Crew Member's Oral History provided by:

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

Interview Segment 10

Page last updated: 15 March, 2020

U.S.S. Little Rock Association

The following is Segment 11, 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: Admiral, it’s good to see you on this our eleventh get together. You’ve told me that this session is going to wrap up your tour as Commanding Officer, USS Little Rock.

CULLINS: Hello, Kent. You’re right; my tour in the Rock was nearing an end as we entered 1975. I’ll try to wrap up this interview with some overall reflections on my time in command. As before, I’ve brought some notes to refresh my memory.

SIEGEL: That’s fine, Admiral. Please take it from the beginning of 1975.

CULLINS: Rock remained in Gaeta until 16 January after five weeks pier side over the holidays.

SIEGEL: You suggested earlier that such long stays led to restlessness in the crew.  Was it a relatively quiet period in terms of your morale officer/police chief duties?

CULLINS: I don’t really remember, Kent. My recollection is that it was always tense in Gaeta in the winter. I do remember one awful time when I was awakened at midnight and told about an incident at the Sea Breeze EM club. Hurrying down there I learned that one of our drunks had staggered out into the highway in front of the Sea  Breeze and been decapitated by an Italian driver. I went out to the highway and picked up pink brains from the middle of the road and to stop Italian drivers from slowing down or stopping in order to view the body parts. (It wouldn’t have happened in the ‘Gut’ where there were always Carabinieri). Anyway, on the 16th we were off to Palermo, Sicily. Of course, this city had been washed by every Mediterranean society since the dawn of time, (Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Goths, Vandals, Byzantines, then Arabs for 300 years, then the Normans, then the French for a century or so, then the Spanish for 500 years, before the Italian revolutions in the 19th century). Topping it off was Gen. George Patton’s capture of it in WWII, so history surrounded us.

SIEGEL: You’ve expressed quite an interest in the history of the ports you visited during your travels in the Med. Did you attempt to instill that interest in your crew?

CULLINS: Absolutely; that was always highlighted in our port briefings on CCTV, in Tiger Rag articles, and POD notes. We also put out the word on cultural differences and taboos, of which there were many. For example, it was interesting how much furor our donation of 100 pints of blood caused in Palermo. It has always interested me how in Asia, South America, Africa, and much of Europe our giving of blood, (for free!), astonished the locals. It just isn’t a thing to do in most of the world.

SIEGEL: Interesting. Was this trip another opportunity to have wives join for the port visits and passage via the ship?

CULLINS: Yes, We met some of our wives in Palermo (Valaree got knocked down by a passing shopping-bag snatcher on a motor bike and lost her purchases). The wives went with us to the next port of call, Tunis. We were there from the 19th to the 24th – not long enough.

SIEGEL: A five-day port visit in Tunis wasn’t long enough; why do you say that?

CULLINS: Because the citizens we met in Tunis, and their military people were so engaging and sophisticated, in the European sense. The crew sensed no anti-American sentiment ashore; the culture-loving types found loads to do with Carthage and Roman ruins; the military history fans found battlefields to walk, etc. One of the most beautiful WWII military cemetaries I’ve ever visited is outside of Tunis. From Tunis, we headed on to Cagliari, Sardinia with our wives embarked. Cagliari is another city with a facinating history. It was once a significant Phoenician colony until it fell to the Carthaginians, then the Romans, and then flip-flopping between Vandal and Byzantine rule until the Arabs came. Later the Holy Roman Empire built it up against the Turks. Even later, the Brits attacked it as part of the internecine Italian wars. We were there until the 27th.

SIEGEL: The back-to-back port visits must have drained the crew of liberty funds. Did you manage to work in any at-sea time for ops on this trip?

CULLINS: Yes, we  left the wives in Cagliari and spent the next few days at sea doing Talos missile firings until 2 February. During this at-sea time off Sardinia, we were begging for some Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) shooting at the established range in Sardinia. No dice – apparently too noisy for the staff.

SIEGEL: Where have all the warriors gone?!

CULLINS: That’s a good question for which I never got an answer. And, then there was yet a fourth port visit to Livorno, Italy, with all of its Tuscan art treasures, before heading back to Gaeta on the 8th of March. We were going to have six weeks in Gaeta!

SIEGEL: I guess that would be a long stint with your mayor’s hat on.

 CULLINS: Right, but by this time, there were significant additions or improvements to our ‘naval base’ that I should mention (some our doing, but mostly by NSA Det.) I have some detailed notes to which I’ll refer:

Joshua Barney Elementary School was new since the previous summer.
Eating facilities were being installed in the existing community center in the basement of the school
The ‘Fleet Landing’ was being improved constantly with the following:

  -  A shore machine/shipfitter shop was going in to expand our self-repair capability. 

  -  A beach-guard shack.

  -  An athletic gear locker.

  -  A ‘sail locker’.

  -  A flag barge/gig locker.

  -  A ‘geedunk’ stand. (for ‘pogey bait’), believe it or not.

  -  A fire-fighting gear locker.

  -  A warehouse facility borrowed from the Italians for storing gear from the ship.
A post office in the basement of NSA Det.
A clinic and sick bay with a Navy doctor and corpsman at Formia (the next town down the coast where the Admiral and some others lived).
A Shore Patrol headquarters office co-located with the Carabinieri.
A dues system initiated for the Italian/American Officers’ Club. We made this ‘wardroom’ into a real nice, cozy facility and were starting to look at adding dining facilities in the spring. Plans were also afoot to establish a BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters) in this rather large (and relatively unused) building.
Motor Pool garages and a dispatcher shack. It did eat up a lot of our TAD people, plus 1/5 of our Welfare & Recreation money. Also, NSA Det and Flag OPTAR went into this. But, I guess it was worth it for the peace of mind of our dependents. (Incidentally, Valaree was the only ‘senior’ wife driving her own car – the others used official Navy vehicles, something which I disapproved of and which was technically illegal, although to be honest, you took your life in your hands to drive around the area, particularly to, in, and from Naples).
A parking lot for the EM Club.
A TAD (TDY) barracks for 6 people, in the NSA Det. building.
A teen club is in the basement of the NSA Det.
A coin-operated laundromat in the NSA Det.

A notable failure in our planned improvements was Itri Park which was kind of a big fiasco. This was a leased property outside of Gaeta intended to be a park for picnics, parties and outdoor recreational facilities. The SeaBees had been pumping money into this for two years and we were seeing nothing.

SIEGEL: That’s an incredible list of accomplishments that is hardly diminished by the failure at Itri Park.

CULLINS: I must credit the NSA Det. people who were the ‘unsung heroes’ in most all of these upgrades. They were never fully manned and thus were unable to perform the mission as it existed in the real (paper) world, but somehow they got things done.

Interestingly, about this time there were messages flying back and forth between higher commands on leaving Little Rock in Gaeta rather than having CG Albany relieve us.

SIEGEL: I assume that kind of thinking was driven by a desire to avoid the major perturbations in and cost of the shift of personnel in an overseas homeport swap.

CULLINS: That and probably some anticipated savings in the material cost of getting Albany ready to deploy. In any event, cancellation of her deployment never happened and, as you know, Little Rock returned to the States in late ’76 for decommissioning.

SIEGEL: How were your social programs working with all the import time?

CULLINS: Socially, besides the occasional bussing in of Waves/Wrens from Naples, we sent up, for $500, a ‘bachelor bus’ to Florence where there were lots of American girls studying. All of them met girls–  2 girls came back with the bus and 3 more took the train to Gaeta!
In addressing a workplace morale issue, I did something I should have done earlier. I had always been irritated at having to enter ports in white uniforms because a lot of the deck force line handlers really messed up their whites and then got nipped at by CPOs and OODs when going ashore with less than perfect uniforms. In Waddell, I bought coveralls to take the strain off whites. So, belatedly in the Rock, we bought $1200 worth of blue Sears and Roebuck coveralls for the line handlers to wear when entering port. It was clear they would look sharp and keep whites/blues clean.

SIEGEL: That was a big win for the line handlers.  But then, you needed some departures/arrivals to show off the coveralls. Did the months ahead hold any promise for more underway time?

CULLINS: No, to the contrary.  We were going to have a lot of Gaeta time in ’75, it appeared. We’d had in the last 4 months only 18 days at sea (12 of them merely transits between ports). We couldn’t do anything about it (one day of fuel for us was two days of fuel for a DD), so our operational training readiness was going down. Fuel restrictions were keeping us from going to the places where the missile and gunnery targets were located. I seem to remember that Souda Bay, Crete, had some Talos surface targets; that surface shoot gunnery targets and their towing tugs were only in Alexandria; and Talos air targets were in Rota. (Failure to get to Rota didn’t make any difference, anyway, as the aviators were loath to cut loose of their AQM high altitude drones for our Talos shoots because they wanted them for themselves). NGFS was only possible - hurriedly - in the major fleet exercises (and the staff seemed to significantly cut down even that time)

SIEGEL Not a rosy picture for keeping the crew on the step.

CULLINS: No, so we did the only thing we could think of under the circumstances. On the 5th of March we had a ‘Fast Cruise’, a ‘pretend’ period at sea which I’ve previously described, (picked up from my nuclear ship days), where the brow is off limits to anyone but the staff and we go on an at-sea routine for 24 hours. Special Sea Detail, General Quarters, fire drills, casualty control drills, changing of the watch sections, etc. (Boy did the staff howl, as they did at sea, if our engineers lost electrical power at all during their C/C drills). (The nest-builders howled too – it was amazing how many ‘wife-emergencies’ were claimed.)  I think these Fast Cruises are absolutely necessary after being in port too long. Just as aviators have to continuously fly to keep their proficiency, so do sailors have to train in being at sea.

SIEGEL: That was making the most of bad circumstances which even the staff must have recognized as positive.

CULLINS: Right. Beyond that ‘pretend’ exercise, material readiness was the big priority, as an INSURV was coming in March. (It was eventually delayed into 1976.)  We continued with all of the ‘teams’, and particularly emphasized removing tons of topside cabling and preserving the insides of our dozens of long-neglected fan rooms, and the overhaul of the electrical systems throughout the ship (which was completely an engineering department initiative).

We were finally underway again, headed for Marseilles, France on the 19th of March. Marseilles is the oldest city in France, and was about as far to the east as the Moors got in the 800-1200AD period. It’s a tough city, celebrated around the world by merchant seamen as having a waterfront district where you could get anything and everything you wanted within walking distance of your ship’s berth.

SIEGEL: Yes, Marseilles is a legendary tough place and a major port of entry for illicit drugs into Europe.
CULLINS: It was illustrated to us by the incident I referred to in our last session.

This incident could have been disastrous. We had a redhead in the deck force who was a problem. I remember a time when he jumped overboard when we were getting underway. Well, while in Marseilles a tall, powerfully-built French Foreign Legionnaire in full uniform came striding down the pier (their main base was only a few miles east of the city), came up the brow, and saluted the Command Duty Officer, who happened to be on the quarterdeck with the OOD. The blunt pronouncement that he delivered was something to the effect that we had a red-haired sailor on board who had been drunk in a bar frequented by legionnaires and had bashed one of them in the face with a bottle. He then said “If we see him ashore again, we will kill him”. With that, he smartly saluted and marched down the brow.

Siegel: That’s a humdinger. Talk about the force of brevity, delivered with panache. I believe that’s the kind of warning that leads one to gladly surrender his liberty card.

Cullins: We, of course, helped our red-headed sailor to come to that conclusion.

Then it was back to Gaeta on the 26th for close to a month, then, at sea for missile firings for a couple of days and back to Gaeta again on the 24th of April for good, as far as I was concerned. I think we were back to staff nest-building again because there was talk about cutting our participation in the next Dawn Patrol by half. (Lord, we had not operated with another ship or force since Dec.’74!). I really did feel that the staff didn’t like to be disconnected from their telephone lines and their ‘nests’ in Gaeta/Formia, and had little interest in exercises at sea. (In retrospect I was probably too hard on the staff – they did get disrupted by us trying to be a warship vice a floating hotel). Later on in the Pentagon, when the debate over numbered flags being ashore or afloat occurred, I came down firmly on the ashore side. But the “John Paul Jones in our anchor” types won the day. (The Navy at that time was still in the mode of “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”).

SIEGEL: Well, Admiral, the ‘powers that be’ managed to continue with the concept of keeping the staff afloat in  flagships (of some description) in the Sixth Fleet even to this day, using an AD, small CGs, several LPDs, and an LCC.

CULLINS: So, what do I know? I had received orders to report to OPNAV as soon as possible (‘Proceed’ vice 30 days leave, naturally) in order to relieve the incumbent in the Plans, Programs and Budgeting System (PPBS) shop under the DCNO for Surface Warfare. I was wary – sounded like the old BuPers game of ‘hurry up and relieve’ at the convenience of the guy to be relieved.  So, I had to start thinking about departure things as well as wrapping up or reviewing projects I had started. Our XO, Roger Simon, was ordered as Commander NavCommSta Morocco, and he was in the process of being relieved by an unknown CDR ‘bubblehead’, i.e. coming out of the Submarine Force. His name was Kent Siegel. Sound familiar?

SIEGEL: I knew him well and he recognized a challenge when he saw one.  It was going to be a big test… a large, tired, old warship in a foreign homeport with unique requirements related to being a flagship, dealing with Italian authorities and coping with morale problems in the crew and the somewhat insular dependent community. I had over a week of ‘turnover’ with Roger so had a pretty complete picture of what I’d be facing.

CULLINS: I’m glad you had no false illusions about your cushy, new overseas assignment. I spent a lot of time with Roger before he left, reviewing where we stood on our projects. Here’s a scrub list, much of which you covered in the turnover with Roger, I’m sure. (Again, I’m referring to some fairly detailed notes I prepared after reviewing my papers.):

We had ‘steamed’ the plant for all but 10 days in two years, so the engineers’ never-ending pipe lagging was still going on, although we’d had 2-4 men on the Lagging Team for almost that long.
The Vent Cleaning Team was still going strong, after two years. The team had moved into some of the ghastly fan rooms, which had to be completely cleaned and re-preserved – not just the vents.
We still had about 100 valve wheels to go with 500 replaced. (I just couldn’t understand how previous supervisory people had let this go on over the years).
 Despite our PREP program (PACE), we still had about 100 sailors who had not completed a high school education equivalent.
Finally our ham radio station was up and running, so people could call home. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but it was a real good one.
A big success is that out of 16 lily-white divisions when we left the States, there were now only two small ones – due to our aggressive Striker Selection Board (SSB) activity and our leading CPO/PO1s willingness to take a chance. Incidentally about 150 had been selected by the SSB, and about 60 went on to the ‘Fleet A-School’ program (a really great program) and 40 or so had graduated. I don’t remember if they came back to us upon graduation, but I think many did.
For our young black sailors who were not selected by the SSB for transfer to other divisions, a rough rule of thumb was that 50% of them would be gone in the first six months; 25% in the next six and 25% in the last six month period.
Topside maintenance still bothered me. ‘Donkey Dicks’ (hose-like extensions) had kept the overboard discharges from rusting the sides, which looked good. But, we couldn’t lick topside maintenance, i.e. the deck house and superstructure, as it irritated the staff so much.  The result was a lot of after-hours work, and we had an increasingly smaller deck force and too few senior boatswain’s mates.
We still had about twice as many liberty cancellations in the EM Club as we had in the Gut. It was a continuing worry. I should mention that some time in the spring we shelled out a lot of money and got the singer Billy Eckstein to perform in the EM club, which our young black sailors enjoyed.
SIEGEL: That’s a great review of how things stood in April of ’75.  I recall that… in picking up the beat with the active sports/recreation programs that you created…it was among the duties with which I’d had little experience.

CULLINS: I understand because it was a creation of necessity that was not usually associated with Navy sea duty.
I don’t remember much about our May ’75 period, as it was spent getting ready for the change of command, packing out, and the inevitable round of farewell parties, including a delightful one our officers and wives threw for Valaree and me. There was also a memorable ‘Dining In’ put on by the ship’s wardroom mess (at the Italian O’Club) with the classic parading of the ‘Roast Beef of Olde England’.  The Admiral and his staff were in attendance with our people and NSA Det. officers and all seemed to enjoy themselves as the evening slipped into an ever more rowdy atmosphere. During the after-dinner frivolity, I got mouse-trapped into playing the ukulele and singing a rather ribald tune.

Then the day came; Captain Bill Martin took over, The actual ceremony is somewhat vague to me, so I will defer to your memory – you undoubtedly organized the whole thing.

SIEGEL: It was a fine ceremony at Fleet Landing with all the troops on dress parade in glorious May weather. There were many kind words from ComSixthFlt regarding your performance as Little Rock’s CO and his Flag Captain. A very nice reception followed the ceremony on the Rock’s main deck under the canvas.  Then, you trooped the line of officers in a traditional farewell gesture, were piped over the side for the last time and walked down the pier to continue your career in another place.

CULLINS: I’m glad you remember all that…it’s a bit hazy for me. I do remember saying goodbye to the officers and I was off – a bit teary walking down the pier, which any just-relieved CO will understand.

As I’ve mentioned, my most significant memories about being CO of the Rock were not warrior memories, but rather were related to being Hotel Manager, Social Worker, Mayor and Chief of Police. I had to continually fight for time at sea to do training that didn’t disturb the staff, so I was rather proud of the fact that we were C1 (except for a full power run) and got the Cruiser E the last year (not a huge deal as there were only two other cruisers).

SIEGEL: Never-the-less, that was quite an achievement in which you should take great pride, particularly with underway training time as limited as it was. What’s your assessment of the performance of your officers and men, especially the key people?

CULLINS: I was proud of the fact that the three principal department heads did so well, despite the fact that BuPers had given up on them, which is why they were ordered in. (Even with my somewhat-inflated fitness reports on them, most didn’t survive. Also, few of the assistant department heads ever made it upwards). I was particularly proud of the engineers, who kept us running for two years with only one TAV, mostly on self-help. Practically all of the Chiefs were superb, which really carried us. A significant number of the PO1s were too. The CWOs/WOs were uniformly top-drawer. I can’t say as much for the JO’s in general, but there were some hot runners. The LTJGs/LTs were mostly dropouts from other warfare programs, or had given up and were looking for a comfortable nest and an exciting foreign tour to round out their service commitment. The Ensigns hadn’t been tested or spoiled elsewhere, so were OK.

SIEGEL: Do you think the junior officer quality you observed was a function of the detailing process or reflected the prevailing attitude toward service of the kids of that era?

CULLINS: I think it was some of each, although the usual practice of BuPers ordering hard-to-detail officers to cruisers (the ‘dumping ground’) was a factor. In my view, it was largely a product of the bigger picture of the Navy’s confused priorities, the drug culture, and greater permissiveness in the system of discipline. Trying to keep the peace among the crew was exhausting, and to this day if my telephone rings at night, I shudder (PTS syndrome??). It was due to the time and place with the 60’s riots, post-Vietnam, Z-grams, zero-defect mentality in our seniors and the advent of the AVF (All Volunteer Force), complicated by an almost complete misunderstanding by senior commanders of  overseas homeporting problems. I will say that the support, such as it could be, by our Type Commander, was quite good. The ‘criminality’, misbehavior, and the surprising number of personal problems among our people were not the stuff of recruiting movies. The incredible drug use, mostly a sign of the times, was especially deflating.

SIEGEL: That synopsis certainly represents my feelings, although your pioneering efforts in Gaeta clearly made life easier for Bill Martin and me. The installation in ’75 of Admiral Holloway as a strong, traditional and conventional CNO, also brought about swift changes for the better.

CULLINS: I’m glad we helped to hopefully smooth the water for you and Bill and ‘Amen’ on your comment about the change in CNO.

SIEGEL: It’s clear, Admiral, that you personally got the ‘travel and adventure’ promised by the Navy.  We’ve heard from you in clear-cut terms that not all the adventure was what one might hope for, but the travel piece sounded good.

CULLINS: It wasn’t as good as one might think. The exposure to the Mediterranean culture was not all it was cracked up to be, for me. In a foreign port, typically Val and I were lucky to have a half day off, what with on-board VIP visits/dinner parties, and protocol requirements for calls/return calls by me on minor dignitaries, etc. Fortunately, when we were at sea for exercises (vice transits), Valaree managed to get in a lot of sightseeing, That was on her own and paid for by me (vice TAD/TDY ‘orders’) including getting to our ports a day early and leaving a day after we sailed.

SIEGEL: It’s clear from all of our discussions that you were cut out to be a warship commander, not a flag captain for an ‘Admiral Diplomat’ and his staff which were big thinkers and planners, but not operators.

CULLINS: I probably overdid the angst at being a ‘hotel manager’. In my previous eight ships, the embarked commanders had emphasized training and readiness, not port time and port/protocol visits, and had made no additional demands on ship resources. So I probably had my ‘back up’ too much. There were times that I just shrugged and gave in; for example the time that the first admiral took our Marines, which he probably felt were his, only to use them as full-dressed lamp posts, lined up alongside his driveway the night of a big soiree he had for local VIPs. The Marine Captain was madder than a hornet, but I calmed him down.

SIEGEL: As we end this session, do you have any final thoughts on your command tour in Little Rock, relative to the earlier assignments in your career, other than the vexation of being a ‘hotel manager’ for a numbered fleet commander and staff?

CULLINS: Just an observation. I might be one of the very few CO’s who had ship command in the first year of Adm. Zumwalt’s CNO term and the last year of his term. There are a lot of variables: the end of the Vietnam war, the new All Volunteer Force, overseas homeporting, etc but it sure seems like the quality of the force diminished in that time.  As we became social workers, dealing with all of the mandated programs from on high, it consumed too much of the time of our officers/CPOs/LPOs.  We lost focus on our real purpose for existing.

SIEGEL: That seems to match the observations of many, if not most, of the senior officers of that era. I’ll join you next time for a discussion of your re-acquaintance with duty at the Pentagon

CULLINS: Fine, Kent, I look forward to it.

- - - - - - -

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 11. Click below to go to any other segment or to go to the Introduction.

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