Rockets

The date may have been the fourth of February in 1944. I was then chief engineer in the 1918-built USS EAGLE 19 and had two memorable chief petty officers as assistant engineers. Frogeyes, the chief machinist, didn’t like that appellation but accepted Banjo because his first name, Francis, would have been yoo-hooed behind his back by the oil-soaked engine-room denizens that he had to keep in line. Porky, who was in charge of the soot-covered creatures that kept the boilers clean and steaming, sported a one-inch thick hard layer of hairless lard that fit him like a wet suit long before wets suits were invented. Porky used it to good advantage.

When I reported aboard two-months before, because Eagle boats were known for extreme rolling, one of Porky’s men, Marino, who was always animated and had a devilish look even when he slept, came up with a challenge, “Sir, I’ll bet you five bucks that you get seasick during your first week out!”

After I took what was more than a day’s pay from Marino I had to put up with hearing him complain, “You never told me that you sailed in the merchant marine before joining the Navy.”

scuttle

Porky was made of smarter stuff. He bet me five bucks that he could go through the 18-inch diameter fire-room escape scuttle without touching the sides. Because the fire room was kept pressurized when the boilers were lighted, normal entry was from the engine room through an air lock, that is, a double-door arrangement wherein one door was always kept closed. The maindeck scuttle was for emergencies and could only be used after the boilers were secured. Thus the next time in port, I lined the scuttle’s inside circumference with soot, and challenged Porky. His wet-suit paunch seemed to guarantee that he was going to fit in the scuttle like a cork in a wine bottle.

There was a two-foot square platform located about five feet directly below the scuttle. The slightly inclined ladder between the scuttle and the platform had four rungs. Porky stripped to his waist and stood on the platform. Just the top of his head was poking though the scuttle opening. The fact that his belt buckle was hidden by his gut was evidence that what he intended to do was impossible.

Then Porky bent his knees and like a dancer from India, slowly put his arms over his head with palms together. His fingertips were protruding through the center of the circular opening. Even when he was so stretched anyone could see that the scuttle wasn’t large enough. Then with an enormous in rushing of air that rivaled what the boilers consumed during a full-power run, Porky suddenly sucked in his belly, darted up the four steps in a split second, leaped on the main deck, and took Marino’s five bucks from me.

Without such diversions those of us who were banished to the back waters of World War II would have gone crazy. But another boys-will-be-boys escapade could have had very serious consequences.

Although a licensed marine engineer and a commissioned officer I was only twenty, that is, one of the few on board who couldn’t walk into a bar and buy a drink. My youth could have been mitigating had there been a court martial. Banjo was twenty-three. He should have known better.

The quarters for chief petty officers had upper and lower bunks of a semi-permanent type and vertical steel lockers. Beneath the lowermost bunks were built-in horizontal wood lockers. They were left over from World War I days and were not used because entry required dismantling the lower bunks. For a reason that I never learned, perhaps boredom, Banjo dismantled his bunk in order to see if there was anything in the locker beneath. He found two rockets that seemed to be oversized versions of the kind that celebrants fire on Independence Day.

When Banjo told me about his discovery, we assumed that each 3-inch diameter, 2-foot long casing contained the ingredients for old-time signal flares. Broom-handle-thick poles of about 5-feet in length were provided for supporting the rockets. We knew of an inclined pipe aimed in the direction of the channel that was sticking out of the Naval Operating Base seawall. The pipe was an ideal mortar. Because Key West was blacked out, we did not let anyone know of our intention to celebrate Independence Day five-months early.

On the first night after our return to port, the gangway watch probably thought it odd that the Chief Machinist Mate and the Engineering Officer were both going ashore relatively late and carrying what seemed to be some lengths of pipe. Nonetheless, we made it to the seawall undetected between patrols by the marine sentries. If the first flare wasn’t a dud, our plan was to ignite the second as quickly as possible, even before the first burst in the sky. Surely the marine jeep would be back post haste when the blackout was broken.

Thus with me quickly dropping the second into the pipe and Banjo at the ready with his cigarette lighter, the second was airborne before the first flare appeared. But flares never did appear. The rockets were aerial bombs! Good God, Banjo found them just inches below where he slept and just about everyone smoked in the chiefs’ quarters!

The first blast stopped us in our tracks as we started to run off of the seawall. It lit up the entire island of Key West. As we stood momentarily frozen, the second blast occurred; I could feel the heat on my face. Neither one of us ever ran as fast before or since.

Decades later I discovered what seemed to be identical bombs in Joseph Phelan’s Heroes & Aeroplanes of the Great War 1914-1918. A sketch showed LePrieur electrically fired rockets carried on the wing struts of a French Nieuport, a fighter plane.

Banjo and I may have fired the last two shots of World War I.

plane

***************

The bombs bursting in air,
gave proof through the night,
that Banjo and the Engineering Officer
were not still there.

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Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo


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