HJ/EDMay 22, 2006

Cokato man recalls 20-year career in Navy

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Gene Blodgett of Cokato remembers the billboard he often saw, “The Navy is not just a job, it’s an adventure,” he said.

That motto sums up for him very well what his 20 years in the Navy were like, or at least helped him to tolerate being away from his family for half the year, Blodgett said.

“It ain’t for everybody,” he laughed.

Blodgett will be the featured speaker at the Memorial Day celebration, sponsored by the Cokato Finnish American Society, held at Temperance Corners, three miles north of Highway 12, Cokato, on Saturday, May 27.

Blodgett, a Cokato native, ended up in naval active duty for 20 years almost by accident. He wanted to do something different than farming, so had joined the Navy reserves. A short time later, he got a better paying job in the Twin Cities. As a result, he missed several of the Navy reserve meetings on weekends. To make up for those missed weekends, Blodgett was assigned active duty in 1961 at the Great Lakes Training Center, he said.

His company was the last in the barracks they called “matchboxes.” They were so old and dry, one spark from a lit cigarette and the entire building could have burned down in three minutes, Blodgett said.

At the training center, the sailors learned discipline, how to follow orders, and naval terminology. For example, on a ship the floor is called a deck, the walls are called bulkheads and a mop and pail are called swab and bucket. Blodgett said that is probably why sailors often are called “swabbies” because they are “always swabbing the deck,” he said.

Blodgett’s first duty was at a naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., where he cleaned hangars and aircraft. “I didn’t like that,” Blodgett said.

When an office job opened up in administration, he jumped at the chance to get it. He took care of service personnel records and other paperwork for most of the 20 years he was in the Navy, but not always.

When Blodgett was on the USS Safeguard in the Pacific Ocean, he was in the helm jotting down in a log whatever the commanding officer told the helmsman to do. The helmsman was having difficulty maneuvering the ship and Blodgett asked him about it.

The officer thought Blodgett was being a smart aleck so he told Blodgett, “If you think it’s so easy, you do it.”

What the officer didn’t know was that Blodgett already knew how to steer the ship. Months earlier, Blodgett had worked with another helmsman who fell asleep at the wheel on a regular basis. Whenever the ship went off course, the ship’s controls made a “ticking” noise and he’d wake up, Blodgett said.

As long as Blodgett steered the ship on course, the settings never made any noise, and the helmsman slept on.

So when Blodgett successfully steered the ship when the captain had asked him to, the captain thought he had been “lucky.” Later, Blodgett was told to man the helm in exercises, such as turning the ship to pick up a “man overboard.” Again, Blodgett was “lucky,” as the officer put it. Eventually Blodgett was designated a qualified helmsman after successfully completing several maneuver tests.

Blodgett’s first sea duty was in 1962 aboard a destroyer, USS Harwood, out of Mayport Fla. The destroyer was mainly a plane guard. It followed aircraft carriers and picked up pilots if their planes crashed into the ocean.

Blodgett sailed all over the Mediterranean and Caribbean, as well as going to Oslo Norway, and the Philippines. His favorite place was Italy. “They wouldn’t sell you anything unless you argued over the price,” he said.

After two years, he was moved to the USS Bigelow in the same fleet, which he liked even more than the Harwood. Blodgett was on the Bigelow for three years. He recalls huge storms in which the ship would be awash in waves and tipping so far to the side he could have walked on the bulkheads, he said.

Blodgett returned to shore duty at the Great Lakes Training Center, although this time he worked on recruit service records.

Five years later, during the Vietnam War, Blodgett and his wife, Florence MaryAnn, and their children, were moved to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Blodgett said he thought Hawaii was a beautiful place to visit, but he missed winter. “I couldn’t go ice fishing there,” he said.

He was assigned to handle records on a salvage ship, the USS Safeguard. Salvage ships pulled ships and airplanes out of the ocean and usually carried a large contingent of navy divers, Blodgett said.

They weren’t always told exactly what it was they were supposed to salvage, however. The divers had salvaged 90 percent of an aircraft that had crashed into the ocean before they found out they were supposed to locate a little yellow lever a diver already had found in the first 15 minutes of searching, Blodgett said.

A pilot and trainee had been suddenly ejected from their aircraft. The trainee insisted he hadn’t accidentally pulled the yellow handle, ejecting the two from the aircraft and as a result, crashing the pilotless plane. The yellow handle proved that the trainee had inadvertently caused the crash, Blodgett said.

The Safeguard also toured Japan, Guam, Taiwan and Vietnam. When the Viet Cong had sunk a ship in a river in Vietnam, the sunken ship blocked the entire river and no other salvage ships were able to pull it up from the river bottom.

“The old man,” what crew members called their captain, knew his ship would get it out.

The Safeguard managed to extricate it from the river and tow it to Danang. “That put a feather in his hat,” Blodgett said of the captain.

As a reward for getting the sunken ship out of the river, the captain gave the crew a two-day shore party. Blodgett was in the first half on the first day of the shore leave. “We had a blast,” Blodgett said.

The partying crew members were so rowdy, they were “asked to leave a war zone,” Blodgett said.

The other half of the crew members didn’t get their party because the embarrassed officers took the ship back out to sea, he added.

Again, Blodgett requested the 9th Naval District for shore duty, so he was assigned to the Great Lakes Training Center. This time he worked on records of naval students in schools there, he said.

After the Vietnam War was over, Blodgett was assigned to the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. At first, the carrier was criticized for being dangerous because it had nuclear power. Blodgett said tests showed more radiation exposure from ordinary sunlight, though, than from standing next to the carrier’s reactor.

On the Nimitz, Blodgett traveled to Italy, Germany, England, Portugal, Crete and Israel. Blodgett loved seeing the new countries and cultures, especially Israel, but he didn’t enjoy being on the Nimitz, he said.

The deck of the aircraft carrier was used only for airplanes, fuel and personnel directly involved with the aircraft. Crewmen like Blodgett had nothing to do and nowhere to go on Nimitz, he said.

Nimitz was his last sea duty. From 1979 to 1982, when he retired, Blodgett was stationed at recruiting command Naval Air Station in Glenview, Ill., he said.

His wife died in 1991. His two daughters live in Illinois and his son lives in Wisconsin, he said.

Blodgett’s advice for those considering a career in the Navy is to concentrate on the job at hand and not dwell on what is happening at home. It’s difficult to be separated from families, but it becomes more difficult if the sailor tries to control what is happening at home while thousands of miles away at sea, he said.

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