The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62) at sea during the later 1980s or early 1990s.

It was early summer 1968. The past school year had been spent playing
football for Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach. Va. The previous
December, Princess Anne had beaten Hampton High in a contest that decided the Virginia State High School championship. Christmas had brought a new Dewey Webber surfboard. When summer emerged, most waking moments were spent riding whatever waves were available.

Being an eighteen-year-old, I was flying with a much-enhanced self-image. After all, as a defensive back, I had played for a school which was now the reining State Football Champions. Coupling that with my surfing partner owning a 67, navy blue, GTO, my perceived 18 yr old “Wizard” status, was pretty much off the grid.

Within the past year, my Mother had more than her share of drama trying to assert a degree of control over me. By early summer she had pretty much given up and would only counter my antics with an occasional “Your father will be home soon”. My Dad, LCDR Robert Smith, had been deployed for the past year aboard the USS Independence (CV- 62). He had joined the US Navy at age 17, immediately after High School. He was now moving towards a thirty-year retirement. Twenty-seven years of active duty had resulted in two years of service on Guadalcanal during World War II, followed by twenty-five years of shore duty and service aboard five different aircraft carriers (Wasp, Intrepid, Saratoga, Essex and the Independence).

True to my Mother’s warning, my Dad returned home to Va. Beach in late June of 1968. He had received transfer orders assigning him to shore duty at NAS Whiting Field, Milton, Fla. Between packing out efforts and my Father, spending more time than usual discussing my future plans, what remained of the summer evaporated. Due to my Dad’s reporting date, it was decided that he and I would proceed to Whiting Field and my Mom would follow after the household items were packed and shipped.

On our way out of town, my Father stopped at the Independence, which was anchored in Norfolk. He had told me he needed to pick up some items and asked me to accompany him aboard. After being shown most of the ship (berthing area, hanger bay, Wardroom, enlisted mess, flight deck, etc .), I started to understand that this was not about picking up anything. What it had evolved into was a less than thinly-veiled enlistment discussion/inducement.

On the way off the ship, my Father told me that he could promise that the Navy would provide a place to sleep and three good meals a day. I immediately countered with “I’ve been thinking about being an Army Paratrooper”. My Dad paused and then responded by saying he was unsure as to what the Army could promise, but that if I did join he felt sure that being cold, wet, and hungry was in my future. He followed by telling me that since I had missed my High School senior trip the Army would most probably accommodate me with a trip to South East Asia.

Fortunately, the subject of our talk changed and discussions of previous assignments to the Pensacola Fla. area prevailed. I had missed my Father terribly during his deployment on the Indy, and we were now trying to reunite and catch up. It took us two and a· half days to arrive in Pensacola. Most of our talks centered on my Father’s recent Med Cruise and the high lights of my senior year at Princess Anne.

After about three days in Pensacola, I looked up an old friend. When I found his house, I saw Army fatigues drying on the clothesline. When he answered the door, I started laughing, for I could see the skin on the sides of his head and one or two short sprigs of hair on top. A short time passed before my friend explained that he was on home leave and that he was in route to Vietnam. From that point our reunion was tempered to a more somber tone.

Not to be outdone, the following day I visited the Army recruiter. Upon entering his office I saw a large poster of a Paratrooper preparing to land. When he asked me if I was interested in the Army I answered by saying “I am interested in doing that” pointing my finger at the larger than life poster. My comment was met with a grin and within a short time I had signed papers enlisting in the Army for three years. As I left the recruiting office I had to remind myself that three years in the Army was a good thing for I now had a guarantee for Airborne Training. My Father’s reaction, after being told of the day’s events, was priceless. Without uttering a word, he deflated my belief that I had truly become a “Wizard” in his absence.

The next year zinged by at an incredible speed. Basic training, Advanced
Infantry Training, NCO School, Ranger Training, and Jump School had blended to paint me into the Paratrooper poster that was hanging in my recruiter’s office. At 20 years of age, I was now a US Army Paratrooper with papers in my possession ordering me to Vietnam. Having received leave in route I traveled by Grey Hound from Ft. Benning, Ga. to my parents home in Milton, Fla. After burning my days of leave, my Father drove me from Milton to Jacksonville, Fla. so I could catch a plane to Tacoma, WA.

Arrival in Vietnam was early Nov, 69. Follow on assignment was C. Co., 1st of the 506th, 101st Airborne Div. The NVA siege against Firebase Ripcord ignited in the early spring of 70. On 17 May 1970, while participating in combat operations in support of Ripcord, I was wounded and subsequently evacuated to the hospital ship USS Sanctuary. Additional medical treatment at Camp Zama, Japan and Ft. Gordon, Ga., followed and after release I received orders to the 82nd Airborne Div. Ft. Bragg, N.C. Spending a little over a year with the 82nd my term of enlistment expired (Sept. of 1971) and I returned to my parents’ home in Pensacola, Fla. Shortly before arriving home, my Father retired from the US Navy after completing thirty years of active service. A year or so of patch up surgery, attendance at Florida State University, seven years working as a State Bureau Agent in Oklahoma, and two years as an Agent with NCIS, found me sitting on a rooftop watching helicopter gunships roll in on Marcos’s compound in Manila.

The year was 1986, eighteen years had passed since my football and surfing days in Va. Beach. While at Subic, I was exceptionally lucky to have been involved in a multi-faceted investigation that had been dubbed I/Bloody Mary. After more than a year, the case was coming to fruition and it seemed like a PCS departure was in order. After a conversation with Tom Fisher at NISHQ, I volunteered for the Agent Afloat position aboard the USS Independence. At the time the Indy was in the Philly Ship Yard undergoing refitting.

I had been in Philadelphia just a few days when I was introduced to the Commanding Officer of the Independence. His name was Capt. “Buzz” Needham and upon my introduction, a flash thought came to me that it was going to be a long year. We were in Capt. Needham’s quarters aboard the Indy, and the Captain was leaning back in his chair. The conversation had slowed a bit so the Skipper pipes in and asks if I had ever been on an aircraft carrier. His manner and tone indicated that he expected a “no” from me so I took a breath and said “yes I have”.

The Skipper raised his brow and inquired which ship. My reply was, “Captain, it was this ship.” His follow up question was, “when was that” and I told him that I had come aboard in 1968 with my Father, who at the time was the AIMD Department Head. He then jumped up and went to a book rack that held cruise books. He pulled one down and started flipping pages stopping when he stepped forward towards me. He had his finger on a picture and asked is this your Father? When I responded yes he loudly said “you’re shitting me”. I smiled and told him again that the picture was of my Father. The Skipper then laid the cruise book down and reached over to again shake my hand . As I thanked him and started to depart he commented that if you “need anything Steve let the XO or me know”. As I traversed back to my quarters I was thinking that my year on the Indy might not be as long as I initially thought.

In June of 88, repairs to the Independence were completed, and a homeport change had been ordered (Norfolk to San Diego). As a result, a Dependents day cruise was scheduled. My Father flew into Philly for the occasion, and after picking him up, we had dinner and spent the night in the BOQ. The following day I accompanied him aboard the Indy and immediately introduced him to Capt. Needham. We spent the day finding his old stateroom, talking with AIMD personnel, eating in the Ward Room, and drinking coffee in my stateroom/office. At the end of the day things had quieted some. I then asked my Dad can you believe it was twenty
years ago this month that you brought me aboard in Norfolk? His reply: “the years passed far too quickly.”

As we were leaving my stateroom, I said to my Father that back in the day, I thought I was a “half-ass Wizard.” He responded by saying, you may have been, but as your Mother has said you have always “had a Guardian Angel on your shoulder.” Without responding, I thought how proud I was to have LCDR Smith as my Father and how blessed I was to be standing after traveling the “twenty-year road” that led me back aboard the USS Independence.

Veteran of Vietnam, P.I. during The Peoples Revolution, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. Retired NCIS Special Agent.