Kemejuk's Korner

My Okie City Christmas, 1969

Christmas of 1969 was a special one for me, since I had the ‘opportunity’ to be assigned to Shore Patrol duty for the holidays in Yokosuka. I don’t think I can ever forget those times. It’s one thing to be enjoying life, liberty, and definitely the pursuit of happiness in our homeport after a long cruise, but quite another thing to be a sober sideline observer of the hundreds of sailors, including a lot of my own shipmates, as they kicked back and enjoyed the good times. As Shore Patrol, of course, my orders were to make sure they didn’t get overly ‘happy’.

Eight or nine hours nightly of cruising Honcho Street from the hotspot ‘Snack Santana’ to the ‘New Dream Japan’ to ”Sub Alley” and back, always looking for potential problems, was neither relaxing nor peaceful – something was always going on somewhere for us to be concerned about.

I constantly thought about why we sailors were celebrating so much during that week from Christmas to New Year’s. Maybe we were letting go after stressful times in the War Zone and at sea, or maybe we were celebrating our youthful independence, but looking back now, I have a feeling a lot of us at that moment were really trying to forget our loneliness and thoughts of home and family at Christmas.

I remember coming back late to the ship on Christmas Eve that year, walking back from the main gate to Berth 10 at about 3:00 AM, peacoat collar turned up, head turned down, and numb fingers curled up in my pockets to keep warm. I walked as fast as I could with ice-cold toes and chattering teeth, hurrying to get back through the cold, damp air of Yokosuka harbor to the sanctuary of our Okie City. I dashed up the forward brow, scarcely acknowledging the very-junior OOD with a short-arm salute, and almost ran down the historic teak deck toward the after compartment where my cramped but familiar rack awaited, bathed in red compartment nightlights but certainly not in warm temperatures.

After a shower and half cup of lukewarm leftover messdeck coffee, I tried to get some sleep. For a long time I stared out from the blue curtains of my rack towards the silhouette of the ladder leading to the deck above, thinking about all of us on the ship, and especially the handful of us in our compartment that night who had no other place to go.

I thought about the things we all voluntarily gave up to be a part of the American effort to protect freedom that year, things still given up today by Sailors everywhere. Everybody had their own story of how they ended up in the same distant spot on the other side of the planet that Christmas Eve – each of us had a story worth telling.

We were there in those times to man our warship stations and to do our duty as prescribed to us. Nobody I know of actually ‘wanted’ to be there, but if God willed it so, we would go. And we did. We went, we did our jobs well, and we certainly took advantage of those moments that gave us escape from the reality of our situation to relax and enjoy the camaraderie that sailors everywhere enjoy. We sacrificed time with relatives at home at Christmas, but in a way, we still had time with ‘family’. Those times built character that would be a part of us for the rest of our lives; times that would, at the very least, help us to appreciate the true-blood relatives and friends that we were thinking about on that Christmas Eve 1969, those who gave us the real reason to be where we were.

Merry Christmas to all my USS Oklahoma City shipmates everywhere. Thank you for being there when it mattered most.

Jack Kemejuk, 1968-74