MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The 1960s were a turbulent time in global politics as the U.S. faced unknown threats from China and Russia, and United States Navy veteran Rick Johnson knows firsthand the tense “cat and mouse” game that took place in the Pacific Ocean at the time.
Johnson, who lives in Ranson, attended high school in California and graduated in 1960. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation, adding there were a few popular options for young men like himself.
“I come from a long line of engineers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue that path. I wanted to do something different and see what was out there in the world,” Johnson said. “In the 1950s and 1960s, if young men didn’t go to college, they ended up as policemen, firemen, became Marines or joined the Navy.”
Johnson entered boot camp at the Naval Recruit Training Center in San Diego on Sept. 12, 1960, before going into his four years of active duty. He served aboard the attack aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard and two destroyers, the U.S.S Ozbourn and the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans.
While at sea, Johnson made two Western Pacific (WESTPAC) cruises, the first of which involved a request by the Dutch government to suppress a native uprising in Borneo. However, the mission was called off before the ship reached its destination.
With the tension of the Cold War mounting, Johnson said he and other crew members knew they weren’t alone. He said one crew member spotted the wake of a periscope, called a “feather,” following the ship and suspected it was a Russian submarine. He said the ship took a zigzag course to evade the sub, but later, a Russian Bear Bomber was seen flying reconnaissance overhead.
“The skipper knew I had an old wind-up 8 mm camera. I took the picture, and you could tell it was a reconnaissance plane because up front in the bulbous nose of it had all the electronic gear. They were taking pictures of us and I was taking pictures of them. You could see the guy waving to us,” Johnson said.
As a radarman charged with tracking the movements of enemy ships and submarines, Johnson said the ship was engaged in “a game of chicken” off the coast of China. There was a lot of back-and-forth, which Johnson said is hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it.
“It was a cat-and-mouse game, and I don’t think the American public knows it,” he said. “If you weren’t there, you don’t know because it was going on constantly. The Chinese and the Soviets were checking us out, and we think, ‘How dare they do that,’ but we were doing it to them. People think this conflict with China and Russia is new, but it’s not. The game we think they’re playing now has probably gone on for years, even before I came into the service.”
Johnson said one of the most troublesome moments he can recall was hearing the news that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“We were called to general quarters because we had no idea what was happening. We just got this bulletin from then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We were off the coast of southern California,” Johnson said. “(Kennedy) was the Commander-In-Chief, he was our boss.”
“Usually you hear that alarm, and you go to your duty stations as fast as you can, but it’s announced as a drill. This was not a drill, and we had less than 30 seconds to get to our stations. You had to move, because doors would close behind you. There were guys who had just gotten out of the shower running around in their underwear, scrambling to get ready.”
Johnson said at the time, he and the other men were speculating that Kennedy’s assassination had been a plot by the Soviet Union. He said they were unsure if war was on the horizon.
In August 1964, Johnson left the Navy to attend college at California State University of the San Fernando Valley, where he studied journalism. After receiving his degree, Johnson wrote for a newspaper for several years and worked in public relations before coming back to the Navy as a JOC, or chief journalist.
Johnson said he spent the next 18 years working his way up through the ranks, and was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and Chief Master at Arms before he retired in 2005.
Johnson and his wife have two sons and four grandchildren, with a fifth grandchild on the way. He is still active in photography, is involved with his church and enjoys traveling when he can.
“If I had to go back in time, I’d do it all over again,” Johnson said, reflecting on his career in the Navy. “I needed a foundation, and the military gave that to me. It builds character and teaches you to be self-sufficient. I have no regrets.”
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/