NORTH KINGSTOWN – Ted Johnson, 78, spent exactly three years, three months and three days in the Navy on a heavy cruiser out of Norfolk, Va. The USS Newport News CA-148 was the flagship of the 6th Fleet.
“We went to ports that some others didn’t go to,” Johnson recalls. One of his most prominent early duties was to formally welcome dignitaries visting the Admiral.
“The first thing, when we came aboard ship [as new members] was we had clean uniforms. I was a ‘sideboy’ and my duty station was the forward gangway. When anybody important came aboard, I was one of six sideboys to stand at attention and salute.”
It was, he admits, window dressing, but compared to other assignments it could have been worse. In fact, his time aboard the USS Newport News CA-148 wasn’t bad at all.
“I was interested in going to see places I wouldn’t have gotten to see,” he recalls of his enlistment. “Being in Norfolk was the nice part. I was based there and all my relatives lived there. It was like being home.”
Johnson says his “very enjoyable time” included tooling around in his uncle’s 1926 Plymouth looking for girls to date and singing in the Methodist church choir. During his time in the service he also attended the Navy School of Music in Anacostia, Md. He performed for European royalty and now plays clarinet in the Lafayette Band and sings in the North Kingstown Community Chorus.
“I love to sing and play,” he says happily. “My mother used to say I could harmonize before I could talk.”
His ship was in port six months then cruised the Mediterranean from January through May. Even that was pretty swell. “We were near Nice and the rest of the fleet went to Cannes. Nice was more of a big city.”
When his time was up, Johnson was highly recommended for reenlistment and his choices were boatswain’s mate or gunnery’s mate. “Neither was appealing. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
He attended Johnson & Wales business school then worked for Raytheon. He found a home at the University of Rhode Island, in the chemistry department, where he remained for 24 years.
“I have a thing for numbers,” he says. “I did all the buying of the chemicals, glassware, hardware.” He finally had to retire when both his hips stopped functioning properly; after one botched operation he could no longer stand. It took further surgeries to get him mobile again but he still gets around with difficulty.
Memorial Day is very meaningful to him personally.
“I relate it to the men who served, especially the career men,” Johnson reflects. “A lot of kids today don’t think of that. My father was in the Navy 37 years. He served so long because he didn’t have any folks after age 12. [Both had died.] He lied about his age and joined the Navy at 16, in 1918.
“The thing I remember about my dad is that he rose to the rank of chief without much education. My mother was a teacher and she helped him. He was a good guy.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .