USAT URUGUAY, unescorted because no soldiers were on board, left the protection of the Panama Canal Zone on 8 July 1942 and headed for New York Harbor. During the first few days land-based planes flew over and signaled positions of the latest attacks by U-boats. The crews of merchant ships in the Caribbean Sea and off of the American East Coast were experiencing a bloodbath.
Captain A.P. Spaulding ordered a course for the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, a radical zigzag pattern, and all the speed the black gang could achieve.
Those of us who stood watches in the boiler rooms were controlling speed. Turbine throttles were kept open and we jammed as much fuel and air into the furnaces that the pumps and blowers could provide. After the first two days of the eight-day voyage the flat boiler sides turned cherry red and bulged. Refractory brickwork was melting and forming pools of lava on the furnace floors at a greater rate than ever before. When starting or completing a watch we had to dash between glowing boiler sides that were no more than four-feet apart.
During that tense time various preparations for entering New York were made just as in peacetime. H.R. Glennon, Moore-McCormack Lines’ Efficiency Engineer, was expected to cast a critical eye on the condition of the machinery spaces.
My firemen were busy putting a cosmetic coat of white paint on the boiler fronts. Since I was supposed to be sailing as a cadet, like the other procrastinators, I was getting caught up on correspondence courses that had to be given to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s representative upon arrival in New York.
Amid all of that the Staff Chief Engineer advised, “You know the boiler room and I want to keep you on as a junior engineer, but you do not have a junior engineer’s endorsement. The Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation will require that we replace you because some endorsed engineers are sure to be available in New York. When we arrive, I will ask Mr. Glennon to give you a letter of introduction that will request that you be permitted to take the required oral examination.”
During that first week in New York I was called away from the work I was doing in an oily bilge and told to report immediately to Mr. Glennon at Pier 32, North River, near Canal Street where URUGUAY was berthed. The dungarees that I was wearing were grease and soot encrusted enough to stand without anyone in them and I used a length of cord to avoid ruining a leather belt. There was no point in wearing socks because the shoes I wore for such work were squishy.
I walked into Mr. Glennon’s outer office and a sweet young thing, hardly older than me and in a spotless white dress, said with manifest disgust, “What are you doing here?”
I replied, “I’m Chirillo. Mr. Glennon sent for me.”
She countered with, “You’re no cadet!”
Obviously she had never seen cadets out of their neat uniforms. She had much to learn. As soon as the furnaces cooled enough, the engineer cadets would be cleaning firesides; even their tonsils would be soot covered.
When I convinced her that the real world was different from what she had imagined she became civil and handed me a letter. The letter was addressed to Mr. H.C. Bridges of the Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation at 45 Broadway.
The next morning, scrubbed and presentable, I reported to Mr. Bridges who directed me to Inspector Delaney who then occupied a small office on the ground floor of the Customs Building located near Battery Park, a few blocks south. The over-sixty inspector blew his white-haired top when he read in Mr. Glennon’s 20 July 1942 letter, “Mr. Chirillo’s service, which has been very satisfactory, is as follows:
SS URUGUAY, Cadet, Feb 26, to May 26;
SS URUGUAY, Jr. Engr, May 26 to date.”
“What the hell is this? Only four and a half months at sea and you want to take the junior engineer’s exam?”
Then his florid face indicated concern. He seemed to be weighing the possibility that Mr. Glennon had influence. Next, I could see that he was hatching a devious idea. Delaney asked, as if he didn’t know, “What kind of a ship did you sail in?”
I replied, “Turboelectric.”
He couldn’t contain a slight smile when he said, “Give me a step by step description of how to change a crank bearing in a steam reciprocating engine.”
That question confirmed that he meant to reject my application. At that time I had never even seen a steam reciprocating engine. But much to Delaney’s surprise, I was manifestly delighted. That was the very last procedure that I had studied as part of a correspondence course just the day before URUGUAY arrived in New York. I babbled out the correct procedure while observing his changing face.
I soon learned that something within Delaney was being destroyed. He didn’t ask another question.
The Inspector slumped into his chair, pulled out a blank certificate, scrawled my name and his signature, and applied the official seal. He paused while glaring at my endorsement as a junior engineer. Then he threw it at me as he said, “Damn it! It took me fourteen years to get one!”
Thirteen days after URUGUAY’s 9 August 1942 departure from Halifax another troop convoy, just one day out of Halifax and also bound for Scotland, experienced a U-boat alert during heavy fog. One ship veered from its position. The destroyer BUCK was ordered to escort the out-of-position ship to her assigned station. When crossing a column, BUCK was rammed by the troopship AWATEA. A moment later, the destroyer INGRAHAM, maneuvering because of the BUCK-AWATEA collision, was hit by the Navy oiler CHEMUNG, blew up, and sank.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo