When I returned to Kings Point in December 1942 I reflected on the fact that not just URUGUAY, but also her two sister ships, were truly blessed. Despite being in the same areas at the same times when other troopships were torpedoed, bombed, mined or had been in collisions, they had escaped unscathed.
However, on 12 February 1943, just two months after I signed off, a Navy tanker rammed URUGUAY on its starboard side just abaft the bridge. Thirteen soldiers were killed and twenty one sustained serious injuries.
Had I remained on board I would have continued as the junior on the 12 to 4. The collision occurred during the midnight to 4 a.m. watch, my watch, and the forward boiler room where I stood my watches was just a short distance aft of the point of impact!
Hopefully, the collision caused the engineers and the mates to reflect on the antagonism between them. The latter had more than one reason to be uptight.
In 1942 nearly all merchant ships were not equipped with radar. Also, hard-headed captains were unaccustomed to being told what convoy position to assume, how fast to proceed, when to zig and when to zag, etc. They were accustomed to lots of sea room. In addition, upon conversion of liners to troopships the captains’ responsibilities increased as much as tenfold. Since mates in each ship were in their tense skipper’s presence everyday and since they had to be constantly aware of what other ships were doing, especially the ships immediately ahead, astern, to port and to starboard in storms, in fog and at night as well as by day, they too, with rare exception, were always on edge.
In URUGUAY I observed that most of the engineers, per the adage out of sight out of mind, were oblivious to the dangers. As long as the lights were on, temperatures and pressures were within prescribed ranges, boiler feed water was pure enough, and there were no unusual machinery noises, all was well in their world. That is until one of the mates, or a deck cadet acting for a mate, phoned and disrupted the reverie, “Increase speed by two turns!”
If we told them once we told them a hundred times, “We cannot increase prop-shaft speed by just two turns. Wait and ask for at least four or five turns.”
Responding with facts about the electromechanical processes involved would have been futile. Our twin turboelectric propulsion plants, designed for a specific cruising speed, had no provision for such fine adjustments.
The frustrated deck apes would not accept any negative replies and we grease and soot encrusted monkeys below had no option but to grin and bear their angry reactions or to respond in kind. Thus the atmosphere between mates and engineers, never completely harmonious in peacetime, was explosive in wartime.
Maybe in URUGUAY the deaths of and injuries to so many soldiers caused each group to pause and reflect on how to be more understanding of the other’s problems.
URUGUAY had an excellent print shop that was stocked with beautifully embossed menu covers; they also served as souvenirs during prewar cruises. The shop continued to produce menus for the main dining room. Occasionally something else was printed, such as the certificates for a Special Water Allowance that were needed during URUGUAY’s first wartime voyage.
The lone printer, an old geezer, was pleased to have me assist him when I was between watches. The shop was equipped with a new $35,000 Linotype machine that had not yet been adjusted by factory technicians. Further, the printer had not received any pertinent training. I told him that I knew how to operate the machine and when I suggested that we light it off, in a shocked manner he said, “We might damage it!”
I responded, “We might get sunk!”
The printer thought about that for a few seconds and then agreed. Within two days I successfully completed the adjustments and located a soldier who had been a linotype operator. With the assistance of other GIs he produced a ship’s newspaper.
The print shop was also a source of fun. The Fourth of July holiday occurred three days before arriving at the Panama Canal when URUGUAY was returning from a second voyage across the Pacific. The beautifully embossed menus, produced a few days before, featured Old Glory waving grandly from a gold staff. A white silk cord with a tassel secured an inner sheet that commemorated the holiday, identified the principal ship’s officers, and contained the list of foods available.
I said to the printer, “When you finish printing the menus, do not break down the type and clean the press. After my next watch I’ll do those chores for you.”
He was happy to oblige. I kept my promise but only after resetting two lines and printing a dozen more menus. Thus, later on when ashore in New York and in the British Isles a buddy and I impressed a few girls by giving them copies of the beautiful menus that read:
The additional copies show that I had deleted the names of the chief purser and chief steward and substituted mine and Earl Frank’s. But, as if he was a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the Chef de Cuisine had produced most of the food from canned and frozen supplies left over from URUGUAY’s last peacetime cruise. As a consequence of food rationing ashore, the girls were more impressed by the food:
This narrative would not be complete without some words about a few additional shipmates:
Delsi the third electrician, then about twenty six, was always upbeat. He was a little guy who was happy no matter what was happening around us because life was infinitely better for him than during the depression that characterized the nineteen thirties. Delsi paid off in San Francisco with at least five-hundred dollars, a veritable fortune for him. Regardless, he planned to ride the rods, that is, railroad boxcars, going back to New York because that’s the way he had always traveled ashore.
The second electrician was blind in one eye. He was amiable and rather quiet. As soon as we arrived in Melbourne his good eye was temporarily put out of commission and he spent all of the thirteen days there in hospital. During that time, he married the nursing sister who was caring for him.
Kitchen the chief electrician was a survivor of the fire that destroyed the cruise ship SS Morro Castle on September 8, 1934. One-hundred and thirty-seven passengers and crew members were killed. While in hospital, five women who had read his name in newspaper accounts, visited in order to claim him as the husband who had deserted them. One, Kitchen said, even after she saw him still insisted that he was her husband.
Mannion was the taciturn senior first assistant engineer; it was difficult to believe the rumor that he once wore a tuxedo while on watch in an engine room.
And then there was Brennan the scribe from Jersey City, New Jersey; he kept the engineering log. Brennan had the most unusual reason for shipping out and enjoyed telling about it. He was asked by a friend who was recruited by an undertaker to help pick up a body from the fourth floor of a tenement. The building featured a stairwell wherein one could see from the top all the way to the bottom. They prepared themselves in a tavern, successfully loaded the deceased in a wicker basket designed for that purpose, and then, because they were a bit unsteady to say the least, dropped the body from the forth to the ground level.
The judge let Brennan out of jail on condition that he ship out.
On 13 June 1942 an odd threesome descended upon Auckland, New Zealand: Eddie Gabrunas from Riga, Latvia; Dick Holmes from Maine’s backwoods, and this writer from Brooklyn. Flush with cash, we hired a taxi for the day. Per the driver’s suggestion we went to the top of Mount Eden from where we could see the Pacific Ocean and just by turning around, the Tasman Sea.
Upon starting the descent the cabbie suggested that we visit Corbin’s Vineyard. Corbin, we were told, when an ANZAC soldier in World War I was blinded during the fighting in Syria. The cabbie said, “Corbin would be happy to have Yank visitors.”
Corbin was delighted to say the least. While being a great host he demonstrated an uncanny ability to know exactly where everything was. For example, when he walked between out buildings it was as if he could see. When he reached to unlock a door his hand grabbed the padlock without any fumbling.
Corbin insisted that we taste each of the three wines produced starting with the year 1923 and year by year working up to 1940. The taxi driver was included.
We were a happy group when we suggested that it was time for us to leave. Corbin responded in a very determined manner, “I cannot let you go with the taste of raw wine!”
So per Corbin’s insistence, we worked our way back year by year to 1923.
Afterwards, getting down the mountain seemed to be the scariest ride that we three wine-filled mariners ever experienced. However, forty-six years later when I again visited Auckland, I discovered that Mount Eden would only qualify as a hill by Seattle standards.
Sometimes a number of us young punks slept outside on the boat deck. I awoke one morning to find that someone had cracked raw eggs into my shoes that were within inches of where I had been sleeping. I knew who it had to be so a few nights later I tapped away for a couple of hours with a padded hammer and nailed the culprit’s shoes to the teak deck right alongside of where he was sleeping.
Regarding oil spills most were funny if I didn’t have to clean the mess of viscous almost tar-like stuff.
Two spills involved the same junior engineer, a state maritime academy graduate who had been at sea for a year. I had learned during a physics class in high school that water is incompressible. Thus when I was told to renew the packing on the water end of a reciprocating pump, I loosened the gland on the water end, opened the throttle valve a bit, and let the slight movement of the plunger push the old packing out. Observing how I made short work of that job, the state academy grad used the same method for getting the packing out of a fuel-oil pump. He became drenched in the black goo from the waist up because he had never learned that oil is compressible.
The same junior engineer had the job of putting a blank flange on an 8-inch in diameter fueling connection just after the hose from a fuel barge was disconnected. He had delayed a bit and was just lifting the blank into place when he heard the sound of oil gushing. Someone below was already transferring fuel oil in order to trim URUGUAY’s tanks!
The junior engineer jumped clear just in time before the 8-inch wide spout of oil gushed forth. However, he jumped the wrong way! The only way out of the small fueling port that he was in was through the stream of heavy black oil.
But none of the spills that I witnessed matched what I heard took place during one of URUGUAY’s peacetime cruises. The ballast system was used to fill the swimming pool and the ballast and fuel-oil transfer systems were connected through a strategically placed check valve, that is, a valve that allows flow only in one direction.
The inevitable happened; the valve jammed open and the next time fuel oil was transferred the heavy black oil was pumped into the swimming pool.
Regarding pay, a cadet received $64.10/month. But, when signed on to a ship, a cadet’s pay was equivalent to that for the lowest rating, that is, $79/month as received by wipers and ordinary seamen.
Away from a U.S. port a war bonus kicked in. People getting less than $100/month got an added $100/month each. Thus, away from the U.S., each cadet, wiper and ordinary seaman received $179/month.
For those who received more than $100/month, the war bonus was 100%.
After three months as a cadet, I was given a junior-engineer’s job and my base pay jumped to $175. Thus, during the next 6 months, except for three weeks when in New York, my combined pay and war bonus was $350/month.
There were additional bonuses that ranged from $70 to $100 per foreign port visited dependent upon the degree of risk then existing.
During the latter part of 1941, that is, during my last few months as the lad who dreamed of going to sea, I borrowed my father’s 1939 Packard and drove to the ice skating rink located in the former New York City building that had been part of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Organ music was featured. Suddenly an announcement proclaimed, “For boy and girl couples only!”
There were two girls near me. One, about thirteen, boldly grabbed the hand of a boy her age. The other I soon learned was her seventeen-year old sister, Sarah, who offered her hand to me. Sarah was pretty and she impressed me with her quiet, confident manner.
Since the sisters lived in Brooklyn not too far from where I lived, afterwards I drove them to their apartment building where I met their mother and an older sister.
The oldest girl, overweight and unattractive, seemed to be cynical about everything and everyone associated with Sarah; that included me. In response to their mother’s question I advised that after high school I wished to attend the State Merchant Marine Academy. Following the two-year course there I would apply for an ensign’s commission in the Navy. The cynic laughed as if my becoming a commissioned officer twenty-four months after graduating from high school was the most ridiculous idea that she had ever heard.
If ever I had met that harpy again I would have told her, “You were right and I was wrong. I became a commissioned naval officer within nineteen months, not twenty-four!”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo