By Ashley Rader
Mike Farnett served in the United States Navy from 1977 to 1981 and was involved in the standoff surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Farnett joined the Navy as a way to learn a trade. He was sent from his home in New York to California, where he was stationed first in San Diego and then in Long Beach. He was assigned to the ship USS Sterett.
“What was funny was when I joined the Navy and I go down to do the paperwork and take the tests, they gave me a folder, a US Navy folder with all the advertising in it,” he said. “There was a ship on the folder and come to find out the ship on the folder is the ship I went to.”
Farnett’s ship was part of a WestPac, or a deployment to the Western Pacific, that was to include stops in 24 different countries. He said the tour was such a popular idea that many of the soldiers re-enlisted to be a part of it. However, the WestPac was reduced from 24 countries to four because of the escalation of the situation in Iran that resulted in 66 people being held hostage in Iran for 444 days.
“Our ship was deployed over there,” Farnett said. “We had shore patrol ready to go out and bring our people back to our ships. We had a whole flotilla there and then I guess Jimmy Carter said ‘no, don’t worry about it’ so we turned around and headed toward the Philippines and got to about Singapore and we had to turn around and go back because they had been taken hostage at that time. We sat off the coast for about three months circling to keep our presence there. We ended up going for a lot longer and not going to the ports any of these people wanted to go to.”
Farnett said the ship ended up staying three months longer outside of Iran than was originally planned because their replacements were involved in an accident on the way to relieve them. While waiting for replacements to be gathered, Farnett’s ship and the others maintained their post. He said for the most part the ships just patrolled the waters outside of Iran so the US presence would be maintained. He said there were some times that Russian boats or planes would come nearby and they would have to go to “general quarters,” or their battle stations.
Farnett was trained as a boiler technician so he spent most of his time in the bottom of the ship making sure there was enough steam to power the vessel. He said he didn’t see much of what happened outside because most of his time was spent inside working. He said there was one time when the Captain of the ship came on the intercom and alerted the soldiers that if any hostilities started toward their ship, they were not to hold back and they were to “unleash everything.”
“He was not going to let the ship be captured,” Farnett said. “He was going to make sure that did not happen.”
Farnett’s ship was one of the first to be deployed to the Iran Hostage Crisis. The troops were at port in Hong Kong and were waiting for a landing craft to come and take them back to the ship when a helicopter landed on the dock near them. He said a group of men in suits got off of the helicopter, boarded a smaller ship and went straight to the USS Sterett. When the troops made it back to the ship, they found out they were going to be stocking up supplies and immediately leaving.
“We knew about what was going on over in Iran,” he said. “It was just like you see in the movies. You knew something was happening because it was rare for civilians to go out to the boat like that. It was fun to see that but it wasn’t fun going there.”
Because the troops were out patrolling during the Christmas holidays, they joined the boats together for a celebration. The leaders on the ship held the soldier’s mail and gave it to them on Christmas as a present for them. The soldiers were able to visit with people from other ships and spend Christmas with each other which Farnett said was a nice gesture.
Before they were sent to be involved with the Iran situation, they stopped in Hawaii, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Guam; Karachi, Pakistan and Hong Kong. Farnett said that his father, who was also a Navy veteran, gave him some advice before he deployed and told him to see as much as he could of the places he visited.
“He said the bars all look the same on the inside so don’t spend all of your time in a bar,” Farnett said. “I didn’t. I went out and I saw a lot of things. That didn’t mean I didn’t go to the bars but I didn’t spend as much time in there as some of the others did.”
He said that each of the places they visited were interesting but his favorite stop was Hawaii. While in Hawaii, he and some of his friends hiked to the top of Diamond Head. Instead of taking the more traditional established route for visitors the group hiked up the back side of the mountain. Farnett explained they had been on the beach and had seen Diamond Head from there. They also saw what looked like a trail going up the back of the mountain. They went through a couple of residential neighborhoods and started up the mountain. They reached a higher point on the trail where they had to raise themselves over a ravine with a rope. Because they had been going to the beach, all but one of the men had on flip-flops so the one who had on tennis shoes went up first and lowered his shoes back down. They shared the pair of shoes until they were all up the rope and on the top of the mountain.
Once they reached the top there was a narrow ledge around the crater that they walked on until they reached the very top. At the top is an old fortress with an old weapons room and a memorial to an individual who died at the site. Farnett said that visitors had respected the memorial room and had left it as it had been designed in memory of that person. Instead of going back down the way they came, they left using the more common route.
Another unique experience for Navy veterans while Farnett served was earning their shellback certificate. Farnett explained there were two types of soldiers; a pollywog, or someone who had not crossed the equator, and a shellback, someone who had crossed the equator. When a soldier crossed the equator for the first time, they went through an initiation process to cross them over from being a pollywog to a shellback.
On the day they cross the equator, the pollywogs, or wogs, would have to complete a series of tasks to earn the shellback certificate. There were spankings, a breakfast consisting of gross food and drink items, being put in stocks while older soldiers decorated the younger soldiers face and a game where the largest man on board puts a cherry in his naval, covers his stomach with grease and the pollywogs have to get the cherry from his belly button. After the soldiers completed all the tasks, they went in the “coffin box” where they were sprayed with water to clean them off and came out as a shellback.
“It was a whole big thing,” Farnett said. “Whether they do it anymore or not, I don’t know, because of hazing and all that, but it was all in good fun.”
After they finished with their WestPac deployment, the ship was brought back to the yard in Long Beach where it was retrofitted with new equipment and armor. The soldiers attended classes by day and helped out with the watches in the afternoon.
When Farnett was discharged from the Navy, he worked different part-time jobs for a while before being hired as a civilian contractor with the Department of Defense to be a boiler operator at a Navy base in New York. The bases went through a consolidation and he was transferred to California. While in California, he started working for the Veteran’s Administration. He asked for a transfer to the Mountain Home VA in Johnson City. He said his parents had retired to the area which is why he decided to move here with his wife, Elaina, who he met while working in California. Farnett retired from the VA in February.