LeRoy Collins Commentary 21

Commentary #21
24 December 2006

Christmas Eve 2006,
for thoughts and thanks.....

Dear Website, ...it is Christmas Eve 2006, and time for some annual reflections before the typically-chaotic Christmas Day, when we host our 4 children, 8 grandchildren, spouses, girl friends, boy friends, the betrothed, and others who drop by unexpectedly.

Christmas Eve has become a melancholy day/evening for me ever since my first Christmas away from home, i.e. the Christmas of 1956, when I was deployed to the Far East with the U.S. Navy. I was in my first year as a 22 yr-old Navy Ensign aboard USS CALVERT (APA-32) homeported in San Diego. Between amphibious exercises in Japan, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima, we were spending that Christmas alongside at the Naval Base Yokosuka, Japan. While a few of our crew were ashore on tour, or sightseeing, most of us were in an at-ease mode on board, and thinking about the many things we would otherwise be doing at home. That mood was punctuated by the next meal on board, and listening to Christmas news and music on Armed Forces Radio, piped in through speakers in the crew spaces...which piqued the feeling of distance from hometown America. No one said much except at the chow table.

Many of us had gotten recent mail, which intensified our absence. My family had just sent me a nice sweater, which I decided to wear for a stroll around the Base on this cold clear Christmas Eve, along with my fellow Junior Officer, Ensign Ron Sley, one of my roommates, and a last-June engineering graduate of Iowa State. Just a few weeks before, we had been in Hong Kong, so we had already acquired a few custom-tailored "threads" and shoes, which we decided to put on to impress each other.

The Base at the time was the largest in the Western Pacific, and within its fences were large mountains laced with caves, which even then, housed some vital facilities of war, e.g. communications stations, supply/weapons caches, emergency hospitals/shelters, etc. On the same waterfront were a few modest Japanese destroyers, plus a broad array of American warships ranging from sinister submarines to sleek destroyers, majestic big-gun cruisers, unglamorous (yet big) support ships (like CALVERT), and gigantic aircraft carriers with each of their hangers and flight decks jammed with almost 100 combat aircraft. At that time in 1956, the U.S. Navy had almost 2000 ships, compared with the 5000 ships of World War II (and NOW less than 300 in 2006!!!).

Christmas was a good time to explore the Base's waterfront to see some creative ship decorations of multicolored lights, e.g. Christmas trees on gun turrets, lighted stars hung on the mainmast, even a makeshift Santa's sleigh and reindeer simulation crafted by an imaginative crew and its tolerant ship Captain. It was an inspiring interlude to survey and take pride in the Fleet, and be proud of having a small part to play in defense of democracy, etc. Neither Ron nor I were married, so we were on the first major foreign adventure of our lives...as depicted in the colorful recruiting posters. So, it was not bad to be away from our parents and friends seeing a part of the world we would never see otherwise. But it was lonesome at Christmas, our stoic duty notwithstanding.

As exciting as it was to inspect the waterfront of NAVBASE YOKOSUKA sporting my new sweater from home, and admiring the Naval might gathered there during the Cold War, little did I realize that day was marking a major milestone re how I would view Christmas the remainder of my life. That Christmas transformed the definition of "home." My "home" was still in Tallahassee, where I grew up, i.e. where my parents and 3 younger sisters resided across the street from the Florida Governor's Mansion, which was being replaced at that moment. Barely a week later, my father was to become the first Governor in Florida history to succeed himself in office...but that is another story.

In subsequent Christmases I came from various Navy assignments to be "home" in Tallahassee, i.e. from Submarine School in New London CT (1957), from my first submarine (Key West FL, 1958). Jane and I were married in 1959, but a near-fatal plane crash for me got us home that year from the Naval Hospital in Bethesda MD (I was on crutches and lucky to be ALIVE). Now we had two "homes" to visit, i.e. hers in Tampa and mine in Tallahassee. As we started growing our own family, "home" became where WE were: Charleston SC, Arlington VA, Virginia Beach VA, Newport News, VA, Charleston SC again, Cocoa Beach FL, Coral Gables FL, then Tampa (since 1968).

Living this nomadic life as a seagoing Naval Officer for 10 years provided a very special, albeit transitional meaning, of "home." So here, 40 years later, my principal thoughts surrounding Christmastime are my unwavering appreciation and admiration for those in our Nation's Armed Forces who have taken my place so now, THEY are guarding the ramparts of liberty 24/7/52 WORLDWIDE. THEY ARE OUR GUARANTORS OF FREEDOM, AND OUR AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE.

Just in the past 24 hours, I saw a Fox News Special covering Bill O'Reilly's trip to Iraq to express his personal thanks to the American military personnel serving on the ground...in harm's way. He spoke personally with about 3000 troops, many of whom were on camera for their interview. He did his best to cover all ranks, assignments and experience. But the common denominator he discovered was while they would rather be home, they were proud to be in Iraq where, though life-threatened, they are honored to be making a positive difference in the heretofore repressed lives of the Iraqi people. Many of those troops interviewed share my frustration that the most horrific events are getting the principal attention of the U.S. news media. Of course all of them would rather be home for Christmas with their families and friends, but they are doing their duty with professional skill, determination and resolve. They deserve our unwavering support, our love, and our prayers for their safe return...to THEIR "home."

God bless America,...with special emphasis upon our American military men and women in the field, in flight, at sea, in space, and underwater. Steady their swords and shields, and protect their families who patiently await their safe return home from their challenges with our Nation's enemies.

LeRoy Collins, Jr.
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Tampa, FL


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