U.S.S. Little Rock Association
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Interviewee: CDR John Sheppard
Interviewer: John E. Conjura
CONJURA: I am John Conjura and I will be interviewing CDR John Sheppard, USN (Ret.) who served in CLG 4. This is tape one. We are at the 14th Annual Reunion of the USS Little Rock Association at the Adams-Mark Hotel in Buffalo, New York. Today is Wednesday, 13 July 2005.
The purpose of this interview is to get to know CDR John Sheppard and from his recollections learn more about life and duty aboard Little Rock during his tenure of service from 1961-1964.
CDR Sheppard you had a long and distinguished Navy career in the second half of the 20th Century when United States Naval forces were focused on containing Soviet actions during the Cold War. For background, will you summarize you Navy career experiences, in terms of your Navy training, duty assignments, and leadership and management positions before reporting to USS Little Rock?
SHEPPARD: I will certainly try. I joined the Navy after leaving high school in 1941. I went to the Army / Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California, and had advanced over a period of years until I was in the JC portion of the school. I was the second in command of the Cadet Corps. I was a Cadet Captain Adjutant. During 1941, we began to receive cadets from Europe who were escaping the war. All of a sudden, both the Cadet Colonel and I decided maybe it was time we should try to join the armed forces. We thought we were partially trained and could probably step right in and do something.
On this one afternoon, we all boarded a Greyhound bus right in front of the school and went to San Diego and tried to join the RAF. Of course, the RAF did not want anything to do with us, they wanted pilots not young jerks trying to get away from school. At any rate, they turned us away, and we had to go back to school. In the meantime, they called the school and informed them that we had been down there trying to join the RAF.
On the bus going back to school, we tried to get the driver to drop us off a couple of blocks away from the school. He said, “No, no, I know where you boys live, and I will park right there and let you out like I always do.”
As we embarked from the bus, the president of the school was standing there waiting for us. His first words to us, “Gentlemen, I will see you in my office tomorrow morning at 0930, you will be in full dress uniforms and best you not be late.” He turned around and walked off.
Needless to say, we got our rear ends completely reamed out. In addition to that, he called all of our parents. So, when I arrived home for a weekend on Friday afternoon, my mom and dad met me at the door. Mom was in tears and dad was red-faced and flustered. He said something like, “What in the hell do you think you are doing you dumb SOB! I spend all this money to get you a good education and you want to go off and get yourself killed for a foreign government, you are crazy!” Then he went on from there. No matter how much I explained our good rational. it made no difference.
One of the reasons we were turned down is none of us had our birth certificates with us, and at 17 I could not get in the armed forces. So, I grabbed my birth certificate when I went back to school, I had it in my possession. I finished out my senior year.
In those days, we received our diploma at graduation parade. I did not go to graduation parade. I grabbed the bus and headed for San Diego. The first thing I came to was a Navy Recruiting Office. I walked in and here was this grizzled old Chief with hash marks almost all the way up his arm, and he said, “What do you want, boy?”
I said, “I want to join Navy.”
He said, “How old are you?”
I said, “Eighteen.”
He said, “Can you prove it?”
I whipped out my birth certificate and he started me signing papers. It seemed like it took hours to sign all the different papers. Then the next thing I know, I am boarding this gray bus. It whips out of San Diego and ends up over in RTC. In case you do not know, what that means, it is Recruit Training Command. I am now in the Navy. Whoopee!
Well, we were in civilian clothes, so we unload from the bus and there are a bunch of footprints on the grinder and there is a Petty Officer standing there he said, “Each one of you stand on one of these footprints, and if you have any suitcases set them in front of you.” So, we did this.
Then another Chief Petty Officer came along and he said, “Alright, it is too late in the day for us to do anything. I am going to march you over to a barracks. I want you to go to sleep, and when we get you up in the morning we will start you on the routine that you have to go through.”
We were kind of boisterous in the barracks. Each man picked a bunk and we were talking amongst ourselves. Finally, someone walked in the door and started banging on the GI can lid, “If you guys really do not want to go to sleep; we will get you out on the grinder and we will march around for the rest of the night!” Everyone shut up, and we went to sleep, that is until five o’clock in the morning. Reveille came early.
We were marched over and we got our first Navy meal. It happened to be on a Wednesday. The Navy always served beans for breakfast on Wednesday. We had beans and a couple of other things. Some of these guys turned their nose up on it, but I thought the beans were good and I loaded up.
From there, we went back to the barracks and then fell out again and marched over to start to get our uniforms. We had our sea bags, and just walked along with the sea bag open; skivvies, socks, everything but shoes went in the bag. Then you went over to a place and you were fitted with shoes. You stood up and someone said, “That is good.” They threw them in the bag.
Back to the barracks and we were told to get into undress blues. Well, heck we did not know what undress blues were. Someone said, “Those are the ones without the stripe on the collar.” We got into undress blues, and went for our physical examinations.
From there, we went over to an auditorium and everyone stood up and held up their right hand and we took the oath of enlisting. I am now in the Navy and mom and dad do not know anything about it. I waited two weeks before I could get a phone call out. I called mom and she is sobbing tears all over the telephone and dad is saying words that I cannot state right now, “Like you dumb SOB, what the heck do you think you are doing and blah, blah, blah. You could have had a good job with me at the studio!”
My dad was the manager of the Mechanical/Electrical Department at Paramount Studios. He had the charge of all the wind machines, generators and anything they used on location, came under his perview. Mother was a wardroom mistress at that time. Before she retired, she was chief costume designer for Paramount Studios.
At any rate, that was my entrance into the Navy. The next time I saw mom and dad was our first visitor’s day. They came down there, mom again in tears. She was a crying kind of gal. I did not understand why. I was kind of proud. I was standing there in my dress blues, and I thought I looked pretty good. I even had photographs taken.
Dad did not think it was smart at all. He said, “If you had taken your degree and come to work for me, I would have you making lots of money in nothing flat.”
That is how I joined the Navy in 1941.
We took an aptitude test and it turned out that I had some aptitude for electricity. I was scheduled to go to an electrical school. That was not coming up for some time. They had to get rid of us when we graduated out of RTC. We were put in a draft to go to Honolulu.
Arriving in Honolulu in 1941, there were no receiving barracks. The draft was broken up and we all went out to various ships in the fleet. I went aboard the USS Arizona, and slept in Barbette Number Five.
I was there for about three weeks when I received orders to go back to the States and go to Hadley Tech Technical School in St. Louis, Missouri, for electrical school. On the train ride across country, we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and the Arizona had blown up. My heart skipped a couple of beats. I felt how lucky I was. That was the beginning of my understanding of what World War II was all about.
I graduated as Electricians Mate Third-Class out of Hadley Tech, and was assigned to the USS Columbia CL 56. She was being outfitted in Philadelphia Navy Yard. Since I was rated out of school I was given, three weeks leave. I was able to get train transportation back to Phoenix, Arizona, where my grandparents lived. Mom and dad came over and we had a family reunion. My grandfather was a retired Army Colonel, Horse Cavalry. His first words to me when he saw me in uniform was, “What kind of a get-up is that you have on boy? You cannot ride a horse in that!”
I said, “Well, Grandpa they do not have any horses in the Navy.”
His reply, “That’s what is the matter with that damned outfit, no horses!” So, grandfather and I did not get along for about the next year. Then I began to get some letters from him, but that’s a different story.
At the end of my leave I reported back to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, pre-commissioning crew for the USS Columbia. I went aboard, did not understand what bunks were and compartments and decks, overheads, bulkheads, and hatches. All of these things were foreign to me. I had to learn quickly because the old Chief was on our fanny. He had a voice like a foghorn. When he growled in your ear, your whole head expanded. You did not want him growling very much. You began to learn these things real quick. The Bluejacket’s Manual was of some help, but not too much.
We finally finished our yard period, and she was commissioned. Then we headed out for our shakedown cruise. This was my first time seeing an actual generator; we had only seen pictures of them, but they marched us down. The generators and switchboard were in the fire room. I am down there trying to learn how to operate this switchboard, and it is so darned hot. We had a blower blowing right down on us, but it did not help very much. The air coming out of that was just as hot as the rest of it.
After several tries, we began to learn how to put a generator on the line. Then I became a Generator Watch Stander. The only thing that saved me from having to stand watches down there all the time was that I put a generator on the line before it was ready to go on the line, and all the lights went out on the ship. So, I no longer was a Generator Watch Stander. I was back in after steering, which is a little cubbyhole, and they slam the hatch on you. If anything happened to the ship, you are dead meat.
We were underway, heading for the South Pacific. After a long journey across--I do not know how many miles of water--we arrived in time to fire four salvos at the Battle of Coral Sea. After the fourth salvo we were released and the ship made its way to an island called Espirito Santo. It was the staging area for Guadalcanal.
Three more cruisers came steaming in; they are the Cleveland, Montpelier, and Denver. Those four ships made up Cruiser Division 12.2. We escorted the transports and a couple destroyers up to Guadalcanal for the offloading of the Marines. Then we heard that the Japanese fleet was coming down and there were some battleships in it. We were no match for the battleships. So we backed out the transports and everyone headed back to Espirito Santo, cooling our heals and hoping they did not find us.
They finally shot up the island a little bit, and decided they had had enough and went on back somewhere up North. We went back and offloaded the rest of the Marines. Just across from Henderson Field was a little bay on the island of Tulagi. That was to be our home for the next year or so. We would come back from a sortie at the slot, anchor in the bay all day long, lick our wounds or whatever we had and prepare for the next night. Every night we would go out and sortie up the slot, which is between New Georgia and New Britain. If you went up all the way, you would be in Truk, where you did not want to go at that time.
I was standing up at the foc'sle getting some fresh air before we hit the line of debarkation and I heard this big whirring sound. There is a pretty big explosion over on the starboard side of the ship. Then I heard another whirring sound and there was a big explosion on the port side of the ship. My old military school days kick in and I remembered artillery, i.e., one long, one short, then on target and fire for effect. By that time, the general alarm went, and we went to general quarters. I went to general quarters fully expecting to get a hit. It did not happen. About a week or so later the CO got on the 1-MC and he said the reason we did not get any further salvos was that the Japanese battleship had been engaged by the USS South Dakota, and damaged and they retired. So, each one of us did a fancy cross of ourselves and thanked God Almighty, because if we had been hit by 14-inch shells, that light cruiser would have been mincemeat.
This continued the rest of 1942 and into 1943. It was getting a little tiresome. So, walking down the passage one day I see this notice, “Volunteer for submarine duty.” I thought to myself, if you are underwater, they have to find you before they can shoot at you. So, I volunteered.
I was on my way back to the States. I passed through Los Angeles; got a chance to stay a day or so with mom and dad, and head back to New London, Connecticut for submarine school. Upon graduation I was assigned to a school boat because I had been in combat and they decided to give me a rest.
The school boat was the R4 and she was manufactured in 1918, with a test depth of 50 feet. Those old submarines used to have valves on the ballast tanks. The valves were opened by a mechanical linkage that went down to it with a big lever that looked like one of the old motorman machine pullers. That was my diving station.
The first time I grabbed that thing and squeezed on it and pulled, nothing happened. I kept tugging and pulling. Finally, an old Chief came over and with one hand, he opened it up. This happened several times. Now we knew that we were going to dive, because the Commanding Officer, a Lieutenant, would go up to his quarters and get on a slicker and a rain hat and come back. The periscope lens leaked like mad right were he was standing.
Finally, one day the CO said to the Chief, “Get rid of that kid; he is of no use to us.” So, they transferred me back up to the submarine base. I ended up on a new construction boat, the USS Entemedore (SS 340). I went through the final stages of her construction. I was onboard for the commissioning and the shakedown, and we were back enroute to the South Pacific.
On a submarine, you do not get topside very often. For this whole trip, I was down below. When we pulled into port and got tied up; I came clamoring up topside to see what this wonderful place was that we were at. I looked over and it looked awfully familiar--it was Espirito Santo. I said, “Oh, shit!” Excuse me but that is all I could think of because I thought I just escaped from this place. Why are they bringing me back here?
Anyway, we got our orders and we headed out and were patrolling off Truk. We got caught on the surface, got depth charged, and I was sitting back in the maneuvering room. There was nothing you could do but just sit on the bench and take it. I kept saying to myself, “You jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, you stupid jerk!” The Old Man, pretty smart, got away and nothing happened to us.
My heart is still pounding, so I turned in and tried to get some sleep. It did not work too well. That was my inauguration into what happens inside a submarine when a depth charge goes off. Believe me it is not pleasant.
The war was beginning to wind down and our orders were changed. We headed for Midway and took on fuel. We got a new operating area. There were very few targets left. They had pretty well swept the seas clean of Japanese shipping. We continued on our patrol. We came across a hospital ship that was steaming down towards Sigami Wan. The Old Man received some kind of report that they suspected that she had taken on ammunition and supplies that hospital ships are not supposed to carry. That made her a viable target. He did not want to shoot. Instead, he called for support. They had a flotilla of destroyers come up and they stopped it. Sure enough, they had goods on board they were not supposed to have. They allowed everyone to leave the ship, and then they sunk it with gunfire. That would have been our only ship that we would have had credit for had we torpedoed it.
Then we received word that hostilities were over. We went back to Midway and got more fuel. From Midway, we were ordered back to the States. Arriving, in Seattle about a month later, I called home. One thing I forgot to mention--just after going through submarine school, I met a young lady and we were married. So, I called her to see what was going on, and got a hold of her mother. She said that Rosalie was not there. I said, “Where is she?”
She said, “She is in the hospital.”
I said, “What is she in the hospital for?”
She said, “She is giving birth to your first child!”
I said, “She did not tell me!”
Anyway, I went up and spoke to the Executive Officer and he had the Red Cross call and found out that she was having a bit of a problem. He gave me orders back to New London so I could get down to New Jersey and be with her. I was there at the birth of our first child.
Then I was assigned to a school boat in New London, USS Grouper SS 214. I remained on the Grouper then for the next four years training students going through submarine school on what a submarine is supposed to do. We were pretty happy. Momma came home, and we had a new baby and we were getting along very well.
Then one day I got transferred to a boat in Squadron 10, which was not a school boat. The USS Piper is an operating submarine. The next thing I know I am making tours over in Europe. I am gone for six months at a time, and Momma is not happy at all.
That continued for the next two years. Then all of a sudden I got orders to the USS Nereus, San Diego, California. She was a submarine repair ship (tender). I was to take over the Electrical Repair Department. In the meantime, I had advanced until I was now a Chief Petty Officer. In those days that was E-7, that was as high as you could go in the enlisted ranks.
I arrived out on the Nereus; I had all of the repair work to do and did not get to go to sea. I take that back, we did ride the Nereus out for a yard period in Honolulu. I took my motorcycle along with me, onboard the ship. That was a lot of fun out there.
Upon returning back to San Diego, I kind of liked the Nereus and I liked the duty, and I thought I will just stay aboard for a while. Unfortunately, I got orders to the USS Diodon SS 349. In the meantime, I had taken the Officer’s Battery Test. When I went aboard the Diodon, the Executive Officer looked up and said, “I see you are on the promotion list.”
I said, “Sir?”
He said, “You are on the promotion list.”
I said, “For what?”
“When is it going to happen?”
It happened in the latter part of the year. They had two different promotion periods, one in the front part of the year and one in the latter part of the year. I was in the latter part. So, he said, “Since you are going to become an officer, we will put you up on bridge as JOD and you will learn how to drive a ship and learn how to dive the boat. You will take on your new job of qualifying as an officer.”
I had already qualified as an enlisted man and I thought this will be a breeze until I learned I had to draw a picture of every doggone piece of gear on the ship.
Finally, we got through that and I qualified as an Officer of the Deck. When it came time for me to be transferred, I was transferred to Philadelphia Navy Yard as a Ship’s Superintendent, Submarines. I was doing repair work on submarines for two years. Also, I was qualified as a Docking Officer for both a marine railway and the graving docks.
I was at home one weekend, hoping for a weekend of leisure. I got a phone call; we have a ship coming in to Number Four Graving Dock. We need a Docking Officer and you are it. When I arrived there the Skipper of the Yard gave me a lecture, “This ship has to come in. It has to have a hole cut in the side up around frame ten. Lead ballast has to go in various parts of the ship, and it has to be strapped down. If they do any welding down there, if they ruin bottom job on this thing and it has to stay in here for another month to do a patch job, I will have your guts for garters. You will never be anything but a W-2!” Kind of harsh words. The ship was the Little Rock.
She came in and it was colder than whatever. I remember looking up and coming out of the hawse pipe there was an icicle going almost down to the bottom of the dock. First of all, before we got her in, I could not get hold of the Engineer Officer, I did not know what position to put the blocks in. Finally, the Old Man said, “Put it in block A and let’s go.” So we did. I don’t know whether it was the right position or not but she went in, set down and everything was alright. They cut the hole up around frame ten and we started putting lead weights in. Some went down in the engine house and other spots.
The Old Man, i.e. the Shipyard Commander, was standing up looking down at me, frowning. He looked at his watch, and said, “Getting close, getting close, I’m going to open the floodgates. You better get that thing sealed up. I did not leave the bottom of that dock the entire time she was in there. I was afraid to leave. If something went and I wasn’t there, my guts would have been had for garters.
We got it all back together. This was my first experience with the Little Rock. My time at the Philadelphia Navy Yard was just about up, and wouldn’t you know it, I received orders to the Little Rock.
She was now over in Camden. I started packing. I had the guys in the yard make me a cruise box. I packed all my uniforms and what not in there. I thought, well I will go over and see if they will allow me to put this cruise box on the ship. She was going to deploy to the Mediterranean and I would have to fly over when I finally got my orders. I went over and it was Captain Phillips that I was talking to, and he said, “Yes, you can bring your cruise box aboard, and yes, we will take care of it.”
CONJURA: What year was this, John?
Then as I was taking leave, I was almost out of the hatch and he said, “By the way, do you have a sword?”
I said, “Sir?”
“Do you have a sword?”
“Oh, yes sir I do.” I did not, but I said I did.
“Do you have a bridge coat?”
“Do you have a full set of uniforms?”
“Very well, see you when you come aboard.” I departed.
Then, I was scurrying around the Yard seeing if I could find anyone who had a sword they would sell me used, so I didn’t have to pay for a new one, and a bridge coat. I finally got a full uniform, by the hair of my teeth. At any rate, I had to grab a plane. The ship was in Bordeaux, France at that time. I had to fly into Italy and from there a puddle jumper to wherever. I came aboard ship just in time for us to get underway and start heading to sea…trying to get out of Bordeaux.
I remember they had some problems. The whistle would not blow. I remember them screaming over the 1MC, “Mr. Babb report to the bridge, Mr. Babb report to the bridge!” I did not know who Mr. Babb was at that time, but Dewey and I became very good friends later on. What had happened was that the Quartermaster wanted to shine the brass wheels that the lanyard rode on, that went up to the electric whistle, which was on the stack. When he got through shining them he forgot to put the lanyard back on the rollers and it would not blow. We got that straightened out.
Then I heard Dewey coming back down, “Every g-damn Quartermasters…looks like they ought to have brains enough to put the lanyard back on the rollers.” That was my first experience onboard Little Rock.
CONJURA: Having seen the ship from the keel up, literally, as the graving officer in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and then getting orders and reporting aboard and seeing the surroundings, what was your first impression of the ship?
SHEPPARD: I was kind of overwhelmed at first. They put me on the third deck all the way forward. There was a three-man bunkroom. I was on the top bunk of that three-man, all three of us Warrant Officers. Right next to it there was a one-man bunkroom on the starboard side, which the ship’s Yeoman had. He was also a W-4 Warrant Officer, and he was being transferred. I walked over and I said, “Any chance that I might get this stateroom when you leave?”
He said, “I will make it so.”
I went in that one-man stateroom and I was in that stateroom the rest of the time I was onboard ship.
Then I was assigned as, I forget how they put it now. Harvey Home was a W-4 Warrant Officer, and I had a JG and his name escapes me right at the moment but he was the Division Officer. Harvey did not think greatly of me. He said, “You have to come up to speed. I have done a lot of work on here. I have done this and that.” He gave me a long list of the things that he had brought aboard ship, and he wanted me to carry on where he had left off.
I finally told him, “Harvey I appreciate all of the help you are giving me, but I am going to have to do this on my own time and as I see it.” He did not like that at all. But I thought well if it is going to be my responsibility I am going to do it. He accepted that. Very shortly after that I had a conference, Captain Chenault had relieved Captain Phillips by this time, Captain Chenault called me up and we had a conference in his cabin.
He said, “I have been looking over your record and it seems to be very good. You are a qualified OOD and you have done a lot of things. So, I want you to take the Officer’s Battery Test again.” I did and about a month later, I held up my right hand and I was now a Lieutenant Junior Grade. I went from W-2 to JG.
I became the E Division Officer at that time. I had 75 people working in the division. It was a new responsibility. I said, there is nothing different in being an officer than being a Chief Petty Officer. You do whatever you think is correct and you command your people. You be fair and you do not have any favorites. You listen to their troubles and try to help them out, and that is what a Division Officer is supposed to do. So, that is what I started doing.
One little thing comes to mind. This happened a couple years later than that. We were in Norfolk at the time. One of my boys got picked up for being intoxicated in Norfolk and had to go to court. I went down and sat in the court and before the judge pronounced his sentence on him. I asked the judge if I could speak. The judge asked who I was. I said, “I am this man’s Division Officer.”
He said, “Alright, what have you got to say?”
I said, “If you will turn this gentleman over to me and let me take him back to the ship, I will probably give him worse punishment than you can by law. I guarantee to you that he will not be over on the beach again in the same condition as he was caught this time.”
He thought it over a little bit and he said, “Okay, I will take a chance.” So, we went back together. He was thanking me for getting him out of whatever they were going to do, and we do not know what that was.
When we got back to the ship I took him down to the cabin and I said, “Now, there is no one in here but you and me. I cannot by law give you anything but restriction. I can hold you onboard ship for a short period of time, or I can go up and report you to the XO and he will take you to mast and whatever happens at mast I have no way of knowing. If you will agree, and you have to volunteer to do this, because I cannot by law give it to you, you are going to stay onboard for 30 days. You are not going to go ashore for 30 days. If you do that, nothing will go on your record, and this will be forgotten.” He volunteered and that is what happened.
Every once in awhile I see this guy at one of the reunions and he is still shaking my hand and thanking me. I kept telling him I was just doing my job.
One other little incident, to me, was funny; I had a clown in my division. If one of the ports we were in was not necessarily a good liberty port, I would try to take at least two sections and maybe three over for a beer party. We were in Piraeus, Greece. We were over on the beach and having a few brews. I took my 8-mm movie camera with me. Unknown to me, one of the guys picked up my camera and was taking pictures of me. I was sitting over on one side, and they were kind of laying around in a semi-circle. I had this clown behind me and he was putting thumbs in my ear and horns over me and he was giving me the finger and making all kinds of funny faces not knowing that he was being photographed. After I had the film developed and I ran it…I did not have a camera (projector), but I had a film splicer that you could see. I ran this through. I waited after quarters one morning, in the shop. He came wandering in, and I said, “So, you think you fooled me did you?”
I said, “Nobody pulls that kind of crap on me.”
He said, “Sir, what do you mean?”
So, I showed him the horns and the thumbs and the finger, and his eyes are getting bigger and bigger. He went around the ship advertising, “That gray-haired, old SOB--you cannot fool him, he has eyes in the back of his head.” Best advertisement I could have, and no one ever told him any different. He left the ship still thinking I saw everything that went on.
CONJURA: Where was Little Rock home ported during your time, and could you describe the ship’s deployments and operations during your time onboard?
SHEPPARD: She was in Villefranche at that time. We would sortie out of there and make various ports of call. We were up in Italy, both sides of Italy. We visited Split in Yugoslavia, and of course, Barcelona where we had a nice bullfight put on for us. Then back to Villefranche, and of course, the contours of Villefranche were a series of steps that kind of goes up and the bar we were in was on step five. Nice place, at least you did not have too far to fall.
CONJURA: How about living conditions aboard the ship, the quality of food and other ship services? Can you provide some comments on these important habitability issues?
SHEPPARD: I think probably the Little Rock was one of the cleanest ships that I ever served on. It never seemed like there was any dust or dirt around. True, the habitability of the ship was to 1942 standards. So, it did not have some of the niceties that maybe some of the newer ships had, but she was well maintained. I have said this to several people, “I have never heard any real grumbling or growling or anything from the crew--it seemed like when one man left and another came in, he seemed to fit right in. I think everyone on the ship, at least everyone I have talked to, thought she was a good ship.”
She was a good feeder. The chow was excellent, well prepared and there was certainly a variety. I still remember back that before the mid-watches, they used to put a lot of soup out in the tureens and everybody could go get a bowl of soup. Where they got all the ingredients I don’t know, but that soup was excellent. You could go on watch at midnight with a full belly, and nice and warm and ready to do your duty.
I never heard any real complaints. Oh, they complained that they did not get enough liberty, but actually, I think the ship gave as much liberty as they possibly could at every port that we hit. We tried to make sure that each one of the sections got ashore at least once.
CONJURA: Can you relate any interesting incidents or personal experiences in making ports of call and what shore leave was like in those ports?
SHEPPARD: I think one of the most interesting ports that I hit--a surprise to me because we had been told that going into a communist country was difficult—was Split, Yugoslavia. I was met at the dock by some people and invited into their house. They wanted to hear what America was like, and what American people did. What they did for entertainment and what they did professionally. They were quite interested in why I had decided on a career in the Navy and why I had not entered in the business world. I explained to them that I had gone to a military school and I felt that I was more adept in a military environment then I would have been in a civilian environment. They accepted that.
Their questions were very pointed. They really wanted to know what America was like, because they had no idea. They wanted to know how big our cities were. I said, “Well, some of our cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington and several other big cities like Dallas, Texas to name a few, were very large cities with multi-million people in their populations.” What they were used to were villages with a couple of thousand at the most. They thought this was quite interesting.
Anyway, when the evening was over, they invited me back the next day. I told them I could not because I did not have liberty from the ship that day, so it was impossible. We shook hands and I departed. I thought it was a wonderful experience because I was able to get away from the docks and talk to the actual people. I got a feel of what they were like and I think they got a feel of what we were like. I hope I left a good impression.
I think that was one of the highlights of going ashore. Other than running down and seeing some of the sailors pull stunts on the beach at Cannes. The girls used to lie on the beach face down and they would reach around and undo their halters. These guys, when they (the girls) were asleep, they would come and put firecrackers around them and then light the firecrackers and then jump back. When the firecrackers went off the girls would jump up and they were there taking pictures, click, click, click. Then the girls were very angry. I saw a couple guys get a nice face slap on account of that. That was a fun thing to watch.
CONJURA: During your tour as a crewmember of a high profile major fleet combatant, can you recall any moments of any great shock, fear, or excitement participating in fleet operations, steaming independently or in port tied up or at anchor?
SHEPPARD: I think the one that probably stands out more than any that caused me not fear but apprehension was the time that it was reported that Kennedy had been assassinated. We were kind of up in arms at that time wondering whether or not we were going to go to general quarters whether war was going to be declared.
CONJURA: This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
SHEPPARD: Yes. Well, no, this was after the Cuban Missile Crisis because we were in the Mediterranean when it happened.
The Cuban Missile Crisis did bring a couple of exciting moments. Especially when we were steaming around Cuba with the missiles on ramps ready to launch. Also, we were off in the distance when the destroyers stopped the first ship that they were going to board. I was told later on--and I hesitate to say this because I do not know if it was absolutely true--that they had orders that if there was any resistance made or any firing, that we were going to fire on them. Of course, had we done so we would have sunk both ships, our own and theirs. That would have been the prelude to World War III, I am sure. That was an exciting time.
CONJURA: What made Little Rock stand out in the fleet as a top performer?
SHEPPARD: One word, personnel, both officers and crew. I think we had excellence in both categories. I know the enlisted people down there working for me were some of the finest electricians that I ever met in the Navy. They could do any kind of repair necessary to keep the thing going.
Surprisingly so, there were not that many major repairs required, because we kept a good maintenance program going. The Engineer Officer had an outstanding maintenance program and he made us adhere to it. I think that probably was one of the major reasons we did not have big breakdowns. I don’t think we ever missed an operation because of a breakdown.
CONJURA: Would you summarize your overall impression of your tour in Little Rock, and what do you consider your most important personal contribution to the successful operation of the ship and the welfare of the crew?
SHEPPARD: I do not know that I did anything that really contributed to the welfare of the personnel other than I kept my division out of trouble as much as I possibly could.
I did not have any trouble, because I had a little speech that I brought whenever a new man came into the division. I took him aside and I said, “This is the way I operate. I will support you everyway that I can. I will help you make a rate if you are eligible for it, but there is a line and if you step over that line, I will come down on you with both feet. This is the only time I am ever going to tell you about it. You do your job, and I will do mine and we will get along fine. You step over line I am going to squash you and that is just they way it is.” I really had no personnel problems in my division. I take that back, I had one. It only took one talk and it was over.
I had a First-Class Electrician that lived about six houses down from me on the same street in Norfolk. He had one car. He asked if I would let him ride in to the ship with me in the morning so he could leave the car at home for his wife to go shopping and what not. So, I said sure.
We pulled in one morning, parked the car and I went up the officers’ brow, saluted and lo and behold he came up the officers’ brow. The Officer of the Deck did not stop him. So I called him over and we went to one side and I said, “You do not do that; you go to the enlisted brow. That is where you come aboard ship. You do not come up the officers’ brow. I said that is one, you only get one more.”
He said, “I am sorry, I apologize.” That was the end of it, but you have to stop it before it starts.
CONJURA: When and where did you detach from Little Rock, and what were your subsequent duty assignments before your retirement?
SHEPPARD: I left in Norfolk after our tour in the Mediterranean. I was assigned to Recruit Training Command in San Diego as a Battalion Commander. It was kind of interesting because this is where I had started. Now I thought well maybe I will finish up here.
Then one of the brothers of a recruit in my company came to visit his brother. I saw this funny little emblem that he had on his blouse. I didn’t know what it was. I said, “Excuse me, what is that pin?”
He said, “It’s a Trident.”
I said, “Okay, what does it mean?”
He said, “It means that I am qualified in Special Warfare.”
Again pleading ignorance, I said, “What is that?”
He said, “It’s the Navy SEALs.”
I said, “Oh. Give me some information about that.”
He started talking and he said, “If you really want to, I can give you a tour. Come on down to Coronado, and we will give you a tour of the base.”
I said, “Okay.”
“You can watch them go through some training.”
So, I did. The day I was there they were not doing the boats, hoisting them over their heads and running them down the beach. I did not see that. Perhaps I would have changed my mind. When I left RTC I put in for Special Warfare. Finally I was accepted, almost did not pass because of age, I am getting up in my thirties at that time. After BUDs, we were sent out into the desert for survival skills. We arrived in this nice clean atmosphere at a barracks. We were told to put our cases down and fall in at the auditorium. So, we put those down and this Lieutenant got up and he said, “There are only a few things I want to hear from your mouth, and that is your name, rank, and serial number. I do not want to hear anything else.” He turned around and walked off the stage.
I thought, that is not much of a speech. We were dismissed and we went back to our barracks. Here comes this little tubby gal in a white uniform, Red Cross on it. She says, “Oh boys, I am so glad you are here now. I want to be able to tell your wives and you mothers where you are. So, will you give me your telephone numbers and addresses please?” She writes all of this down.
The next thing you know here came these guys with the little straw hats on, and they were Asian. They grabbed four or five of us and they ran us out to a doggone thing that looked like a hitching rail for horses, except our arms are over the hitching rail and tied to our legs. We are left there all night long, and in order to make sure we are nice and miserable, they spray us with water every so often so it gets nice and chilly. Then this Lieutenant walks up and he said, “Name, rank and serial number,” and he walked off again.
Then it hit us that it was just a ploy to get all the information they needed. We were stupid and gave it to them.
CONJURA: What career did you pursue after retirement? Are you still active in the civilian capacity?
SHEPPARD: I went to work for Harris Corporation down in Melbourne, Florida. I really started as a quality control manager. I did not particularly like that job, so I started working to see if I could get something else. I met up with one of the people in the overseas engineering department. They were charged with construction of overseas equipment. Finally, I got this gentleman to speak up for me. I was assigned as an engineer for overseas construction.
My first job was GPS. I was in charge of the first four antennas that went up, one at the Cape, one on Kwajalein, one in Diego Garcia, and one at Ascension Island. Then the first six satellites went up and the system came online. I was relieved and sent to Germany to build an antennae for OCS. It is the largest rolling block antennae in the world. The reflector was 120 feet in diameter. The entire steel structure was almost 200 feet high. The radome was 270 feet in diameter and it was said that if someone farted in Moscow you would know the direction and the amplitude.
When we were just about three-quarters of the way at installing the radome, we had a tornado come through the valley and it tore up half of what we had done. Almost a hundred panels had to be remade. In order not to lose any schedule time, I continued on, leaving blanks in there, and when they got the others manufactured, we filled in the blanks. That way we did not lose, any real schedule time. If we had stopped, we would have been up a creek.
As a result, of bringing that project in on schedule and under budget, I was given a brand new 1985 Audi, which I dearly appreciated. Then our overseas jobs began to dwindle. Bendix was taking a lot of the overseas jobs away from us. I had been with the company almost 10 years, so anyone with over six years was allowed to retire. When I first went to work for them they allowed for every dollar that you put into their savings plan the company would put in two. The second year they reduced that and they only put in one for one. The entire time I was there, I kept this up and I was putting 14% of my weekly salary into the investment plan. When I finally retired, I got all of that. That is how I got started building a little bit of a bank account.
CONJURA: As one of the founding fathers of the USS Little Rock Association can you give us an overview of how our strong band of brothers came together and created the solid organization it is today?
SHEPPARD: Luck, hard work, and a lot of fumbling around in the beginning. Jim Kayes and I did most of the, well he had some help and I had some help, contacting people. When we visited the ship, they kept a log of everybody who had been onboard the Little Rock separately from the ordinary visitors’ log. We got copies of that and we were writing to all of them and asking them if they would join our association, which we were trying to start. Of course, about 30% of the letters we sent out were returned because the addresses had changed and what not. We got enough people in there. One of the letters I got back said, “Okay, if I join, what is going to happen? What does the association do?”
I said, “Well, we want to perpetuate the ship. We would like to go aboard and help the park with its maintenance. Mostly, what we want to do is form a group of people who enjoyed their time on the ship and enjoyed each other and we will get together and have reunions and just enjoy ourselves.” That is kind of how it started.
We ran into some little problems. Apparently, two years before we started ours they had a reunion up here and the people who ran it did not pay any of the bills. The guy who was doing the thing took all of the money and ran off with it. So, when we came along and started talking to people, they were not really too happy to talk with us. Especially when we went over to the (?) department over there and tried to get them to help us with the planning of our first onboard luncheon we wanted. They wanted money up front. They were not going to take any chances.
We said we do not have any money upfront, but I will tell you what I will give you a check for a portion of it. If we try to run out, you can cash it, and I will guarantee there is money in there for the amount that I give you. If we pay you at the end then I want the check back. He kind of laughed and he agreed. That got us started with our first luncheon.
The program really got off the ground after that first reunion when the people began to circulate and tell everyone what a good time they had. Then we began to get people calling in and wanting more information, or we got good addresses. It just blossomed out of that.
CONJURA: Can you describe what these reunions mean to you and your Little Rock shipmates?
SHEPPARD: To me, it is a chance to get together with old friends and kind of relive and talk about the funny things that happened to us and some of the things that were not so funny. Just tell the stories about how they felt about the ship. It is a strange thing, well it is not strange to me, each one of these guys that I talk to tell me almost the same thing, she was a good ship, she was a feeder, she was a home even away from home, and they were happy to be on the ship. I talked to one gentleman who was transferred from the Little Rock over to the USS Oklahoma City and he wrote me a letter that said, “Please get me back on the Rock.” It was a different type of ship, different crew, different people.
What made the ship come alive was the people. We had an excellent wardroom and we had an excellent crew. As I said earlier, whenever one of them was transferred and we got a new one, somehow the new one just seemed to fit right in. I think it was because the rest of the guys told him how the thing works. We had some good people, and they just would not stand for anyone coming in and messing up the good thing, they had going. I believe that is what made the ship for me. I did not have any problems in the division, none whatsoever. The Petty Officers in charge took care of what little problems they had down there, and I never heard of half of them. If I did hear of one of them, they would come and tell me not to worry about it—it’s taken care of.
CONJURA: Will you tell us a little bit about your family and community involvement, any interests or activities that occupy your time living in sunny Southern California?
SHEPPARD: Of course when I worked for Harris I did not live in Southern California I lived in Melbourne, Florida. I have five wonderful children. Unfortunately, my wife passed away.
CONJURA: Do you have any final thoughts or observations you would like to add to this interview?
SHEPPARD: I would challenge anyone to counter any of the things that I have said here today. I believe that my time on the Little Rock was probably one of the happiest times that I had in the Navy. I know the various Commanding Officers that we had were the same as the crew, when one left and another one came in, we sort of just picked up where the other one left.
I got a rather abrupt surprise, we were tied up in Spain on a long clay wall and the officers’ brow was forward and there were no ships ahead of us. I saw this little lady coming down and she had a cast on her leg up to her hip, on a crutch, and she was hobbling. She passed the enlisted brow so I knew she was coming up forward. I sent the messenger down to assist her. Because Admiral Gentner used to really get on you if you had a speck of dust or anything on your whites I threw a foul weather jacket across my shoulders and on the back, it said USS Diodon. I was writing my log with my back turned to the brow. All of a sudden, something hits me right in the middle of my back. I turned around and it was this little lady. She says, “Are you a Diodon sailor?”
I said, “Yes ma'm I was.”
She said, “She said we are going to get along fine,” and she turned around.
I said, “Excuse me mam, where are you going?”
She said, “I am going to the Captain’s Cabin.”
I said, “Just a moment please. I will escort you.”
She said, “That’s alright, I know my way.”
I said, “Just a moment, please, I will escort you.” So, I escorted her into the Captain’s cabin.
She said, “Ed, Ed come here, there is a Diodon sailor.” It was Captain Bell. He had command of Diodon, but not during the time when I was on it.
He said, “I am a little busy today, but I will call you up and we will talk submarines.” I left. Sure enough, we were not underway and I get a call to come up and talk with the Captain. So, I went up and we sat down and we talked.
He had my record out and he said, “I see you are a qualified Officer of the Deck.”
I said, “Yes, sir I did qualify.”
He said, “Well, that is great.” We talked a little bit longer and he said, “Well, I have other things to do now John; it’s been nice.” He shook my hand and I went down and that was it as far as I was concerned.
I was on watch in the engine room and a Marine comes down, “The Captain would like to see you up on the starboard wing of the bridge.”
I said, “I have the watch.”
He said, “The Captain knows that and he has made arrangements for relief.”
I said, “Well, tell the Captain as soon as I am relieved I will report to him to the starboard bridge wing”, and all of the rest of the jargon that goes with it.
So, when my relief came down he said, “What the hell did you do?”
I said, “I don’t know.” I went up.
Captain Bell said, “Do you recognize this formation?”
“Yes sir, it is a haystack formation.”
“That’s right. Do you see the ship off our bow?”
“That is our dry stores ship and it is our next Unrep. I want you to take over as Officer of the Deck.”
I am now Officer of the Deck and he called in and said, “This is the Captain I have been relieved and Mr. Sheppard has the conn.” He punches me and said, “Do you have a response?”
I could hardly get it out, but finally I said, “This is Mr. Sheppard and I have the conn.”
“Louder they have to hear you!”
Anyway, I turned around and said, “Captain I do not know how to do this maneuver I have never handled this ship.”
He said, “If you can drive a submarine, you can drive anything.”
That did not convince me. He said, “Okay you are going to have all four main boilers on the line, bring the ship up to 30 knots, point the bow directly at the center line of that ship ahead. Mr. Chuwilly is over there at the statometer. He will be calling out ranges. When you get within a hundred yards of that ship, let the bow fall off about a quarter of a degree at a time until you can see in-between them approximately 25 to 30 yards. Then drive up smartly alongside. When the bridge passes the after kingpost, give all engines stop, all engines back full. When you loose headway, give all engines stop, all ahead two-thirds, make turns to 12 knots; nothing to it.”
I watched an Ensign try the same thing the day before and we made about four passes before he finally…I could see that happening to me. I followed instructions to the letter, and it worked out fine. We pulled alongside, house falls came over and we started taking on stores. The Captain relieved me and took over again.
I made this speech at one of our reunions here at the ship. “I said if you people do not believe this story go up to the starboard wing of the bridge and on that top rail you will find two handprints, because I was squeezing that rail with all I had.” It was exciting. I think driving a ship is infectious. Unfortunately, I did not get another opportunity.
I think that is one of my most memorable moments on the ship, that he had that much confidence.
CONJURA: John, on that high note, this concludes the oral history interview with CDR John Sheppard. John, I want to thank you and wish you all good luck and continued success in whatever you are doing these days, and a safe drive back to sunny San Diego.
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