Vol. 10 - ‘We Were Always on Duty’
Life in the military for Retired Captain John Williams ’64 and Retired Lieutenant David York ’64.
This Veterans Day, as we honored and remembered our veterans and those who are presently serving, we were reminded of a time in Holland Hall history when graduating students faced the uncertainty of the military draft.The Vietnam War was flaring as the Class of 1964 graduated. And two classmates, David York and John Williams, felt a calling they had to pursue. Friends since before grade school, both had strong ties to the U.S. military.David’s father, Larry, served in the Navy during World War II and their house was filled with his regalia and photographs.John Williams’ godfather was a colonel in the Army and served on Gen. George S. Patton’s staff in World War II. His neighbor had served in World War I, and had his 1906 rifle and helmet proudly on display at his home.Upon graduation, John and David headed off to the University of Virginia (UVA) and Knox College, respectively. While the timing of their paths to the military was different, their journeys were quite similar. With educational deferments from the military draft, John and David were able to begin regular life as college students.David wanted to serve in the Navy, like his father, but Knox College only had Army ROTC. To secure an opportunity to be commissioned in the Navy upon graduation, David had to join the Navy during his sophomore year. “They enlisted me, which was a person’s first step to then ultimately go to Officer Candidate School (OCS),” David said. “As a sophomore, I would leave the Phi Gamma Delta house with another guy, we’d drive with some folks from the area out to the local Naval reserve unit and drill, which meant you spent a few hours out there working and training, and not doing the usual college life things everyone else was doing. I did that for two years and upon graduating from college, I went back and was part of the Officer Candidate program.”John’s military journey was just beginning when David was getting his orders.John’s story“As we got into senior year of college, especially in 1967 and 1968, that was the time of the tremendous escalation of the Vietnam War. The draft was hot and heavy and the turmoil in the country was starting to ramp up. The fall of 1968 and early 1969 would be when the turmoil erupted on college campuses, especially at UVA,” John said. “At the end of college, your military deferment for the draft ends. As the year progressed, it became more and more on the forefront of people's minds.” John got his draft notice that spring and headed to Richmond, Virginia, to go through a draft physical. During the spring, he also applied for Officer Candidate School in the Air Force and Navy. The Air Force turned him down for being “virtually blind,” but the Navy said not a problem, we’ll put you in the Supply Corps. After the physical, he agreed to go into the Navy.John was told he would not be going to the Officer Candidate School until October so he went to work for Sinclair’s research lab in Tulsa. When Sinclair officials asked John to get a deferment, he declined, went to Oklahoma City, and officially enlisted to lock up his commitment for OCS. “I arrived at Officer Candidate School in time for the day David York was commissioned. So, I got to experience that, and celebrate with his parents as I recall, and then reported to OCS the next day. Dave was assigned to the Navy Communications School there in Newport, and was there for most of my time in OCS. He is the one that gave me needed encouragement when I was tempted to quit. I also kept my ‘civies’ (civilian clothes) at his apartment. When I could eventually get off base on weekends, I would go over there, change into civies and we'd go out on the town … carefully, for me, since I was out of uniform!”After graduating from Supply Corps School in 1969, John was assigned to a heavy missile cruiser, the USS Columbus (CG-12), out of Norfolk, VA, and served on active duty until 1972. He did two deployments on the cruiser, both six-month stints, that had him stationed off the east coast of the Mediterranean. While not immersed in immediate combat in Vietnam, the significant element of danger came from the Russians. It was the height of the Cold War so tensions were already elevated, and the Russians were supporting the North Vietnamese. “Even though there wasn’t a ‘hot’ war with the Russians, there was great contention and a lot of dangerous ‘cat and mouse’ with them in the Mediterranean.”Communications home were tough. Port visits meant getting to a military base to try to get a line through to the US. A call to the United States could last only three minutes so checking in with family and loved ones was difficult. Letters meant everything.David’s storyDavid’s first deployment sent him on a ship to Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was the site of the largest Naval facility in the 7th fleet area. David gained additional training before deployment and was a Certified Communication Watch Officer. He oversaw a staff, was responsible for equipment, had top-secret clearance, handled sensitive information, and stood watch from the bowels of the ship in a windowless area evaluating message traffic to make sure communication was getting to the right people on the ship and to the right people in Washington, D.C. His ship was equipped with high-tech communications equipment and the personnel responsible for all of the amphibious operations in their immediate area and on the rivers in Vietnam. David’s crew had almost 20,000 people in their command.It was during the second deployment for David and John where these two Holland Hall graduates would meet in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Both men’s ships were in company together. David was the superior officer for the signalmen on his ship where they used Morse Code in lights to communicate to other US ships. The signalman on John’s ship found him and said, “Mr. Williams, I have a flashing light message from the USS Pratt.” The USS Pratt was the ship carrying David York. When David learned John’s ship was nearby, he ordered his signalman (without getting into trouble) to send John a message of “happy birthday.” John, making sure not to get his fellow crewmate in trouble, had him send a confirmation message in return and a hope that they could meet up in port. The pair met at the Hilton in Athens, Greece, for the evening. And they still contact each other on their birthdays to this day -- just not by signal light.Back HomeDavid and John eventually came off active duty and settled back into civilian life. John landed in Dallas at the ARCO oil company. He started in computer systems and programming, a job he had little to no training for, and essentially started over. John’s military experience allowed him to excel quickly through the ranks at ARCO, the company he would serve for the entirety of his professional career. He served in the Navy Reserves until retirement in 1996. David went to work in the banking industry and eventually served as the Tulsa market president for Bank SNB.The military prepared both men for their military careers. Both stressed the same benefits -- leadership, professional conduct, respect, thinking on your feet, a crash course in experience and loyalty. “At 23, I was leading dozens of men, sometimes more than twice my age. It was an experience which could be intimidating but ultimately rewarding in terms of my ‘seasoning’ and of organizational success. By professional conduct, I mean developing skills necessary to make no-nonsense presentations to senior officers, develop and execute complex project plans, department level budgets, etc., all in the days before personal computers. It was a bit like drinking out of a firehose, but we did it. Out of college in the civilian world, it takes many years to get the same experience and expertise we received in three years or so,” John said.David agreed and added, “On a staff every morning you had to brief everyone. I stood up at age 21 and was telling people that were similar to CEOs and CFOs what had happened in the night so they could make a decision on what to do next. It was leadership, thinking on your feet, being respectful, and it served me well into my business career; responsibility at age 21 or 22 set me up quickly and without it, it might have taken me 7 to 10 years to get the same level of experience.”If asked, would they serve again? Without hesitation, their answers were yes. They encourage young men and women to continue to look at the service academies and the Coast Guard as legitimate options for college because they are rigorous academic institutions and you gain all the benefits of serving in the military -- mental and physical discipline, teamwork, and love of country.For David and John in the Navy, fellow Dutchmen Kent Schobe ‘64 and Lance Ellis ‘64 in the Air Force, and so many others who fought for their country, for their allies, and for the freedoms that we appreciate today, they served with pride and for others.For their dedication and service, and in honor of Veteran’s Day, we say thank you.**Holland Hall would like to update its database include all veterans and all service members currently serving. Please email Christy Utter with the branch of the military in which you serve(d), your rank, and the length of your service.**