I was surprised by the interest stimulated by my World War II story, What Drumbeat Means to Me. In particular, I appreciated the genuine concern expressed by readers for those who had to work amidst the ship’s boilers that were then being forced enough to cause their sides to glow cherry red. One reader asked, “Were you ever injured?”
That unexpected question was never posed before so I responded with a simple, “No.” Upon reflection, I should have responded, “Yes,” because I sustained a permanent deformity soon after U.S. Army Transport URUGUAY departed from San Francisco on 26 May 1942 with a full load of troops for a second wartime voyage across the Pacific Ocean. I had celebrated my nineteenth birthday just one month before in Wellington, New Zealand and had already been to Panama, Bora Bora in the Society Islands, Auckland and Melbourne since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Also, just hours before leaving San Francisco, I had been assigned as a junior engineer on the 12 to 4 watch in the forward boiler room to replace someone who was summarily removed. For the first two days underway I was preoccupied with constantly tightening the numerous bolts that were expanding as the boilers got hotter. The majority were the one-inch in-diameter bolts that were welded to handhole plates. There were seven in each forged-steel sinuous header and there were twenty headers in each boiler front and another twenty in back, i.e., there were 280 such bolts to constantly tighten per boiler and there were six boilers in each of the two boiler rooms. Thus, for the first few
days after departing from San Francisco, as temperatures increased, most of my time was devoted to tightening those bolts with a huge, considerably worn, box wrench that weighed more than twenty pounds.
Such work on the boiler fronts was facilitated by relatively easy access and by the fact that the temperature, at about 90- to 100-degrees Fahrenheit, was relatively cool compared to the areas behind the boilers where there was no ventilation. There everything was too hot to touch even when wearing leather gloves. Also the only access was via a 12-inch wide grating and the boiler backs slanted away from where one stood on the five-foot high walkway. In short, the grating behind each boiler was a precarious perch especially when URUGUAY listed unexpectedly when having to zigzag in convoy as an anti-submarine measure. Added to that danger was the parsimonious nature of URUGUAY’s owners. Their prewar modus operandi, such as not spending for the replacement of worn tools, had not yet changed. The box wrench, no doubt, had not been replaced since URUGUAY was delivered fourteen-years before; it was worn so much that after putting it in place I could back the three-foot-long handle about eight inches and then take a hefty swing. And so, during that second watch after departing from San Francisco, while standing on a grating in back, with my toes at its bitter end, that is exactly what I did.
The wrench elected to wear out completely at that instant! My whole body was behind that swing and because there wasn’t the resistance I was depending upon, my falling off of the grating was imminent. Grabbing the edge of the slanted-boiler surface was sure to cause severe burns so I resorted to just momentarily touching it with my extended finger tips of both hands in order to keep from falling. The wrench, meanwhile, flew off on its own, rotated 180-degrees and then its heaviest part slammed onto the end of the gloved third finger of my right hand!
My smashed fingernail turned black and I could count my pulse by the throbbing, but I completed the watch. Upon returning to my cabin after four in the morning, sleep was impossible so I moseyed into another cabin where there seemed to be some activity. Another junior engineer, a slick character from Southern California, had already discovered a few Army officers who were into gambling; he had a poker game underway. He knew that I would normally be asleep at that time so he inquired accordingly. I held up my hurt finger. Then, one of the Army officers said, “Let me see!” That’s when I noticed that he was wearing a medical insignia. He reached over, took my knife from its sheath, it was filthy from cutting graphite-impregnated valve packing, sterilized it with his cigarette lighter and said, “Tell me when it hurts.”
I replied, “It hurts now!” So he quickly slipped the blade under the nail and then sliced it right off. I saw stars, lots of them accompanied by much blood that the doctor staunched with my handkerchief, and finally the throbbing stopped! The doc went back to the card game and I went back to my bunk and fell asleep
As I type this tale, the dislocation of the first joint on my right hand’s third finger is prominent, but one can see, thanks to a poker-playing Army doctor, it works fine.