(Published in Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute – Summer 1990)
During the latter part of World War II, after leaving the merchant marine for the U.S. Navy, I was assigned as the engineering officer in an eagle boat. The eagle boats were Henry Ford’s quick solution to the imperative need for more escort vessels during World War I. In other words, they were sawed-off fourpipers. Habitability, as it then existed, was the same as in the four-stack destroyers.
Officers’ country and chief petty officers’ quarters weren’t too bad, but I sure pitied the crew. The original enlisted complement was 68. During World War II it was sometimes a bit more. The men were jammed into two compartments located between the engine room and a lazaretto above a 14-foot diameter single screw. Our maximum speed was 18 knots, but even when practicing creeping attacks propeller noise was enough to keep everyone awake except the totally fatigued. At higher speeds, pounding would be more descriptive.
To add to the din, a steam-powered steering engine was mounted on the after engine-room bulkhead with only the thin bulkhead separating it from the forwardmost bunks. The steering cables passed through the crew’s compartments to a tiller aft. Whenever the helm was moved, very often during zigzag operations, the steering engine sounded like a team of horses stomping on the bulkhead.
Folding mess tables and benches were used, and when assembled for each meal, they barely fit between the bunks. The galley was in the forward deckhouse, so mess cooks used tureens to carry hot chow aft.
Since we operated out of Key West, there was one misery that everyone shared, officers included – the pervasive heat. Air conditioning just didn’t exist for us. Everyone suffered from heat rash. The sea temperature was above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and since our potable water was in an inner bottom tank, it too was above 80 degrees, except when the distilling unit was discharging into it, or into the boiler feedwater tank next to it. Then the temperature of our drinking water was more like 100 degrees, but we could depend on our water cooler to get it down to almost 80 degrees whenever we wanted a drink of cold water.
Fortunately, we had a Coke machine. It was located on the main deck aft and consisted of an ice-filled tank bearing the Coca-Cola logo. Our operating circumstances were such that we could get ice from ashore often enough to avoid a mutiny.
The fresh water system consisted of a 700-gallon gravity tank located against the galley overhead. It was fitted with a sight glass and an overflow into the galley sink. When it was depleted to the one-quarter level, the cook was supposed to notify the black gang. This meant walking aft and banging on the engine-room hatch with a huge spoon. Then the distilling system condensate pump was used to refill the tank. The cook was not that reliable. It seemed to me that the tank would always go dry when the skipper was in his shower. He’d go berserk. Also, when the tank filled the cook was in no rush to notify the black gang. Potable water that we had distilled was overflowing and being wasted. Then I’d go berserk.
We had two 30-kilowatt generators that probably would not be enough to operate the hair dryers and stereo systems in today’s frigates.
I saved the best recollection for last. Instead of separate commodes, the crew’s head consisted of a single trough spanned by six toilet seats. The fire main provided continuous flush water that came in at one end and ran out the other like a mountain stream. There were no partitions so that when six bases were loaded all six sailors could easily join hands. There were two sets of seats so that one set, after a daily scrub was left on deck to bleach in the sun.
Sitting downstream was dangerous for those with hangovers, but they were in no condition to pick their seats after a wild night ashore and there were no seat reservations. Frequently, some wise guy who was probably stuck aboard the night before would occupy the upstream seat, and without attracting attention would make a ball of toilet paper, set it afire, and gently set it afloat. Five sailors would pop up in succession regardless of their individual circumstances. The same boozers always got caught.
During the summer of 1989 I was retained to teach Japanese management methods in both a public and a private shipyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While there I visited the local maritime museum where a volunteer curator told me that the museum was building models of all the ships that participated in the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. He also advised that the museum did not have any useful drawings of the U.S. Navy’s World War I vintage four-pipe destroyers that had been transferred to the Royal Navy per President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend Lease Program. I did not mention that I had such drawings and upon my return home I mailed them to the museum.
The curator’s letter of appreciation also advised, “I compared the accommodation spaces in the four pipers to those in modern frigates. Living in the four pipers must have been pure hell.”
That provoked me to write a reply. I simply described what day-to-day living was like in naval ships of that vintage, something historians rarely do. As an afterthought I sent a copy to the editor of the Naval Institute’s Naval History magazine. Except for the title that the editor assigned the above article is a faithful version of my letter.