OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Clif Gill grew up in Okeechobee and graduated from Okeechobee High School. Immediately after graduation, he got married, which he said was probably not the smartest thing to do. He and his new bride moved to Wisconsin, and it was a real struggle. He was unable to get a job, and they did not have the money to come home. In 1977, after about six months in Wisconsin, he decided his best option would be to join the Navy and send his wife back to Okeechobee.
He was sent to basic training in Orlando, because he went in from Wisconsin, and he said the military prefers that you not have basic near your home. They assumed Wisconsin was his home, and they gave him a choice between San Diego and Orlando, so he asked what Florida was like at that time of year, and signed up for Orlando.
He ended up a lot closer to family than he expected to be. Because he was in Orlando, his family got to come to his graduation, and if he had been up north, they would never have been able to make the trip, he said.
After basic, he was sent to Engineman A School which is not even a rank anymore. They did away with it years ago, he said. Basically, he worked on diesels and anything that was steam-driven that did not run the ship. This school was in Great Lakes, Ill., and after he finished, he was sent to Mississippi, where he picked up a brand-new ship,the USS Saipan LHA 2. The ship was commissioned, and he got to go on its maiden voyage.” Of course, I was sick for days,” he said. “I had never been on a ship before.”
The ship was stationed in Norfolk, Va., and they went on several deployments. They went to Cuba several times, which he said was awesome! Gitmo Bay, Cuba, is a training area, and it was very pretty there. “The snorkeling was amazing,” he said. They went to New York one Fourth of July, and he was able to watch the fireworks near the Statue of Liberty. They were in New York for a kind of open house, a type of “welcome to the Navy” thing. They would greet people and walk them around. They called it Fleet Day.
They also went to England — a North Atlantic cruise. He got to go above the Arctic Circle, so he is a “Blue Nose” which just means he got above the Arctic Circle, where everything else is south. They went to the fjords in Norway. “It was a blast. We had a lot of fun,” he said.
The last thing he did before he got out was to help pick up people who were stranded out in the Straits of Florida after Fidel Castro opened all his prisons and mental institutions and let anyone who wanted to go, leave. That was called the Mariel Boatlift, which went on for months during 1980. Mr. Gill’s ship was doing humanitarian work. If they saw people in sinking boats, they would pick them up. They were out there for about two and a half months.
While he was in the Navy, he was in a band. On a ship, you look for things to do, he said, and he got together with another guy, who was very talented. They would put on concerts for the others on the ship. They had a guy on guitar and one on drums, and they would get together and start jamming. Mr. Gill was the lead singer. Once, they did a talent show. They practiced for about three days and won! They got three days’ liberty and $50 to split between them.
One time, he and his friends played in one of the biggest nightclubs in England. It was called the Mecca and had a rotating stage. They played and had a blast, he said, but they lost track of time. They were supposed to be back on ship by midnight, but they were about 30 minutes late. As you go across to get back on board, you must show your ID, and when they did, the IDs were taken away from them because of their tardiness.
On the way back from England, the executive officer said, “Hey, you guys were late getting back from the ship, weren’t you?” He told them if they would do a concert on the way back, they could have their IDs back. They thought about it for two seconds before agreeing. They called it the “Get Out of the Brig Free” concert. After he got out of the Navy, he never really sang again, but he said he did miss it.
On his last day on the ship, they asked him if he wanted to fly off or wait another couple weeks. He said he would rather fly, so they put him in a Huey helicopter a day or so later, and they did not give him any warning at all. First thing in the morning, he was told to grab his stuff, because he was leaving. He ran around grabbing stuff and throwing it in his sea bags and then ran up to the deck. He jumped in the helicopter, strapped in, and everything was going great, he said.
He could see Key West coming up ahead and thought, “Oh good. We are almost home.” Suddenly, the tail of the helicopter started doing something weird, and he leaned forward and said, “LT, what’s the problem?” The reply was, “Oh, just a little tail rotor failure.” Mr. Gill said, “Tail rotor failure! Isn’t that the thing that keeps us up in the air?” The pilot said, “Yup, that’s it.”
Mr. Gill thought for sure he was going to die on his ride home, but the helicopter turned around and headed back to the ship. “I’m looking at the Keys! You can see them, and he turns around to go back to the ship,” said Mr. Gill. “I’m going, Whoa, whoa! What are you doing, man?” The pilot said, “If I’m gonna crash, I’m gonna crash home.” As he was coming back on the ship, the crew “dinged” him aboard. When you are there when a ship first sails, you are considered a “plank owner,” and as a plank owner, you are dinged off a ship when you leave and when you come on board, so he was dinged on and off the ship the same day.
They all thought it was funny. He asked the pilot, “Now what?” The pilot asked him if he still wanted to fly. He said he still needed to take the mail in and pointed to a Chinook helicopter, so Mr. Gill, figuring his odds had to be better now, said, “OK, let’s go.”
They flew him out of Key West, and he came home to Okeechobee, got a job at the sheriff’s office and married his second wife. He and his first wife divorced while he was on active duty. He worked at the sheriff’s office for 37 years before retiring a few months ago. For the first three years after coming home, he was in the Navy Reserves, but his inactive career was a little different than most. Because he lived so many miles from any place with a billet for him to stay, he never had to go. All he had to do was sign. He did his duty at the sheriff’s office, and they would send him papers to sign and send back. He was assigned to a ship in Jacksonville but never even saw it. He said he told them if they ever needed him, they knew where he was, but it was peacetime, and they never needed him.
His wife, Shirley, was a deputy in St. Lucie, but she retired. He wasn’t ready to retire at that time, and his wife messed around at home for a while but then decided to go back to work. Now, she works for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and does their civil papers. She will be retiring again at the end of the month. Although he is proud of his time in the Navy, Clif Gill said he is even more proud of his time with the sheriff’s office. He was a road patrol supervisor for years, did firearm classes and was on the dive team. “I did a little of everything,” he said. He believes his time in the service gave him the discipline to succeed in law enforcement. “I don’t think I could have done the “copping” if it weren’t for the military.”
Once his wife is officially retired, they plan to do some traveling and have a Hawaiian cruise planned for April.