When reporting aboard USS EAGLE 32 I tried not to think of the fact that I was misassigned for the second time by the desk-bound Navy in Washington, D.C. I could not help but wonder how vast must be the wartime waste of manpower. I knew that I would not be welcome because in each of the eight such 1918-built ships active during World War II, the officer complement was five. Normally all but the skipper stood deck watches when underway and command-duty watches in port.
Nineteen-months before, I was commissioned in the Merchant Marine Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve and my entry document stated, “duties: engineering.” I was over qualified for the engineering challenges in EAGLE-class vessels and not at all qualified for deck duties.
In my previous ship, EAGLE 19, the officers other than the skipper had to stand one in three deck watches at sea and had to stay aboard every third night in port rather than one in four.
In EAGLE 32 two of the watch standers wouldn’t talk to me. The third was the executive officer; he understood that their discontent should have been directed at the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel. The skipper, about fifty, was much older than others having similar commands, and was eccentric to say the least. Twenty days after I reported aboard and just moments before getting underway for a one-week cruise, he summarily ordered me off of EAGLE 32.
I helped cast off the mooring lines and then wondered about what I should do. Written authorization was required to get into any of the Navy’s Bachelor Officer’s Quarters and I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. I noticed smoke rising from the Naval Repair Base south of downtown San Diego.
Just before the U.S. entered World War II, I had considered a career as a fire fighter. I passed the written examination for the New York City Fire Department during my senior year in high school. If I could get into the Fire Fighters School at the Repair Base it would be a good way to spend time until the Navy discovered that one of its officers was adrift. Not having any other idea, I went to the Repair Base where a marine sentry asked for my orders.
When I advised that I didn’t have any, to the marine I was in the same category as a spy landed by submarine the night before on the beach somewhere between the Base and nearby Tiajuana, Mexico. The sentry called the sergeant of the guard. The sergeant of the guard called the guard duty officer and, within minutes, it was still before 8:00 a.m., an armed sentry walking two paces behind, escorted me to the Base Commander’s office. I had reason to be concerned.
Foghorn, the nickname given to the Chief Machinist Mate in EAGLE 32, had informed me about the Commander of the Repair Base, Commodore Byron McCandless. The Commodore had retired years before as a senior Captain. After the attack on Pearl Harbor a number of such officers were recalled. In order to recognize their seniority, the rank of Commodore was reactivated in the Navy. Foghorn said that Commodore McCandless was of the old Navy, was tough, did not tolerate any nonsense, and micro managed everything.
The Commodore, it was rumored in San Diego’s many bars, sometimes hid among the garbage cans outside of the Base’s mess hall in order to catch whomever was tossing out edible food. Also, it was said, the Commodore refused to allow servicewomen on the Base, and fought like hell about the issue until given an ultimatum. I was expecting the worst.
When the marine escort and I went through the swinging doors into the anteroom that led to the main offices, we were suddenly confronted with the Commodore while he was having a tantrum. His hair was completely white, he was short and stocky and he seemed to be making up for his age and size with sustained shouting. Two lieutenant commanders, one a woman, were standing at attention. Neither appeared brave enough to intervene as the red-faced Commodore directed his wrath at an enlisted female who was sobbing uncontrollably. He was florid, waving his arms, and yelling repeatedly, “Do you want me to send out to Guam or some other place where our men are in combat? Do want me to get the man you replaced to come back here and take over his former job, just so you can go home and take care of your sick mother?”
After that demonstration, without any indication of pending change of mind, he suddenly approved the she swab’s leave request and, as the others rapidly disappeared, yelled at the marine and me, “What the hell do you want?”
After the marine quickly advised of my unusual status the Commodore looked at me with his head cocked sideways, as if asking, “So what’s with you?”
I volunteered, “Sir. I recently reported to a ship. Just before getting underway this morning, the captain ordered me off because I am only qualified as an engineering officer. Since I have nowhere else to go and since I always wanted to go to a firefighters school, I came here to see if I could get in.”
The Commodore’s countenance changed and in the most paternal way he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Do you mean to tell me that when you got kicked off of your ship, instead of shacking up at the Grant Hotel, you came here to get into fire fighters school? By gosh, I’ll see that you get in!”
Before 9:00 a.m., I was enrolled in the school while, I’m sure, the Commodore ordered someone to verify my status. That was the good news. The five-day course was for enlisted sailors. That was the bad news.
I was the only commissioned officer in a group of twenty-one that was to be trained in fire-fighting techniques by a senior enlisted man, a huge chief petty officer who had been a fireman in civilian life. No one had to tell me that I would be the nozzle man for every fire, that is, the first to enter.
The school was realism personified. It featured full-scale mockups of ship spaces made from concrete and steel. The initial attempt, a fire in the boiler-room mockup, was the scariest because none of us knew how close we could get to the roaring flames without getting burned. I was the first to find out. The instructor shoved me in.
We were told that face shields and gloves were not used because fire fighters had to sense when things were getting too hot for them. I wondered about that when we worked as three teams to extinguish an oil fire in the partially flooded bilge of the lower-machinery space mockup. The sea of flame on the water surface covered the entire space. I was assigned to lead an approach from the center with the nozzle set on heavy spray in order to divide the fire into two and to drive each half away from the other.
The team to my right and another to my left were each similarly equipped. They were both responsible to protect my team from flashbacks until we succeeded in dividing the fire. Then each would proceed to attack their respective half. When my team had the fire almost completely divided, one handybilly fire pump was stopped, causing the team on my right to lose water pressure. A sudden flashback singed my eyebrows and slightly burned the hand I was using for the nozzle control. We had to back out, get the pump going again and go back in. No one could tell me that it wasn’t realistic.
The most amazing experience was how we were taught to extinguish gasoline fires. Blanketing foams were not yet invented. One of the mockup spaces contained a Christmas tree, a metal contraption shaped like a full-size Christmas tree that had tiny nozzles that sprayed gasoline from the ends of its branches. When set afire it created the hottest blaze that we had to deal with. The approach we were taught was simple. The fog applicators, ten-foot long pipes rigged with spray nozzles, filled the space with a mist that changed into steam and so displaced oxygen from the compartment.
On the last day, after we each had inhaled enough smoke and soot to last a lifetime, we received instructions in how to use a Rescue Breathing Apparatus (RBA). When we gathered on top of the three-story high mockup that simulated that portion of a ship containing berthing spaces, storerooms, etc., the Chief demonstrated how to wear and operate the RBA. While wearing the device, he went below with a five-gallon can containing oil-soaked rags. Soon black smoke was billowing out of the hatch. Our training thus far made us confident about going into blazing compartments where we could see. Having to go into total darkness caused us all to be apprehensive.
Our instructor reappeared and said, “The object of this exercise is to go three-decks down, find the compartment containing the fire, and then to return here and report its location.”
As if that wasn’t scary enough he continued, “In a class this size, we always experience one or two people who get lost and become claustrophobic. They panic and tear off the RBA mask.”
He then added as a complete surprise to me, “Don’t worry if that happens because you can live down there without the RBA. To prove that it is possible, Lieutenant Chirillo is going to go first, without it!
The Chief led me to the hatch from which black smoke was boiling and in a whispered aside said, “Hold your breath on the ladders and move fast. Put your nose on the deck at each level; there is always about four-inches of air on the decks.”
My disappearing boldly into the smoke without the RBA and returning with the correct location inspired the others. We didn’t lose anyone. My action, plus the fact that I paid for two cases of beer at the celebration that evening, caused me to be regarded as some kind of a hero.
I sometimes think of that week when I went from the frying pan (EAGLE 32) literally into the fire. Neither was as hot as the dressing down my skipper got from the squadron commander for leaving me ashore without orders to report anywhere. That too was arranged by micro-managing Commodore McCandless, my hero!
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo