The Steam Pump

The amenities in USS EAGLE 19 (PE-19), built by Henry Ford in 1918, weren’t much. Compared to the habitability standards for ships built during World War II, they were crude. The feature that detracted the most from human dignity was the enlisted-men’s head; it consisted of a galvanized metal trough that could accommodate six sailors simultaneously. Privacy was none existent. Space limitations were such that nothing could be done about it. Besides, it was the first lieutenant’s responsibility, not mine. However, the archaic freshwater system was my responsibility.

When I reported on board in December of 1943, I soon found that the most disturbing feature was the 700-gallon gravity tank that was secured to the galley overhead. The cook was supposed to monitor a sight glass that thoughtful Henry provided. When the glass showed that three quarters of the water in the tank was expended by the sixty or so people on board, the cook was supposed to notify the engine-room watch. A snipe then lined up the condensate pump and transferred water from a double-bottom tank. The cook wasn’t reliable and during my first month as the engineering officer the tank went dry when the captain was in his shower. All hell broke loose!

Also, the cook was supposed to notify the engine-room watch when the gravity tank became full. He sometimes goofed and fresh water that had been laboriously distilled from seawater, overflowed into the galley sink. The operator of the old high-pressure submerged-coil evaporator then had a fit.

For water storage, Henry provided two adjacent double-bottom tanks. One was for boiler feed water; the other was for potable water. Scalding-hot condensate was always being discharged into one or the other. Thus, the water in both tanks was always hot due to heat transfer through the thin plating that separated them.

Even after potable water trickled down from the gravity tank to our drinking fountains, it was lukewarm. What’s more, per Navy practice the potable-water tank was treated with a coating that imparted a distinct zinc taste.

The final problem was due to the location of the gravity tank. When filled, it weighed three tons. Since it was relatively high in the ship it contributed significantly to the severe rolling experienced in any kind of a seaway.

In order to overcome all the problems I needed another pump.

Because I had been a merchant mariner who qualified for a Navy commission by acquiring a third-assistant engineer’s license to operate steam vessels of unlimited horsepower, I organized a search for a steam-powered pump. I never thought of an alternative. Also, since the requisitioning priority assigned to our twenty-six year old sea-going bucket of rivets was nil, I knew that if a pump was located it would have to be acquired by other means.


Like ants foraging, my black-gang looked into every nook and cranny in Key West’s Naval Operating Base until one of them located a 3x3x3½ steam reciprocating pump that was ideal for our purposes. The snipe, he must have been a private eye in civilian life, reported the pump’s exact location. He also reported that the warehouse storekeeper, a single mother of about twenty three, had a nineteen-year old sister who was an apprentice in the Base’s machine shop. They were good looking Conchs, he advised, that is, Key West natives of Cuban descent.

I detailed a not-at-all-reluctant machinist mate her age to ask the storekeeper for a date while I volunteered to ask her sister. We explained to the ship’s cook about what we were up to and what was at stake. Thanks to the cook, whenever the machinist mate and I visited the girls, they lived in a jerry-built wartime housing unit next door to the one occupied by their parents, we brought enough butter, cooking oil, and other hard-to-get foodstuffs for both households. Civilians called it barter; we called it cumshaw. Regardless of what our approach was called, during the pump-procurement process we enjoyed great lemon meringue pie that was prepared by the Cuban born mother living next door.

Our next problem was how to obtain a steam regulating valve, that is, one that could sense a drop in water pressure and then admit steam to the pump accordingly. No amount of galley supplies would do; the black-gang scouts reported that there was no such valve on Key West. We had to improvise.

Five months before, I, like other cadet engineers in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, wondered why I had to prepare for the lever-safety-valve problem that was expected to be part of the pending marine engineer’s license exam. At that time, there wasn’t a lever safety valve on any boiler in the entire U.S. merchant marine. Since their disappearance, I might be the only marine engineer to have put that knowledge to practical use.

With some of the black gang looking on, I opened a lift check valve, measured the disk diameter, and then calculated its area. I then multiplied the area by the water pressure I had in mind, thirty pounds per square inch, and so obtained the total force necessary to open the valve at that pressure.

A few of the gang caught on when I rigged a lever with a fulcrum at its center and placed a weight equivalent to the calculated total force on one end. The other end was pressed against a spring that would keep the lift check valve closed. Using washers as spacers, I adjusted the tension in the spring so that the valve would open at a pressure of thirty pounds per square inch. We fitted the modified check valve in a by pass from the pump’s discharge to its suction. We then kept the throttle valve open just enough to admit the steam required to keep the pump constantly running at a speed that would satisfy the greatest demand for water. When there was little or no demand, the lift check valve opened and water was recycled through the pump.

I then appropriated a little-used lazaretto aft and converted it to a potable water tank that featured cement washed surfaces, as was merchant-marine practice. Our drinking-water temperature dropped appreciably and the water no longer had that zinc taste.

Then with great ceremony and fanfare, we cut free the gravity tank from the galley overhead and threw it over the side. There was a noticeable improvement in the ship’s stability and morale.

A year later while I was traveling to San Diego to join USS EAGLE 32, I planned to again make a hero of myself with a similar unauthorized ship alteration. When I arrived on board I discovered that the engineer officer before me, undoubtedly not encumbered with an appreciation of steam machinery, didn’t scheme, search, charm, cumshaw, design, innovate and install his way to an improved water system.

With complete disregard for any degree of steam-engineering lore, my predecessor simply tapped the proceeds from the ship’s gyp joint for about a hundred and twenty bucks and purchased an electric-driven pump assembly from Sears, complete with a pressure tank and pressure switch.

His installation, designed for rural households to pump well water, was more efficient. Mine was more fun.


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