I was the engineering officer in USS BURLEIGH (APA 95), a Maritime Commission C3-type vessel of 7,949 gross-tons that had been converted to a Navy attack troop transport. Following a voyage to Manila and Guiuan in the Philippines as part of operation MAGIC CARPET, BURLEIGH anchored in Virginia’s Lynnhaven Roads awaiting decommissioning.
During the latter part of May 1946, the Army Transport Service sent a small team, including my recently hired brother Augie, to activate SS BELLE ISLE, a 1,900 gross-ton vessel that was delivered in 1932 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson of Newcastle, England. The team was ordered to steam BELLE ISLE to the Brooklyn Army Base.
Only a few months before BELLE ISLE was laid up in the nearby James River. Afterwards, planners realized that she was the only ship the Army had with shallow enough draft to transit a river for delivery of supplies to a base in Newfoundland. BELLE ISLE was towed to the shipyard in Newport News for activation. The only remaining problem was the lack of enough qualified people to sign on for the black gang. At dinner ashore one evening, I advised Augie that I could get a few days leave and would help with the short voyage to New York.
A buddy of my brother’s was serving as the chief engineer and my brother was the first assistant. They both planned to stand watches so they needed just one more engineer. I also possessed a marine engineer’s license, but I turned down the opportunity to sail as a ship’s officer. I insisted on signing on as an oiler so that in the future, I could brag, “I once oiled a steam reciprocating engine.”
A qualified engineer, someone from Belgium, was located and he took over as the third assistant.
BELLE ISLE’s crew was still short one fireman so I returned to BURLEIGH and shanghaied one of my fireman, a clean-cut nineteen-year old from Wisconsin, by saying, “Come with me. We’re going to ask the executive officer to give you a week’s leave because I’m taking you to Brooklyn.”
BELLE ISLE had some of the charm of Colin Glencannon’s S.S. INCHCLIFFE CASTLE, a tramp steamer described by Guy Gilpatric in a series of humorous stories. BELLE ISLE’s machinery plant provoked nostalgia because steam reciprocating engines were sources of great pride and because they were rapidly disappearing. Thus, the two-day voyage to New York was delightful. During night watches, I especially appreciated going aft once each hour to oil the steering engine and to take a moment to watch the phosphorous flashing in BELLE ISLE’s wake.
After I signed off in New York, the 3rd assistant engineer said about me to my brother, “That was the best oiler I ever had.”
My brother replied, “He should have been! Remember all those big Navy transports in Lynnhaven Roads? He is chief engineer in one of them.”
The confused Belgian murmured something about crazy Americans.
I gave my engines the attention and love which I expected to get back from people. You’ve got to love engines if you’re an engineer because you never knew when you were going to need them in an emergency. I could listen to them all day.
British Merchant Navy, During World War II
All the ordered maze of working parts were cleanly oiled and softly shining under the lights, and that was looksee pidgin, which told nothing about how well it would run, but a warm feeling went out from Holman to the engine and his hands lingered on the sculptured metal.
“Hello engine,” he said softly.
The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo