Jerrold Dakins remembers his early Navy service like it was yesterday.
“I did fine during boot camp except for the swim test,” said Dakins, who entered the Navy in 1967. “I cannot swim. I still cannot swim.”
The swim test during naval boot camp was simple — jump off a platform, swim one lap around the pool and then float for five minutes. However, for Dakins, the test was a challenge because — obviously — he can’t swim. He remembers jumping off the platform into the water below and struggling to swim a lap.
“I dog-paddled, and every time they weren’t looking, I would grab the side of the pool,” he said. “And then they’d yell at me and I let go and dog-paddle some more.”
Finally, Dakins complete his one-lap swim and began to float, except he didn’t.
“I laid on my back to float and I sunk immediately,” he recalled.
Dakins attempted again to float, but this time the officer in charge of the test caught him struggling and yelled at him. So Dakins tried again and once again he sank.
What happened next is something Dakins will never forget.
“He (the officer) stuck a pole out there and I grabbed it and he pulled me in and said, ‘You pass,’” Dakins said with a smile. “I didn’t make it five minutes; but maybe I made it two minutes, I don’t know.”
And that’s how Dakins began his nearly 20-year naval career.
The Kaukauna, Wis., native joined the Navy while he was still in high school in 1967 on a 120-day-delay program. He didn’t leave for boot camp until he turned 18 in September 1967. He decided to enter the military because of the draft for the Vietnam War that was occurring, but there was another reason as to why he joined the naval branch.
“I watched a lot of John Wayne movies where he was in Navy movies,” Dakins said. “It kinda inspired me to go into the Navy.”
During his naval career, Dakins served on three ships and was stationed with the ROTC unit at Auburn University.
He decided to stay in the Auburn area because of his time spent at the university.
“We loved the area and settled here when I retired,” he said.
Time at sea
Many of Dakins’ best memories are from the lighthearted moments he had out at sea, including one on his first deployment while stationed in California.
Dakins was aboard a frigate that was traveling within a squadron until something went wrong.
“We had what they call a CT valve malfunctioned in our ship, so we went dead in the water,” he said. “And all the other ships left. They said, ‘fix it and catch up when you can.’”
That decision left Dakins asking questions.
“Here I am, a new kid on the ship, and I thought that’s kind of strange,” he said. “There’s no land anywhere around you, so fix it and catch up when you can.”
Thankfully, Dakins said, there were others on board the ship who knew how to repair what broke.
Another moment at sea that makes Dakins laugh to this day is a run-in with an aircraft carrier while he was stationed on a supply ship out at sea in 1982.
“We were replenishing an aircraft carrier and we had three lines across,” he said. “He (the admiral of the aircraft carrier) wanted to make a turn, you know, when both ships are side by side, he wanted us to turn.”
The captain of the supply ship recommended orders to the admiral; however, the admiral didn’t seem to care what his ship thought.
“Our captain went back and said, ‘we recommend you do 15 degrees, we do 5 degrees,’” Dakins recalled. “The admiral came back and said, ‘This is my operation, follow my orders.’”
Beginning to laugh, Dakins remembers hearing his captain announce over the loudspeaker on the ship that everyone on deck take cover.
“What happened was when we executed that turn, we went like that and the carrier went like that,” Dakins explained. “So we pulled the rigging out of the side of their ship. Interesting, fun to watch, but not fun to clean up afterward because all of our rigging was in the water.”
Not all moments at sea were fun, they could also be dangerous, Dakins noted.
“There’s always danger,” he said.
Dakins remembers the time his ship was doing a gunfire exercise during some heavy weather off the coast of Central America. One of his men lost his hand that day due to an accident while firing the weapon.
“It took us 24 hours to get him off the ship and back to the States, and he ended up losing his hand,” Dakins said. “It’s a wonderful place, but it’s a dangerous place.”
The love of military life
Dakins cherishes his memories of life in the military and the people he encountered. He experienced just how friendly military people while living on a military base in Mayport, Fla., near Jacksonville.
“I was housesitting for a friend of mine … so I stayed at their house to take care of their dog,” he said. “First night, I get to the house, walk in the house, the dog chewed up the couch cushions.”
Before cleaning up the mess, Dakins decided to preheat the oven to make a TV dinner that he would enjoy later. However, he never got to enjoy that dinner.
“(I) cleaned up what the dog did, looked in the kitchen, black smoke coming out of the kitchen,” Dakins remembers. “They had potato-chip bags and stuff stored in the oven, and of course that all ignited.”
After he called the fire department, all of the women in that area of the base came to see what had happened and offered Dakins a helping hand.
“They helped me clean that house up, top to bottom,” Dakins said. “It’s just the way the military community is. They help each other and they depend on each other.”
Dakins is still friends with the people he was housesitting for, and to this day he misses the military lifestyle.
“I think about it all the time and think about what it’s like living on the base and how friendly the people were,” he said.