One of the benefits of having qualified for an engineer’s license in the merchant marine before becoming an engineering officer in a Navy ship, was the almost instant recognition of such qualification by the black gang’s senior petty officers. Their respect for ability was graciously given along with perks that only the chief petty officers commanded.
For example Chief Watertender Ace Beruman told me, “If ever you miss the last nickel snatcher (water taxi) back to the ship, go to the foot of Broadway where the harbor tugs are berthed. Ask for Chief Bosun Wally Gagnon; he’s skipper of one of the tugs. He’ll give you a ride to the ship. If he’s not there, mention his name and another chief will take care of you.”
A few months went by when I found myself in the situation that Ace anticipated. Luck was with me; Wally had the duty and had his tug under way in a matter of minutes. On that summer night in 1945, San Diego Bay was glassy smooth and a bit of moonlight permitted us to recognize ships by their silhouettes.
As we proceeded to the moorage Wally told me how to disembark. The tug would approach from abeam of EAGLE 32, a 1918-built subchaser that was notorious for extreme rolling at the slightest provocation. I was to stand on the bullnose, the conglomeration of hemp fitted over the tug’s bow. Just as the bow touched I was to leap.
In order to avoid wakening anyone, Wally stopped the tug’s engine so as to drift quietly. On board EAGLE 32 only a single watch stander was visible and, no doubt, was amused at the sight of the tug’s figurehead, a lieutenant junior grade who commanded transportation in the wee hours of the morning.
I leaped successfully, but into a problem of another kind.
Wally had underestimated both the the tug’s headway and my ship’s stability. What amounted to a light tap caused EAGLE 32 to suddenly roll about twenty degrees. All hell broke loose, the most significant being the new skipper who bitterly resented my not being qualified for deck watches, running out on deck in his undershorts, displaying the hairiest legs that any on board had ever seen, just in time to hear my stage whisper, “Thanks Wally.”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo