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Interview with Ross Walters [11/8/2013]

Catherine Smith:

This interview was recorded on November 8th, 2013, at AIB College of Business in Des Moines, Iowa. It was conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. My name is Catherine Smith, and I will be the interviewer. Kelli Mulcahy is a court reporter who will transcribe the interview, and Tim Grover is a videographer recording the interview. Will you please state the following for the recording: Your name.

Ross Walters:

My name is Ross Walters

Catherine Smith:

Your date of birth?

Ross Walters:

December 29th, 1949.

Catherine Smith:

Your branch of service?

Ross Walters:

United States Navy.

Catherine Smith:

Your highest rank achieved?

Ross Walters:

On active duty, it was lieutenant junior grade, and, as I recall, I was promoted to lieutenant while in the Reserves.

Catherine Smith:

All right. And what war you served in?

Ross Walters:

Vietnam.

Catherine Smith:

Now let's begin your story. Let's start with a little bit about your background, if we may. Tell us where you were born, a little bit about your family, your parents' occupations.

Ross Walters:

Well, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where my father was going to school at Western Reserve University. And he and my mother met while they were both in school at the University of Wisconsin. My mother's an Iowa native, grew up in Council Bluffs, graduated from Grinnell College. My father is from Alabama, and he served in World War II and, after World War II, took advantage of the GI Bill to improve his education, went to graduate school in Wisconsin. They met there, they married, moved to Cleveland, where he completed his education, and then he was a professor of theater arts at Penn State University. And while I was an infant we moved to State College, Pennsylvania, and I lived there, went to high school there, also went to Penn State University, and that's where I grew up. But my Iowa roots go way, way back. In fact, my great-great-grandfather was the chancellor of the University of Iowa Law School between 1881 and 1886. So I call myself a generation-skipping Iowan.

Catherine Smith:

Good. Do you have siblings?

Ross Walters:

I do. I have a sister who is a doctor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and my brother, who is the creative one of the group, is the editorial cartoonist for the Toledo Blade Newspaper in Toledo, Ohio.

Catherine Smith:

And other family members who served in the military?

Ross Walters:

Well, actually, if you want to go way back, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ezekiel Ross, served in the Revolutionary War. We know that because we have a little pension document, so he did good enough to get a pension. And I have my father's side, I have people who served in the Civil War. My grandfather, my mother's father, served in World War I in Europe. He was a hospital corpsman. My father, as I mentioned, served in World War II in the Pacific. He was on Admiral Nimitz's staff. And, let's see, my father-in-law was also in the Navy. I have a brother-in-law who is currently a captain in the JAG Corps in the Navy, so-- And then there's me. And I may probably have forgotten some, but there are others who have served through the years.

Catherine Smith:

Quite a few. Now, did you enlist in the Navy or were you drafted?

Ross Walters:

Well, I--if I hadn't have joined, I'd have been drafted.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

I recall very well coming home from a date with my girlfriend, driving in the car, when they announced the first 20 names that were selected in the draft, and No. 16 was my birth date, so my plans started to crystallize immediately. I'd always thought of the service, kind of in the back of my mind, and I was interested in the Navy because my dad was in the Navy and I had some of his old artifacts from the Navy. And so I decided then that I better join up, and I did.

Catherine Smith:

Did you do that right out of high school or had you worked for a while?

Ross Walters:

No. It was out of college. I graduated from Penn State with a degree in history and I went and I took the exam to go into officer candidate school and I passed that. The proctor of the exam said I passed it just barely, but I passed it, and I was accepted. And then I went into officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island, and that's how it all started.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. Tell us a little bit about when you first joined the Navy. Where did you go, what was it like? What was it like being in the service?

Ross Walters:

Well, it was an abrupt change because I remember driving in to officer candidate school at Newport and I smiled at somebody and right away was told not to do that, get out of the car, stand at attention, do all these things. And so I thought, "This is different. This is not what I'm used to." So, you know, the discipline and the study and all that in Newport, Rhode Island, was quite a change. And it was different for me because I had majored in history and there was a lot of science involved. And fortunately, my roommate was going into the Civil Engineering Corps, the Seabees, and he thought the science was pretty easy and so he helped tutor me through it and I did okay.

Catherine Smith:

How long were you in the Rhode Island area?

Ross Walters:

It was a 16-week course, and I graduated and got my commission. I was still 21 years old. I was quite young at the time. And then I went to-- I wanted to-- I knew I'd already been accepted in law school and I wanted to be a lawyer, so I thought, well, I'll further this by asking if I could be a legal officer in a ship, which I asked. And I asked if I could be a legal officer on a large combatant ship, on something that fired things, and I asked for the east coast. And I was assigned as a legal officer on the USS Oklahoma City, which is a large combatant, but, unfortunately, I failed to specify which country. It was home ported in the east coast of Japan; Yokosuka, Japan. So I was assigned to that ship, and they then sent me to Naval Justice School in Newport, which was another six- or seven-week course.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

And then in February of '72, I went to the western Pacific.

Catherine Smith:

All right. Now, you told us a little bit about the first discipline and don't smile and whatever. What other changes were there that you noticed from civilian life?

Ross Walters:

Well, I had to make my bed very well. In fact, the quarter had to bounce up a certain height when dropped on it. But then you learn how to sort of cut corners to make that happen. So I learned those kinds of things. I learned how to shine my shoes really well. I learned just lots of things. The military, you're with other people and you're together on a group effort and you form friendships and you learn how to do things, and there's a formality to it that is all part of it, and you get used to that. And the formality actually helps with the discipline, which is, of course, necessary, but it was a lot of fun. I tell you, the thing that I feared most, other than the science, was when I looked at the obstacle course, which they said you had to, you had to be able to get over that high wall with that rope to get out of there and I had to run a mile in under seven minutes, and I'm not much of a runner, so--

Catherine Smith:

That's fast.

Ross Walters:

But I was in the best shape of my life by the time I was done.

Catherine Smith:

All right. Now let's talk a little bit about being in the Vietnam War--

Ross Walters:

All right.

Catherine Smith:

--if that's all right. Did you take-- How did you get-- You were assigned a ship.

Ross Walters:

Right.

Catherine Smith:

Did you get to Vietnam via the ship or did you fly over there--

Ross Walters:

Well, I--

Catherine Smith:

--and join the ship? How did you get to Vietnam?

Ross Walters:

It was quite a path. My ship was actually off the coast of Vietnam at the time, and my ship's role in the Vietnam War was to be on what they called the gun line, providing naval gunfire support for the soldiers in country. I got there-- We flew into Japan and my ship was gone and they put me on a destroyer to--a little tiny ship, and they took me down to the Gulf of Tonkin, where my ship was. And that was my first time really at sea, and destroyers are really small, and the Sea of Japan is very rough, and I learned to conquer the revolution in my stomach through the whole thing. So it was my first bout with seasickness. And the captain on the ship decided I needed to rotate, since I was going to another ship, and learn everything, so he had me in the engine room and up on the bridge and doing all these things so I was educated. And I got there--we got there at the Gulf of Tonkin and it was cloudy, and he called me up and he said, "Well, your ship's right over there, about a mile way," and we couldn't see it. And he said--he said, "Sorry." And I was--it was about a week or so before the helicopter from the ship come and got me and lifted me up off the back of the destroyer and deposited me on the back of the Oklahoma City, which was a cruiser, and that's how I arrived.

Catherine Smith:

Were you the only one getting to the ship at that point?

Ross Walters:

I was the only one getting to the ship at that point.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

Right.

Catherine Smith:

So when you were finally transported to the Oklahoma, what was--tell us about that and what it was like and what--talk about the ship.

Ross Walters:

Well, I had many duties on the ship. I was--I was the legal officer, but I was also what they called the X-Division officer, which was in charge of the administrative, the personnel and the public affairs people and all that. I was actually sort of the assistant to the executive officer, who was, of course, the main assistant to the captain. And I had other duties. I was the public affairs officer, legal officer, X-Division officer. I was in charge of the captain's mess, his food, which is an opportunity to make yourself known to the captain--

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

--hopefully in positive ways. But also I was an officer that--trained as an officer of the deck underway and in port. There are two kinds. That's a little technical, but under--the officer of the deck underway, when you're on standing watch as the officer of the deck, you're in charge of the ship, and you're giving orders to the helmsmen and the lead helmsman and all that. And I was also eventually our general quarters officer of the deck, I think because the legal officer was considered expendable and everybody else had more important duties. But so I did all that stuff, and that's typical of the Navy that you have many, many duties.

Catherine Smith:

Many duties, okay.

Ross Walters:

Do you want me to tell you about the ship?

Catherine Smith:

Please.

Ross Walters:

It was a light guided missile cruiser. It was from World War II. It was a beautiful ship, over 600 feet long, 60 feet at the beam, had teak decks which were just gorgeous. They don't do that so much anymore. Had four screws, four boilers. It would really cruise fast. It had missiles on the back, two gun mounts up front. And we also had the vice admiral, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, on our ship. It was the command ship of the Seventh Fleet so it was a--it was a sleek, good-looking ship that had been reconfigured to fire missiles, so--

Catherine Smith:

All right. So how many people were on the ship?

Ross Walters:

The crew was about 900. And in addition, the admiral's staff was about 250 more, so it was--there were a lot of people on board.

Catherine Smith:

Did people come and go off the ship on a regular basis or was that pretty much this is who we have and we have them for so long?

Ross Walters:

They would--they would rotate out. Typically, at that time, you'd be on a ship for about two years, and I was there for about 2 1/2 years. And people would come and go. When we'd go to port, there would be some people that would rotate to some other place and new people would come on board so you're always, always changing.

Catherine Smith:

So you basically spent your time in the war on the ship; would that be correct?

Ross Walters:

On the--on the ship we did naval gunfire support. We had-- We did-- Supposedly, I've read it was the only time since World War II, with three cruisers, we did a gun raid on Haiphong Harbor, which was kind of exciting. And I spent-- I was in Da Nang briefly, but other than that, we were in the ship off the gun line. We would go down there for a month or two and then the ship would need refitting. It gets kind of dirty when you're firing guns all the time and would have to go over to the Philippines and we'd restock. And then every now and then we'd go back to Japan to the dry docks up there. And you have to clean. Ships take a lot of work to be painted and clean off the barnacles and all that stuff, so--

Catherine Smith:

So were there--do you know how many other ships were in the area?

Ross Walters:

There were numerous ships. On the gun line-- When I say the gun line, we would be posted about 2,000 yards, basically a mile to a mile and a half, off of shore. And the other ships, you'd see them. And you'd have kind of an assigned area where we'd patrol, and we would get--we would receive targets from spotters and then we would fire at those targets. And sometimes we'd get fired at by the--from the shore, and that happened several times.

Catherine Smith:

So what kinds of targets are you talking about?

Ross Walters:

Well, they would be movement of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. Occasionally, though they didn't have much equipment, there would be equipment and guns, some artillery. Once they thought they saw a tank and we shot at that. And when we went up to Haiphong, I believe we were targeting the harbor facilities, and so there was a lot of--a lot of that going on. It was--it was hot and smoky.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. Did you go on shore--

Ross Walters:

Only--

Catherine Smith:

--in Vietnam?

Ross Walters:

Well, I went on shore, but it was because I was standing watch so much-- Among my other duties was when we did what's called underway replenishment and your ship goes up beside another ship-- Excuse me. For example, if it's an oiler, the ship that's getting refueled has to keep stationed on the oiler. It's on a constant, so you've got to keep up with it, and they string these big hoses over. And I was what was called the helm safety officer, and all I did is I'd stand there for hours, and the captain or whoever was commanding the ship would be on the wing of the bridge outside and would say, "Take one rotation off the rpm," so I'd make sure that the sailor didn't add a rotation, did what he was told, because otherwise it could be disastrous, or come right one degree or go left one degree.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

And but we were doing this all the time, and then I was on a watch where eight hours of every day I was on the bridge as an officer of the deck, and the long and short of it is I got an infected foot and they--when we pulled into Subic, I went down to see my friend, the doctor. And I'd been wearing slippers for a while, and I took my shoe off, and he looked at my foot, and he said, "You're going to the hospital." So I spent several weeks in the hospital in the Philippines. And then, to complete the story, they flew me back to my ship, which was never where I was when I was trying to catch it up. We flew back, we flew to Da Nang, and with a chaplain who was coming to our ship who was a Navy captain who'd been around forever. In fact, he was on the last ship out of Shanghai when the Chinese communists took it over. And he had more stories, and so I palled around with him on the base at Da Nang, which was very interesting, and after a few days the helicopter came and picked us up.

Catherine Smith:

Did you experience casualties?

Ross Walters:

We got-- We had shrapnel. We got hit a couple times but never casualties. The closest was a battle called--it's in the annals of naval history as probably doesn't rate even an asterisk or a footnote, but it was the battle of the Dong Hoi Gulf. We and three other ships were attacked by MiG jets. And they circled back, and they didn't hit our--they flew right over our ship, but then they came back and there was this destroyer behind us called the Higbee, and they dropped a bomb on the back of the stern of the Higbee, blowing up its rear gun mount. And there were some injuries. Fortunately, nobody was killed, because they had what's called a hot round stuck in the chamber of their gun mount back there so they had evacuated the back end of the ship. But our doctor had to go over to their ship and help out. In fact, I think I was the one who went down at lunch and said, "Get your stuff together. You're going to be dropped onto a ship that's in bad shape." And but that, they didn't hit our ship. That's as close as we came to real, real damage.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. Did any of your acquaintances when you were, I will call it, in school, who were in Vietnam, did you lose any acquaintances and friends in the war?

Ross Walters:

I'm not aware of anybody who I went to school with who lost their life.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

I kept up with a couple of them.

Catherine Smith:

All right. Did you receive any particular medals, citations?

Ross Walters:

Well, I didn't get any medals for bravery or any particular performance, but because we were there, we got all the ribbons; Vietnam campaign, Vietnam service, combat action ribbon, and all these. And I had some other ribbons just because our unit got them. So I, as an ensign in the Navy, which is just one thin little stripe on your sleeve, I had 2, 2 1/2 rows of ribbons, none of which were for valor or particular-- doing anything particularly good. And if you've got a moment, I'll tell you, one thing our ship did later on was to show the flag, because we had the vice admiral on board. And we pulled in to Korea, and the Korean general's staff, their military, had invited the admiral to a party, and some of the members of the ship's company were invited, and they kind of-- I was assigned to go, I'll put it that way, me and another ensign. So we're at this party with all these people with stars on their shoulders, and they're all high-ranking military, and here I was like 22. And we're sort of standing by the hors d'oeuvres, eating and trying to stay out of the way, and the vice admiral-- The commander of the Seventh Fleet at that time was Admiral Holloway, who was a fine, fine guy. He saw us over there all alone, and he walked over, followed by numerous Korean generals and stuff, and he introduced us, these little one-striped ensigns, to the general, to the staff. And I remember Admiral Holloway looked at me and my little 2 1/2 rows of ribbons, and he said, "Ensign Walters, I do believe you're the most decorated ensign I've ever seen." I said, "Well, as you know, Admiral, it's not for anything I've done; it's just the ship." But he was that kind of man. He was just a very quality person. I always remember that and appreciated it.

Catherine Smith:

Were there any women on the ship?

Ross Walters:

No, no. That was in the days there were no women on any Navy ships.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

Except they were starting to get on harbor craft, like tugboats and things like that. But it's much different now. Other than submarines, I think the women serve on most ships, and I think even that may change with submarines.

Catherine Smith:

So speaking of submarines, did you have any experience with submarines at all?

Ross Walters:

Well, we saw them. We saw Russian submarines. They'd follow us from time to time. And we saw-- Every now and then we'd be around and just one would surface sort of to say hello, I guess. But I was never-- I did take a tour of one, but I was never on one when it was underway.

Catherine Smith:

All right. Let's talk a little bit about everyday life, so to speak, when you were in the service. When you were over there, how did you stay in touch with your family?

Ross Walters:

Well, it wasn't quite like it is now for our servicemen because we didn't have the Internet.

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

We didn't have Skype, we didn't have any of those things. We didn't have e-mail. It was by snail mail.

Catherine Smith:

Uh-huh.

Ross Walters:

And my parents were very good about writing, and, of course, being a young person, I wasn't quite as good about writing back. But if I wanted to actually talk to them, and I did it on two or three occasions, you had to go to-- Well, I'd go to the officers' club, but there were various places where there were phones, and you made an appointment for a call at such-and-such a time. And they would connect it up, and then you'd sort of prepay and you'd talk hurriedly. Now, my parents grew up in the Depression, and they thought talking long distance, you know, you say what you have to say in about ten seconds and hang up. So they were never very long phone calls, but that's how I kept in touch.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. Tell us about the food on the ship, in Vietnam, when you were in the service. How was the food?

Ross Walters:

You know, Navy--

Catherine Smith:

Because you hear a lot about that.

Ross Walters:

Navy food's pretty good and it always has been. At least it was for us. And so we never got any complaints about it. You know, when you're on a ship there isn't a lot to do other than your job, so eating is a big deal, and so it's important to have good food, and they did. I used to, when on the mid-watch--or not the mid-watch, the watch when I had the watch from 4 in the morning till 8 in the morning, the bakers would start baking their pastries at about 5 o'clock in the morning for breakfast, and we sort of had a line down there to the galley, and when we heard the things were coming out of the oven, I would send the messenger of the watch down to get a tray of stuff for the general enjoyment of those on watch on the bridge. So it was pretty good, pretty good food.

Catherine Smith:

How would they get their supplies?

Ross Walters:

Well, the same-- At sea, you do it kind of the-- You can get three things when naval gunfire support; ammunition, we'd have to-- It's called underway replenishment. We'd have to get ammunition every now and then, fuel from oilers, and there were these basically ships that are grocery ships, and they have all kinds of food. We get, you know, several thousand dozen eggs. We'd get all this stuff. And but those they would generally helicopter back and forth in pallets and drop it on the fantail or the stern of the ship. And they had the crews were assigned, they'd go out and take turns, you know. They'd form lines and pass things from one to the other and it would get down, most of it would get down, to the galley.

Catherine Smith:

All right. So it sounds like you had pretty much what you needed there; would that be an accurate statement?

Ross Walters:

We did. A ship's a little city all on its own. Now, my room, I was in what they called a junior officer bunk room, and it was right under the turret, so when we were doing naval gunfire support, the whole room would shake, the pipes would break, water would be on the floor a couple inches, and the whole-- Because it would--it shook the whole ship when they were firing those things. And so it wasn't the ideal spot to be, plus it's up--it was up in the bow, and when you're going into waves, you go up and down and up, down (indicating), and it's a little hard to move around when you're standing, all the sudden the floor drops down there two or three feet and you're following it. So it wasn't the ideal spot, but that's where we lived.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. You referred, I believe, once or twice about going on leave. How often did you get leave, what did you do when you were on leave, how long was the leave for?

Ross Walters:

Well, we-- I took one period of leave and came back after the Vietnam War ended and I came back for a brief period in the States. But most of the time when we pulled into a port, you would get liberty is what it was called.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

And you could have up to several days, depending upon how long you were there, and I took advantage of that. And in Hong Kong a bunch of us went to a Buddhist monastery. Hong Kong is quite large, all these islands. We went to this-- I don't know who got the idea, but we went to a Buddhist monastery on top of a mountain. And by the time we got up there and got off the bus and I looked around, I kind of wanted to get back on the bus because they got up at 4 in the morning by ringing this huge bell. And so that was interesting. We'd do things like that. And, you know, we went to some interesting places; Taiwan, Korea, all over Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Manila, and various cities in Japan. But as the legal officer, I had a--when the sailors would get in trouble, as they sometimes tend to do, I would have things I'd have to do.

Catherine Smith:

Tell us about any-- What stands out in your mind from your time in Vietnam; any unusual incidents, any humorous incidents? You just talked about the monastery. What stands out in your mind?

Ross Walters:

Well, let's see. We talked about all the gunfire and that sort of stuff off Vietnam. Vietnam, it was just hot, sweaty, dull work enlivened by a few moments of sheer terror every now and then when they would fire at us and we'd have to skittle away so they wouldn't hit us. And then the routine of underway replenishment and all of that, so that was pretty serious work. When we were-- I was also the public affairs officer so when we would pull into a port we would do a little brochure of where we were, and we reminded everybody that, you know, you are subject to the laws of this country, so certain things you don't do here; like in Singapore, make sure you stay away from drugs because they have very serious drug laws. But my first--I like to say that my first case, and I wasn't even a lawyer, was when I had to go to the criminal court in Singapore to bail out one of our sailors who had been arrested buying marijuana from another American. And he was in court and he was fined $600, and the proceeding happened very fast. And it was in not the best area of Singapore, I remember that, and here I am with one of our masters-at-arms, which are the ship's police force, in our dress whites in this crowded courtroom. And so there was--I asked, "So, okay, what do we do now? "Well, you have to pay the fine by the end of the day or he's going to go to jail." So it was a Sunday or a Saturday, it was a weekend, and I didn't have $600 on me, and but I had my American Express card. And so we took taxis all over town looking for the American Express office, which had moved twice recently. We finally found it. I got the cash and we got back to the courthouse just not long before it closed, and that sailor was very relieved to see me. I still remember passing the money through this thick wall to somebody back in there and getting a receipt out and then our sailor popped out and we got him back to the ship. And the interesting thing was, in terms of international law, they needed him as a witness in the criminal case, and a couple days later the Singapore police came and they wanted to basically take him as a witness in the case. And we knew they were coming, and they were told that, well, that, you know, he's on a United States Naval vessel now and that's territory of the United States and that he would not be going. And they understood that very well. We had a nice discussion about it.

Catherine Smith:

Did you and your shipmates play tricks on each other or was it serious most of the time?

Ross Walters:

Oh, no, no. We played tricks on each other all the time.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

One thing we did, it was part training but it was part trick. In the middle of the night there's always somebody down in the bowels of the ship ready to spring into action in case, for some reason, the helm isn't working and they can work it manually down there. And every now and then we'd go back and there was a little box, and we'd open the box, and you turn off the helm. And the helmsman is supposed to notice that before the ship goes way over here (indicating). And that would create great consternation. And but we would only do that when we were pretty sure we could recover and get back on course. But it was training. They had to do that.

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

So we did that kind of thing. You know, when we'd go--when we'd go on shore, we'd, you know, horse around and do fun stuff. You know, we become good friends with your shipmates.

Catherine Smith:

So talking about becoming friends, have you stayed in touch with any of your shipmates?

Ross Walters:

I've stayed in touch with some of them, in fact. But the main one was the doctor who went to the destroyer that was hit. We became very good friends. And I went out to see him in Oregon here a couple years ago. And he looks the same; I don't. But we had a very--we had a fun time. And some members of my division, one of them sent me-- Our ship was mothballed and now it's been sunk in a firing exercise. Too bad. But he went on the ship when it was decrepit and pried up some pieces of the teak deck and gave me some of that, and so I appreciated that. And then from time to time I hear from people.

Catherine Smith:

Do you belong to any veterans' organizations?

Ross Walters:

You know, I really don't. I haven't. I haven't-- Well, I'm sort of a--it's not hard to belong, but a member. There's this Oklahoma City group, and I've signed on to that and belong to that. But other than that, no, not so much.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. How many years was your ship in service; do you know?

Ross Walters:

Well, after World War II, I think it was in mothballs for a while, and then it was recommissioned, and I think from the mid- to late sixties up until about 1990 it was in commission, and then it was decommissioned again, and that was--that was it.

Catherine Smith:

And so then when they decommission a ship and you said they sank it in a ceremony, what determines if they sink a ship or keep a ship or make it a museum?

Ross Walters:

Well, you know, that's a good question. I'm not really sure. There are mothball fleets, I think, up in Bremerton, Washington, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and they store them there and they strip them of all the--anything that's an environmental issue. And they put--they used to put something called Cosmoline on them, sort of a like Vicks VapoRub all over. And they sit there and they get minimal maintenance, and the idea is that they can be brought back on line. And but every so often they rotate ships out. And I do know when they select them for--to be sunk they take all the engine components out, they basically make them a shell. And the poor old Oklahoma City was towed out to Korea and sunk. I have a picture of it--

Catherine Smith:

Are there--

Ross Walters:

--broken in half, sinking. It was very sad.

Catherine Smith:

Excuse me. Are there certain places where they sink the ships or--

Ross Walters:

I don't-- You know, I don't know that much about it.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

This was the Korean Navy, and--as I recall, and we let them have the ship for a live fire exercise.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

I think that's true. Others are just turned to scrap. So I don't know how--

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

--they pick the ones to be sunk.

Catherine Smith:

Okay. How would you say, reflecting back on your experiences, your time in the Navy and/or Vietnam affected you?

Ross Walters:

It had a huge effect on me. You know, I grew up in a university community, kind of like Ames, really, or Iowa City, except that Penn State's in central Pennsylvania, and, you know, it's a very rural area.

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

There's no cities around it. And it was sort of a cocoon-like existence. I was, you know, the child of a professor, and some events in the world didn't touch us so much there. And then all of a sudden I was in the Navy and I had a lot of responsibility and I was with people that I would never have met from all walks of life, and so it was a real opportunity to grow, and I think I did. And I think I learned a lot about people, different kinds of people, and it was really a tremendous experience for me. I got more from the Navy than I gave to it, though I tried to do my job, but it was a terrific experience.

Catherine Smith:

Do you think, hypothetically, if you had not been drafted, if it had not been at that time, would you have entered the Navy?

Ross Walters:

You know, I don't know. As I said, I was always interested in it, I had it in my mind. I had thought maybe about trying to get into the JAG Corps. I always wanted to be a lawyer, I knew that. I don't know if I'd have done it. So I was--I'm glad for that No. 16, in a way, that I got.

Catherine Smith:

And what is your general view about the military today? Do you have any particular feelings?

Ross Walters:

Well, you know, when I was in the Navy, they talked about a 600-ship Navy, and it was shrinking at that time, and now I think it's down to not many over 300. It's become a leaner, more efficient organization; very, very, very, very professional. I think the American military is--it has capabilities now even far beyond what it used to have with fewer people and, in the Navy's case, less number of ships. I think the military, frankly, for me, it was a very--it was such a good experience, I think for many people it would be. Now, I have to back off of that a little bit because while I'm a Vietnam veteran in the--in the technical legal sense, I wouldn't put my experience in the same category with those who were in the jungles and having people pop out of the ground and shoot at them and having to contend with all the terrible things that they did and the risks that they undertook. And their experiences probably were much different, and I'm sure some of them were, as are many of our returning members of the military from Afghanistan and the places now. It's affected them emotionally and mentally in ways, some of them, that are not good. But for others, and I hope for most, it's a very rewarding experience. It really, you know, it takes you outside of yourself to work for something bigger. I think the American--the American military is such an important part of keeping the peace in the world that we should always, we need to always make sure it is second to none.

Catherine Smith:

Is there--or what else is there about your experience in Vietnam that you would like people to know?

Ross Walters:

Well, God, that's a tough question. I would-- The Vietnam War was a very frustrating war because in the end it didn't come out so well. And there were a lot of things going on that caused that to happen. And the veterans of the war-- You know, the war sort of petered out, and it wasn't quite--in our national psyche, it wasn't something we were fond of remembering for a while. I think now it's changing. And, really, when somebody is in a--you're in a conflict that has a difficult outcome, it's different than when you come back to a hero's welcome.

Catherine Smith:

Uh-huh.

Ross Walters:

And but I think that's changing, and as time goes by, I think people are realizing that, you know, the people who served in Vietnam served their country, and when you serve your country in a cause that isn't going so well, you know, that's--you're there doing your duty--

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

--and that's worth honoring. But, as I say, I'm a Vietnam veteran. If I'm the last one left alive, they'll say, "He's a Vietnam veteran." But the ones really, really who had experiences are those who fought in country, pilots shot down, like Senator McCain shot down over--

Catherine Smith:

Right.

Ross Walters:

--over north Vietnam, the people who were probably at greater risk than me.

Catherine Smith:

Were you in Vietnam when the war ended? Were you still in the Navy at that point or--

Ross Walters:

I was still in the Navy. The Paris Peace Accords, I think that's what they were called, were signed about this time of year, I think, in 1972. In fact, we were on the gun line when they were negotiating that, and we would get--we were shooting away, doing our thing, and we would get things by message called peace warnings. And I always thought that's--what a thing to warn about. Of course, they were trying to tell us, you know, we may be stopping all this soon.

Catherine Smith:

Uh-huh.

Ross Walters:

And then one day the word came, and we turned our ship away and left.

Catherine Smith:

Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

Ross Walters:

Well, let's see. Have we done our--

Catherine Smith:

We're good.

Ross Walters:

Are we--

Tim Grover:

We're 40 minutes in.

Ross Walters:

We're 40 minutes in?

Catherine Smith:

So you--

Tim Grover:

Yeah. So you can keep talking.

Ross Walters:

Not really. If you get me started on war stories, it will go on and on forever. So I've told you some of the main ones. The famous battle of the Dong Hoi Gulf, remember that. Someday they'll write a book about it. It will be a short book, but...

Catherine Smith:

Well, is there a final couple of stories you'd like to share for posterity?

Ross Walters:

Well, I will tell you the first-- Being shot at is an interesting experience. And shortly after I was on the ship, I was what was called the junior officer of the watch, which means that they hung binoculars on me and told me to go stand over there and watch what happens and don't do anything to mess things up. And I was out on what they call the wing of the bridge. It was an enclosed area in the wing, you're outside, and we were right off Vietnam. And I'm standing out there, and all of a sudden, it was just like being in a movie, I hear this [sound effect] in the water and there's this explosion. And I thought, "My God," you know, "What's this?" You know, I'd only been there a week or so, and I've never experienced it. So I looked around, and nobody else had seen it. And I thought, well, I'm not going to make a fool of myself and run in there all blubbery, but maybe I just--you know, figment of my imagination. [Sound effect]. Another one came in. Well, this time, I and others saw it, and I went in and I blubbered something to the officer of the deck about [sound effect]. And then there was an artillery, and they were bracketing our ship at the time. Well, the ship was backing down, it was in reverse trying to alter its position, and we had to get out of there. And when you're backing down, takes a while, you know, big ship, to stop going backwards and go forward. So the officer of the deck goes, "Oh, all ahead emergency flank." Well, when you do that on the old engine order telegraphs, you go cling, cling, cling, and you leave it down. Well, that tells the engine room something real bad's going to happen if we don't move fast. And they put too much-- We had two boilers on line. They put too much steam on one of the boilers, and it blew the safety thing, so we call it dropped the load in one of the boilers, so we lost half our power. Then we're backing slowly, and these things are now coming in left and right. Well, nobody had bothered to tell the captain, who was in the--it was in the morning, he was in his sea captain room. He looks out the window and he sees one of these shells coming in, and so he comes out sort of half-shaven and he goes up to the officer of the deck, and he says, "Mr."--I know the real name, but I'll give you a false name--"Mr. Smith," he said, "do you notice that my ship is under fire?" And the officer of the deck is going, "Yeah, we're aware. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." And they've got this radio thing, the speaker box to the engine room, and they said--they call the engine room, and all you can hear is [sound effect]. They're panicking and everybody is going. And the captain is trying to be very calm, and he said, "Well, Mr. Smith, what I want to know is, what are you going to do about it?" Slowly we crept forward and got out of there and we were not hit, but that was my first introduction to being fired at, and I thought, you know, this is new, this is a different experience. Also, I had a-- When you're in naval gunfire support, you have to keep the bow of the ship turned in a certain way because you don't--with these you don't want to fire directly at a right angle because that's hard on a ship; you want to fire off at about 45 degrees. And you also don't want to move around too much because they are targeting, you know. Even then they had computers and you would use those. So often we'd be, for some reason, posted outside this river called the Cua Viet, I think, and the current would tend to push the ship this way. Well, there was one time they told me we had to, we had to maintain station. And the way you do that, it's pushing the bow this way, so you use your engines. You can't use your rudder because we're not going forward still. So you put the starboard engines going forward and the port engines going backward, and you start out at, you know, third speed or something like that and then it torques the shift. But in this one occasion, it kept going over and over. So I went up to two-thirds, and finally I said--I said, "All right. Starboard engines ahead full, port engines back full," and everybody looked like this (indicating). And so they did that, and the ship started to hop (indicating) in its location. And the chief engineer, who was in the engine room at the time, sent up a little diagram, and it showed the Oklahoma City torn in half with the port side going back and the starboard side going forward, and he wrote a little caption on it. When you are commanding the ship you have what's called the conn, and it said, "Ensign Walters has the conn." That was-- So that was kind of funny.

Catherine Smith:

Okay.

Ross Walters:

Don't get me going. We ought to quit or we'll be here long after.

Catherine Smith:

Well, is there anything else you would like to add at this point--

Ross Walters:

No.

Catherine Smith:

--before we conclude?

Ross Walters:

I enjoyed my service, and as time has gone by, when I came back, I did my duty, went to law school, I didn't think about it that much. But, you know, these days, events like this, when you recollect it, it was something that mattered, and I'm glad I participated.

Catherine Smith:

Thank you.

Ross Walters:

All right.

Catherine Smith:

This concludes the Veterans History Project interview with Ross Walters. Thank you so much.

Ross Walters:

You're welcome. Thank you.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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