As if it was compensation for my being the last of my servicemen relatives to return home after World War II, on 5 May 1947 in response to orders I reported for duty in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Some twit had renamed it the New York Naval Shipyard, but to Brooklynites it was and always will be the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
My cousin Pete Petrizzo, who had helped General Patton’s Third Army beat a path across Southern Germany, and I were among the few bachelors left among the many descendents of Luigi Primavera who beat a path from Italy’s Sala Consalina to Brooklyn in 1871. We took a cue from Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, who said he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.”
Pete and I went to a wedding reception in Greenpoint, one of Brooklyn’s solid Italian neighborhoods, “because that’s where the nicea girls are.”
The girl I asked to dance, in fact I danced only with her that evening, stood out from the others because she was a bit taller and her appearance was extraordinarily stylish. I quickly learned that her family was from Sicily, she was bilingual, and she was studying fashion design as preparation for a career in New York’s garment industry. Then, Rose asked the inevitable question, “What do you do?”
If I replied truthfully that I was a twenty-four year old naval officer just returned to Brooklyn from a few years at sea, she would likely have responded, “Snow job,” because Italian-American young bucks were inclined to exaggerate.
I simply told her, “I work in the Navy Yard.”
Greenpoint was near the Yard so it was probable that she knew one or two veterans who were apprentices. Rose persisted, “What do you do specifically?”
I answered, “I help coordinate ship overhauls.”
A subsequent event disclosed that she suspected that I was being evasive, but she agreed to a future date.
On the following Monday I was instructed to accompany my boss, a captain, and his boss, another captain, to the Shipyard Commander’s office. The Admiral told us that he had just received a top-priority order from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal about creation of the Naval Tanker Service. Most naval officials did not believed at that time that the United States had enough petroleum to sustain another war effort and the Secretary was very concerned about political instability in the Near East. As the Admiral spoke two tankers were being towed from the reserve fleet to the Shipyard and merchant seamen were being recruited.
Since I had qualified for a Navy commission with a merchant-marine engineer’s license, I was ordered to take total charge of making the ships ready for sea. The Admiral said that because I understood the terminology and needs of the merchant crews, I would be most effective at interpreting their requirements. There was no time for formal planning and there was no funding limit. The two tankers, in concert with others to be activated elsewhere, were to get as much oil as possible before the Eastern Mediterranean broke out in a general conflagration.
Regardless of officer seniority and the power normally wielded by shop masters, all would be told that the orders I issued for activation of the tankers had priority over all other work. The Yard was then overhauling cruisers and destroyers and constructing an aircraft carrier.
An around-the-clock operation started with me as the focal point for assimilating recommendations and writing orders for certain machinery to be opened and inspected. Reports of the conditions uncovered were brought to me post haste so that I could authorize required repairs. In order to be readily accessible to all of the shop masters who personally saw to implementation of the work, I spent much time on each main deck where I was visible to people on both ships.
The tankers had steam-operated deck machinery. By Wednesday, laggers, the people who install insulation, were everywhere on both ships’ main decks. At mid morning when I had a breather from giving orders to the yard’s most powerful civilians, I heard my name pronounced perfectly in Italian, “Mee-sta Key-rill-lo.” A small man, a lagger, stood up from his work and then said, “You knowa Rosa Morelli?”
Surprised, I replied, “Yes.”
Then as if he was a ward heeler in New York’s old-time Tammany political machine, he grabbed the front of his jacket lapels with both hands, looked around at his fellow workers to be sure that he had their attention, and then said, “Shesa frenda ma Maria.”
I replied as I was called away to the engine room, “Then Maria must also be intelligent and beautiful.”
I was laughing as I slid down handrails on the engine-room ladders. Obviously Rose had asked Maria’s father to find out what work I did in the Navy Yard and he was going to report that, “Mee-sta Key-rill-lo runsa da Yarda!”
On the following Monday, the tankers were gone. As the most-junior ship superintendent, I was again coordinating overhauls of only tugboats and barges.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo