U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
TABLE OF CONTENTS
On December 7, 1941, I was a senior in high school. The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was almost unbelievable but the reality and the effect it was to have on me and my classmates soon became clear.
By the fall on 1942 more and more of my friends and acquaintances were going into the service. The draft age had been lowered to age18 so it was more or less inevitable for anyone in reasonable health to accept the fact that he would have to serve. There were deferments to attend college, particularly in engineering. Patriotism was running high and most of us were anxious to go in. My friend, Bill Pentecost had joined the Coast Guard [CG] in the summer and that sounded appealing to me. I sure didn’t want to be a foot-soldier and I didn't want to get stationed on a huge vessel such as a battleship or an aircraft carrier. I preferred something smaller, and the way I saw it, survivability was better in the Coast Guard. What I didn't know, and what a lot of people still don’t know, is that the Coast Guard manned troop carriers and assault vessels for amphibious invasions and also piloted the landing barges. The Coast Guard also provided many of the armed guard aboard the merchant ships in the convoys. All very high risk duties.
By fall 1942 I had made up my mind to enlist in the Coast Guard. I might have been able to get a college deferment, but I just couldn’t see being in school when everyone else was in the service. Just before my eighteenth birthday, I went down to the recruiting office and signed up. I had discussed this with Mom and Dad and had convinced them that the Coast Guard was the right decision, and that I would be drafted if I didn't make my decision now. They had no desire to see me in the Army and frankly that thought scared me. I was well aware that in the Coast Guard I would not have to sleep in a tent, march with a full pack or slug through mud. Although life aboard a ship is crowded and certainly not home, it is still cleaner and a lot more comfortable than the general living conditions that the Army offered. Mom and Dad gave their consent and I was sworn in on November 3, 1942.
Even though I was officially in the CG I didn't get orders for quite a while. I really didn’t know when I would go on active duty and to boot camp. I had quit the job at the I.U. Med School, thinking I would be called quickly, so after I found out it would be a month or so, I went to work at Kahn Tailoring Company in the shipping room where Dad was the boss. The company was almost totally involved in making military uniforms for officers and my job was packing them, ten or twelve to a box, tying them up and labeling for shipping, usually to Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey.
Dad’s boss, Tom Smith, was a vice president of the company and had a son who was a fighter pilot on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. About the time I started working , Tom got the tragic news that his son had been killed in action. We later got the story of what happened. He had been in an air battle, his plane was badly shot up and he was seriously wounded. He managed to get back to the carrier but when he landed the plane crashed on the flight deck. A few weeks later a box came to the company addressed to Tom Smith from the Navy. Dad guessed what it was and opened it and found it contained the effects of Tom’s son. It was very gruesome and we felt it totally unnecessary, but that they had included the clothing he had been wearing when he was killed. Dad never showed those things to Tom. He gave him all the rest of the stuff but he got rid of the blood-stained clothing.
My orders finally came and I was scheduled to leave on January 25, 1943. There were about a hundred of us leaving from Indianapolis but there were only two people I knew. One was a kid from my neighborhood that was my age named Don Bradshaw. His father was the Juvenile Court Judge and the kid was a little strange. He appeared at the muster wearing bib overalls and a coon skin cap. Everyone figured him to be a real hick and he acted the part to the hilt. The other person I knew was Earl Bretz, who was my brother Dick’s brother-in-law. He was a little older and had gotten married just a month before.
It must have been a very difficult time for my parents. I never really knew how difficult until my own son left for his tour of duty in Vietnam. It was very different in 1942 because the war was having its effect, in one way or another, upon everyone. During the Vietnam war, civilian life was hardly affected at all unless someone close to you was in it. In 1942 there was also a tremendous feeling of patriotism in the country; it was a just and necessary war. People were proud to be serving and parents were proud to have their sons serve; not happy but at least proud. Houses that had a son or daughter in the armed forces displayed a 10 by 14 card in their front windows. The card had a red and white border and a blue star in the center, indicating the family had a member in the service. I felt the Vietnam war was a big mistake, but I was also proud that my son did what he had to do.
The group of 100 or so “boots” boarded the train at Union Station in Indianapolis and headed for St. Louis where the Coast Guard induction center was located. There was a lot of excitement among the recruits and a lot of speculation about where we would be sent for our basic training. Bradshaw kept the group entertained with his tall stories, delivered in his newly acquired hill-billy accent. All of the guys were convinced that he really came from the hills and had no idea he had lived all his life in the city and his father was a judge.
The train ride was about five hours and when we arrived in St. Louis there was no place for us to stay. They finally transported us by truck to a really beat up hotel in a run-down part of the city. The rooms were small and the one to which I was assigned had just one double bed. At least we got to pick our room mates so I picked Earl Bretz. I mentioned before that Earl had just gotten married and he was a very restless sleeper. I didn’t get much sleep either because he would doze off and promptly roll over and snuggle up looking for the warmth and affection of his bride. I had to wake him up and tell him to get the hell over on his own side of the bed.
The next morning we were transported to the Federal Building in downtown St. Louis, where we had something to eat in a cafeteria, and then were taken into a large room and sworn in for the second time just to make sure it was legal. No one seemed to have any idea what to do with us so they took us to the top floor of the building and just left us there. It was a big vacant room with a few chairs and large wooden tables and we spent the next several hours just waiting and wondering. Because of the poor night’s sleep I had, I laid down on one of the tables and got some shut-eye. After what seemed to be an eternity, a chief came in and told us we were gong back to the railroad station and from there to boot camp at Curtis Bay, Maryland near Baltimore. I can’t remember how long the train ride was but it was over a thousand miles and we arrived in Baltimore about nine at night, loaded into buses for the trip to the boot camp. When we arrived we were taken into the mess hall and told a little about what we could expect in the next few weeks. Now, it was close to midnight but they had the base band there waiting. After a couple of short speeches the band struck up and we were taught the words and music to the Coast Guard song, “Semper Paratus” ...Always Ready! Here we all were, a bunch of eighteen and nineteen year olds, mentally still civilians and we were singing in a mess hall to the accompaniment of the Coast Guard Band, AT MIDNIGHT!
The next order of business was to go to the supply building and get our issue of essentials. By now it was one-thirty AM. This was the first of many times that I would stand in a line during the next three years. Each man (we were officially men now) got two blankets, a mattress pad, and two mattress covers, dungarees, undress blues, shoes, socks, underwear, peacoat, raincoat and various other sundry items necessary to our subsistence. Lugging this gear, we were taken to our barracks and picked out a cot that would be ours for the next three months. We all fell into our bunks as quickly as possible. It had been a very long two days and we were almost all too tired to even think about being homesick. First thing the next morning we bundled up our civilian clothes and sent them back home. The cord was definitely cut. We now belonged to Uncle Sam.
Homesickness was something that never gave me a problem. That was not because I didn't miss home and family; it was because I was so wrapped up in the adventure of it all. This was gong to be the culmination of a whole lot of childhood fantasies: Those times when I pretended that the old front porch on Pomander Place was the bridge of a ship with the thunder crashing and the lightning flashing among the maples. It was the incarnation of the Navy Club we had at and the cruises in the small boat from the Naval Armory into the unknown of White River. It was realizing and relishing the fact that I was now actually a part of the real thing. I was close to the ocean for the first time in my life and every day saw ships that came from far away places. I was a real boot; standing at attention, marching, saluting, learning the manual of arms (even though it was a wooden replica of a Springfield rifle). This wasn’t kids playing; this was real and we weren’t kids anymore, we were men; the petty officers called us that. I was experiencing true adventure and the unknown that lay ahead promised even more.
Fire fighting School
Trying to recall the day-to-day routine at boot camp is difficult and it all seems to meld into an amalgam of calisthenics, marching, manual of arms, muscle racking tetanus shots and scrubbing decks and clothes. One thing I do remember with some distaste were the “Square Knot Admirals.” These were guys in our barracks (one each on a floor) who had come in with the group but had been assigned special duties and privileges. Usually they were older fellows, maybe as advanced in years as 30. They were given temporary petty officer status and were in charge of a platoon. Arrogance seemed to come with this ordainment. Because they got special privileges, and since everyone felt they really didn’t have any more ability or experience than the rest of us, well it was just an irritant we had to put up with for three months. How did the appellation “Square Knot Admirals” come about? They were given petty officer insignia to wear which was just like the regular petty officer’s “crow” but smaller and under the eagle was embroidered a line tied in a square knot. The title was not used in a complimentary or respectful way.
Discipline was strict and the schedule tight. Reveille at 5:30. Dressed and formed up on the company street by 6:00 for calisthenics. 6:30 to 6:45 make sure your bunk was properly made up and fall in again on the company street to be marched to the mess hall for breakfast. At 7:30 the daily training routine started and lasted until about 5:00 in the afternoon. After the day’s routine of training we were on free time unless you had drawn guard duty. It was winter so there was not much opportunity for outdoor activity. The most popular activity was to walk to the canteen where we could buy ice cream and soda. Sound exciting? Actually, it was one of the things that I remember with considerable nostalgia. It was relaxing and there was a lot of camaraderie. Even today, when I hear the recording of Glenn Miller and the Modernaires singing “Juke Box Saturday Night” the ambience of that canteen once again surrounds me for a brief moment. Everyone had to be back in the barracks by nine for lights-out and in the bunk when the bugler sounded Taps.
From Saturday noon until Monday morning we had free time. This was when we could get things done like washing clothes and other personal chores. No liberty of course. Sometimes on these weekends the homesickness would creep in when guys whose homes were in the vicinity would have visitors. Those of us far away from home would be a little jealous when we would see them walking around the base with parents and girl friends. Actually, in the long run, it was probably tougher for them than it was for us. Our only contact with that previous life was through the written word. We couldn’t make long distance phone calls except for an emergency. Because we were truly isolated, I think that we adapted more quickly and more permanently to the life in the military.
Night guard duty was the worst part of the whole period. It was totally oriented to developing self-discipline and enduring unpleasant duties. We would have been completely ineffectual against any intruder since we were armed with wooden rifles. A guard duty tour lasted four hours and during the daylight it was not bad, but we seldom had guard duty in the daylight. Patrolling a post for four hours from midnight to 4 AM was very cold and lonely. Seldom did you encounter a single living soul except for the duty petty officer who checked up to make sure you were performing the assignment. One of the better posts was the laundry building because at least you could be inside most of the time. Sometimes I used to wonder how much I was contributing to the war effort by making sure no one had his underwear stolen during the night.
On one occasion I was assigned to message delivery. The duty was to deliver messages around the base on a bicycle. One of the messages was to the captain of the cutter Duane [WPG-33]. I had seen the ship come in a couple of days before and it was tied up at the docks just outside the boot camp area. I pedaled my skinny little butt over there as fast as I could and got my first close-up look at a real fighting ship. Boy, was I impressed and envious of those guys on board that cutter. I really wanted to go aboard and deliver the message to the captain in person but the quartermaster on the gangway watch took it and gave it to the Officer of the Deck. I was prepared with the proper etiquette for boarding a ship because I had learned that in the Sea Scouts. You salute the Officer of the Deck and ask permission to board the ship. If it is granted, you salute aft to the ensign and board the ship. (The ensign is the U.S. flag flying at the sternstaff.)
One of the skills that was required of us to learn was the manual of arms. This is a series of actions that are performed with a rifle and must be done precisely and on commands given by the drill master. Toward the end of boot camp they would have what was called a knock-out drill. The entire company would line up on the parade ground, complete with wooden rifles, and be put through the manual of arms. If you made a mistake, you were knocked out and the person who ended up on the parade ground alone was the winner and was awarded an overnight liberty. I took particular pride in my ability to perform the manual and, in fact near the end, the only ones left were Bradshaw (of the coonskin cap) and myself. It was a fight to the finish and I was holding my own quite well and felt that Bradshaw would make the first mistake. We must have fought it out for fifteen minutes with the chief trying his best to trip us up with a trick command. The chief was staring at me and I continued to look straight ahead without meeting his eyes. He walked over and stood directly in front of me and asked, “Are you chewing gum, sailor?” I had completely forgotten about that and he had me cold. I lost the drill and the liberty. That may be part of the reason that I never chew gum.
Near the end of the three months of boot camp we were given our first liberty. Now this was an occasion. Our first time off the base in our unused dress blue uniforms. Baltimore was the city we headed for and we didn't have to be back until 4:00pm Sunday. At noon on Saturday the entire company headed for the gates and boarded the trolley cars that would take us to downtown Baltimore.
I think that everyone had the same feeling of freedom and we were ready to have a good time. The only problem was that most of us were eighteen or nineteen and when we got to town we suddenly realized that we didn't know what the hell to do. We just walked around the streets, looking at girls and getting homesick. Late in the day I wandered into the lobby of one of the hotels and struck up a conversation with a couple of Navy guys. As I recall, they were both petty officers and several years older than I. We eventually ended up on one of the floors where there was a wild party going on. There were about fifteen or twenty guys from the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. There was a lot of boozing going on but I had not yet taken up that form of recreation. I just felt I was in the mainstream and was sort of watching a scene from a movie. Of course none of us wanted to return to boot camp before Sunday because it would be embarrassing not to have stayed out all night on the first liberty. I was invited to spend the night with the two Navy petty officers I had met in the lobby.
When the party wound down I crawled into one of the beds in the room and one of the Navy guys took the other side of the bed. Talk about innocent! After a little while I felt this hand caressing my bare leg. My first reaction was that this was another guy who missed his wife and in his dream state thought the body next to him was she. Then another startling thought hit me. This guy is a QUEER! I had heard of them but I wasn’t too knowledgeable about the whole scene. I was petrified and wanted to get the hell out of there but I was afraid to leave since there was no place to go. I thought of just sleeping in the lobby but I had seen some signs earlier about loitering and I took that to mean I would be kicked out. I ended up doing the only thing I could. I took my pillow and one of the blankets and moved to the floor on the other side of the room, still apprehensive about the guy in the bed. Either he was too drunk or he got the message that I wasn’t interested, but there were no more advances. I got up and sneaked out as soon as morning arrived and everyone else was still snoring away. I bought some breakfast, walked around a very quiet town for about an hour or so and then caught the trolley back to Curtis Bay.
I have heard stories about people, who after being in prison for long periods of time are terrified upon release into society and they even commit new crimes to be sent back to prison where they felt safe and secure. I had the same feeling when I returned to the base and my own barracks. It was strange but I felt comfortable, safe, and in control in this environment. Months later when I got my first leave the same thing happened when I returned to Newport. The service and my shipmates had quickly become my home and family.
With the completion of boot camp we all looked forward to our next assignment, not without anxiety but with quite a bit of anticipation. Most of us had not traveled very much in our few years and so to be sent to a new place we had never seen before was intriguing. That anticipation of new and different place was somewhat dampened when I found out that I was going just a few miles from Curtis Bay. I was assigned to attend fire fighting school at Fort McHenry, also in Baltimore. Fort McHenry was a different experience however.
The station was right on the harbor in Baltimore and of course had great historical significance. It was here in the harbor, just a short distance from the Fort, that Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner. He was a prisoner of the British on a ship, when he wrote what was later to become out National Anthem. He didn't write the music, just the words. The spot is marked by the only red, white and blue buoy in American waters.
The barracks was a relic of World War I, a very long and narrow structure built of wood. It was heated by huge pot-bellied stoves that burned coal. If you were unfortunate enough to be assigned a bunk near the stove, you roasted most of the time. Halfway between two of them, you froze. Only a lucky few had their accommodations a midpoint where it was reasonably comfortable.
My memory of Fort McHenry is somewhat vague. Not much of significance occurred in the three weeks of fire fighting school. I do recall seeing a number of foreign ships coming and gong and at one point there was a Russian ship tied up very close to the base and we were all surprised to see that several of the crew members were females. They all appeared to be of considerable proportions and strength.
After completing school it was time for another move. A group of about thirty of us were put on a train and a few hours later arrived in Providence, Rhode Island. From the train station we were taken by truck to what was to be our home for the next few days. It as an old Catholic orphanage, or at least it had been at one time. There were two or three buildings that were probably a hundred years old and about four or five stories tall. I recall that the one I was assigned to had a mansard roof and my bunk was up there on the top floor. I don’t know exactly where this was in Providence but I suspect it was on the East side near Brown University.
This was a staging area where you waited until your next assignment had been figured out. After a day or so, half a dozen of us were told we were going to Newport, about 25 miles south. Again, we were loaded into trucks for the hour trip across the Mt Hope bridge to our new home.
Our quarters were in the old Armory on Thames Street. This old building is still standing but is an antique center. Constructed completely of stone, it will probably be there forever. The entire main floor was covered with double bunks for about 250 men. Each man did have a locker so we didn't have live out of our seabags. The mess hall was a separate building which had been built for that purpose and was located right on the waterfront just north of the armory. The food was good. Although we ate in shifts, the meals were served family style. This was a very pleasant change since we had thus far eaten in big mess halls served cafeteria style on steel trays divided into sections like a TV dinner tray. Here we actually ate from plates and the food was put on the table in big platters or bowls.
The duties in Newport were under the Captain of the Port. For the most part this meant sentry or guard duty on the waterfront. Sometimes it would be in a shipyard or on one of the big active piers. Watches were four hours on and eight off with frequent liberties. The daytime watches weren’t bad because there was always activity, but the night watches were very lonely and sometimes a little scary. At Williams and Manchester shipyard for instance, we would have to make hourly rounds. This meant walking around in the dark with a flashlight amongst the vessels that were hauled and it would get pretty spooky. We carried a night stick and a .38 caliber revolver which provided a measure of comfort. At each sentry location there were little four-by-four shacks, not unlike the old farm outhouses. At least we could get out of the weather when not making a patrol.
The loneliness got to one of the guards one night. I think there were some other contributing factors also but I never really knew what happened. On one night watch he used his .38 revolver to try to blow his brains out. Fortunately he was not completely successful and survived, but the evidence of his deed remained on the wall of the guard shack in the form of a very large bloodstain. After that incident, standing guard in that shack was VERY spooky. There was a good fringe benefit when assigned to the wharf. Most of the time there would be one or two tugboats tied up and during the four-to-eight watch in the morning. The cook would invite the guard on board for some hot coffee and sometimes a hearty breakfast.
We also had to do regular shore patrol duty. This involved going out in the town in pairs, similarly armed with night stick and revolver. We would patrol Thames Street, Long Wharf and the other areas where servicemen would go to find some entertainment and booze. Newport was a very tough town. There simply were no civilians in sight, particularly none of the female gender. Fights in the saloons were common. Over the next two years I had shore patrol in a number of different places but this was the only one where we carried fire arms. That gives a good indication of how rough Newport was during the war.
Newport was a fascinating city. It was completely different from any environment that I had previously encountered. The combination of colonial architecture and the flavor of an authentic historical seaport gave the feeling that I had been placed in the setting for an historical movie. This was also the first time I had been in daily juxtaposition with the ocean. One of my favorite pastimes was to walk across the island from the commercial district to Cliff Walk. The only part of the Cliff Walk that was open to the public was Forty Steps. The rest of the walk was closed, including all of the waterfront mansions. The Coast Guard personnel could go anywhere along the walk. I would often spend hours sitting on the cliffs and watching the surf crashing against the rocks. Occasionally several of us would get together and play football on the expansive lawns in front of what is now Salve Regina University.
The entire ocean front was protected by barbed wire entanglements and dugouts with machine guns. Larger coast artillery and anti-aircraft emplacements bristled in the area. A few of the guns were actually inside of the mansions behind large sliding doors and could not be seen from the ocean. The area around Castle Hill was heavily protected and what is now the Inn at Castle Hill was used for housing for coast artillery troops, as were several of the other mansions.
America’s Cup Avenue did not exist and Thames Street was a narrow cobblestone street from Marlborough Street to Wellington. Actually, it was not paved with cobblestones but was with the same material that can still be seen on the north end of the street where it passes Brick Market. These stones were ballast from sailing ships that came to Newport to pick up their cargo. If you look closely you see many are blue in color and do not resemble any type of stone indigenous to the area.
Newport was also the place where I first was led astray and partook of the demon alcohol. The opportunity was everywhere and even though the drinking laws were the same as now, 21 years old, no one ever questioned the sailors and soldiers. There was a tavern on the northwest corner of Thames and Pelham streets which was a favorite of the Coast Guard. It was the saltiest place I had ever seen. On the wall behind the bar was a sweep oar at least 18 feet long and surrounding it were photographs of the America’s Cup races in the heyday of the schooners and J Boats. The cash register was an ancient brass affair which had to be cranked to operate. On each side of the cash register were mounted brass belaying pins of intimidating size, a constant reminder that nonsense would be met with considerable authority. You must remember that in those times Newport was about as far from being a tourist center as the county jail. These accoutrements were not "knicky-knacky" but were the authentic decor of the area and the location. It was just plain salty.
About mid-summer I was transferred to a patrol boat working out of Newport. Now I was really getting salty. This boat was a motor sailer and had been a private yacht. There were a lot of private vessels loaned to the Coast Guard for the duration of the war. This one was a wooden hull vessel, 42 feet long with a sloop rig. It also had a fairly good sized Chrysler engine which would drive it along at about seven or eight knots. The crew consisted of a chief boatswain’s mate who was the captain, a second class bos'un, a motor mechanic and two seamen, of which I was one. The five of us lived on board in rather cramped quarters. In the main cabin there were four bunks. The upper bunks folded down to form the backs of seats and the mess table was in the middle. The Chief had a bunk in the wheel house. Now that wasn’t too bad except when we were on patrol we also had an officer on board. He would get one of the top bunks in the cabin which meant that the four crew members played musical bunks when we were at sea. When you came off watch you would crawl into the bunk that had been vacated by the next watch stander. In port we would get to sleep in the same bunk two nights in a row.
We would be on patrol for two days and in port for two days. Our patrol area was a few miles off the harbor entrance near the Brenton Light Ship. Our purpose was to inspect ships that were entering Newport Harbor and make sure they were on our side. When a ship was approaching the area we would go alongside and the officer and a seaman would go on board. The officer would inspect the ship’s papers and put a seal on the ship’s radio so that it couldn’t be used while in port. We would signal over to Beavertail Point, usually with blinker light, reporting the ship’s name and other information. Beavertail would confirm that the ship was cleared to enter the harbor.
In rough weather this boarding process could get pretty wild with our little 42 footer trying to go alongside a big tanker or freighter. We would bob like a cork and the big ship would just lay there undisturbed by the seas. It was on a night like this when our boat was abruptly converted from a motor sailer to just a motor vessel. We came alongside a large ship and the swells were quite high. On one of the waves we rolled into the ship and took our mast off just above the spreaders. I was not happy about that because on a few occasions I had been able to talk the chief into hoisting the sails and cruising about our station. I guess the thing that made it the most fun was I was the only one on board who knew anything about sailing so that sort of made me the captain during those brief periods. I think the rest of the crew was a little sad about losing that too.
During the war private vessels were not allowed outside the bay except with special permission. East Passage was protected with a huge steel net that stretched across from the entrance to Fort Wetherill to the rocks near Hammersmith Farm. It was supported by enormous wooden floats and in the middle were two barges that were on either side of a gate. This gate could be swung open to allow ships to pass but it prevented covert incursions by German submarines. The West Passage was not similarly protected. Between Fort Getty and Sauderstown was a minefield and there was no traffic of any kind allowed in this area. These mines were not floating on the surface but were anchored on the bottom of the bay and could be released by remote control from shore.
During one of our patrols we got a call on the radio that an unauthorized vessel was in the West Passage and we were dispatched to get him out of there. When we arrived on the scene he was cruising along just north of Dutch Island. We hailed him and he stopped. We came alongside and informed him that he was in the middle of a mine field. We didn’t tell him the mines were on the bottom and let him think he was in mortal danger. The chief instructed him to follow closely in our wake and we would safely lead him out since we had the charts of where the mines were located. Actually we had no such thing but he was frightened enough that he got in our wake and hung on for dear life. We could have cruised straight out with no fear of blowing up but instead, we led him around Robin Hood’s Barn for about thirty minutes. Boy, did he stick with us. We finally escorted him to the net barges where he was turned over to the 83 foot cutters. I would assume he was questioned rather thoroughly about the incident and I would bet that no one ever told him our little secret about the mines.
Between The Inn at Castle Hill and Shamrock Cliff (now Ocean Cliff) is a small cove called Castle Cove. The cove is completely protected from almost any kind of weather and was our harbor of refuge when things got rough outside the bay. At the end of the cove is the Castle Hill Coast Guard facility. We would maintain a radio watch and also could see one of the net barges for the submarine net. If there was incoming ship traffic that we had to clear, we would either be called by radio or the guys on the barge would alert us by blinker light.
Down Ocean Drive about a mile was the Coast Artillery PX and on a couple of occasions we would walk to the PX, buy a case of beer and carry it all the way back to the boat. It was strictly against regulations but the chief liked his beer. One night he liked it a little too much. After swilling down several bottles and becoming somewhat inebriated, we got a call to go out in the bay for some reason that I don’t remember. I do remember that it was so foggy we couldn’t see more that about 50 feet. The chief promptly became disoriented, lost that is. The bos’un tried to get him off the wheel but in his crocked condition, he refused. We were a little concerned and I was up on the bow keeping an eye out for foreign objects that might cause a problem, such as other vessels or maybe those big rocks that are called the Dumplings.
We were probably going around in circles most of the time and trying to find something we could identify and determine just where we were. We had no radar, no Loran [Long Range Aids to Navigation] or any of the electronic gadgets that exist today. I finally spotty what I thought was another boat that was lost. I called out to the chief, ”Vessel dead ahead!” Before he could make a reply there came a voice from the position of the lights which couldn’t have been more than 150 feet from us. “Vessel hell! This is an automobile!” We had just about run up on the rip-rap at the northwest corner of Fort Adams. It was lucky the car had parked with its lights on or we would have certainly run aground, or worse This must have scared the chief sober because he had us drop anchor and we stayed there for the rest of the night. I think that was also the last time we took a walk up Ocean Drive.
As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with lightships. At home, we had a set of encyclopedia called Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia that I spent a lot of hours looking through and reading. In one of the books was a picture of a lightship in a snow storm with a crew member up on the walkway around the light, cleaning snow off in a howling gale. While I was on the patrol boat another childhood fantasy came true.
About three miles southwest of Beavertail lighthouse was the Brenton Reef Lightship. (See footnote) It was almost identical to the one pictured in Compton’s. Painted bright red, it lay at anchor in fair weather and foul, constantly rolling from side to side in the Atlantic swells. The crew of the lightship would always leave a heavy line hanging from the stern and we would often hook on to it and lay astern of the ship overnight. It was a nice secure mooring but when the foghorn would be operating it would be a little noisy.
One day I managed to get on board and get a tour of the ship. It was about 175 feet long and carried a crew of about fifteen officers and men. They would float around out there for 30 days completely isolated from everyone except our occasional visits. When the weather got foul they couldn’t make for some safe harbor but just had to ride it out. I had heard stories about the 1938 hurricane , which was only seven years earlier. It must have been terrifying. They had put out extra anchors but the wind and the seas still dragged them perilously close to the reef. My tour of the ship included climbing the light and standing in the precise position that the crewman had stood in the picture that was indelibly printed in my mind. That was real deja vu.
For a part of my tour of duty on the boat I was the cook. This was in itself, quite a different experience. The galley was small and the stove used for cooking was fueled by COAL! Although I would try to plan the meals, for the most part I would take whatever the commissary gave me when we were in port. On one occasion I was issued a leg of mutton. I did my best to cook it in an appetizing way but it was still mutton. It was very greasy and I couldn’t handle the smell. The trouble really began when I was cleaning up the galley. The water in the sink was greasy from cleaning the pots and was sloshing back and forth with the roll of the boat. Things were getting very bad and I finally had to rush up the ladder and divest myself of the dinner I had worked so hard to prepare. That was the only time I ever got seasick, at least the only time I ever tossed my dinner. To this day I can’t handle the smell or taste of mutton or lamb. I have eaten it a couple of times when it was well disguised and I was not aware of what it was.
The other problem I had in connection with cooking and tying up astern of the lightship involved the PT [Patrol Torpedo] boats. The major training for the PT crews was at Melville, up the bay where Bend Boat Basin is presently located. They would go out every morning for maneuvers offshore and return every evening. The return trip was a speedboat race and the lightship was the turning point. On several occasions I would have the evening meal on the coal stove and the table set for the crew and off in the distance I would hear the unmistakable roar of half a dozen PT boats racing back from the daily cruise. Now a PT boat at full throttle hits forty-five or fifty knots and throws a huge wake. Five or six of them make it five or six times worse. I would not have much time to grab what I could and hang on to keep the entire dinner from going onto the deck. Our boat would roll violently for thirty seconds while I desperately tried to keep things from flying all over the galley. In a short time everything would be settled down except me. I would be furious. I just couldn’t understand why they couldn't be a little more considerate. I was convinced they delighted in watching the little motor sailor almost dipping its spreader in the water.
Opportunity for revenge eventually presented itself. Occasionally the PT flotilla would conduct exercises with the Coast Artillery at night. The object of this game was for the PT boats to infiltrate the coastal observers and approach the beach as close as water depths would allow. At that time the coast defense was not equipped with radar, or at least they did not use it during these exercises. During one such operation we were tied up astern of the lightship, which is several miles off the beach. The PT’s were warily sneaking in and were between our position and the land. The large carbon arc searchlights the artillery used to try and spot the PT’s provided a perfect backlight and many of the boats were beautifully silhouetted from our vantage point. I established blinker contact with Beavertail and when I would spot a PT I would send the compass bearing and approximate distance from our position. The signal station would relay the information by telephone to the artillery. It was great fun to see just a minute after my message the arc lights would converge on the area I had indicated and quickly zero in on a PT boat. I may have caught four or five that night. Certainly the PT boats were baffled by this and demoralized because their efforts were being frustrated. I was gleeful at giving something back for the trouble they had caused me during meal preparations. All’s fair in love and war!
A Night in Jail
Along toward the middle of September it was becoming obvious that the weather was changing and not for the better. We had a few rather intense storms and life on the boat was not as idyllic as it had been during the summer. The water in the Bay and the Ocean was cooling down. One night I found out how cool it was becoming.
We had towed a small fishing vessel, which had engine trouble, to the wooden pier on the southeast side of Rose Island. When the towing line was cast off the fishing vessel, it fell into the water and got fouled around our propeller. The bos’un mate, Brownie, and I got the job of diving under the boat to cut the line away. It was dark and quite cool. We took turns diving under the stern with the battery powered light and a knife and would hack away at the line which had established itself securely around the drive shaft. Each dive was short because we had no diving equipment and could work only as long as we could hold our breath. The water was very cold and it must have taken four or five dives each to finally remove the line. I don’t think I had ever been that cold before or since. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and swilled hot coffee until we began to feel normal again. Our efforts were duly appreciated by the Chief and the rest of the crew.
One of the officers who spent time on board with us was a Warrant Officer who took an interest in me. When I had come on board my rate was second class seaman and he encouraged and helped me get promoted to Seaman First Class. He was also impressed with the ability I had to handle all of the blinker light signaling. I had learned the international code several years before and I was the only one on board who could handle that task. He suggested that I apply for signalman school and that had a lot of appeal. There were some requirements that I didn’t have, such as memorizing the international signal flags. This officer got a set of flash cards for me and when we were out on patrol and things were a little slow he would drill me with the cards. When he was convinced that I was ready, he had me come to the Captain of the Port Office who gave me the entrance test. I did fine on the test and he sent an official recommendation that I be considered for signal school. This was early October and in just a couple of weeks the orders came for me to ship out to Bridgeport, Connecticut for six weeks of training. I was excited about this change. I had not been looking forward to spending the winter on the patrol boat. I also requested and got a ten day leave to go home, my first leave since I had gone to St Louis in January.
I traveled to Indianapolis by train. It was either a completely uneventful trip or I slept all the way because I am completely blank on that trip. As far as that is concerned, there isn’t a great deal I remember about that leave. It was great to be home but it was also lonely. All of my male friends were gone. My childhood friend, Verne Vawter happened to be there on leave so I did get to see him. That was the last time I saw him. Dad was able to get some extra gas for the car because I was a serviceman home on leave so I had a couple of dates with Vearllee Buis and Eva Johnson. I quickly became homesick for the life I had now become so accustomed to. It seemed that the civilians were more concerned about the inconveniences of food rationing and other changes in life style that the war was imposing than they were about what was really going on. By the time I got back to Newport, I was ready.
I can’t remember the exact date, but sometime in early November I packed up and took the train to Bridgeport. The signal school was actually in a suburb called Black Rock and was housed in a huge private mansion. There were about fifty students in the school and the instructors were either first class signalmen or chiefs. The schedule was fairly rigid but not as bad as boot camp. Along with classroom work we still had to do a fair share of marching and close order drill, again with wooden rifles. The requirements for graduation were to send and receive 13 words per minute with blinker, twenty words a minute with semaphore and rapid recognition of all international code flags. In addition we were drilled on aircraft recognition. The classroom work for this was to sit in a darkened room and pictures of aircraft would be flashed on a screen for one twenty-fifth of a second. We had to be able to identify the type of aircraft in that split second. There were both our own aircraft and all of the planes the Japanese were using. We also had some navigation and chart reading. My experience on the boat and in the Sea Scouts was valuable for this.
Bridgeport was the home of Sikorsky Aircraft and at that time the main efforts were on the development of the helicopter. As common as these aircraft are now, very few people had the chance to see one in operation in 1943. On a number of occasions then the whole class would be outside practicing semaphore, a helicopter would fly over at very low altitude, maybe a couple of hundred feet. When that would happen we would stop what we were doing to watch in fascination the weird looking plane that had no wings. On one of these occasions the helicopter came down to forty or fifty feet above us and just sat there, hovering. We could plainly see the two pilots. We waved to them and they waved back. I can remember thinking that had to be the greatest way in the world to fly. I can still see the image of that plane just sitting there in mid-air.
Bridgeport was a good liberty town. We got every weekend off from Saturday noon until midnight Sunday. It was about a half-hour bus ride to downtown where there were theatres, bars and a USO [United Services Organizations]. I wasn’t into the bar scene so I went to the USO with four or five other guys the first couple of liberties. Of course you could always meet girls at the USO but the rules forbade them to go out with the servicemen. Actually the rule was that they couldn’t leave the USO with any of the boys. It doesn’t take a very inventive imagination to figure out how to beat that one. Two or three of us got well enough acquainted with some of the girls that we convinced them to meet us later. My girl and I got along quite well and she invited me to come to her house for dinner on my next liberty. I accepted the invitation and it worked out quite nicely. Her parents seemed to like me and as a result I spent almost every weekend at her house while I was in Bridgeport. (In the spare room, of course.) There was a fringe benefit to all of this besides having real food and spending time in a real house with a family. Her father was the manager of one of the theatres in Bridgeport. I never had to buy a ticket.
We had a lot of fun and our relationship never went further than some heavy smooching. On one weekend we had gone out with a couple of my schoolmates to sort of a night club and we missed the last bus back to Stratford. We were able to get a cab after considerable waiting and didn’t get back to her house until about 2 AM. Not good. The next morning I was sure her parents were really mad at me for getting back so late, even though she had told them what happened. They were still behaving very coolly toward me. My girl had an older sister, probably in her mid twenties, and I got her aside and asked what the problem was. She explained it to me. When the parents had gotten up and left for church they found a condom in the front yard and had made some very wrong assumptions. I was aghast and told the sister that they should give me more credit than that. Had it been mine, which it wasn’t, I certainly wouldn’t have left it in the middle of the front yard. She told me she had said the same thing and I shouldn’t be upset. The would realize they had jumped to a conclusion that was wrong. Well, they did and everything went along smoothly from that day on.
I had Thanksgiving and Christmas with the family and in fact Christmas was the last liberty I got before graduating from the school. When I had to go back to the school that week end it was kind of tough. Her parents drove me back so I wouldn't have to take the bus. (It was about an hour and a half bus ride.) I sure did feel very adult that night. Her father gave me a cigar and even though I didn’t enjoy it very much, I smoked it about half way without getting sick. There was a sadness in the parting, especially since we knew there was little likelihood of meeting again. We kept up a correspondence for quite a while but little by little that too dwindled away as time went on. They were a wonderful family and I hope that they remembered me as fondly as I have remembered them.
One of the interesting things that occurred throughout my tenure in the service was how quickly friendships develop. On the occasion of each transfer, I would be in a completely new social group and a new environment. Friendships would develop within just a few days and people with like interest and compatible personalities would group together. At the signal school there were four or five fellows with whom I bummed around, at school and on liberty. Most of their names have long since left my memory. Two I do remember. Bird and Maxwell. Bird was from Seattle and was a few years older and also married. Maxwell was my age and even more naive than I. He had virtually no experience with girls and was the brunt of a lot of kidding because of that. After one weekend liberty he came back flushed with pride and excitement. He had met a girl and had spent Saturday evening alone with her. He had his first experience doing some heavy smooching and had put his hands in places they had never been before. Bird seized this opportunity to do some more kidding. After Maxie's description of the previous night’s activities he made the offhand comment, “I sure hope you didn’t get her pregnant.” Of course there was no way he could have and he protested that he didn’t go that far. Bird’s reply was, “You don’t have to. Haven’t you heard of getting a girl pregnant by stealth?”
Maxie didn't know what that meant and neither did a lot the other guys. Bird kept Maxie worried for several days.
Six months later, when I was in California, I ran into one of my signal school classmates and he told me that Maxie had been killed in the invasion of one of those tiny little islands in the Pacific. I sure hope he didn’t die a virgin.
The completion of signal school was an exciting time. Out of the class of fifty or so, the top few would get their rating of Signalman 3rd Class upon graduation. That had been my goal and I not only got my rating but finished near the top of the class. I couldn't wait to get my “crow” sewed on my dress blues and once again I was on the edge of a new adventure and new places. With school finished I was transferred to the Boston receiving station for re-assignment, most likely to a ship.
I arrived in Boston on New Year’s Eve. We were taken from the train station to a hotel in the downtown area which had been taken over by the Coast Guard. Upon our arrival we were informed that there were no bunks available so we had liberty until the next afternoon. I was not thrilled at all. I was in a strange city with about $3 in my pocket and no place to stay for the night. It was cold and it was snowing. After wandering around for a while and trying to work out a solution to my problem, I approached a police officer and apprised him of my situation. “No problem.” he said. “Just go a couple of blocks down the street and you come to the precinct house. Go see the Desk Sergeant and he will take care of you.”
I followed his directions, told the Desk Sergeant my problem and was provided lodging for the night in the jail. The total cost was fifty cents, which included coffee and a doughnut for breakfast. They didn’t lock the door. I am proud to say that is the only time in my life I spent the night in the Hoose-gow...so far.
After having my jailhouse breakfast I found my way back to the hotel which would be my home for the next week or so. I was assigned a bunk and a duty to perform each day. It was not the most difficult job I ever had. Each morning I would inspect all of the rooms on my floor and if the mattress covers needed to be changed I would put a large check mark on them with a piece of blue chalk. Someone else had the job of taking them off and washing them.
About ten each morning all the sailors would assemble in what had been the ballroom of the hotel. It was there we would learn of our next assignment. A petty officer would read a list of names and then tell the men where they were going. I got very worried because almost everyone was being sent to North Atlantic duty, and some even to Greenland. I had no desire to go to either place in January. Stories of the North Atlantic duty, even in summer, were frightening. Most of it was convoy escort or worse; armed guard on a Merchant Marine vessel. Perhaps this situation requires some explanation. Although the merchant vessels were manned by Merchant Marine, which was not officially a branch of the armed forces, the ships were equipped with weaponry to defend themselves from surface or air attack. Each ship had a second crew whose duty it was to man these weapons. Each ship also had at least one signalman. This second crew consisted entirely of U.S Coast Guard personnel. I kid you not, I was really scared that I would get assigned to this duty and as a rated signalman the odds were not too favorable. It is really an eerie feeling when you realize that some one, someplace, who you don’t know and doesn’t know you, is determining your fate. Every morning at these musters I would have my fingers crossed when the names would be read and the assignments given. Several mornings went by and I didn’t hear my name. Young folks today would no doubt call this a stressful situation. It was about a week before it happened. Another list was being read: “Bedford, Doyle, Jasinski, Rozek. SPRAGUE...” The moment of truth had arrived. Waiting for the other fourteen or so names to be read before hearing the assignment was an eternity. “O.K. All those men whose names I just read report to South Station at 1600 hours tomorrow. You will be transported to Long Beach, California for assignment to the USS Corpus Christi [PF-44].”
What a relief! California in January and I learned the USS Corpus Christi was a new ship that had not even been commissioned yet. I think our group of 18 was the first that had not been sent to the East Coast or the North Atlantic. Smiles all around.
When those other seventeen names were called out that morning I didn't know they would be names I would hear a lot in the next two years. We boarded the train late in the evening and we felt very fortunate because we had one whole Pullman car to ourselves. It was going to be a long trip on the rails, over three thousand miles, and since friendships develop quickly, we would all know each other quite well by the time we rolled into Los Angeles.
I had just one problem as we left Boston. My total cash assets were about eighty-five cents. We did have meal tickets so I wouldn’t be in danger of going hungry, but I sure couldn’t be very extravagant. Our first stop was Albany, New York and when we left that capitol city, I was broke. Bad financial management.
Travel by train is really quite enjoyable and relaxing. The food was good and the entertainment interesting. Crap games were a continuous activity. For me it was a spectator sport for two reasons. First, I didn't have a bankroll and second, I didn't know how to play the game. I watched a good sized amount of money shifting from one pocket to another and sometimes back again. In Chicago we were to change trains for the long run to the West Coast.
This was traveling in luxury. Our private Pullman car and our private porter, who also enjoyed the crap games...as a participant. At Chicago our coach was to be shifted to the other train and we would not even have to get off. All of the guys liked the porter so well that a collection was taken up and he somehow arranged to stay with us all the way to California.
If you ask anyone who traveled from Chicago to the West Coast what town they remember, it’s a good bet they will say, “North Platte, Nebraska.” Our train rolled slowly to a stop around mid-day at North Platte. Between the railway station and the main street was an open field or park. The station was small and most of the main street was visible, consisting of a variety of store fronts and businesses. We had no sooner squeaked to a stop when a hundred or more people, mostly ladies, came charging across the field. We had no idea what was going on. It looked like a full infantry charge. As they drew closer it was apparent they were not carrying weapons but their arms were loaded with every kind of food you could imagine. Sandwiches, pies, cakes, candy, you name it. Two or three of the women were running alongside the coaches with cakes decorated with candles and shouting, “Anybody’s birthday today?” Those trains were not air conditioned and the windows could be opened. I couldn’t come close to guessing how much food was handed through those windows in a period of about fifteen minutes. We chugged away (yes, chugged. Steam engines you know.) and the ladies retreated back across the field to wait for the next troop train. From what I have heard from other servicemen who passed through that town, they didn't miss one, day or night, throughout the war.
In trying to recall a long trip by train, it all just sort of becomes a bunch of clickety-clacks separated by a few cities or towns that involved something worth remembering. Nothing much out of the ordinary happened between North Platte and Yuma, Arizona. What happened in Yuma wasn’t spectacular but for me it was memorable. You have to realize we were all coming from the wintry climate of New England and upon arriving at Yuma we were in the tropics. The further South the train snaked its way, the higher the temperature became. When we reached Yuma, it was HOT. There was a stop there of about twenty minutes, long enough to get off the train for a respite. I got off with the rest but I wasn’t enjoying it much. Close by there was a little emporium that specialized in ice cream cones. Very appetizing in the 90 degree temperature. Depressing. I was broke. I must have looked pretty forlorn standing there in the desert sun with no ice cream cone in my hand. As forlorn as I tried to appear, there was no offer to alleviate my suffering from those fine fellows who were to be my shipmates. I was too proud (or embarrassed) to say anything. The engineer tooted the whistle and away I went, still broke and overheated.
The next memorable stop was Indio, California. Indio is in the desert and is at the East end of the Chocella Valley Pass through the mountains. Real mountains were something I had only seen in pictures (Grandmother’s stereopticon) or in the movies. It was a magnificent sight and the pictures never did it justice. Desert palm tress surrounded the little Indio oasis and the craggy mountains rose up to incredible heights to the West. The true size of the mountains didn’t totally hit me until I spotted what I thought was a bird flying between my viewpoint and the mountains. I was truly startled when I realized the bird was a DC-3 airplane, many miles away
We were in California and the trip was almost over. The last part sounded like the lyrics from the song “Route 66.” Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino. Finally, after seeing some beautiful views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we rolled gently into the station at Los Angeles. We had been a week on the train, but how that week had changed things. From the snow and cold of Boston to the warmth and palm trees of Southern California. There was no doubt in my mind that whatever lay ahead for me, it had to be better than the North Atlantic.
Commissioning the USS Corpus
Liberty in Hollywood
There is an old story about the obvious prostitute who walked down the street carrying a mattress on her back. When enlistees in the United States Coast Guard moved from place to place, they must have looked something like that. You had to be able to carry everything you owned on your back. First, all of your personal effects such as outerwear, underwear and socks were stuffed as economically as possible in a sea bag. Then, around the sea bag was wrapped your very own personal mattress, commonly referred to as your “sack.” It was not an easy bundle to carry but the combination of you and your bundle represented your totality.
After our arrival in the railway station at Los Angeles, we all shouldered our totality and hoped we were through with trains for a while. Wrong! Off we went to board another train. This one was a little different. It was the Pacific Electric which was similar to the old Hoosier Interurban and connected the outlying cities of Los Angeles County. So once again we hefted our sea bags and mattresses on our backs and boarded another train, this time bound for Wilmington.
Wilmington is one of several moderately-sized communities along the coast south of Los Angeles. This really is the port facility for the area. Long Beach is on one side of Wilmington and San Pedro on the other. The towns blend into each other and only the city limits signs tell you where you are.
The base at Wilmington where we were billeted was not very large and was mostly men, like ourselves, waiting to be assigned new ships. Located right on the harbor, it was directly across from a huge shipyard that was building Liberty ships. There were a dozen or more graving docks with ships in various stages of completion. At night it was ablaze with thousands of welding torches and the machine gun sounds of riveters drifted across the water. Work went on twenty-four hours a day and every two or three days a new Liberty ship would slide down the ways. In another shipyard, not far away, the USS Corpus Christi was also nearing completion. She had been launched some time before and was getting the final outfitting done. At the base, the signalmen and the quartermasters were busy getting what is now called “software” organized. Making inventories of flags, charts and instruments that would be required when we moved aboard and went to sea.
There were six of us in the signal gang. Don McKay was our boss. He was a first class petty officer. Don Reside was a second class and the remaining four were all third class. McKay was the only one who had any sea time of consequence.
Before the ship was commissioned the signalmen and quartermasters would often go to the shipyard and work on board during the day. I was impressed with the authority McKay wielded. He was not satisfied with the arrangements on the bridge and requested several major changes which were made. He had the flag bags (these are the large canvas bins where the signal flags are stored) moved from a lower deck to the rear of the bridge and the blinker lights moved to the conning bridge. Both of these changes were very logical but only someone with sea experience would have seen the problems. Signalmen work very closely with the watch officers and the captain and the ability to rapidly relay communications is important. With the original set-up we would not have been within shouting distance of the bridge and would have required some kind of intercom system. With the new arrangement it was about an arms’ length from the blinker lights to the Officer of the Deck or the Captain.
This was an exciting time for me. I was finally getting a ship and it was a real fighting ship. It was also completely new and we would be its first crew. I did a lot of exploring during the days we were doing the final outfitting; checking out the living quarters, mess facilities, engine room, radar, (which was top secret) and just about every other nook and cranny that was accessible to me. I liked her. She was a good ship. This was also a new class of ship. Called a “Patrol Frigate.” It was designed for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine operations. Three hundred and ten feet overall and displacing about 2,500 tons, the ship’s company consisted of 206 officers and men. Armament was three 3-inch guns, 11 20mm anti-aircraft machine guns, two twin 40mm anti-aircraft, one anti-submarine hedgehog , depth charges and “K” guns. We were equipped with the latest sonar for submarine detection and both air search and surface radar. The crew quarters were quite crowded. Bunks were four high with just enough space in between for lying flat. If you got a little careless in turning over the odds were that the guy above you would get a knee in the back, or worse. The bunks were just canvas laced onto a metal frame and suspended from the overhead by chains. When not in use they could be pulled up into a nearly vertical position to provide more room for daytime activities. This was not too practical at sea because there was a good chance there would be at least one crewman who had a late night watch and would be sacked in.
The Chief Petty Officers’ quarters were in the forward section of the ship. They had more room and bigger bunks. Officer’s quarters were on the main deck above the mess deck. Except for the Captain and the Executive Officer, two officers shared a small cabin . Aft of these quarters was the Ward Room where the officers had their meals and it also served as sort of a lounge and meeting space. There were also small compartments designated for maintenance. A small machine shop, gunnery shop, Ship’s office, sick bay, post office and laundry. The lower deck, starting from the bow and working back, contained the Bo’sun’s locker, chain locker, freezer and refrigerator for food, one area of crew quarters, boiler room, engine room, steering engine room, fuel and water tanks and ammunition storage. There was everything needed to sustain us for up to two months at sea.
The commissioning ceremony was very impressive. This is the time when the vessel is officially turned over to the Captain and the crew and becomes a part of the fleet. It was a bright sunny day and all of the crew was lined up on the decks in dress uniforms. The Stars and Stripes were hoisted at the sternstaff along with the commission pennant. A band played on the pier. The Captain was given the commission and the Corpus Christi was ours. That was what we thought, but we were wrong. For at least another four weeks the ship was covered with workers welding, riveting and generally occupying the ship. It was not unusual to be awakened from a sound sleep with an electric welding arc near by making you think there was a lightning storm in the crew’s quarters. The ship’s company of a newly commissioned ship are traditionally called “Plank Owners.” but the Corpus Christi had no planks or wood, just steel. Maybe we are “rivet” owners.
The shipyard workers had problems among themselves also. The unions were very strong and the specific tasks that each worker was allowed to perform were all spelled out in their contracts. On one occasion there was some doubt about getting a particular job done at all. This involved the work on some pipes inside the boilers. There was a stand-off because it involved two different job classifications and job descriptions. It turned into a Catch 22 situation. The boilermakers were the only ones allowed to go inside the boilers to work and the steam fitters were the only ones allowed to join the pipes, but they couldn’t go inside the boiler. This kind of civilian bickering was very irritating to all of us and some of the crew were not bashful about letting the workers know how foolish they felt it all was. One morning a fire controlman and a gunners mate were working on one of the 40mm guns within earshot of several yard workers. (A fire controlman doesn’t put out fires, he maintains the electronic systems for controlling the weapons.) They were doing some wiring and began to argue loud enough for the civilians to hear. “Don’t touch that red wire!” the firecontrolman shouted. “All red wires are my responsibility.” To this the gunner’s mate replied, “Oh yeah. It has to be connected to that yellow terminal and all yellow terminals are mine!” This argument continued until they were sure the civilians received the message. Of course, to add to the irritation we all knew these workers were drawing down very good wages while we were getting about $85 a month. When the civilian workers finally left the ship we were all relieved to have our ship to ourselves and get down to a regular routine.
The USS Corpus Christi was now tied up a Terminal Island in Long Beach. This was an enormous Navy base, probably the largest on the West Coast. In addition to many piers, there were several large dry-docks which were capable of taking ships as large as battleships. On the piers were huge cranes that traveled the length of the pier on oversized railroad tracks. The shore facilities could provide repairs of every possible type. While we were there, a Fletcher-class destroyer tied up next to us. It had been hit by a torpedo and about twenty feet of the stern had been blown off and was undergoing repair. Seeing that twisted and ragged metal really brought home the fact that there was a war going on, and not too far away.
From our berth at Terminal Island we made our first excursions into the open ocean. These were the sea trials for the ship. We would go through a series of maneuvers and speed runs, radar and sonar were tested and other instruments calibrated. These tests revealed some major problems. One serious problem was that when running at flank speed, about 22 knots, the main bearings on the drive shafts were damaged and had to be replaced. This problem was never completely resolved and plagued the ship throughout our tour of duty. Whenever we ran faster than 18 or 19 knots the bearings would suffer.
Liberty in Southern California was great. Although most of us spent our time ashore in Long Beach, we would occasionally make the trip to Hollywood. It was a long ride on the Pacific Electric, but it was worth it. Servicemen got special privileges and we could always get free tickets to radio shows and there was the famous Stage Door Canteen where movie and radio stars would come to entertain. I only went there once and it was mobbed. Like Yogi Bera said, “Nobody goes there any more , it’s too crowded.” The radio shows were fun. They were put on in large theatres rather than a studio. It was a thrill to see the stars that I had listened to so much at home. Usually I went to Hollywood with Bob Eason. He and I had become good friends and had a lot of good times together. Bob was very Irish and was from Woburn, Massachusetts. We both liked to sing and got credible in two-part harmony. Our repertoire consisted of a number of Irish ditties. A few times we went to a place called “The House of O’Shaughnessy” in Hollywood. The sign in front of the place was a green neon map of Ireland. We would start singing our Irish songs and the gang in the bar would buy all the drinks we wanted. It was a little taste of show business and we loved it.
On one occasion Bob and I latched onto a couple of girls and we were walking down the street in Hollywood, singing as usual. We did a parody on “MacNamara’s Band” that changed the name to “Maxie Goldberg’s Band” and was rendered with a Yiddish accent. It completely cracked the girls up and we both began to wonder why. It wasn’t that funny. The reason finally came out. Both girls were Jewish!
Liberties in Hollywood were not real frequent because of the long trip, so to make the most of shore time we spent it in Long Beach. Long Beach was a Navy town with plenty of activities. There was a huge amusement park along the waterfront called the PIKE, which was a popular spot. The town catered to the sailors including a number of establishments that supplied tailor-made uniforms. After a year or so in the service you simple had to have tailor-mades or you looked like you were still a boot. Naturally I made the move. Unlike the regular issued uniforms, these were tailored to fit very snugly and were made of gabardine instead of heavy wool. The bell-bottoms were exaggerated and the fit around the hips and chest was tight. The material was wrinkle resistant and never needed pressing. The proper creases were maintained by folding the uniform in a special way and placing it under your mattress where it was pressed automatically every night. My total investment in that uniform was about $40, or half a month’s pay. It lasted very well through the rest of my time in the CG.
The origins of the sailor’s uniform are very interesting. The large collar that extends down the back was developed by early seamen to protect their shirts from the tar they used on their hair. Most seamen kept their hair long and in a pigtail which would hang down in back and kept from being unruly with grease or tar. In those days the sailor removed the collar when he went ashore, but he was still known as “Jack Tar.” The bell bottoms were a practical design also. The proper bell bottom is the same width at the bottom as the thickest part of the upper thigh. Sailors spent a lot of time swabbing decks in bare feet and the bell bottoms were made so they could easily be pulled up from the cuff and fit snugly around the thigh, leaving the leg bare from the knee down without having to roll the pants up. Some years after the war When the Navy introduced the shirt and suit type coat for enlisted men I thought it was very impractical for shipboard life and I always felt the traditional “Cracker Jack” uniform was the real mark of a sailor. Recently the traditional uniform has been reinstated and in my estimation that is what a sailor is supposed to look like.
After completing the sea trials, nearly all of the problems that had become evident were corrected and the Corpus Christi was sent to a special dock for degaussing. That term sounds a little obscene if you don’t know what it means. One of the hazards that a ship made of steel can encounter during hostilities is the magnetic mine. This type of mine does not have to be directly contacted by the vessel to be detonated. They will explode when the magnetic field around them is disturbed. When a steel ship is constructed it becomes a huge magnet. The process for demagnetizing the steel is called degaussing. To accomplish this, large electric cables are placed around the entire hull, running from one side to the other and spaced a few yards apart for the entire length. Very strong alternating current is passed through these cables for several hours and the result is that the hull is demagnetized. This is the same operation that is used for erasing a recording on magnetic tape, only on a much larger scale.
After this operation was completed we spent a few days taking on fuel, ammunition and other essential supplies and departed for San Diego for our shake down cruise. Shake down lasts for about thirty days and is very intense. It is a training period for the crew in all phases of combat operations and systems. There were operations for convoy duty, anti-submarine warfare, anti-aircraft, target practice with the three-inch guns, damage and fire fighting drills, and just about everything else that we might encounter in our future assignments. Situations were designed to came as close as possible to actual combat conditions. We worked with submarines, surface craft and aircraft. Some of these exercises were very impressive.
During one of these exercises we were operating with three or four other ships and the action was to be an air attack. The crew was at general quarters and the air search radar was scanning for the expected incoming planes. My general quarters station was on the rangefinder, which was the highest point above the conning bridge, right out in the open. Radar reported contact with aircraft and everyone was visually searching for them. None could be seen. Suddenly, from all directions they came in on us. There was little time to react and it was awesome to see ten or fifteen torpedo bombers coming right at us at about thirty feet above the water. They made their torpedo runs, roaring up a few feet above my position on the range finder. Had they had red Japanese meatballs on their wings instead of stars we would have been history. Seeing that kind of power and surprise certainly got our attention and made us aware of the reality of what could happen.
The submarines would make runs submerged but would tow a yellow float on a cable to indicate where they were to avoid being run down. It looked very strange to see that float moving steadily along the surface of the waves, apparently by itself.
At one time we were working with a submarine and a blimp. The blimps were used to spot submerged subs and to coordinate the depth charge attacks. On this exercise we almost shot down the blimp. We were making the attack on the sub and the sequence of events for these attacks consisted of approaching the submarine but before passing over it, firing what was called the “hedgehog.” This weapon, mounted on the bow of the ship, fired twenty-four projectiles out ahead. The projectiles would go about three hundred feet into the air and fall into the sea in a large circle. They would not explode unless contact was made with the sub. Of course the ones we were using were dummies and had no explosive charge. We were approaching the spot where the sub was located and the blimp was also following the sub. He was flying quite low and passed in front of us just as the hedgehog was fired. Although it was difficult to estimate how close the projectiles actually came, from the bridge of the ship it looked as though they passed within a few feet of the blimp at the top of the trajectory.
Another close call occurred during convoy operations. We were working with several Navy supply ships at night and without any lights. In order to confuse enemy submarines the convoy took a series of zig-zag courses rather than staying on a single heading. These maneuvers are predetermined and each ship had the plan and the precise times and courses for the pattern. Something got screwed up and either our ship or one of the others zigged when it should have zagged. The result was that we turned in opposite directions and came very close to collision. The other ships were also on shake down and were inexperienced so the error could have been either captain’s fault. After getting to know our captain better I was fairly well convinced the it was he who made the error.
During the month of shake down, with no liberty, permanent friendships and alliances were developing. The enlisted men were sorting out which officers were the good guys and which were not. The boundaries of authority were established within the hierarchy of the Petty Officers. In that close living and interdependent environment groups of like interest and personality gravitated together. Often the territories were delineated according to the various ratings. Signalmen tended to hang out with signalmen, gunner’s mates with gunner’s mates and so on. There seemed to be a generous amount of tolerance among the enlisted men and I can’t recall any really serious disagreements, at least none that erupted into any kind of physical encounters. Conflicting personalities simply avoided each other. I guess all of us accepted the actuality that we were literally “all in the same boat” and grudges and dislikes would serve no useful purpose. The only gross discrimination that existed was that all but two of the black crewmen were steward’s mates. Their duties were very simply to be the servants of the officers. They prepared and served their meals, cleaned their quarters, took care of the laundry and generally catered to the officers needs. There were a few advantages for them in that I am certain they ate better and were never assigned to deck watches (remember the strawberry incident in “Caine Mutiny?”) The bothersome aspect was that this was the official line of assignment throughout the Navy and the Coast Guard. It was a blatant indication that the official opinion was that blacks did not possess the where-with-all to handle the duties and responsibilities that the white crew members possessed. In spite of this official segregation I saw very little discrimination or prejudice on the part of their shipmates. I am certain they faced more prejudice ashore than on shipboard.
The average age of both officers and enlisted men was quite young. There were about a dozen enlisted men who were over thirty and one radar technician, Dick Waite, was considered a very old man because he was 40. The officers were a little older but not much. Captain [Lieutenant Commander William W.] Childress was the oldest at about 45. Lt. James, who was the communications officer, couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 and looked about eighteen. The rest were some where between 25 and 35. The most congenial and easy going of the officers was Lt. Stewart. He was about thirty and very laid back. He was not the least bit impressed with his status as an officer and was an enigma to Captain Childress. I always enjoyed standing watches with him and we had many long and interesting conversations during night watches at sea. Even though we were involved in a war and none of us really wanted to be there, Stewart accepted the situation with humor and an attitude that it was much better to enjoy what you could and make the best of it all. I think I felt much the same way and was so involved in the sheer adventure of it that I had no time to become despondent or to worry about what might be in store for us.
Being a signalman gave me a unique opportunity to get to know the ship’s officers. Along with the quartermasters we spent eight hours every day at sea in close contact with them and the Captain. Between midnight and daybreak there would seldom be anyone else within conversational distance of each other. Very rarely did the Captain appear during those hours unless there was something unusual that required his attention, such as a radar or sonar contact.
Captain Childress was an interesting character and early on began to exhibit some rather unusual personality quirks. He was a career Coast Guard officer and probably had fifteen or more years in the service when he took command of the ship. His rank was Lt. Commander and regulars with that rank were not in abundance. This was his first command and in fact his first sea duty of any consequence. The rumor was that the only sea time he had was a cruise during peace time when he was a cadet at the Academy. The remainder of his career to the present had been administrative types of assignments. I had the feeling toward the end of the shake down that he and I were not destined to become great admirers of one another.
The Ship’s Doctor was another strange one. He wore coke bottle glasses (they were as thick as the end of a glass coke bottle) and it soon became apparent that he was color blind. We suspected this because he would come on deck every once in a while wearing a gray shirt and khaki trousers, all the while thinking he was in proper uniform. I later had the personal misfortune of discovering first hand that his medical skills were also lacking.
Chief Petty Officers [CPOs] were the ones who kept the ship going. They are like regular Army top sergeants who have the experience and know-how. Most of the CPO’s were older and had more service time than the officers. They were tough, hard workers and for the most part, hard drinkers. One chief even had a little still in the chief’s quarters where he could cook up his own private stock during long days at sea.
Nicknames began to be attached to people and they could be right to the point. One of the quartermasters, named Doyle, and a storekeeper named Perko, became fast friends for a strange reason. They were both always seasick. They found friendship in their shared misery and I always felt their commiserations compounded the seasickness problem. They would often be seen sitting on deck, near the rail eating saltine crackers and Doyle carried a bucket with him all the time. Of course Perko became “Crackers” and Doyle became “Buckets.” Some of the names were chosen because they had nice alliteration to them. One of the cooks was “Noodles Nelson.” An electrician whose last name was Missett became “Misfit.” Physical appearance was fair game. The seaman with the biggest nose on the ship was affectionately referred to as “Schnozz.” The guy who was far and away the least concerned about his personal appearance and personal hygiene received the descriptive appellation “Scroungy.” These were not just behind the back jibes, these were the names that people answered to all the time.
After four weeks of shake down we felt we were a fairly smooth team and were truly shaken down. We returned to Terminal Island in Long Beach for the final preparations needed before we sailed for destinations unknown.
In the final days before we sailed there were two events that occurred and each, in its way, was tragic. There was one seaman in the crew who had already been identified by the rest of the crew as a bit strange. He stayed very much to himself and seemed to have no attachments or friends. The closer our sailing came the stranger he seemed to become. The reason for his odd behavior finally became apparent. One afternoon he deliberately dropped a heavy barbell on his foot, breaking several bones. He was so petrified of going overseas that he painfully inflicted this injury upon himself. Of course he did not go with us so, in part, his action accomplished the desired end. He was, however, court martialed and as far as I know spent the rest of the war in a Federal prison. The whole affair was kept pretty quiet so the details are vague.
The other event was truly tragic. Don Reside, one of the signalmen, was on liberty in Los Angeles where he had been living with his wife of about six months. The two of them were standing in a safety island* waiting for a street car when a car careened through the island and struck his wife, killing her instantly. Don was not hit or injured. It was a very tough time for all of us on the signal gang. She was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery and the signalmen were the pall bearers. It was such a difficult time for me personally that I must have blocked it all out in my mind because I remember practically nothing about the funeral. Don was of course devastated and I really think that our sailing within just a few days of the tragedy may have saved him from really cracking.
*A safety island was an area in the street along side the street car tracks where the passengers waited. They were raised about 6 inches above the street and usually had railings around them to protect the waiting passengers.
The Final Leave
Across the Pacific
North Around Australia
Halfway Around the World
The last few days before we were to sail were full of mixed emotions. There was an exciting anticipation of finally going to sea and the apprehension of not knowing where we would be going or what might be in store for us. The image of the Fletcher destroyer that had been next to us with its stern blown off was an uncomfortable reminder that it as not just a South Pacific cruise. We had all seen other reminders of the realities of entering an area where people were seriously trying to do one another in. There would be no more wooden rifles or dummy hedgehogs and, if fate had it so, the planes we saw coming in at us wouldn’t be as polite as the torpedo bombers we had seen in San Diego. After four months of training and outfitting we were ready to go. Personally, I felt there was no real point in fretting or even speculating about what the future held since it was totally out of my control. All the decisions about my future would be made for me and without bothering to ask my opinion. Que sera sera.
Ten day leaves were granted to most of us for a visit home before sailing. Transportation was a real problem. Commercial air travel was nothing like it is today and, even if you had the money, it was hard to get on a plane. Some of us had heard that service men could hitch free rides with the Air Corps transports so we went to the nearest air base to check it out. The answer was yes, if you could provide your own parachute and were willing to wait around for an open seat. I decided I would give it a shot and found I could rent a parachute from a commercial company. I got my parachute and waited at the air base. While I waited my ten day leave was ticking away. After about eighteen hours I as getting nervous and was told that it didn't look very promising. Anxious to be on the way, I opted to take the train. Because my next door neighbor in Indianapolis was a colonel in the Air National Guard, I hung onto the parachute in the hope that he could get me a flight back. When the Union Pacific train rolled out of Los Angeles I am certain I was the only one on board with his own parachute.
The train was pulled by a steam locomotive and predated the comfortable air-conditioned coaches that we have become used to. The seats were not much better than those on a school bus. Ventilation was obtained by simply opening the windows . The combination of a coal fueled locomotive and open windows provided an environment that, by today’s standards, could cause every disease known to man. There were no smoking or non-smoking sections. Everyone smoked either tobacco or coal, or both. I took comfort in the fact that if things got really intolerable I at least had my parachute.
As with most other train trips, only the most memorable events stick with you. The memorable event on this trip occurred in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The train made a stop there that was long enough to get off and take a little break. I went into the station to stretch and have a look around. The station was mobbed with humanity and it was obvious there would not be time to make a purchase before the train pulled out, so I returned to my seat. When I sat down I noticed that something was wrong. Something just didn't feel right. My heart skipped a beat when I checked and found my wallet was missing from the back pocket in my uniform. I remembered being jostled about by some guy in the crowded station who no doubt had lifted my wallet. There wasn’t much money in it but it was a long way home from Cheyenne.
A young couple were occupying the seat behind me. I had talked to them earlier and knew they were recently married and he was going into the Army soon. They quickly became aware of my situation and insisted that I take ten dollars from them. I didn’t want to accept it but the situation was a mite desperate. I asked for an address so I could repay them but they said they weren't sure where they would be living and I should just keep the ten dollars and maybe I could help someone later. I was very touched and still get a little choked up when I think about it. I just hope that he got back from the war O.K. and they had a good life.
After two and a half days I arrived at Union Station in Indianapolis, dirty, bedraggled and tired. I had some dates with Lee and made a verbal commitment to write often and probably tie the knot after the war was over. We were both too young to commit but it was important to me and thousands of other 19 year olds to have the fantasy of a normal home life to occupy the mind while facing an unpredictable future.
My expectations of bumming a flight back through the influence of my colonel friend fell through. I had managed to get a reservation on a commercial flight but I was reluctant to get on board carrying my parachute. That could be a little unnerving to my fellow passengers as well as the crew so Dad offered to ship the chute back to California for me.
We took off from Wier Cook Airport in a DC -3 which was then considered the ultimate in commercial aircraft. It was to be a much shorter trip than by train but a DC-3 cruises at about 150 miles-per-hour, somewhat slower than a 747; about 450 miles-per-hour slower. In addition to being a slow plane, we stopped at every rinky-dink airport. One of the many stops was Amarillo, Texas. During the war you flew according to your importance in the war effort. In Amarillo there was an Army colonel who needed a seat and he was clearly more important to the ultimate victory than I. I was bumped off the plane and had to wait for the next flight. It would not be arriving for two or three hours so I killed time walking around the terminal. That took about twenty minutes at a leisurely pace. After that I went into the bar and had a few beers. (I was only 19 but no one ever questioned a guy in uniform.) Not long after take-off, the plane encountered some turbulence. The combination of the beer and the turbulence was not compatible. I began to feel very queasy and in fact nearly matched the green interior of the DC-3. I must have looked pretty miserable because the stewardess asked me if I was all right. It was inconceivable that a sailor could get airsick and I assured her that all was fine. She didn't believe me. Calling up all of my mind-over-matter strengths, I was able to forestall total embarrassment and eventually dozed off. A change in the engines and the plane’s speed brought me to and when I looked out the window I was staring at a huge sign that proclaimed, “Welcome to Boulder.” We were on our approach to land and the sign was made out of white rocks on the side of a mountain that seemed close enough to touch, something I didn't want to do. My stomach problems were gone by this time so I enjoyed the remainder of the flight. If you have never flown across the Rockies in a DC-3, you have never flown. This plane has an operating ceiling of 12,000 feet and a lot of Rocky Mountains reach higher than that. You don’t fly over the Rockies, you fly THROUGH them. The view is spectacular when you are buzzing along looking straight out at a snow covered mountain side, and on some occasions, looking up at them. There is simply no comparison between this and going over the mountains at 40,000 feet in a jet where you are completely out of touch with the reality of flying. It took a total of 18 hours to get to Los Angeles and another three hours to get to the Corpus Christi. Much better than the train but still a rather wearing trip.
Just about everyone returned on time after a short trip home. The few that were late apparently had valid reasons because there as no disciplinary action taken and everyone was accounted for by May 31, our scheduled sailing date. There was some sadness, some undisplayed apprehension and a lot of excitement when we moved out of the harbor at Terminal Island. There was also a feeling of relief at getting away from all the disturbances we had endured while the outfitting was taking place. There were no more strangers in our little floating world. No welders, no electricians, pipefitters, painters...just the crew of the Corpus Christi. I had the same feeling by empathy many years later when following the single-handed Around the World sailors out of Newport for the start of their adventure. The relief and contentment they were experiencing by taking leave of the crowds and news reporters far overpowered any apprehension about the trepidation that might be in store for them. Shortly before sundown there was a group of about twenty of us sat on the number three gun mount and watched Catalina Island disappear over the horizon to the East. Things seemed to get very quiet that night when darkness settled over the ship.
Crossing an ocean on a ship comes very close to feeling like suspended animation. Once land fades beyond the horizon everything looks the same. The only indication of movement is seeing the sea passing by the ship’s hull. Change in weather is about the only indicator that time is passing. Except for sea and sky the environment remains constant and the day-to-day routine is unchanged. We were not alone. Two other ships of our class were making the crossing with us; the USS Bisbee [PF-46] and the USS Gallup [PF-47]. They became a part of the suspended world because they were always there, moving along right with us, or rather seeming to stay in the same place with us. The Gallup was the flag ship for our little fleet and we would engage in various maneuvers and drills almost every day. These activities helped break the monotony and also gave the officers and crew some practice at their various skills. The signalmen, quartermasters, helmsmen and deck officers were the most involved. The Captain was also on the bridge during these exercises, often to our embarrassment. The sequence of events would be something like this: the Gallup would hoist a set of signal flags that designated a specific maneuver. The signalmen would read the signal and hoist the same set of flags, but only three-fourths of the way to the yard arm. The meaning of the signal had to be looked up in a large book called the General Signal Book. When it had been deciphered the captain would be informed. When the signal was understood and the conn was ready to execute the maneuver, the flags would be hauled all the way up, or “two blocked.” The execution of the maneuver is commanded by the flagship rapidly hauling down the hoist with the other ships following suit quickly and initiating the maneuver. Now this sort of thing becomes very competitive between the signal gangs on the ships. It is an indication of your expertise to be the first ship to “two block.” We were very good at reading the signal, hauling it up and finding it in the book. The problem was that the Captain would never trust us to do it right and would always insist on actually seeing the book and then decoding it himself. Of course this took what we considerate and inordinate amount of time and as a result the Corpus Christi would always be the last to two block a signal. The words “bring me the book” became a phrase that we used among our mates to indicate that we didn't believe some story they had told us.
Except for these daily exercises there was little to interrupt the ongoing routine. We encountered very little bad weather through the whole crossing and I liked to watch the albatross which often flew circles around the ship. They are very large birds with a wingspan of seven feet or more. The fascinating thing about them is they never flap their wings. The perfect soaring machine. The other incredible thing is that you see them thousands of miles from land. You seldom, if ever, see seagulls at any great distance offshore. To the ancient sailors the sighting of a bird always brought the anticipation of a landfall, that is any bird except the albatross. We would also occasionally be accompanied by a whale that would broach nearby and send his fountain into the air before diving. Once in a while a whale would cruise along on the surface nearby as though he was watching us and checking out these three large objects in his territory.
One morning the monotony was broken in a very spectacular way. I came up on deck to go on watch a little before eight and we were cruising along with a huge British task force. This was a tremendously impressive sight, especially after many days alone in the Pacific Ocean. There were two battleships, one aircraft carrier, two or three heavy cruisers and a bunch of destroyers. Everywhere we looked there were warships. I have no idea how many ships there were but I would guess at least twenty. The battleships, cruisers and the carrier steaming along in the middle of the formation and the destroyers zig-zagging around the perimeter at high speed, throwing up white foam wakes for a hundred yards astern. It was very impressive and they were visible to us for a good portion of the day.
Crossing the Equator is an experience that must be accepted on faith alone. You can’t see it, you can’t feel a bump or see a sign that tells you “Welcome to the Southern Hemisphere.” It is purely an imaginary experience that you accept because the navigator tells you it is happening. But if the entrance to the other hemisphere is mostly imaginary, the cruelty engaged in by those who have done it before upon those who haven’t, is very real. If a majority of the crew are Pollywogs, you are lucky. The Shellbacks don’t have the time or the energy to inflict the torment that they otherwise would enjoy.
The Shellbacks on the Corpus Christi were in the minority but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in sadistic and gleeful torture. A large canvas water tank was constructed on the main deck and contained about five feet of water. On the scaffold that held up the tank was mounted a small chair, designed to be tipped backwards, dumping the Pollywog into the tank. King Neptune presided over the ceremonies and he and his Shellback thugs were dressed appropriately for the occasion. One at a time the Pollywogs would be placed in the chair and charges would be read by King Neptune. Pollywogs are all guilty because they are Pollywogs. The henchmen would then deliver the punishment. Foul engine grease would be smeared over the hair, face and upper body. Using a large squirt gun a sickening tasting fluid was forcibly injected into the mouth. When this was accomplished the chair would be tipped, dumping the Pollywog into the tank, where there awaited two or three more of these criminals armed with canvas clubs. The Pollywog then received a bashing by these half-human creatures until he was able to escape from them and scramble out of the tank. At the moment his feet struck the deck a magnificent metamorphosis took place. He suddenly was transformed into a Shellback and a horrible sadistic grin would creep over his face in eager anticipation of the day coming when, he too, could join in the satanistic ritual at another Equator crossing.
Shortly after our departure from Long Beach we had been informed of our destination. Our first port of call in the South Pacific would be Noumea, New Caledonia. I doubt if there were more than a few on board who had any idea where or what that was. Checking the charts, I found it is a medium sized island located west of the Fiji Islands and north of New Zealand and is a French colony. I had been a little disappointed that our cruise had not brought us close to any of the exotic islands I had heard about. I hoped to see places like Tahiti and Somoa but the only land we saw in three weeks at sea was a tiny island called Ata. It was just a mountain top on the horizon and I have never been able to find it on a map. Maybe it was a hallucination.
We made landfall on June 22. The entrance to the harbor was beautiful and a little complicated. The ship channel went about three-quarters of the way around a small island situated close to the mainland of New Caledonia. The little island was covered with palm tress and rising out of the middle was a pure white lighthouse with the French flag flying at its top. Bob Eason and I were involved in the piloting of the ship through this channel. There were no navigation markers or buoys so the proper course was held by maintaining a certain distance from the lighthouse. It was too close for the radar to be accurate so Bob and I manned the rangefinder and relayed ranges to the bridge. The Corpus Christi, Gallup and Bisbee glided through this narrow passage and emerged into an expansive harbor where a number of merchant ships were lying at anchor. The harbor was surrounded on three sides by large hills and in the distance some very respectable beaches could be seen. The major industry was nickel mining.
Liberty did not present a very exciting picture. The inhabitants consisted of French, English, Melanesian, Tonkinese and assorted lepers. There as also a very potent alcoholic beverage available called “Butterfly Rum.” It was reputed to have the desired effect in half the desired time . It could be paralyzing and in some cases caused temporary blindness. There were a number of members of the crews of the three ships who preferred going on a special recreational liberty rather than chance the dangers of the native liquor and diseases. We went ashore in liberty boats and were transported by truck to a beautiful beach that was maintained by the Navy. There was plenty of American beer, baseball, volley ball and swimming in the surf.
While waiting for the liberty boat to take us back to the ships, I met and briefly talked with Buddy Ebsen. He was the Executive Officer on the Bisbee but before going into the Coast Guard he had been a movie actor and dancer. After the war he went back to the movies and television and became quite well known as the grandpa on "The Beverly Hillbillies." Many years later I ran into him at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (I had become a producer of sports, educational and industrial films) and he remembered that day on the dock in Noumea. We stayed at anchor for about five days and then sailed back around the lighthouse for the next leg of our journey. The destination was Cairns, in Queensland Australia.
The trip across the Coral Sea from Noumea to Cairns took about five days. We were still traveling with the other two ships and we still had the daily drills. The weather was warm and typical of what the South Pacific is supposed to be. One of the striking things about this southern water is the color. It is a much deeper blue than other waters I had seen. Even on days when the sky was overcast the sea retained its deep azure tone. We saw dolphins, numerous sea birds and made one attack on what appeared to be a submarine but turned out to be a whale. No depth charges were dropped so the animal was not harmed.
Cairns is located on the east coast of Queensland near the Southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a tropical area with jungle covered mountains. It reminded me of an old western town from the movies. It was quite small and had the look and atmosphere of the frontier. Sidewalks in front of the wooden buildings were covered and the walks themselves were made of boards. Streets were unpaved and could be total mudholes after tropical rain. (In the ensuing half century Cairns has become a very popular resort area.) This was our first encounter with the Aussies and we were impressed. There were quite a few Australian soldiers there and when they came walking down the wooden sidewalk three abreast, clomping their heavy boots, we courteously stepped aside and let them pass.
Several of us took a short side trip up into the mountains where, we had been told, there was a magnificent waterfall. The trip was an experience. Transportation was a narrow gage railway train which was powered by a small diesel engine. The tracks wound around the side of the mountain with a sheer drop of several hundred feet on one side. About half way up the train stopped and we were all told to get off. When we had hopped own on to the ground we saw a trestle bridge just ahead that spanned a deep gorge. There was a narrow walkway alongside the train tracks and we were told to go ahead and walk across the bridge. At first we thought it was just so we could get a great view but we later found out that the bridge was not considered very safe so they wanted the passengers off the train when it crossed. I hesitate to contemplate what would have happened had the bridge decided to makes its departure while we were on the far side. The train crept slowly across and we climbed back on board.
At the end of the line was a very small village called Kuranda. This little village had two claims to fame. The area around the station was a botanical garden of considerable size. It had all types of tropical flora and had been awarded top national honors for its beauty. A path led through the gardens and down the side of the mountain a short distance where we could see the second claim to fame. This was the waterfall we had come to see. It was not a huge waterfall in its breadth, such as Niagara, but the total drop from top to the valley below was over seven hundred feet. We spent a couple of hours in this beautiful place and then boarded the train to return to Cairns. Of course we had to get off again and walk across the bridge.
An interesting coincidence occurred about twenty-five years later. My nephew, Rick Caster, had gone to Australia on a sailing ship and had married a girl from Queensland. About 1970 he came back to the States for a visit and while talking to his bride I discovered that her grandfather had been the engineer on that little train during World War II when I had ridden on it. In a world of billions of people this kind of thing really fascinates me.
The next leg of our journey was from Cairns to Thursday Island. This island is located on the northern tip of Queensland and is separated from New Guinea by the Torres Straits. This time we would be traveling inside the Great Barrier Reef and out of reach of patrolling Japanese submarines. It would be the first time we would be underway with running lights turned on. It was a very tricky passage so the ship was guided by an Australian pilot. We all hoped the Captain had more faith in him than he normally showed in the signalmen. We were within sight of land almost continuously and the water around us was constantly changing from deep blue to shades of green. The passage took another four days or so until we dropped anchor off Thursday Island. There apparently was an admiral stationed there with little to occupy his time because the only reason we stopped was to have him come aboard for an inspection. He did come aboard but I never saw him. The signalmen and quartermasters had discovered a void space under the wheel house that no one else knew about. There was about three feet of headroom and it was about fifteen feet by ten feet in area. There was sufficient room for a number of us to take refuge. We had stashed a few life jackets in the space to be used as pillows and it had been used on previous occasions to take short snoozes, safe from impromptu working parties the Bos’un might draft from off-watch personnel. It was there we took refuge and avoided the inconvenience of an admiral inspecting us.
We weighed anchor and headed west through the Torres Straits. It was here that we parted company with the Bisbee and the Gallup. I don’t recall what their destination was and I may not even have known. The Torres Strait is a narrow gateway which separates the Pacific Ocean from the Aurafura Sea and the Indian Ocean and the tidal difference is substantial. The currents through this area during the changing of the tides is something to see. You would think you were sailing up the Colorado River because the water boils over the rocks like a whitewater rapids. We had left when the tide was moving from west to east so our actual speed over the bottom was reduced by several knots.
Our next port was to be Darwin. The name was familiar to most of us but we were not sure why. It was probably because we were familiar with the famous naturalist for which the city was named. At the very least we were expecting a town where there might be an interesting liberty. Darwin is located on a nicely protected harbor with a large island, called Melville, just to the North. (It may have been named after Herman Melville.) There were a couple of surprises when we arrived. First, the tide at this place is about 30 feet. That means that every six hours the level of the water changes by that much. We tied up to a pier at high tide and the gangway to the dock was secured at the lowest part of the stern deck. As the tide receded over the next few hours, the gangway had to be moved frequently and at low tide it was set up on the wing of the bridge. It was a most amazing thing to see that much change in so short a time.
As the tide receded there were other revelations that began to appear. First we saw the tops of the bridges and the smoke stacks of ships appearing all over the harbor. When the tide was dead low, whole superstructures of sunken merchant vessels were visible. There were at least a dozen of these wrecks in the harbor. We then learned what I believe was a little known fact during the war: Darwin was one of the hardest hit areas by Japanese bombers in all the Pacific. Further evidence of this appeared when we went ashore. Where we had anticipated a town and a fun liberty there was nothing but bombed out buildings. We saw no civilians at all. It was just a hot, dusty, uninhabited ruin. There were at lot of Australian military about and a number of newly erected Quonset type buildings but that was about it. We only stayed about twenty-four hours and then set out for what was to be our permanent base; Fremantle, Australia.
From Darwin we passed within a couple of hundred miles of the closest island still held by the Japanese. This was the island of Timor, the furthest west of the Indonesian Archipelago. During the time we were closest we were kept at general quarters for several hours. This was mostly at night and nothing really happened. The next morning at daybreak a Japanese reconnaissance plane appeared and gave us the once over at an altitude out of range of our anti-aircraft weapons. He hung around for about ten minutes and then headed back towards Timor. Incidentally, if you are familiar with “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Timor is the island to which Captain Bligh sailed in an open boat when he was set adrift by the mutineers. That was, and still may be, the longest voyage ever made in an open boat. Had he not survived, the fate of the Bounty might never have been known.
After putting Timor astern, the trip was uneventful except that we were heading into the winter of the Southern Hemisphere. The air was cooler every day and the weather in general became less comfortable. It was cloudy a good deal of the time and the sea was somewhat rougher. We made one stop on the way to Fremantle at the small port of Geraldton. We had received a radio message to pick up a vessel and tow it to Fremantle. It turned out to be a small crash boat and though the seas were not uncomfortable for us, there was little sleep on board that little craft.
We arrived a Gage Roads anchorage outside of Fremantle about midnight and set our anchor between Rottnest Island and the mainland. It was exciting to see the lights of a real city and further away we could see the faint glow of the city of Perth. Shortly before daylight we weighed anchor and proceeded into the harbor. It was the first real city we had seen since leaving the States. There were stone and brick buildings, civilians, a railroad and ships from a variety of countries tied up at the wharves. This was the major submarine base in the Indian Ocean and really the only major sub base in the far east theater except for Pearl Harbor. Submarines of both the U.S. Navy and the British Navy were based here.
We had been at sea now for two months and were nearly exactly half way around the world from home. The USS Corpus Christi was our home. This was one of the things I liked about being on a ship. Even though we were 12,000 miles away, the environment in which we spent our daily lives was no different than it had been at Long Beach. The exterior surroundings and people changed but the ship and the people on it had not. Because of this it was difficult to comprehend the distance we had traveled. In the Army or Air Corps when you went from one place to another everything was different. The living quarters and often the people with whom you work change. On a ship, except when you were up on deck and can see you are in a new place, it really makes little difference where you are on the globe.
Your bunk is your own private space. Small as that space may have been, you still felt you were alone when in your bunk and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that a man’s bunk was his castle. At some time during the trip I had changed from a bottom bunk forward of the mess deck to a top bunk in a compartment aft of the mess deck and above the boiler room. This was a smaller compartment and was more isolated from the general traffic pattern. Activities that were going on in the galley or mess deck were much less intrusive. When I was lying in my bunk with my head on my pillow there was about four inches between my head and the steel rack that held a bundle of electrical and communication cables. About a foot from my head was a speaker for the ship’s address system. When I first took over this bunk I had a little problem. When someone would activate the address system I would wake with a start and bang my head against the cable bracket. It would always catch me right in the forehead. Pain is a great teacher and so I quickly conditioned myself to not react so violently. I also became so tuned in that at the first click on the speaker I would wake up and squash my pillow over the speaker before the announcement began or the bos’un pipe squealed. Another advantage to the bunk was there was space above the cables where personal items could be stored. I usually kept my books up there. Occupying the bunk next to me was a Bos’un Mate named Henning. His bunk was slightly higher than mine because he had no cables above him. The fresh air duct ran between the two bunks with the vent on my side. In the hot weather we would have a wordless battle going on. If he hit the sack after I was asleep, he would put a book on top of the duct with half of it hanging over the vent. This would direct the fresh air away from me and toward him. I would soon become very warm, awaken and remove the book. Sometime later he would experience the same thing and put it back. Sometimes this would happen a half dozen times a night and the curious thing is that we never discussed it.
After we were secured at the pier, the scuttlebutt was that we were not going to sea for about four weeks. A number of things had to be repaired, including those troublesome main shaft bearings. So it looked like we would have the opportunity to see what liberty in the city of Perth could offer. The main topics of conversation were beer and girls and the reputation Australia had in both categories was very promising.
Life and liberty In
The Gallant Submarines
Most of us had heard of the major cities of Australia such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, but Perth and Fremantle were not at all familiar. Nearly all of the population centers are located on the coast since most of the interior of the continent is desert. Perth is the only large city located on the west coast and at that time the population of the area was about 350 thousand. It was virtually isolated from the major centers and was therefore not developed very quickly. Originally established as a penal colony, as was much of the country, remnants of those days were still visible. Many of the government buildings had been constructed with convict labor. These could be identified because someplace they would have windows, or other permanent markings, in the shape of an arrow pointing downward. This was the symbol of the convict and they incorporated that symbol someplace on all the buildings they built.
The city rises along the banks of the Swan River which meanders down from the Darling Mountains to the Indian Ocean where Fremantle is located. The river is quite wide at Perth resembling a lake. It is not navigable above the port of Fremantle but in peace time it was popular for boating and sailing. Fremantle and Perth are about twelve miles apart with transportation between them by both railway and bus.
Fremantle was a very active port. It was an important port of call for the traffic to India and Burma. Cargo and troop ships headed for the CBI (China-Burma-India) war theatre would come in for re-supply before crossing the Indian Ocean. Nearly half of the dock space was occupied by the support vessels and shore establishments for the submarines of the US Seventh Fleet and the British submarines. Both fleets had large ships tied to the docks which were submarine tenders. These ships were floating repair facilities and there would almost always be four or five submarines moored alongside them. The submarines made patrols in the waters around Sumatra and Java, attacking the Japanese supply and naval vessels that were holding the Indonesian Islands. They were very effective in carrying out their assignments and we would frequently see a sub returning from patrol with a broom fastened to the periscope. This indicated a clean sweep; all torpedoes had been expended and with the intended results. There were also times when they would not return at all and no one would know where or how they were sunk. They were just missing and presumed sunk. The Japanese seldom attempted to rescue survivors if there were any.
Let’s lighten up and talk about liberty. While the ship was being repaired, we enjoyed port and starboard liberty. This means that half the crew got liberty every day. Liberty started at four in the afternoon and it was not unlike a land rush. Getting off the ship quickly was very important to the sailors. The pubs were only open until seven o’clock. The sequence went something like this: Be at the gangway at four. Pick up liberty card and head for the train station, or for those in a real rush, share one of the taxis that would be waiting outside the gate. The later you got off the base, the further you would have to go to find a pub that had any room left. Time was of the essence. It was probably for the best that the pubs closed early because Australian beer was twice as powerful in alcohol content as the beer we were accustomed to in the U. S. Unaware of this potency, there were some rather devastating results on the first couple of liberties. Two beers was the equivalent of four; four beers the same as eight. Five beers could ruin your whole liberty as you were politely escorted by the shore patrol to a smelly room where you had the rest of the liberty to contemplate what the hell hit you. I must add that I was never pulled in for over-imbibing. I swear it is true. The only time I was detained by the shore patrol was for walking down the street with my white hat on the back of my head instead of “squared” over the forehead.
At any rate, the beer and the girls were as predicted. There were two things the Australian girls seldom wore. One was make-up and the other was brassieres. I don’t know if it was a shortage brought on by the war or just free spirits. One thing for sure, if a good looking Sheila, who was well endowed came bouncing down the street, no one noticed if she was wearing make-up or not.
One of the really great things was the Saturday night dances at a large ballroom called the Aragon. The Navy dance band would play for these occasions and they were superb. There were a lot of professional musicians in the group and it was every bit as good as any big band I have ever heard. One of our shipmates, Bud Herman, played piano in the band and was even transferred to the sub base so he could play full time. A short time after I was discharged and living in Indianapolis, Bud called me on the phone. He was in town and playing with Benny Goodman’s Band.
Getting back to the ship sometimes presented a problem. Although liberty did not expire until eight AM, unless you had a girl with generous parents, there was no place to stay. The last train was about midnight and the last bus about 1:30. There were usually so many sailors trying to get back on the last bus there would be three or four buses for the final run. Some nights that would not be enough and there would be sailors on top of the bus and hanging onto the back and sides. These buses ran on charcoal! That’s what I said...CHARCOAL! Mounted on the back of the bus was a large contraption that burned charcoal and converted it into a combustible gas. It was a very low grade fuel and lowered the horse power considerably. Under normal circumstances the bus would have to chug laboriously up every hill. When all these sailors were hanging on the sides it couldn’t make it at all. When the bus would slow to a crawl, and it was obvious it couldn’t make it to the crest of the hill, all the hangers-on would jump off and push until it got to the top and then jump back on as the bus gained momentum on the downhill side. Taxis and delivery trucks were also powered by charcoal. It was a common sight to see a delivery truck parked at curb side during the noon hour with the driver cooking up his lunch on the charcoal burner.
Another system that was used to beat the shortage of petrol was natural gas, such as is used for cooking and heating in the U.S. A large rack would be mounted on the top of the car. This rack extended for the entire length of the vehicle and a gas bag, a foot or so thick, occupied the entire rack. Both of these systems required a little petrol for starting up but once the engine was running it performed reasonably well. In addition to the busses there were electric trolleys in the metropolitan area. They were called Trams.
Although we were in an English speaking country, there were still some language barriers. It took a while to adjust to the local vernacular. During one of my early liberties I went to the Red Cross Club where a dance was in progress. A number of nice looking girls were sitting around the dance floor so I boldly asked one of them to dance. Her reply completely shocked me. She said, “I’m sorry Yank, I’m knocked up!” I thought that was a very forthright answer and I sure couldn’t tell by looking. I later found out that the expression “Knocked up” has a completely different meaning in Australia. It means tired, pooped out, beat.
There are a lot of interesting words in the unofficial national song “Waltzing Matilda.” It is about a somewhat disreputable character called a “Swagman” who steals a sheep. The sheep is a “jolly jumbuck” which he shoves into a big sack known as a “Tucker Bag.” That night he makes camp beside a small lake or pond called a “Billabong.” While waiting for the water to get hot in his cooking pot, (Waited ‘til his billie boiled) the law arrives to arrest him. (Up jumped the troopers, one, two three.) “You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me” is what the trooper said, meaning he was going off to jail. That was the worst thing he could imagine, so he jumped into the billabong and drowned. The song concludes with a verse that says if you walk by that billabong you will hear his ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.” So, you see, the impression you get from the lyrics of a romance involving a lady named Matilda, is completely wrong.
On nights when you were not on the liberty list there was still some entertainment available. The submarine base had a beer hall that was open every evening form 4:30 to 6:30. There were tables, a juke box and kegs of Swan Lager. Beer was about ten cents a glass so at that price there was a lot of beer consumed. After the beer hall closed the movie hall opened. This combination of events led to some rather raucous movie audiences. The Corpus Christi was one of only two ships manned by the Coast Guard so we were greatly outnumbered by the Navy. There was always a certain amount of antagonism between the Coast Guard and the Navy which occasionally erupted into physical encounters, particularly after a few beers. They called us the “Hooligan Navy” and we called ourselves “the Navy’s secret weapon.” I managed to stay clear of those episodes. Later I will recount a situation where we mystified our Navy adversaries with a secret weapon.
Actually, the conflicts between the Coast Guard and the Navy were of little significance . It was the New Zealanders who could be a serious problem. Fremantle was a regular stopover for troop ships going to the China-Burma-India Theatre and transports would put in for two or three days for re-supply. Whenever a troop ship loaded with Kiwis would stop over in Fremantle, all Yanks were restricted to the base. These guys were tough and the restriction stemmed from violence that occurred and resulted in a couple of deaths. This bad blood apparently was because of stationing a lot of Marines in New Zealand before the invasion of Guadalcanal and the other Solomon Islands. Most of the New Zealanders had been out of the country fighting for a long time since all of the British Commonwealths had been at war for two years before Pearl Harbor. Apparently the Marines dropped into a vacuum as far as the females were concerned and a lot of Kiwis got “Dear John” letters . To say the least they were disturbed. For some reason, the same thing did not happen in Australia.
There was no great love affair between the Australian service men and the British either. The worst fight I ever saw took place between Aussie and British sailors. I was on shore patrol when my partner and I heard a terrible din coming from a public rest room that was situated under one of the main streets. We went down the stairs to investigate and saw an all-out brawl underway. Guys were going after each other with broken bottles and anything else they could get their hands on. As Falstaff said, “ Discretion is the better part of valor.” So we went back up to the street and called for assistance. When the regular military police arrived, we just sort of disappeared into the night. We later learned that the whole thing had started when someone called and Aussie a “Limey.” Wars within wars.
All in all our introduction to the flora and fauna of western Australia was a pleasant experience. The natives were friendly and the climate was mild. It appeared our duty here would not be unpleasant and the chances of being shot were minimal. Not the worst situation to be in during a war. Being in the middle of action was not a burning desire for me and since the situation I found myself in was in no way my own doing, my conscience was clear.
The submarines in World War II were very different from those in the fleet today. Of course they were not powered by nuclear systems but were diesel-electric. When operating on the surface they were propelled by two large diesel engines which would also be charging the enormous banks of storage batteries used when running submerged. Top speed on the surface was about 22 knots but underwater the best they could do was around 9 knots. The modern nuclear subs are capable of speeds over 40 knots submerged. Combining the slow underwater speed and the need to replenish battery power, the WWII subs had to run on the surface a great deal of the time. A submarine on the surface, particularly in daytime, is vulnerable to detection both visually and by radar. This vulnerability was a part of the reason the Corpus Christi was stationed in Fremantle. The other reason was for training of the sub crews.
Submarines had two crews for each boat. (Yes, submarines are called “boats’) After a patrol, crew one would be given rest and recreation leave . The second crew came on board and began a training period before they would go on patrol. A war patrol would last from 30 to 60 days, depending upon how quickly they were able to expend the torpedoes on Japanese shipping. The duties of the Corpus Christi and the USS Hutchinson [PF-45] were to conduct training exercises and then to escort the submarine from Fremantle to the war zone so they could run on the surface day and night and save time.
For the training exercises we would go to sea in company with a sub and spend two to five days operating offshore in the Indian Ocean. The submarine’s skipper was SOPA (Senior Officer Present Afloat). We would be assigned a base course to run but could introduce our own zig-zag maneuvers, a frequent alteration of course to make it more difficult for the sub to get a fix on our course and speed. The games would begin and the sub would attempt to track us and make a mock attack. We, on the other hand, would try to detect them with sonar and visual sighting of their periscopes. The part that was not really mock was that they would actually fire a torpedo at us. The torpedoes were dummies and contained no explosive but could do considerable damage if they hit our hull so they were set to pass underneath our ship.
I became one of the best periscope spotters on the ship. When we were in signal school they taught us to look for the “feather” from a periscope. That is the little white wake it makes moving through the water. I discovered that there was hardly ever any wake to be seen. If the seas were running four or five feet, the sub must have the periscope raised high enough to be out of the water at the top of a wave. This means that in the trough of the wave there would be four or five feet of periscope visible. Knowing what to look for was the trick. I would look for any kind of vertical straight line in the random confusion of the seas. On a number of occasions I was able to pick out a periscope 2,000 yards away, that’s one nautical mile, and a sub must get closer than that to be effective with a torpedo. Many times I would see them before the sonar would pick them up which caused a lot of consternation among the sonarmen.
When the sub fired the torpedo it would signal by Morse code on the sonar transmitter. Our sonar would pick up the signal and then it was time to look for the torpedo charging toward us at forty miles per hour. The torpedoes were steam powered and would leave a wake of bubbles behind them. If the torpedo was set for twenty-five feet deep, this wake would rise to the surface a number of yards behind. Once you spotted the wake you would look straight down along the hull and then; zoom! The torpedo would go whizzing underneath us. Our sonar would then signal to the sub whether it was a hit or a miss.
Torpedoes are of course very expensive so they couldn’t be left to sink into the depths of the Indian Ocean. It was also our job to find the spent torpedo and retrieve it. In a relatively calm sea it was not hard to follow the track and when the fish was about out of fuel it would come to the surface and broach out of the water like a swordfish. In rougher seas, which was more common, we would have a Navy SBD aircraft working with us. He would track the torpedo and drop a smoke flare when it finally stopped. These dummy torpedoes would sink in about an hour so we had to work fast to get a line on them and haul them aboard. This could be a tricky and dangerous job. One man would have to go into the water with a line tied to him and a second line to hook onto the weapon. Very tricky to do with the ship rolling in the swells and the torpedo bobbing around. There was also a possibility that the two propellers could suddenly start spinning with no warning. The seamen who volunteered for this work would get a twenty-four hour liberty.
Often, after the sub had expended its supply of practice torpedoes, the roles would reverse. This exercise gave our crew practice in anti-submarine tactics while the sub would get practice in evasion tactics. The sub would submerge to a hundred feet and when we had made sonar contact we would proceed with and attack while they tried to out maneuver us. In this situation our speed was a great advantage. The simulated weapons we used were hand grenades, substituting for depth charges. When we made a simulated depth charge run over the sub, two gunner's mates on the fantail would pull the pins on grenades and drop them overboard. The explosion of the grenade could easily be heard on the sub and they would signal hit or miss. We would sometimes speculate about their honesty. On one occasion either the grenade did not detonate when it should have or the sub was running to shallow. At any rate, the grenade exploded alongside one of the periscopes . The sub surfaced quickly with one periscope leaning radically to port.
When a sub was lost no one would know until they just didn’t show up for escort back to the base. It happened to us a couple of times. We would be sent up the west coast of Australia to meet a returning sub and had been informed there had been no radio communication from them recently. We had to go anyway in case it was just a radio problem. If there was no contact for a couple of days we would head back to Fremantle.
One that sticks in my memory is the USS Harder [SS-257]. This sub had a super record on a number of patrols. The captain, Commander [Samuel] Dealey, was quite colorful and always wore an Australian Army hat, complete with the side turned up and held with a big pin. He was always up on the conning tower wearing that hat. We had worked with the Harder on several training exercises but had never been its escort. I can remember seeing the Harder coming into Fremantle, captain on the conn wearing his Aussie hat, and a broom lashed to the top of one of the periscopes. A clean sweep. All torpedoes expended and all with effective results. The Harder departed for its last patrol from Fremantle on August 5, 1944 and was lost in the Philippine Sea. No one knew exactly when or what the circumstances were. She just never came back. Lost with all hands. The Harder was credited with sinking 82,000 tons and sank five Japanese destroyers in five days. Commander Dealey received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.
There were two other ships that operated with us in the training and escort function. One was the Hutchinson, which was the same class of ship as the Corpus Christi. The other the was the Isabel [PY-10]. The Isabel was a very old ship and had been a private yacht at one time. The interesting thing about her was she was powered by steam turbines, a very unusual system for her age but it made her quite fast. I can’t remember when she had been built but it was probably in the late twenties. There was one occasion when she was operating with a sub and somebody goofed. The practice torpedo was not set at the proper depth and it plowed right into her hull. Fortunately, it got stuck halfway through the plates. If it had gone all the way it would have left a 16-inch hole and a lot of water can get through a 16-inch hole.
There was no one for whom I had more respect than those guys in the submarines. They were crowded beyond belief and just the idea of being under all of that water gave me the chills. If you were on a surface ship and it got hit you at least had a chance to get off and maybe rescued. With a sub, if it was hit and seriously damaged, there was no way out. You just knew that some of those subs that did not return from patrol were sunk and maybe lay on the bottom just waiting until the air supply ran out. I cannot imagine a more horrible way to die.
The Peter Sylvester Sinking and Rescue
Storm at Sea
In addition to the activities involving the Seventh Fleet submarines, Fremantle was a very busy harbor during the war. It was the major shipping port for ships bound for India. Cargo ships brought in fuel and other material and large amounts of wheat were exported.
On one occasion there was a ship of Panamanian registry loading grain when disaster struck. The ship exploded at the dock and began burning furiously. (The dust from grain is very explosive.) The fire was completely out of control and was threatening to spread to other vessels at the pier. The ship that was closest was the British submarine tender [HMS] Athena The fire was burning underneath the pier and the flames were scorching the bow of the tender. These tenders, in addition to being maintenance facilities also carried large amounts of ammunition, such as torpedoes, so there was considerable danger of a second explosion. It was not a simple matter for large vessels to get underway, particularly without the assistance of tugs.
We were given orders to get underway and to secure lines from our stern to the wooden pier under which the fire was spreading. The idea was to run our engines ahead, washing water under the pier to stem the fire. This effort resulted in one of Captain Childress’s finest goof-ups. He maneuvered the ship into position near the pier and had the deck crew fire a line to the dock. The crew on shore pulled a steel hawser from the ship and secured it to a bollard. In his near panic, Childress ordered the engines ahead instead of waiting until three or four hawsers could be secured. As a result the one hawser immediately parted. Whoever was directing the operation from shore saw this ineptitude and ordered us out of the harbor and to operate as a picket outside. We proceeded to go out and run back and forth, pinging away for possible submarines. This event is not a rumor. I was on the bridge through the whole operation and I heard the radio call giving orders to leave the harbor. Another embarrassing incident with the man who was later to become an admiral. I have often wondered if I am being unfair when criticizing the Captain’s ability and intelligence. The higher powers in the Navy were probably aware of his capabilities and for that reason never sent the Corpus Christi into a serious combat situation. I could well owe my life to his incompetence.
We could see the smoke of the fire from our position a few miles off shore. It burned for several hours, putting a pall of smoke into the air several thousand feet high. The British tender suffered considerable damage to its bow and several of the seamen were burned trying to fight the fire. The United States tender was able to get underway and leave the harbor without any assistance.
There were a lot of rumors floating around after the fire that it had been set off by the Panamanian crew. There had been an attempt to scuttle the ship earlier. Apparently they were not anxious to make the crossing of the Indian Ocean because of the Japanese submarines known to be operating there.
We got direct verification of the Japanese submarine operations a month or so later. We received orders to get underway as quickly as possible early one morning. Our mission was not known until we were out at sea. A report had come that a U. S. Liberty ship had been torpedoed about 700 miles out in the Indian Ocean and that there were survivors in the water. The report had not gotten to Fremantle until about six days after the sinking. It had been reported by another ship that had passed the area shortly after the attack but was fearful of stopping as the sub could very well have been waiting for just such an opportunity.
(In 1997 I learned that the submarine had actually been a German U-boat, the U-862.)
To reach the area of the reported sinking took us about three days so if we did find survivors they would have been in the water well over a week. The second night out while I was on watch, we got a radar contact about fifteen miles ahead of us. The target was closely tracked and was on a course that would cross us at close range. When the target was at about 6,000 yards we went to general quarters. (6,000 yards is three nautical miles.) To digress for a moment, there are visual signals which are used to challenge and identify ships at sea. For naval vessels it was a three letter code which changed every six hours so an enemy vessel would not be able to use it. For merchant vessels it was a two letter code, also changed every six hours. When the two letter code is sent by blinker light, the challenged vessel must send back the proper letters for identification. We had no idea what this vessel was so I was ordered to send the three letter naval code. I flashed it several times but there was no reply.
Meanwhile the vessel was closing on us. I then sent the merchant code several times and again there was no reply. By now the vessel was getting very close and it was a bit sticky. When the range was less than a mile the Captain order a star shell fired. This is a shell that is fired from the three-inch gun and explodes high in the air, releasing a magnesium flare on a parachute. It will light up a large area very brightly. The shell burst right over the ship, fully illuminating it. It was a British merchant vessel and the entire crew must have been asleep. Through my binoculars I could see sudden and frantic action on the decks. We must have scared the hell out of them.
We finally made blinker contact, identified ourselves and got their identity. When it was all straightened out we went on our way and they theirs. For a while it was a tense situation, knowing a Japanese submarine was operating in that area and not knowing what it was that was closing in on us.
On the night before we were to reach the area where the ship had last been heard of, we slowed down so we would get to the point of the sinking at daybreak. We did not have an exact fix and in the seven or eight days any survivors on rafts or in boats could have drifted many miles. To be sure we would did not go past them in the night we would shine our 24 inch carbon arc light straight up into the night sky. If there were any survivors within twenty miles or so, they would see it and hopefully fire a flare. We would leave the light on for about 30 seconds every half hour. No flares were seen and the idea of illuminating our own ship was not exactly comforting.
I had the four-to-eight watch the next morning and as day began to break we all were on a sharp lookout. I climbed part of the way up the mast and was searching from there about seven o’clock when another lookout and I both spotted something on the horizon. As we got closer we could see what appeared to be a couple of rafts, crowded with men. When we were about 400 yards away we realized it was not two but four large rafts full to the brim with survivors. Before picking them up we circled around them pinging with the sonar to make sure there was no submarine around. We were just coming in close to them when the sonarman called out that he had a contact. We were now laying dead in the water and a perfect target for a torpedo. I was still up on the mast and admit having a bit of a fright. As it turned out the sonarman had gotten an echo from our own wake.
There were 55 or 60 men on the rafts and their physical condition varied from excellent to very bad. Some were covered with a thick coating of oil and most were suffering from exposure. The survivors were hauled aboard as quickly as possible and the crew turned to cleaning them up, getting them food and dry clothes. Some had such thick oil on their bodies that it was almost like wax and had to be removed with cotton swabs. Their feet were badly swollen and very tender. I can tell you, they were a bunch of very happy and relieved guys. Talking to them we got the story of what happened.
The ship was the SS Peter Sylvester bound for India with a cargo of supplies and about 200 mules, which were to carry material over the Burma Mountains and into the China war zone. Most of the men we picked up were U.S. cavalrymen. The torpedo struck at night and the ship went down in about thirty minutes. Along with the members of the crew and the cavalrymen who got off were a large number of the mules. When the men got into the water they had to fight off the mules which would try to climb up on them. All of the mules drowned in about an hour. Luckily there was no fire but the fuel tanks were ruptured, spreading thousands of gallons of oil on the ocean. Several of them said they heard the submarine when it surfaced to inspect the damage. No attempt at rescue was made by the sub. One man said he had seen our light twice on the night before. When he saw it he yelled to the others on the raft but by the time they would look we would have turned it off. His raft mates thought he was going wacky. He was quite relieved when he learned that we had actually been shining the light into the air.
A few hours after we had picked up the survivors we spotted two more rafts and pulled another 20 or 25 men aboard. Around noon we were joined by an Australian Liberator aircraft and they located a lifeboat. We had no radio capability with the aircraft so he signaled the location of the boat using a blinker light. It was an interesting operation. The plane would circle us and send the message so it took two signalmen to get the message. One working either side of the bridge. The lifeboat was not very far away and shortly we had it in sight. There were another 20 or so men in it, including the captain. He had a waterproof pouch hanging around his neck which we later learned contained about $60,000 in cash.
We stayed in the area until the next morning when the search was joined by an British aircraft carrier and an Australian destroyer. We were ordered to return to Fremantle with our 96 survivors. We later learned that the aircraft carrier, the HMS Speaker, picked up another boat load and an American submarine rescued another group about twenty-eight days later, during which time they had sailed nearly 700 miles.
Out of the 180 men on the Peter Sylvester, 145 were rescued. All of the rafts and boats were accounted for and apparently all who survived the initial torpedo explosion and got off the sinking ship were rescued. The search in addition to the Corpus Christi involved the Australian Navy and the British Navy. Our ship was given a Unit Citation for the effort.
By the time we had made the trip back to Fremantle, most of the survivors were in good condition and only a few had to be hospitalized.
No one could figure out what to do with these men now that their original mission was defunct. They were given Navy chief’s clothing with no insignia or identification. Except for those of us involved in the rescue, no one knew who they were or what they were doing. They turned out to be our secret weapon on several occasions. The rivalry between the Coast Guard and the Navy could get a bit sticky sometimes, particularly when some of the 12-percent Aussie beer was involved. On a few occasions when a fight would break out between rivals on liberty, these strange guys in grey would appear and take the side of the Coasties. It didn’t matter if the Coast Guard guys were from the Corpus Christi or not. If they had the identifying white shield on their sleeves they were the good guys as far as the survivors were concerned. These fellows were in the Perth area for a couple of months, which was not a bad deal for them. I have no idea where they eventually ended up when they suddenly just disappeared.
Throughout my time on board the ship I only experienced one truly bad storm. A new submarine tender was due to come into Fremantle to relieve the one currently based there. It’s route to Fremantle was around the southern coast of Australia and across an area called the Australian Bight. This part of the southern ocean is at the south western corner of the continent and is historically known for bad weather. The Corpus Christi and the Isabel were dispatched to meet the ship in the Bight and escort it back to the base. We departed early one morning and reached the rendezvous point late at night. The winds had been building, along with the seas, for most of the day. By eleven that night we were in the thick of it. These were the biggest seas I had ever seen and at night they seemed a lot bigger. My only guess as to the height is that standing on the bridge we were below the crests of the waves when the ship was in the trough. The bridge was thirty five feet above the water line. When the ship would go over the top of a wave the bow and stern would both be partially out of the water and we could here the hull bend from the strain. Not a very reassuring sound.
I was relieved from my watch at midnight but there was no way anyone could sleep or even keep from being tossed out of the bunk. I found it so exciting that I didn’t want to sleep or even go below deck. The ship was pitching and rolling wildly. Decks were awash half of the time. Down below many of the men were seasick and the chief's quarters had about a foot of water in it. Their quarters were right above the chain locker where the anchor chain is stored and the seas going down the hawse pipes had flooded the chain locker and risen to the deck of the chief’s quarters. There was some frantic action trying to stem this flood with pumps. The Chief Yeoman, who had chronic seasickness to begin with, was lying in his bunk, water sloshing occasionally over him. He grabbed one of the crew by the leg as he ran past and asked, “Are we sinking?” The crewman replied, “Yes!” All the chief said was, “Good.” and flopped back down.
The cooks had managed to make some tomato and rice soup to keep us nourished and I went below to get something hot in my stomach. Getting down to the mess deck was quite an exercise. To get below we had to go all the way aft to the fantail deck, which is the lowest open deck on the ship. When the ship rolled tons of water would come over the side and cover the deck. Timing was essential. When the ship rolled to the other side, most of the water, would run off. You then made a mad dash to get across the deck, open the hatch, get inside and close before then next sea came over the side. The rice-tomato soup was very good and there was plenty because hardly anyone could eat. Though this whole thing I never had a twinge of mal-de-mer.
The storm lasted nearly all night and we never located the submarine tender we were supposed to meet. The wind abated in the morning and things calmed down. The only damage we sustained was the small boat had broken loose and gotten a little bashed up. We stayed on station for a few hours and then were ordered back to Fremantle. When we arrived the tender we had been searching for was safely and quietly tied up at its berth and had ridden throughout the storm with very little problem. The Isabel, on the other hand, did not get back for a couple of days. I don’t recall what their problem was but they must have really taken a beating. She was considerably smaller than the Corpus Christi and also a lot older.
As a footnote, all ships have what is called the “critical roll.” If the vessel rolls beyond this point, she will probably capsize. Our critical roll was 45 degrees and the clinometer registered 42 degrees at one point. I am glad I didn’t know that at the time.
A Fly in the Captain’s
I mentioned in an earlier part of this narrative that I feared my relationship with the captain might not be a congenial one. I have made some criticisms that may or may not be valid and I must admit that I was occasionally a bit of frustration to him. The rating of signalman places you in closer contact with the CO than almost any other enlisted billet. Signalmen spend all of their watches on the bridge and have an equally close relationship with all of the officers. Just to even out the balance I will relate some of the incidents and antics in which I was involved that had to have been irritating.
Captain Childress had distinct speech impediment and sort of mushed up some of his words. He was also often attired oddly during general quarters. Invariably he would have the liner from his hard helmet on backwards. He would also be wearing a kapok life jacket with an inflatable wrapped his waist. Also around the waist would be a web belt and 45 automatic holster but no weapon in it.
I had always been a mimic and did a rather exaggerated imitation of him. On one occasion, while we anchored, there were several of my shipmates on the conning bridge and a couple in the wheelhouse. Out of boredom, I began imitating the captain, complete with backwards battle helmet. As the pseudo captain I shouted commands through the voice tubes such as, “Right ten degrees rudder. Sonar, do you have a contact? What’s the doppler?” My crew were all responding to the commands properly, along with some laughter, and suddenly it became very quiet. I called down the tube. “What’s the matter with you? Have you gone deaf?” No replies. I turned around and found myself face to face with my Captain. He just stood there and glared at me for a minute and then turned and went down below.
On another occasion when several of the signal gang were lounging on the bridge, Chief Bos’un Mate Dollard approached me and asked, Sprague, how would you like to paint the underside of the bridge.?” In my youthful stupidity I answered in shipboard vernacular, “F--- no I wouldn’t like to.” Dollard disappeared.
In about one minute ship’s PA comes live. “Signalman Sprague report to the ward room. ON THE DOUBLE!”
There in the ward room was Chief Dollard, the captain and a couple of other officers. “Sprague,” said the Captain, “The Chief says he ordered you to paint under the bridge wing and you told him to go f--- himself.”
“No sir.” I replied. “He ASKED me if I would LIKE to paint and I said, ‘F--- no I wouldn’t like to.’”
“ Sprague, go get some paint.”
Bad incident number three. One night when the ship was under repairs, eight other shipmates and myself decided to take a fantail liberty. To translate; skip ashore for a bit without proper permission. We sneaked ashore and went across the river to Fremantle for a couple of beers. Unfortunately one of our loyal shipmates ratted on us and when we came back we were put on report. The next day we appeared before the skipper at Captain’s Mast, to receive punishment. The Captain called each criminal’s name and assigned his punishment. They all got 10 days restriction and 10 days extra duty. I was last in line and I got 30 days restriction and 30 hours extra duty. He had his revenge.
During my extra duty, some of which was painting the ship’s mast, whenever I would spot the captain on deck I would start singing or whistling like I was really having fun. He would stop and look up and I would smile.
The long term result was that I never got the good conduct award, which didn’t bother me all that much but my Mother never got over it after I came home.
We had an infestation of bed bugs once. It was reported to the Exec but nothing was done about. Someone took matters into his own hands and one night took a life jacket which was home for the pests and gave it a good shake in the Captain’s sea cabin. I knew who did it but I was not involved. I may have been a pain in the butt on occasions but I wasn’t that malicious. We did get fumigated however.
I also had a little incident with one of the officers, Lt. Allen. This particular officer had not been part of the original “rivet owners” but had joined the ship about half way through our tour of duty. He was a product of the Coast Guard Academy and rather strict in nature.
Stashed in my small locker I had kept a pair of civilian shoes which were brown instead of black and obviously not Coast Guard issue. I seldom wore them, at least not when on watch but I did once on the bridge with this lieutenant. He observed this non-regulation foot wear and called me on it. He made it clear that I should never wear them when on watch with him. I assured him I would not.
At a later time when I was again on watch with him, he inquired about those shoes.
“Sprague, do you still have those brown shoes in your locker?” I replied honestly that I did. I expected him to order me to dispose of them but he didn’t.
“What size are they?” he asked and I told him. “Go below and get them and bring them up here.”
“Aha!” I said to myself on my way below. “He has desires for my shoes”
I came back to the bridge and after he was aware of my presence I walked to the bridge wing and threw the shoes overboard. There was no further conversation on this matter and we never got very friendly after that. (Note: Officers were allowed to wear brown shoes.)
Except for the few incidents heretofore related, I got along well with the officers and for that matter my crewmates. We really had a very compatible group and I can only remember one occasion when two crew mates had a physical encounter and I can’t remember who they were or what the problem was. There were, of course, likes and dislikes, but men who had those problems simply avoided each other as much as possible.
Back Alive in Forty-Five
Being halfway around the world from home and almost as far away from Europe, our concentration was mainly directed toward activities in the battle against Japan. The developments in the European Theatre took a back seat. We were, of course, very aware of the major developments such as the Normandy invasion and knew that the Allied armies were moving at a steady pace toward the German heartland, but the return of MacArthur to the Philippines was more important news for us. After all, it had been right here in Perth that MacArthur had made his famous and often quoted statement, “I shall return!” Even after the surrender of the Third Reich there was still much to be done in the Pacific. We were all certain that a massive invasion of the Japanese Islands was the only way the war could be concluded. We were also very aware that this would be a costly operation in terms of both American and Japanese lives and such an all-out effort would undoubtedly include the Corpus Christi. Later, it was confirmed that we were to be in the invasion flotilla. The Hutchinson, our sister ship in Fremantle, had already been sent north and participated in the Leyte Gulf battle.
It was mid winter in the southern hemisphere and we were at sea operating with a British submarine. One night in early August, I was in a little poker game with some shipmates. The game was being played in a small compartment two decks below the main mess deck where we had some privacy. Around 2100 hours we heard a commotion on the main deck. Guys were running around and yelling “The war is over!” We didn’t take it too seriously because guys often did crazy things to overcome boredom. But it didn’t stop. We went up to find out what the ruckus was all about and discovered a communication had been received that the US had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. What the hell was an atomic bomb? I put on a coat and went up to the bridge to find out what the real story was. A number of the officers were there, including the Captain, and all were talking excitedly. I finally got the story that there was such a thing as an atomic bomb and it was so powerful it had destroyed the entire city of Hiroshima. It was the ultimate secret weapon and Japan would have to surrender or be completely obliterated. The British sub had surfaced and was running alongside us with all of its deck lights blazing, a sight never seen at sea. They signaled to us that the training was canceled and they were conducting Operation Saki. In short they were doing a bit of drinking. Our captain didn’t issue a ration of grog but we still had a celebration. The big topic was how soon we would be ordered back to the States.
It wasn’t long before we received orders to return to Fremantle. We all knew there would be a helluva party going on in Perth and we wanted to be in on it. Australia had been in the war since 1939 and truly had something big to celebrate. We needn’t have feared the party would be over before we got into port. It lasted a long time.
When I got ashore Perth was jumping. The streets were mobbed with people and of course the pubs were ignoring the normal closing times. My Aussie girl friend’s father let me borrow his car with a few gallons of petrol and several quarts of beer. It was a very small car but I think we got about eight people into it. I drove and I was probably closer to being a war casualty then than I was while the war was on. I hadn’t driven a car for a long time and I had never driven where the wheel was on the right side of the car and you drove on the left side of the street. Traffic was abundant and I would end up on the wrong side of the street whenever I made a left turn. I don’t remember a lot about that celebration. I can’t imagine why not.
Things began to happen very quickly after the hostilities ended. Shortly after the official surrender in Tokyo Bay, we had our orders to leave Fremantle to return to the United States. Other ships left even before we did and the sub base was quickly being de-activated. The whole situation was fraught with mixed emotions. There were a lot of Yanks who had married Australian girls and practically everyone had some serious attachments. We had been in Australia well over a year and it had really become home to us. The reality that we were leaving and going back home was exciting and frightening, ecstatically happy and very sad, all at the same time. When we had sailed away from the California coast we were confident that we would someday return. But this was different. Most of us knew that we would not come back to Perth and would not again see the people to whom we had become close.
We sailed out of Fremantle late in the afternoon. The pier was jammed with Australians waving goodbye. Some of the crew winked flashlights back toward the wharf long after individual faces were indistinguishable. When the coast line and Rottnest Island faded into the night sky a strange silence fell over the ship. The mess tables were filled with fellows already writing letters. No one said very much and the anticipation of getting home had not set in as yet. It was a very unusual experience.
Although the first portion of the cruise home was a retracing of our steps, much of it would be in new oceans. We would be following the west coast of Australia north, turning east past Timor, across the Aurafura Sea and through the Torres Straits between New Guinea and Thursday Island. We then would turn north along the coast of New Guinea past the Hebrides to Manus in the Admiralty Islands.
As we made our way north the weather got warmer and warmer. There was a sub chaser accompanying us part of the way and during one of those hot sunny days I made a terrible mistake. To pass the time we would communicate with the signalman on the sub chaser using semaphore. The warm sunny weather felt great and during my daytime watch I spent quite a bit of time semaphoring with no shirt on. Boy did I get a sunburn. When I went on watch that night I was really miserable and had nothing I could use to ease the burn. In desperation I requested the OD to let me go to my locker and see if there wasn’t something I could find to sooth my problem. The only thing I could find was some Barbasol menthol shaving cream, which I smeared over my torso. It felt pretty good until I got back up on the bridge and the air hit it. I was immediately encased in concrete. That was one of the most miserable watches I ever had. (It can be a court martial offense to get sunburned and unable to perform duties.)
We were within sight of land for a considerable portion of this run and could see the huge Owen Stanley mountains of New Guinea on our port side. We passed many small tropical and mountainous islands, a number of which had been battle sites. The Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal were a couple of hundred miles to the east. We finally arrived at Manus which is almost right on the equator (02 degrees south). The Admiralty Islands had seen some fierce fighting and many of the palm trees were shattered from shelling. Manus has a very large natural harbor with just a small channel for entry. This was to be the main staging area for the invasion of Japan. We stayed at anchor there for five days and got a little rest and recreation. The water was crystal clear and quite warm so we went swimming off the ship about every day. We were also visited by the natives frequently. They would come out in canoes and dive for coins. The curious thing about them was they all had orange hair, but they sure weren’t hippies. I was very curious about this and finally found out the reason. The dye they used on their hair was really a medicine to kill head lice. They didn’t all have head lice but if one member of a clan got them, everyone would dye their hair so others wouldn’t know who was actually infected.
It rained every day at almost exactly the same time. About two in the afternoon big thunderheads would build up over the island and it came down in buckets for about fifteen minutes. The cloud would move away and the equatorial sun would make everything steam. While we were anchored one of the sonarmen made a ten dollar bet that he cold dive off the wing of the bridge and swim under the ship. He got up on the bridge wing in his swimming trunks and squatted on an ammunition box , getting up his nerve. He must have been in this position for over an hour before he finally made the plunge. The whole crew was hanging over the rails watching. He made it, collected the ten bucks and had a worse sunburn than I had had earlier. On the sixth day we weighed anchor and steamed out of the harbor for our next stop; Pearl Harbor.
You recall from an earlier chapter the events involved with crossing the equator and the Shellback initiation. Shortly after departing the Admiralty Islands, we once again crossed the Equator. The difference now was that we were all Shellbacks...all but one. He was Lt. Allen who had joined our crew in Fremantle and had crossed the equator in an airplane. We all decided that flying over the equator didn’t count so we prepared for a Shellback initiation. I have to mention here that Lt. Allen was not my favorite officer, he of the brown shoes. That view was shared by a number of my shipmates. What an opportunity now loomed. The initiation was conducted by several of the old-time Shellbacks and wasn't all that cruel except for one thing. They took barber’s clippers and shaved a stripe right down the middle of his head from forehead to his neck. This wouldn’t have been all that bad if we were going to be at sea for a month but we would arrive in the good ole US in just a few days. The Lt. didn’t think it was very funny. (Officers and gentlemen must remove their hats when indoors. Heh-heh.)
On the voyage from the Admiralty Islands to Pearl Harbor the signalmen were given the option of either standing the regular watches of four hours on and eight off or six on and six off. If you opted for the six and six there would be no other duties to perform such as maintenance and other work tasks. It sounded good to me so I took the six and six. It turned out to be a little rough since I never got more than about 4 to 5 hours of sleep at a stretch. Eating also was a problem because I would often be on watch during the regular chow times and would have to settle for leftovers or sandwiches.
It was about a twelve-day journey and we were all getting anxious to set our feet on some US soil again. When we arrived at Pearl we went past the overturned hulk of the USS Arizona [BB-39] and saw some other wreckage from the attack that put us in the war. The Corpus Christi was sent all the way into the harbor to the destroyer basin to tie up and this put us a good long way from Honolulu. We were only going to be there one night and I was scheduled for liberty but the anticipation of a full night of sleep plus the hassle of getting all the way to Honolulu convinced me not to take the liberty. It was my only chance to go ashore in the Hawaiian Islands but I turned it down.
From Hawaii to Long Beach was about a five-day cruise. This was the last leg of the journey that had begun over a year and a half ago and had taken us half way around the world. The anxiety and excitement of getting back to the US was definitely building as we came nearer and nearer to California. On off watch hours the signalmen and quartermasters were busy finishing up our homecoming pennant. This is quite a project. The pennant is similar to a commissioning pennant with a blue field at the luff and red and white stripes following to the end. In the blue field is a star for each officer on board and there is one foot of red and white stripe for each enlisted man. This made our pennant 210 feet long. (After we had arrived at Terminal Island, the carrier [USS] Saratoga [CV-3] came in with its pennant flying; over two thousand feet long. It was held up by helium balloons.)
Much of my time was occupied with putting together our Rough Log book. This was a chronicle of the Corpus Christi’s experience with lots of pictures of the officers and crew. It was to be printed and bound upon our arrival and each member of the crew would get two copies. The cost was covered by the profits from the ship’s canteen. I wrote a considerable amount of the copy, including the narrative of our activities. Because I knew that a few of my shipmates had exaggerated a bit about combat involvement, I protected them by saying that those experiences could best be told by each man. The book was quite a success and I am sure that copies are safely stowed in many of the crews homes or their children’s homes to this day. When the Rough Log was all finished I only found one error. It was the spelling of my name. It was WILLIALM. My fault--I was the proof reader.
When we came in to Terminal Island at Long Beach, we tied up alongside the cruiser [USS] Los Angeles [CA-135]. It was a new cruiser and I don’t think they had even been on sea trials yet. The crew was working on deck in blues and looked very formal. We came alongside with our motley looking crew in ratty dungarees and got a lot of stares. We felt very salty because we knew they knew we had just returned from the Pacific. A bunch of battle-scarred veterans.
With the exception of the brief stay ay Manus, we had been at sea for about thirty-five days. Our slogan, “Back alive in ‘45” had become a reality and everyone was counting up his points. These points would determine who was going to be discharged and when. You acquired points for length of service time, marital status, age, time spent at sea or out of the United States. There were quite a few in the crew who were eligible for discharge almost immediately. For me it looked like about six more months. Thirty-day leaves were also in the offing.
During the trip back I spent a lot time chatting with Captain [Lieutenant Charles H.] Lavell [Jr.] while on watch. He had been the executive officer and was moved up to captain when Childress was transferred a couple of months before. Unlike his predecessor, he and I got along extremely well and I was quite fond of him. He apparently saw some potential in me also and said if I was interested in a career in the Coast Guard he would try to get me into officers candidate school when we got to the states. I very likely would have taken this direction had it been offered but it never came to fruition. My life ( and a lot of others) certainly would have been very different had that happened. I have no regrets about it because I know that my life would not have been nearly as interesting nor as varied had that happened. Captain Lavell and I kept up a correspondence for a couple of years.
Lee and I had kept up a frequent correspondence all through the years that I had been away and we had reached a commitment that we would be married after the war was over. There were many of my friends and shipmates who had made similar commitments during those years. Most of the guys in the service, and especially those who had left home in their teens and early twenties, spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what they would do when it was over. Life in the service was so completely foreign to us, at least for a while, that the normality of wife, home and family was foremost. Going home, getting a job, maybe going back to school and getting married were very comforting fantasies.
I applied for my thirty-day leave and it was approved for the end of November. Just about one week after my arrival, Lee and I were married on December 10, 1945
It was a cold and snowy winter in the Midwest. One evening Dad and I went out to Lake Sullivan to go ice skating. Dad was quite a good figure skater and I had been fair before I left. We were doing the classic skating waltz when I caught a crack in the ice and went down. My ankle was broken. We went to the hospital and got it taken care of with a nice cast. That was the bad news. The good news was that I sent a telegram to the Captain, telling him of my mishap and requesting a thirty-day extension of my leave. It was granted. That meant I would be home until the end of February and probably would be discharged sometime in March.
We had a lot of fun during that time. With the war over everyone was in a very celebratory mood. There was a party every Saturday night, usually at my sister Ellen and her husband Don’s house. There would be twenty or so people there and a lot of boozing and hell raising. Some Sunday morning hangovers. It was a little tough for me to dance with a broken ankle, but I managed.
Time flies when you are having fun and all too soon I hopped on a plane and was on my way back to California. After almost two months away from the ship a lot had changed. They were converting it into a weather station ship and things were a big mess. The other problem was that all of my shipmates that I had been close to were gone. The next six weeks were very lonely and depressing. I had virtually no duties to perform so time really dragged. Liberty wasn’t much better. I would sometimes go visit some of the shipmates who lived in the LA area, but our lives were so different now that there wasn’t much enjoyment.
The Corpus Christi was being substantially modified for service as a weather ship. Its duty would be to maintain a station somewhere at sea to make weather observations. ( No satellites yet) I was a little edgy about this, fearing that the work would be completed and I would still not have enough points to get my discharge. My concerns were unjustified, By the first of March I was assured of getting out in a few weeks.
It was a strange and very ambiguous feeling when I left the ship. It had, after all, been my home for nearly two years. Knowing this spelled the end of a very important segment of my life, I now had to face the future and at this point had no idea what I would do. College was a first option but still I had no specific career in mind. I would just take things as they came.
I was sent to St. Louis for my discharge, which was the city where I had been sworn in in 1943. I frankly do not remember what means of transportation I used to get there The whole episode is sort of blank. I do remember getting the “Ruptured Duck” which was a small eagle medallion that was sewn onto my uniform. This let all who encountered you know that you were a discharged veteran of the war.
The last leg of the journey home was by plane. Another DC-3 ride from St. Louis to Indianapolis. It was March 13th, 1946 and I was ready to start on phase number two of my life.
1943-1946: U.S Coast Guard
1946-1949: Attended the American Television Institute in Chicago, Illinois and received a BS in television engineering on the GI Bill.
1950-1953: Employed by ABC Television station WENR-TV in Chicago as Engineer-camera operator. Later as stage manager and director. Also free-lanced as a newsreel cameraman.
1954-1956: Employed as director-editor at Telecine Film Studio, Park Ridge, Illinois.
1956-1961: Partner in a film production company in Glenview, Illinois.
1961-1967: Independent motion picture production in Chicago area.
1967-1970: Employed by Time-Life Films (Later known as McGraw-Hill) based in Indianapolis, Indiana as film director and editor.
1970-1976: Independent film production in Indianapolis area.
1976-1983: Independent Film Producer in New England area. Principle client; Naval Underwater Systems Center, New London, Connecticut. Also spent one year under contract to the Naval War College in Newport producing an information program on the Naval Mission. (Classified)
1983-1989: Employed as television studio manager at the University of Rhode Island.
1989-1992: On faculty at University of Rhode Island as full time lecturer in the School of Journalism.
1992-2002: Semi-retired. Employed part time as a Coast Guard licensed captain operating harbor tour vessels and managing and operating a 40 passenger ferry business between Newport, Rhode Island and Jamestown, Rhode Island.
2002-present: Fully retired except for some free-lance writing.
It’s been fun!