WILLIAMS - Nothing could have prepared Williams native Wayne Wahlert for the experience when he first set foot aboard the USS Coral Sea Aircraft Carrier in October 1969.
A 1966 graduate of Northeast Hamilton High School, Wahlert entered the Navy in February of 1968. He received his basic training in San Diego, CA and then attended Aviation Fundamental and Aviation Structural Mechanic schools in Memphis, Tenn.
From Tennessee, Wahlert was sent to Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville, FL where he trained on A-7 aircraft.
The A-7 is considered the workhorse of the military and is tasked with carrying heavy ordinance.
It was during his time in Florida that Wahlert married his high school sweetheart, Connie Laugerman of Webster City.
Wahlert was deployed in October 1969 with the Attack Squadron VA86 "Sidewinders" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea. The carrier operated in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam for nine months.
The USS Coral Sea was a Midway-class cruiser named for the infamous World War II battle in the Pacific. Nicknamed "The Ageless Warrior," the USS Coral Sea measured 997 feet in length and had a displacement of 64,000 tons when fully loaded. The runway measured nearly 900 feet.
Once on board, Wahlert, like most sailors, adapted quickly.
"It was a very busy place during flying ops," said Wahlert. "You had to be wide awake".
Life aboard the carrier was a busy 24 hour operation, explained Wahlert.
Crew men wore different colored shirts to indicate their job function.
"Just by looking, you could tell someone's job," Wahlert said. "Being aboard an aircraft carrier was an awesome experience
"The most amazing thing was that almost every operation aboard the ship and flight deck was done by 19, 20 and 21 year old men who had less than 6-9 months of actual training," he said.
The pilots were only a few years older than the rest of the crew and they put their lives in the hands of the young men who operated the ship and maintained the air craft, reflected Wahlert.
"Crews on the flight deck were extremely organized," said Wahlert. Like clockwork, the crew would recover incoming planes and launch the next group.
"It would go around and around like that all day long," said Wahlert.
The crew operated at full throttle, with only a short time designated for the crew to stop and catch up.
"All day and all night," recalled Wahlert of the routine on board the carrier. "There were very few times when we didn't fly."
As an AMS, Wahlert worked on aircraft maintenance which included overseeing the structure of the aircraft, hydraulics, parts, tires and struts.
It was a dirty, greasy job, recalled Wahlert.
"We had to grease the planes," he said. "We did the dirty work laying on our backs, looking up at the belly of the plane and the belly was always full of grease".
An aircraft carrier runs 24/7 with shifts of 12 hours on/12 hours off, so crews need to be fully rested. But with 5,000 personnel on aboard, it was imperative to train oneself to fall asleep.
"On a ship you have a lot of noise, but you get used to it," said
When he was aboard the Coral Sea, his quarters were only two decks below the flight deck.
"I usually only heard the first flight take off before falling asleep," said Wahlert. But planes weren't the only commotion aboard the ship. There were the sounds of 4,999 other crew members, the hum of the ship engines, and the noise from the galley where meals were cooked and served exclusively on stainless steel.
"Cling, clang, crash, boom - there was noise everywhere," said Wahlert. "It was a very busy place".
Wahlert worked the night shift and often watched the planes returning in the dark.
"It was an inspiring sight," he said. "I can't imagine being a pilot and coming back in the dark and landing on a pitching, floating carrier deck."
Wahlert's squadron would be stationed for 30 days at a time. Then the men would receive liberty or R&R for 3 to 5 days. It was during those times, Wahlert was able to visit several cities. In Japan, he toured Sasebo, Tokyo and Nagasaki where he visited Ground Zero. He also visited the Philippines and Hong Kong.
The highlight of a trip to Sydney, Australia was when Wahlert crossed the equator for the first time and took part in the Naval tradition of "Shellback Initiation." As part of the initiation, the pollywags were required to jump from the carrier deck into the ocean and swim on the equator in order to earn the designation of Shellback, Son of Neptune.
The sailors always looked forward to liberty, when the ship pulled into port. If the ship docked, the 5,000 enlisted could depart. Occasionally, it wasn't so easy.
"Sometimes we would anchor out one mile from dock and would have to use a shuttle service back and forth," explained Wahlert. "You have 5,000 people who want to get off. You would sometimes spend 2-3 hours waiting in line if you wanted to get off."
Sailors weren't as eager to board the liberty boats following the R&R,
"After liberty, they were in a different state of mind," he chuckled.
Because he was attached to the A-86 Squadron, rather than to the ship, Wahlert's duty took him where he was needed. His second cruise was aboard the carrier, the USS America.
On the USS America he traveled to several cities throughout the Mediterranean including Naples, Rome, Athens, Palma, Corfu, Thessaloniki and Rhodes.
During this Navy career, Wahlert was promoted from an airman to a PettyOfficer 2nd Class. At the end of this three years and ten months, he was separated from the service in 1971 and honorably discharged in 1973.
His naval career came to an unceremonious end when at the completion of his Mediterranean cruise, the USS America pulled into Norfolk, VA.
"We pulled into Norfolk, I put on my civilian clothes, took a taxi to the airport and arrived back in Iowa," said Wahlert.
Beyond the four years of active duty in his youth and two years in the reserve, Wahlert continues to serve today. Last spring he took over as commander of the Williams American Legion Post 633 where he has been a member for 40 years.
"It is an honor to serve our veterans and also to serve as an advocate for all veterans and their families," said Wahlert. "The Legion is a service organization devoted to assisting veterans attain health care, GI benefits and any other needs they have earned through their service."
Wahlert noted that one of the main duties of the American Legion is to provide military rites to honor the memory of those veterans who have died.
"We also honor those who continue to serve today so that no one should forget their service and sacrifice that has been provided for our freedom," he said.