The reluctant sailor

  • Published
  • By Cmdr. Kory Fierstine
  • Commander, 33rd Flying Training Squadron

How long have you been a sailor?!
All my bloomin' life. Me mother was a mermaid. Me father was King Neptune. I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep. Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes, every tooth in me head is a marlinspike, the hair on me head is hemp, every bone in me body's a spar, and when I spits, I spits tar. I'se hard, I is, I am, I are.

I heard this for the first time, 10 years after joining the Navy, from my boss at the Weapons School. Speaking in his best pirate's growl, this knife-in-the-teeth warrior, who routinely slept on his office couch and had a penchant for vast quantities of tequila and cigarettes, spoke these words and yet somehow it didn't sound corny. With these words, the surly "ring knocker" (aka Naval Academy graduate) sparked in me the seeds of what has become a true appreciation for the deep and rich heritage of the U.S. Navy.

I realize that 10 years is a long time to be in uniform and not acknowledge my service's history, but when I joined the Navy in 1987 I did so solely to be a pilot.

Had I attended the U.S. Naval Academy (aka Annapolis, the Boat School, Canoe U, Shipwreck Tech...), I would have been surrounded by historical touchstones. The Academy has the luxury of time to enforce an indoctrination program that is as full of history as it is math and science.

Founded in 1845, the Academy is rich with cultural icons such as the crypt of John Paul Jones, the flag flown by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (Battle of Lake Erie, 1813), the Tecumseh statue (a replica of the figure head of the USS Delaware commissioned in 1820), and the bell brought back by Commodore Matthew Perry from his voyage to open Japan trade routes (1850s).

Midshipmen are taught the origins of the U.S. Navy, founded in the Continental Navy of 1775 when George Washington took control of schooners to engage the British. Middies also learn that with the Naval Act of 1794, congress ordered the construction of the first six ships for the newly formed U.S. Navy. Of those six, the USS Constitution is still in service today with a full complement of active duty Navy sailors.

Not having attended the Academy I knew none of this. The 16 short weeks at the Aviation Officer Candidate School was nothing but sweat, pain, push-ups and yelling (at least that's all I can remember). There was no follow-on professional military education requirement. As such, I knew nothing about and cared not about salt spray nor life at sea. My cavalier attitude over the following years resulted in a near-criminal lack of historical awareness of the ships in which I served and the places I was stationed.

My very first duty station was at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., known as the "Cradle of Naval Aviation." While polishing brass and hiding from my drill instructor, I completely missed the fact that the base was established a long stinkin' time ago (in 1826), housed the Navy's first flying school in 1917 and the Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in 1922. It was also near there that Admiral Farragut uttered his famous, "Damn the torpedoes," during the American Civil War.

My first fleet tour was in the Philippines where, in a beer-soaked haze, I completely missed the fact that in 1898, Commodore George Dewey uttered his now famous words, "You may fire when ready Gridley," during the Spanish American War. Also there, I failed to notice that it was in Manila Bay that President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet returned on its show-the-flag cruise around the world to punctuate American military might (1907).

My very first carrier landings were on the USS Lexington (CV 16) which shares the name of five previous naval vessels spanning careers from 1776 to the present (all I remember of it was that it was much smaller than I had hoped). In 2001, I flew strikes over Afghanistan from the deck of USS Enterprise, which shares the name of seven previous ships covering nearly continuous service since 1775.

And finally, while at the Pentagon, I visited the Arlington National Cemetery and somehow missed the significance of the monument to the USS Maine (ACR 1). She was destroyed in Havana harbor, killing 266 sailors and spurring the battle cry "Remember the Maine."

My tour at Vance is coming to an end, and I credit my time here with one thing: a galvanization of my love for the Navy. The Air Force's push to remember its heritage and stay in touch with its historical roots forced me to do the same with my service; mostly to mock my U.S. Air Force friends, but the result nonetheless is the same. Twenty-one years after I stepped onto the quarter deck of AOCS, I have finally come to truly embrace my past.

My request to you is to not wait as long as I did. I have yet to walk into a military building without passing plaques, pictures, or memorials to heroes past and battles won. Since the defense of this country is built on a foundation of people and events that shape what you do and how you do it, take the time to stop and read - you won't regret it.