Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

USS Tarawa memories

 It was just a brief story in Navy Times, but it brought back a flood of memories. The Navy, the story said, was going to retire several ships by the start of fiscal year 2009, and one of them was the USS Tarawa.

Yes, LHA-1, the amphibious assault ship. I spent about five months of my service in the Marine Corps on the Tarawa, and occasionally would see Associated Press photos of the ship sailing out of or into some port during our recent military actions. I guess time and technology had not been kind to the Tarawa, and it is going on the inactive list.

In 1980, I had been assigned to VMA-513’s avionics shop since 1979. The squadron was and still is home-based in Yuma, Ariz., and I was pretty happy to be there. I had made friends among the civilians in Yuma, and the guys I worked with were a great bunch. It was the Marine Corps, so discipline was pretty tight but not overwhelming.

We were flying the AV-8A Harrier, the first-generation planes. For aviation electricians, they were a bit of a nightmare, and most of my formal tech school training was useless. You kind of had to learn as you went.

There was talk when I first arrived at the squadron about “Det B,” and how six planes and part of the squadron’s personnel had been deployed to Okinawa for about six months. They returned, and there was talk of another “Det,” this time aboard a ship.

The Iranian hostage crisis was ongoing and there was talk that while the next Det would be a WestPac cruise, it would also go into the Indian Ocean and possibly be part of action against Iran.

I had thought about whether I wanted to go. Finally, I decided that I had joined the military to see the world, so a trip to other countries courtesy of the Marines would be a good experience. I put in my name to go and received word that I was accepted.

I figured that being a single man with no children (more common back then in the military than today), I’d enjoy the experience more. The married guys had to worry about their wives and children back in the U.S. in base housing, while I just kept in touch with my parents and brothers.

Our Det finally set off in October 1980, riding a bus or buses (it’s a little hazy now) to San Diego. We finally arrived at a Navy base there, and saw for the first time the ship that would carry us on our adventure: The USS Tarawa.

It looked huge up close, the ship seeming to tower over the dock where it was tied up. We hauled our seabags up the ramp and reported in, then were led through endless corridors to our berthing space. It was hardly the most impressive spot, but it was our home for the next few months.

I think that one thing about the deployment was it certified that I had made the right choice by picking the Marines over the Navy. Life aboard ship, even with the lighter discipline of being in the Navy, just did not seem as much fun as living on shore. Sure, living on a Marine base could be limiting, but at least you could go outside the gates. Living on a ship at sea, there was no way to get away from the ship, at least until it docked, and then the powers that be might not let you off the ship.

We settled in aboard ship, and I remember the day when our planes arrived. They flew to San Diego and made vertical landings while the ship was still docked.

Later, I don’t remember exactly when, we set off on our voyage across the oceans.

Our ride from San Diego to Hawaii was uneventful and the planes did not fly. The guys spent our duty days in a little compartment, playing cards, talking and reading. I read “Shogun” on the way over.

We had a little grab-ass, too, like the morning I woke up, put on my flip-flops, padded over to the head and looked down to see that someone, overnight, had painted my toenails black with Em-Nu. We used Em-Nu to blacken our rank insignia and eagle, globe and anchor insignias, and some clever fellow had discovered another use.

So I scraped off the Em-Nu with a key and went back to my bunk, got dressed and reported to the shop.

During the day, someone turned the conversation to guys who kind of went “gay.” Someone noted that I had gone “gay” and had painted my toenails black. Someone else disbelieved it, so I was told to remove my boots and socks. I refused, and returned to my book.

It took a few of my friends holding me down, while one unlaced my boots and removed my socks, to get the job completed. Meanwhile, the ruckus drew attention from the compartment next to ours, and a second lieutenant (whose name escapes me, so I’ll call him Lt. Smith) came in.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. “What’s all this noise?”

“Sir, Lance Cpl. Safuto has gone gay,” one of my shop-mates said. “He painted his toenails.”

I was sitting off to the side, putting on my socks, and the lieutenant looked at me.

“Safuto, what are you doing with your shoes off?” he asked.

“They did this to me, sir,” I said.

He looked at me and shook his head.

“Are you like Klinger, Safuto? Are you bucking for a Section 8?” he asked. (Klinger is of course the corporal from MASH who is trying to get discharged from the Army by dressing like a woman.)

“No sir.”

“Then keep your shoes on.”

“Yes sir.”

“And stop painting your toenails.”

“Yes sir.”

From then on, whenever this officer saw me, he’d ask, “So, Lance Cpl. Safuto, how are you doing on keeping your footwear on? I can get you that Section 8.”

Our group had a lot of adventures on that cruise on the Tarawa, including the sobering trip to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor; the Philippines; Thailand; Singapore; Mombasa, Kenya; Perth, Australia (and crossing “the line”); Pusan, Korea; and finally Okinawa, where we handed our six planes off to VMA-542 and they sent six of their hangar-queens to Yuma. We flew back to the States in April 1981 and it was great to be home.

While we were aboard, Ronald Reagan was elected president, John Lennon was shot and killed, and, most importantly, our hostages were released from Iran.

I never went on another shipboard deployment, though some guys from 513 went on another LHA, the Belleau Wood, I think. I left the Marines in August 1982, but still have the photos and movie film I shot of my adventures on the Tarawa.

I hope it comes to a dignified end. Maybe it didn’t win any wars, but the ship did its part.

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August 19, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. I remember receiving a few letters from Yuma in the early 80’s!

    Lately, it seems to me the world is getting even smaller – I have several bosses at work who travel regularly to Asia and my brother is currently living in Tokyo for the next 2 months on some work assignment. I’m guessing that Thailand has changed the most in 20+ years. Any desire for you to visit there again?
    D.
    P.S. Have you been to any Hurricane parties this week?

    Comment by Diana-NYC | August 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. I believe that my brother Frank Oliveira was on board the USS TARAWA. We found a red patch with the USS TARAWA and WestPAc Cruise 80-81 on it. He just passed away 1 month ago, and are trying to put together a scrap book with his military information. If you know of anything, please let me know. I know he was staioned in Hawaii.

    Comment by Margaret Oliveira | February 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Semper-Fi I was in HMM265 aboard the USS Tarawa in 1980. I didnt do so well as a Marine I stayed in trouble most of the time. Wish I could go back and do it better. I think if i had been given the MOS that I chose when I enlisted I might have had a better attitude but Im still proud to have served my country as a US Marine.

    Comment by Jeff Chapman | September 25, 2009 | Reply

  4. I was a sailor on USS Tarawa during this time. It was a great experience – even with 3000 gung-ho Marines on board clogging up the chow lines and passageways! All kidding aside, the BLT was a group of fine individuals – spent most of their time sleeping, eating, working out, and cleaning their gear. Despite the long days while at sea, there is nothing quite like the freshness of the air in the open ocean and the excitement of port visits in some of the most exotic places on the planet.

    Comment by Squid | December 24, 2009 | Reply

  5. I was stationed at Kaneohe bay, Hawaii.
    Westpac 1980. The USS Tarawa was an incredible experience. I remember being out in the middle of the ocean, the peacefulness I felt was surreal. I remember seeing what appeared to be flying fish. It was such a beautiful sight.
    A jet took off and blew a crew member overboard. The crew member had a lifejacket on and it was broad daylight.
    He was never found.
    I proudly remember watching on the military TV, President Reagan being sworn in and stating “that within 48hrs, the hostages would be released or else”. We were locked and loaded. Damned if those Iranians didn’t blink. Our heroes were returned to us unharmed. “Never Again”. Semper FI

    Comment by don woolbright | December 30, 2010 | Reply

    • I was also onboard when he fell overboard and saw him slip beneath the waves just a few yards from the liferaft that the helicopters dropped. I still don’t know why one of the aircrew or one of the navy seals didn’t try swimming to him. I belive his name was Rick Effaw he was in my squadron VMA 513. We thought he was on the ass end of the Harrier doing routine maintenence, The tailplain of the harriers hung past the railing and we thought he slipped and hit his head on the way down. They had a burial ceremony on the flight deck.

      Vinny I also remember the guys tying you to a pallet outside the hanger in Yuma.

      Comment by s couitt | June 14, 2011 | Reply

      • I still have the Super 8 film I shot of Rick Efaw a few days before it happened. That was terribly sad, and I still remember that day.
        I am sure the guys did tie me to the pallet. By the way, there was an airshow here in Gainesville a few months ago, and I went there and saw four AV-8Bs from VMA-542. Got to talk to the pilots (and didn’t even say ‘Sir”) about the old days of the Harriers, before they were even born. We talked about Yuma today, and it was just a great trip down memory lane for me.

        Comment by Vincent Safuto | June 16, 2011

      • We all did a lot of growing up back then. It still amazes me that we were responsible and held accountable for maintaining millions of dollars worth of aircraft and we were just kids. I worked in the metal shop and remembered the day they painted your toenails. I found myself lol. I apologize if a had a laugh or two at your expense. I often think about the guys and wish I had taken more photos. Ty you for coaxing those memories to the surface.

        Comment by s couitt | June 16, 2011

      • That day I woke up and found my toenails painted was a fun day. We were pretty bored in the avionics shop on the boat ride. We also painted David Graves’ moustache with correction fluid while he took a nap one day.

        I shot a ton of photos on that “Det” to the Indian Ocean and still have them stored somewhere. I have a scanner in a storage unit, and I keep telling myself that one day I’m going to hook it up and start seriously scanning photographs.

        Comment by Vincent Safuto | June 17, 2011

      • He was my friend and you saw correctly. They would not let them try to rescue him Rick was from ohio

        Comment by Charles way | July 31, 2016

  6. Hi guys

    Just came across this thread while researching an AV8 crash. I was an air traffic controller onboard the Tawara from 78′ to 82′.

    I was actually doing precision approach radar runs with a “Cobra” when your friend fell into the water. I remember woe ing with a CH-53 as it dropped a small life raft into the water. The pilot made a point of dropping the raft some distance from the guy – so the rotor wash wouldn’t make the situation worse – he was trying his best to gently blow the raft toward the guy. The pilot was describing to me everything he was doing – as it was happening. I remember his words clearly – he said ” I looked away for a second – and the guy just disappeared!”

    I remember later – speculation that perhaps a shark had gotten to the guy. Apparently – there was some research that showed the frequencies created in the water by a Cobra attracted sharks…it was all very sad.

    All that stuff seems like a book I read or something – can’t believe how fast time flys.

    Take care

    Mike
    Portland, OR

    Comment by Mike Mace | September 20, 2011 | Reply

    • That was a very sad day for VMA-513. One of the wild things about that was that we all had to report to our shop so they could figure out who was lost, and one guy was missing from the Avionics shop. Well, it turned out he had slept through the whole thing and he arrived very disheveled after being rousted out of the berthing area.

      He walked in, and the gunnery sergeant in charge of our shop calmly and quietly walked over to the guy, and I didn’t see what happened next because my view was obscured, but I heard the sound of a fist hitting a face. The guy was bleeding from the mouth, and after muster went to sick bay. Nothing ever happened to the gunny, I don’t think.

      I still have movie film all these years later of our voyage on the Tarawa, and one segment has the guy working as a plane captain a few days before.

      Comment by Vincent Safuto | September 20, 2011 | Reply

  7. Vinny, Rick myself and a couple other marines were at noon chow jaw jackin. He was talkin about how hot it is on the flight deck with the mae-west on and that he wasn’t goin to wear it. We were all laughing it up. Flight quarters was sounded and off he went. I ended up on the hanger deck to see the Harrier action, maybe get some pic’s. Man over board was called, ran down to the broth in area for muster. That was about twenty minutes from chow to man over. He was the 5th Marine that I new that died on 3 west-pac’s. When I close my eyes, it all comes rushing right back.

    Comment by gilligan | May 19, 2014 | Reply

  8. It’s so long ago now. At work we sometimes have WWII, Korea, Vietnam or Gulf War vets who tell their stories, and I always make sure to be the one who copy edits them. By the way, one of my neighbors a Marine veteran of Gulf War I, now in the Army Reserve, just got back from his latest deployment to Afghanistan. I was so happy to see him walking his dog again.

    His wife gets upset when she sees me talking to him because we start telling stories. He said he’s hoping to stay in the Reserves but he’s not going back to Afghanistan, and for that I’m glad.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | May 19, 2014 | Reply

  9. I’m a sailor that served aboard her during this time. Can anyone give me a date that the death of Rick Effaw happened? Also after we got back from deployment we had a dependents day cruise and a barrier crashed in front of everyone. Does anybody know the name of the pilot and what date this happened?

    Comment by reptocarl | August 31, 2015 | Reply

    • Hi reptocarl:

      Thanks for responding.

      At one time, there was online a declassified deployment history of the 1980-81 WestPac cruise that included the visit to Mombasa, the actions during the inauguration of President Reagan and the next port calls, including the one in Okinawa where the deployed Harrier squadron that I was a part of — VMA-513, Det B, attached to HMM-265 — left with its planes and went ashore at Kadena Air Force Base. Eventually, we handed over our planes to another Harrier squadron that was deploying to Kadena and we took a flight back to our base in Yuma, Ariz., the day after the first space shuttle flight in April 1981.

      It also included boardings and departures of officials and news media personnel.

      I know that Cpl. Richard Efaw went overboard when the Tarawa was over the Marianas trench. Believe me, we in VMA-513 were very sad at this terrible loss. He was a great guy. I shot a lot of film aboard the Tarawa and transferred it to VHS tape a number of years ago, and when I watch it I can still see Efaw doing his job.

      We were off the ship when the Harrier crashed on the dependents’ cruise.

      I found this website that tells of the crash you are talking about: http://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/wiki.php?id=77316.

      At this site, you can read a December 2002 L.A. Times series on the Harriers and their dangers: http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/6725

      Here is the information:

      Date: 26-JUN-1981
      Time:
      Type: Silhouette image of generic HAR model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different
      Hawker Siddeley AV-8A Harrier
      Owner/operator: VMA-513 / USMC
      Registration: 158703
      C/n / msn: 712100/22
      Fatalities: Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 1
      Other fatalities: 0
      Airplane damage: Written off (damaged beyond repair)
      Location: Pacific off USS Tarawa, off San Diego, CA – United States of America
      Phase: Manoeuvring (airshow, firefighting, ag.ops.)
      Nature: Military
      Departure airport: USS Tarawa
      Destination airport:
      Narrative:
      Flew into the sea off the USS Tarawa, off San Diego, CA. Pilot killed

      Obituary of pilot

      MAJ. THOMAS W. TYLER
      Died: June 26, 1981
      Family members had been invited on board the amphibious assault ship Tarawa for a cruise, and Tyler’s fiancee was watching as he did a demonstration flyby in his AV-8A. He was supposed to make several passes by the ship from stern to bow. But after the first pass, he changed direction, heading bow to stern. After narrowly missing the ship, the plane hit the water.

      Investigators concluded the “primary cause of the accident was pilot error,” noting that the presence of his fiancee “may have altered Maj. Tyler’s previous conscientious flying attitude.” Their report also faulted shipboard personnel for not warning Tyler sooner that he had strayed from his flight plan.

      Tyler graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and flew helicopters in Vietnam. But his real love was the Harrier. “He just loved to fly that plane,” said John L. Tyler, his father.

      Thomas Tyler, 33, was divorced and had a daughter, who was 7 at the time of the crash

      Thanks again for writing.

      Best regards,
      Vincent F. Safuto

      Comment by Vincent Safuto | August 31, 2015 | Reply

  10. What do you know about Rick Efaw?

    Comment by Missy efaw | May 29, 2017 | Reply

    • Thank you for commenting.

      Rick Efaw was a plane captain in VMA-513/HMM-265 on the USS Tarawa when I was on the ship.

      Rick was blown off the flight deck when a CH-53 came in to land on the deck, and attempts to rescue him failed.

      He was a great guy, and everyone in the deployed squadron felt his loss terribly. Some of the guys got tattoos on their arm with the latitude and longitude where Rick fell overboard.

      I was into movie cameras then, and shot some film that was later transferred to videotape, and there is a sequence from several days before where he’s working and helping pilots get ready for their takeoffs from the ship.

      If you have any other questions, feel free to email me at vsafuto@tampabay.rr.com.

      Comment by Vincent Safuto | May 29, 2017 | Reply


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