U.S.S. Little Rock Association
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Interviewee: Gus Karlsen
Interviewer: Rick Jamieson
JAMIESEN: I am Rick Jamieson and I will be interviewing Gus Karlsen, who served on board CLG 4, USS Little Rock. We are at the seventeenth annual reunion of the USS Little Rock Association at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Buffalo, New York. The date is July 20, 2007. The purpose of this interview is to get to know Gus and from his recollections learn more about life and duty as an ASW officer aboard USS Little Rock, CLG 4, during his tenure of service from July 1961 to March 1964.
Gus, for background, please summarize your early life, education, and work experiences if any before joining the Navy.
KARLSEN: Okay. First, I want to clarify that my last name, Karlsen, is spelled K-A-R-L-S-E-N instead of the way that most people normally spell it.
I was born and raised in Central Connecticut, attended school there until I was fifteen. Then my parents, who were immigrants from Norway, returned to Norway because my father retired from his job. So I attended school in Norway for a year, and returned alone to finish high school a year later. I went on to college at Uppsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French language and culture, and went on to U.S. Navy OCS in Newport, Rhode Island.
I joined the Navy on 8 August 1960 and was commissioned 3 March 1961. I had orders to the USS Little Rock, but before joining Little Rock I attended Combat Information Center School in Brunswick, Georgia, at the old NAS Glynco. That was nearly a four-month course of instruction, and after completion I flew to Italy, where the Little Rock was on a port visit in Genoa. And I officially joined the ship on the 11th of July 1961.
JAMIESEN: Gus, what was your initial impression of the ship the first time you saw her?
KARLSEN: I was really worried, because I remembered that in OCS, in the naval orientation class, they told us that the enlisted men went aboard one brow and the officers went aboard the other brow. And I, for the life of me, couldn’t remember if I was supposed to go up the forward brow or the after brow, and I was really worried about that. But by the time I got to the ship it didn’t matter because we were Med-moored with the stern to the pier, and so there was only one choice, to go up that brow by itself.
I was amazed at how big the ship was. I had never really seen a Navy cruiser before, at least not that close up. I was cordially greeted and made to feel as at home as Navy regulation and custom permitted, and set about performing assigned duties.
JAMIESEN: Do you remember who met you on the brow that first day? Was it someone from your division? Was it the division chief? Was it the division officer or department head?
KARLSEN: Well, it was whoever had the Officer of the Deck in port duty. I don’t recall specifically who it was.
JAMIESEN: So you just reported to the quarterdeck and then they took care of all your gear and stuff.
JAMIESEN: And escorted you down to the wardroom, probably.
KARLSEN: That’s right, yeah.
JAMIESEN: And there you were.
KARLSEN: They showed me the stateroom I was going to occupy along with two other officers. Roger Wallin was one of them. Roger is a member of this Association. Roger Wallin. And the other fellow’s name was Russ, but I don’t recall his last name; he was a radio officer.
JAMIESEN: What was your division and department assignment, or your job, your watch station, battle station?
KARLSEN: I was initially assigned as the junior officer of OL Division, OL being the division where the members were the ship’s lookouts. My immediate superior was Lieutenant Jack Elliott, who was the division officer. He was from Maine, and a very fine fellow. I got to know him quite well. And he had a very nice attitude and a great sense of humor, very dry Maine “hu-mah.” He left and another officer was appointed as OL Division Officer, and I subsequently moved on to become the OI Division junior division officer. OI Division is, as you know, where the radarmen were all assigned.
I worked in CIC as the surface watch officer and later fleeted up to CIC watch officer in charge of a dozen or so radarmen who kept the watch and performed the various tasks plotting contacts, locating the ship geographically, and maintaining communications and relaying information to command.
In late 1962 we went into Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, where we had an extensive overhaul, and during that time the ship received its first and only sonar installation, the SQS-23A. I was anti-submarine warfare officer, having gone to ASW Officers’ School in Key West. I was charged with the task of overseeing the installation of all that equipment. Luckily I had a very knowledgeable petty officer, a sonarman second class named Kelly, Jim Kelly, who was very helpful in performing those duties. And we subsequently got six fresh sonarmen, now called Operations Specialists, and they were added to the roster of OI Division. Subsequently I became OI Division Officer and stood watches both in CIC and on the bridge. Those were primarily my duties while on board.
JAMIESEN: Do you remember your first cruise, your first deployment after the shipyard? Where did you go?
KARLSEN: Well, we went down to Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) for refresher training right out of the yard. That was a pretty intense, several days. The Fleet Training Group really put us through our paces, and we conducted standard Navy exercises according to whatever the exercise instruction manual was. It was challenging and very rewarding. I’m happy to say that OI Division performed very well in meeting the tasks and requirements.
While we were in Guantanamo Bay I was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) and, along with a couple of other officers who had been promoted, I had my wetting-down party at the officers’ club.
JAMIESEN: That must have been quite an experience.
KARLSEN: It was quite an experience. I can certainly agree with that statement. While we were at Gitmo we also took some R&R for a weekend in Kingston, Jamaica. And we also went to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico, and also visited San Juan. At Rosie Roads we conducted our missile shoots to see how the FTs and the gunner’s mates performed. It was such a wonderful experience for a young man to be involved in all that.
It was interesting. I was about twenty-three or –four, I guess, and some of the men in my division would come to me for advice, as if I were the experienced old salt. I was maybe two or three or four years older than they were, and I’m not sure I was up to the task, but I gave it my best shot.
JAMIESEN: Do you remember the first time you deployed? Did you ever deploy to the Med?
KARLSEN: We did. Actually, I joined the ship in the Med, on July 11, 1961, at Genoa. We made several other ports calls — Palma de Mallorca, maybe Barcelona, and several other ports before we headed back stateside in late August or early September. That was a wonderful experience as well. I’d been to Europe several times before that, but Kodak liberty was really great in the Med in all the ports we visited.
JAMIESEN: You obviously were an officer and you lived in officers’ country. Can you describe what those living conditions were like for a young man in the sixties?
KARLSEN: Well, (chuckle) it was certainly an eye-opener for me. I never expected to be living as well-off as I did in wardroom country. At that time we had steward’s mates who were Filipino or African-American, and they really took good care of us. They made up our bunks and changed our linen and towels and stuff, and carried our laundry bags back to the laundry. They served us our meals on a tablecloth-covered table in the wardroom. The only thing I was unhappy about was the fact that you had to be a commander or above in order to have your shoes shined by the stewards, and I thought that, well, I’ll be glad when I make commander, if I ever do. I never expected that would happen at that time. But when I finally did make commander in the Reserves they changed that regulation and I still had to shine my own shoes. Not too bad, but just kind of a funny little side note.
JAMIESEN: So how was the food in the wardroom?
KARLSEN: Well, you know, it varied from time to time. It kind of depended on who the mess treasurer was, and who was the purchasing person of the food and so on. I was riding high when we came back from the Med on that first cruise, because we stopped in Boston to drop off the Flag and we took on lobsters for the wardroom. We had lobster all the way down to Norfolk and I thought, wow, this is better living than I ever had before. But then the wardroom mess treasurer changed and the food wasn’t really very good at all. Officers had to pay for their food in the wardroom. At the time we got $47.88 a month in addition to our base pay to cover what we had to give to the mess treasurer for our food every month. At one point I remember the junior officer of the deck had to sample the crew’s mess at lunch periodically, and when I was assigned that I always found that the crew had better chow than we did in the wardroom.
JAMIESEN: You obviously didn’t have to worry about laundry because they would take care of you, but, how was laundry service, and so forth?
KARLSEN: Well, we wore wash khaki and tropical white long, and when we would go to put on a clean pair of trousers they would be starched completely shut, so you had to force your foot all the way down the length of the pant leg in order to be able to put them on. And when we were ready to change them after three or four days they were (chuckle) pretty sweat-stained.
JAMIESEN: But my question to you is, did they break your buttons as well?
KARLSEN: The button crusher was working very well in those early days. Yes, buttons were routinely ruined, so we learned to be pretty good with a needle.
JAMIESEN: What did the wardroom do for onboard recreation when you were underway, when you weren’t standing your watches, you know?
KARLSEN: Well, the wardroom was both the dining room and kind of a relaxation lounge for the officers, and we had a phonograph in there that played 33 rpm LPs, and we had a TV, and a lot of the officers played backgammon and cards and things like that. It was just generally shooting the bull.
JAMIESEN: Did they show movies?
KARLSEN: They showed a movie every night in the wardroom, and on the mess decks, usually, as well. So that was kind of fun. After a time we got a new chaplain and he was in charge of the gedunk, or the canteen, where all the goodies were served, that is ice cream and stuff like that. He got hold of a popcorn machine somehow, so we had fresh popcorn watching the movie in the wardroom. It was the old 16-mm projectors and, you know, you had to change reels and all that kind of stuff. That’s back in the dark ages now, but it was hot stuff then.
JAMIESEN: Can you tell me a little bit about some of your close buddies, or maybe some of the more colorful characters aboard your ship?
KARLSEN: One of the more colorful characters is our esteemed President of the USS Little Rock Association, then Ensign and Lieutenant (jg) Gerard A. Dupuis. We were roommates several times. They moved us around fairly readily and fairly often as junior officers, so I think I was assigned probably four or five different staterooms, and probably three of those times Jerry Dupuis was one of my roommates. We kept in touch ever since and I was in his wedding. And when the Little Rock Association was formed I joined as well and Jerry went on to become President.
JAMIESEN: So you’ve been friends for many, many years.
KARLSEN: Many, many years--since 1961, I guess, or ’62.
JAMIESEN: And having said that, saying he’s a pretty colorful character, when you two get together at the reunion you must really have a lot to talk about over the course of the four days.
KARLSEN: We do, we do. We hash over the old days and we kind of give each other jabs in the ribs, kind of joshing and making light of whatever situation we’re involved in.
Some of the other wardroom characters were Lieutenant Forrester, who was really out of the old “rocks and shoals” school of thought. He thought junior officers were to be seen and not heard. He was pretty brusque and pretty much of a strict disciplinarian. Another one was a fellow named Ted Manduca, who was from Maine, Old Orchard Beach. Went to Maine Maritime Academy. He was very hard on junior officers. Gave us a lot of trouble. And I remember one day getting dressed down because, although I was wearing a uniform with a jacket, I didn’t have a belt on, and he happened to notice that and dressed me down right there in the wardroom. So he was colorful as well. Those are the highlights, I think.
JAMIESEN: Okay. That’s very good. Can you recall any moments of great shock, fear, or excitement? Is there anything that really sticks in your mind to this day?
KARLSEN: Yeah. There was a naval review out in the Virginia Capes operating area when President Kennedy was alive. He flew onto the carrier in a helicopter and reviewed the fleet from the carrier, and several other dignitaries went and visited other ships. Since we were Second Fleet flagship at the time a bunch of them came on board. My duty was to be hooked up to a radio set with earphones and a microphone to relay the information about who would be incoming on the helicopter so the proper honors could be rendered and appropriate flags broken out for the high ranking dignitaries. Among those who came on board were Robert McNamara and whoever the Chief of Naval Operations was at the time, as well as a young, handsome, bright-looking young fellow with lots of energy who came over and said “Good morning” to me. And I said, “Good morning, sir.” It was Bobby Kennedy. I had this long, long, long electrical cord attached to my communications gear and I had it coiled up in my hand, and some of it was just out on deck. We completed our brief conversation and he just stepped over to another part of the deck and nearly tripped on my electrical cord. So I thought that my Naval career was about done if he had actually gone over on his face. But luckily that didn’t happen.
Another time when I was very, very scared, as was everybody else on the ship, was when we were in the shipyard in October of 1962 and President Kennedy came on the TV to talk to the country about the Russians placing missile sites in Cuba and what he was going to do about that. In fact, he announced the Cuban blockade. So, we were all wondering what in the world was going to happen. Were we going to be assigned to other ships and go down and participate in the blockade? There was just a lot of uncertainty. Even though the President spoke in a very calm voice we became very agitated and wondered what was going to happen to us. Everything, luckily, worked out well. We all stayed on board the Little Rock and went about our business.
JAMIESEN: What can you tell us about any member of your division? What about a leading petty officer, the division chief, any XO/CO stories that you might have in the chain of command? Did you have any one of those that sticks in your mind?
KARLSEN: I had a leading petty officer, a first-class radarman named Sam Darr, who was very mature and a really squared-away 4.0 Sailor. He and I worked pretty well together as a team. I admired the way he handled men and the way he got tasks accomplished, with no fanfare but everything was completed to everyone’s satisfaction. He just really handled the men under his charge with a great deal of skill and thoughtfulness.
JAMIESEN: How about that first department head that you worked for? Can you tell me about him?
KARLSEN: The first department head I worked for — well, the department head was Commander Charles Rosier, who was a native Mainer and still lives there. He was the operations boss. He was a very handsome, very courteous and courtly gentleman of the old school. He really impressed me, and I wish I could say that I had modeled myself completely after his style of leadership, but I did the best I could.
JAMIESEN: Did you interact with the admiral or any of his staff at any point in your job?
KARLSEN: No. (Chuckle) Only to brace up against the bulkhead and give him room when he was going along the passageway or along the deck outside.
JAMIESEN: Was the XO a leader in the wardroom? Did he give direction?
KARLSEN: Well, the XO was the president of the wardroom mess. The captain, of course, had his own mess, and only came to the wardroom by invitation. We had several executive officers. The first one was Commander Frank Berry, who is a member of this Association. He was a very strict and no-nonsense kind of guy, and got the job done, so I admired him for that. Then there was Commander John Randolph, who relieved Commander Berry. He was just kind of quiet and didn’t really do much to make an impression. He was a quiet sort of fellow.
And then Commander Dave Johnson relieved him. I was very impressed with Commander Johnson. I later ran into him when I was on an active duty for training period as a reservist years, years later. He had made captain and was stationed at Little Creek, Virginia. I went to visit him and he said, “Oh, yes. Karlsen. Karlsen.” And he pulled out a drawer of his credenza and he said, “Let me see, Karlsen, with a K.” And he pulled out copies of my fitness reports that he had written on me. And I thought, wow, this guy really is very thorough in the way he approaches things, and to have him just do that I thought was kind of amazing and another bit of insight into what a successful Naval officer looks like.
JAMIESEN: Very good. When and where did you detach from the Little Rock when you left?
KARLSEN: I detached from Little Rock in March of 1964 and had orders to go to the staff of Commander, Military Sea Transportation Service, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Area, whose headquarters were in London, England. That was another big thrill for me because I had never spent much time as a resident in any large city. So going to London to be stationed there for probably two or three years was pretty exciting. Got along very well there and enjoyed living in London. It was really an eye-opener. I just enjoyed it very much.
JAMIESEN: What was your overall impression of your tour on the ship?
KARLSEN: I always kind of liked it. I liked it a lot, as a matter of fact. The accommodations were very comfortable. Food, for the most part, was good. And the officers above me were people, for the most part, that I could admire for the way they approached the task and got the job done. And the people in my division were men that I admired very, very much. They were real professionals. In my mind we had the best radar navigation team that I had ever seen in operation, and I was very proud of them and just pleased to have been placed in the position I was in.
JAMIESEN: Once you left the Little Rock did you stay in the Navy? Or what did you do after that?
KARLSEN: Yeah, I had one more tour after I left the Little Rock. My father was still living in Norway at the time. My mother had passed away. And I wanted to live in Europe somewhere near my father, and so I volunteered to extend on active duty. I had already completed my obligated three years. And I got the orders to London that I mentioned, working on the MSTS staff. That was very good because I got a chance to visit with my father fairly often. Either I’d go over on leave to Norway or he would come visit me in London, which was kind of fun. Show him around, take him to dinner at the officers’ club, all that kind of thing. He was pretty proud, because he had been an enlisted man in the Norwegian navy, so he felt that that was pretty neat stuff.
JAMIESEN: When did you leave the Navy?
KARLSEN: I left the Navy in July of 1966, having completed just a few days short of six years active duty. I took a European out and stayed in Europe for about four or five months, just traveling around and visiting relatives in Norway. So I enjoyed that very much.
Then I went back to Connecticut, where I had grown up. When I started graduate school, I found out that (chuckle) I didn’t like being that confined and having to study. I was a terrible student -- not stupid -- just a terrible student. So then I just found work in the civilian sector. I went to work for the federal government, actually, and I worked for the Postal Service for twenty-three years. I started as an executive management trainee and wound up as postmaster a couple of times, and wrapped up my career as an international consultant going to developing countries in the Western Pacific and helping strengthen their administrative staff.
JAMIESEN: What lessons, outlooks, and values did you take away from your naval service that helped you in your future years?
KARLSEN: Well, I think the leadership aspect of the Navy was very helpful in my later life. I stayed in the Naval Reserve. I had no connection with the Navy immediately after separating, and then almost a year later I reconnected with the Naval Reserve and did active duty for training at sea, I think, the first seven or eight years running, and enjoyed going back to sea. As I say, the aspects of leadership that I learned in the Navy were very valuable.
JAMIESEN: Tell us a little bit about where you live, your family, what you like to do for fun, and any volunteerism you may be involved in.
KARLSEN: Well, currently I live in Maine with my wife, Ann, who I met in Maine. I have lived in Maine for probably thirty-five years and just really it, it’s still unspoiled. You can’t characterize it as the mad rush, rat-race kind of existence that you find in other places. It’s fairly laid back. The people are good, kind people. Although they don’t get excited very easily, you can tell that they’re, for the most part, capable at whatever they do, and I like that. They’re laid back and usually pretty square shooters.
My wife and I now live on an island that provides us with a wonderful lifestyle. Looking out on the water in the morning when we get up is just very soothing and just a great life. We’re very fortunate to be there.
I’m very active in the Rotary Club of Portland, Maine. I’ve been a Rotarian since 1976. I retired from the Reserves in 1985, and so that left a lot of time. I’m very active in sailing and various aspects of sailing. I’ve got a 100-ton master’s license near coastal, and sail as a relief captain on a schooner in Portland, 72-foot John Alden schooner. I gave that up because it was hurting my back about a year or so ago, and when my wife and I started going to Florida, where we purchased a condo, I became involved in another schooner down there, an 80-footer, and that was physically much easier, so I enjoyed doing that for a number of years, and I still enjoy sailing very much.
JAMIESEN: How long have you been a member of the Little Rock Association?
KARLSEN: Gee. I think probably from the very outset, the first year or maybe the second year I joined up.
JAMIESEN: So you’ve attended almost all the reunions?
KARLSEN: I would say probably half. I’ve gone to almost all the Buffalo reunions, but some of the others I’ve missed.
JAMIESEN: What do you take away from these reunions when you come and go home?
KARLSEN: Oh, there were great memories, great memories and lots of good laughs and recalling funny incidents. Seeing how the people I’ve worked with got on with their lives in other aspects, and just kind of keeping in touch. It’s really something I like very much.
JAMIESEN: I see that you’re an Association Director. What do you do on the Board? What’s some of your duties?
KARLSEN: Well, try to keep Jerry Dupuis straight, but that’s almost a full-time job. And I try to pitch in wherever I see an aspect of our duties that I find interesting and feel like I can take care of. As an example, I belong to several other organizations — the American Legion, and Sons of Norway, and that sort of thing. I got the feeling with the Little Rock Association that we were lacking in services to our membership. The example I’m citing is the fact that in other organizations when you become a life member you get a nice certificate acknowledging that fact. And I felt that we were remiss in not providing life membership certificates for those folks who have made a significant contribution monetarily. And so we came up with a design and implemented the giving of life member certificates to those folks who have done that.
Also I felt that we were not recognizing people who had made significant contributions to the organization outside of just being a member or whatever. And so we came up with the President’s Award, which is an award for recognizing people who had really made significant contributions to the organization, making it stronger and better and more interesting. This is the third year now of that award being in existence. It’s not necessarily given every year, but it can (be) if we find someone who deserves it. So I’m anxious to see who the winner might be this year.
JAMIESEN: Do you have any final thoughts or observations about what we’ve talked about today, that you need to bring into the...?
KARLSEN: Yeah. I think it’s a wonderful idea, this whole oral history program. It’s amazing the number of interesting stories that some of our shipmates have to tell about their lives, either on board Little Rock or in their lives otherwise. Some of them are very funny, some of them very heartwarming, but all in all it’s really interesting to kind of find out more about people you thought you knew. And it’s nice to be talking to a real “Mainah.” (Ed. Note: Rick Jamieson is the "Mainah" refered to in the preceeding paragraph.)
JAMIESEN: Thank you. And I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to meet with me this afternoon and discuss your life on the Little Rock and in the Navy in general. This ends the interview with Gus Karlsen.
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