles from Virginia to Gibraltar were witnessing winds and waves of hullabaloo dimension. On the Beaufort scale the storm ranked just below hurricane strength, a fierce gale of prodigious, transatlantic size. Bow into the onslaught, we literally fought our way across the Atlantic in frenzied stop-start motion, heaved-up plunged, heaved-up plunged, the bridge taking the brunt of the seas, the screws lurching out of the water, the stacks in peril of immersion, the roll at the unnerving limit of rollover. All you could do was hold on to your rack and pray that the ship continued to make headway, that the boilers were up to the job and that the hull plates somehow held. Hence the din and vibration of the screws, a considerable torment otherwise, reassured, sounding a lullaby no less, taking the edge off the fatigue induced by the severe thrashing.
Fourteen months before the exultant Israeli Army would seize the Temple Mount and unify divided Jerusalem we stood on its rampart, the Dome of the Rock providing the scenic backdrop, and beamed for the camera, our grimacing guide impaled in his front-row crouch.
The Great Gale of March 1966 had made the crossing a harrowing one. Three sailors on an accompanying destroyer were swept overboard. Seamanship of the highest order got us across the Atlantic in one piece. Those six days had made the crossing not merely memorable, but mythical, the storm gods finally appeased, and crew elation was palpable as we put the Rock on our stern, the seas still running high, inside the Mediterranean at last. For the next six months we steamed its length and breadth, and made it ours as well, Med-mooring with the best of them. Although Our Sea could kick up, spectacularly in the case of a Bastille Day mistral, it wasn’t the Atlantic, and the deeper we penetrated it, the less contemporary it became. We were in the thrall of History: Roman, Athenian, Ottoman, Saracen, Byzantine, Phoenician, even Trojan and Achaean. Not to mention the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople. Not to mention Islam. The ruins, and the museums attached to the ruins, were everywhere. I saw enough Roman statuary to become an amateur authority. And I toured too many cathedrals and mosques.
The Mediterranean of World War II was nowhere to be found, not even in heavily bombed Valletta, and the Mediterranean of the Cold War was a spell at sea feinting with the Soviet Navy, punctuated by the pomp and circumstance of extended port calls. The lights strung from bow to stern signaled our irenic intention, and Our Sea in turn responded in kind. The Mediterranean yielded up the Med, the mythic shoreline of corsairing sailors, a delirium of Intoxication and Intercourse, a Circean romp through the Gut and kindred nether precincts to last a lifetime. Little did we know that our cruise too would become ancient history in just fourteen months. The frieze frame, as it were. Fitting, then, that our first liberty call should be Athens, on a beautiful, still, wondrously clear and crisp morning, the dazzling Acropolis immaculate in the sunshine, welcome to the Eastern Med, anno Domini MCMLXVI.
W elcome to the Sixth Fleet. Phaleron Bay is where we rendezvous with the carrier task force after a thirty-knot transit from Palma via the Straits of Messina and a refueling stop in Taranto. Etna was enveloped in mist and the Tyrrhenian Sea was rough, a cold March wind driving whitecaps, but once past Italy the seas subsided and the air warmed, the gods sufficiently appeased that they delivered up Athens in visual tribute, not a modern metropolis of two million labyrinthine and traffic-choked, but a perfect rendering of a polis destined for greatness, the Acropolis not even halfway completed, the marmoreal city basking in the mythic light, a sight not at all delusional, not after several thousand miles of sea-horizon.
Enter the America and the carrier task force, the assembled might of the Sixth Fleet projecting the power of American invincibility. Laying siege to Athens, the Fleet unleashed Liberty Call, swarms of sailors and marines battering down the walls of History in order to get at the Here and Now with money to burn and libidos to reckon. At Our Periclean pinnacle, hubris and nemesis be damned, we stormed ashore to demonstrate that Aristophanes had a better handle on the American Century. The proverbial drunken sailor—ouzo was indeed as potent as the handout sheet had warned—the Fleet coursed through the tavernas and brothels of Piraeus and the Plaka, scarcely stopping to acknowledge History—the Acropolis dutifully trampled, the Archaeological Museum given the once-over—before routing it into irrelevance amid shattered retsina glasses and third-rate bouzouki music. At the mercy of the Greek alphabet, it gradually came to appreciate the besotted layout of Athens. The Apollonian morning had given way to the Dionysian evening, and the week-long satyr play left more than a killing in black-market currency in its wake. It demonstrated to ancient Athens that modern America had tamed the furies of History. And it showed to modern Athens that the Pax Americana rested on that most ancient of conceits, that the satyrs could sate themselves without tragedy crashing the party.
0130 hours, on a cold overcast night, Fleet Landing in Piraeus. Liberty is expiring; this is the Last Boat to the ship. There is a considerable chop, and the launches from the America are having difficulty remaining close enough to the quay for pea-coated sailors to make their drunken leap into the heaving craft. Several end up in the drink, arms flailing, scarcely comprehending the fact that they are not where they want to be. Ouzo is not water-soluble. One sailor in particular is clutching buoyant statues of Venus de Milo. He is smiling beatifically. In fact, the waters in front of the quay are teeming with Venus, so many floating there that the scene looks straight out of Fellini. The vendor is selling the four-foot-tall replicas left and right, nothing moving until the inebriate frenzy, which means almost his entire stock is to be found bobbing quayside, its faux-marble sheen luminescent in the oily black water, imparting an even more surreal charge to the lurid burlesque.
On our best behavior—no liquor and no women—we still acted as if we owned the place, which in a very real sense we did.
Finally, the waterlogged sailors, shouting and cursing, are pulled out, the thirty-foot launches head full throttle into the darkness of the Bay to the brilliantly lit carrier and our sputtering nineteen-foot whaleboat, sans its sheltering cowl, finally comes into view. The lurching craft is shipping water, its problematic diesel coughing and backfiring. The cover blew off the night before in a sharp wind. I offer to don my scuba tank and grope for it in the murky eighty-five-foot depth of our anchorage, but the Old Man deems it a sign that we should do without; ergo, we will go the entire cruise exposed to the elements, spume galore wreaking havoc with our spit-shined shoes and dress blues.
Getting past the eagle-eyed martinets at Fleet Landing thus becomes something of an ordeal. Shoes unsat. Uniform unsat. Attitude unsat. Back to the ship. Pray the horde from the carrier is arriving at the same time. Come 0130 hours, however, the waterlogged uniform is a boon companion. The last-boat farce plays itself again and again, in Istanbul, Beirut, Malta, Naples, Cannes, Barcelona and Palma as the Fleet makes its way from the eastern to the western Med, leaving ransacked cities and flattened spectators in its wake. Ashore the Sixth Fleet is gross-out saturnalia, three-day tours for the well-behaved, while at sea it is the mightiest naval force the Middle Sea has ever seen.
The America, getting ready for Yankee Station, practices dive bombing day after day. Plane guard at night, just behind the carrier, is a tense time. Several pilots killed already. Alongside the carrier to transfer personnel and receive mail, our destroyer rolls and pitches as the thirty-piece band on the lowered elevator plays music to our dungaree disconcert. Tin Can sailor jeer. The buffo comes alongside on a beautiful morning off Tunisia, in the guise of a brand-new tanker that doesn’t have its act together. It gets smashed up and oil painted as it jacks up the pressure on the three refueling hoses, causing them to shoot out of the destroyer, recoil to the tanker and snake up and down collapsing rigging and stoving-in whaleboats and writing finis to its hapless captain’s career.
Laying siege to Athens, the Fleet unleashed Liberty Call, swarms of sailors and marines battering down the walls of History in order to get at the Here and Now with money to burn and libidos to reckon.
The saturnalia is not a send-up if you pull Shore Patrol and have to send the besotted back to their ship. In Beirut, Naples, Golfe-Juan and Palma, the SP brassard invites truculence and worse. I barely escape being crushed to death. But saving a bar from the wrath of a lathered leatherneck is a breeze compared to fending off the sirens of Paris trained down to Golfe-Juan to greet the Fleet, strung out along the Riviera from Cannes to Nice. Since our ship is anchored off the small town, the burden of policing the teeming I&I fleshpot falls to those of us who missed the Paris Tour. Sirens make bold with those on duty. Being groped by half a dozen scantily clad Parisiennes is the Paris Tour after all, grim-faced resolve the only hope of escape.
The Golden Horn is minaret-imposing, montagne-to-sea Beirut oh, so inviting. As is the lofty Amalfi Coast. The Bay of Naples—the full moon above Vesuvio—is captivating and unnerving. Into the sea-bag go also the change-of-command ceremony in Malta; the shipboard fashion show in Golfe-Juan; the hanger-deck mass in Beirut; the darkness-at-noon eclipse off Morocco; the swim calls in Argostoli and Bandol; the all-night refueling and replenishing in thirty-foot seas off Bandol; the pas de deux with Russian destroyers in the Bosphorus. There are docent tours, of the Peloponnese, Troy, the Holy Land, Rome and Paris. Mycenae is lion’s-gate impressive, a haunting pinnacle; Troy, its opposite, flat and devoid of Homeric epiphany. The Holy Land is lugubrious, can’t-wait-to-leave. Rome tonic, don’t-want-to-leave. Paris on the Riviera is a first-class heist, a fleecing of the fleet, a siren song worthy of the original.
In fact, the waters in front of the quay are teeming with Venus, so many floating there that the scene looks straight out of Fellini. The vendor is selling the four-foot-tall replicas left and right, nothing moving until the inebriate frenzy, which means almost his entire stock is to be found bobbing quayside, its faux-marble sheen luminescent in the oily black water, imparting an even more surreal charge to the lurid burlesque.
All told, the Middle Sea lived up to its storied reputation. For this sailor afflicted with wanderlust, the sightseeing binge was tout l’azimuth. But the picturesque Med of the historic and the quaint would go the way of history in 1967, when the USS Liberty was caught sunbathing off Gaza by the Israeli Air Force. Thirty-four killed and two hundred wounded. A different kind of Liberty Call. Shock and awe. A harbinger had come in Istanbul, where a student riot had overturned Sixth Fleet excursion buses, killing one and injuring several dozen. Unaware of the Fleet Recall, we traipsed through Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi and the Blue Mosque in full-dress obtuseness. The uniform was our free pass to the museum of the Med. Nineteen sixty-six proved the last year this was possible. Tragedy routed the satyr play in 1967. Athens saw a military coup, and rising tensions in Beirut culminated in incessant civil war that all but destroyed the Paris of the Levant. Collateral damage: nearly three hundred dead Marines.
That halcyon era seems antediluvian now, even make-believe, made ancient by two wars—Vietnam and the Six-Day War—and by a sea change in our perception of time. Zulu time: Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, it may as well have been experienced in Latin aboard a trireme in the service of the Emperor. The Pax Americana, indeed. Five decades seems like five lifetimes ago. Recounting this cruise in 2020 requires a suspension of disbelief that ever there was a time when the United States Navy Med-moored in a Beirut or Istanbul or Piraeus and blithely proclaimed the Mediterranean “Our Sea.”
Robert Andersen, a native of San Francisco, served four years in the US Navy before attending the University of California Berkeley. Widely published, he is writing a study of the atomic scientists and a novel about the Navy in Vietnam. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead composite: Images courtesy of NavSource Naval History