The Senior First

During the last week of May 1942, another U.S. Merchant Marine Academy engineering cadet signed on U.S. Army Transport URUGUAY in time for the fifty-day voyage from San Francisco to New York via Auckland, New Zealand. Previously, he had barely survived the torpedoing of a 1918-vintage freighter of the type known as a Hog Islander. He was slammed awake when the blast destroyed his cabin and tore long parallel gashes in one shoulder and thigh just as if he had been clawed by a huge tiger.

Rudy was raised as a farm boy somewhere in mid America; he was of German descent. His escape from death combined with his background may account for his being quiet and of serious mien; he wasn’t at all boisterous like most of us of his age. When Rudy learned that I knew how to operate the ship’s lathe he asked me to teach him.

I had just become the junior engineer in charge of the forward boiler room on the twelve to four and Rudy stood the same watch as a cadet in the engine room. Thus, when our watch ended to the absolute amazement of others who were afraid to stay below any longer than necessary, some of whom got violent when a relief did not arrive on time, Rudy and I could be found for an additional hour in the machine shop that was located on an engine-room flat. However, the senior first assistant engineer wasn’t amazed; he was suspicious, “What could the two young punks be up to?”

The senior first often looked in on us when I was showing Rudy routines that I had learned during machine-shop classes in Brooklyn Technical High School, i.e., cutting a taper, knurling, resetting the gear ratio for cutting threads, etc. Not believing what he was seeing, the Senior first, always growled, “Don’t use any new stock!”

Had he not said that, we would probably have worked only with scrap material. However, since boys will be boys, I would always take a quick cut on new material so that afterwards the senior first could not tell the difference. Those were some of the few times that I saw Rudy smile.

The senior first engineer who didn’t ever smile was almost fifty and had been at sea for at least thirty of those years. He had never married and he was the only plank owner among the ship’s engineers, i.e., he first signed on when URUGUAY was delivered by Newport News Shipbuilding fourteen years before. He was conditioned by the fact that many prewar seamen were a rough lot. He reflected the acute tension between the non-licensed and licensed personnel probably because tough Joe Curren, the head of the National Maritime Union, also shipped in URUGUAY when the bitter and bloody prewar strike started.

Also, during the depression that characterized the thirties, company managers ashore were demanding skinflints. They constantly badgered their operating engineers to reduce costs. But, since the start of World War II, URUGUAY was engaged by the U.S. Army at cost plus ten percent; the new business reality had not yet registered on the senior first assistant. He wasn’t at all pleasant to be around. Thus, I was much surprised when twelve years after signing off of URUGUAY I learned about a different side of him.

I was then in the Navy and assigned to the Boston Naval Shipyard. In a brief conversation with a civilian employee in the mimeograph room, we discovered that her brother was the senior first assistant engineer that I had sailed with in URUGUAY. That lady’s initiative caused me and him to write to each other. His letter, dated 14 August 1955, discloses that he had a warm side after all:


The Senior First Assistant Engineer’s letter describes the last part of the last watch that he was standing.


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

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