INTRODUCTION TO LIFE ON A BATTLESHIP
The new contingent of recruits and I arrived aboard ship mid morning on Friday.
The ship's crew was energetically engaged in "field day". This is an institution as old as the US Navy. It is the day set aside to restore the ship to an immaculate condition. The teakwood decks are scoured clean enough to eat off of by a process known as "holy stoning."
This is accomplished by taking a fire brick and chipping out a hole large enough to receive a three foot length of swab (mop) handle.. The deck is wet down and covered with sand which is used as the abrasive to clean the wood deck. It is no doubt the hardest work ever done by a deck hand. The handle is short so the worker has to put his full weight on the swab handle and then sand the deck with a scrubbing motion. Centuries ago an observer saw a deck hand sanding the deck and mistook his activity for praying ... to the stone. He said, "that stone must really be holy." Since that time the brick replacing the stone has been called a "holy stone" and the sanding process "holy stoning."
We arriving recruits were placed in the "X" division for a weeks
orientation in a Deck
division, Boiler division, and Engineering and Gunnery divisions. On our first Saturday in California morning we were getting prepared for Captain's inspection and then ashore to see the sights of Long Beach, Hollywood, and Los Angeles.
About 4:00 that Friday afternoon the ship began to vibrate so violently it was difficult to stand. The 80 lb per link anchor chain bounced up and down like it was made of rope. The word spread that the magazines had blown up. Ashore in Long Beach we could see fires breaking out all over the city. Even though a mile away we could hear the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles
We were introduced to California by the great earthquake of 1933 with it's epicenter near Long Beach.
Because of the extreme devastation we were not allowed off the ship for six weeks. It took that long to clean up the debris and reopen the main streets. California had not yet adopted the strict earthquake building codes it has to day so many buildings including school buildings were wrecked.
What is life like on a battleship? The first impression is--- people everywhere. Compare 1500 people and about 100,000 square feet of living space with your own home which for example is probably about 2000 square feet for 4 persons. Your home would provide 500 square feet per person compared with about 7 square feet per person aboard ship. Of course space is added when you imitate a house fly and sleep on the ceiling in a hammock. However, there is also room to spread out on the non living space on other decks.
Each sailor is assigned a locker with just enough space to hold his clothes, i.e.,if each item is neatly rolled. To discourage being sloppy the Navy has an ancient innovation called the "Lucky Bag." Any item of clothing or personal item found "adrift" is turned over to the ship's police, (Master of Arms) who is in charge of the "Lucky Bag." To get the item back the punishment is at least two hours extra duty.
During recruit training we had adequate facilities for washing our own clothes. But aboard ship it is a different story. The first problem is the shortage of fresh water. Although there are storage tanks for fresh water obtained from land sources, the majority of the water supply is obtained from evaporating salt water.
Living in close quarters with 1500 others the routine is to shower every day and change into clean clothes.
A regular laundry exists for officers and Chief Petty Officers but the rest of us were left to our own devices..
Our uniforms could be sent ashore for dry cleaning.
Washing and drying clothes for the 1200 plus crew was always challenge. Routine in the crews wash room is something like this:
First you must own a two and one half gallon galvanized bucket which you keep pad locked to any convenient appendage you can find. For security you leave your shoes and valuables in your locker and pick up your towel and soap.. Outside the washroom, you and a few dozen others, undress and put your white things in the bucket and are rationed a couple of gallons of fresh water. The bulkhead has several steam hydrants. Next you slide your bucket over the steam pipe and turn on the raw steam until the water boils. After washing the white clothes you use the same water to wash the dark things. The rinse is done with cold salt water.
Trying to find a place to hang the clothes to dry is challenge. The temperature inside the ship interior of the ship ranges from warm to hot so the task does get done. Loss of drying clothes is not a big problem since every garment is clearly stenciled with the owners name and theft is severely punished including discharge of a repeated offender.
Instructions are posted in the community washrooms. The gist of a Navy shower is:
WET DOWN YOUR BODY WITH FRESH WATER
TURN OFF FRESH WATER SHOWER
LATHER UP YOUR BODY WITH SOAP.
RINSE OFF WITH SALT WATER
In the 20's and 30's a battleship existed to shoot its' guns at another ship or land target.
Therefore the crew exists to train, shoot, and maintain the ship for battle.
The major departments are Gunnery, Engineering, Communication, and Supply. Every
one has a battle station.
I was assigned to the second division which was responsible for turret 2 which housed two sixteen inch guns. Each barrel weighed 105 tons, and required 500 lbs of powder per gun to send its projectile weighing 1200 lbs to a target 21 miles distant.
The second division occupied the forward one third of the port (left) side of the ship. In addition we were responsible for maintenance and operation of Turret 2 with it's five levels and powder magazines , all spaces from the top deck to the double bottoms, the port anchor, and a 26 ft motor whale boat.
My first battle station was handling powder bags in the lower powder handling room which along with the projectile from the shell deck was delivered to the breech of the gun in a series of hoists and hydraulic lifts. About 90 men were required to fire the guns.
In the years I was in turret two, I had the following jobs:
Firing pointer: When firing at a visible target the firing pointer coaches the pointer to get the crosswires of his telescope on the target vertically, and the trainer to do the same horizontally. When he was satisfied he is on target, the firing pointer pulls the trigger.
My first experience was dramatic. When I pulled the trigger the noise and vibration was so severe I thought I had blown up the ship. The guns have to be pointed broadside to absorb the recoil and keep from damaging the ship's superstructure. The 45,000 ton ship which is 624 feet long, (the length of two football fields), skids sideways in the water about 20 feet. All I could see through the telescope was smoke and I assumed we were sinking. But as the smoke cleared, I could see the target a mile away with two holes in its center. We quickly followed with two more salvos scoring 100 percent hits.
Primerman: I also served as primer man for long range Battle Practice. To prevent premature explosion, the primer which ignites the powder is not inserted until the gun is in firing position. After the primer is inserted into the gun's firing lock the primerman steps into an alcove behind the gun. A red line shows the limit of the gun's 48 inch recoil when fired. The alcove is just large enough to allow 6 inches of space between ones' chest and the recoiling gun breech. My body outline was probably embedded in the steel behind me every time the gun fired.
Gun Captain: For several years my battle station was Gun Captain. As such I operated the machinery which opened and closed the breech, cleared the bore , supervised the loading, and turned on the ready light completing the firing circuit. Again my position between salvos was 48 inches to the rear of the recoiling gun. It took a while to get used to seeing that 105 tons steel heading for my chest and having the faith to believe it would stop at the red line marking the designed limit of recoil.
When at sea most every one is has a duty station for running the ship and is
"on watch" one fourth of the time.
The watches are divided into midnight to 4 AM, 4 to 8 AM, 8 to 12 noon, noon to 4 PM, 4 to 6 PM, 6 to 8 PM and 8 to 12 midnight. The toughest watch is the "Mid Watch", that is the midnight to 4 AM watch. I would go to bed early and dream I was already on watch., then stand the watch, then turn in again and dream I was still on watch. Mid watch standers were theoretically allowed to sleep in until 6:30 AM. But the noise of forty other people getting up at 5:30 and going to work at 6:00 didn't create a slumberland atmosphere. (Those familiar with the Biblical Gideon will remember that he and his valiant 300 did not attack the Midianite camp until the "beginning of the middle watch.". Although a farmer by profession Gideon had enough military savvy to know that those who just came off watch and collapsed in their bunks would practically be dead to the world and the persons on the newly set watch would still be groggy and half asleep).
My first "at sea" duty watch was acting as LOOKOUT. To stand the watch I climbed to the highest point on the ship called the "crows nest". With powerful binoculars my job was to constantly scan the horizon and report anything sighted to the Officer of the Deck by ringing a bell and shouting the message through a two and a half brass voice tube connecting to the bridge.
The correct report was, "Ship (or other object) sighted", and then give the relative bearing of the object sighted. Since the curvature of the earth is several inches per mile, the LOOKOUT has a responsible task to first inform the Officer of the Deck of anything coming into view.
This was a eight years before radar and even more years before satellites exposed the location of sea travelers to the whole world.
The seamanship books we studied at the Training Station were not that up to date. They contained the following instructions:
"Upon sighting a ship (or other object) , Yell., "SHIP" or other object) AHOY".
The officer of the deck will respond, "Where Away?
The lookout was then to give him the bearing of the sighted object.
After coming aboard a new recruit assigned as lookout had not been instructed as to the WEST VIRGINIA procedure.
He was very excited about seeing his first ship and yelled down to the bridge, "Ship Ahoy."
An embarrassed and startled Officer of the Deck didn't know exactly how to respond to the excited shouts. Fortunately the Captain was from the old school. He yelled, "Where Away" and got the location report. The officer of the deck proceeded to instruct his crew on watch "more perfectly" in the modern way.
I soon graduated to the job of Officer of the Deck's messenger. This is a job
of infinite variety.
The officer of the deck has a loud speaker system that reaches throughout the ship at his disposal but it is reserved for the more routine tasks. The officer of the deck's messenger is also borrowed by the executive officer and sometimes by the captain, if his orderly is on another errand. This involves delivering messages to anyone including the highest ranking officers. The messenger also has to go into the officers quarters to awaken the officers due for the next watch.
Frequently I used some discretion in editing some messages. During one two year period our Executive Officer, second in command, was not the best liked "exec" we ever had and for good reasons. One day he had the word passed over the speaker system for our senior physician , Dr. Mackey, to report to him on the bridge. When he did not report after repeated requests the executive officer told me to go tell him that if he didn't report to him in two minutes he would have him restricted to his room.
I found Dr. Mackey in the shower and delivered the message to him.
He gave me this message to give to Commander ________,"Tell him if he does, I will have him placed under "medical observation".
My edited version, "Dr. Mackey is taking shower and will be up as soon as he can get dressed."
At the time I didn't realize the extent of the quality training I was receiving during those years of being on the bridge.. When I became a Watch Officer at sea and later Commanding Officer, I was familiar with the equipment and routine.
What did we do when not training for battle? Work, eat , sleep, rest and go ashore on liberty when in port. That is every other day. Half the crew had to be aboard at all times.
The three words which brought terror to a deck hand's weary muscles were holy stoning, mess cooking, and working party. While on duty in port the logistical needs are very demanding. You can picture the work involved in weekly shopping at the supermarket for a normal family's' needs. Multiply that by a family of 1500. And the groceries and supplies has to be transported from shore by boat which means double handling. The six deck divisions rotated being the "working division" for in port needs. And hours of hard labor was required from those of us on duty in the working division.
The supply system was not as sophisticated as computers now provide. The
Commissary Officer negotiated directly with the supplier of milk and fresh fruit
and other perishable items to be delivered to the dock for transport to the ship
via Navy motor launch.. It was more than a rumor that kick backs were involved.
I was once on a working party where we handled twenty gallon containers of
refrigerated fresh milk.
While traveling from shore to the ship I turned P.I. and pried the top off one of the containers of "milk.". Sure enough it was filled with water. I do not know how many more cans of water the ship bought at fresh milk prices.
The Naval Prison at Mare Island, California was building number 84. It was rumored the prison had an annual world series of baseball with the two teams being made up of Navy Mail Clerks and Commissary Stewards convicted of being dishonest..
The result of this illegal activity led to one of my favorite stories. A sailor was on his death bed while at sea. The Chaplain attending him asked if he had any last request. He did in fact. He requested that in his last hours the Commissary Officer and the Chief Commissary Steward sit on each side of his bed and hold his hands. The Chaplain complied. When the Chaplain asked him to explain this extraordinary request, he replied, " I have always wanted to die like Christ did, BETWEEN TWO THIEVES.".
One of my high school class mates (ahead of me) at Novelty had moved to Compton, California. I often visited him and his wife. A distant relative lived in Huntington, and another in Hollywood. The Hagers in Huntington had me out to their home on weekends and took me to my first Rose Parade on one New Year's day. Afterward I used my $6.00 ticket to attend the Rose Bowl game between Stanford and Alabama.
But I did get to go ashore every other weekend.
My first trip to Hollywood was scary. As I was walking the sidewalk looking for a relative's Apartment address, a police car came alongside and two police officers ordered me to get in. They asked for my identification and quizzed me for half an hour about my recent activities. Apparently my answers satisfied them. They told me there had been a bank robbery and that the suspect was wearing a Navy uniform. They drove me to my relative's home.
A slogan for many years has been: JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD.
Within my first two years in the Navy we had visited San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, and the Hawaiian Islands, transited the Panama Canal, and been ashore in Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Norfolk, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island.
Since the Navy didn't get to New York very often, the city gave us ticker tape treatment. We had a parade marching up Broadway from the Battery to Central Park. From 14th Street to 110th street is quite a long march. We were given free theater tickets and admission to all major league ballparks for paying the tax, 20 cents. I got to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
It was fun to go to the top of the Empire State Building and visit all the museums I had heard of in school.
After leaving New York, we went to Newport, Rhode Island. When leaving Newport Harbor at full speed the West Virginia couldn't keep up with the ship ahead in formation. We saw a splash in front of the bow and found out why., We had struck a huge whale amidships and wishboned him or her around the bow. We pulled out of formation and slowed down. When enough pushing pressure had subsided the whale unwrapped himself and dove toward the bottom looking for the closest whale chiropractor for an adjustment. One of my prized snapshots is of the whale being pushed by the ship.
Back to reality. Eating involves the most dreaded duty a recruit faces. He is subjected to three months "MESS COOKING".
On the battleship meals were served family style, 20 to a family. Tables and benches with folding legs are stored on the overhead (ceiling) between meals. The "mess cook" had this routine:
An hour before each meal was to be served at 7:30 AM, 1200 Noon and 5:30 in the evening two mess cooks working to-gether would set up their tables, get their dishes and silverware from the scullery where the dishes were sterilized and stored after each meal They got their dishpans and brass coffee pots from the "condiment locker" which had shelves for storing the 75 of these utensils. At mealtime they carried the food and coffee from the galley in "tureens", round metal containers containing 20 portions of the items on the menu, to the hungry men at the table.
Since the ship is more than 200 yards long, the "messes" farthest from the galley and on a deck above or below it, provided plenty of exercise for the mess cook particularly if the sea was rough.
Fifteen minutes before each meal the bugler sounded "mess gear" on his bugle and the Boatswain's mate of the watch gave the command over the loud speaker system, "Clear the mess decks." This was of course so the mess cooks could have clear right of way between their table and the galley. Anyone other than the mess cooks found on the mess decks during this 15 minutes was subject to discipline. On the stroke of the bell at mealtime the Boatswain's Mate of the watch piped "CHOW DOWN" on his Boatswains pipe and there was a mad rush to the tables.
My career in the Navy was highlighted by a long series of special privileges and favors. Instead of regular "mess cooking" duties I was assigned to the condiment locker. A member of the Master at Arms, (the ship's police force) was responsible to inspect the dishpans and coffee pots for sanitation when they were returned to the condiment locker for storage between meals. The coffeepots were two-gallon brass containers with a handle and spout. After each meal they had to be scoured with bright work polish. Particularly around the spout it was easy to leave some of the polish which of course would pollute the coffee.
The duty of inspecting these coffeepots was delegated to me as the mess cook
handed in his dishpan with the coffeepot inside. I used a powerful flashlight
and inspected the coffee pot for perfect cleanliness and dryness. If it didn't
meet specifications, which many didn't, I refused it and sent him back for
It was in this capacity that I saw all of the mess cooks three times a day. One of them was a sailor by the name of Lester Spencer, who was later to be a strategic Christian in the founding of the Navigators, and a personal influence in my own life.
My only other job was to keep the condiment locker compartment clean and the deck waxed.
I only served a few days as a "deck hand", whose main job is scrubbing and "holy stoning" decks painting, and washing painted surfaces.
My next special job was serving as "bow hook" in our division's gasoline powered 26-foot motor whaleboat. It is an all-purpose boat used for mail trips ashore and any other passenger transportation or light freight needs. It had a three-man crew, coxswain, engineer, and bow hook. My job was to use the bow hook, a long pole with a hook on the end for catching onto the pier or another ship, pull the boat toward it and then jump onto the pier and secure the bow line to the cleat, then secure the stern line. When leaving the pier I was the last one in the boat. The worst part of the job was always being wet. The boat was so low in the water we were showered with salt-water spray with every wave. You can guess who kept the boat clean and painted.
When we made runs while at sea, the crew got in the boat while it was in its' cradle on the boat deck and were hoisted out and into the water by a huge crane. The height was about 40 feet and a little tricky particularly when the sea was rough. I was always glad when we hit the water when being launched or were nested in the cradle when returning aboard.
YEARS AS A TURRET STRIKER
In Navy lingo anyone who is apprenticing for a special skill and rating is called a "striker."
In my division there were only two paths of promotion: Boatswain's Mate and Gunners Mate.
Ten men were assigned for the maintenance and battle readiness of Turret two. There was a Chief Turret Captain in charge assisted by a Gunner' Mate first class, a Gunners mate second Class, two Gunner's Mates third class and four Seaman first Class, the "strikers" in the promotion path to Gunner's Mates or Turret Captains.
My rating after four months in the Navy was seaman second class. Every quarter of the year a quota for advancement to all ratings was given to each ship. There were competitive examinations for the scarce advancements. We had several books to study on the subjects of the Navy Regulations, general military knowledge, and detailed questions on the military specialty being pursued.
I believe I took the examination the first time I was eligible. The
examination took longer than anticipated and no one was finished by noon
"chow time" When it was announced the exam would be completed after
breaking for lunch, we all did the same thing. That is we made a note
Of all the questions to which we did not know the answers and instead of eating we hit the books for the answers. Naturally there were some pretty high scores. As a new Christian I did not feel comfortable with doing what every one else did. I checked off the questions I didn't have answers for before the noon break and made a note at the end of my paper stating what I had done. The response of the examining officer was to put my name near the top of the promotion list. I was now a seaman first class in pay grade 5 earning $54.00 a month.
The pay for a recruit, Apprentice Seaman (or fireman third class for Engineers) was 21.00 per month. After four months service, seaman were automatically promoted to second class with a pay raise to $36.00 per month.
The Army and Marine Corps had no automatic provision for promotion after serving four months and it was possible to serve for four years without advancing from Private to Private first class with the compensation being (21.00 a month and a "horse blanket.")
The saying that described this inequity was that, "The Army did the work, the Marines got the credit, and the Navy drew the pay."
As a turret striker our pre-breakfast routine was to phone the Engineering Office to request the electrical power be turned on so we could lower the gun barrels and scrub them and polish the brass decorated plugs called "tompions" which seal the muzzle of the gun.
If anchored and all the auxiliary generators were not "lit off", there was not enough power for all the turrets to have power at once. So at reveille at 5:30 AM I generally phoned the electrician on watch and ask for "power for turret 2" even before having a cup of coffee.
My most embarrassing moment was when I dialed 214 early one morning and
instead of a prompt answer the phone rang about a dozen times after which the
voice at the other end said, " Hello,"
Instead of "Log Room."
I requested power for turret 2.
A gruff voice responded, "This is the Captain. Watch those numbers when you dial them." He then slammed down the receiver. The captain had an unpublished number and I apparently dialed it in error.
The Captain never tried to track me down and I was soon promoted to Gunner's Mate Third Class.
There is a lot of grease and oil associated with all the machinery in a turret and we were constantly wiping it up. Between firings we put strips of red "battleship linoleum" on the steel decks which soon got a layer of grease tracked on it.
We couldn't use gasoline and steel wool to clean the linoleum because of the fire hazard. We
Finally discovered an effective cleansing agent.
On of the advantages of being in the turret was privacy for sleeping in a cot, and having our own coffee making equipment.
We kept a supply of sugar, canned milk and coffee grounds. For use in the turret we also had a bale of rags. To make coffee we would wrap a cup of coffee grounds in a rag tied with a string. We had a gallon size varnish tin bucket we would fill with fresh water. Through out the ship there were steam hydrants for heating water. It was a dangerous operation but effective. You simply immersed the steam pipe in the water and turned on the steam until the water boiled.
Boiling the bag of coffee grounds in the bucket produced hot coffee. The left over coffee was the most effective agent we discovered to cut the grease on the linoleum.
My duties as Gun Pointer and Captain, Motor Whaleboat crewman, and assistant to the Master at Arms gave me wide exposure to the decision making officers and petty officers of the ship.
When the Assistant Navy Mail Clerk was transferred to new duty, I was appointed to fill the vacancy, later became the Navy Mail Clerk, (Postmaster), and held that strategic position until the West Virginia, sunk at Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, returned to the Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington for overhaul and refitting in June 1943.
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