Taking a slow boat to the Med

As many college friends continued to learn more about the geography of Southeast Asia, Mills Lane IV was back from the Caribbean, thinking about historical sites near ports in the Mediterranean and the supplies his ship would need when they set sail in January 1968.

Mills Lane IV in the Navy

“We are now busy ordering all sorts of paraphernalia for the trip, from two thousand plastic garbage can liners to green peas.”

Consequences of bad planning would be easily evident: “We leave for the Mediterranean in just one week. … I am still plagued by the fear that we might run out of food and that the supply officer will be horribly embarrassed by the captain’s furor.”

However, there were possibilities for excitement.

“At one time, there was the remote threat that we might sweep a live minefield left from the Second World War off the coast of Jutland [Denmark]; despite the prospects of infinity which actual minesweeping would involve, there would be the delectable prospect of visits to northern European ports. But … at least I can tell my unborn children how their father NEARLY swept a live minefield during his Navy tour on the ocean blue.”

While he was still in the American Southeast, he described weekend outings to local sites in letters to friends. He visited Hofwyl Plantation and talked with Ophelia Dent who was the last member of the family left on the land. He writes about the lye-scrubbed, not polished, floors in the house that had once been surrounded by rice fields. After a hurricane, family deaths and financial woes, the Dent sisters had started raising cows and driving their own milk trucks. “Remember now that this lady was educated in the East, and her family had always traveled to Europe for their education and delectation.”

Mills played up his Southern roots to his Northern friends. “Ensign Lane had a delicious, delightful Christmas holiday in Atlanta, where Gone with the Wind is still showing and where all the girls still look like Scarlett O’Hara.”

But he sympathized with a friend complaining about parents: “Sometimes even MY devoted parents make me claustrophobic, but that’s usually my own fault.”

The Navy had contacted his parents in Atlanta, and his mother planned to track his route: “We had a letter from your skipper – very nice – explaining how we parents should take your deployment. I was impressed that the Navy would consider parents’ or wives’ attitude at all.”

In addition to watching over the renovation of his getaway at 14 Price Street in Savannah, she said she would pay his bills, and he could repay her. “I will pay them like a computer without approval or censure.”

Four U.S. ships started off from Charleston Naval Base, as Mills told the tale, along with two Turkish ships. One of the U.S. ships didn’t make it out of the Cooper River and had to be towed back to the base. “So the first fourteen hours of our cruise east were spent circling around the entrance to Charleston Harbor.”

They eventually proceeded “less one ship. … Our progress was further hampered by a brisk wind … which prevented the small Turkish ships from maintaining our proposed course. So we had to steer toward Africa rather than Spain.”

Another of the U.S. ships had a refueling crisis and “we are towing her back to Bermuda, which takes us five hundred miles and three days out of our way.”

Mills wasn’t that upset with the trip or detour. He was impressed with the beauty and people of Bermuda and told his father that a driver “remembered those wild American bankers on the BRASIL three years ago and he said, ‘How could I forget that wild man who called himself Lucky Lane?’ ”

Mills IV fared well physically: “Since I have that Lane-Waring nautical tradition in my blood, there was no queasy unseamanly uneasiness for Ensign Lane, but green faces and prostrate bodies were common. … Having water and salads dumped into your lap, and finding all your gear strewn on the deck is just part of life …imprisoned on this 182 foot island of wood.”

His skills improved as “the only officer bringing the ship into the port. … It is very exciting to cruise up to a dock, with two hundred tons of hull and hulk grinding to a halt.”

Finally, he wrote on February 3, 1968, “We arrived at Rota [Spain] this morning after one of the longest Atlantic crossings in recent naval history.”

From there the crew soaked in lessons on international relations. They went to Gallipoli [Turkey] “for a week’s minesweeping operations with the Italians, French, English, and Belgians.”

But they “could not sweep or locate any mines at all.” The Americans and Belgians teamed up and “got along famously, partly because the French and British looked down on both the Americans and Belgians and partly because the Belgian ships have a bar on board to entertain their American sailor friends.”

The crew felt welcomed by the Corsicans. “Despite Gaullism and the troubles of NATO, the French officers have been excessively cordial. It has been fun to try my untested French and, with my pig French and with the pig English of many French people here, it has not been hard to communicate. I made friends with two Corsican students, and we shared reciprocal tours of the SKILL and the town of Ajaccio. When they came for supper last night, they brought with them a fine bottle of champagne and, not to be outdone, I presented them with two cans of peanut butter, U.S. Navy regulation stock number 3941-431-3491.”

In a thank you note, one of the students wished there would be “another French president in order to have better connections with the great people of the United States.”

Mills perceived the Continental French officers looking down on the islanders and attributed it to the food: “The best local fare includes sautéed trout about the size of goldfish, roast mutton from the Corsican mountains, baked blackbird complete with grotesque head and beak, bulging eyes and withered claws, and a delicious soft local cheese served with sugar and rum on top.”

Everyone on the ship was ready for Genoa, “our first major city, complete with magnificent hills, heavy Italianate buildings, some good restaurants with lots of pasta and vino for the officers and seaside bars and brothels with a plentiful and voluptuous supply of sin for the crew. … I’m still pure more because of inbred inhibitions than lack of desire; vice is insinuatingly alluring from a distance but pretty repulsive up close.”

Former college friends were also seeing the world through new eyes. One wrote as he was “steaming past Taiwan en route to our station south of here. To think that there is as much history over here in the Far East as there is in Europe can really stir the imagination, especially with all the recent turmoil this end of our globe has been seeing.”

On March 27, 1968, Mills became a lieutenant (junior grade), but he was unsure what would happen when they returned to Charleston. “I may find myself anywhere from a river patrol boat in Asia to officer-in-charge of the frigate CONSTITUTION permanently moored at Boston.” Employees in the Citizens and Southern National Bank in Macon signed a letter congratulating him on his rise in rank.

Italy provided opportunities on sea and land: “We had a tour of the sailing ship of the Italian Navy. Naturally, my own pleasure was considerably heightened by thoughts of my father’s envy. The ship is called the AMERIGO VESPUCCI.

“From La Spezia, we also drove to Portovenere, a Roman fortress city, hanging on the brink of a precipice at the very edge of the sea. We saw the old church, whose foundations go back to near-heathen Rome and, window dressing, there was even a boy soprano struggling to learn Ave Maria.”

Mills was awed at St. Peter’s Basilica “just gawking at the brilliance and space,” but was less enthusiastic about the Vatican. “The Vatican Museum was a great disappointment and the throngs of noisy, pushing people made it unpleasant, and finally, the Sistine Chapel was weak after the grandeur of St. Peter’s.”

In May they were off the coast of Crete for their last minesweeping, and Mills was dreaming about a return to Savannah that he described to his Grandmother Waring, Mama Sue.

“I’ll have that first weekend in Savannah and I hope you will be ready to share mint juleps, salmon, fresh crab, and all the other good delicacies I’ve been dreaming about for the last five months, including a LONG, hot shower, two clean PRESSED sheets, and the Savannah panorama.”

Giving a nod to his uncle, Antonio Waring, Jr., Mills described more of his adventures to Mama Sue.

“With Waring archaeological blood coursing through my veins, I responded with appropriate genuflections at the Colosseum and Forum.” He took a train to Paestum, to see the Greek city that his mother and father had raved about. He in turn thought those ruins showed examples that “surpassed the Roman buildings in freshness, vigor, youth and virility.”

He also thought one of the best parts of the trip to the Greco-Roman city “was watching the local farming people resting in the shade from their labors and envying their innocent sort of lives.” While the reality of local life may have belied that description, Mills wrote that in the peace and solitude of the town, he “heard birds for the first time in six months.”

As his ship moved through the Caribbean, Mills Lane IV would meet people from the ports of call and sometimes offer tours

From Naples the next port was Bizerte, Tunisia, where Mills said making friends “was the most rewarding opportunity of our whole trip.”

He later wrote to friends he had met in Bizerte: “I really meant what I wrote in French about the friendliness and gentleness of your people. In the United States people are very busy and sometimes they forget the humanity that ties us all together.”

He gave one young man money for throat surgery and told him: “I hope that someday you will have a chance to come to the United States. People there are not as rich and happy as the people of Tunisia may believe, but we do have a great country where most of the people have a chance to make a good life for themselves doing what they desire.”

He thanked another Tunisian “for the rose you gave me while we were waiting for the ferry to take our bus across the canal. And I still promise to send you a little gift once I get back to the United States.”

Mills was also fascinated with Malta, “an exotic spot” with a long history of invaders and adventurers and “a fascinating little theatre in miniature, built about 1750, where I watched a play in rehearsal.”

By June 5 Mills was lamenting that the trip home was also going to be long. “At the halfway point, we were diverted northeast to hunt for the lost submarine SCORPION.”

After a five month voyage, “a small ship is a constricted place and all the officers are very tired of each other’s company.”

The routine had grown old.

“Most of our time was spent wasting time. Our participation in large amphibious exercises was usually limited to a few hours of minesweeping, all against imaginary mines, two days of beach patrol, and several days at anchor. One time, we spent two days going in circles, pretending to minesweep against mines which did not exist against an enemy which did not exist as part of an exercise which had not yet commenced to impress a superior commander who didn’t even know we existed.

“Last week, when we searched for the SCORPION at a place where another ship had earlier sighted an oil slick, we continued to steam in wasted circles twelve hours after all debris in the area had been identified as non-sub-like and twenty-four hours after we had received permission to resume our trip home.”

Mills also gave a dim assessment of their replacements. “Of the four ships scheduled to relieve us in the Mediterranean last month, only two were able to get underway from Charleston. Even worse, a controlled minesweeping experiment at La Spezia, Italy, proved beyond a doubt that, if we actually tried to sweep a minefield, our ship would be blown up before we actually swept any mines.”

However his early planning was successful: “I did get to visit Florence, Pisa. … I established myself at the Hotel Excelsior on Via Veneto in Rome, toured each morning, lunched leisurely at a trattoria at noon, shopped afternoons, took a quick whiskey sour at cocktail time, and took in the Rome Opera. I had five days of this good life, and they kept me sane.”

The shopping yielded presents that included “a fine French engraving of an African tribal king back in the 18th Century,” a recording of The Sound of Music in Italian, liqueur chocolates, and an inflatable plastic chair.

“While I lampoon this cruise and the condition of many minesweepers, my eighteen months on SKILL have been a humbling, chastening experience. The Captain’s ‘Goddammit, Mills, why haven’t you/didn’t you do blankety-blank’ ring in my ears. On a small ship, too, the gold stripe on my sleeve doesn’t protect me from the sailors’ cool perusal; perhaps my ONLY success has been that the men have come to like me after all, but maybe that means I’ve given up trying to be a good officer. I can tell you what a bull nose, turk’s head, monkey fist, … and pelican hook [knots] are.”

Although the ship arrived several days late into Charleston, by mid-June Mills was writing to friends, “As I peck out this parchment, I sit at my plush pad at Fourteen Price Street at Savannah, sustained by Flying Dutchman played at full volume in stereophonic grandeur, by a full stomach of rice and gravy Georgia style, and by further expectations of a delightful seventy-two hour weekend in this shrine of the gentle life in a cruel, ambitious world.”

He wasn’t yet ready to think about the next deployment. “On the SKILL, we are all hoping that our engineering difficulties will prevent us from getting underway for our scheduled exercise in July and, with our shared experiences in the Med, history has taught us that the chances are excellent that we will not make it.”

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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