Crew Member's Oral History provided by:

Rear Admiral Peter K. Cullins, USN (Ret.)

Interview Segment 10
Sep 1974 - Dec 1974

Page last updated: 15 March, 2020

U.S.S. Little Rock Association

The following is Segment 10, one of many segments from the Oral History of Rear Admiral Peter K. Cullins, USN (Ret.). Five interviews pertaining to RADM Cullins' time aboard USS Little Rock CLG 4 are provided, numbered as Segments 7 thru 11. The segments are in chronological order. The entire 174-page Oral History which concentrates on Rear Admiral Cullins' naval career, along with short descriptions of his youth and post Navy retirement work can be obtained from the Naval Historical Foundation.

Interviewee:  RADM Peter K. Cullins, USN (Ret)

Interviewer:  CAPT Kent R. Siegel, USN (Ret)

SIEGEL: Nice to join you again, Admiral, as we continue to learn more of your command tour in USS Little Rock during her deployment to the Med as an overseas homeported ship...

CULLINS: It’s good to join you again, Kent, to discuss our adventures in the Med in ’74. I have recovered some notes that I’ve brought with me to help explain our unique personnel circumstances, and the Rock’s broad and varied sports program.

SIEGEL: That’s great, so let’s pick it up in September of 1974.

CULLINS: OK; on the 23rd of September, we departed Gaeta and sailed for Palma, Mallorca, which overjoyed the crew, except for the CPOs, because I left our football ‘Tigers’ ashore to be able to play in the Naples league. We picked up 22 wives in Palma for a daytime trip to Barcelona, Spain. The crew loved ‘Barca’ – which has the best ‘gut’ in the Med. There were also lots of cultural attractions, good shopping (the Ramblas), etc. that pleased the more ‘refined’ among us (which means those whose wives were along). Barcelona was sort of the center for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and the citizens still feel apartness from the rest of Spain, and even have their own Catalan language separate from Castilian Spanish. One has to experience a bullfight, of course, so I took a very reluctant Valaree to one in Barca’s famous bullring where Dominguin, Ordonez et al had starred. Believe it or not, all three of the day’s matadors were gored, and carried off through the tunnel 30 feet to the left of where we were sitting. (Valaree said “never again”!). With wives again aboard, we went to Cannes, France where we stayed until 4 October. The crew didn’t care for Cannes because of the unreal prices and not-so-veiled hostilities towards Americans. They were happy when we headed for Monaco, the pretty, tiny, hereditary principality, where we were royally entertained by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. (My dinner partner was the Prince, who is an avid sailor. The Admiral, of course, got the Princess). I had a nice tour by Jacques Costeau of his museum, in order to watch octopi mating!

SIEGEL: That’s a pretty spectacular tour around the best garden spots in the western Med, including the royal hospitality of Monaco. No amount of money could buy that treat.

CULLINS: It was, but almost before we could get our sea legs, we were back in Gaeta on 8 October for a two-week stay. We had a nice visit by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Holloway (could have been in Palma). The highlight of the stay, to me, was a football game in Naples on the 13th between our team and the Air Force “Black Falcons”.   About 500 of our crew plus dependents were there – with a dozen senior POs’ wives with pompons doing the cheerleading. We won, and all of us had a huge barbeque after the game. (Incidentally the “Tigers” took second place in the Naples football league with a 5-2 record). 

SIEGEL: That was certainly an appropriate way to celebrate Navy Birthday, just as we did in ’75 with a lopsided football victory over the USS Piedmont.

CULLINS: Football victories gave a huge morale boost to our people. But, now it was time to again confront our personnel problems. My efforts with an old buddy, the head of the Enlisted Personnel Distribution Office, Atlantic (EPDOLANT), undoubtedly helped along by our type commander--after original shock at me dealing with him directly-- were paying off. I had made the case that we had to have a fairly large surplus of recruits to make up for the numbers we had to send back for unsuitability. We now had about 60 more people in Engineering than we had had six months earlier, so we were finally able to go to one-in-four watch sections for them, joining what the rest of the crew had. The trouble with this new influx was the quality of the new arrivals, probably resulting from (as I’ve said before) both the haste in implementing the All Volunteer Force and the “sweeping of the urban streets” (the words of a renowned black sociologist) to turn around the racial imbalance in the Navy.

SIEGEL: That sounds like a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ with so many green, ill-qualified replacements. How would you describe the general intelligence level of this draft of new sailors?

 CULLINS: According to our personnel records, out of the last 142 non-rated men we had received, the average GCT (a general knowledge/literacy score) was only 39! In those days 50 GCT was pretty well what you had to have to be combined with an ARI (mathematical comprehension) score, for a total of at least 100 in order to attend advance schools from boot camp. Only 4 SN and 5 FN of these 142 met this score. Of the other 133 below 50 GCT, 38 had GCTs in the 20’s, or lower than third grade comprehension level. This isn’t to say that they were liabilities, due to our extensive striker selection board process, and the fact that we had some programs on board (PACE – a civilian educator on board) to enable these sailors to retake their GCT/ARIs after extensive training, but the odds were certainly stacked against them. (That reminds me of the college complaints today that they have to emphasize so much remedial education of their entering freshmen).

SIEGEL: That picture is really abysmal and they were sending these men to a ship homeported overseas. What a way to run a navy. You obviously had your hands full in dealing with it.

CULLINS: That’s for sure, and it reminds me of our group of ‘unsung heroes’ of the homeporting operation – our Personnel folks! A big part of their being overworked was that Springfield had operated under Project Shape Up where they could ship a non-performer to Naples on their own, while we had to go to CincUSNavEur for authority to do so, with ample justification. That meant we had to wait until a guy got in trouble in order to ship him back or until he developed a record bad enough to be able to discharge him. Also the  MAC (Military Airlift Command) system for flying these men back to CONUS seemed to change. I think we had Cat Z (direct) authority early on but it got changed by higher authority to Cat B, which required 45 days advance notice. As I remember, we implemented a 12 months-aboard policy for those who wished to transfer, and it put a big workload on the personnel folks.

SIEGEL: The Personnel guys continued to carry a heavy load right on through the end of deployment and decommissioning. Along with the Engineers and Communication folks, they bore the brunt of the overseas homeporting process.

CULLINS: That’s absolutely right. The best escape from these vexing personnel problems was to get the ship to sea where we could focus sailors on their duties, and all could enjoy the ‘travel and adventure part’ of the Navy’s recruitment promise. On the 23rd of October we went to sea for a couple of days for missile shoots. (One opportunity was lost when we had to head at max speed away from the shoot area just to close a CVA for a shorter helo flight for the Admiral). It was back to Gaeta on the 25th for a dependents cruise with about 400 on board plus some selected Italian guests. The Admiral really helped here, because besides the usual drill of tours and demonstrations/general quarters with wives manning husband’s stations, we had the SSN Tinosa along and an air show by the Saratoga air group.

SIEGEL: There’s nothing like a successful dependents’ cruise to get everyone feeling like they’re part of a stout ship and a great Navy. The demos by ships, subs and aircraft are a welcome add-on that your friends on the staff were no doubt happy to arrange. 

CULLINS: Of course, their dependents were on board too. It was a really good Navy Day! Then it was back to the more mundane chores .In the next two weeks it was time to assume my ‘judge’ and ‘hotel keeper’ roles. We had been after our TYCOM for some 7 _ ton air conditioners for our crew living spaces. That is unbelievable to think of today. There had apparently been little thinking about A/C in the past by the two former one-year CO’s, no doubt because of a lot of shipyard time on their watch, with emphasis on cosmetic improvements, like libraries, soda fountains etc.  But, we had been through two summers in sweltering heat in the crew spaces, and even now with us finally getting some A/C units; half of the crew’s quarters had none in the previous summer. In another upgrade, and in spite of a big campaign with the TYCOM to get ‘coffin bunks’ shipped to us for our Material Improvement Division (MID) to replace our ‘pipe-racks’, we were still only half way through that conversion. The MID was installing these 7” high under-the-bunk lockers (hinged bunk pans on top) as fast as the TYCOM could get them to us, but we only had about 150 installed so far. Washers/dryers were also a big item to us. Apparently for years, some predecessors had felt that the old salt-water dunking off the fantail was adequate. Bunk lights, fans, curtains – all of these unheard-of things in the “Old Navy” had to be done. This work did, unfortunately, take time away from important things like removing tons of old cabling etc. throughout the ship.

SIEGEL: All of the material upgrades you describe are particularly difficult for an overseas homeported ship. You’re at the end of the supply line with no intermediate maintenance activity (IMA) to assist with the labor. It appears you did pretty well under the circumstances.

CULLINS: I think we made a lot of progress, but it was never enough. About this time, the XO did a big study of our crew turnover and the reasons for it.

At the end of our first year 15% of the crew had turned over for the ‘adjustment’ reasons cited earlier.
There was increasing evidence that a lot of the ‘smokers’ and ‘pill poppers’ were doing it because they knew they would be transferred back to the States, if caught.
Marriages were starting to crack up after the first six months. This was exacerbated by ‘hanky-panky’ between some wives and the shore party crewmen we always had to leave behind. On the bright side, those who made it past the six months point seemed to have adjusted well.
 We had a fairly large number of NJPs (non-judicial punishments, i.e. Captains Masts) for UAs (Unauthorized Absences) of our bachelor pad sailors (so much so that we removed their ‘pad’ privileges after the second offense).

SIEGEL: You’re talking ‘cinderella liberty’?

CULLINS: That’s right; we put them on a short leash so they couldn’t just bunk in with someone else who had a pad.

*Drug use was dramatically decreasing aboard ship, (except after visiting places like Tangier) but we were creating a lot of teen-age alcoholics. (At the time of the study we had half-a-dozen people at the alcoholic rehab center in Naples).

SIEGEL: I didn’t think that drugs and alcohol were mutually exclusive. What were you doing to suppress the alcohol problem?

CULLINS: That was hard.  We employed athletics, rehab at Naples for some, and more Sea Breeze events like dances etc. I think alcohol dependency is harder to break than drugs. Complicating the whole issue was the fact that during the last couple of months we had detached 75 or so and had received about 100. The Springfield crossdeckers had mostly gone as their one year extensions were up, and some of our original crew who had extended for the turnover were asking to leave early.

SIEGEL: That would make for heavy weather even if you didn’t have any other worries.

CULLINS: We should note that if I came along again, I would not want to be an XO on an overseas homeported ship.

SIEGEL: I looked at it as one of those great Navy challenges that can’t help but build character (laughter).

CULLINS: On 8 November we sailed for Tangier. 31 of our Marines went to Rabat for the Marine Corps Birthday. Valaree and I went too. These events are held worldwide, no matter how small the Marine detachment is, and they are always superb. The Rabat event had all of the diplomatic corps there, with all the pageantry and pomp. And it was organized by the lead Marine – a Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant)!

SIEGEL: Always a treat! There is no question that conduct of a proper birthday celebration is among the most sacred duties of the Corps, wherever it may be.

CULLINS: Afterwards, Valaree and I attended a dinner party. Of course, it featured couscous (a mound of rice on the floor with a steamed sheep on top). The host offered me something to eat, at the opening. I looked at my embassy contact with raised eyebrows and he whispered “It is the eye of a sheep – a delicacy reserved for the foreign visitor and the host”. Yi! But, I downed it while holding my breath. I forgot to mention that at the reception line before the dinner, a Moroccan officer introduced me to wife #1, then wives 2, 3 and 4 (in decreasing seniority and age). I whispered to Valaree “Not a bad custom at all”, and received from her a ‘look’.

SIEGEL: After satisfying the needs of four wives, I’m sure he had no time for hobbies and was probably late for muster a time or two.

CULLINS: Right, most of us have all we can handle with one good woman.

SIEGEL: How did the crew like Morocco?

CULLINS: They seemed to enjoy liberty in Tangier, but an unfortunate, unintended consequence occurred in Tangier when all of a sudden our chiefs noticed that a lot of our sailor’s pea coats were showing up for sale in the shops. About 50 of our sailors were missing theirs. A Z-gram and SixthFlt regs had allowed the unmarked peacoats to be worn ashore. So, it was simple to rip one out of a division’s  pea coat locker, get off the quarterdeck, sell it and return to the ship without a pea coat. The result – the sailor who had his ripped off felt pretty angry at having to replace it.

SIEGEL: I’ll bet he was. By your estimate, was this sort of shipboard theft pretty rare?

CULLINS:  This was unfortunately typical of my bewilderment at crime committed by sailors assigned or homeported overseas, and deepened my suspicion at a certain percentage of crossdeckers, including some senior people, who paid their rent in cigarettes or gasoline, lent money at usurious rates, took meat home from the galley, sold a case of olive oil from the commissary etc. (Interesting how much I saw this again later when I was in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico). It deepened my suspicion that a portion of the crossdeckers chose to be such because of the criminal advantages of living in Italy. Even for our relatively honest folks, the Italians were constantly pinging on them to sell them something in short supply (or too expensive) in Italy. It wasn’t just the crossdeckers; some of our original crew were involved in these activities.

SIEGEL: That old Middle Eastern and Mediterranean practice of ‘baksheesh’ was alive and well in the Italian culture. It ranged from ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ to out-and-out bribery. That was clearly a big part of it and it was very tough to say NO.

CULLINS: It was one of those moral dilemmas you run into in dealing with a foreign culture with different values. Well, it was off again to show the flag. On 15 November, we headed for Toulon, with the Admiral on board this time (as this Admiral always was – no TDY for him). One of our very few ‘incidents’ ashore came here in Toulon where our guys got in a bar fight with another USN ship’s sailors. Naturally, being smart, at Captain’s Mast they told me that the other sailors had insulted the Rock, so what were they to do? (Of course I let them off with a warning – what else was I to do?). There were a couple of tiffs between our sailors and our Marines, ashore, but I had the sailor’s chiefs handle it, and I had a longstanding agreement with the Marine Captain to handle his people in his own way. (Besides, most of our sailors thought they had to fight Marines because their fathers did!).

SIEGEL All part of the American Bluejacket’s heritage, right Admiral?

CULLINS: Yes, speaking of family culture, here was a prime example of something ‘near and dear’ best handled with fatherly understanding.

SIEGEL: Admiral, you had mentioned some operational constraints due to a fuel shortage. How did this affect the Rock?

CULLINS: It was back to Gaeta on 21 November, and we were starting into the fuel problem cycle where we spent too much time in Gaeta. CVAs were getting most of the fuel allocation, and the shortage caused the staff either to lock into Gaeta or use sea time just to head off for a port visit. We were up to about 56% of our time in Gaeta, There had been a gently chiding message from CincUSNavEur earlier, in May, stating that the homeported ‘goal’ was 45% and he urged ‘flexibility’ in scheduling – meaning get to sea more often.

SIEGEL: With all the additional time in home port, I guess you had to concentrate on more and better morale boosting activities.

CULLINS: Yes and we got cracking by having some fun with CVA Independence. They had heard that we had a football team and challenged us to a game. So, we had a ‘Turkey Day Bowl’ in the Gaeta soccer stadium, with all Italians invited. (It was also known as ‘The Mud Bowl’ that day). There was an Italian announcer on hand to explain the action to the puzzled locals who had never seen our ‘football’ before. It was funny to hear the loudest cheers when one of the teams punted! We won, in a sloppy contest. We lost to ‘Indy’ in basketball and won in volleyball. Also we had a boxing and wrestling smoker. Another bit of good news was the long awaited opening of the bowling alley, so we could establish a divisional bowling league. (Guess who bowled a 238 (to his surprise) at the opening?).

SIEGEL: What a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving in the games with Indy. Regarding your bowling story, if you want me to guess ‘Pete Cullins’, I think I’d like to see the score sheet before buying that one.

CULLINS: I’ll take the sailor’s oath on that one, and you can see my trophy if you wish! On 2 December we headed off to the Western Med for a week of National Week XVII, the usual group-grope of multiple ship formations with Little Rock having little to do. (Of interest to me is that in years of operating in the Med, I don’t ever remember ComSixthFlt being the OTC; although I can remember ComSecondFlt occasionally taking OTC in Atlantic Fleet exercises).

SIEGEL: I sense some disappointment in your participation in fleet exercises in the Med. Didn’t lobbying the staff for a more active role get you anywhere?

CULLINS: Not really, and Com6thFlt taking on the role of OTC would have meant more watch standing activity for them than they wanted. So, it was back in Gaeta in the second week of December for our extended Christmas leave period. Things slowed down except for my mayoral duties – attending all sorts of celebrations and parties. I did write to our type commander asking to be nominated for the Atlantic Fleet Sportsmanship award, listing our athletic achievements.

SIEGEL: Can you give me a sample of what your submission included.

CULLINS: Better than that, I have some detailed notes on our activities, as follows:

Intramural – Slow pitch softball, flag football, basketball and volleyball with a rotating trophy in each sport. (Usually 10-12 divisions participated in each sport except for the poor communications people assigned to the staff). A bowling league was just starting.
Fast pitch softball - Naples champs in ’74.
Tackle football - 2nd place in Naples Command League. Placed 10 on the Naples All-Star team for post season games and, of course, our ‘Turkey Bowl”.
 Baseball – Unable to get a single game against US teams, but adopted a team of Yugoslavs in Split, providing them with equipment and coaching. Also, we sponsored a team in the Little Rock , Arkansas Little League.
Basketball (both A and B teams) – Played more than two dozen games against teams from every country we visited. We got fourth place in the ComFairMed championship, third and fourth in two local Italian leagues, but lost to Indy.
Soccer – Played more than 18 games in every country we had visited. The team was considered by the Italians to be the second best team in Gaeta. One of our players had a try out with the local pro team.
Volleyball – Played more than a dozen games against countries we had visited. We got third place in both the local Italian tournament and the ComFairMed tournament.

SIEGEL: That was a really impressive array of sporting achievements.

CULLINS: Wait, there’s more; I was just coming up for air.

Boxing – ComFairMed champs for ’74.  We tied Indy the last week, although seven boxers could not compete due to Indy being unable to find boxers in certain weight classes.  No US activities in the Med would box us, so had to send our team to Germany for tournaments, which caused astonishment in Germany - that a ship could compete against large Army and Air Force bases.
Bowling – The varsity team bowled in a half-dozen very unlikely countries. Also competed in US Forces Spain and Germany tournaments.
Skeet – The Rod and Gun Club had shot French and Gibraltarian teams and was in the Naples Command Skeet League. At that time, we ourselves were building a skeet range in Itri Park.
 Tennis – Our top four to six tennis players (including me, occasionally) played formal matches in Gaeta tournaments and against city teams in two foreign ports.
Golf – Our team placed third in ComFairMed championship.
Other varsity teams were being organized. Lacrosse had sticks but needed balls. For wrestling, we had a mat and were hoping to talk ComFairMed into organizing a tournament, but there was a lack of interest from the Med shore establishment. Rugby was in the planning stage, (had list of experienced players), because everyone in France seemed to play Rugby.
A handball, squash and racquetball court was due in January on Fleet Landing (This is where I started my 33 year racquetball career).
In sports without competitive impact, karate, led by a third degree black belt held a demonstration match against an Italian commercial club. In scuba, we had about 50 members in a club called “Tiger Sharks” that had a compressor, and more than half the divers had their own equipment. The yacht club had nine sailboats, three kayaks, and three power boats for water skiing with 30-40 participants from the crew with lots of dependents involved.

SIEGEL: This appears to be the profile of a hands-down winner in the fleet competition.

CULLINS: I don’t remember if we won it or were just overlooked as some sort of weird anomaly. In any event, there was no memorable award presentation.

SIEGEL: The amount of effort that went into the organization, planning and logistical support for the program must have been great.

CULLINS: Why so much emphasis on athletics? Crossdeckers, NSA Det and Italians told me that Springfield had very little athletic interest. I just knew from the beginning that athletics builds a ship identity and is a useful safety outlet for pent-up frustrations. For example the 20 or so black athletes on our basketball teams were some of our most outspoken sailors, often ready to cite their travails in a ‘hostile’ foreign country. But we never had any difficulties with them once the program started. The variety of teams kept a lot of our youngsters away from the Gut and the EM club. The senior managers of the teams put up with no nonsense. If you screwed up ashore you were off the team. If you couldn’t develop Italian social relationships through sports and such, what was there to do except hitting the ‘clubs’?

SIEGEL: I’m quite aware, from my tour, that competition arranged with teams in the ports of call made for favorable exposure for the ship…and beyond that for the U.S. Navy and the USA.

CULLINS: Definitely.  I credit the athletic program with our exceptional conduct record in foreign ports. The incidents in Toulon, Gaeta, and (later) Marseilles were relatively minor and largely offset by the positive image that we created. To help team unity/pride, every varsity team had their own special uniforms, emblazoned with our Tiger patch, which had been our emblem since our arrival. Of course, our Community Relations Funds were going broke, since it is the European custom for teams to hand out gifts, which for us meant lighters, tie clasps, plus some 75 plaques).We were already hosting some tournaments ourselves because Naples was just too lethargic to suit us.

SIEGEL: Your sports and recreation program was a Cullins master stroke and a very positive aspect of the deployment.

CULLINS: Thanks, but at this point I must give you a follow-up on the earlier problems of our first months in the Med; and it’s a big negative that still sticks in my craw. I got the word, re the ‘Little Rock 10’ trial, that COMA stated that I was an “Accuser” vice a “Convener” and that I couldn’t be both, therefore the lawyer’s petition was granted. I later found out that under the new convening authority, two Bad Conduct Discharges (BCDs) were awarded, two were awarded Confinement at Hard Labor, and the others got busted to E-1 with 2 months Hard Labor without Confinement. I do know that the limitations of the UCMJ (all the Navy lawyers I consulted with agreed) resulted in the Navy judicial system being flimflammed by the ACLU lawyers. It appeared the Government knuckled under to the Legal Defense Committee’s threats to drag it out, so they went to pre-trial agreements on everyone, thereby reducing the punishments.

SIEGEL: Sadly, all too often, military lawyers are out-lasted or out-foxed by the ‘victims’ defense teams which are funded by certain so-call ‘enlightened’ elements of our society.

CULLINS: The Navy’s continuing caving in to these people is the worst part of it and I guess it’s a cross the military professional will always bear in our system of civilian control.

SIEGEL: We’re nearing the end of this session. Do you have any good stories to close with, to improve our mood?

CULLINS: You bet. I have a good one, but I’ll save it for later. Gaeta was sometimes a problem, but the crew behaved really well ashore. I can only remember a few ‘incidents’ in two years. There’s the one in Alexandria involving the Soviet merchant ship that I described earlier; and ultimately one in Marseilles I’ll tell you about next time... Let me say that we moved into 1975 with high hopes for a good year in which ship’s company had settled into life and duty in forward deployment.

SIEGEL: We’ll leave it there, Admiral. I look forward to our next session.

CULLINS: In our next get-together, I’ll wrap up the story of my command tour in Little Rock with some reflections on the overall experience. Farewell until then.

SIEGEL:  Good day, Sir.
- - - - - - -
The portion of RADM Cullins' Oral History pertaining to his time on board the USS Little Rock CLG 4 is presented in several segments, chronologically arranged. You have just finished reading Segment 10. Click below to go to any other segment or to go to the Introduction.

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