GAMBIER — Richard “Dick” Hoppe, an affiliated scholar in biology at Kenyon College, served in the U.S. Navy at the height of the Cold War, from 1960 to 1964, and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
“It was the best four years I ever spent,” he said. “It was a growing experience, a training experience, and I got to see parts of the world in a way that a rural southern Minnesota kid would not otherwise be able to do. ... It let me mature, and it taught me a trade that supported me all the way through undergraduate and graduate school.”
Hoppe’s grandfather fought in France in World War I, and his father was a quartermaster/navigator in World War II. An uncle served as a radioman/gunner aboard a dive bomber flying off carriers in World War II, and Hoppe decided to quit his job as an oven loader in a commercial bakery and follow in his forebears’ military footsteps. Because the Marine recruiter wasn’t in at the time, he joined the Navy.
Boot camp, Hoppe said, taught him discipline and was also an interesting experience.
“In my boot company there were about a third blacks and whites from the deep south, about a third hoods from Staten Island — who had been given the choice of six months in jail or join the service, which is what judges did in those days — and then about a third upper Midwesterners,” he said. “That was a culture shock. But three months in close quarters working with that variety of people was an enormous growing experience.”
Following months spent at various missile schools, Hoppe was assigned to the USS Observation Island, an experimental Polaris ship home-ported at Cape Canaveral. He and his shipmates lived aboard ship, even when she was in her home port.
“There were two forward compartments with about 150 guys in one and 200 in the other. It was a very confined space,” Hoppe said. “The bunks were three high. You had a locker about 5 feet long by a half high by a foot deep, and that was where you kept all your possessions, clothes and everything.”
A locker and garage space were available on the home port base, where Hoppe kept his civilian clothes and motorcycle.
“I really liked sea duty. I loved being at sea,” said Hoppe. “The trip from the west end of the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor is about 18 days. You’re out there with these long, slow groundswells. Late at night you can go out to the top deck of the ship in the dark, lay on your back and see a million stars. Then you’d look aft at the ship’s wake and it glowed because the ship’s propellers stimulated phosphorescent plankton, so there would be this glowing milky highway all the way back to the horizon.
“Or during the day you could go all the way forward in the ship to the bullnose. That’s a big hole in the ship that the hawsers go through to moor the ship to the dock. You’d lay on that with your shoulders and look down and there would be dolphins playing around the cutwater.”
Even riding out hurricanes at sea was great fun, Hoppe said.
“You button the ship up, obviously, so there are no hatches or portholes open to the outside. And you’re riding in some pretty good seas. ... There was little or no danger because ours was a big ship so it could ride out the storm well. It was an exciting time.”
Hoppe ran into some real excitement in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. The Observation Island was on its way to the Panama Canal from Florida at the time.
“Because we were handy and had big sonars and radars,” Hoppe said, “we were on the blockade. It was scary. ... We were at battlestations for most of a week. The whole U.S. military went to what’s called DEFCON 3, a heightened state of alert. Actually, Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2. During DEFCON 3 you are rotating at battlestations. That is to say, you’ve got watches on radars and sonars and even have visual lookouts. We were only seven or eight miles off the coast of Cuba, and our main battery was four 45-caliber Thompson machine guns.
“It was an interesting week,” continued Hoppe. “I think this country, looking back on it, came about as close to nuclear war as you can get and not actually go to war. ... It was very close. Folks don’t remember that. We came very near to nuclear war over those missiles in Cuba, particularly when a Soviet commander of an antimissile battery in Cuba shot down one of our U-2s. We were about an eighth of an inch from the order to bomb (nuke) Cuba.”
Because the Observation Island was an unarmed, top-secret experimental ship, it spent only about one week on the blockade. Its true function was to test launch Polaris missiles, to perfect them so they would be reliable aboard submarines. Hoppe said he has more computing power in his cell phone today than his entire ship had back then in the days of cards and tape drives. Hoppe was a missile technician whose launch station was about 20 feet from the launch tube.
“Launch was exciting,” he said. “Those were the days when missiles weren’t real reliable, so we never knew if they were going to fly or blow up when we launched them. Polaris is a missile that is popped up out of a tube with high-pressure air or high-pressure steam. It pops up and then ignites above the ship or above the water.
“The most difficult task I had was during a hold at T-minus 20 minutes during our launch sequence. Then I got to go down to the bottom of the launch tube, open a hatch at the bottom of the launch tube, crawl in and lay under this live missile and calibrate the steering mechanism. Every once in a while I’d get to thinking, ‘I’m lying here with about 30 tons of high explosives that is 20 minutes from taking off. What am I doing here?’ But it was part of the job, and when you’re 22, you are young and immortal.”
Hoppe also spent some time on nuclear submarines to help coordinate their test launches of missiles. It was in that test coordination context that President John F. Kennedy came aboard the Observation Island.
“That was Nov. 16, 1963,” Hoppe recalled. “He flew out to my ship aboard a Marine helicopter with various dignitaries, both military and civilian, and from my ship observed a Polaris launch from a submarine. I was one of two dozen enlisted men who were sort of an honor group around the official party.”
That was very impressive for two reasons, Hoppe said.
“One, the Secret Service spent a week aboard my ship making sure it was clean of all weapons, even taking apart personal cameras and things. Remember, this was a U.S. Navy ship which you had to have secret clearance to be stationed aboard. The second reason is, of course, all the hoorah surrounding his visit — Marines and admirals and senators and so on.
“We were at sea six days later when we heard he had been assassinated. None of us could believe he had been allowed to ride in an open car, through a city, after all the security there was aboard a ship of the U.S. Navy. It was bizarre. We found it inexplicable.”
After his discharge, Hoppe worked at Control Data Corp. and Honeywell. At Honeywell, Hoppe worked on the Apollo command module and was thrilled when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, “because,” he said, “stuff I had worked on went with them.”
After earning his Ph.D. in cognitive science, he came to Kenyon College in 1971 and has been on the College Township fire department for 35 years.
“It seems to me to be a natural extension of military service,” he explained. “The fire service is a disciplined enterprise, with chains of command, with complex tasks and some danger. It just seems like a natural extension in many ways.”