Life Aboard

The young marine private sat on a convenient ammunition chest near the after end of the main deck. A furrow of concentration creased his brow as he peered intently up the deck toward the bow, looking between the rows of heavy trucks and other assorted rolling stock belonging to an invasion unit.

The ship was plodding along on a nice warm but breezy day with tropic seas smooth enough to please the most squeamish. Even so, there was some slight motion as we slugged along in a convoy of over a hundred ships head-on into the smallish tradewind swells. The LST, true to her type, went easily over each swell like a chip, although when she came down the other side and slammed into the front side of the next one, she would shudder and exhibit the phenomenon preoccupying the Marine at the moment.

Then as if he couldn’t figure something out and needed reassurance, he turned to a sailor engaged in chipping rust, the never-ending and most boring task on any metal vessel, and said, “Say, Mac, that deck up along there seems to be bending, or rippling, or something. Is that normal?”

The sailor’s response would likely differ according to mood, weather, or a number of factors having to do with personality, environmental background, or other things known to psychology. One time he might answer, after taking a long look himself up the deck, “Gee, mate, I don’t see a thing wrong. You might have a case of bleary eyes, landlubbers get at sea sometimes. See our pharmacist’s mate. He has a cure for it.” Then back to the endless chipping, chipping, chipping while the Marine looked back and forth trying to figure out if he’d been had.

Or, if the signs were just right, the sailor might not bother to look again. He might just heave a long sigh, swallow twice, and say “Well that does it. I thought I noticed that this morning too, but I hoped I was wrong. If you ‘ve seen it, it’s probably true. These ships go so long, you know, then they crack in two and we have to try to get them into a dry dock fast enough to weld the two halves back together before they come apart. Keep an eye on it for me, willya? I’ll go up and report it to the OD, although there’s nothing we can do now except hope we get to port before she splits.” Finally, he adds knowingly, “Keep your lifebelt handy. I’ll try to find some shark-repellent, too. These is heavily shark-infested waters.”

The sailor then goes aft to the galley and the coffee urn while the nervous Marine keeps his eyes fixed on what he is sure is a dangerously flexing deck. After all, isn’t a steel ship supposed to be tight and rigid so she won’t break apart? He prays to be deposited forthwith on dry land and wonders how sailors can keep their sanity out there where they are continually in danger of being dumped into an unfriendly medium, and so much of it too!

Of course the Marine doesn’t know the sailor thinks the reverse about soldiers. Every sailor joins the Navy or Coast Guard knowing he will always take his bed and cooking facilities with him. He wonders how soldiers can stand sleeping on the cold ground and eating so much canned stuff, uncooked and usually cold. Sailors also have the illusion that they are safe from enemy action aboard a ship. The result of some battles have given the lie to this somewhat, but the myth still exists. (Okinawa has the reputation of having produced more casualties among sailors than soldiers.)

The sailor on any ship carrying members of other, usually land-bound, services has always felt those others to be fair game. After all, they are on his turf, and forecastle humor is normal and a nice way to break the monotony of sea travel.

It would never do to simply explain to the Marine the facts of life. An LST is built to flex, of course, so she will not do what the Marine is sorely afraid she will do: break in two. When an LST hits an unyielding beach at full speed, something has to give. A rigid structure suddenly strained and relieved of her cushion of even suspension, the water, would break unless she had been built and designed to bend. This was the genius of the design that delivered this remarkable vessel.

On ships like the LST where so much time was spent in carrying troops from rear areas to combat, relations between sailors and passengers were always a bit weird. In the first place, war is a great reducer of inhibitions. There is always military law to keep ;you within some bounds, to be sure, but discipline in forward areas takes on a far different aspect from that in rear echelons where there is more time for it.

Take stealing, for example. Normally, stealing from ones shipmates is frowned upon and will bring swift retribution if discovered. Less likely to result in such punishment, though, in stealing from those in other services. Under certain circumstances, such theft is governed as much by complicated social mores as are any marriage rites.

Marines and soldiers traveling on troop carriers of all kinds usually figured that since they were going into combat with the enemy, anything they could find aboard that might ease their burdens later was fair game. So jackets, blankets, all manner of loose gear belonging to crew members disappeared as if eaten by plagues of locusts.

This attitude worked the other way, too. It was hard to get real mad at a 250 pound Marine with a gun just because he’d pilfered a navy jacket to keep him warm, especially when you knew he was going where he’d sleep on the ground, eat canned rations in the open, and be continually in mortal danger. At the same time, there were items passengers sometimes carried which we considered fair game. Take beer, for example. That commodity was always in short supply in forward areas, even though the Navy, despite the law that makes it a dry service, did it’s best to get beer supplies out there amongst the other essentials like ammunition. Our experience was that when we picked up a bunch of Marines in, say, Guam, to take them into battle, odds were they would bring along a pretty good supply of beer. It might not be too obvious and probably be disguised as medicinal goods of some kind, but we were adept at recognizing cases of beer no matter what the label! The Marines knew this and took pains to guard their st

But the crew is also adept at getting around all manner of obstacles. If we could master and handle something like beaching a whale of a landing ship, we could figure out ways to tap the beer stocks of our passengers. For instance, on one voyage a large cache of the juice was laid down on the lower tank deck where a whole gaggle of Marines was eating, sleeping and so on. It seemed impossible, at a glance, to figure a way to get to the stuff without the owners knowing it. But, unknown to them, a way was found. When they disembarked, the whole center of the stock was missing, and only enough cases to go around the edges and hide the middle were left. Now it can be told. Our clever engineers, armed with detailed plans of the whole ship, found ways to crawl from one of the engine rooms through the hull under the tank deck. They would crawl to the right spot, under the middle of the store of beer cases, come up through deck plates, and deplete the stock quite quickly. Until it could be safely consumed,

And so life went, whenever there were others aboard, which was quite often. Besides requisitioning material from our passengers, it was frequently possible to steal from the navy or Army in other ways. One item we were not strictly entitled to have on board was a jeep, let alone two or more! Yet we almost always managed to have at least one.

The captain himself was not above taking part in shenanigans or slight deceptions resulting in our possession of various non-regulation items. For example, all though he did not use a paint sprayer on one himself, several Army jeeps were re-painted on board from their original olive drab to the exact blue of Navy ones.

Our small boat, an LCVP, could carry a jeep driven aboard over a bow ramp from a beach. On one occasion while the LST was at anchor, it was noticed from the bridge our LCVP approaching as fast as she could go. One of the boat crew was frantically signaling to have the painters ready at the bow doors. There on the small boat’s deck space was a newly “ requisitioned “ ( stolen ) olive drab vehicle.

We had lost a jeep recently to an SOP (Senior Officer Present) who saw ours and confiscated it on the grounds we were not entitled to it (the SOP wasn’t entitled to one either but rank has it’s privileges!). The LCVP crew had obviously seen one unattended and had “requisitioned” it.

The duty watch on the bridge was forced to inform the captain of what was happening. He said, “Captain, if an Army officer comes aboard demanding to see your jeep, don’t take him to the tank deck to see it until the paint is dry!”

The captain looked a little startled at first and before he thought, he said, “You know damned well that (bleep)ing SOP on Ulithi took our jeep last week!” But then the other thought dawned and he said, “Oh, I see. Never mind----I’ll be ready.”

So rapidly did the deck gang get the jeep aboard, spray-paint it with fast-dry paint and stencil with an official Navy number that by the time the irate Army Major got to it, he had no way to prove it was his.

The usual criminal action of “stealing,” in other words, is situational. It depends on the circumstances whether it is morally wrong or not, although it may be illegal in all instances. A similar matter in every organized religion’s commandment against killing; i.e. except in wartime.

Our captain finagled jeeps for us on another occasion as a result of his sharp eyes and quick wit. In an officers club bar one day on Ulithi while our ship was being loaded for some battle, he saw two things at once: a lot of Army jeeps outside the bar and, inside the bar, legendary Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who ran the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the Pacific Theater.

We don’t know how far gone the general was, but our captain (who could consume tremendous amounts of libations without losing his reasoning powers) managed to convince him in that convivial atmosphere that he, the general, could make use of a mammoth fork lift we had on board and couldn’t use. The general could have same for the price of two jeeps. Need I say that this kind of trading was absolutely verboten by regulations? Before that drinking session was over, we were minus the fork lift but had the jeeps.

There were other periods, though, when we were without passengers and left to our own devices. With no women, there was little incentive to normal social life, so we found other hobbies. One was the time-honored pastime of gambling. Again, this was against military law. Any officer, commissioned or non-com, who came upon a game of chance on a ship or other military station had the sworn duty to report such to the commanding officer, who in turn had the sworn duty to stop such and punish the offenders. It is not meant that all men in military life live immoral lives. But when the future looks bleak the impulse is to think, “Enjoy what you can today, for tomorrow you may die.” So gambling took place aboard the ship, and no one cared or did anything about it. One could gamble or not as one saw fit.

While cards engrossed a number of the shipmates a good deal of the time, others found different amusements. We had another group on board who fancied themselves graduate chemists. To while away the time its members used to experiment with various noxious substances. Funny, too, all these experiments were directed toward the same final result: booze. That is drinkable (barely) alcoholic liquids which, while they might ream out one’s insides, hopefully would also serve to make the hours go by more joyfully. Unfortunately, this kind of experimental chemistry was also forbidden by military law. This law, however, was one the ship’s disciplinarians were not so ready to ignore as they were the caveats against gambling. Not because these amateur concoctions were alcoholic but because sometimes they ere extremely explosive and dangerous to life and limb!

A couple of these so-called chemists didn’t have high school diplomas. Nevertheless, they knew more about the proclivities of various substances to come up intoxicating when placed in a warm environment (hence the popularity of the warm spaces near the engines) in the proper critical mass than the guys at Los Alamos knew about atomic reactions.

Of course there was a certain amount of alcohol legally aboard. We had a sick bay presided over by two fun-loving yet very capable pharmacists. They were the custodians of the medicinal alky, commonly referred to as “torpedo juice”, since it was rumored this was the same fluid used to power and propel those projectiles. Those pharmacists were bound by some very rigid Navy laws as to how to handle and account for this stuff, because the admirals who wrote those laws knew full well that this kind of straight alky when mixed with almost anything drinkable, like pineapple juice, was a superb antidote to boredom, the doldrums, or other afflictions common to war zones. Nothing tasted so smooth on a hot night yet hits you suddenly on the back of the head like the kick of a mule. However, torpedo juice was not supposed to be used for that purpose. In fact, the purposes for which it was legally dispensable were so few and far between, one might wonder why ships carried so much and why whenever we hit a port with

War has been described as 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer, stark terror. Medicinal alky was great for either. This is known because so many have said so. Others with less charitable minds, have accused our pharmacists of possessing more creative minds than the smartest Harvard-trained MBAs when it came to devising methods of accounting to hide the facts rather than reveal them.

Creative activity was not confined to dreaming up ways to get a buzz on. There was, as is inevitable when hours of boredom are available with no women, a good deal of artistic work going on all the time. On a steel ship, men are occupied for days and days chipping away at the rust that forms. The special instruments furnished by the Navy for this activity were made of extremely hard tempered steel. They were about a foot long, a little less than two inches wide, and a good eighth of an inch thick. When lovingly caressed by emery paper for hours on end, these things could emerge as very handsome and sharp knives, especially when handles made of various substances could be themselves the objects of artistry.

There were also the endless hours of just watching the ocean. The old ocean! She’s a caprious, fickle, temperamental and yet a beautiful creature. There are those who have said the ocean is a dull spectacle, nothing but water as far as one can see. To be sure, there’s lots of water, but every instant it seems to look different.

The ocean has moods and changes them as quickly as it shows them. The horizon is not an unchanging, constant line, for example. It changes every instant, and the sight of the ocean as you stand watch and gaze at it can be as interesting and changing as the sight of any other kind of scenery or of many canvases in a museum. It is this mesmerizing sight that has taken men back to sea over and over again through the ages. There are said to be two “best times” for the sailor. One is getting into port and the anticipation of the chance to try dry land and it’s various temptations. The other is the day you cast off and head for sea again, leaving the inevitable problems of shore life behind.

It was Bill Lee, the quiet lawyer and executive officer, who, having suffered from chronic seasickness all through his months of service on two LSTs, remarked feelingly that when he returned home to his native Arkansas, all he wanted to have from the war and his life at sea was a “faint recollection.”

The above is an edited version of Chapter 6 of The Mad Hooligan Story.

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