White Soot

On 7 December 1945 EAGLE 32 was at a pier next to where a San Francisco fireboat was berthed not far from Fishermen’s Wharf. The commission pennant was hauled down and the Commanding Officer, the only one of the five-officer complement who had orders, was hastening to return to civilian life. He paused only long enough to hand out orders he had written for the rest of us to report to the Twelfth Naval District Headquarters, a short distance away on the other side of Nob Hill.

After scanning what was written I said, “When I was sworn into the Navy I was told that when the word proceed appears in orders, an officer has up to four days to report.”

The other officers didn’t think that was the former skipper’s intention so they reported that very morning. I did not. Although I was of the third generation in America, I honored an Italian custom. Of less than two-hundred dollars pay each month, I sent my parents seventy. What I had left until next payday would barely support four-days ashore; nonetheless I intended to see more of San Francisco before reporting to another ship.

I had established good rapport with the fireboat’s crew and when I went to say goodbye the conversation, over what was supposed to be a last cup of coffee in the firehouse, led to the Captain’s gracious invitation, “Move in here.”

I occupied an off-duty lieutenant’s room and had to shift rooms whenever the watch changed. It was a memorable experience. The firehouse meals were much better than Navy chow and I was sometimes chauffeured in a Model-A Ford by a very-tall fireman who, while looking ahead between his knees, maneuvered up and down San Francisco’s steep hills.

Four days later I reported to the District’s personnel office.

A WAVE ensign explained that the Commandant insisted that everyone who did not have leave during the last six months was to be given two-weeks. She assigned a typist to the necessary paperwork. Just then her phone rang and I heard her say, “No, there still isn’t anyone. Every time a qualified engineering officer reports we have to grant leave.”

Since I was keen to get more sea time as an engineering officer for the purpose of qualifying for a chief engineer’s license in the merchant marine, I asked about the phone call. The Ensign explained that a troopship and an escort aircraft carrier were scheduled to depart for the Philippines and each had need for a qualified engineering officer. I told her that I would forego leave for the engineering officer’s job in the troopship. She stood up and in a loud voice announced to the office of about thirty people, “Look! Here is someone who doesn’t want leave.”

They all cheered and encouraged her to send the jerk out to sea.

I asked for the ship’s departure date. She replied, “20 December, but you will have to report to the ship immediately.”

When I threatened to change my mind and accept the leave she agreed to wait until 15 December before giving me written orders. During that four-day interval I hitchhiked to San Diego and stayed a few nights at the home of a retired Navy couple. Uniformed people had no trouble getting rides in those immediate post-war months.

The Ensign breathed a sigh of relief when I returned on 15 December; it seemed that I was a movie star and she was the agent that had arranged an important booking. But her relief turned to panic when I told her that since the ship wasn’t scheduled to depart until 20 December I wanted proceed orders, that is, I didn’t want to report on board until 19 December. Realizing that she was being blackmailed again, she arranged for such orders and I returned to my club, the marine firehouse.

Even after reporting to the ship, I went ashore that last evening in San Francisco for dinner at Romeo’s Spaghetti House. So that is how I became the Engineering Officer in immediately departing USS BURLEIGH (APA 95). The ship was assigned to MAGIC CARPET, the operation for returning troops to the USA.

No one on board was enthused about leaving San Francisco so soon before Christmas. Only a wardroom clique, made up of a few unmarried officers, seemed to have something to smile about. The group was sparked by one individual who was animated like a college cheerleader, except when talking with non-fraternity officers or when he was deferential in the presence of the captain or the executive officer. He was the personification of Joe College.

Joe’s short stocky frame seemed to strut in the context of his title, Boat Group Commander. None of the other lieutenants had titles that sounded as important. Each one was merely the Navigator, First Lieutenant, Supply Officer, etc. The Commander was in charge of the twenty or so boats that were used to put troops on the beach during an attack and he seemed to be affected by his status even though the Boat Group’s raison d’etre wasn’t needed for MAGIC CARPET.

Since we were not commonly involved in any ship’s business, my acquaintance with Joe College was limited to head nods whenever we passed each other. Thus I was surprised when he suddenly appeared in front of me one morning screaming, “Your guys did it again! I had it cleaned up once and they did it again. I want it stopped! They are blowing white soot out of the smokestack and it’s all over my boats.”

I didn’t know what to make of his statement so I replied, “There is no such thing as white soot.”

With that, Joe got more irate and demonstrated that he had a bit of engineering knowledge when he screamed another stupid statement, “Then it must be boiler compound and I want it stopped!”

I advised the disbelieving Boat Group Commander that if boiler compound came out of the stack, I would be having a much greater problem than his.

He insisted that I go with him to see what my boys were doing. I then saw that his landing boats on the starboard side of the deckhouse were splattered so much, that a psychiatrist applying a Rorschach analysis would be occupied for at least a month.

Because I was mystified and could do nothing about the yelling, now accompanied by arm waving and some jumping up and down, I turned away from frustrated Joe and started for the deckhouse ladder. It was then that I spotted a clue.

After dark I confirmed what I suspected and approached the still-smoldering Boat Group Commander. I took him in tow and was careful to select the windward side of the deckhouse. “There is the source of the white soot,” I said, while pointing to the huge albatross that had been following BURLEIGH all day and was at that moment asleep on the mainmast.

Joe College had never read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moonshine.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


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

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