Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Commander Ronald Leonard Smith Sr. served in the US Navy and sailed all over the world in the 80s and 90s. In this interview, he describes one of the Navy’s famous initiation rites, his deployments, and the dangers of Mother Nature.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Last time on Warriors In Their Own Words we heard from Chief Warrant Officer Jim White, and today we’ll hear the rest of his story. White served in the Marine Corps before transferring to the Army to become a helicopter pilot. After returning home from Vietnam, White was sent to prison, and he ended up spending 38 years behind bars. While encarcerated, he created a program that helped over 1500 inmates earn college degrees, and raised over $350,000 dollars for various causes by organizign walkathons and fundraisers.
Today, we’ll hear from CDR Ronald Leonard Smith Sr.. CDR Smith served in the US Navy and served across the globe in the 80s and 90s.
Commander Ronald Leonard Smith Sr.:
My name's Ronald Leonard Smith Sr. And I mention that because I have both a junior who's a naval aviator, and I have a grandson who's the third. I was a surface warfare officer, a ship driver, an 1110, and an abused child as opposed to being an aviator. And also I was retired at the rank of commander.
My maternal grandfather was an immigrant and all the uncles were in the Second World War with the kid being in Korea. With few exceptions, all my male cousins were in the service, one West Pointer and one Kings Pointer. Early on I was introduced to the Army Navy game. And while that's not reality for a young kid, it's a lot of pageantry. And I was interested in going to a military academy. I actually was accepted at West Point, NAPS, Naval Academy Prep School, and US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, and with absolutely no desire or reason to go into the Army, I went to West Point. I developed a duodenal ulcer during my plebe year, and at the end of 1974, there wasn't a need for a whole lot of second lieutenants, and I was honorably discharged, medically separated.
I wanted to get back into the service, and I went into the Navy because I was almost a petulant child in that I thought, "Well, I'm not going back into the army." I'm a Penn State graduate and I went to the Navy. I thought I was going to be a aviator, ended up being a ship driver and had absolutely no desire to make it a career. But over time, things happened. My first tour, my wife was pregnant with our first child and she said, "You better have a job." And I said, "All right, I'll take another set of orders." And then from there, I became an Admiral's Aide and you really can't quit when you get that. Next thing you know wake up and it's passed 10 years. I said, "Well, I may as well stay."
I understand that it's a kindler gentler Navy now, but the tradition of when you cross the equator for those who had not, you're considered a polywog. You're just a slimy wog, and those who have crossed it are navigators and of great acclaim. So they get their opportunity to initiate you. I'm not sure what the Navy does now, but back in the day, our ships stored up garbage instead of disposing of it. We had the fun of crawling through a garbage chute. And then some of the boiler technicians had frozen old fire hoses, so the old canvas fire hoses in 24 inch lengths or so and had kept them in the freezer. So they were used as paddles. Because I was the second engineer, I had the pleasure and honor of going through that chute twice where not only are you crawling through garbage, but then I was getting spanked literally on the way.
And then there's different tubs where you got dipped in just slimy stuff. Nothing hazardous, but just awful. And then you get the opportunity... Right before you're almost finished, you get the opportunity to drink a truth serum. So that purifies your system so you can become a noble shellback. That's often whatever else is in it. There's always a lot of hot sauce. So you get the opportunity to drink eight ounces or something or 16 ounces. You just have to chug it. You just have to chug it down.
And then it probably has changed with the physical standards, but you got the fattest guy on board and he was the baby and you had to go kiss his belly and there would be grease of some sort. That's what we did. Then at that point, you were allowed to go spend 15-20 minutes in the shower, which is a Hollywood shower, which is something that you would never do, just to get all the grit and stuff off you. But it's one of the initiations in the Navy that actually will go into your service record as opposed to maybe being in the North Atlantic or going through the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. But becoming a shellback actually goes in your record.
I don't know in this politically correct world anymore whether those sorts of rights still exist, but there's a real pride having gone through it. And most of us have framed our shellback document.
When you get underway, you're living with these people for six months at a time. And regardless of the size of a ship, it's a small city. It operates around the clock. People standing watches both on the bridge and in Combat Information Center, as well as down in the main engine spaces. We have cooks, we have postal department, laundry, and everyone works together. And you have to work together, otherwise you can't accomplish the mission. Sometimes everyone on board is not your favorite 250 best friends. But there is a sense that everyone relies on each other.
There's no doubt going to sea is a very difficult career choice. But I also thought if you don't want command, if you don't want the keys to the car, then you're in the wrong line of work. So my aspiration once I was on my first ship actually was to eventually achieve command. Some trying times were as Chief Engineer for example, or Propulsion Assistant, Second Engineer on some pretty old and challenging ships. And even at that, when I realized that I could make the boat go or I could make these things happen and I have good people or even marginal people who were willing to work hard at some points. Then I thought this is an honorable way to go. I also thought that we're instruments of public policy. When something gets implemented, then depending where you are in the Pacific or in the Mediterranean or in the Indian Ocean, you end up getting close to where the action is.
For all the time that I had to spend away from my family, the idea that I was doing something real. I wasn't missing the birth of a child because I was at a golf tournament. I was in the midst of, well, in the news, whether it was in the Middle East or Guantanamo Bay with 52,843 Haitians and Cubans during that rescue effort. It's not very sophisticated, but I just kept following the career path, trying to become the best professional that I could. And eventually I achieved Command. I achieved Command Ashore on two different occasions. And one was with, I'll just say cats and dogs units, kind of specialty stuff. And while Command At Sea is number one in the Navy, and Command Ashore is a distant second, it sure beats whatever's in third place.
My first ship was the Raleigh LPD-1, which is an Amphib, amphibious transport dock is what it stands for and we carry marines and SEALs and the mini subs, the diving units. It has two helo spots back aft, but a very large well deck. My first job was to be the Well Deck Control Officer and working in deck department in the after part of the ship, we finished after being in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf working with the Omanis and others in what I call the first [inaudible]. Back in the early eighties, we actually lost our stern cape in an operation off of Tunisia. Getting back across the Atlantic Ocean was a bit of a challenge.
The next job I had was Main Propulsion Assistant, Second Engineer on the Caloosahatchee A098. Caloos was an old oiler commissioned in 1944 right at the end of the second war. And when it was jumbo-ized, it was actually enlarged at one point and we carried about 6 million gallons, about o ne and a half million gallons of aviation fuel, and a load out of food and ammunition, both shells and missiles for a battle group for about 30 days. But the ship was something out of an old black and white movie in that both the fire room and the engine room were cavernous and everything was just old and there was no automation to it. That was a challenge.
I had good help. I had good chiefs in the fire room and had just not the best Chief Petty Officers for the engine room. But I was blessed with a good first class machinist mate who eventually made Senior Chief and he ran the show and we were able to answer commitments everywhere from the UNITAS supporting South American navies and US Fleet down working with the US Navies all the way back through Grenada when we got called back for it.
My next job was Chief Engineer on McCloy, which was an old frigate. And again, it was not the Cadillac of ships, but I was very fortunate to have the Chiefs Mess that I had there to support me and then had very promising junior officers. And I would just tell the chiefs, "You run the show, you teach them. And they eventually learn and can brief me without you standing right in their hip pocket." We had an awful lot of assignments because we were always ready. We spent a lot of time that in the Caribbean on the drug interdiction. And at one point, we received an award from the Coast Guard calling us the Top Gun in Drug Interdiction. While we were a small frigate, we were the Navy's top winner at that point in tonnage of drugs that were confiscated.
The most harrowing I guess, or the most, I'll call it interesting part, of that tour was we were finishing an assignment. We're on Liberty in Miami, Florida, and we got a recall to outrun a hurricane. And as we were heading north, the OTSR tracking system put us square into a middle of a Nor'easter. And that particular storm ended up being written about in the book and then the movie The Perfect Storm. So we were battered about pretty significantly, and at one point, our stub mast broke, now that's the top of the ship, with just combination of wind and waves. The metal gave way. It was held on by the cables and the cable runs. And at that point, we were having trouble keeping suction from the sea to bring in water for our evaporators to make fresh water for the crew, but also boiler water and feed water to keep the... It was a steam propulsion plant to keep our ship going. So we at one point went and told the commanding officer that there was no way we were going to make it back to Norfolk or even up to the safety of the James River. We recommended that we go into Morehead City, North Carolina.
Now, our navigator at the time was a Coast Guard Exchange Officer who was very familiar with it. Because I had been on Raleigh, I had been there several times picking up and discharging the Marines, and our ops boss had also been on a Gator, had also been on Amphib on one of his previous tours. The skipper was number four in his class at Annapolis and went to Harvard for graduate school and was on CNO staff. So he didn't understand places like Morehead City and the lower status of some of the ship drivers, but he was certainly a smart guy. So we made way into there. In addition though to the ship being slightly crippled, while Morehead City has a deep channel so that it can take the large deck Amphibs that are essentially small aircraft carriers, the sands shift quite often. So while on paper and on the charts, we had enough room for our sonar dome to get through and that we wouldn't run the ground or damage anything, we had to be very, very careful on navigating into port.
The pilots came and it was amusing because I said, "The pilot's going to have one of two last names, Midgett or Piner." And Captain was kind of skeptical and he says, "Oh, you would know that." And my colleague said, "Oh yeah, there's only two families and the Midgetts married into the Piners. So no, you're going to get dad or granddad or one of the grandsons." And sure enough, that's what we did. We had old Captain Piner and then one of his grandsons under instruction.
We then spent about a week repairing before we went back to Norfolk. The postscript to that is I was to be best man for a fellow who had been one of my midshipmen when I was in Ensen and later Admiral Paul Becker was the J-2, was the Intel officer on the Joint Chief of Staff under General Dempsey. So I asked the skipper if I could leave early after the repairs were done and make my way up so I could attend the rehearsal dinner and the wedding and his comment, without any malice, it was, "Chief Engineer, there many people I'll sail without, and the engineer is not one of them." So fortunately, the wedding was in the evening and we got back into Norfolk about 11 o'clock that morning, but anyway, yeah, I missed the party at my house.
Lieutenant Commander Smith, who was a Hawkeye aviator, was the ring bearer. He was three years old at the time, and it was the first time that I was not recognized as me. I was recognized as Ronnie's daddy and that Aunt Darris came up from South Norfolk, and then Uncle Jim came down from Long Island and everyone just knew me because I was standing there with this small child.
First of all, when I speak to groups, I try to tell them there doesn't have to be a war going on. And every day of the year, from both the Atlantic and the Pacific, there is a Carrier Battle Group and there's a Marine Amphibious Ready Group, and whether they're in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean or close to the South China Sea, but they are out there. These women and men are out there every day of the year. 4th of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving. There is somebody from the Navy and the Marine Corps team out supporting the National Security. And one of the first things that Ensen learns is take mother nature on the points because she always is going to win. The sea is just so big and mother nature is so powerful. So anybody who's out in anything like that and lives to talk about it, then you have to take your hat off to them.
With all the technologies and all the improvements in weather forecasting, you could still be out regardless of where you are and catch a rogue system coming through. And that will just, depending on the size of your ship, and frankly it doesn't matter, I've been on large deck Amphibs and carriers that I may as well have been back on a frigate, the way you can get tossed around. The sea churns, the wind churns, the wind churns the sea, and while your system says that everything should be clear, but instead you're getting a freshwater wash down. I mean, you're getting rained on and sometimes your visibility just occludes. A fog can come in, and then you really have to depend on your electronic navigation at that point. Mother nature's unpredictable. If you're flying over Iraq, or for those of us down below, we also had the fun of the dust storm coming into our air intakes. So that would fog up any fresh air systems we had. So you end up getting a lot of cheese cloth. Tell me where in your training pipeline, anybody told you that you need rolls and rolls of cheese cloth because that ended up just being the best filtering system to keep the sand down. So you have water, you have air, and now you have sand. And then frankly, there's some pretty big particles of sand up in the North Atlantic where it's a little bit different. But then you run into ice and you run into potentially icebergs. I mean, that's no joke. You see 10% of it and you hope that your sonar is working so that you can get an idea of how big, or at least where this thing starts and stops so that you can go around it and you don't hit it.
There's some differences in the North Atlantic and in the Caribbean, for example, on a ship is your sea intake temperature. So if you're in the Caribbean, for example, your water's hot and you have a hard time making water for your evaporators. Up in the North Atlantic, the water's just freezing. I mean, it's obviously in the thirties, but that pressure and temperature differential changes how you're running things in main control when you're bringing water into your evaporators to make water for both the crew and for steam propulsion ships. But each place, whether you're in warm temperature or up in the North Atlantic or in the Gulf... People don't understand the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Gulf's the same place, but it's very challenging.
I used to get in trouble with the commanding officer when we were down in the Caribbean because it was so hot that I'd turn off the hot water, I'd turn off the steam if your intake was 90 some degrees. And I would just tell everybody, "Take ambient temperature showers." And most people were good with that. But when the number one guy in the ship says, "Turn my steam back on," well, you're kind of obligated to turn the steam back on.
I had Command Ashore, not Command At Sea, but taking Command the first time was a sense of tremendous pride. And also, holy cow, what do I do now, coach? Because I was responsible for a number of women and men and everything from keeping them on task to perform their duties, as well as trying to get people promoted, trying to take care of people's families when they had anything from health problems to other housing problems. And you're the boss. I make jokes and said, "Hey, I loved being king." And I did. But the other part of it was everything stops at you. I was very fortunate. The two times I held command, I was very fortunate to have a superb Senior Enlisted Advisor. So my Master Chief and then Senior Chief were not only superb at what they did at taking care of the crew, but were pretty candid with me at times when we didn't quite see eye to eye and they'd say, "Sir, can we take a walk?" And I knew I was in trouble. And frankly, about 70% of the time, I listened to my Senior Enlisted Advisor. 10-20% of the time, there were things that I had not shared or was not able to share that I said, "Mr. Chief, let's just do it to get the XO." But I'd say, "Just do it." And they would. And that other 10% of the time was almost something as simple as, "Do we paint the door red or we paint the door blue?" Well, if I want the door blue, I'm the boss, so we're going to do it my way. But I mean, those moments were few and far between. But I had the good fortune of having very good people to work with me and to work for me.
One of the things I learned is you have to take care of your people first. While it's far more critical doing it on a ship or in an air squadron or someplace overseas, it also translates later on into civilian life and taking care of your employees, taking care of people who work with you and work for you. But the idea is you have to work hard and they have to see you work hard. In fact, it was Frederick the Great who said, "Your troops must eat before you eat. Your troops must sleep before you sleep. Your troops must be clothed and housed before you are clothed and housed. But you also must let your troops see that you are depriving yourself for them." And on the face of it may seem a little bit selfish, but the idea is when the women and men who work for you, and you're asking them to be in harm's way, for example, or even if there's not a war, give up six, seven months of their lives and miss family birthdays, anniversaries, their children, birthdays, all those events. They have to have someone to believe in. And like it or not, you end up being that guy or you end up being that gal and you have to work hard to earn their trust. Then they will do things not just because it's their duty and they're good sailors or good marines, but they will do it because they also don't want to let the old man down. They want to do things so that all of us win and all of us can accomplish a mission. And there's a great sense of pride when you can bring people in with that.
I don't think the philosophy is all that difficult. Work hard, be honest. You have to be realistic. Don't start thinking that you're wonderful because you're wearing a Command pin. And that you are accountable for everything and everyone. I think that's missing in an awful lot of other places in this world today. But you are accountable. So it goes well, good for you. It doesn't go well, you're still the one who's both responsible and accountable for things happening. And at the end of the day, if you can't get your sailors to do what is right and follow you, then you're in the wrong business.
Some of the things that happen routinely with the battle group, for starters, on an aircraft carrier, for example, with the air wing on, you have over 5,000 people. And the Navy will publish statistics of how many sailors are from towns smaller than the size of that crew. There's always a hundred or so every cruise. Then there are people who leave their spouses and come home to a new son or daughter. The sacrifice there is not only are you not there for the birth of your son or daughter and to support your spouse, but the other is they do it on their own. You might be lonely and sorry you're not there, but you're also leaving them on their own to be supported by other Navy families, other friends and other relatives. But I was one of those new fathers. I have two sons and a daughter, two, one Naval Aviator and one Special Operations Officer, the Dirty Dozen, EOD Mobile Unit 12. And my daughter, who's a trauma and emergency department nurse, nationally certified, was born in August of 1991. I was off in Liberia when we were doing the evacuation.
So you end up having a real conflict because in this case, west Africa, three party civil war, people starving, dead bodies in the streets. And yet back home, your wife's giving birth to your child. And the satisfaction, I guess, is that you're doing something real. Every young man who comes off the ship, and imagine now that when the female sailors are pregnant, they're sent back home at a certain point in their pregnancy, but for the rest of the new dads coming off the ship, they've given up what an awful lot of people just take for granted that, "Hey, it's time we go to the hospital." And you go through childbirth. But your time is not going to childbirth classes with your spouse. You're evacuating a war torn country, or you're patrolling the South China Sea with the Chinese playing games with you, or you're in the Mediterranean back when the Soviets had a larger presence and they were playing games. It's a commitment. It is certainly a different way of life, and sometimes it is very rewarding and very satisfying. And other times, it's just plain hard. It's just difficult. And yet, we still send, I call them kids now, but we still send youngsters out every day with the Navy Marine Corps team, whether you're flying overhead or in a submarine or on a surface squadron, a Carrier Battle group or Marine Corps or Amphibious Ready Group. But we still are out there every day of the year. And I got to tell you, there's some special youngsters.
I had the misfortune of having two fires at sea while I was chief engineer. Going into one of the fires, as I was looking at the team ready to go, there was something odd about just one of the guys dressed out, and I couldn't put my finger on it until I realized he wasn't wearing a shirt when the alarm was sounded. He hopped out of his rack, threw on his trousers and his boots, and then went to the firefighting locker and put on all his firefighting equipment, but did not have a t-shirt or a long sleeve shirt on. What I saw was bare skin essentially from his shoulder to his bicep. That's the sort of dedication when something happens where a sailor responds, and it's not a joke because when you have a fire or the misfortune of flooding, and I have not had flooding, but when you have a fire at sea, you just can't retreat and call the fire department and hope that somebody comes to save you. You have to fight it yourself. Those are the sorts of things that people understand.
And then depending on the operation, the excitement of a real operation going into the Indian Ocean the first time, coming out of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea into the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb on our way to the Persian Gulf. When you go to General Quarters and the boatswain mate who calls it away doesn't say, "This is a drill." This is for real. You don't know what you're going to get when you have a very narrow passage, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb from the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. You have Asia on one side, the Arabian Peninsula on one side, and Africa on the other. And there are spots that are close enough or little islands that someone with a shoulder held missile launcher could put some damage into a ship. Those sorts of things are pretty key on everyone's mind. And then you share that experience and that helps knit the camaraderie. Same thing when you're in an humanitarian operation and whether you're picking refugees out of the... Literally picking them up from the sea out of the ocean, or when you go to a small country that's been damaged by a hurricane or tornado, and from your ship, you supply them water, you supply them electricity, you have your medical teams. And if you have CBs on board, depending on the ship, you are out there trying to restore some kind of order and to save them. All of these things happen when someone isn't necessarily shooting at you. So put a shooting war on top of it, then it increases the excitement just that much more. But the idea of spending all that time and doing something important, that is what knits a crew.
After we went through a shellback initiation, after we crossed the equator. I had the mid watch that night and was the first time that the Southern Cross came into vie w, that constellation. And I actually went out. The night was so clear and the horizon... The sky disappeared into the ocean at the horizon, but it was stars fore and aft, port and starboard. And I actually went out on the bridge wing and stood up on the bulwark and on my tippy toes and reached up into the sky thinking that I might actually grab a handful of stars. It just seemed to be that close, and it was so wonderful. Everything else was quiet, it was good weather, things were clear. The only noise was the ship itself as we were steaming. And I thought, "If you don't believe in something greater than yourself, then you're a fool." Because regardless of any religious preference or mother nature, I mean, this is just magnificent.
That was CDR Ronald Leonard Smith Sr..
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always looking to improve the show.
And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.