Tributes & Stories


Top Shirt

By LCDR Luke Koeller ’83, USN (Ret.)

With all of the recent excitement over the release of the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun, I thought I would share some special memories of the making of the first one.  

My first knowledge of the movie came from my next-door neighbor at the BOQ at Miramar, a genuine Texas A&M Aggie going through the F-14 training. Dave told about this movie being filmed around him, getting in everybody’s way and not the least bit impressed by it.  

I asked if this was a training or documentary film and he said no, that this was a full-scale Hollywood project. I then asked the next obvious question of any big stars in it. He told me Tom Cruise was the lead actor. The name did not ring a bell to me at first until he mentioned he was the machine gunner in “Taps.” He also mentioned that the guy from “Revenge of the Nerds” was in it. Dave snickered and shook his head when he added one actor had blond-tipped hair, with another wearing a cowboy hat as a prop.  

I was forming the impression that this was going to be a silly Animal House joins the Navy movie, a fleet version of “Stripes.”

Dave was resolute, though, that this was going to be a serious movie about Topgun. His reports did little to pique my interest in the movie as, after all, it was going to be about “jet jocks” when my immediate future laid at the opposite end of Miramar’s flight line with the propellers of the E-2C Hawkeye.  

Hollywood, though, literally came knocking at my door when I woke one morning and found a row of white trailors lined up in the BOQ parking lot. I was quite annoyed as it looked liked they had me blocked in. Luckily for me, my ensign mobile was a Chevy Chevette and small enough to maneuver through them to get to class.  

By the time I returned for lunch break, the BOQ had been transformed into a full-scale Hollywood set. Extras walking around in sailor uniforms, props and equipment scatted on the front lawn. It was then that it finally hit me that this movie was real, and right in front of me. 

The BOQ lobby was being used for the scene where Maverick hands over Goose’s personal affects to his wife (Meg Ryan). It was very interesting to watch the actors rehearse while the crew got their equipment ready. They soon learned the challenge of getting the quiet needed to shoot the scene at high noon at a Navy Air Base, requiring about four takes. For every take, poor Tom had to fist up his hands and grimace hard to get the complexion he wanted for this emotional scene.  

While watching the filming, one of my FRS classmates told me that the production crew was looking for volunteers for a shoot at the volleyball field that Saturday. All I needed to do to get movie immortality was print my name and command on the yellow-pad paper. I was now into this project 100 percent!  

We were instructed to show up early morning in our gym gear. It needs to be noted that all of my fellow co-extras were AOC graduates. The experiences of their outstanding achievement were relatively new and still very much fresh on their minds. Many still proudly called themselves “Batt II Hawgs.” I bonded with them revealing that I too was from Batt II (7th Co.) 

For the upcoming shoot, many of them enthusiastically announced that they were going to wear their distinctive yellow Batt II PT shirts. I said, OK, then I’ll wear my USNA white, blue-rimmed PT shirt to counter.  

The one big regret from my midshipman years is that I lacked the athletic and academic skills to represent the Academy in any conspicuous manner. I had the bare minimum of either to get in and stay in. Now, two years later, I relished this opportunity to be the school’s sole rep in this big movie scene.   

That Saturday morning showed all the signs that it was going to be the typical beautiful, sunny California day. As promised, my AOC mates wore their yellow Batt II shirts while I dutifully put on my white shirt. As soon as we arrived at the volleyball court, the Assistant Director immediately ordered, “No yellow shirts!” 

I could not help but laugh at their deflated pride, but before I could spike the ball on behalf of Bill the Goat, asked about my shirt.  

“You’re fine.” 

Yes!! Academy 1- AOCS 0. Needless to say, I received a few unfriendly looks from the Batt II gang as they put on the bland shirts provided by the film crew.   

With the shirt issue settled, my next tactical decision was where to sit in the bleachers. Looking at the net and where the camera was aiming, I sat myself directly in the line of fire. This was not done just for my ego, but to settle a score going back to World War II.  

Just a few miles away, at the Marine Corps Camp Elliot, my uncle, a Navy corpsman, was undergoing training to join the First Marine Division gearing up for their next campaign. The great actor, and former Marine, Lee Marvin, in an interview with Dick Cavet, mentioned how Hollywood liked to go there to use the Marines as extras. Somehow, my uncle became one of them.  

Of course, he told everyone about the conspicuous role he was to have in the scene, giving first aid to a wounded soldier. Just as he was about to make his grand entrance onto the big screen, the editors cut him out. I made sure this was not going to happen twice to my family, creating a Hollywood curse on us. They would have to delete the whole scene to cut me out. 

It was a thrill to see the four stars walk onto the set, having seen each in at least one movie. We did as directed, first acting little interested in the game, then cheering like hell when a good shot was made.  

Throughout the shoot, director Tony Scott sat in his chair, puffing his cigar encouraging his star, “Good s-t, Tom, good s-t!” We then joined the chorus shouting the then popular Billy Crystal line, “You look marvelous, Tom!” which got a laugh from him as he and his fellow future-famous actors were all working hard, committed to giving their director what he needed from that scene.  

The shoot went from early in the morning to well in the afternoon. Underneath my white Academy shirt was my white skin getting redder by the minute, earning me the title of the “UFO,” unidentified frying object of the movie. No price to high to keep myself and the Academy represented in this movie.  

Around noon, we broke for lunch and got to join the crew under some tents for a nice spread buffet. The man sitting directly across from me was the actor Frank Pesce, who shared stories about being in the opening scene with Eddy Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop” and was going to be the main villian to Crockett and Tubbs in an upcoming “Miami Vice” episode. He liked my pilot sunglasses and asked where he could get one. My quick response was “Join the Navy.” Seeing that he was not fully getting my Jersey smart-ass humor, quickly added that they were Navy issue, tailored to our vision. Try the exchange.  

(Some movie trivia: There was only one genuine fighter pilot in the scene. The rest were students from in the E-2 Hawkeye Fleet Replacement Squadron, whose kool patch was worn by Goose and Maverick throughout the movie, much to the chagrin of the real “Ghostriders” of “Fightertown.”) 

It was an interesting phone call home I made the next day. Through the searing pain of sunburn, playfully asked my parents, “Guess what I did yesterday?” Only in California 6 months and already in a movie – without an agent! 

About five months later, the movie set followed me to my first sail on a carrier during REFTRA[JD1] , filming flight ops Carl Vinson. The opening scene of the movie, along with a beautiful sunset takeoff, was shot during this time. I ran into one their film chiefs and nervously inquired about the status of the volleyball scene, who confidently assured me that it would be in the movie.   

A year after the filming, I was in Hawaii during RIMPAC, just as the movie hit the theaters. The long lines to get into the theater was a good sign about the quality of the movie, couldn’t afford having my first one being a flop. Anxiously watching and waiting, about halfway through the movie, the volleyball scene was on! My squadron mates with me gave a big cheer while I laughed through the entire scene, not believing what I was seeing.  

The white USNA PT shirt made it easy, for me, to spot myself in the bleachers. I could almost hear my uncle sending me a “BZ” from his front row seat heaven.  

Ready for my nationwide fame and acclaim upon my return to the mainland, I was initially disappointed by the response of my fan club. Most said that they loved the movie but could not spot me in the scene, while a few, probably just being nice, said that they thought they saw me sitting in the stands. Even my Dad reported, “I’ve seen ‘your’ movie twice but cannot find you. Exactly where the hell are you in it?” 

My mantra that summer was, “LOOK FOR THE WHITE SHIRT!”

My first deployment was about to begin so did not have time to launch a coordinated PR campaign on the matter. I would just have to wait for the movie to come out on VHS or DVD so people could freeze frames to identify me.  

Sadly, my Academy PT shirt and my Navy days have long since faded away; but it is fun to recall how USNA got a cameo in one of the iconic movies of our time.