The First 12 to 4

26 May 1942 was eighteen days following the Battle of the Coral Sea that stopped the Japanese advance toward Australia, a week before the Battle of Midway Island that gave the Japanese a decisive bloody nose, and just twenty-nine days following my nineteenth birthday bash in Wellington, New Zealand. On that day I was summarily assigned to be the junior engineer in charge of the 12-to-4 watch in the forward boiler room of U.S. Army Transport URUGUAY.

I sensed the greatly increased responsibility assigned to me, but there was no time to think about it. Just hours later standby to get underway was at the beginning of my first such watch. With about five-thousand souls on board, URUGUAY was leaving San Francisco for another voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

The first part of the watch was spent reacting to the annunciator’s many rings. “Ahead dead slow,” “back slow,” “back full,” etc., determined how many of the four burners in each of the six boilers were required to generate the right amount of steam, not more and not less. In response to each bell, using my fingers I flashed a decision to the two firemen in my charge for them to cut burners in or out accordingly. Keeping the water levels in the six boilers within prescribed limits for safety and for effective operation was also my job.

I had to consider inertia and the fact that the boilers sometimes reacted differently from each other. A sudden demand for steam would cause water levels to rise in response to the drop in steam pressure when turbine throttles opened. Water carry over could damage the turbines. Later, as the cut-in burners generated more steam, the water levels dropped. If the topmost rows of boiler tubes did not contain water when fires were lit, they would quickly fail. Thus, the Steamboat Inspection Service, transferred to U.S. Coast Guard just a few months before, required with the backing of federal law, that whenever the water level in a boiler was not visible in the sight glasses provided for that purpose, fires had to be extinguished.

The two firemen, both in their thirties, were from Puerto Rico. One was cheerful and cooperative. During the few months that we were on watch together he only caused me one problem. I accepted his advice when I wrote to a former school-chum’s sister because she wanted a letter from overseas. I had asked the affable fireman to propose a salutation because the girl was studying Spanish. Per his recommendation I wrote, “Mi inolvidable dulcema.”

Afterwards I was shocked to learn that it meant, “My unforgettable sweetheart,” and that the recipient had become somewhat dreamy about me.

The other fireman was acerbic. He caused a problem during that first watch that could have ended my budding career as a marine engineer.

After clearing the Golden Gate Bridge, when annunciator signals suddenly resumed because URUGUAY was being maneuvered to an assigned convoy position, the water vanished from both sight glasses of one boiler. The testy fireman was closest so I told him to secure the burners. He didn’t move. When I repeated the order he sauntered to the boiler front, opened a gage-glass blow valve, and placed a gloved hand in the path of the roaring steam discharge. He contemptuously said, “My glove is wet. There is plenty of water.”

I said for the third time, “Secure the burners.”

With that he responded, “What the hell do you know? You have only been going to sea for a few months. I have been shipping out for eighteen years!”

I secured the boiler’s fires while another fire began to rage within me. The other fireman was manifestly disgusted with the troublemaker, but didn’t intervene. I gradually raised the water level and brought the boiler back on line while thinking, “Reasoning or arguing will magnify his contempt. If I don’t do anything I will lose this job.”

I needed more time to decide what to do so I grabbed the four-foot long steel rod used to dislodge the residue that accumulated on the air diffusers, knelt in front of a furnace, and began to knock off chunks of carbon. I appeared to be avoiding the challenge.

I recalled what I heard about the legendary Paddy Brennen. When he was chief engineer in coal-burning SS GEORGE WASHINGTON, he took a shovel away from a rebellious stoker and promptly used it to quell the one-man rebellion. An instant afterwards, Paddy saw the ship’s chaplain entering the boiler room with a few venturesome passengers in tow. By the time they descended to the floor plates Paddy was on his knees so as to cushion the unconscious stoker’s bloody head, and then explained to the concerned visitors, “The poor lad just suffered a bit of heat stroke and hit his head when he fell.”

With a gold-capped toothy grin, the rebellious fireman interrupted my thoughts of Paddy’s brand of humanitarianism by saying to the other fireman, “Look! I have him doing our work.”

That plus the fact that I was then watching the steel rod become red triggered a plan and hardened my resolve to follow through regardless of consequences.

I continued to heat the steel rod even after red turned into white. I heated it until brilliant sparks were flying off, that is, until the steel was actually burning. Meanwhile the malcontent seemed to be convinced that I didn’t have any guts. He strolled to the space outboard where auxiliary machinery was located and sat on the vent duct leading from the forced-draft blower; another sign of contempt. We were required to stand watches.

I trapped him where he sat! As he was turning pale from fright, I was losing a bit of my composure. With the end of the burning rod just inches from his nose I said in a quavering voice that I didn’t mean to have, “You son of a bitch, if you don’t promise to do what I say, I’ll burn a hole through your head!”

To my everlasting relief his pathetic plea, coming from beneath increasingly bulging eyes, was, “Yes, Mr. Chirillo! Please Mr. Chirillo!”

Paddy Brennen’s managerial approach adapted for oil-fired boiler rooms, worked like a charm.



This photo was shot from within the air intake located on the bridge deck. Getting there necessitated climbing the 82-foot high flexible wire-rope ladder that was fitted inside one of the two vent ducts. The ladder served as an emergency means of escape from the forward boiler room.


“Perhaps the only participants who never forgot the Caribbean were the merchant seamen, who were its principal victims, For them, the sunny Caribbean became a place of horror. They died in their thousands from the effects of torpedo explosions, of heat stroke, of thirst, of despair, or simply by drowning and by the ever present sharks.”

The U-Boat War in the Caribbean by Gaylord T.M. Kelshall, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1988, ISBN 1-55750-452-0, p. xvi.


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

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