45 years of unblemished service in the Royal New Zealand Navy
Getting the afternoon off school to talk to a Navy recruiter sounded pretty good to a 16-year-old off a farm south of Rotorua.
This month Warrant Officer Combat Systems Specialist Ray Jensen received his second clasp to his Royal New Zealand Navy Long Service and Good Conduct Medal from the Chief of Navy, signifying 45 years of service. He is currently the longest continuous serving sailor still in the Navy, making him the holder of the “Old Salts Award”, a mounted silver salt shaker.
WOCSS Jensen says he wasn’t the most studious sort at Rotorua Boys High School. “One day, the school said the Navy recruiter was coming to Rotorua tomorrow. He’ll be downtown. My mates and I thought that was a pretty good option, rather than being at school.”
When he got back to the farm later that day, his mother asked: “How did it go?”
“I’ve signed up,” said Ray.
“No, you haven’t!” said his mother.
He said his parents came around to the idea, which was just as well, since he needed their signature. “It was a simple recruit process compared to today. I had no idea what a seaman did. I wasn’t too sure what a warship was, apart from what I had seen on the movies. I answered a few questions, sat some simple tests and was pointed towards a doctor’s office to have a medical, which I did. It was all done in a couple of hours.
“I was second year fifth form, and my future wasn’t on the farm. I had older brothers. Just before Christmas 1972, I got a travel warrant in the mail and a letter telling me to turn up at Devonport Naval Base for the January intake. My parents took me into town. My mother gave me a kiss, Dad shook my hand, and with all my possessions in a small duffle bag I was off. I wasn’t too sure what it was that I was off to but would find out when I got there.”
WOCSS Jensen signed on for nine years, with 190 recruits in his intake. Everything was a new experience, so it wasn’t really a shock, he says, although the humidity of Auckland took some getting used to. “There were all these different personalities, and the instructors were all Petty Officers — big, tough men in the eyes of a 16-year-old. When they said jump, you jumped. But they were good men who treated us well.”
People talk about the toughness of training “back in the day”, and it was certainly a case of keeping your mouth shut and your mind open, says WOCSS Jensen. “But the Basic Common Training today, that’s full-on mentally and physically. In 1973, it was a walk in the park in comparison, really. I’ve seen these young people today, going to PT three or four times a week, and PT is pretty tough today. We used to do gymnastics, with vaulting boxes and trampolines. And enjoyable PT on the rugby field. I think we did the fitness test, a two-mile timed run, once or twice. Times were taken but it was no big deal if people didn’t make the time.”
Today, recruits are trained in Lead Self, a good foundation to the Leadership Development Program, plus a multitude of other topics that are deemed essential. “We never got that. Back then, it was just training to be a sailor.
His first ship was HMNZS KIAMA, a minesweeper. “We did the decommissioning cruise around New Zealand in 1973. That was a shock to the system. 18 people in the mess deck, with room for eight, so we had hammocks and camp stretchers. When the ship rolled, the stretcher went that way.” It was their introduction to time at sea, midnight watchkeeping — and seasickness. It was also learning about runs ashore, in uniform, and how to behave to expected standards.
People say to him, 45 years, that’s a long time on one job. “But it’s 45 years in the Navy, and that’s many different jobs. I’ve had more jobs than anyone I know from my school days, and I have enjoyed all of them. I’ve only left them because it was time to post out.” His current posting is as a recruiter in Wellington, talking to youngsters considering joining the NZDF.
“I often get the question: what was your favourite ship? And my answer is always, the one I’m on now. Every ship, every job, has its special memories and moments. I’ve never had a bad sea posting.”
He also gets asked when he is leaving the Navy. “For the last 30 years I’ve always answered: when I stop enjoying myself.”