The Gun Crew

My section at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, consisting of twenty-four cadet midshipmen, after having been at sea during 1942, was being further trained to operate a 5-inch deck gun. The gun, a leftover from World War I, still reposes outside the main entrance of the Academy’s Wiley Hall. After some instruction and practice we began to resemble an experienced gun crew. The Naval Science instructor then told us that a section of deck cadets held the speed record for loading and firing the gun.

That’s all we engineers had to hear to inspire us to go for the record. We then held the lifeboat launching record due to an unorthodox technique. We dropped the lifeboat from its davits and all of us jumped into it from the pier. One cadet sustained a broken finger when someone landed on his hand. But, something else was also motivating us.


While we were at sea in various merchant ships, one of ours, the late engineer Cadet Midshipman Edwin O’Hara became a legend when on 27 September 1942 SS STEPHEN HOPKINS, a Liberty ship, was attacked by two German surface raiders, TANNENFELS and STIER. Per one account, “Cadet O’Hara climbed to the wrecked gun platform where he found its gun crew all dead or dying. To his amazement, incredibly, the gun standard had survived, and five rounds were still available. O’Hara knew what to do. All by himself he rammed one round after another into the breech, fired, and miraculously scored five direct hits on Stier before a return salvo aimed directly at him wounded him fatally. He died at his gun, but he had inflicted mortal damage as well on the raider.”*

Because of that legacy we knew that gun drills were serious stuff and not sport to be enjoyed as we had enjoyed the life-boat drills. Each gun crew consisted of a pointer, trainer, breech operator, swabber, projectile handler, powder-bag handler, tray handler and gun captain. The tray was like a cooking pot without a bottom; it was used to temporarily cover the sharp edges of the flats and lands of the open breech in order to protect the powder bags.

The drill started when the breech was opened and ended only when the gun captain yelled, “Fire!,” just after the breech was slammed shut. After each drill, all of us rotated one position so that we could get experience in all functions.

Finally we thought that we were the cat’s meow as a gun crew. The record would surely be ours after the next attempt so we alerted the Naval Science instructor to man his watch accordingly. It was Arthur (Cracker) Currin’s turn as gun captain. He was a redhead from a Podunk-like town in South Carolina.

We flashed through the drill and when the breech slammed shut we were sure we had the record. However there was an unnecessary long pause, enough time for us to get manifestly angry, before Cracker opened his mouth. He finally yelled over a period of two or three more critical seconds, “F-a-a-a-a-r-r!”

The rest of us fell on the ground laughing and were in no shape afterwards to go for the record again.

No doubt, taking so much time to yell “F-a-a-a-a-r-r!,” contributed significantly to the South losing the Civil War.
* Unsung Sailors, Justin F. Gleichauf, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland,, 1990, ISBN 0-87021-770-4, p. 136.


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