CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Raymond L. Zawacki was born in Ridgway, Pennsylvania; his family moved to Edison, New Jersey before his first birthday. In his junior year of high school, he decided to join the Naval Reserves. Zawacki saw volunteering for military service as a way to chart his life path rather than be drafted at a point he could not control. As he was just 17, he had to obtain permission from his parents to enlist. His father, a World War II Army veteran, reluctantly signed the papers (“under duress,” Zawacki joked), preferring that his son join the Army or go to college. Nevertheless, he was proud of Zawacki’s decision to do military service.
During high school, Zawacki trained with the Reserves for one night a week. He first sailed with the Navy in the summer of 1964 (after his junior year), attending a two-week cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on a destroyer escort. Unfortunately, the visit was highly restricted. Zawacki spent much of his time at sea in “Underway Readiness Operations,” while hostility with Cuba (under Castro) limited the brief port call to the base. “I have the utmost respect for some of the troops that have been there,” he said. “It’s gotta be tough on anybody who spends any time down there.”
In December of 1964, during his senior year, Zawacki travelled to the “very cold, very snowy,” base at Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp. Because of his previous Reserve training, he only had to stay for two weeks. The active duty trainees, who trained at boot camp for 12 to 16 weeks, surely envied this!
Adapting to military life did not particularly trouble Zawacki, since the service had been something he had wanted to experience. Some changes were drastic and did generate anxiety, but he ably managed this. “You know, you’re going from sleeping in your own bed at night to a major ship with a lot of crewmen,” Zawacki explained. “You had to adapt to it… but you do it pretty quick when you’re young; you accept that and deal with it.”
After boot camp, Zawacki reported to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to receive orders; a fortnight later he flew to San Diego. Several weeks prior, the fateful Gulf of Tonkin incident had occurred, officially beginning the Vietnam War. Previously, Vietnam had been just “a country on a map somewhere,” to him and to many other Americans. The mood of the nation was not yet tumultuous; Zawacki recalled some “contentious episodes throughout the population” about the developing situation, but not nearly to the levels that would manifest later.
Zawacki did not know his destination, but with an active duty assignment to a ship on the West Coast, he realized where he was being sent. Though unexpected, he reconciled well. “Back in that day you kind of accepted that and dealt with it.” In fact, Zawacki and many fellow sailors saw this positively. “We were all gung-ho. Get us there, and let us do what we gotta do.”
Zawacki waited several more days for his ship, the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, to return from a shakedown cruise. In September of 1965, he sailed with the Ticonderoga to Pearl Harbor, where trials were conducted. From this point on, excepting one 15-day leave period and the occasional call to port for R&R, the ship remained Zawacki’s home.
Zawacki reported as a yeoman (enlisted man) in the engineering department as a Fireman Apprentice (an E-2). He served as a Machinist’s Mate Striker, training on the job with the ship’s mechanical systems to become a Machinist’s Mate. However, his engineering officer noticed that Zawacki had learned to type in high school. The previous typist had just been reassigned, and thus the officer had Zawacki fill in temporarily. He ended up permanently taking up that job. Zawacki noted that his position had limited security clearance. The closest knowledge he had to secret information was the “night orders” he helped prepare each day for the ship’s commanders. Zawacki received good base money, and during his 14-15 months deployed to Vietnam, he earned an increased salary of “combat pay.”
At sea, contact with the outside world was limited. Zawacki smiled as he remembered a world without cell phones; the crew had to pay money to use a payphone while in port. One Christmas, the Navy set up a special phone for married sailors to call their wives; but, otherwise, the men lacked such communication. Zawacki did receive letters and packages from his family, particularly around the holidays. The mail arrived “regularly, but not timely,” he remembered. “My mom would make cookies or something like that, and I’d get the packages a month and a half later – crumbs. It was kind of funny in a way, but it was all edible, so we ate it.” Zawacki had friends in the service, though communication with them was difficult. Despite these obstacles, morale was very high.
Zawacki’s first cruise sailed off South Vietnam, and his second off the North. During the latter voyage, the carrier’s squadrons conducted combat missions over Hanoi. He recalled seeing A-4 Skyhawks, F-8 Crusaders, A-1 Skyraiders, and A-3 SkyWarriors flying off. The World War II vintage carrier could not, however, accommodate the famous F-4 Phantom, as its wooden flight deck would catch fire on takeoff due to the plane’s powerful exhaust. The crew was permitted to visit an observing deck to watch flight operations, an activity Zawacki often enjoyed during breaks.
When asked if these planes were carrying nuclear bombs, Zawacki smiled and replied, “That’s a good question!” Ostensibly, the Ticonderoga was not permitted to carry nuclear weapons. One night, he sat in a meeting with a friend. Suddenly, out of a porthole, Zawacki saw the belly of a plane fall past. An A-4 Skyhawk had accidentally been pushed overboard, the pilot and plane both lost in 10,000 feet of water. The crew were not told what had happened and were ordered to keep quiet. It was revealed years later that the aircraft carried a hydrogen bomb. Had word got out, serious diplomatic repercussions would result. In addition, the carrier would have been prohibited from docking in Japan, where nuclear weapons were forbidden from being based. He described his reactions as, “kind of amusing in a way. But here we are floating around out there with nuclear weapons on board not knowing it. Kind of shakes you to your senses when you find out, yeah, they were here.”
Despite this incident, in general, Zawacki had confidence in his shipmates and leadership. The occasional call to general quarters did raise concern in the moment, but never persistent worry. His general quarters station sat just outside the mess deck. The water line ran near his post, and his job was to perform damage control on that, and other ship systems, if necessary. If a leak sprung in the hull, he would use anything on hand, such as mattresses or 4x4s, to temporarily plug the hole. Fortunately, the ship never took damage from enemy fire, and thus his expertise was not required. There were no close calls, though Zawacki did remember several cases where the fleet sailed past flotillas of sampans. Although ostensibly these were civilian boats, the crew was on alert as some might harbor enemy spies or saboteurs. (Thankfully, there were no such incidents.)
Entertainers occasionally visited the ship. On one voyage, an F-8 pilot missed the arrestor wires during recovery operations and crashed into the sea. Fortunately, a search-and-rescue helicopter (one was always active during flight operations) picked him up. The actress Joey Heatherton happened to be present, and when the pilot was brought back aboard, she gave him a hug and a kiss, making him the envy of every sailor! Another time, Zawacki saw Bob Hope perform onboard. Life Magazine issued a cover photo of the event, and several weeks later Zawacki’s aunt contacted him with it; she found him in the crowd!
Orders to leave Vietnam, known in advance, did not surprise Zawacki. Each sailor had his own calendar and returned home separately when his tour concluded. When his tour ended on July 26, 1967, the Ticonderoga happened to be berthed in Bremerton, Washington, making transportation home easy. He still had a requirement to stay in the Naval Reserves; but, because he served in Vietnam, his weekly drill obligations were liberalized. The Navy offered him more pay to work at Naval Air Station Willow Grove, but Zawacki was not interested in further active duty service, primarily because he found an excellent job at the American Legion.
Immediately after leaving the Navy, Zawacki had worked with Revlon Cosmetics, but was temporarily laid off over the holidays. He affiliated with a local Legion Post, where the service officer informed him of a job opportunity at another post in Newark. Zawacki soon left Revlon and took this job, a decision (and the fateful timing surrounding it) which he described as a blessing.
At the Legion, Zawacki began as an assistant to the department service officer. His first boss, an Army veteran, was “a great guy and a wonderful mentor.” Unfortunately, Zawacki noted how he was forced to retire from the Legion at age 65. This is not permitted today due to age discrimination, illustrating how times have changed.
Moving up the ranks, in 1984 Zawacki became a Department Service Officer, and in 1989 he became the Adjunct (chief administrative officer) of the New Jersey Legion. He also chaired several veterans’ councils. Zawacki was grateful for the rich insight and connections he gained in these positions.
In 2010, Zawacki’s 42-year career with the Legion came to an end, as he left to work for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA). As the Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Veterans Association, he oversaw all programs, services, and benefits to veterans. The most satisfying part of his job, Zawacki explained, is the honoring of others. “The medals ceremonies, they’re terrific,” he remarked with a tender smile. “When you’re presenting a medal to a World War II veteran, or a Korean veteran, and the young ones today, OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] and OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom]. It’s a great feeling to see the pride in their faces and their eyes. It’s worth more than a million dollars.”
Zawacki fondly remembered his service. “I loved it,” he proclaimed. “It was an experience I would never change for all the world.” He also felt that his experiences helped his personal development. “Going into the military, you acquire a discipline and a trust of others that you simply would not get anywhere else, even in school… The experience was just tremendous.” Zawacki also felt pride at the unique opportunities and responsibilities the military offered. “You think about 21-year-old, 22-year-old pilots flying multi-million-dollar aircraft. You know, that’s something that United Airlines isn’t gonna give you.”
Following with inter-service rivalry tradition, Zawacki cheerfully joked about why he chose the Navy. “I knew that I did not want to sleep in [a] tent in the rain, or without a tent in the rain, so that was one of the driving forces behind my decision to join the Naval Reserves.” However, he also took a more serious tone on the matter. Zawacki was grateful that as a sailor never taken under fire, he was “one of the lucky ones,” as opposed to so many “boots on the ground” who were scarred or who never returned to American soil. Through his work at NJDMAVA, Raymond Zawacki continued to help these veterans, and all others, who have sacrificed so much for their country.