Beneke, not his real name, was one of the few crew members in USS EAGLE 19 who was over thirty, over six feet, and over two-hundred pounds. He was also Asiatic, that is, one of the few who served in the Far Eastern Squadron before World War II. He was no stranger to Shanghai’s Soo Chow Creek area and he had survived liberties on the Yangtse River as far inland as Changsha. He was a first-class machinist mate and was well over the culture shock caused by the rapid build up of the Navy. Because of the mobilization, his type became a minute minority. Regardless, Beneke seemed to have no problem accepting me, a twenty-year old ensign from the merchant marine, as his engineering officer.
Perhaps because he was in the initial phase of middle-age spread while I hardly had to shave, Beneke’s attitude toward me was sometimes paternal. More than once during my first month on board, in his whiskey-cultivated deep voice he said, “Mr. Chirillo, you’re too easy with the men. You’re letting them get away with too much.”
That was probably a fair assessment. I was new to the Navy and one of the few of the black gang who could not legally buy a drink in a bar ashore. Beneke, as it turned out, underestimated the power of his own advice.
At the end of the first six-weeks of operations with me in charge of the machinery spaces, a week was scheduled for maintenance. This was the period when I had greatest need for experienced petty officers. On the morning after arrival in Key West’s Naval Operating Base, Beneke was reported absent over leave. A few questions disclosed that this was not the first time. I was furious; Beneke was the character who said I was too easy. I resolved not to wait for the normal disciplinary procedures to catch up with him.
I volunteered for shore patrol. That very evening with two enlisted patrolmen in tow and rigged with an SP arm band and the 38 revolver that I had sported thus far only during drills at general quarters, I went looking for my errant first-class machinist mate. Without concern for the area assigned to me, I led my team to wherever Beneke was likely to be.
We found him passed out in a miserably furnished crummy room where he was shacked up with another alcohol aficionado. She was at that moment playing the piano through fogged-over eyeballs in the equally crummy bar below. Nothing less resembled a human being than the unshaven, hoary-breathed machinist mate who then had been passed out for hours in a white uniform donned the day before.
When Beneke became the equivalent of walking wounded we called the wagon, transported him to the dispensary, and after the bored doctor’s blessing, gave our prisoner free lodging in the shore-patrol drunk tank.
Since that wasn’t Beneke’s first such offense, the result of the subsequent legal proceedings was a sentence to serve a few weeks in Key West’s notorious brig that was administered by the Marine Corps. There, as could be seen through the chain-link barbwire-topped fence, denim-clad prisoners, with a large P painted on each of their backs, stood at attention in the chow line with arms folded and held away from their chests. Anyone who flinched had to duck walk under the supervision of a crew-cut marine dressed in a perfectly ironed khaki uniform.
I must admit to a bit of sympathy for the old man of the black gang, but that moment was soon overshadowed by another concern. Not being familiar with such matters, it seemed reasonable to me that Beneke would not be coming back to EAGLE 19. That was not the case and because of a few days notice, I had time to stew over what it would be like when he rejoined the ship. I imagined controlled, but nonetheless seething hatred for the officer responsible for putting him away with such dispatch. I prepared myself for just about any such event, but not at all for what happened.
As soon as Beneke saw me he broke into a big smile and as he punched his left palm with his right fist he happily shouted, “That’s what I meant!”
Beneke was proud of me. I had scared the hell out of the entire black gang.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo