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A Boatswain mate’s tale

Posted on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at 10:04 am

“Make Love, Not War” was a sign that could be seen in the shadow of the nation’s capital and on college campuses around the country. The year was 1965 and America was mired in the Vietnam War. Anti-war protestors blocked the streets of big cities. The country was in turmoil, yet, the airmen in the wild blue yonder, the soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam and the sailors at sea served, day and night, to fulfill their duty to their country. One of those young sailors was Walter Zeigler “Ziggy” serving on the USS Tappahannock.

Zeigler and his family recently visited the Essex History Museum to share his memories of the years 1965 to 1969 when he served three tours in the U.S. Navy as a Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class on the oiler, “Tappy.” While visiting the museum, he also presented his USS Tappahannock cruise book to IC Smith, a former FBI agent and fellow Vietnam era naval veteran, who accepted the book on behalf of the museum.

The two veterans spoke openly about their experiences. Zeigler was only 17 when he joined the Navy. His youth placed him in an enlistment category known as a “Kiddie Cruiser;” young boys who enlisted at age 17, served three years, then were discharged as men, at age 21. Growing up in South Carolina, it was a mighty distance sailing through the Panama Canal to the distant shores of Hong Kong; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Singapore; Sasebo, Japan and Subic Bay in the Philippines, to name a few. He boarded the ship in Algiers, Louisiana where he initially trained in “mandatory minor drills;” however the more rigorous training took place in his home port, San Diego, where they underwent “serious fire drills.” The first time crossing the equator he and his crewmates were subjects of a light-hearted and time-honored tradition. To earn the status of a “shellback,” the “pollywogs” had to prove they were seaworthy by rolling up their pants and crossing the deck with their noses to the floor: they then traveled through the “honey hole,” kissed the foot of King Neptune and, after all that, had to kiss the belly of the fattest sailor on board. Zeigler wryly commented that one was better off going first. He noted that there was no rank; all of the officers and crew participated in the initiation. Zeigler’s duties were to keep riggings in good order, but more specifically to refuel ships at sea. Vessels would come alongside the Tappy. A bolo, with a thin line attached was shot across the water to the boat in need of fuel. A pulley system was rigged between the boats so that a six inch hose could reach the fuel tank. The ships had to struggle to keep relative distance and speed between them. Most crews followed the same routine for transferring the hose, but not the Japanese. Zeigler said they formed a circle on deck and pulled the lines and hose so quickly that sailors would sustain rope burns on their hands if they were not prepared.

For the full article, pick up the latest Northern Neck News 11/13/19

Walter Zeigler “Ziggy” served on the USS Tappahannock during the Vietnam War.