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Front Page » June 14, 2012 » Focus » Many places Many ships
Published 1,213 days ago

Many places Many ships

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By By RICHARD SHAW Sun Advocate publisher

Neldon Huff's adult children were concerned when their father retired he would have little to do.

"They worried because he didn't have any hobbies and they wondered what he would do with himself," said Huff's wife of 54 years, Annette.

But Huff himself says he is as busy as he wants to be now, as the local American Legion Commander.

"Between doing events and funerals, and Boys State, I have a lot to do," he said.

And because of that, he is still connected to his passion; the military.

Huff, who was born in Benjamin in Utah County, lived most of his young life in Castle Gate.

"It was basically cardboard shacks," said Huff as he was seated in an easy chair in the front room of his home.

Huff attended schools in Carbon County until he was 17, and then he joined the United States Navy a year before graduation.

"I loved baseball," he said. "But my grades weren't high enough to be on the baseball team so it seemed natural if I couldn't play ball, I should join the Navy."

This move into the military was not beyond the experience of his family. Before and since he and his six brothers have served a total of 73 years in the military.

That was in 1956, and within a year he found himself attached to a highly classified program that dealt with the affects of various kinds of warfare gases. He spent 10 months on an auxilary ship based at Hunter's Point in San Francisco during which time he saw what the effects of nerve gas, mustard gas and other agents could do to animals such as chimps, monkeys, rats and rabbits.

"We would go out to Eniwetok (part of the Marshall Islands and the site of nuclear testing between 1948 and 1958) to test the materials," said Huff. "It was very scary. We really didn't know what we were dealing with other than through the training we got."

He said the consequeces of the gas on the animals that were used was undescribable.

He also said it was certainly a different time and place than today.

"We used to have to take the results of the tests to a place in Daly City (south of San Francisco) when we returned from one of our 10 day cruises," he explained. "We would drive with all these documents and materials in old World War II Jeeps through San Francisco only armed with .45 caliber pistols and a couple of guys with Thompson sub-machine guns."

He also said as the crew observed how dangerous the gases were, they decided they would figure out a fake test on the population of San Francisco. They used some material that could be detectable in the city and drove through the area releasing it. Non-dangerous and non-lethal as what they used was, they found that on one of their trips to Daly City they could have wiped out two thirds of the population of the pennisula in four hours. Huff said they were all shocked by that.

"In this day of terrorism, that is very scary," he said.

In 1957 the test crew and ships contingent was disbanded. Huff was able to effect a transfer to a much different kind of environment; the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard, where his brother was also serving.

The ship deployed three times while he was on board, from then until 1960. It had a crew of 3500-3800 which included the air crews.

When that ended he was sent for shore duty at Fallon, Nev. a training base for naval aviators. That was a totally different environment.

"In the summer you could fry eggs on the tarmack it was so hot," he said. As for the winters, they were deadly cold.

By this time he had reached the rank of E-4, and was an inventory and stores keeper for the galley at the base. That is where Huff was stationed when the Cuban Missile Crisis came up.

"For about three weeks everything was very scary," he said. "They told me to take immediate inventory of everything we had because it might need to be shipped out. We were all on 24 hour alert and couldn't leave the base to anywhere where we couldn't get back within 30 minutes."

Interservice cooperation soon became the watch word as the entire military geared up for a possible war.

"The Air Force brought B-52's in and they landed on our field," he said. "They were huge planes. I remember one pilot got to close to the edge of the runway and sank that plane in the dirt about eight inches. They had to bring in a crane to get it out."

The Russian's backed down and things went back to normal, but for Huff it was once again a chance for a change. He was sent to Philadelphia, where in the Camden Ship Yard he began working to place stores on a brand new guided missle destroyer that was being built, the Joseph Strauss DD16. The after some trials the ship was qualified and it set sail for the Panama Canal and ultimately to Long Beach, Calif.

Not too long after arriving in Long Beach in July 1963 the ship got orders for Japan. Huff asked for a transfer and found someone who was willing to swap positions with him on the Destroyer Tender USS Isle Royal.

The Isle Royal, a namesake for an island in the Great Lakes, was almost just the opposite from where Huff had come. A World War II era converted troop ship, the tender was old, slow and unstable.

"After I got there we were deployed to the western Pacific," said Huff. "That ship had never been there. It's top speed was 13 knots and on the sea it rolled a lot."

Before they left port Huff, now an E-5, was sent to a nuclear weapons school and became certified as a nuclear weapons storekeeper.

The Isle Royal, as a repair ship, worked on destroyers and other vessels as needed. It had three machine shops, a helicopter deck and a torpedo shop. Huff was one of those that accounted for and ordered all supplies.

It was now 1965 and the buildup for the Vietnam effort was really gathering steam. Huff and his crewmates found themselves in South Vietnam doing repairs on a number of ships. Then they went to Japan and then on to Taiwan. While in Taiwan and huge typhoon approached and the ship was ordered out to sea so as to miss the storm.

"That was at Thanksgiving time," said Huff. "The cooks were cooking turkeys for the dinner but the waves of the on-coming typhoon made it impossible. There was turkey everywhere but on the table."

In 1966 the ship was back in port and Huff was ordered to go to San Diego for a meeting. When he arrived he realized that it was in the office of a Rear Admiral. He was asked in the office.

"He said 'I have been looking at your record and you are exactly what we need for a job'" Huff said. "The Destroyer Edson needed a stores manager in the worst way and they asked me to do it. They asked, but how do you say no to a Rear Admiral."

When Huff reported for duty he found the ship going through a supply overhaul. The chief who had been assigned to head up the team doing the overhaul had suddenly died of a heart attack and the second in command had then died in a car wreck. He along with some others completed the overhaul.

All this was for a buildup to head to Vietnam again. Early in 1967 it sailed for Vietnam action with Huff on board.

On May 28 it was along the coast of Vietnam when a bank of Viet Cong artillery opened up on the ship. Three ships in the group were hit with the Edson getting get hit by the very first shell. The shell hit the mast of the ship.

Huff had just finished dinner and was just below the mast when it struck.

"I was walking and heard someone call my name and I turned and that is when the shell hit," he said. "It was strange because whoever it was used my middle name. No one that I knew of on the ship knew it."

The explosion rained shrapnel down on Huff, scattering down his back, and into his extemities. A half dozen men were wounded, some of them seriously.

Some of the scrapnel remains in his body. In fact sometime later he was having dinner with his brother in the Philipines and a beebee sized piece of metal popped out of his hand.

"Theres a mememto for you," he said to his brother handing him the piece of metal.

Huff noted that the enemy had shot at the Edson 83 times and the only shell that hit was the first one. Altogether 10 men were injured in the blast.

In March of 1968 Huff got orders to go to Hawaii. The assignment was to run the supply side for the Seventh Fleet's communication headquarters. But the communications center was also a cross-service operation. His bosses included an Army Major and full Colonel as wll asa full Navy Captain.

"I had an $8 million budget," said Huff. "It was a large operation."

During his time there he put together a new inventory control program that saved valuable hours.

He said the highlight of his time there and one of the highlights of his career was waching the filming of the movie "Tora, Tora, Tora" while he was there.

In the end though, the stress of the job and other factors led him to a bad bout with ulcers. For some time the ailment made things touch and go. While convalesing he got orders to go back to Vietnam. He was appauled. After talking to some officials, it was realized that he was not in shape to go back overseas, so once he was better they put him on the USS Long Beach. The missle cruiser was a one of a kind; the only one built in its class.

The ship had 18 store keepers. with two of them ranked two above Huff's E-7 ranking. But again death seemed to rain around Huff. The E-9 had a heart attack and couldn't serve anymore, the E-8 left to go to another ship and the other E-7 was killed in a car wreck when he went home for leave in Virginia. That left Huff running the show as lead Petty Officer.

"I can't exactly put my finger on it, but I didn't like that ship," he said. "There was something about it..."

In 1973 he was transfered to the Destroyer Turner Joy (DD 951). The ship had been involved in the Tonkin Gulf Incident that really set off the war for the United States, and at the end of the war she was there too.

"I was on her when she was one of the last ships to fire in anger off the Vietnam coast," said Huff.

In 1975 he was up for shore duty again, this time headed to San Antonio, Texas. He was to work with supplies and setting up events for recruiters. He found himself on the road continually between San Antonio, Dallas, Brownsville and Corpus Christi. He put 27,000 miles on his car in five months. He was never home. He asked to to back to sea, but the Navy said no. In September of 1975 he put in his retirement papers.

For 20 years he had served his county in the Navy and now he was a civilian. For a few months he worked in Salt Lake at the Boyd Martin Company and then later went to work at Hill Air Force Base processing parts. It was at that time that the F-16 Fighter program was just getting started and he was promised a promotion as the program grew. But the program changed and he decided to get out of working at Hill.

"I hated the politics," he said. "I didn't want anything to do with them."

In 1979, he and Annette moved back to Carbon County. He worked with Emery Mining for two years, for Mining Machine Parts Company for five years and for Baker Mine Service where a reduction in force took him out of his job in 1989.

Not yet quite ready to retire from working he also worked in Winnemucca, Nev. for the gold mine corporation there. After a short time he found that wasn't working so the pair hit the road. They had a fifth wheel and no home to worry about so they traveled.

Not being able to stay away from Carbon County they settled in a home near Old Wellington Road a few years ago, the same place they reside today.

Huff's varied military experience has aided him greatly. But because of the many years he spent in the Navy, it is still his passion. His office is lined with memorabilia about his time in the service and the "yearbooks" from the ships he served on are still prominently displayed.

"I've been around death and have faced death three different times and sometimes I wonder why I am still here," he said as he stood on his front porch in the late summer evening sun. "I guess there was a reason."

Just then the flag that flies in front of his house unfurled with a breeze, and he stood there looking toward the west. Somehow, like the name he heard that caused him to turn and that probably saved him from death or certain disfigurment on the Edson in 1967, that breeze came out of nowhere for this seasoned sailor who served with distinction in the United States Navy.

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June 14, 2012
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