Even though World War II was not yet won, in February 1945 a clear-headed Naval official decided that nothing during the remainder of the war would rely on EAGLE 19. The 1918 hulk was ordered decommissioned because it was not likely to survive another blast from one of its own depth charges.
The bachelors on board passionately wished to get transferred to something more exciting. Our malaise was worst than that of the crew in USS RELUCTANT, the naval auxiliary described by Thomas Heggen in his book Mister Roberts. They lamented sailing “from Tedium to Apathy and back.”
To the unmarried bucks in EAGLE 19, Key West was Tedium. We departed Tedium, fiddled around in the Straits of Florida, and returned to Tedium. We never got to go to Apathy.
Thus, the decommissioning order put us in a great mood; anything slightly humorous triggered hilarity. We were primed for opportunities to have fun with any chore leading to decommissioning, but we were not prepared for a contest in determination that reduced us to side-splitting hysterical laughter.
About thirty-years before 1944, a child was born in Georgia and reared in the small-town culture that characterized the Deep South. He had become Executive Officer in EAGLE 19, and because our skipper was on leave was Acting Commanding Officer when the decommissioning order arrived.
About forty years before, a child was born in Holland. The culture that dictated his adult thinking and his accent, were definitely those of a Dutchman. Commissioned in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned as the Industrial Officer at the Naval Operating Base, Key West. He was then responsible for both scrapping our ship and for conversion of a merchant ship to a naval auxiliary for distilling and storing potable water. The later was the largest job ever assigned to the Base and arrival of the merchant ship was imminent.
The first encounter the two very-different officers had turned into one of the few entertaining events that we bachelors witnessed. Their conversation started with the Industrial Officer’s request to decommission within a week so that his burners, people skilled in cutting steel with oxyacetylene torches, could complete scrapping EAGLE 19 before the scheduled start of the great amount of rip out planned for the conversion project. Our Executive Officer advised that decommissioning had to wait for the Captain’s return.
Although an officer and gentlemen by act of Congress the Industrial Officer got red in the face and in effect thundered, “Dem it! Vun veek froom tooday, I cut oop de dem ship froom oon-da yoo!”
Being an officer and gentlemen also, the Exec narrowed his eyes and in a tone and style that that was reminiscent of General Nathan Bedford Forrest of Civil-War fame, drawled, “No way, you all!”
The Industrial Officer came from the heavy-construction industry where he was known for getting things done. After the Executive Officer went ashore, the Industrial Officer, as if he was a fierce Boer fighting the British in South Africa, led his burners in a surprise charge on EAGLE 19, cut out all bunks, and hauled them away. He knew, as the Executive Officer should have known from the events leading up to the surrender at Appomattox, that a force that can not sustain itself logistically, cannot endure; in other words, no sleep, no force.
The burning continued. And so it was that a few of us salted away snapshots that show EAGLE 19 minus her pilothouse, stack and after deckhouse, but with her jack and colors fluttering in the breeze as if nothing unusual was happening.
That isn’t all.
The absence of their bunks posed no problem for the enlisted crew because they were readily accepted by the officer in charge of the Base’s enlisted barracks. Nor was it a problem for the Acting Commanding Officer and the Navigator, both of whom were married and had rented accommodations ashore. Only the remaining three junior officers, Ben Dobson of Chattanooga, Dick Goebel of Scarsdale, and yours truly from Brooklyn, were orphaned. The officer in charge of the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) turned us away because we did not have orders.
None of us were alarmed by our circumstance. We could have slept on the beach for at least a couple of nights, but we decided to have some fun with our predicament.
Since the Industrial Officer, whose Dutch accent was so thick that he would have been believable as a U-boat commander, was the immediate cause of our being homeless, and since we knew that beneath his stern manner he was a soft touch we decided to dump our problem on him. We barged into his office, sat down without being asked, and in response to his dumbfounded look fired away. “What’s your wife preparing for dinner? How about steak? You should get a case of beer.”
The shocked Industrial Officer blurted, “Vots dis?”
All three of us babbled at once, “You took away our bunks. We were thrown out of the BOQ. We’re going home with you.”
With that he came up with a classic response, “I don know who to call, but I vill call somevun and raise hell!”
When he got through yelling in the telephone at three or four officials whose numbers he found in the phone book, we found ourselves as privileged guests in the BOQ.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo