U.S.S. Little Rock Association
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
USS LITTLE ROCK ASSOCIATION
2009 Reunion, Buffalo, NY
July 17, 2009
Interviewee: Cdr. John E. Conjura, USN (Ret)
Interviewer: Bob Baker
BAKER: I’m Bob Baker and I’ll be interviewing Commander John E. Conjura, USN (Ret), who served as Communications Officer aboard the USS Little Rock (CLG 4) from 1969 to 1972. Today is July 17, 2009, and we are at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Buffalo, New York. The principal purpose of this interview is to draw out Commander Conjura’s recollections from his assignment as Communications Officer, USS Little Rock, from 1969 to 1972. We also want to learn more about his career as both an enlisted man and an officer, and his life before and after active duty in the Navy.
John, you had a long and distinguished Navy career during the second half of the twentieth century. It encompassed the Korean conflict era and also encompassed the time when U.S. Naval forces were focusing on containing Soviet action during the Cold War. As we go through this interview I would appreciate any observations you wish to express on how your participation and that of your military associates may have influenced America’s success in that long-term struggle during the Cold War.
You grew up in a small town in east central Pennsylvania, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal mining region. Let’s start with what you remember to be your ambitions as a boy and a young man that led to your interest in and motivation for the Naval service. Would you tell us about your boyhood?
CONJURA: Well, that small town was Shamokin, Pennsylvania. My boyhood there was pretty typical of the youth that lived in the central Pennsylvania area, among rolling mountain hills. Coal mining was the principal industry that provided the wherewithal to put bread on the table. I pretty much spent my early years growing up in the 1930s in the pre-World War II period, and during World War II.
The period of time during my early youth brings back memories of some of the hardships that people endured in those days. I recall that some of the friends that I went to school with, and associated with in leisure time, their parents were going through hard times. My father was employed as an embalmer in the funeral business, so we didn’t live high off the hog, but we were able to get by. I used to accompany some of these friends when they would travel on Saturday mornings—with their mother, not their fathers, but their mothers—they would travel with a wagon to the local borough warehouse, where the city, county, and the State of Pennsylvania would issue food, lard, flour and basic essentials. I’d help those boys pull their wagons home.
We did a lot of roaming in the hills, swimming in some of the air holes for mining that had filled up with water. God only knows how healthy that water was, but we're still here and kicking.
I attended the Shamokin High School from 1944 to 1948. The total population in that high school was about 500 students, four grades, 8 through 12. And I remember very clearly this very ornate building that was constructed with brick and granite. It had an imposing entrance with granite columns and one set of doors leading into the school. That set of doors was to be used exclusively by the teachers and the administrative staff, and in no way, shape, or form was any student to go through those doors.
BAKER: I hear some trouble coming here.
CONJURA: But in any case, to give you an idea how regimented the society was in those days, the entranceways to the high school for students were on each side of the building. Above one side entrance doorway a granite slab was engraved with “Girls,” and on the other side was one engraved with “Boys.” This building was constructed about the turn of the twentieth century but during our time, mid-twentieth century, we still were restricted to boys entering from one side and girls through the other side.
All of the teachers that were there were very formal in their attire and their demeanor. The men wore business suits with ties.
BAKER: Were your classes combined after you got into the school?
CONJURA: We were combined, but for phys ed class or gym class, as we called them, we were separated, of course. Once school was let go for the day we would go out our door, they would go out their door.
My first employment was at an ice cream parlor, Martz’s. I got a job there when I was in high school and I got my first Social Security card in 1944—that was during World War II—and I still have that Social Security card. They paid us thirty-five cents an hour. And what I did was work behind the counter, dipping ice cream into cones and serving that. But, you know, some of the side benefits were that when you went back to replenish the containers, you sampled some of the good stuff.
BAKER: Of course.
CONJURA: So for thirty-five cents an hour and all the ice cream you could eat, it was pretty good.
BAKER: Have you stayed in touch with any of your schoolmates from back in that era. Do you have high school reunions?
CONJURA: Oh, yes. I go back to the reunions occasionally. We just had our sixtieth reunion in 2008. I didn’t make that one because my grandson was graduating from high school and that came first.
As far as reasons for joining the Navy. I had four cousins who were a couple years older than I and they were eligible and did volunteer and served in World War II. They kind of pumped me up about life in the Navy, particularly after they came back in 1946 and were telling the tall sea stories and, you know, that sounded real good — where they were, what they saw.
Also, in 1947 and ’48, one of my classmates in high school was actually a former Navy submariner. Nick Kadingo was his name, and he served on the USS Threadfin (SS 410), that participated in quite a few patrols in World War II and scored some tonnage in sinking Japanese ships. And he was an electrician and, of course, between classes and during classes, or anytime he would tell his sea stories, and that sounded exciting to me.
Also, my English teacher was Miss Fritz. This was in my senior year, 1947 and ’48. And we were tasked to write an essay. And, of course, she was very well schooled in things of literature and English, liked Shakespeare, and she would like to hear us play back some of the things that she was very well versed in. I kind of went 180 degrees because I was getting kind of pumped up with things Navy. So I chose to write an essay on Operation Crossroads, which was the code name given to the atomic bomb tests that were conducted in the Pacific at the Bikini Atoll in 1946.
This project was headed up by Admiral William F. Blandy. The objective of the tests was to detonate two atomic weapons, an air burst and a burst from beneath the sea. Of course, Bikini Atoll lagoon was congregated with all types, shape, and sizes of Navy ships. The old USS Saratoga was the centerpiece at ground zero, where the weapons would be detonated in closest proximity to. There were some German ships that were confiscated after we defeated the Nazis as well as Japanese ships. The Navy’s intent was to observe the effects of an underwater explosion and an air on Navy ships. Of course, the natives of Bikini were all relocated to an adjacent island, Rongelap by name, and to this day they cannot return to Bikini Atoll on a permanent basis. Everybody that goes to Bikini Atoll today must wear Geiger counters. Anyway I wrote that up and I got a good grade on it. But my English teacher, she wasn’t too impressed with my subject.
And, of course, I wanted to fulfill my desires and see what the world was like, new experiences.
When I enlisted I wanted to be a Seabee. I wanted to drive bulldozers and that kind of stuff. Well, I took the aptitude tests, and when they scored the aptitude tests the recruiters said, hey, guy, you’re too qualified to drive a truck or drive a bulldozer; it looks like your scores are more suited to something more technical. And, he says, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” He says, “We’ve got this radioman program where you can go to school and learn a trade and you can do something useful.” So I kind of was forced into that. I accepted it and I eventually saw the advantages of it.
BAKER: That’s similar to my own experience. I went into boot camp with thoughts of other jobs and they said, no, we’re going to make you a radioman. By golly, that’s what I ended up being.
Well, John, you’re among a select group of officers. You spent considerable time as enlisted prior to receiving a commission. You served at sea on a wide variety of ships, from aircraft carriers, battleships, to cruisers, amphibious ships, oilers, tenders, and ashore in a series of increasingly responsible communications billets. We’re interested in hearing of your enlisted experience that launched you on this successful career path. Please tell us where you went to boot camp, training received, become a radioman, striker, and your years of service before being commissioned.
CONJURA: Well, after I enlisted in Baltimore, Maryland, on the 26th of May, 1948, I, among a lot of other wide-eyed youth destined for Navy life, climbed aboard a troop train and we were on our way to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. We got there on the 27th of May, and we noticed that all of the Navy guys were wearing whites, and here it was colder than the devil. There was light snow coming down. We got off that bus, we were shivering and we thought: Oh, my God, this is not going to be good.
But in any case, I ended up in Company 184, and our company was quartered in those old wooden World War II barracks.
BAKER: Camp Barry?
CONJURA: It was Camp Downs, yeah. Camp Downs. In any case, Company 184 had two individuals that I linked up with in sixteen weeks of boot camp, but who I served with in different assignments during my active naval service. One was Charlie Fiske, who you know, Bob, and we’ll talk about him. And the other was Bill Ungerman, Wild Bill Ungerman. We all three survived the sixteen weeks of boot camp. Charlie Fiske went his way and became an engineer and an engineering rating, and stayed in the Navy. Bill Ungerman, he became a radioman and we ended up in the same class in the A school at Norfolk, Virginia, and later we linked up as radiomen instructors.
The story about Bill, Bill Ungerman, was that we spent our sixteen weeks of A School there and he went his way and I went my way, but lo and behold, ten years later, when we were both chief petty officers, we ended up as instructors at that very same Radioman A school.
After finishing A School in early December of ’48 and then taking some leave, Christmas leave, I reported for my first duty station to the USS Cadmus (AR 14), a Navy repair ship, that was moored to Buoy Mike-3 in Hampton Roads, about a forty five minute boat ride to and from the fleet landing. That was pretty dismal duty, swinging around that buoy out there. You had a beautiful view of the Hampton Roads area and saw every conceivable ship entering and leaving port.
I was a radioman striker. I was pretty good. I could copy the international CW fleet broadcast, and I did that as a watchstander. But that kind of an achievement, being able to copy the fleet broadcast, put me in a position where, at that time aboard the Cadmus, we had the Commander, Service Squadron Two staff, and they were getting ready to deploy for an operation in the Caribbean and they wanted to beef up the radioman staff for watchstanders. So the fact that I could cut the mustard at twenty-two words a minute and give them solid copy, they got the ship to turn me loose and I went into the staff and we served aboard the USS Pawcatuck (AO-108).
I was glad, kind of, to get off the Cadmus, because riding that boat forty-five minutes each way wasn’t too pleasant. A lot of times because of severe weather conditions in Hampton Roads the boats were secured and if you didn’t have money for a hotel room when the boats were secured you were sleeping on those hard benches at the fleet landing, and every five minutes the bitch box would hail “Okanogan arriving,” or whatever ship it was, and you didn’t get any sleep there.
One thing I did with my spare time on the Cadmus, though, that also kind of enhanced my capabilities: I would go up on the signal bridge, and there was a signal tower ashore on top of the Naval Supply Center at Norfolk, and his call sign was How-8, H-8. And, of course, I knew International Morse Code but I would go up there and work with the signalmen, copying messages, and I got good enough where I could take the clipboard and record the messages. So I got qualified as a signalman watchstander although I was standing watches down in communications. Anyhow, the Pawcatuck was the flagship for ServRon Two, and I liked that duty too.
When we got back after the exercise the ship—that is, the Cadmus—had received a personnel request for a billet on USS LST 533. They needed a radioman who could copy the Fox broadcast. The Fox broadcast in those days was the primary means to deliver messages to the fleet. Every Navy ship had a responsibility to set a watch on the fleet broadcast and get their messages via the fleet broadcast. And if you could copy the fleet broadcast as a radioman you were in tall cotton, because that got you out of such duties as mess cooking and coffee maker and that sort of thing.
BAKER: No shore patrols.
CONJURA: One of the criteria for the LST 533 assignment was that they only had two radiomen assigned. They had a leading radioman, who usually was a first class, and they had his “hepper,” his striker, and he had to know a little bit. He had to be able to stand his watches and he had to be able to tune transmitters. Even though I was technically still assigned to the Cadmus with TAD, temporary additional duty, to the ServRon Two staff, I was the only guy that could qualify for that.
So I got my orders to the LST 533, and I transferred to the LST 533 on June 6, 1949. Now, June 6, 1949, in and of itself, didn’t mean much, but to the LST 533 that is a date that will go down in their history, because the LST 533 was one of the participants in the Normandy landings on D-Day, June 6th 1944. And, of course, on the 6th of June, 1949, that was the fifth-year anniversary of that occasion. And, of course, I march aboard—the LST 533 when she was in drydock at Portsmouth, Virginia shipyard, and the crew was in a very celebratory mood. So I immediately joined the party on the tank deck.
So I come aboard, and that particular LST, along with about four others, the 515, the 519, the 532, my ship the 533, and 1144, they weren’t assigned to the amphibious Navy, they were assigned to ComServLant. And they had a greatly reduced complement, officers and enlisted. We had four officers and forty enlisted. That’s the crew that sailed that ship, because we weren’t doing the normal things such as landing troops and that. Rather, we were like garbage haulers. We were actually assigned to the Commander, Service Force, Atlantic Fleet, and we would haul such things as household effects for the Naval Supply Center at Norfolk down to Gitmo, to San Juan. We would haul fuel containers, we would bring back dud aircraft, crashed aircraft. So we were doing that kind of thing and we didn’t need the full complement. We had a lieutenant who was the CO, a jg as an executive officer, an ensign, usually an LDO, as the engineering officer, and the deck officer. And we usually had a fresh-caught Reserve officer, ensign Reserve; he was personnel, communications, supply.
One of the most important things to me in having the job as the second radioman: The communications officer was so tied up with all of the other duties—personnel, supply, and all of the administrative things—he didn’t have much time to concentrate on things communication, such as encrypting messages, decrypting messages with the old strip cypher. So I kind of gravitated by default into doing a lot of his duties because the first-class radioman was usually taking care of things in the radio shack so I was doing all of the other stuff. So I got pretty good at encoding messages and decoding messages with the old strip cipher that we used, and kind of broadening my background in communications.
On the LST 533, in those jobs for Service Force, Atlantic Fleet, we did some unique things. In the summer of ’49 and the summer of 1950 we made trips to Thule, Greenland, hauling a tank deck full of aviation gasoline, 55-gallon drums. We would leave Norfolk and go up to the Cities Service docks in Linden, New Jersey, pick up the fuel, get underway, make a port stop in Boston, get all of our last-minute provisions, go up the Cape Cod Canal, the Belle Isle Strait, and then head up to Thule, Greenland. Of course, even though these were summer cruises, in July, we still had an icebreaker with us and we also had a cargo ship, an AKA. The first year we had the AKA 92, the Wyandot, with the icebreaker Edisto. I had a friend on that one who also was in my class at radio school.
But anyhow, we’d go up to Thule, Greenland. That was before the Air Force went in there in force in 1951 and really built up a base. But we went in to the harbor there. There were some small icebergs around but it wasn’t too much of a problem. We beached. And then, of course, forty guys—when you weren’t on watch you were rolling those 55-gallon drums out of the tank deck. The bow doors were open and the ship was sitting on the beach, and they would drag those avgas supplies over to the end of a dirt strip.
What we were there for is to provide that avgas fuel. The Air Force was flying weather reconnaissance missions out of Bluie West Eight in southern Greenland. They would reconnoiter around the North Pole and send radio weather reports back. So instead of flying back to Bluie West Eight, which later became Sondrestrom Air Force Base, instead of flying back to Bluie West they would drop down on the dirt strip at Thule, Greenland, taxi up to those 55-gallon drums, load up with fuel, take off again, and get on station for a further weather patrol.
Also on the LST 533 we made a couple trips hauling Seabee battalions, Mobile Construction Battalions, from Quonset Point, Rhode Island over to Port Lyautey in North Africa. What they were doing, we would sail up the Wadi Sebou River, and pull in and tie up in town, and then the Seabees would take their equipment and go out to do their work in the field. This was in the early ‘50s, 1951, because at that time the Air Force was establishing strategic air bases, one of which was in Sidi Slamane, North Africa, and they were flying the strategic B-36 bomber from that location. That was the propeller-driven strategic bomber with six piston engines on the trailing edge of the wings. The Seabees were building ammunition bunkers. So once they accomplished their work, another one of those LSTs from ServLant would bring the next bunch of Seabees over and we’d kind of trade stations. We’d take ours back to Quonset, offload it, maybe take some dud aircraft back to Norfolk, and then pick up another assignment. It was always a great trip whenever we left the Naval Supply Center at Norfolk with the tank deck full of canned beer. We always arrived at our destination with a mysterious loss of canned beer. The skipper had to write mea culpa chits for the loss and spoilage due to mechanical problems or whatever it was that reduced our cargo of beer.
After that I left the Navy, briefly, for seventeen months. I got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as a crew dispatcher. Well, I really missed the Navy, and in short order I reenlisted. I had to take a reduction in rate. I went out as a second class, RM2, and came back in as a third class. I left the LST 533 having already taken the test for first-class radioman, but the ship was getting underway and they had to transfer me to the receiving station. At that time they were discharging a lot of people who were finishing up their tours during the Korean War. Everyone was extended involuntarily for a year, so the people at the receiving station in Norfolk said: Either ship over now or get out. So I got out and went to work for the railroad. But I came back into the Navy, and lo and behold I ended up on the carrier USS Randolph, CVA 15, which was just being re-commissioned for Naval service during the Korean War.
I spent three years on the Randolph. Made two seven-month Med cruises. Met some very fine people, worked with some very fine people on there. Two of the most talented and professional chief petty officers, leaders, instructors and trainers that I ever served with, were on the Randolph. My first chief was Chief Earl Sulliver. He was an old pre-World War II communicator. He was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He served on the battleship Colorado before the war. He was on the Colorado when it was attacked at Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December, 1941. And he was the greatest trainer I have ever met. He really whipped us into shape and got us going on that shakedown cruise. And if anybody could copy CW International Morse Code it was him. Before World War II he used to win awards in the Pacific Fleet. They would have fleet competitions, who was the best code copier, and he could copy sixty-five words a minute without batting an eye. To me it was just a blur, and I couldn’t even type that fast.
The other chief that relieved him was Bob Armbruster, who also was a veteran of World War II. He was a chief radioman. And I’m going to associate with him in a later part of my career.
But in any case aboard the Randolph, we spent two seven-month tours in the Med. She was a great feeder, and one reason for that is that our food services officer was a guy by the name of Lieutenant (jg) Bill Marriott. He is now the head of the Marriott Corporation, and who, incidentally, I ran into at the Secretary of the Navy’s recent swearing- in, in June, 2009. Bill was in the stands and we chatted a bit about our days aboard the Randolph.
Well, the Randolph was great duty. The mission of the ship at that time, was an attack carrier and we were transitioning from propeller to jet aircraft. They were still flying some propeller-driven aircraft —the F4U Corsair gull-wing fighter and AD-1 Skyraider single engine bomber. We also had FQF-5 Panther and F9F-6 Cougar jets, along with F2H3 Banshees. During the later part of my time aboard the Randolph we went into the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and received an extensive overhaul where a canted deck was installed, the stern landing area was reinforced for the jet aircraft, and stronger arresting gear was added for recovering heavier jet aircraft.
From the Randolph I received orders to go back to the RM A school as an instructor. And before that I attended the instructor school at Norfolk where we taught the niceties of standing in front of the class, and learning what Navy instructors do besides taking names and kicking butt.
After that tour of duty, getting up to speed to do things the Navy way in instructional techniques, I went over to the Class A radio school and I taught CW International Morse Code and typing, taking a class of forty-eight students every two weeks, breaking them in, and teaching them how to copy CW code starting out at four words a minute with the goal that at the end of the two weeks, hopefully, they would attain twelve words a minute. So I was doing that and teaching procedures, communications operating procedures.
Over the course of my career, after that tour as an instructor in the RM A school, having started forty-eight new students every two weeks over a period of two years or so, you can get acquainted with a lot of people that, lo and behold, you meet further on downstream in your career. And as long as I served in the Navy, for thirty years, there wasn’t any place that I ever went where someone didn’t come up to me and say, “Mr. Conjura, you’re now an officer, but do you remember me? I was one of your students in Radioman school.” And I met so many good people that I always felt that there was a friend somewhere wherever I went who knew me from way back when.
BAKER: It really is a small Navy. Well, John, after about thirteen years of service you were a Chief Petty Officer. What made you decide to seek a commission? You mentioned some of your chief mentors. Did you have any other mentors who influenced your decision? Tell us about your career assignments as a limited duty officer and what got you to that point.
CONJURA: As a mentor I mentioned previously serving under Chief Radioman Bob Armbruster aboard the Randolph. Well, when I came to the radio school as an instructor, a chief myself, who was my boss now? Lieutenant (jg) Bob Armbruster, who himself had applied and was commissioned as a limited duty officer in communications, and was now our officer in charge at the radio school. He was my boss. So he was my inspiration, and he mentored me in that respect.
I took the test for LDO. The first year I took it, in ’61, I wasn’t selected. But I was selected the next year in 1962. It got me to the grade of ensign as a limited duty officer. I went to officer candidate school at Newport, Rhode Island. And there I ran into one of my former shipmates from boot camp, Bill Ungerman, who also attained LDO status. We weren’t in the same class but we went through LDO school in the same time period.
After attending OCS at Newport I was hoping to get a ship out of Norfolk, because my family was there and I figured I’d get back to sea. But instead I received orders as the communications officer at Naval Station Keflavik, Iceland. Well, that was kind of, you know, I was a little downtrodden. I made a trip to Washington to see the detailers. “No, you’re a fresh caught ensign and this is what we’ve got you marked for. You’re going to be an ensign but you’re going to be the Naval Station communications officer.” So I had that responsibility. I was the low man on the totem pole on the base at Keflavik. I ran the message center. I also was the base telephone officer.
I had a list of collateral duties a mile long. One of the most enjoyable of my collateral duties was head of the unused postal money order destruction board. Now, that’s a lot to say but it was a very simple job and it was an enjoyable job. A board of myself, the senior officer, an ensign, and two warrant officers, had the board responsibilities. Once a month we had to take all of the unused postal money orders from the base post office and we had to account for them and we had to destroy them. So this wasn’t too taxing a job.
Working with two warrants and myself, a former enlisted, a former chief, we were going to scheme a work environment where we could do this trivial task and enjoy ourselves. So we decided that our location for conducting our board work was to be during the hours of happy hour at the officers’ club on the Naval Station at Keflavik. And it was chosen at that particular time because there would be a fire in the big fireplace. So we would gather up our boxes of unused postal money orders with three comfortable chairs, move them close to the fire, and order refreshments from the bar, each take a box of unused money orders and the check-off sheets, and we would toss unused money orders into the fireplace, sign off for our registered numbers, enjoy our libations, and that would complete our day’s duties. We called that our Rope Yarn Sunday, although we did it on Friday afternoons over at the O-Club during happy hour.
And I also had the job as RPS custodian for the Naval Station along with additional duty to the ComNavIce staff for communications, Commander, Naval Forces Iceland. I was also additional duty to the Commander, Iceland Defense Force, ComIceDeFor, joint staff. So, again, I was working, doing staff work, working with joint, working with NATO, even as an ensign, and then later a jg. But I really broadened my horizon in duties and responsibilities, and that kind of served me well in where I ended up after thirty years.
But I guess one of the most humorous things that ever occurred to me in Iceland, as the base telephone officer I had to collect the moneys for the telephone service that was provided to all of the quarters, the admiral’s quarters, anybody that was military that were connected to, had a telephone, private telephone in their quarters, they had to pay us their monthly fee. And if you didn’t pay your fee within thirty days we were to cut off the telephone service.
So I had a dilemma one time. The admiral, Commander, Iceland Defense Force, had a private telephone under my exchange, and he hadn’t paid his telephone bill.
BAKER: I see where this is going.
CONJURA: After thirty days, sixty days went by, I said we can’t do this. We’re going to have to do something about it. So I went in to see my boss, Captain Stan Ellison, the commanding officer of the Naval Station at Keflavik. And I said, “Captain, I have a problem.” I said, “The book says that after thirty days you don’t pay your telephone bill, telephone officer cuts your service off.” And he said, “John, let me see that.” And he read it. “You’re right,” he said. “Go back up there and cut the telephone service off.”
“Yes, sir.” I turned around smartly, went back to the telephone office and I met our guys. I said, “Put those picks between those relays and cut off the admiral’s telephone service.” And the civilian supervisor said, “You’re going to hear about this.” I said, “Well, I’ve got the four-striper down there standing behind me.”
So it wasn’t hardly — I had to drive about two miles to get back to my regular office down in the Building 52 Quonset hut, and when I walked into my office my phone’s ringing off the hook. I knew immediately as soon as I picked up the receiver: This is going to be bad news. And sure enough, the chief of staff of Commander, Iceland Defense Force, says, “Are you Conjura?” I said, “Who’s this?” He said, “This is Captain—” I forget, Baxter, whatever his name was. I said, “Yes, sir. This is Lieutenant (jg) John Conjura, base telephone officer.” He said, “Do you know whose service you terminated?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Why did you do that?” I said, “Well, because that’s the base regulation.” “Well, why didn’t you call us?” “Well, sir, it says in there that under no circumstances, no second chances, no follow-up calls to remind people; you turn off the service.” So he said, “I’m going to call your boss.”
So he called Captain Ellison, the CO of the station, and I figured, boy, my career is going to be ended shortly. In a few minutes Captain Ellison puts his head in my office. He said, “John bring your telephone book with me that says all of these words, and we’re going up to see the chief of staff.” So I get in the back seat in his command car, and we motored on up to the Iceland Defense Force headquarters, and march into the chief of staff’s office. And Stan Ellison was senior to the chief of staff. Anyhow, Captain Ellison said, “Lookit—” whatever his name, Jim—he said, “Don’t give John here a hard time.” He said, “I told him to turn off the telephone service because that’s his responsibility. It’s the base regulation. You pay up or you don’t get any telephone service. And if you have any static to give, give it to me. Don’t give it to John Conjura. And if the admiral has any problems I’m ready to march in and talk to him about it.” So I knew my career was back on track after that, and Stan Ellison did me okay.
After Iceland I got an assignment that I was really looking forward to. I was assigned as the officer in charge of the CinCLant/CinCLantFlt wire room, in the blockhouse there, the command center, on the Naval Station at Norfolk. And we operated all of the command and control voice and record communications for CinCLant, CinCLantFlt, SACLant, all of the hats that the admiral wore. I really enjoyed that job because we were right on the cutting edge of anything that happened in the Atlantic Fleet.
One of the experiences that I’ll never forget: In 1965 the U.S. forces invaded the Dominican Republic, and we had a little donnybrook going on down there with them. At that time Admiral Tom Moorer was CinCLantFlt. Moorer had four stars. And he had Army Lieutenant General Palmer down there. This was a joint operation when our force went into the Dominican Republic. And, of course, there was a lot of heavy action and shooting going on. And I’ll never forget Admiral Moorer came over to the wire room and our forces in the Dominican Republic were being shot at from a particular building down there.
We had a secure teletype circuit, and I, being the officer in charge, I took over operation of the teletype that was talking between CinCLant headquarters and the force commander, General Palmer, in the Dominican Republic. And I’ll never forget this. General Palmer says, “They’re shooting at us from a building and they’re hitting our people. What are we going to do?” And I’ll never forget Admiral Moorer said, “Tell them to take it out immediately.” So I sent a message: This is from CinCLant. I remember typing out “Take it out,” and giving him an “over.” And that struck me, you know, this is the real stuff. I’m telling one four-star to a three-star general to do a certain action. I’ll never forget that particular experience.
I spent two years at CinCLant.
Following my two-year tour at CinCLant/CinCLantFlt headquarters I got the assignment I was really looking forward to, and that was to go to Italy as the ops officer, operations officer, at NavCommSta Italy. That was something that the family was looking forward to, and we made plans from the outset to do things right.
The first thing I did after I got those orders, I went down to the local Volkswagen dealer and ordered, in Norfolk, a Volkswagen microbus, that I ordered for pickup in Frankfurt, Germany. So when we flew out we flew on military air into Rhein-Main at Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt we went over to the local German Volkswagen dealer. I picked up my microbus, three children and my wife, Louise, and we took fifteen leisurely days with that Volkswagen driving on our way down to Naples. We reported in to Naples on the Fourth of July 1966, a very hot day. And, of course, I really got my experience in going through that hectic traffic in Naples. Although it was an American holiday, every day is a driver’s nightmare trying to execute any kind of sane driving within Naples. But it sure made me a very careful and alert driver.
The assignment at Naples was interesting. In 1967, we had a very active experience with the USS Liberty incident. This was our intelligence-gathering ship, a converted merchant ship that was allegedly attacked by the Israelis and shot up pretty bad with loss of life. But there was a particular flow of events in the Liberty situation that involved NavCommSta Italy.
There was a Congressional investigation following the Liberty incident that went through our shop pretty thoroughly to find out the handling of a certain message. That was a message that was originated in the JCS communication center that was alerting the Liberty to get underway twelve hours before she was actually attacked. Now, that message was typed up and the routing indicators were assigned in the Pentagon JCS message center. Well, due to human error, the routing indicator that was appended for message delivery via the fleet broadcast—the message was intended to go to NavCommSta Morocco where it would have been transmitted on the fleet broadcast, which the Liberty was copying at that time. Due to a transposition of two characters of that seven-character routing indicator by an operator, that routing indicator mis-sent the message, misrouted the message to Naval Communications Station Philippines, where it popped out due to a misroute and it laid for some time within the servicing section of NavCommSta Philippines. Consequently, that message, by the time it was entered back into the communications systems for ultimate delivery to the Liberty via NavCommSta Morocco and the fleet broadcast, it had lost that time sensitivity of twelve hours and it was a flash message, a Zulu-assigned precedence pro-sign.
So human error, as trivial as that mistake seems, the transposition of two characters in that very important message probably cost the lives and a very, very sensitive international incident. And there were people from a Congressional committee crawling all over the comm stations in the European area, including NavCommSta Italy, because that message passed through us. It wasn’t intended to break out but it went through a backbone system. We had no responsibility in it but they were tracking every inch of the communication network to see why that message got lost. And that’s how it got lost. It shows how an individual can play a very important part in doing the things that we do, and that’s why, in communications, you’ve got to get it right the first time because you don’t know what the implications are going to be downstream if this thing goes off the rails.
Another incident at Italy that had a lot of sensitivity to it. Unbeknownst to the world—well, it was knowledge that was hinted in the newspapers and media, but the Soviets were very active with their submarine fleet in chasing our boats, our FBM fleet ballistic missile boats, around anywhere, including the Mediterranean. Officially the SSBN’s weren’t supposed to be there, but they were there. Of course, the Mediterranean, in and of itself, is confined waters for navigation, and you get two submarines chasing each other something is bound to happen.
Well, in 1968 they did have an incident over there that never got in the news media where one of our submarines had a fender bender with a Soviet submarine, and our submarine took off a slice of his sail fin about the size of a door. It was imbedded in the skin of our U.S. submarine.
Well, what our intelligence people were very interested in is getting their hands on that piece of Soviet submarine so that they could take it back to the Naval Research Lab, and they were looking for the metallic structure of the skin of the Soviet submarine, they were looking for sound impediments, and seeing whatever technologies were present in the construction of that Soviet submarine. Well, that piece of metal the size of a normal house door was the most important thing in the world at that particular time.
Now, the thing was, they got it off of our submarine, they boxed it up like it would be a FedEx shipment in an eighteen-wheeler, and they had to find a place to put that thing until they could air ship it out from the Naval Air Facility at Capodichino that serves Naples. Well, the only place that they could find was a walk-in vault where they could safeguard that thing under the highest security and, of course, NavCommSta Italy had the only walk-in vault in the Naples area. So a small army of plainclothes people with Naval research comes traipsing in. We had to open our vault and we had to endure those people around there until that thing was hauled out to Capodichino and flown back to the States. But no one could come near our station there, and we were required to double check and triple check anything that was coming in, over a FedEx-looking box that was coming in and out of NavCommSta Italy.
My assignment after Naples—I spent three years there, three lovely years in Naples, and we loved it. We lived on the economy, and that was great.
BAKER: As I recall then you next reported to Little Rock. As I recall, you and I reported about the same time, if not the same day. I think it was the last day of May of 1969. You reported as communications officer and I was there as a radioman striker. Tell us about the ship, and your initial impressions, and perhaps some early challenges you faced.
CONJURA: Well, at that time, of course, the Little Rock was home-ported in Gaeta. And how I arrived aboard the Little Rock is just fate.
I was coming to the end of my three-year tour in Naples and we were very sad because we were going to have to leave, my family and the kids. I had a set of orders in hand to the USS Intrepid, CVS 11. The Intrepid at that time, she stood down from her attack carrier mission and was doing ASW work and was re-designated CVS 11, and she was home-ported in Quonset, Rhode Island. And the last thing that I was looking forward to is spending another three years on a carrier. I had spent three years on a sister ship, the Randolph, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to going aboard another carrier. Not that I didn’t, you know, like the sea duty, but I just wanted to do something different.
Well, as fate would have it, I was five days shy of packing up in Naples and heading back to the States with my family and reporting aboard the Intrepid in Quonset. Well, it just so happened one afternoon—I’ll never forget this—about two o’clock we got a priority message in that required some action of our facility, NavCommSta Italy, that required the captain’s immediate attention. Well, I had to brief him, fill him in on the details on what was required of us.
At that particular time he was having coffee in his office with the Sixth Fleet communications officer, Commander “Doc” Friesen. They were sitting in his office and having coffee, and I went in: “Sorry to bother you, Captain. I’ve got a hot one here.”
We went through that business, and when I finished up Commander Friesen, the Sixth Fleet communications officer, says, “Hey, John, you’re about ready to roll, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah, Commander. I’m five days shy and I’m out of here. I’m going back to the Intrepid.” He said, “How would you like the job as communicator on the Little Rock?” I said, “Are you kidding?” I knew the Little Rock was up at Gaeta. He said, “No.” He said, “We need somebody desperately because things are heating up in the Eastern Mediterranean,” and Lieutenant Glyn Hutchinson, the communicator of the Little Rock, had a nervous breakdown and he was transferred to the Naval hospital in Naples, and the Little Rock needed a communicator right now. He said, “Well, you want the job?” I said, “Sign me up.”
So we sat down at the coffee table and I gave him my name, rate, and horsepower and all of that stuff, and he drafted a message saying: We’ve got a candidate. The message from ComSixthFlt to BuPers, info CNO, was priority precedence. He drafted it up right then and there and we put it on the order wire circuit up to the Little Rock, and the chief of staff released it from the flagship. Within a couple hours we got a priority message back that said: Transfer John Conjura to the Little Rock. I was elated.
BAKER: You got to stay in Italy.
CONJURA: Yeah. So, I reported aboard the Little Rock on the 31st of May of 1969. When I went into the wardroom they were taking bets as to how long John Conjura would last as the communications officer. My predecessor, they took him off with a nervous breakdown. His predecessor left with a heart attack. So they were taking book in the wardroom as to how long John Conjura would last. Well, I outlasted them all.
In any case, when I got aboard the Little Rock “Doc” Friesen, Commander Friesen, Sixth Fleet communications officer, first thing he calls me up to his office and he said, “John, I don’t care how you do it or what you do, or how things go.” He said, “They’ve got a big problem down there.” He said, “Fix it.” He said, “I’m not going to tell your guys to wear blues, I’m not going to tell them to get a haircut, I’m not going to do any of that Mickey Mouse stuff.” He said, “You go down there and get things squared away.”
Well, the biggest problem that I immediately saw: The communications spaces were supposed to be air conditioned, and they were air conditioned — that is - no air and the hell with the conditions. So I took it upon myself, that we’ve got to do something about this. Well, I called on Lieutenant John Cockram, who was the DCA. We huddled on the A/C problem, and I said, “John, we’ve got to fix this.” I told him I’m not an engineering type but, I said, “I know from the output side, before that cool air leaves that compressor and that blower,” I said, “before it hits the comm spaces,” I said, “it’s cool air, but there’s nothing coming out through the venting in the communications spaces.”
So he got his people up there with their toolboxes and we backed out one of the heating elements that are situated within the ductwork. We pulled that thing out and we looked at the core, the innards of that element where either cold air or hot air passes. Because of the fins and the coils and the fact that the Little Rock had not been back to the States for any overhaul in years, it was just gunked up.
So I said, “John, how are we going to do this?” He said, “Well, we can’t take all of these out.” He said, “That takes a ShipAlt, a major ship alteration, to do that kind of work, and the money and bureau approval.” I said, “John, there’s got to be a way to skin this cat.” I said, “You know, I’ve got marching orders that we’ve got to improve things down here.”
So he said, “There’s one thing that you can consider.” And he said, “I’ll help you do it if you provide the bodies. I’ll get the expertise up here to help you.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “Well, we can take those units out and we could cut all of those heating elements and fins and coils out and make a big hole in there and put the units back in, and that will provide a straight shot. Air won’t be impeded by any obstructions. The only thing is, if you ever need heat in these spaces you’re not going to have it.” I said, “John, with all this electronic equipment, who needs other heat? That’s self-generating heat.” He said, “Well, I’ll help you to do this. We’ll cut this stuff out and we’ll just deep six this stuff and throw it over the side, and only you and I know that this has been done. Because if the people, NavSea or ComCruDesLant, ever find out about this you and I will be standing before the man in the purple robe and we’ll both be court-martialed.” I says, “I don’t give a damn, John. We have to improve the conditions in these spaces.”
So we went ahead and took that calculated risk, and man, it made a world of a difference. It improved morale, it improved the efficiency of the equipment. The equipment wasn’t crapping out. Everything worked better. And comm space working conditions improved from that point on.
BAKER: I can remember many times having to wear a jacket up there because it really was cold.
CONJURA: Well, you know, that came to haunt us. The ship was in the Med for forty-four months, and we went back and we went into the Boston Naval Shipyard in October of 1970 and through the winter of ’70 and ’71. And during the coldest winter in Boston, we didn’t have any heat coming out of the installed heating system. We didn’t have any electronic equipment turned on. And, as you just said, Bob, we were freezing.
But that brings us to the other part of solving the heating problem. If you recall, you were aboard and remember RM2 Wingo—I’ll never forget that tall, lanky, outgoing-to-the-extreme person.
BAKER: He was great at cumshaw.
CONJURA: Yeah, great cumshaw artist. When we were in the shipyard in Boston, I was pleading with the executive officer for foul weather gear. He gave us the old saying we have no money, we can’t afford any foul weather gear. So Wingo knew of our position. He said, “I know where we can get some field jackets, some Army field jackets.” And he said, “You give me the word and they shall be provided.” I said, “Where are you going to get them?” He said, “Don’t ask.” I said, “I’m not going to ask.” He said, “How many do you want?” I said, “Well, for every man and every officer; everybody gets—the signal bridge, everybody gets an Army field jacket.”
Well, Wingo delivered. Everybody got a field jacket, an Army field jacket. I still have mine, and I keep it. The only problem with that is, when we broke out for quarters wearing those foul weather jackets the unfortunate thing from the standpoint of the executive officer, when he looked up to the 04 level and saw the communicators up wearing these jackets with the Army designators—1st Division, 3rd, he called me down to his stateroom. He said, “John, what in the hell are you guys doing up there wearing those Army field jackets?” I said, “Well, XO,” I says, “the Navy can’t provide them.” I said, “We got them.” He said, “Where did you get them?” I said, “Don’t ask. The guys have something to keep them warm.” I said, “Besides, they’re hanging by their fingernails from the mast trying to work on the antennas and keep warm.” He said, “At least tear off those decals, those Army decals.” Well, that’s how it is. We wore the Army field jackets. I still have mine, after 39 years.
BAKER: Is there anything you’d like to share with us about Gaeta, or Italy in general?
CONJURA: Well, we loved Italy and, of course, Gaeta. We lived out at San Janni in Formia, on the beach there. And, of course, Naples—the old expression “See Naples and die” is, it all depends which way you look at that. It’s a hectic and vibrant city and you’ve got to get acclimated. It takes you about six months to get adjusted to the Napolitano culture.
Naples offers so much, you know. There’s the Amalfi Drive, there’s visits to Rome. And across the Bay of Naples there’s a little town by the name of Vico Equense. That is the pizza capital of the world. In fact, the “Pizza University” is in Vico Equense. There’s a place that they call pizza-a-metri; you buy it by the quarter meter, the half meter, the full meter. Any time we go back to Italy we always go to Vico Equense. It’s about halfway between Pompeii and Sorrento, just about a mile away from Castellamare di Stabia, which is the home town of Al Capone. That was his birthplace, and they’re very proud of that.
We liked Italy so much that five years ago, in 2004, I took the whole family, all my grandkids, and we took a personalized tour in and around Gaeta, Naples, and Rome. But I’ll never forget, we landed at Rome and we drove down to Gaeta and we went into a restaurant. And we were served by a typical Italian waiter and we were just chatting away. We were talking about the Little Rock with my son-in-law, and the waiter said, “The Little Rock!” And this was in 2004. He said, “When I was a child I went on a dependents’ cruise in the Little Rock.” So he saw the proprietor, and all of the wine that we were served at lunch was on him because of the Little Rock.
BAKER: Well, John, the fleet flagship, Little Rock, was involved in many port visits, many interesting places. I’m sure you had some favorite ports. Would you sketch some highlights of the port calls? And were there any exciting events or troubling incidents?
CONJURA: Well, if you’re going to prioritize the liberty ports, and particularly if you have your wife and family there, Palma de Majorca is at the top of my list. Barcelona. Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo, of course, we made a lot of port calls there, official visits. We had the pleasure of dining in, having a “forecastle frolic” on the Little Rock, meeting Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. In fact, every time that they would come out to the ship they provided free tickets to the crew and the chief’s mess and the wardroom for the casino. And they were especially grateful for the occasion when the Little Rock helo airlifted an air conditioning compressor onto the roof of the palace at Monaco. So they ponied up pretty good for that gesture.
We always would have to put our choker whites on for those formal dinners on the forecastle. But the band would be up there and heads of state, wherever the port visits were.
I had the occasion to meet those who came aboard. This included, in his U.S. Navy captain’s uniform, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the actor. He was accompanying Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. And afterward we had a humorous discussion in the wardroom because I noticed that someone brought up the fact that Douglas Fairbanks was out of uniform because he was wearing his decorations, and he had quite a few from World War II since he was a skipper that took part in the World War II invasion. He was an LCI commander during the invasion of southern France in 1944. But he had four ribbons abreast instead of the regulation three. But I guess if you’re Douglas Fairbanks and you’re in the company of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, who cares?
As far as exciting events, my wife and I, when the ship visited Athens—and, of course, this was customary. The ship’s officers’ wives and others, when the ship would move from port to port, the wives would fly over to the better ports and join up with their husbands while we were in port. But I’ll never forget one incident in Athens Constitution Square downtown. My wife and I were walking one evening and we were walking down the street past the TWA airways ticket office. And we rounded the corner and we heard this hellacious explosion. And we ran back to the corner that we’d just transited five minutes ago, and here the TWA office was blown up by terrorists. And had we not been walking in that five minutes time period and we’d been in front of that TWA office we would have been dead meat. We thank our lucky stars. So that was one of the most frightening events personally.
We liked going down into the Plaka; that’s the old town of Athens. Papadopoulos was the premier of Greece at the time, and it was against the law for any Greek to break dishes in the fireplaces. The Greeks traditionally do that. When they’re having a party, a good time, they throw their dishes into the fireplace. Now, in the Plaka the Greek citizens couldn’t do that, but we, as the tourists with the big bucks, you know, we were permitted to do that. So, you know, two standards, but if you’re having fun and you’re spending money, who cares?
BAKER: During your tour as communications officer on a high profile combatant serving as Sixth Fleet flagship, were there any moments of shock or fear or excitement—other than the TWA incident—or concern, participating in fleet operations? Perhaps a collision at sea? Or at anchor or while alongside?
CONJURA: Well, collision at sea, that gets your attention. In early June of 1970 the Little Rock was operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, and at that time we were assigned duties as part of an exercise, a NATO exercise called “Dawn Patrol.” Those were run periodically. Our assignment was to provide simulated shore bombardment with the Blue forces—they’re the good guys—that were shooting and firing, providing naval gunfire support prior to the amphibious landing at Gythion.
Well, during the course of the night, of course the opposing forces were out with their destroyer pickets trying to pick up any of the Blue forces as the enemy, and it so happened that a Greek destroyer, the Longhi, came a little bit too close and we creamed him right amidships. Well, this was about 4:30 in the morning and I had just spent one of those twenty-five-hour days and was just turning in to my bunk and I heard this hellacious—I thought it was the end of the world. My stateroom was at frame 25 on the starboard side, the first stateroom aft of the anchor windlass room and, of course, when we hit that Greek destroyer, boy, that metal—shake, rattle, and roll, you can’t believe it. I was in my skivvies and I got out of my bunk and hot-footed it right up that first ladder to get on the main deck to see what was going on. Of course, I was out of uniform, but who cares?
In any case, we stoved in the starboard side of the Longhi. It was an old FRAM-II Gearing-class destroyer that we had given the Greeks. We just creased him, put a seam in his side. You couldn’t draw it any cleaner than between the stacks, and if we’d had any way on he’d have gone down. Anyhow, it crushed the stem of the Little Rock very badly. Well, badly—I say this because the metal was bent out to starboard and we had a big piece hanging out there.
So they were brainstorming down in the wardroom: How are we going to fix this up temporarily? Because in three days we were to take aboard the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird; the Commander of CinCSouth, NATO forces in Naples, four-star Admiral Horatio “Rivets” Rivero; and, of course, Dave Richardson, our three-star Sixth Fleet was embarked.
Well, the DCA at the time, Lieutenant Tom Allenbacher, made a suggestion that I thought was a great example of improvisation of the Little Rock crew. He says, “We’ll fix that easily.” He said, “We’ll go down into one of the enlisted heads and we’ll tear off two shithouse doors, and we’ll paint them haze gray and we’ll weld them together and it will look like new.” Well, it never came to that. But in any case the day that we lay to off of Civitavecchia, Italy to embark Secretary Laird, who flew out in a helo with “Rivets” Rivero, the CinCSouth, the first thing that Admiral Richardson did was take them up to the bow and they looked over and looked at our bent nose.
But while we had that minor damage to the stem, any time we got up to twelve knots or over we threw a rooster tail out, so it was very funny looking out on the starboard side to see that rooster tail of water coming up when we exceeded twelve knots. A couple days later we went down to Valletta, Malta, and went into the yard down there and they repaired the bow.
The other thing that was quite interesting from an intelligence and communications standpoint—this was in the days before the satellites took over everything that rules our electronic world today. We would always play games with the Sixth Fleet ships, particularly the carrier and the major combatants. The Soviets always had a tattle-tale as we termed them: an AGI, an intelligence ship that would chase us around, stay about 1500 yards off our starboard quarter, just to see what we were doing, particularly the carriers. Well, every now and then we would have a game of cat and mouse where we would declare EMCON, i.e. silent communications and radar. All of the radars, all of the radio communications, everything, we’d shut down completely. We would hightail it, pick up speed, and try to evade those AGIs and see how long it would take to catch up. Well, usually in forty-eight hours who’s coming over the horizon but old Tattle-Tale Joe, picking up our trail. Of course, with satellites today they can keep us under surveillance wherever we’re going. So those games were very interesting.
BAKER: John, as I recall you were quite emotional when Little Rock was relieved by USS Springfield in August of 1970 and we left Italy for the last time en route to CONUS. Do you recall your feelings during that turnover period? Describe your impressions as Little Rock transitioned from a fleet flagship to just another deployed cruiser. What do you recall and would like to share about that Atlantic crossing, our new home port in Newport, and the months that followed in the Boston shipyard?
CONJURA: Well, it was a different world. The Little Rock was deployed in the MED for forty-four months. The only kind of restricted availability we had was maybe once a year we would go over to Rota, Spain and they would bring the big crane over and do some minor tweaking to the ship. So the ship had to survive by itself, and communications the same way. But when we were relieved by the Springfield she had just come out of the yards and we had been operating at full bore, full tempo, for forty-four months over there without any shipyard, tender assistance. And the admiral remarked, when we were making the transfer, that—he said, “You know, the Little Rock’s in better shape than the Springfield.” And that’s a tribute to the crew.
But in any case, the biggest transition. Our last year, full year, as the flagship of the Sixth Fleet, we handled over 368,000 messages. That’s over a thousand messages a day. One peak day we had over 1900 messages. And that number, 368,000, was 67 percent more than the first full year that the ship served as flagship, 1966. And the most important thing about that is, we handled 67 percent more traffic with the same number of people. And in that period of time our receive-and-send reliability went up a couple percentage points. So all the way along the line we were operating at the top of our game. And I guess from an audio point of view the first thing that struck me, after we shifted the load, the communications load, to the Springfield, and I walked into the radio shack—usually you’d go in there and there was the clankety-clank of twenty teletype machines going at full bore. And I walked in there and it was as quiet as a mouse in church. It was an eerie sound.
BAKER: We used to call it the chattering hen house.
CONJURA: The chattering—you’re absolutely right. There were always machines going. That was the difference.
Of course, we spent that cold winter in Boston, but with the dexterity and the work of our cumshaw artist, RM2 Wingo, we survived with the Army field jackets without the Army patches on them. But our crew did fantastic. We reworked all the antennas, we overhauled equipment, and we did pretty well. We set the standard, though, because in 1972 Little Rock won the Green “C,” awarded as the best communicating ship in the Atlantic Fleet cruiser/destroyer force.
BAKER: Well, every ship has its cast of characters. Can you recall for us some Little Rock officer or petty officer or Sailor that you served with? You can omit names if you like. Someone that left a lasting impression on you and perhaps others, and for what reason.
CONJURA: Well, to my dying day I’ll remember one individual. To protect the innocent I’ll just call him Seaman Klutz. He was the type of guy who—the flesh is willing; he would do anything he was told to do, and it ended being too much. I guess the most unforgettable thing was, Seaman Klutz was operating the fleet broadcast teletype machine, the broadcast that originated from NavCommSta Morocco. This is the primary means for all forty to fifty ships that comprised the Sixth Fleet to receive their message traffic. Ships must copy the fleet broadcast continuously, and you never missed a number, you never missed a message. You always had to account for every message, and it was supposed to be uninterrupted broadcast. Flash messages might come over, any kind of messages.
Well, unbeknownst to the Main Comm supervisor, unbeknownst to the tech control operators in there, Seaman Klutz took it upon himself, and got on the order wire and he sent a message to NavCommSta Morocco: ComSixthFlt says stop the fleet broadcast, period. So NavCommSta Morocco knew that three-stars gave the orders; they responded accordingly. The fleet broadcast for every ship in the Sixth Fleet, the KMUL broadcast in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stopped. No messages were going to any Navy ship. Well, I guess after about twenty minutes or so Morocco gets on the order wire and comes back to the ship: Why did you guys stop the broadcast? Well, by that time our supervisory people got involved and—What? Stop the broadcast?
Well, in any case, John Conjura, the communications officer, was front and center in front of the Sixth Fleet communicator: What in the hell happened down there, John? I says, “You’re not going to believe this. Seaman Klutz.” “Oh, no!” Seaman Klutz, unbeknownst to anybody, had told Morocco to stop the broadcast because he wanted to change the paper in the teletype machine. Under no conditions do you stop the fleet broadcast. Stop the world, I want to get off—that’s not the way to go.
Well, at CinCUSNavEur Headquarters in London, there was hell to pay from all directions, and we were highly embarrassed to have to answer to the communications community in the Mediterranean as the dumb knuckle heads on the fleet flagship who stopped the fleet broadcast.
Well, that was okay from an operational standpoint, but in August of 1970, when we were tied up alongside the Springfield effecting the Sixth Fleet staff relief and transferring bodies and equipment and publications and files, and carrying stuff over the brow between the Springfield and the Little Rock, Seaman Klutz happened to be carrying over one of those GI haze gray metal bookcases with a glass front on it full of publications, and was walking across the brow. Well, when the brows are laying on the deck edge there’s a step to go over - up on one side and down on the other. Of course, he’s carrying this thing over, and Admiral Richardson, the Sixth Fleet commander, was moving between ships and saw him coming over and stopped. Well, as the world would have it, when Seaman Klutz stepped down, guess what! That bookcase fell right on the admiral’s feet.
BAKER: I guess you never heard the last of that.
CONJURA: We never heard the last of that.
BAKER: Well, John, as we mentioned, you served on quite a few ships and staffs. What are your overall impressions of your tour on Little Rock compared to some of those other shipboard tours?
CONJURA: People. We had the best. They were great. Get the job done. And we proved it. We won that Green “C” in 1972 as the best communicating ship in the whole cruiser-destroyer force.
BAKER: After your assignment in Little Rock you served ashore. What were some of the highlights you’d like to relate from those tours?
CONJURA: Well, my first tour after the Little Rock, I went in as the ops officer at the OpNav telecommunications center in the Pentagon, and that was good duty. My primary job then was taking care of operations of our local digital message exchange (LDMX)message processor. We handled about 5,000 messages a day. In addition, I had the prime responsibility of coordinating all of the out-of-town communications requirements for the Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Navy. Wherever they went they had to have communications, and my job was to make sure that it happened.
Then I left there in 1974 and went over as the head of the communications policy and procedures branch at the Commander, Naval Telecommunications Command at Massachusetts and Nebraska in Washington DC. I was head of that branch, N33, and I had primary responsibility for developing and drafting and promulgating all of the communications policy and procedures that affect Navy communications worldwide, and publishing them in the Naval telecommunications publication documents, the NTP series. I had a staff to do that and they were pretty good. For any procedural change, we would use the fleet commanders as the sounding board. With the fleet commanders’ staff inputs, we would then consolidate inputs, analyze them, and if they were workable, cost effective, and improved Naval communications, we’d publish them in those documents.
At that time, I was working for our former commanding officer in the Little Rock, Captain Nagler, who had ComNavTelCom. He got his two stars, rear admiral. And then he received an assignment in the Pentagon as deputy director of command, control, and communications, so he asked me if I wanted to come over and take over as the officer in charge of the OpNav telecommunications center, which I had just left two years before. So I took over managing the Navy’s Pentagon telecommunications center, and that was a job where I had to interact with all of the key players on the OpNav and SecNav staffs. We were responsible for providing all message service to the Pentagon and other offices in the Washington area, as well as the secure and out-of-town communications requirements for all top officials of the Navy Department.
BAKER: John, I believe during this period you were involved in getting the Little Rock transferred up to Buffalo. And, of course, all Little Rock veterans are certainly indebted to you for your efforts. What details can you recall about that?
CONJURA: Well, my job, or tasks related to that were principally as a coordinator. The principal people in the Buffalo area and Erie County, were Judge Anthony LoRusso and Lou Clabeaux, the head of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. They were the prime movers to get the ship up there, along with the destroyer The Sullivans (DD-537). I was the Pentagon point of contact to identify items that the Little Rock could use to dress out the ship to get it to look more like it did when it was in active service.
I used to work with retired Commander Bob Beck, who preceded Pat Cunningham as the director of the Buffalo park. He would contact me and say: Hey, we need X, we need Y. Okay, I’d find out where it is in the Navy inventory. I’d get all the paperwork going, and then I’d call Bob in Buffalo. They’d send an 18-wheeler out to wherever it was. We arranged to get them such things as two Talos dummy missiles that are on the fantail now aboard the ship. We identified those that came out of the Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown. The Talos missile that they put in the missile house later on.
I was retired, but I still knew which buttons to push, and we had the Buffalo park folks take pictures of what they did in the missile house. I was contacted, I got those pictures, the Polaroid pictures. I took them over to the missile guys at the NavAir staff across the street from where I was working at Electrospace Systems and, yeah, they said it looks good but we don’t have any missiles now. But they knew the Bendix folks who controlled the Talos inventory out in Mishawaka, Indiana.
So to make a long story short, Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer—the Navy just named a new guided missile destroyer, DDG 108, after him—Vice Admiral Nagler called him and said, “Hey, John Conjura is going to get in touch with you. They need a Talos on the Little Rock. See what you can do.” So Wayne Meyer was to the missile program in the Navy, the equivalent of Admiral Hyman Rickover, what he was to the Navy nuclear propulsion. When Wayne Meyer talks, everybody in the missile business listens. So Admiral Nagler said “John Conjura’s going to send you the details to identify a spare dummy Talos missile for Little Rock. Admiral Meyer greased the skids for the Talos missile now residing in the missile house aboard Little Rock.
BAKER: John, you retired from active duty in 1979 after thirty years of service. What were your thoughts about leaving active duty?
CONJURA: I had mixed reservations about that. In one sense I figured I’d reached the top of the mountain. I was a limited duty officer and, of course, by statutory law I could only serve for thirty years. I was forty-nine years old at the time. I knew I was going to have to acquire some kind of gainful employment. And I knew once you hit the fifty-year-old age mark, you know, that’s a bell-ringer for a lot of people to take on a job, and family considerations.
Before making that final decision, about a year before that, I did transfer to unrestricted line. And, you know, that would have provided the prospects of going to captain. But I was offered an assignment as an unrestricted line to go down and run a communications program at Naval Electronic Systems Command down the street in Crystal City. And I said I don’t want that. I said, if you send me over as the assistant for communications, ACOS for communications, as N6, on the CinCUSNavEur staff in London, I said I would gladly take that and stay on as an unrestricted line officer and open up the possibility for promotion to captain and flag officer, or whatever. And they said no, sorry, you’ve got the talents and the skills and what we need down at NavElex. And I just wasn’t for it. So I resubmitted a letter and I said: Naval establishment, please retain me as an LDO for the next six months, and I want to retire on statutory law—and I retired. But it was mixed emotions.
BAKER: What did you do after your retirement from active duty?
CONJURA: I retired on October 1st of 1979. I interviewed with a couple of the defense contractors around the Washington area. I was definitely going to stay in the Washington area. And at that time Ronald Reagan was the President and the big bucks were coming into the Defense Department and taking on contractor support services and everything that that entailed. I knew that that’s where the wherewithal was. So I finally hired on with Electronic Systems, Incorporated, ESI, a defense contractor at Crystal City.
I worked there for thirteen years. My first six years I was working primarily as a member of the technical staff providing technical support and management assistance, TSMA, as they call it. We were preparing, drafting procurement packages such as statements of work, specifications, and contract data requirements lists, for acquisition of communications equipment: VLF/LF communications equipment, the Enhanced VERDIN systems that was aboard the fleet ballistic missile submarines, the attack submarines, and the Take Charge and Move Out, TACAMO, EC-130 aircraft, that play a role in the doomsday scenario.
I enjoyed that work because I was working with Navy folks. I knew the lingo, I knew all the acronyms, I knew the communications technologies, I knew the communications procedures. It was a lot of paperwork involved, particularly on these acquisition packages, but the bucks were okay and I liked it. But unfortunately,, we were a small company, very responsive to our customer’s needs because we were small, and the Naval Electronic Systems Command, PME 110, the VLF/LF strategic communications shop that we supported decided to go on an omnibus contract, one contract to do everything: sweeping the decks, swabbing the decks, to doing what we were doing. And we just weren’t into sweeping and swabbing decks, so Computer Sciences Corporation, CSC, took that contract.
So I moved over and became a team leader in the test and evaluation for the doomsday scenario. What the doomsday scenario entailed was, we developed test plans for exercising the strategic communications assets of the joint forces. This was the doomsday scenario. Theoretically, we were to respond as a government, as a military organization, to the bolt out of the blue. The Soviets launch a sea borne missile from the Atlantic, our defense support program, DSP satellites, pick up the trails of these, what happens in the time interval to those incoming strikes. And when the defense establishment moves up the defense condition, DefCon condition, from parade rest at DefCon 5 or 4, whatever, to DefCon 3, then they start putting mobile assets, the national emergency airborne command post, the converted Boeing 747, where the surviving President would embark, goes airborne. The worldwide commander in chiefs go aboard their EC-135 aircraft, the airborne command posts, and we’re ready from that position.
Now, our job was to track events from the time that the DSP satellites would recognize the plumes of the Soviet incoming missiles. We had time windows—they are unclassified now. We had eleven minutes till a strike was at Ground Zero at the Pentagon, or sixteen minutes to the missile fields out in the Dakotas. And in that period of time the black boxes would be opened on the various mobile platforms and we would be initiating our retaliatory strike of our own missiles from the triad—from the missile submarines, the B-52s that were parked in a holding pattern, and from the missile fields out in the Dakotas, Montana, etc.
Our job was to test all the communications links between aircraft, air to ground, air to air, to submarines, to the B-52s, to the missile fields. And then we would send observers out and collect all of the who-shot-John, what time did they get their launch messages off. We’d bring all of that data back, digest it in our offices working in conjunction with the MITRE folks up in McLean. And then we were working primarily with the old Defense Communications Agency, now the Defense Information Systems Agency. We would murder board our results, put it all together, march over to the Pentagon, and brief the strategic J-36 folks on how these exercises went, who did good, who did bad, and what do we have to do to improve. And I spent the last seven years with ESI working as one of the four test directors. We had four exercises, “Polo Hat” exercises we called them, a year, and each of our test directors were responsible for coordinating their own particular exercise, going out and working with the Air Force to get B-52s to participate, going down to CinCLant to get the submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific, the SSBNs, designated to participate, and working with the missile guys out there and working with the (at that time) SAC strategic folks, and then putting all of that together.
BAKER: It sounds fascinating. Fascinating.
John, along the way on your career path you managed to get married. You raised three children. Tell us a little about your family life and the challenges of balancing family with a career, and giving the proper time and attention to Louise and the girls.
CONJURA: Well, they deserve the Medal of Honor for endurance. They followed me around and supported me. My wife, Louise, we met a long time ago. I was a first-class radioman and I was home on leave, and she was home from nursing school. She was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. We got married on a Tuesday because I had to get back to the Northampton to get underway. We couldn’t get married on Saturday; we were going to the North Atlantic.
We had three children that were born in the Norfolk/Portsmouth area. My oldest is Ann; she’s currently chief medical director for the Hospice of Huntington, West Virginia. My other daughter, Carol, she’s a partner with KPMG; she’s a corporate tax lawyer in the Washington office. Does a lot of traveling around working for people such as Starbucks, figuring out how they can save money and cheat the government, I guess. And my son, John, is a computer engineer working for the Harris Corporation, and is down at the Patuxent River Naval Station working primarily with the NavAir community down there to keep all of their computer systems alive and communicating with the rest of the world.
BAKER: You have a number of grandchildren, I believe. Tell us a little about your grandchildren.
CONJURA: Well, we’ve got four grandchildren. My daughter Ann has two. Justin, he’s going into his second year at Villanova. He’s going to be a computer engineer. My other grandchild is Brittany; she’s going to be a junior in high school in Huntington. And then my daughter living in Old Town Alexandria, Carol, she has two: Blake, three, and Kate will be one year old. So those are the four, that we’re very proud of.
BAKER: I know after you retired from your paid employment you lived up at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland for a number of years, and you recently relocated to the Lansdowne, Virginia, area. Tell us about that period in your life up there on the lake. A little cabin on the lake, as you once told me.
CONJURA: Yeah, you and Carol were there and we thoroughly enjoyed your company and had a great time. Well, after we both retired Louise was working as head of the quality control assurance department at Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg and I was working down in Crystal City. We thought it’s time to get out of the area. We had a place up at Deep Creek Lake, and we just sold out in Northern Virginia and moved out to Deep Creek Lake. Lived there for fifteen years, the good life on the water, on the lake. Two and a half acres, 150 foot of lakefront, a boat, and the grandkids coming in the winter to ski and to water-ski in the summertime. That was the good life, although we were kind of isolated. I had to drive ten miles every day one way to pick up my Washington Post.
It was the time, so we decided it was the time in our lives where we were going to go back and relocate to northern Virginia. We’re living in Leisure World here in Lansdowne, Virginia, and we don’t have all of those responsibilities. Trying to keep up with two and a half acres when the years are moving on doesn’t work out too well.
BAKER: What about some of your hobbies and things that you do now to give you pleasure?
CONJURA: Well, I’m mostly interested, you know, I read a lot of military history. When this program itself, the oral history program, was initiated by our very, very competent and overqualified Kent Siegel, I assisted him in getting this program started. I did a couple of the initial interviews and assisted him on that. And I was helping Nick Perillo when he was president of the association, and then Gerry Dupuis for a couple of years. I took on the pro bono work of notifying all of the military periodicals, like AmVets, American Legion, what have you, getting all of our annual reunion notices published in those various publications for publicity. And that kind of kept my life active. But I was mostly involved in working around the house and serving four years as vice president and president of the Sandy Beach property owners association at Deep Creek Lake.
BAKER: Well, looking back at your Navy career, what were the high points? And perhaps not so high points? Was there anything about the Navy? What was it that you loved the most?
CONJURA: Well, working with the dedicated, professional people that I met all along the way. They were the best. They were always working with the objective to get the job done, get the mission completed, irrespective of the hardships endured, and I really appreciated that. It made my job easier because I could always depend on people like you, Bob, and the great bunch of people who served aboard Little Rock.
BAKER: Commander Conjura, thank you very much for your time in giving us the opportunity for this interview. It will be of great interest and will be fascinating for those who know you, especially those who served with you in Little Rock. I know it was fascinating for me just sitting here listening. All Little Rock vets are indebted to you for this interview.
Before we conclude here, are there any final thoughts, anything you’d like to share with us and get on tape?
CONJURA: Well, we need a new USS Little Rock in the fleet to perpetuate the historic name and career of our ship. I made a suggestion today at the business meeting of the Association here in Buffalo that the Association should officially write a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, who is a former shipmate, Ray Mabus, who Bob knew and I know intimately because we all served together on the Little Rock, requesting that he push the right button to get the lead ship in the new CG(X), the next generation guided missile cruiser, named USS Little Rock. That name recognition will have a lot of status, and that will be a potential pull to keep the association membership viable as the years go by.
BAKER: That will perpetuate the USS Little Rock Association well after we’re all gone. Any other thoughts?
CONJURA: I’ve talked long enough. Unfortunately, too.
BAKER: Well, this concludes the oral history interview with Commander John E. Conjura, USN (Ret).
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