Shakedown and Combat Training
June 5th to July 4th, 1942

June 5, 1942 news headlines were on the bombing of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and a fleet engagement off Midway Island. Behind the headlines were a lot of weary sailors, for they had been holding the line while we picked up modern weapons and learned how to use them.

Nicholas began her training and shakedown with 15% regulars and experienced-in-the-fleet reserves; 85% were gawky youths of unknown potential. Before I saw our “boots,” my mind’s-eye had foreseen something prettier—maybe a James Montgomery Flagg recruiting poster.

I gazed upon two ranks of flop-eared, lumpy skulls, and a lot of adenoidal expressions of dumb wonder. There was the fleeting thought that a picture of these guys would be aid and comfort to the enemy, and as such, a violation of Federal law.

However, prejudice is inevitably corrected by Truth. These lads proved that strong men come without beauty, like big noses, lumpy skulls and floppy ears. Mostly.

And, if where you are going is for keeps, like war, a tough-talker is excess baggage. Always.

Before commissioning in Boston, the period of fitting out Nicholas at the builder’s yard in Bath, Maine, was a pleasant memory. Townspeople had been universally warm and helpful; the Yard management and technicians contributed significantly to our need to learn the ship at our level and to pass it on to the young wartime complement coming aboard in Boston.

Our training began on weapons, power plant and ship handling. We held school but not on theory; all was action and response. If theory came up the subject could be postponed. We drilled, not for a fixed number of evolutions but to reduce time and increase accuracy of performance. The drills then continued for another purpose: a drilled response that is only hours old requires no thought process, therefore error is reduced.

Five-inch gun loading teams at the practice loading machine stepped up from safety lessons, movement then cadence; pick up speed to four, five, eight and ten rounds-per-minute. The loading machines clumped and bumped all day, every day. Engineers learned by tracing—again and again—fuel, water and three separate steam systems; drill on damage control problems with emphasis on maintaining electrical power to the guns and mobility to the ship.

We drilled for boarding as well. Every division contributed men to the boarding party, and the drill was announced: “Standby to board!” or “Standby to repel boarders!”—board and attack the enemy on their decks, or, man the rail and cut the bastards down! Nicholas was my third ship but the only one that did not issue cutlasses to the boarding party. I think that the passing of Romance was not missed.

The ship’s new general alarm was not an electric bell but a 60-cycle, amplified sound, an insistent tone that was more compelling than bells. My nerves responded more quickly to it. I say nerves, because my feet often preceded my thinking.

I now advance the thought that the boiler division carried the heavier burden in hard physical labor and total hours of alertness “on watch.” There won’t be a challenge to that statement!

In the forward and after firerooms were two boilers each, facing together so that operating personnel were between the boilers. The boilers were rated at 20,000 h.p. each, and delivered steam to the main engines at 200-miles-per-hour velocity at 600 pounds-per-square-inch at 850 degrees Fahrenheit (superheated by 350 degrees). On each boiler, four “saturated” oil burners and three “superheater” oil burners provided the heat to make that steam—at full power burning 600 gallons of fuel per hour. When four boilers were pushing the ship at full power, speed was 32 to 36 knots, depending upon sea temperature and other limiting factors. At that speed, fuel was consumed at about 2,400 gallons per hour. Fuel capacity limited high-speed operations to 24 hours.

The boilers burn air at 18 times the ratio of fuel to air in pounds, which was supplied by turbine-driven forced-draft blowers revving up to 7,000 revolutions per minute. A rifle bullet striking a steam line would burst it, suffocating every living thing in that space.

Young sailors, most under 21, operated this plant.

The firemen stood before the boiler front, eyes fixed on the steam gage and responded to engine demand by cutting burners in or out, or by modifying the fuel pressure with the “micrometer” valve. When the engine throttles were opened, it took alert action to keep the boiler pressure at or near the operating pressure.

On the gratings above were checkmen who controlled the feed water to the boilers by manually adjusting the feedwater check valves. Low or high water could destroy the boilers or engines, so the checkman had to be experienced and mentally cool. He was required to be a petty officer in big ships.

The petty officer-in-charge usually operated the blower throttle, for the throttle platform provided a see-all position, and from which he could see the smoke periscope.

Provided also was a sound-powered telephone talker wearing a headset. The line was in direct communication with the bridge and the engine rooms.

Last was the junior fireman—the messenger. His duties included taking vital machinery readings for the log, running errands for the watch petty officer and calling the relief watch at night.

The boiler plant consumed a lot of man-hours in labor: the firesides and watersides of each boiler were scheduled for normal cleaning at every 1000 hours of operation—about six-week intervals. Due to pending operations, it was frequently done earlier, for it adds to ship speed and fuel efficiency. Labor involved was 120 man-hours per boiler, five men around the clock.

Auxiliary machinery requiring preventive maintenance and repair were four turbine-driven forced draft blowers, four turbine-driven fuel pumps (service and transfer), reciprocating feed pump, and all the automatic pressure controls—200 or more valves that leak inside and out at the turn of a calendar page. Then the monsters—eight boiler safety valves with the propensity to leak and advertise it at the top of the stack. These were unequaled in mansweat cause and effect.

After all night at battle stations and the ship is anchored in some kind of haven, the boiler division has one more chore: fuel ship from two to three hours. “So how come you’re so tired?” asks the gunner.

The plant, the fire- and engine room are usually 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the exterior temperature on deck. In the tropics, as in the Southwest Pacific, that is over 100 degrees F.

Hot, yes, but old regulars considered the new (1940) ships with their air-encased boilers to be luxurious at those temperatures. The comparison was with pressurized firerooms wherein only enough air was supplied for economical combustion for the fuel. At low ship speeds, the blowers slowed and the heat radiated back into the operating area.

Desperate engineers went into high heat mode, planks to stand on, buttoned collars and rolled-down sleeves, and cotton headbands soaked with water. Covering bare skin with cotton provided an evaporative-refrigeration effect that bare skin alone could not. Above 105° F., movement had to be very slow. Even though the inclination is to move about, the pulse rate leaps with movement. It took thought and planning to stand where minimum movement was required to see the smoke periscope and to tap the blower throttle lightly with a wrench to fine-tune the air supply that formed a light-brown haze at the top of the stack.

The Medical Department issued salt pills some distance from the fireroom hatch.

All the ships of the prewar fleet were in competition for the Red E for engineering economy. If a ship won the Red E, it was painted on the forward stack to remain for the fiscal year of the competition. A fireman second class won $2 also, and he could sew a Red E on his left forearm—if you consider the Red E a badge of honor, the sweat-equity of a fireman, for the ship’s prize was $0.01825 per day. Having won once, everyone including the officer-of-the-deck now knew how, for he would watch the stack emissions as zealously as he watched the compass bearing.

“Put a haze on that stack!”

“Aye, aye, Sir!” And fireman Joe Blow would slow the blower; the haze would appear in the periscope, the stack CO2 would rise above 10%, and the fireroom temperature would creep up from 126° F. to 132° F.

Watching the old cruisers from my luxurious duty in a new destroyer, I reflected that maybe they are glad there’s war on: all the stacks are clear!

Nicholas was ordered to report for sea trials June 22 and 23rd in Massachusetts Bay. We cleaned boilers again to enhance that performance. We also reported for duty to Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll. Not having seen the new destroyer class, he came aboard for an informal inspection.

Eight years before, as a captain, Ingersoll had commanded San Francisco, my first ship, so we were both San Francisco plank owners. When he came down into the forward fireroom, I introduced myself. He either remembered me or feigned to remember. His son, a naval aviator, had been lost in the Pacific a few days before so I pursued no reminiscences.

The morning of June 30, 1942, we got underway from Newport, Rhode Island to make a full power run to Casco Bay, Maine. This was a period of shaking out the abilities of petty officers for top watch standers (in charge of a watch underway). Those of us who were qualified stayed on to the end of the run; Jab Bauer was with me throughout on No. 2 blower throttle. The fires roared and the turbines of the blowers howled at over 6,000 r.p.m. An overriding noise was the groaning up-stroke of the emergency feed pump.

On a full-power run, one learns the melody of the plant so well that a discord is readily perceived. We fitted that feed pump with new packing rings in the Casco Bay anchorage.

At twilight, we anchored in the assigned berth in Casco Bay. Word was passed that there would be no liberty. I climbed up to the open scuttle at the main deck and noted that the Roger flag was not flying at the foremast. Thus we didn’t have the ready duty, making the watch-on two men instead of ten. Sack-time might be my reward for that fact. Casco Bay resembled the banks of the Kenebec River at Bath, evergreen-topped rock islets. There were warships anchored among the small islands, but I noticed that their berths were widely dispersed. Thoughts of going ashore crossed my mind but my bones gave off some aches in response. Nevertheless, the book I had kept me reading until midnight in the cold fireroom.

July 1st and 2nd were planned exercises at sea, but the fog clung to the surface persistently. On the second, we were issued stainless steel dog tags that included blood type. During the Civil War before battle, conscientious soldiers wrote their names on paper, which they pinned on their uniforms. Our civilization advances relentlessly.

July 3rd was a full working day on preventive maintenance. I cut in a chit for special liberty for Independence Day to visit friends in Bath. I sent off $10 to a Boston naval tailor for dungarees.

Bill Scott, chief machinist’s mate, Jab Bauer and I went ashore in the 1630 boat; we got to the Portland boat landing at 1715, after a 45-minute boat ride. Scotty guided us to a ten-stool cafe where he was known, it seemed. We took a beer. Sticky drink rings covered the bar from some previous days and nights; cigarette butts on the floor had depth as well as width. The patrons completed some kind of a picture: an old hag had trouble holding her head erect, and when she managed it she made sheepeyes at Jab and me. The blokes present had no light in their eyes, and indistinct boasts erupted from time to time while they dreamed with their eyes open.

My ex-landlord from Bath came in with a lady not his wife. He and his date ordered dinner, whereupon I saw the unshaven face of the cook, lip-dangling cigarette and in a dirty, collarless shirt peering from the kitchen pass-through. I guessed that I was looking at the supreme ruler of this, the Imperial Cafe.

I pointed, Jab nodded. We departed.

The citizens of Portland, like in Bath, must have eaten so well at home that there was no support for a restaurant. We found nothing that we would swap for hunger. We got back to the ship at midnight, and I learned that I had the midwatch. I changed into dungarees and relieved the watch forward.

July 4th, 1942, at anchor, Casco Bay, Maine. I got off watch at 0400. Having found a note in the log that I was to light-off at six, I stayed up and told stories with the auxiliary watch until time to get up steam.

Off watch and to breakfast at 0730, at 0800 I held basic school for some boots. Between 1000 and 1130, I slept on the fireroom gratings. I then took the 1200 to 1600 underway watch in the forward fireroom. We arrived back at the anchorage by 1610, which gave me just enough time to shower and don dress blues for the 1630 liberty boat with “Old Settler” Smith to visit our friends in Bath.

Norman E. Smith had named himself the “Old Settler”; maybe it was his roots in the Missouri Ozarks. He had shipped in the Navy in 1917. “That’s how I got out of the third grade—I was drafted,” he said. He had retired as a first-class petty officer in 1938 and was recalled to active duty in 1940. At age 47, he was 6 months younger than the captain. “I’ve got the edge in experience, too,” he told me. He couldn’t have been assigned to destroyer duty without asking for it. That is how I measured the man who was my friend and shipmate.

We arranged to meet at the bus station. When I got there, Old Settler was smiling broadly I could smell the beer . . . then he did a soft-shoe shuffle and tunelessly sang one of his favorites:

Dum-te-dum, Mahatma Gandhi—dum-te-dum
Woke up one morning with a dum-te-dum dandy—
Hollered, ‘bring in the maid, bring in the goat,
Bring anything else that’s handy . . .’

Old Settler hung onto his joy until we got to Bath, where he had a girlfriend.

We had been invited by my ex-landlady, Nellie Millet, who lived over the drugstore on Front Street. She had four bedrooms rented out on the third floor—all to civilians except mine. I stopped in the drugstore to visit with the druggist, Carl Anderson. I hoped to see Martha, the pretty and winsome sodajerk, but she was not there. Carl was a wise and witty fellow and we kept up a correspondence for a few years. A lot of Bath, Maine postmarks followed the Bath ships of Destroyer Squadron 21: Nicholas, O’Bannon, Chevalier, Strong and Taylor.

We climbed the stairs behind the drugstore to Nellie’s apartment to find her beaming behind her coke-bottle eyeglasses. The pots were steaming and the ice bucket full. We had food, drinks, jokes and songs. Before Old Settle left with his girlfriend, Nellie became maudlin and weepy, she would never rent to sailors again: “They just go away . . .”

Nellie had a ship’s clock we had given her in prominent place in the living room. It was engraved: “To Nellie With Love U.S.S. NICHOLAS (DD-449).” Most of the Fitting-out Detail had contributed because she had been a mother to us all, including the dozen or so who didn’t live there.

At the bus station around 2 a.m., Settler arrived just in time for the bus. “Well, if you’re not going to tell me I’ve got to ask!”

He worked his face in mock puzzlement. “Did you ever try to tuck a raw oyster into a slot machine?”

At the Portland boat landing, we got two hours sleep in some straight-back chairs.