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Moonglow on Okinawa

The dread of February – cold, ice and snow, delays, and cancellations are a routine part of our lives in many areas of our country. How do you lessen the frustration and the doldrums, especially now, almost a year into our Covid 19 lockdown? Music – soothing music seems to help as it did for me many years ago as a frustrated young sailor on Okinawa waiting for new orders to a place unknown to finish out my Navy duty. I share with you a story how music eased my anxiety at that time.



                                       Moonglow on Okinawa


Music is a significant part of our lives and has been since the inventions of the phonograph and the radio over 100-years ago, Further, you do not have to read any of the extensive research on the effects of music on the body and the mind to know that it can excite or relax you – make you feel good or sad or possibly inspire you. Music also brings back memories as it did with me recently when some soothing tunes were played in an old movie that I had watched on television.


     The Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) on Okinawa had blasted us with Elvis Pressley songs, "Blue Suede Shoes," "I Got a Woman," "Money Honey," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," and many more for months on end in 1956. Elvis' songs were also playing on the jukebox in Tsu Shin Tai, the base enlisted men's club down the hall from where I was billeted. I was sick of Elvis Pressley and Okinawa.


     I had been on Pacific Islands for over a year including Christmas 1955 on Guam, and 1956 on Okinawa. My days were getting short, but how short was up in the air. In late January of 1957, I was wondering when my new orders would come through. Along with Brian "Rip" Desmond and Lee Marshall, I was one of the first three Navy personnel to arrive at the Army Security Agency's (8603rd Detached Unit) base at Sobe Camp, Okinawa, in February 1956. In the following months, some 60 additional Naval Security Group Communications Technicians (CT's) would arrive.


     New orders were coming in daily for those originally ordered to Okinawa. Don Irvin was the first to get orders – Amaganset, New York, a small DF station at the tip of Long Island soon to be deactivated. A few days later, Gene Kilby and Rip Desmond were ordered to Northwest, Virginia. Then, Richie Drabeck got his – the new base in Bremerhaven, Germany. And, days later, we would learn that Charlie Popikus and Tom Donohue were going to Winter Harbor, Maine, and Joe McGuane and Bob Owens were going to Port Lyautey, French Morocco.


     To say there was a chip on my shoulder about duty assignments would be accurate. I had finished first in my class in Radio School, and first in my CT School class with a 97.90 percent average, where I had served as a night school instructor, assisting classmates in increasing their code reception and related written studies. We were told that those at the top of the class would have their choice of the available CT duty stations upon graduation. The classes before us had orders for Hawaii and Japan. My hopes were dashed, however, when we assembled in the chow hall one afternoon. I got to choose between Adak, one of the desolate Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and Guam in the Marianas Islands. My original perturbation over that injustice was still lingering.


    The anxiety over my unknown fate was building daily, but would be slightly tempered when AFRS began to broadcast soothing music, particularly the instrumentals "Moonglow," the theme from the movie "Picnic" and another popular recording, "Canadian Sunset." Like Elvis' songs, you heard the music everywhere, in Tsu Shin Tai, the PX on Kadena Air Force Base, in taxis, and in the bars in Kadena Circle and New Koza. The repetition was welcome, especially the sound of "Moonglow." It was relaxing, especially as the February days went by.


    Weeks into this continuum of soothing music, our Officer in Charge, Lieutenant. Edward Leyman, tapped me on the shoulder at my intercept position at the beginning of an Eve-watch. "When your coverage quiets down come see me next door." Next door being the adjoining traffic analysis room. An hour or so later when the Chinese Navy circuit I was covering went down, I signaled Chief Hollenbach and asked him to man my position while I went to see Leyman. 


      Lieutenant Leyman was a quiet type, seemingly pensive around-the-clock, and not easily approachable. Simply put, he was a hard person to read, so I didn't know what to expect. I had taken the test for Second Class Petty Officer a few weeks back and felt good about it, but there was no way the results could be back so quickly. Was it something I had done or said? What could it be? I thought as I approached his desk, where he was mulling over the traffic sheets from the Day-watch. I paused. "Sir, you asked to see me." He looked up with a faint smile. Well, it can't be too bad, I thought.


     "Gillen, you're one lucky guy."


     I took a deep breath. Lucky about what?


     "You're Irish, I guess."


     "Yes, sir." Then it dawned upon me, my orders. Am I going to Ireland? We did have a base in Londonderry, Northern Island, during WWII. Did we still have a base there? Was he playing with me?


     "Can you speak, Italian?"


     That question brought a quick smile to my face. Am I going to Italy? "No sir, but growing up in New York City, I certainly know the Italian curse words."


     He smiled. "Well, they might come in handy – you have orders for Naples, Italy."


     As he put forth his right hand to congratulate me, I grasped it and thanked him for the good news. At that point, all of the anxiety left my body. I closed my eyes in a smile, the sound of "Moonglow" resonating within me.



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