Ken Leff of Rotunda West served 24 years in Navy aboard everything from frigate to battleship

During his 24 years of service in the U.S. Navy Ken Leff of Rotunda West began his service in 1969 in little ships and ended it in battleships and aircraft carriers in the ’90s. He spent almost 2½  decades sailing the world and protecting the peace for all of us.

After graduating from Great Lakes Naval Receiving Center near Chicago he spent the next year attending electrical technicians school. Then he was sent to nuclear power school. It wasn’t what he wanted to do in the service so he returned to electrical school and graduated.

“My first ship was the USS Fox (DLG-33) out of San Diego, Calif.,” Leff explained. “She was a guided missile destroyer. I did one western Pacific cruise on her. During most of the cruise we just floated around in the Tonkin Gulf off the North Korean coast. We were out in the Gulf of Tonkin for 30 days at a time, then would come back to port and then we went out again for another 30 days. We spent almost 8 1/2 months out there off the coast.

“I had nothing to do but repair the electronics aboard ship,” he recalled almost 50 years later. “When we got home we went into the shipyard for a year in Long Beach, Calif.

“As it turned out when I return home to San Diego two days before my son was born,” Leff said. “Right after that I reenlisted for a second tour and my family and I were stationed in Hawaii. I went aboard the USS Rathburne (FF-1057). She was a frigate, smaller than a destroyer. After 18 months I was transferred to shore duty in Hawaii. I became a cryptographic repairman. I worked out of Pearl Harbor and helped maintain all the crypotographic machines on the island.

This was Leff about the time he retired from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer in 1993. Photo provided

This was Leff about the time he retired from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer in 1993. Photo provided

“From there I was transferred to a naval communication center in Australia. It was a super duty. I helped maintain the electronics on the base. I was the lead petty officer in the division most of that time. The base was called Ex Ought and it was in the far western corner of Australia. We stayed there almost four years.

“My family and I flew back to the States and I took a duty in Tennessee as a recruiter. From there I was transferred to Charleston, S.C.where I served on a mine sweeper two years. After that I went to the Battleship USS Iowa stationed in Norfolk, Va. (headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet).

“While on the Iowa we took several cruises with the fleet. On one cruise we went to the North Atlantic. We observed the Russian fleet looking for a lost submarine. During that cruise we were caught in a gigantic storm that was the basis for the movie ’The Perfect Storm.’ We received a couple of ‘May Day’ calls, but were too far east to be of assistance.

“Then we took the Iowa to the Persian Gulf and the Straights of Hermosa. It was an interesting trip going through the Straights. The Iraqis had three missile sites on shore. We had three of our 16 inch guns trained on these missile sites. The standing order from our captain: “If we received signals the guns changed to targeting we were supposed to pull the trigger.’ If we had that would have put three big shells from our guns on those missile sites. But nothing ever happened.

“The biggest thrill of that cruise to the Persian Gulf was when Bob Hope and his entertainers came aboard the Iowa on Christmas Day of ’87. For five or six hours they entertained us. My shipmate buddy and I walked up to Lee Greenwood and Barbara Eden and introduced ourselves. We asked them if they would like to take a tour of the ship and they said yes. Then the four of us had lunch in the first class mess. Twenty years later I ran into Barbara in Lakeland, Fla. when I was out of the Navy working as a security guard at the Lakeland Center and she still remembered me.

“We cruised on the Iowa to the north Atlantic to check out another Russian battleship operating in 90 foot seas. On that cruise a motor on our main deck broke loose. The petty officer in charge decided we had to go out on deck and secure the motor. At the time I thought: ‘Are you crazy?’ “He sent a couple of guys to a locker to get the harnesses and safety lines needed. He put one harness on and threw the other one to me. We went out on deck and did the job. Looking back on it, it was crazy, it was dangerous, and it was fun.

“The cruise in the North Atlantic was one of the most memorable cruises I ever made. When I got back to port at Norfolk I stayed aboard the Iowa until April. Then I was transferred to Gamete, Va. and ‘Ocean Systems Command.’ It’s main purpose was to track submarines. I was there for just under two years.

“I terminated my shore duty and requested duty on another ship. I ended up going to the USS Nassau an amphibious carrier in the Persian Gulf. I served on it through ‘Desert Shield’ and ‘Desert Storm.’ I came onboard and was assigned to the electronics shop. I was the chief petty officer in the electronics division. We maintained the RADAR communications and other electronic equipment. We had helicopters aboard the ship and 3,000 battle-ready Marines.

“When we went back to the Gulf in ‘Desert Storm we were to put our Marines ashore behind the retreating Iranians. As it turned out we were never able to put our troops on the beach behind the enemy because they fell back too fast. We ended up taking the Marines back home aboard ship. When we got home the Nassau went into the shipyard for repairs.

“This is where I left the Navy, after 24 years of service I retired,” Leff said. “As a civilian I went to work as a contract engineer for the Navy in the Norfolk area. I did that for about nine years until I decided I wanted to do something else.

This is Leff today at 70 at his Rotund West home. Photo by Mary Auenson

This is Leff today at 70 at his Rotund West home. Photo by Mary Auenson

“I took a job as a federal policeman a few months later. My job was to patrol Navy bases just like a normal police officer. I did that for four years.

“Then Deborah, my wife, and I got the opportunity to move to Florida in 2005 and retire.”The couple has two adult children: Jeremy and Kristen.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, and is republished with permission.

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  1. I loved reading your story Ken. You certainly seemed to enjoy sailing. Serving on the Iowa really got my interest. The Iowa Class were certainly beautiful ships. When I was in seventh grade my dad and I took a train trip to Norfolk, VA. We had to take a ferry across Newport News to get to Norfolk; I think since then they built a roadway and the ferry trip isn’t necessary. Anyway, I remember I was searching for a battleship, but none were to be found. Aircraft carriers, Destroyers, etc. were all over the place. It was not until the 1980’s when I flew to Philadelphia on a business trip when I spotted on the airport approach two (2) Iowa Class ships anchored side by side in the harbor. This is before they dispersed them for display purposes. I would love to tour one of those ships as a bucket list item. I did a tour of the older USS Alabama near Mobile Bay which was interesting.

    In reading your story I wonder how the Iowa did in the rough North Atlantic seas. Also, did you ever witness a firing of those 16-inch guns?

    Thank you for your service Ken.

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