Naval Security Group Activity, Galeta Island, Panama October 1982 – October 1984

My next assignment as a Chief Petty Officer (CPO) was to Galeta Island as the Electronics Material Officer (EMO.) It was my first tour as Department Head. The department performed preventative and corrective maintenance on the High-Frequency Direction Finder equipment and other systems.

The command structure placed department heads behind the commanding and executive officers at the third level. Although a CPO, my authority within my department was comparable to that of the Operations Department’s lieutenant.

A CPO assisted me in running the department, and a Petty Officer First Class (First Class) managed each shop. For the life of the tour, the shop supporting the communication equipment gave me the most headaches.

The department’s most senior and technically knowledgeable first-class was the manager for the Comms shop. I regularly counseled him to allow his subordinates to tackle the more complex problems with the comm’s equipment. He too often stepped in and performed the troubleshooting and repair himself instead of using the opportunity to train his crew. Though he had high marks as a technician, those for his leadership suffered some. Writing his evaluations was one of my hardest things on this tour.

A technician surprised me one day by telling me he found my name inside the AN/UYK-3 computer cover. He was doing maintenance and noticed my name listed on the cover. It was the computer I struggled to keep operational while in Iceland. Apparently, it preferred the warmth of Panama to the cold of Iceland, for it gave the technicians no problems.

Though my department was responsible for maintaining the electronic systems, the commanding officer sought my technicians for other tasks. One such task was laying concertina wire around the command’s perimeter. I didn’t think this was an appropriate use of my staff, but we did the task with proficiency and efficiency.

I learned the command had a computer and printer. No one used it because of a lack of software. I remedied this by writing a program to maintain the inventory for the supply department. I also incorporated a way for the department to produce orders for replacements automatically. They used it for maybe a week before giving up on it. It seemed they felt the old methods were more productive—a time before computers became common.

My affinity for computers drove me to request permission to bring the computer system to my office. I used the word processor to write correspondence at first. Then, I wrote a program that I used to submit personnel evaluations. Printing the submission and sending it up the chain of command was easy. Then, it was easy to revise with the changes sent back to me. Before long, I lost the computer to the administrative department after they saw how beneficial it was to me. I would have been upset losing it if Naval Security Group Command (headquarters) hadn’t sent me a more modern computer for my department’s use.

Galeta Island is off the Atlantic side of Panama, near Colon, Panama. The command occupied an area near the ocean, with its private beach.

Besides EMO, I was the Emergency Response Officer. The command agreed with the School of America to send an emergency reaction force (army special forces) if we were attacked. Our location near the water created multiple vulnerabilities.

The command conducted an emergency drill one evening. I was notified at home and drove out to the operations building. A Marine sentry stopped me at the entry gate. I learned later that while I waited, a marine on the roof had his loaded rifle pointed at me. Finally, the sentry allowed me into the compound after verifying my identity. Thankfully, the rooftop marine didn’t have an itchy trigger finger.

The command’s housing was in Coco Solo. NSGA Galeta Island suffered a drawdown of mission and personnel due to Fiscal Year 1974 budget constraints. But by the time I arrived, it was having a rebirth in mission assignments and gaining personnel.

Our assigned quarters were a three-bedroom, first-floor apartment in a four-apartment building. We had parking for our car below the apartment. The unit had a windowed room running the apartment length and facing the bay. We could stand or sit here and watch ships waiting to transit the Panama Canal.

There was a seawall in front of our quarters. There was a small beach on the other side suitable for fishing. We sometimes let our six-year-old son, DJ, fish from it.

Lori and I were in the house with Tiffany when DJ was fishing. Suddenly, he began screaming. The first thought I had was DJ had hooked himself. Lori and I rushed to his aid to find he had caught a barracuda. He was hysterical because it tried pulling itself up the line toward the pole, or so it seemed. DJ refused to let us throw it back. It was his first catch. So, it was wrapped and placed in the freezer until we got rid of it without him knowing.

One of our friends liked to fish and often went to Gatun Lake in the early morning. He learned Lori wanted to fish and that I didn’t. He invited her to go with him. The exciting thing about Gatun Lake, at least in those days, was the abundance of fish. They always brought many back. They said the fish practically jumped into the boat.

I mentioned our apartment had a room that ran its length. It was about ten feet wide and had a tile floor. There was an open area that the kids played in, often running.

One day. Clair, our maid, called Lori and told her Tiffany was hurt. DJ pushed her on a riding toy into a television stand. She cut her eyebrow deeply. Lori called and told me they were going to the emergency room. I met them there and held Tiffany while she cried as they stitched the cut. I likely cried as much as she did this time.

Another time, Tiffany wanted an apple peeled. She took a case knife with a small serrated area found with most cutlery sets and jabbed the apple. The blade pierced the apple but also her finger. It bled profusely. Again, I held her while she cried as they stitched her finger.

My commanding officer selected Lori to be the command ombudsman. She represented the command on several committees, including commissary. He also hired Lori to work in public works.

Her position with public works proved valuable on Thanksgiving Day when power to Coco Solo housing failed. I was cooking our turkey on a Weber kettle grill. Our neighbors and the mess hall used electric stoves but now had no power. Our dinner continued to cook, but many others waited for power to return.

Lori contacted the Army public works about the problem and its impacts on our neighbors and coworkers. When she reminded them that she was the wife of Chief Knott, they showed more concern. Soon, they restored power, and everyone had a great Thanksgiving dinner. Our Weber turkey proved delicious.

Lori got the quick response because the listener thought she was an officer’s wife. The Army calls a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) “Chief.” The Navy uses it for Chief Petty Officer (CPO.) The CWO is a junior officer, and the CPO is an enlisted member.

The command received word that the USS Iowa would transit the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. I was one of several command members permitted to board the USS Iowa before it entered the first lock and remained on board until it reached Rodman Naval Station.

Besides being on a Navy battleship, a highlight of the trip was conversations with the crew. The Navy mothballed the USS Iowa in Philadephia in 1958. She was returned to service early in 1984. The issue was finding sailors familiar with a battleship’s gunnery and other aspects. So, the Navy found battleship sailors willing to return to service. I chatted with several of them during the transit. It was the closest I came to being on a Navy warship underway.

I learned that one of the locks was undergoing maintenance. Several of us were lowered forty feet into the lock by a crane. We went into the tunnels used to move water between locks and viewed the massive gates. We also learned that water is not pumped between locks but uses the principle that water reaches its level. After the tour, we reentered the cage and returned to the top of the lock.

My commanding officer pushed me to apply for the Chief Warrant Officer program. I had previously applied for the Limited Duty Officer program without success. I doubted I would be successful, but I already had most of the required documents, so I completed the application. Part of the command process was an interview board. Two warrant officers and my executive officer queried me and then made comments that accompanied my submission. Of those submissions, they ranked me first of three. However, the selection board’s decision would not be released before I transferred.

My orders came to NSA FT Meade, Maryland. It wasn’t my first choice, but then I hadn’t had any success getting my first choices since leaving school in 1967.

Lori and I decided she would take the kids and leave Panama in the late summer. She would stay with her family until I arranged quarters at FT Meade. DJ would attend school in Texas while waiting. Otherwise, waiting until October to move would mean breaking up his schooling, partly in Panama and partly in Maryland.

I received a call from FT Meade shortly after getting orders. It was the command’s executive officer during my first year in Panama. Now, he was at FT Meade and responsible for placing Navy members into NSA departments. He wondered if I would like to become an experiment for him. It seemed some departments were reluctant to accept Navy enlisted. I said I would go wherever he wanted me. There will be more on the experiment results in the section of my time at NSA.

The day came, and I was on another flight, leaving one duty station en route to another with a leave period with my family in between.


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