Bill O’Brien of North Port, Fla. became a Navy computer expert fixing secret computers at sea
Bill O’Brien of North Port, Fla. served aboard the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry (DD-858) from 1961 to ’63 as part of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal’s battle group much of the time. He and his ship made a couple of cruises to the Mediterranean, another to Halifax, Nova Scotia, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and the Red Sea.
Because of his classroom ability he became an electronic communication-mate 3rd class. Much of his time aboard ship was spent repairing the Navy’s first communication computers that were inoperative until O’Brien showed up on the Fred T. Berry and fixed them.
When he joined the Navy at 17 in 1961 he quickly became in a class of his own. The service gave him a battery of tests like they give everyone when they first came in.
“I took several entrance tests at Great Lakes Reception Center and got high marks,” O’Brien recalled. “Three out of the five tests I took initially when I joined the Navy I received a 100 percent.”
As a result he was given more tests while still in boot camp. Before he went aboard the Fred T. Berry, his destroyer, O’Brien already had a top secret clearance. That qualified him to work on any of the Navy’s secret equipment.
His destroyer was part of the Forrestal’s battle group in 1961 sailing in the Mediterranean. The fleet was having problems at the time trying to make a communication computer that was the size of a refrigerator work. Each ship in the fleet had one of the communication computers that didn’t work.
“My skipper told me I had to make the computers work,” O’Brien said more than half a century later. “I told him I’d do the best I could.
“When I started working on the computer aboard ship after reading the manual I found the equipment had what were called knives that went down into the computer. I unplugged the whole thing and pulled the power out of the computer. Then I turned the knives around and plugged the power back in. Off she went—the computer worked!
“The first thing my captain did was get in touch with the admiral on the Forrestal. He told the admiral I had fixed his top secret computer aboard the destroyer. The admiral asked to see me personally.”
The next thing O’Brien knew, he was being sent to see the admiral by way of a plastic bucket strung between the two ships.
“The Forrestal was doing 15 knots and the bucket I was in was bouncing around on a couple of ropes. When I finally got over to the carrier my pants were soaking wet from what I thought was sea water. It could have been something other than sea water,” he said with a smile.
“The admiral put me to work on the computer aboard the Forrestal. After I got his computer working I spent the next three days communicating with the other ships in the fleet and got their computers operational too,” O’Brien said.
He asked the admiral to send him back to his destroyer. He returned to the USS Berry with the understanding that if there were any more computer problems with the fleet’s computers he would return to the Forrestal to work on them. O’Brien never returned.
He hadn’t been aboard ship long when the destroyer sailed for the Mediterranean.
“All of us guys aboard ship played poker in our off time during the 10 days it took to get to the Med,” O’Brien said. “We started out playing in individual poker games. Then at the end we had this huge Acey-Duecey game and I won it all—$6,500 cash!”
As a result of winning the big pot the young sailor became the manager of the slush-fund aboard the Berry. In between paychecks O’Brien would lend his fellow sailors cash to tide them over.
“If I made a guy a $20 loan he paid me back $25 when he got his next paycheck. If I gave hims $50 he gave me $60 in return,” he said.
Because the electronic shack, where O’Brien and some of his buddies worked, had a safe he used the safe to put his cash in.
“I really wasn’t anything special. I just happened to win the biggest card game aboard ship,” he said. “As a result guys would come to me to borrow money.”
After three years in the Navy, O’Brien decided to get out. The Navy had other ideas.
“The Navy sent a commissioned officer to talk to me about staying in. If I signed up for six more years in the service the Navy would give me a signing bonus of $6,000. In addition, the Navy was going to send me to Berkley for two years to study nuclear technology. After that they were going to send me to officers’ candidate school for two more years.
“The only hitch, I had to take submarine training. I’m claustrophobic, I couldn’t go aboard a sub,” he said.
O’Brien got out.
After a couple of years working for some electronic firms he went into the construction business.
“I built energy efficient, double-walled houses using a design I came up with,” he said. “I built them all over New Hampshire and Massachusetts for 35 years.”
By 1982 he and his family had had enough of the cold weather. They moved to Florida and he retired. O’Brien and his wife, Gail, have been married 51 years. They have two daughters: Gail and Patty.
Name: William O’Brien
D.O.B: 23 July 1943
Hometown: Haverhill, Mass
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 1961
Rank: Electronic Communications-mate 3rd Class
Unit: USS Fred T. Berry (DD-858)
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017 and is republished with permission.
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