The Mister Roberts Syndrome

The depressed feeling that many of us had when we found ourselves assigned to what we thought was ignominious duty during World War II, is hard to explain. Very few did not gripe about duty in the eight World War I Eagle boats on active duty in World War II.

Most of us who were so assigned felt set aside even after USS EAGLE 56 (PE-56) was torpedoed on 23 April 1945 off of Portland, Maine with the loss of all but twelve enlisted men and one officer out of a crew of fifty-four enlisted men and five officers. Thomas Heggen, because of how he described the protagonist in his novel Mister Roberts, seems to have had first-hand knowledge of what was bothering us:

“He wants to be in the war; he is powerfully drawn to the war and to the general desolation of the time, but he is held off, frustrated….”

Elsewhere in his book Thomas Heggen notes for the benefit of those who identified with the depressed crew in USS RELUCTANT, a supply vessel that ran “from Tedium to Apathy and back:”

“…in simple justice to the undecorated men of the RELUCTANT it should be pointed out that heroism ‘physical heroism’ is very much a matter of opportunity.”

For me the ache was a bit more tolerable because, since the attack on Pearl Harbor, I had shipped out in a merchant ship across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and, during the invasion of North Africa, in the Mediterranean Sea. But Chief Machinist Mate Charles E. Smith, who ached more than most, had no such consolation.

I only knew Smitty for part of the first week following my reporting to USS EAGLE 19 (PE 19) on 1 December 1943. He had been promoted the week before when his predecessor had been fleeted up, a practice that then meant, after having been promoted and acquiring about a year’s worth of experience in the new rating, being sent to a larger ship.

Considering my own case, having qualified for a commission by becoming a licensed engineer in the merchant marine, I was never able to appreciate the logic that was exercised by the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel. I had one year experience in a large troopship that burned more fuel oil in one day than the entire bunker capacity of EAGLE 19.

I recalled the street vendors who, during the early thirties, competed for schoolkids’ pennies. There was one who had trained a parrot to pick a card that would disclose an eager client’s destiny. I suspected that when the United States mobilized the parrot was employed by the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel to assign engineers to ships. When a second order arrived for EAGLE 19 to again fleet up the Chief Machinist Mate I was convinced that the parrot was having a nervous breakdown. Smitty had only a few days experience as a chief. Obviously, the second order was a mistake.

Smitty, then about twenty-three, had been with EAGLE 19 when it was a Naval Reserve vessel in Newport News two years before. He begged me not to request cancellation of the order so as to allow him to be transferred. Circumstances were clearly not in his favor.

The main turbine had lost a blade just the week before, a rare mishap. It went flying through the condenser cutting a number of tubes in its path. Since the engine room had to be gutted, the engineering officer whom I had replaced earlier that week had accepted the shoreside repair gang’s recommendation to replace the planetary reduction gear with an unused set that was left over from World War I. If ever a newly assigned engineering officer needed an experienced machinist, that was the time. The Commanding Officer had already said that the decision was up to me. Tears welled in Smitty’s eyes and streaked his face.

Of course I didn’t know then that Smitty was seriously afflicted by what I now regard as The Mister Roberts Syndrome. My twenty-year old mind only understood that his feelings were coming from deep within him. If I did not grant his plea he would be of little use to me in the future. After assessing the first-class machinest mate who would become Smitty’s replacement, I recommended to the Commanding Officer that Smitty be allowed to comply with the order for him to fleet up to a newly built destroyer escort.

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Less than ten-months later, on 25 October 1944, USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (DE-413) while escorting a convoy of light aircraft carriers during a surprise encounter off of Samar, Philippine Islands; was sunk by an overwhelming Japanese force. Like Mister Roberts in Thomas Heggen’s novel, Charles S. Smith, Chief Machinist Mate, U.S. Navy, was killed in action.

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


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