The Staff Chief

The¬†following photograph depicts Aage Clausen’s burial at sea soon after World War II ended when USAT URUGUAY was bringing home American GIs. Aage was about five-foot nine and weighed over three-hundred pounds; he had been the Chief Engineer. My buddy, Adolf Gabrunas, who was one of the pallbearers and who furnished the snapshot, complained that even the ashes resulting from Aage’s cremation were heavy.


During the nine months in 1942 when I had shipped out in URUGUAY I never saw Aage in the engine or boiler rooms, not even once. This story is not about him.

On the right side, standing away from the others, is Captain Alfred P. Spaulding. In any rating of seafarers he’s at the top of the list. The Captain spoke to me only twice during the time I was on board. Both times he bawled me out for being on deck without a shirt. Both times he called me a cannibal. Such is the limited vocabulary of the deck apes when they converse with the grease and soot-encrusted monkeys from the machinery spaces below. This story is not about him either.

This story is about the little squirt appearing just to the right of the officiating padre. John Steinmann, from Belgium, beady eyed and wearing steel-rimmed specs, may have weighed as much as 100 pounds provided he was soaking wet. In that small frame was packed a powerful personality that never smiled, at least not in my presence. This story is about very-tough wee John Steinmann, the Staff Chief Engineer.

My first one-on-one encounter with the Staff Chief took place just two-days steaming out of New York Harbor when a destroyer dropped a depth charge close enough to crack a six-inch sea valve. Seawater spewed in a fan-shaped pattern into the engine-room bilge. When only I was summoned to the site, the Staff Chief tersely ordered, “Cement it in!”

A bit surprised, I responded, “I have never worked with cement.”

The unsmiling Staff Chief said as he walked away, “All of you wops are masons.”

While getting soaking wet in the process, I used the skills I acquired in Brooklyn Technical High School’s pattern-making shop, and made a wood form to contain the cement. The form fit snugly against the hull and the pipe that was connected to the valve. Then I attempted, more than once, to pack the box-like form with cement as the spewing water washed it away before it could set. While I was so frustrated the stone-faced Staff Chief walked by a couple of times. His demeanor was such that I didn’t think it prudent to ask for advice.

Stung thus far by the challenge, I got an inspiration. I went to the machine shop, cut off a short length of 2-inch diameter pipe and then threaded one end. Next I cut a hole in the wood form in order to accommodate the pipe with its unthreaded end against the valve body where most of the seawater was spewing out. When I next packed in the cement, the water took the path of least resistance through the pipe and the cement hardened. Afterwards, I screwed a cap on the pipe end that was projecting from the form.

URUGUAY made two round trips across the Pacific before that sea valve was replaced. The only acknowledgement from the Staff Chief was a grunt. I then knew why others referred to him as Smiling John.

My second such encounter was a few days later. All of the engineers, cadets included, were working frantically between 4-hours-on 8-hours-off watches in order to disconnect all showers and almost all potable water spigots from the freshwater system and to reconnect them to the fire and flush system for seawater operation only. Otherwise there would not be enough potable water for everyone on board.

John Steinmann was directing that emergency effort and like the rest of us, only had time to sleep in about three-hour snatches. Just then he went into a rage when he discovered a steward using a bucket of potable water in order to flush the head in the Captain’s cabin. While the steward ran for his life Smiling John sent for me and, without telling the Captain, started to reconnect all of the Captain’s amenities for seawater operation only.

I was detailed to hold a flashlight while the Staff Chief furiously attempted to disconnect the pipe unions under the sink. He was taking a bit longer than I expected because the head of the Stillson wrench didn’t quite fit between a union and the bulkhead. He cursed a blue streak while attempting to force the wrench. Rather than remain bent over, I moved back and sat on the coaming of the nearby door causing my flashlight’s beam to momentarily move off of the work area.

The pint-size Staff Chief exploded and aimed a roundhouse swing of the wrench at my head. Thanks to me falling backwards off of the coaming, he missed. I left there fast, leaving him to finish the job by himself. Had I stayed, there is no telling what would have happened; I outweighed the diminutive Smiling John by fifty pounds. When I next saw him in the engine room, not a word was said.

Another emergency that teamed me with the Staff Chief occurred soon afterwards when an attempt was made to pump water from the forward cargo holds. Because those holds had contained bags of linseed during URUGUAY’s last peacetime voyage, spilled linseed had entered the bilge and ballast system, expanded, and formed a solid mass inside the pipe from the forward hold to the bilge pump in the forward boiler room, a distance of about one hundred feet. Had the holds flooded the water could not have been pumped out.

The bilge and ballast pump was disassembled and readily cleaned, but the glutinous linseed in the pipe was a difficult challenge. Pipe diameters varied from two inches forward to four inches at the pump. After a number of methods were tried unsuccessfully, my turn to assist the Staff Chief came just after he had devised a new technique. He had twice split the end of a length of half-inch diameter bar stock and bent each quarter so as to create a small grapple. He filed each of the four tines to a point. His workmanship was exquisite.

We started with the aftermost length of straight pipe in the pipe tunnel by removing all but one bolt from each flange and then rotating the pipe so that its ends were exposed while it was held in nearly its original position. I was detailed to work with a high-pressure hose from the forward end while he used his grapple tool from the other to loosen the sticky stuff. It was dirty, smelly and wet work that seemed to be succeeding until, somewhere near mid-length of the pipe, the grapple went into the brass nozzle and stuck there. Smiling John ordered me to pull harder on the hose while he was straining his puny muscles by pulling on the rod from the other end of the pipe.

Then his volatile temper took over and the situation escalated. He yelled for me to pull harder and since I was much bigger and stronger than him, and since the grapple remained firmly in the brass nozzle, I was pulling him closer to his end of the pipe. Inexplicably, that caused him to shout for me to pull even harder. Then, when the nozzle began to emerge from my end, the grapple broke free and the full force of the high-pressure stream hit Smiling John in the chest and knocked him on his butt. I dropped the nozzle, ran forward in the pipe tunnel, climbed the vertical ladder, and escaped through the crew’s mess compartment. Again, when I next saw the Staff Chief in the engine room, not a word was said.

Despite the onerous start of my association with him, I soon learned that John Steinmann was very knowledgeable, an excellent judge of character, fair minded, and one of the best bosses I ever had.



“They are the happiest addition to the ship’s staff since the advent of steam. The officers of the glorious age of sail may never have felt there was something lacking; who sails on a windjammer now, after having traveled on steam, misses not the engine, but the engineers.”

Jan De Hartog


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

Notice: ob_end_flush(): failed to send buffer of zlib output compression (1) in /home/japaniam/public_html/lou/wp-includes/functions.php on line 5373

Notice: ob_end_flush(): failed to send buffer of zlib output compression (1) in /home/japaniam/public_html/lou/wp-includes/functions.php on line 5373