March 27th, 2011
THE PRE WW-II NAVY
Joel Premselaar – LCDR USN (Ret)
A Snipe in USS New York
Reporting aboard New York, I was mustered in as a snipe and assigned to the engine room. The use of “in” in the subtitle is deliberate since snipes were below deck sailors, engine room and boiler room people. We were literally in the ship and seldom on it, which accounted for the ghost-like pallor that marked us as snipes. Snipe, one meaning given in the dictionary is “a contemptible person” and I suppose that is what the topside sailors had in mind when we were so named.
Save for quarters each morning, officers and warrant officers were abstract entities. The engine room’s chief petty officer, considered a demigod by snipes, was our pipeline for information and orders. The chief oriented us, assigned each of us to a duty section, a workstation, and a hammock space. Sections one and three were paired and, in similar fashion, sections two and four. When one section had the duty, the paired section was on standby. Liberty (permission to go ashore) operated on the same principle. When anchored, only two sections were given liberty. When tied up (to a slip, pier, wharf, dock, etc.), three sections were granted liberty.
In those days, recruits had to serve three months as division compartment cleaners and, subsequently, as mess cooks for another three months, but not necessarily in that order. The only compensation for these demeaning roles was that we were not assigned a duty section; therefore, with no watches to stand, we enjoyed a free gangway to liberty. Of course, liberty was ours only after our tasks were completed for that day. My first duty was that of mess cook. No, mess cooks did not cook. We were the cooks’ general flunkies. We peeled spuds and onions, made coffee, scrubbed cookware, etc.. Seated before a huge tureen, we developed a talent for breaking two eggs at a time, one in each hand. We dropped the eggs into the tureen and pitched the shells over our shoulders onto the steel deck. Afterward, we cleaned up the shells and drippings. For each meal, while the food was cooking, we raced down ladders (very steep steps) to our respective compartments to remove our mess tables and benches from racks on the overhead (ceiling), then assemble and set them.
Charging back topside to the galley, we piled up interlocking tureens full of hot food and carried them below to our compartments; mine was two decks below the galley on the main deck. Going through hatches and down ladders with both hands full of hot tureens while the ship was under way was more hazardous than performing a high wire act without a net. Multiple trips had to be made. After the meal, everything was done in reverse; in addition, the crockery and silverware had to be scrubbed and the tureens scoured. Coffee – that had to be available around the clock. Mess cooking was a labor intensive and demeaning affair. It was too late after doing the supper chores and we were too tired to take advantage of the free gangway (liberty). Furthermore, at $21.00 a month before insurance premiums, we didn’t have money to spend ashore anyway.
My tour as a compartment cleaner was only a little over a month. I was spared further indignities by the arrival of a new batch of recruits.
Alone, I controlled, lubricated, and maintained the port engine auxiliaries. The auxiliaries included no less than six pieces of machinery described below. It required two weeks to qualify for the billet.
The shaft alley pumps, actuated by cams secured to the propeller shaft, removed and dumped overboard any seawater that seeped by the propeller shaft’s seals.
The two fire and bilge pumps were steam driven multi-purpose pumps used for fighting fires, hosing down the decks, and pumping water out of the ship’s bilge or from flooded compartments.
The condenser received steam ejected from the ship’s engine and other steam dependent devices. A pump of the same basic design as the main steam engines (for those who need to know, they were triple expansion reciprocating engines) pumped seawater around the steam lines in the condenser to transform the steam into water. The pump required frequent adjustments to compensate for changes in the seawater’s temperature and the demand for more steam as the ship increased speed. The condenser’s discharge water temperature was the indicator for determining whether it was adequate for the transformation; consequently, frequent monitoring was essential. The intake for the cooling seawater was well below the ship’s waterline where the water was cooler. Usually, the location of the intake for the condenser determined ship’s operating draft in deference to mud and other bottom debris rather than it’s keel.
The make-up feed pump provided the means for transporting the now condensed steam (water) from the condenser through grease extractors to the boiler room. Steam entering the condenser was saturated with lubricating oil. After condensation, this oil was removed by filtering the contaminated water through Turkish toweling within the grease extractor. Towels were changed every hour for speeds to 12 knots (standard speed for New York) and every half hour above standard speed. This was a labor-intensive operation.
Chow (food), served in individual messes, was basic, nourishing, and repetitive week by week. I remember that every Wednesday and Saturday breakfast was baked beans and corn bread with the ever-present coffee. Supper on Thursday was spaghetti. Fish for the Catholics on Friday along with liver for those who preferred not to eat fish and so on. The personnel used salty names to describe the food. Pancakes were collision mats. Chicken was seagull. Many servings bore names not fit for mixed company. Imaginative metaphors were unlimited.
Sinks and showers were rudimentary at best. We showered and washed our clothes in salt water with salt-water soap. A bar of salt-water soap was about eight inches long, three inches square and the color of milk. We cut it to fit the occasion. We rinsed in fresh water. Rinsing was monitored by the Jimmy Legs to ensure that fresh water was conserved. Only a limited amount of fresh water went into our buckets from the sink’s trough. Our bucket had many uses; we washed and shaved from it, we washed our clothes in it, we carried tools and a variety of other things in it, we sat upon it, etc. To obtain hot water, we hooked the bucket of water to a steam line and injected steam into it. Of course, when a recruit asked how to get hot water, some helpful swabbie told him to fill his bucket with steam and add the water to the desired temperature.
Salt-water soap was cut into manageable pieces or shredded for washing our clothes in our bucket. A large perforated funnel attached to a shortened broomstick served as a hand actuated plunger. After a fresh water rinse and hand wringing, the clothes were dried. Clothing, including skivvies, had two reinforced holes, about an inch apart, on either side of the garment. Clothes stops (cotton lanyards similar to a short shoelace) threaded through the holes and secured to clotheslines substituted for clothespins. Have you ever wondered why there are reverse creases on sailor’s clothes? Answer: to keep them free of lint during pressing. Pressing amounted to folding the still damp clothes inside out, placed between hammock and mattress, and slept on them. After pressing the outer garments, we tied them into rolls with clothes stops for stowage. Personal housekeeping chores took place on Wednesday afternoons. This period bears the name: “Rope yarn Sunday.”
Cleanliness was paramount in the navy. This was especially true in the confines of a ship. I did witness a “sand and canvassing” on a couple of occasions. When a sailor, usually a recruit, ignored the warnings of his shipmates to scrub down, he was hauled topside and aft for a “sand and canvassing.” Concerned shipmates stripped him to the skin, hosed him down, and scrubbed vigorously with a wet canvass dipped into a bucket of sand. During this time, the Jimmy Legs would be forward to intercept officers and turn them about with the words, “Sand and canvassing aft, sir.” The “sand and canvassed” sailor more than met the standard of cleanliness from that time forward.
A means for enforcing general tidiness was “the bucket of wet sand treatment.” Anyone caught littering or fouling the ship in any way was handed a bucket of wet sand to carry in one hand, no counter balance permitted, for a full watch (four hours). There were no repeat offenders.
Fresh water, manufactured from seawater, used on board machinery. Since this consumed fuel oil, water conservation was important. Units competed yearly for big “E” awards; white for battle efficiency and red for engineering efficiency, hence the rationing of fresh water among other things. The winning ship’s stack sported the appropriate E(s) and an efficiency pennant. The crew, now entitled to prize money, would wear the corresponding E on their uniforms for one year after earning it.
The head, ah yes, the head (toilet). It was something to behold. Troughs were used for the urinal. There were handgrips for rough weather. No flushing required. Salt water was pumped in one end and exited the other. In civilian heads, one could always identify a sailor. A sailor assumes a three-point stance. With his feet well back from the urinal, he leans forward and stabilizes himself by placing his legs apart and his hand against the bulkhead (wall). Aboard the older ships, toilet seats were fitted over a trough with nothing but a sheet of metal separated the thrones-no doors and no privacy. Water entered one end of the trough and out the other. I know that you understand why the seats nearest the output end were the least desirable. It was a busy place in the morning. Invariably there would be readers ignoring squirming shipmates waiting their turn. The old salts had a remedy for this. They piled crumpled toilet paper at the water’s entry point and lit it. As the flaming pyre passed beneath the inconsiderate ones, the queued sailors enjoyed a show of sequential jumping jacks. No encores were expected.
The head and washing facilities were located aft. During dirty weather, the stern section pitched dramatically and, as the screws cleared water, a shudder of sizable amplitude accompanied by a rumble was felt throughout the ship. During these conditions, those responding to nature’s call found the act of relieving oneself extremely challenging. The remarkably large waves generated in the troughs below the toilet seats treated the sailors to their first experience with the largest bidet in the world.
Late in 1940, I manipulated a transfer to “V” Division (the aviation division) by presenting my civilian flight log to a “V” Division officer. Once again I was a topside sailor. I became an aviation ordnanceman striker (apprentice) and gunner. I was no longer a despised snipe; I was now a despicable air(e)dale, synonymous with the dog. Airdales deployed ashore frequently. Airdales received skins (flight pay for extra hazardous duty). Airdales messed up spic and span wooden decks with oil, fuel, grease, paralketone, and other vile substances. Airdales flew into port a day ahead of the ship. Oh, we were an insufferable lot!
In May 1941, we exchanged salutes with HMS Rodney as we left Boston’s harbor for parts unknown. “Lying to” off Newfoundland, several other ships of the line, transports, and support vessels joined us. It was obvious that we were making up a convoy to go — but where?? Our mimeographed newspaper reported that HMS Hood blew up during an engagement with the German battleship Bismarck. The sea battle was reported to have taken place between Iceland and Greenland. Bismark raced toward Europe with the British fleet in hot pursuit. We also learned that Rodney was steaming at flank speed to join the fray.
We headed in an easterly direction, a 21ship nine-knot convoy. We had daily gun drills, General Quarters drills, and Damage Control drills. Finally, word came down that our destination was Iceland. Our time of arrival had yet to be determined. Two and two does make four. The sea battle between the British warships and Bismark lay between our destination and us. The frequency of our drills provided one answer; combat! After the war, I learned that we were delaying our arrival in Iceland for political reasons. However, the big question in our minds was, were we going to get involved in a shooting war?
With the knowledge that we were going to Iceland, many of us decided to raise Viking beards. The skipper directed his division officers to have us remove our beards. Respecting authority, I removed my beard. Several men (we dubbed them “Sea Lawyers”) reminded the division officer that Navy Regulations stated that beards were permissible if neatly trimmed. The next morning, General Quarters was sounded and word passed that this was a drill. We went to our battle stations. All water tight doors and hatches were secured. The senior petty officer in each compartment released tear gas and announced, “Gas attack, don your gas masks.” The next day, not a word was said about beards, but every face was clean-shaven.
Petty Officers were allocated bunks. Non-rated personnel slept in hammocks. Some naïve non-rated personnel, of whom I was one, were offered a bunk by kind and considerate Petty Officers. The story line to us, the uninitiated, went like this: “It’s been a long time since I slept in a hammock and I sure do miss it. How’d you like to switch with me for this cruise and sleep in a bunk for a change?” A couple of days after luxuriating in a bunk, we steamed into the “Roaring Forties” (the latitudes between 40° and 50° wherein severe storms prevail). One day, we gullible gobs gave little thought to the storm we encountered. After “Taps,” this gullible gob was desperately hanging onto the bunk’s railings for the entire night. I gave great thought about the storm and my magnanimous Petty Officer. The next morning, I glared at my chivalrous Petty Officer through bleary eyes. He nodded knowingly, put one hand on my shoulder, and handed me a length of line with the other. “Here,” he offered, “lash yourself to the bunk with this tonight.”
Soon after the bugler sounded “Flight Quarters”, I climbed into the OS2U-1’s (Kingfisher) gunner’s seat and readied myself for the launch. After catapulting, our three aircraft rendezvoused with Arkansas’ and ultimately with aircraft from two cruisers, Brooklyn and Quincy, if I remember correctly. We were 14 strong. We swept the sea around the convoy for submarines. Clearing the area ahead to Reykjavik, two American four stacker destroyers, now in British hands under the lend lease agreement, were on picket duty on the approaches to Reykjavik’s harbor. German aircraft, Focke Wolfe Condors operating from Norway, had been conducting operations into Reykjavik. Understandably, the British were a bit paranoid. As we neared the harbor, the destroyers opened fire on us. We turned tail and returned to our ships. It was my baptism of fire and it was from an American built ship at that!
Our destroyer Rueben James had been sunk and Kearny was hit prior to any declaration of war; therefore, we felt that were in it, as the cliché puts it, “for real!” Later, after a stint in Newfoundland we returned to our homeport, Norfolk, Virginia. While New York was in dry dock in Portsmouth, Virginia, we of the Aviation Unit were based on the Naval Air Station, Norfolk Virginia, when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred.Tags: USS New York BB-34