Cold War Sailor (1957-1963)

By Tom Sonnleitner (SK2)

USS Mattabesset (AOG52)

 Our missions focused on tailing the Russians and making sure we didn’t start WW3. Many incidents, often daily, could to war, but cool heads on both sides helped keep each side at bay. Most of my experiences took place in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, where the Russians were trying to break out of the Adriatic Sea to establish Syria bases. They were trying to use the Bosporus as a traffic lane.

 Still, The American and British navies controlled the Mediterranean, thus shutting down their attempts. My ship, the USS Mattabesset (AOG52), was homeported in Pozzouli, Italy (a suburb of Naples) as part of a quick strike landing force aimed at thwarting Russian attempts to establish a presence in the Med. A typical month for us was 20 days at sea and ten days in port, either in Pozzouli or in the an-other country. I experienced five deployments overseas, including 16 months in Pozzouli, four months in West Africa on a classified mission related to U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s plane crash in the Con-go, two months in the North Atlantic (Holy Loch, Scotland nuclear submarine base), eight months aboard the USS Diamond Head (AE19) in the Mediterranean and two months in the Black Sea area (Istanbul, Turkey).

All in all, I set foot in 21 countries and spent nearly four years aboard two ships following boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. When not in deployment status, our home port was Norfolk, Virginia, where I experienced segregation. However, we were fully integrated into the Navy, not so ashore in the South’s communities. It was a pretty sad state of affairs when our fellow minority sailors had to use separate bathrooms or weren’t welcome in individual establishments. We also experienced Apartheid in Cape-town, South Africa, in 1961, which opened our eyes to discrimination at its worst. As I approached my discharge from active duty (July 11, 1962), the pressure was on me to re-enlist with an offer of promotion to SK1 and a sizable cash bonus. Our ship was heading to Cuba in a few days, so I had a big decision to make. I chose the discharge and started my college career that fall.