Vietnam had a strong impact on all aspects of American society and the military in particular. One of the observable effects was the attitude towards saluting. The majority of us junior enlisted men despised saluting. We actually made attempts to avoid situations where saluting was required. For example….
I was walking down the street of Subic Bay Naval base in the Philippines one hot humid day. Looking down the street I saw sailor after sailor leave the sidewalk and walk away from it for a few steps, then, turn around and return to the sidewalk and resume their original course. Why were they doing this? Because an officer was walking towards them and military rules required that officer be saluted. Every sailor ahead of me performed the course alteration so they would not have to salute.
Most junior (low ranking) officers were well aware of this behavior and I never met one who was bothered by it. Of course, the higher ranking officers considered it to be unpatriotic, un-American, against the good order and discipline of the military. I am not here to debate that point though my own military experience says otherwise.
Anyway, I was one of the many that, whenever possible, took whatever available measures to avoid saluting. But, one day while walking the streets of Subic Bay base, I was in one of my moods. Down the street, headed my way, was a black four-door car, headlights on high-beam (though it was daytime), with the flags of an Admiral waving from atop the fenders.
As typical, I saw sailors taking the usual measures to avoid saluting. As the car neared I decided to try a different tactic…. when the car drew within saluting range I came to attention, ramrod stiff, a caricature of the required posture. Then, I snapped my arm up in a picture-perfect salute that would make a Marine Corps General proud. Standing stiff in perfect form I held the salute until the car passed then snapped my arm down and resumed walking.
Why did I do that? Well, in a way, by doing what I did, I was “thumbing my nose” at “the system.” I know my fellow low-ranking sailors that saw what I did understood my intentions and likely chuckled in response. Wait, the story isn’t over!!! Just as I resumed walking I heard the squeal of tires and heard the roar of an engine. Looking over my shoulder I saw the Admiral’s car rushing back towards me. Screeching to a stop alongside I wondered what trouble I was in THIS time.
The passenger-side rear window lowered and I saw the insignia of a high-ranking officer; the Admiral’s assistant. Bending down and looking in I saw the smiling face of the Admiral beaming at me. The assistant barked, “What’s your name and command, sailor?” I gave my name and the name of my ship which the assistant wrote down. I asked why this was being done and what I did to get in trouble. The assistant laughed and said I wasn’t in trouble. No, just the opposite, I was going to be commended via a communication to my ship’s captain. “What for,” I asked. “Well, sailor, the Admiral has been touring the base the last 15-minutes and yours was the first salute he received!!!”
With that the windows were raised and the car sped off. In a daze I ambled over to the enlisted men’s club and guzzled down a couple brews before returning to the ship. I never did hear a word from the captain or anyone else in authority. Considering the state of moral in the Navy at that time I shoulda’ gotta’ damn medal!!!!! Or, just as likely, since the officers on my ship knew me well they were aware of the reason I had for doing what military rules required.
Sheeesh. Ignore the rules and nothing happens. Follow the rules and…. nothing happens. Well, at least I got a smile from the Admiral.