I trace the inspiration for The Happy Life of Preston Katt to 1986. Then I was the CO of the USS New Orleans, LPH-11, an amphibious ship designed to carry 2000 US Marines along with 600 sailors. That year the ship was in dry dock in San Francisco undergoing an overhaul. Holes had been cut in her bottom and the guts had been ripped out of her. Nobody I knew wanted to take a ship through an overhaul. I was no exception, but orders were orders. You said, “Aye, aye,” and did your duty.
One Wednesday, a ship’s office yeoman tracked me down and told me my boss wanted to talk to me. I hustled to an office we had on the pier and called him. “Zerr, you’re going to Orlando tomorrow,” he told me. “What the heck for?” or some such response came out of my mouth. “Because I’m telling you to,” says he. To which, “Aye, aye,” was the only satisfactory reply.
It turned out that during World War II, a heavy cruiser bore the name USS New Orleans, and her forties crew held a reunion every two years. My boss ordered me to Orlando to speak to the cruiser New Orleans reunion.
Cruiser New Orleans had an interesting history. She was in Pearl the morning of December 7th, and one of her chaplains, Fogarty, a lieutenant at the time, I think, coined the phrase, which went something like “Praise God and keep passing the ammo.” Cruiser New Orleans earned a few more battle stars during 1942. Then in November of that year, off Guadalcanal, in what came to be called The Battle of Tassafaronga, the cruiser had her bow blown off by a Japanese torpedo. The crew lost 150 shipmates but saved the cruiser so that she could be repaired and serve again before the end of the war. I could see why the crew wanted to reunite periodically. What I couldn’t understand was why they would want me to talk to them.
Turns out they didn’t want me to talk to them. They wanted the Secretary of the Navy to talk to them. The reunion coordinator asked the Honorable John Lehman and he agreed to speak to the reunion. But. As the date for the event approached, the secretary had other matters appear on his calendar, and he couldn’t go. He passed the commitment to the CNO, who passed it to CincPacFleet, who passed it ComNavSurfPac, who passed it the commander of amphibious ships in the Pacific, who passed it to my boss, who passed it to guess who.
I said my aye, aye, and I went, but went grumbling. However, after I arrived, and I started meeting the cruiser New Orleans crew, they flat blew my socks off. I had never met a group such as they were. There was such a unit cohesive force holding them together you could almost see it like an aura or wisps of vapor in the air. It was like a crowd Vulcan mind meld. I will never forget those guys. I thought I’d never experience anything like it again. Well, I was wrong. But that’s another story.