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Jesse Lerma

(June 64 - Feb 67)

 

Memories of ONI

In February of 1963, I was released from the US Navy at the age of 21 after having served as an Electronics Technician on the USS Yorktown. However, I didn’t seem able to settle down and late in ’63 replied to an ONI advertisement for someone that had a radiotelephone license. I was called in for an interview but when I got to the office in Long Beach CA, I passed it twice because it looked like an auto parts salvage yard! After a couple of days, I was offered a job to operate base stations in the mountains along the coast of California using a 4-wheel drive truck with a camper shell as a mobile base station. While training in the Long Beach office, I heard about an operator that had just been fired because he had gotten too close to the side of a firebreak road and had one wheel dangling over a cliff. In panic, he then got on the radio to broadcast a mayday". The Coast Guard then contacted us and this did not sit well with management.

Another of my training experiences was sharing a truck with an operator that loved peanut butter. He was such a slob that the whole of his truck was slick with the stuff so I didn’t mind when he insisted there wasn’t enough room in the camper and I should sleep in the cab. While sleeping in the cab I was woken up by a violent shaking that I first thought was an earthquake but it turned out to be a cow that was scratching it’s hide on the side of the truck.

I did not fare much better the first time I went out on my own. After setting up a station at about 6000’, the weather turned awful – strong wind gusts, snow and freezing rain. Then I started to have trouble with the generator - rain in the gas. While dismantling the generator to clean it out, a gust of wind caught the camper door and my elbow went through the door window. With the wind whistling in through the broken window, it was very cold so I decided to use the propane stove to warm my feet. Unfortunately, I fell asleep and when I woke up, I found the rubber soles of my boots had melted. At this point I felt like calling the office to quit, but the generator still wasn’t working and by the time I did manage to get back on the air, I’d calmed down.

Rigging up, first station

The high ground

Honduras hill - home for three months

At the last base station I operated on the California coast, the firebreak roads had been washed out by recent storms so I was more or less stranded until I received a call from the office. They said to leave my truck at the site and walk down past the washout to be picked up for another assignment. I was put on a bus (looking like a brassero – a Mexican field worker) and headed back to the Long Beach office where I was told that I was needed in British Honduras (now known as Belize).

A couple of weeks later I found myself at ONI headquarters in New Orleans where I was introduced to the management and staff. After getting my shots and making sure that my passport was in order, I was put on a plane to Belize.

I worked a couple of base stations in British Honduras but the most memorable was located on an 800’ hill about 8 miles from Hattiville (a village of Quonset huts erected by the US after hurricane Hatti devastated the capital in 1961). The hill was several miles from the coast in heavy brush. The base of the hill was accessible by road as there was a working quarry there, but it took 2 hours to climb to the top.

Several times a day I would hear an explosion and the ground would shake as the workers blasted out more rock. I stayed on this hill for nearly 3 months where I lived in a tent with my equipment and countless biting insects. Every three or four days I would be visited by a camp helper nick-named Toad. He was strong as an ox, which he needed to be to scale the hill several times carrying 5 gallon cans of water and gas. It was not easy to be so isolated so I looked forward to Toad’s visits.

One time Toad asked if he could stay with me for a few days as his wife in Hattiville was angry with him for paying too much attention to another woman at a wake.

As there was a creek at the base of the hill, and a small village nearby, every so often I would come down and take a bath. I remember there were small fish in the creek that would nibble on the hair on my legs. I didn’t do this very often because the 2 hour trek back up the hill was exhausting (especially after a night of drinking with Toad).

Sometime during my stay, I was surprised to hear a voice with an American accent. I looked out of my tent and was astonished to find ONI vice-president Joe DeLerno approaching, dressed in a white shirt and tie. He said he was in the area and thought I might like a beer. He then pulled two warm beers from his pocket and we drank them.

After a few months operating base stations, I got a chance to train as a navigator. While the hours were usually very long, working on a boat had its benefits such as being able to take a bath most every day and not having to eat Dinty Moore beef stew for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I was trained by W. W. (Willie) Williams. I don’t remember too much about Willie except he had been with ONI for several years and was considered one the best navigators around.

Fixing turning line on 100 footer!

Shooter

There she goes

Shotpoint

I spent a total of 8 months in British Honduras after which I was called back to ONI headquarters where I was offered an assignment as a navigator in the Arabian Gulf to support a shallow water survey off the coast of Qatar. So, after a week’s vacation back home in Los Angeles, I was on my way to the Middle East.

In the late summer of 1964, I landed in Manama, Bahrain where our equipment was located. My first introduction to the Middle East was not very comforting – immediately after exiting customs, I was ordered by a soldier carrying an assault rifle to turn around so I could be frisked. At that time there was talk of a coup so the authorities were being very cautious. I remember wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The Shoran equipment had to be loaded into barges for transshipment to Qatar. Manhandling the equipment in the barge’s hold with the temperature over a 100 degrees and the humidity equally high was exhausting.

Overseeing the operation was ONI’s party chief, Louie Conner. Louie was a 50 + native of New Orleans, a tough as nails Cajun old-timer that had been with ONI forever.

Mobile Op training of Belize

A  local, Jesse, and a bored-looking Louie

 

Recording vessel is the Red Creek

Recovering the cable by hand, as was once the norm

Cable aboard, now for some exploring

Some of the vessels used - not state of the art

A couple of weeks later we setup shop in Doha, Qatar. It turned out that the boat I had been assigned was not due to arrive for a few months so I found myself back on base station duty, supporting an ongoing deep water survey. We setup several base stations in the desert, each with a 100 foot mast. Louie was an expert at erecting these, and after training, he sent our crew out by ourselves, only to have the first one we erected fall to the ground. Needless to say, Louie was beside himself. Even after three years in the Navy, I have never heard someone curse like Louie.

One would think that my experience in the Navy would have taught me never to volunteer but I’m a slow learner so while provisioning another base station I volunteered to climb that station’s 100’ mast to re-attach a guy line that had come loose. Once at the top, it occurred to me that this was not a good idea as my added weight caused the mast to sway dangerously in the wind.

Later on, I spent nearly 3 months on a base station barely surviving the heat and humidity. I had a camp helper at this site named nick-named Turkey. One time, I was refuelling the generator while foolishly smoking a cigarette. Since the generator was running, the vibrations made refuelling difficult and quite a bit of gas spilled on the sand around the generator, Turkey and me. True to Murphy’s law, an ember from my cigarette lit the spilled gas and the generator, Turkey and I were set aflame. After dousing the flames on ourselves, we madly threw sand on the generator which was still happily running despite the flames that were doing their best to consume it. Unbelievably, the generator survived with little damage.

On another occasion, Louie had left a Landrover at our site with a flat tire, arranging another ride back into town. After fixing the flat and going slightly nuts after a few weeks in the desert Turkey and I decided to do some exploring. We only got a few miles from our camp when we encountered a patch of desert that looked a bit different - sort of baked over, with many cracks. I was hesitant to proceed but Turkey assured me that all would be OK. Now Turkey was not native to Qatar and actually knew little of the desert environment. As we proceeded, I realized we had blundered into a salt marsh as the Landrover sank up to the axles. The only way to get it free was to place rocks behind the wheels, but the only rocks were hundreds of feet away!

After several hours of dragging rocks over to the Landrover and slowly backing our way out, we finally got it clear. Obviously, I was not pleased with Turkey’s advice and knowledge of the local terrain.

One more story about Turkey. After a month in the desert, he began to pine for his family. The next time Louie visited he took Turkey back to Doha for a couple of days rest. When Turkey returned he brought his wife and two kids. At this campsite, there were two tents, one for the Shoran equipment and my personal tent. Turkey and his family took up residence in the equipment tent. This was fine until I got a case of dysentery and had to relieve myself several times an hour. Once, after digging the 50th makeshift latrine a few tens of feet from my tent, I squatted down to relieve myself when I looked back to camp and saw four figures in sunset silhouette staring down at me. I learned then that modesty is not universally recognized.

Later on during my tenure on this base station, the crew was called into Doha for a short break. It was at this point that my life really changed.

In 1964, Qatar was a British protectorate; a small peninsula attached to the coast of Saudi Arabia, jutting into the Arabian Gulf. The citizens were the ethnic descendants of various Arab tribes. The place was of little interest to the western world until significant oil deposits were discovered in the mid 20th century. Over the next decade, the country began to prosper and many foreigners were recruited to work for the oil companies and the government. In the 1960’s, Qatar was a strict Muslim country. Liquor and many other western entertainments were banned. The Qatari royal family was wealthy, powerful, and large in number. No one dared cross a member of the royal family. The pecking order in Doha society was well defined. Those Qatari citizens not of the royal family either worked in the government or received governmental preferences and many were wealthy in their own right.

Among the well-heeled westerners residing in Doha, most were professionals, oil industry managers, and diplomats. They were very well paid and lived in spacious houses and employed many servants. I was in a class of itinerant foreigners with little opportunity to interact with wealthy Qataris or affluent expatriates from the west.

Pakistanis and Indians were the most numerous foreign workers performing tasks that Qataris declined. Within the Indian community, Anglo-Indians comprised a distinct sub-culture, a hybrid people of Indian and European descent. In general, Anglo-Indians spoke English as a first language and formed social clubs and associations apart from the indigenous Indian population. However, because of their mixed ancestry, Anglo-Indians were never fully accepted by either the British or the native Indian populace - a people that were culturally stateless.

At this time, ONI was contracted to Geophysical Services International (GSI) and their Doha office party chief was named Don Darroch. For some reason, Don took a liking to me and asked me if I would like to meet a local Anglo-Indian girl that was working for Continental Oil, the sponsoring oil company. I immediately said yes and was told that she would soon be arriving.

When I first saw her, I was almost struck dumb. In a country where Muslim women covered themselves from head to toe, this girl was dressed in western clothes and incredibly beautiful. Her name was Claudette and after several halting attempts at conversation, she asked me if I would like to have dinner at her parent’s house. Claudette spoke English and only learned Hindi in boarding school. Her accent was faintly British but with a hint of an Indian lilt. She wore western clothes but preferred to dress in Saris which she wore with flair. Her parents had been working in Qatar for several years. Claudette’s father George was a supervisor in a government mechanical engineering department and her mother, Emma, a nurse assigned to a government hospital. They were relatively well off relative to other Indians, which enabled them to employ a couple of servants and rent a modest but neat house.

Despite the chasm that existed between the cultures represented in Doha, Claudette’s mom was unusually well connected. She had many Qataris in her debt because of her position as a nurse. As no men other than family members were allowed to look upon Qatari women, Emma was often called upon to see to their non-critical medical needs. She was fluent in Arabic which helped them communicate their concerns. She also had acquired considerable pull with the British Embassy.

The main entertainments in Doha for the Anglo-Indians were parties. Every week one family or the other threw a party where dancing and gossip were the favorite pastimes. I was not good at dancing and found myself intensely jealous whenever Claudette would dance with some one else.

As I spent more time with Claudette and her family, I came to be tolerated if not marginally accepted as a part of the Anglo-Indian community. After six months, I asked Claudette to marry me.

When my boat finally arrived, it was fittingly called the Doodlebug; a 40’ crew boat with an 8’ beam, 3’ draft and massive diesel engines that had once been used to ferry crew out to offshore rigs, but was now fitted out as the recording boat. Another bigger boat, contracted locally, was used as the shooting boat. The Shoran equipment was located next to the driver’s chair on the starboard side. It was securely bolted down because Doodlebug routinely took 30 degree rolls.

Claudette

Asleep atop the dynamite!      Relaxing in the Gulf

 

The Doodlebug, and with recording boat in tow 

Planning for next day             At work              

Jesse & Captain           Qatar fort

Luxurious tent  home                     Desert Cadillac

Somewhere 30 miles from nowhere

GSI crew members in the LST galley

Not pirates, some of the local crew

At the start of the project, we lived on a decrepit 50 year old Pakistani yacht named the Aldic. The captain was a Pakistani navy officer many years retired. He had a neatly trimmed beard, handlebar mustache and wore a somewhat tattered white officer’s tunic with captain’s bars on the epaulets. I felt sorry for him as he seemed to represent a bygone era.

As it turned out, the Aldic was too old and slow, so after a few months she was replaced with an old decommissioned American LST leased from an Iranian company. Accommodations on the LST were much better, that is until the air-conditioning failed and temperatures reached 100 degrees below decks. This forced us to sleep in the open, laying on the boxed explosives stacked up in the tank deck.

I spent the next 15 months navigating the Doodlebug where life was mostly boring, shooting 10 – 12 hours a day for weeks at a time, but interspersed with periods of stark terror, mainly due to storms. A 40’ crew boat is no match for 30’ swells while dragging a mile long cable. On one occasion during a particularly nasty storm, a huge swell swept beneath the Doodlebug with such speed that the weight of the cable caused the bow to lift almost straight up. The welds that secured the cleat to which the cable was attached then failed, pulling the cleat and cable over the side. The Doodlebug then pitched down driving the bow into the sea almost submerging the cabin.

The cable had to be retrieved, but as we tried to turn around the Doodlebug began to slide sideways, rolling dangerously to port. There were 5 of us in the cabin and we all had the same idea simultaneously, get out before Doodlebug turned over completely. There was a mad dash for the exit, but then she somehow righted herself and common sense prevailed. The Doodlebug was just not built for these types of seas so the shooting boat retrieved the cable after which we sailed before the wind until the weather improved and we could limp into shore for repairs.

GSI’s recording equipment also caused headaches. The constant rolling and pitching plus the high temperatures and humidity took its toll causing their equipment to fail fairly often. Even my shoran failed once and I had to spend a day troubleshooting a bizarre problem.

Storms were our worst fears but commercial shipping also caused us headaches. Once a steamer ran over our cable, and again we had to head to shore for repairs.

On one occasion, GSI had an interest in surveying a particular area very close to shore. For this operation, we contracted a couple of smaller boats. Every morning for several days, I transferred my Shoran equipment to the smaller boat which was then used to fix the position of the cable centre. On one of these occasions, I dropped the 90 lb Shoran console on my foot which caused me to lose a toenail. Once the cable centre had been marked, my boat would scoot out of the way and the other boat would set off a charge. But one time the shooting boat didn’t give us chance to get clear, the blast leaving my ears ringing while a cascade of seawater swamped my boat. Luckily, there was a tarp covering the Shoran so it was protected, but I and my crew were drenched.

Actually, danger lurked everywhere. One time, again in heavy seas, the shooter (I don’t remember his name) lost his footing and the charge he was holding fell and severed one of his fingers. He was rushed to shore (but only after shooting the rest of the line we were on!) Another time, an Iranian crew member was suffering severe pain due to a kidney stone. He begged me to inject him with an old vial of morphine that he had, but it had long expired so I could not bring myself to do it. He eventually lost consciousness and passed the stone.

Pulling in the cable every evening was a monumental chore. Every crew member had to help pull in the mile long cable.

One time while ashore in Doha in between projects, Louie told me that we needed another coastal base station further to the southwest near the Saudi border. Since there were no roads, I agreed to go on a scouting mission with another base operator in a rented boat with a small outboard motor. We took off the next morning with the expectation we would be back by dinner. After we found what appeared to be a suitable location we got a fix using the other existing base stations. However, when we headed back to Doha the weather had drastically changed. We found ourselves heading into 8’ swells and taking on water, so we decided to head for shore. We could not beach the boat because of the extreme tides - with the tide out, we might end up several hundred yards from the sea so we decided to anchor in about 6’ of water and see the night through in watches. Unfortunately, the anchor came loose so I dived into the sea to retrieve it. There was no moon that night and combing the seabed searching for a lost anchor was a frightening experience. Imagined or not, while underwater every time I felt the slightest hint of something brushing against me, it reminded me that I had grown up in a city with no knowledge of the desert or the ocean. Eventually, I managed to retrieve the anchor, secure it, and start our lonely vigil till daylight. We managed to limp home at about noon the next day, bone weary and terribly sunburned. Louie told me he was about to set up a search party when we finally showed up.

Louie was a great party chief but he could be a pain when he got drunk. One time while I was at sea, he was drinking with some local Arab businessman in the apartment we lived in when we were ashore. (Continental Oil had arranged for us to have a liquor license.) Louie got looped, started a brawl and had to be separated by our draftsman, Ernie. I was told that Louie was particularly nervous the next morning as his confrontation with the local could easily have gotten us thrown out of the country. Why we didn’t remains a mystery except that perhaps the local didn’t want to admit that he had also been drinking.

While at sea, there were a few times when the weather cooperated and we had some free time.

When the Qatar survey was completed, ONI wanted to send me to Africa, but I asked Louie to intercede as I was committed to marrying Claudette but her parents were not ready to let her go. Louie pulled some strings and I was assigned to a Western Geophysical boat operating out of Bahrain. These were much bigger boats able to withstand heavier seas. Otherwise, the same rules held, 10 to 12 hours of boredom and countless explosions. However, during this time, there were several opportunities to visit Manama, Bahrain. Our crew tended to frequent the BOAC hotel to dine on local lobster and caviar. Prices were low and since the company was picking up the tab, we indulged ourselves. That is, until one of our Aussie crew embers got drunk and laid waste to the bar. After that, we were no longer welcome at the hotel, a big disappointment to some of our crew because the hotel was the overnight home of BOAC female flight attendants.

As one more example of my inability to learn from experience, we were shooting in pretty bad weather when the shooting boat lost its Shoran signals. Since I, as lead operator still had good signals it suggested the shooting boat had a problem with its mast mounted pre-amplifier. By this time, night had fallen and we had quit shooting. My immediate concerns were for the next morning so I suggested the other operator scale his mast and patch around his pre-amp. However, he balked at this, claiming that the seas were too rough. I then decided to clamber over to his boat and fix the problem. The seas were indeed very rough and just getting over to the shooting boat was a challenge. However, once I managed the transfer, I began to climb the mast. At this point, the shooting boat was rolling quite a bit. Once I reached the pre-amp I began to realize just how much the boat was rolling, moreover, I saw lightning strikes off in the distance. It then occurred to me I was clinging to a very prominent lightning rod on a boat filled with high explosives! After managing to patch out the pre-amp, I quickly shimmied down the mast, made sure the boat had signals, and carefully transferred back to my boat. We resumed shooting the next day.

Over the intervening months, I got a couple of opportunities to fly back to Doha to visit Claudette, however my Qatar visa would soon expire so I was pressed to make a decision. In February 1967, I resigned from ONI and made my way back to Doha. Overcoming her parent’s last objections, Claudette and I were married on April 26, 1967. Three days later, we began a 6 week honeymoon, visiting Bombay (to arrange for her visa), her home town of Poona, then onto Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Honolulu arriving back in Los Angeles in early June.

Shortly after we arrived in the US, war erupted in the Middle East. While in Arabia both Claudette and I learned to speak a little Arabic and had become familiar if not appreciative of the culture. I remember being glued to the TV and wondering what the people I had worked with thought of me and the US now.

Jesse & Claudette

After returning to the states, I went to college, got a Bachelors Degree in Electronic Engineering, and worked as a design and test engineer; later on moving into technical sales and management. Meanwhile Claudette’s parents retired to England for a few years, before coming to live with us and help raise our two kids. Over the next 40 years, I continued to travel for business and pleasure, visiting many countries across the Pacific Rim, Mexico, South America, Europe, and Scandinavia. Both Claudette and I are now retired. We have four grandchildren from my daughter that lives only 10 minutes away, another granddaughter on the way from my son who lives about 400 miles away. (My wife is torn between our nearby grandkids and the one on the way.)

As I look back on my days with ONI, I sometimes wonder how I survived. Despite the dangers, I often found myself praying for a storm or other calamity to break the monotony of the mind numbing days on station or at sea. On the other hand, I would not trade the experience for any price. The adventures, the people I met, the different cultures to which I was exposed and of course the opportunity to meet and marry Claudette provide me with a trove of lasting and fulfilling memories. 

Jesse Lerma 

January, 2013  

2640 Candlewood Way

La Habra, CA 90631

Tel: 562-697-0834

Cell: 562-547-2835

jpl2225@gmail.com

 

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