Dan Avenancio joined the Navy in 1976 as a teenage seaman, part of the flight deck crew, sweeping the decks on the carrier USS John F. Kennedy, sailing off the Virginia coast as a training ship. He ended his 24-year Naval career in 2000 as lieutenant commander in charge of maintenance aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
In between, he and his family had an adventurous life.
“I joined the Navy a couple of years out of high school. I grew up in Puerto Rico and we were a Navy family. My uncle had served in the Navy,” the 59-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. resident said.
Being a member of the flight deck crew was a dangerous way to make a living. F-4 Phantom jet fighters were the planes the ship’s squadron flew when Avenancio went aboard the carrier in ’76.
“This was the fighter of choice during the Vietnam War,” he explained. “Somewhere along the way a squadron of Grumman F-14 ‘Tomcats’ joined the Kennedy for training purposes.
“The ‘Tomcats’ were the planes used in the movie: ‘Top Gun.’ Nobody knew how they would react to the carrier,” he said. “The tail hook that arrests the speed of the plane when it lands on the flight deck has to be preset to the aircraft’s weight. If they’re not set correctly it won’t stop the airplane.
“One ‘Tomcat’ came in and the cable wasn’t set correctly. The plane dragged the cable to the end of the flight deck and dangled from its tail hook as it hung from the cable over the bow of the ship.
“We rescued the pilot, but the airplane was lost for a few days. We went looking for the ‘Tomcat.’ It took us about a week to find it on the bottom. It was a pretty significant event,” Avenancio said.
While serving aboard the Kennedy for three years, he went on several deployments to the Mediterranean. They made the usual stops in Italy, Greece, Germany, England and elsewhere.
“Going to Cairo, Egypt was a big eye opener for a boy who had never seen a Third World country. It opened my eyes to how the other half lives. It made you appreciate the United States.
“The worse part about a deployment to the Mediterranean was being away from my family for nine months. Back then we didn’t have the luxury of e-mail and cell phones. Our mail might take a month or more to reach us aboard ship.”
“What changed my life was a jet engine mechanic class I took at Great Lakes after serving aboard the Kennedy. I became a gas turbine piston mechanic. I was a mechanic for jet engines they were putting in ships to power them at the time,” Avenancio recalled.
“They would take a jet engine like the ones used in a 727 airplane and used them as the main propulsion for a ship. We installed GE-2500 jet engines used in a lot of aircraft in the 70s and 80s,” he said.
After graduating from the jet engine school, Avenancio returned as an instructor at the school for several years. Then he and his family moved to San Diego, Calif. and he became part of the crew of the frigate USS Curts that was still under construction.
Eventually he and the crew of the Curts sailed for Japan and a three year deployment over there. By this time he had become a lieutenant junior grade and a jet engine repair expert.
“My wife, Cathy, became the point of contact for the families aboard the Curts who were moving to Japan. She was the person who had to make all the arrangements for these families going overseas,” Avenancio said. “She received a commendation from the admiral for the work she did. It was a big deal.
“There was a lot of unrest around the Navy bases in Japan while we were living there. The Japanese didn’t like the fact that our navy was also working with the Koreans at the time,” he explained. “A lot of the unrest had to do with ‘Desert Storm,’ the invasion of Iraq. They Japanese were also unhappy that American ships were using Japanese naval bases and coming into port with atomic bombs on board.”
His next deployment after Japan was the Panama Canal Zone. The family spent three years there.
“We arrived in Panama shortly after a SEAL Team captured Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strong man,” he said. “I was the maintenance officer for the SEAL Team that captured Noriega.
“We had to go into the field with the SEAL Team and establish maintenance activities in the jungle. Among my duties was keeping four fiberglas BPR boats going. These were fiberglass jet boats used on the rivers in Vietnam.”
They were fast, ran in almost no water and were well armed.
While on liberty in Panama, Avenancio and a buddy took a hike through the hills of Bolivia and got lost.
“Our tour guide left us on the side of the road and said he’ be back in a couple of hours. We decided to take a look around,” he recalled.
“We were lost way above the snow line and it was starting to get dark and cold. We knew if we didn’t show up pretty soon our guide was going to all the American Embassy and explain we were lost in the hills of Bolivia. This would produce newspaper headlines: ‘Two Americans Lost in the Mountains.’
“Just by chance our guide had a mirror he shined all over while searching for us. We saw the mirror, got the direction and started walking. It took us two hours to reunite with him. It’s funny now telling about what happened, but it wasn’t funny then,” Avenancio said.
“For my last tour of duty I came back to the States and served for three years aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as the ship’s maintenance officer. By then I was a lieutenant commander.
“I coordinated all the repairs aboard the carrier. In addition, I oversaw all the repairs for the ship’s battle group,” he said.
In 2000, Avenancio was discharged from the Navy and went to work as a program manager for Northrop-Grumman, a major defense contractor. His last contract for the aerospace giant was building the navigation system for the F-22 “Raptor” jet fighter.
A year ago he and his wife moved to Punta Gorda. The Avenancios have two children: Daniel and Jessie.
Name: Daniel Avenancio
D.O.B: 23 Aug. 1954
Hometown: Puerto Rico
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1976
Rank: Lt. Commander
Commendations: Navy-Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon 3 Awards, Navy Unit Commendation 2 Awards, Humanitarian Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal 3 Awards, Navy Pistol Commendation with Silver “S,” Navy Achievement Medal, Meritorious Unti Commendation 2 Awards, Battle “E” Ribbon, 5 Good Conduct Medals, Armed Forces Expedition Medal 2 Awards, Sea Service Deployment Medal 3 Awards, National Defense Service Medal, Southeast Asia Service Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
Click here to view Avenancio’s collection in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.