The True Top Gun

    By Captain John G. Duncan, USN (Ret.)

Many years before the movie Top Gun, and a few years before the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School got its nickname, Top Gun, the USS Ranger officially became Top Gun. Her CO recorded the fact with the Department of Records in Wyoming.  The following account is based on documentation and the historical insight provided by Ranger’s CO. RADM William H. Livingston.  USN, Ret.) of ANA’s Mardi Gras squadron in New Orleans, LA. Site of ANA 93.  The author was a proud member of CV-61 at the time.

It was all over but the shouting!  Ranger and her escorts were four days out, streaming eastward across the blue Pacific toward her home port, NAS Alameda, California, following its seventh deployment to the western Pacific and Vietnam combat duty with Task Force 77 in the Gulf of Tonkin.  The men of the Ranger and CVW-2 were tired, proud and happily looking forward to homecoming. 

On the bridge, CAPT Livingston reflected on the past two months—and the future. He had relieved CAPT William E. Donnelly in March 1968 and had shepherded the ship through a final line period  on Yankee Station and a turnover to the relieving carrier.  Now, Livingston” Tag” to his friends and peers –Not to his ship’s officers-relaxed a bit.

During underway replenishment of the battlegroup escorts that morning, a thought had occurred to him at the breakaway-as the strains of the familiar  Ranger music were broadcast throughout the ship.  He had heard that music many times.  Every ship in the fleet had its own theme song-played on certain occasions and especially when disengaging from an UNREP. Ranger’s was Rossini’s William Tell overture-better known as the theme song of the popular radio and television program The lone Ranger.  Tag thought the song was perfect but it wasn’t enough.  What Ranger really needed was a real Lone Ranger!  He made a mental note to address that issue after the homeport stand-down period.

The days of the stand-down spun by in a “fast forward” blur and soon Ranger was underway for a 60-day “availability” period in Washington State’s Bremerton Naval Shipyard.  There, CAPT Livingston directed his XO, CDR H. Edward Graham, to procure a proper Lone Ranger-for special occasions.

Upon return to Alameda, Ed Graham told a newly-reported Ensign, the Public Affairs Officer, that in addition to his regular duties, he was going to be the Lone Ranger and that all assignments that pertained to that title were to be accomplished covertly.  ENS Jim Block took this responsibility seriously.  Secrecy was his watchword as he went about acquiring western boots, black western breeches and shirt, a white neckerchief, a black face mask and a white Stetson hat.  The ensemble was complemented with a black leather cartridge belt, twin holsters, and chrome-plated, pearl-handled six-shooters.

The officers of Ranger had scheduled a pre-deployment dinner and dance at the NAS Alameda Officers Club in October 1968.  It was there that the Lone Ranger’s spectacular
“coming out” took place.  The gala was in full swing when all conversations were interrupted by the invigorating sound of the William Tell Overture.   Then striding through the doors of the Officers Club came a man in full western garb and shiny revolvers loaded with blank cartridges.  All eyes swung toward him as he drew his six-guns and fired them in the air!

The officers and their ladies were awestruck.  After a moment, they erupted with thunderous applause and shouts of approval.  Methodically, the Lone Ranger proceeded to present to each lady present a small favor commemorating the occasion.  CAPT Livingston seemed fully content with this morale-building gesture-or was he?

Later, as the party progressed into the shank of the evening, Livingston chatted with several of his officers, including XO Graham, and Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) Head, CDR Robert J. Brunskill.

“The Lone Ranger was a great act.” Said Tag, “but he’s only half of it.  What we really need now is a great white stallion--Silver.”  Next morning, there was a knock on CAPT Livingston’s inport cabin door.  The Marine Orderly admitted CDR Brunskill.  Brunskill, a highly skilled maintenance specialist, had been specially assigned to Ranger to prove the AIMD concept aboard carriers, which he had done convincingly.  Bob was popular, well-known for his good nature and professional competence, and absolutely revered by the sailors in AIMD.

“Captain,” he declared, “I’ve got your horse!”
Perplexed, Livingston asked, “Just what in the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, sir, at 0200 this morning you requested a white stallion for the Lone Ranger to ride, and I’ve procured one.”  CDR Brunskill paused.  “The first problem, Skipper, is that the horse is in Billings, Montana.  The second is that right now the damned thing is a pinto.  But it will be a white stallion when we pick it up!”
“All stop!” Tag roared with equal shares of mirth and bewilderment.  “Now, Bob, All Ahead Slow and this time spell it out.”

“About daylight this morning I called my mother in Lander, Wyoming,” said Bob “I told her the Ranger needed a horse and why.”  CDR Brunskill apparently inherited his can-do spirit direct from his mother.  Both were of the persuasion: “The difficult we’ll do right away.  The impossible might take a bit longer.”  Mrs. Brunskill had immediately contacted her good friend, the Sheriff of Fremont County, Wyoming, detailing the requirements.

Within the hour, the sheriff had located a horse in Billings, Montana which would meet Ranger’s requirements.  After the sheriff passed this on, Mrs. Brunskill spent the next hour  securing sufficient local pledges to cover procurement of the horse.

The unusual team of carrier captain, AIMD officer, county sheriff and enter-prising mother had acquired CV-61 a horse.  Or had it?  The animal was in Billings, a far piece, and Ranger was less than a week from getting underway for Vietnam.  Fortunately, an aircraft-(Next page)

BACK                      NEXT