The Junior on the 12 to 4

Oh, the Junior on the 12 to 4,
He ain’t go’in to go to sea no more.
The Junior on the 12 to 4,
He’s go’in to stay with his girl ashore.

That’s the ditty that Snoose the reefer composed about me. He was called Snoose because he usually had a pinch of Copenhagen snuff under his lower lip.

Snoose was Ole Olson, the refrigeration engineer in USAT URUGUAY during her first wartime voyage. Having graduated from high school one month before, I signed on as a cadet engineer on 26 February 1942.

Two days out of New York while bound for Panama, Snoose, because he fell asleep while sunbathing, acquired a severe burn. One of the Army medical officers had the beet-red refrigeration engineer flat on his back, wearing just undershorts and some kind of lotion. Since Snoose was a bit rotund, as if lard was injected to stretch his epidermis everywhere, and relatively hairless, he glistened like the latest catch hauled up the stern ramp of a whaler.

Even I recognized that Snoose had to have his regular injection of beer. Nowadays we would say for sure that he was an alcoholic. Thus, in response to the pathetic plea that just his eyes conveyed, I was one of those who regularly obtained a quart of beer from the ship’s slop chest, and held it while Snoose guzzled from the side of his mouth. Once the bottle feeding started it didn’t stop until the last drop was drained.

Afterwards, unlike other old timers who seemed only to growl at cadets, Snoose was always joking with me. He also granted me free access to ice, a rare privilege that was valuable in the tropics, and later when I became a junior engineer on the 12 to 4 watch, he composed and sang the ditty for my benefit.

URUGUAY had transported almost five thousand of the first group of GIs dispatched to reinforce Australia, had returned to dry dock in Bethlehem’s Hunters Point Shipyard, and had just embarked another Army unit. As preparation for getting underway in about two hours the main turbines were being turned and warmed, a relatively easy process because of the turboelectric plant. Then unexpectedly I was summoned to the Staff Chief Engineer’s stateroom.

John Steinmann, a Belgian, seemed to be most content when he was stern. If he ever laughed it wasn’t in my presence. He was about five-foot seven, was skinny so that his skin appeared stretched over his bones, wore steel-rimmed specs, had beady black eyes, and was very knowledgeable about machinery, and, as events soon disclosed, about people.

Doors to staterooms were often kept open because they could jam, preventing escape when bulkheads distorted due to bomb or torpedo explosions. Thus, as I approached the Staff Chief’s room I could hear the Junior Second Assistant Engineer saying, “He’s no good for the job. He’s a goof-off who never listens to what I say.”

He said more in the same vein and it was clear that he was talking about me. I was then assigned to the Junior Second Assistant’s watch in the engine room. Except for my ten-minute tour every half hour to record temperatures and pressures I was required to be with him at the main control station. There he constantly bragged about his engineer’s license and his naval reserve status. Because of the machinery noises he raved on with his mouth close to my ear. Even though it meant time away from the relatively cool air at the control station, I spent as much time as possible in making the rounds of thermometers and pressure gages. Over 100°F everywhere else was preferable.

Chagrined, I walked back in the passage about twenty feet and again approached the stateroom, but then I made enough noise to be heard. The negative endorsement ceased. When I knocked on the bulkhead and received permission to enter, the Staff Chief said as if he had just heard nothing and as if the Junior Second Assistant was not present, “Chirillo, as of now you are the junior engineer in the forward boiler room on the 12 to 4.”

To say that the suddenly red-faced Junior Second Assistant was stunned would be an understatement. I was given responsibility for six boilers and the auxiliary machinery that sustained them. Also, I would supervise two firemen, both much older than me. I was then out of Brooklyn Technical High School four months and had a grand total of three-months experience at sea.

The Staff Chief also advised that as long as I was given the responsibility of a junior engineer I was to receive the accommodations and pay of a junior engineer. My pay including war bonus, jumped from $179 to $350 per month. In New York City, a policeman’s pay was then about $260 per month. He also directed that I move into the junior engineer’s stateroom, vacated minutes before by someone of German descent who was summarily removed from the ship without notice.

I was successful in that job during subsequent voyages to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and, during the November 1942 North African Invasion, to Algeria. It was a fabulous experience thanks to John Steinmann.


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

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