Ralph Knight, Newcomb’s Engineering Officer, with valve wheels and numerous gages, which had to be monitored constantly.
Reminiscences of a Snipe
“Snipe” in the Navy is a generic term for all those (enlisted men) who served below in the engine rooms or fire rooms; we were also called the “black gang.” I joined the Navy at 18, was trained to be a Motor Machinist Mate (MoMM2/c), and served aboard the Newcomb from commissioning to decommissioning.

I stood watch in the forward engine room where the only access was from the main deck, through a round hatch, and down a vertical ladder. The hatch was just outside of the galley where our bakers worked all night. This geographical happenstance became a boon for those standing a night watch down there! (fresh bread).

When underway, my usual duty was tending throttle, large diameter wheels which manually opened or closed the steam valves to our turbines: forward turbine, reverse turbine and cruising turbine and crossover valve. Emergency actions required closing one while opening another (without blowing everything up). It was always hot in the engine room, as high as 130 degrees. While at the throttle we stood under blowers, but you would feel toasted if you moved out of the air flow. Our skin became so soft from being wet so much that it was (seemingly) as easy to peel the skin as to wash the dirt off. Treatment was with some purple medication, the original “Purple People Eater.” Many Snipes took salt tablets regularly to make up for the amount lost in sweat. We seldom saw the sun.

“Standard Speed” in the Navy was 15 knots, but the exact RPM required was signaled from the bridge, typically 149–155 RPM. Naturally the RPM at any instant would vary from the desired number due to sea conditions, turns, etc. The total number of shaft revolutions was continually recorded and it was up to us to adjust so as to maintain the proper average RPM.

One night we were peacefully steaming at 149 RPM, listening to the phone conversation between radar and the bridge. Radar kept alerting bridge to a closing ship (distance between us decreasing, a potential disaster). Suddenly the engine room received a signal for “flank astern” on the right screw. We were on the cruising turbine and had to shut that down and cross over to high pressure astern without blowing up the ship. We did, and we avoided collision.

Any action like this, calling for an abrupt change in steam requirements, also caused problems for the boiler room crew, and frequently resulted not only in a spate of four letter words, but a big puff of black smoke from the stack. This was a no-no because it could be seen for many miles by the enemy. But this occasion, fortunately, was at night.

The next day the incident was investigated. Was this problem caused by a lax Officer of the Deck or by a lax Snipe who did not maintain proper RPM? Fortunately (for me) the daily record showed 4 hours at exactly 149 RPM!

At the other extreme, while at anchor, the engine room duties were normally minimal. One night, however, I was alone on watch when I noted that the lower cooling water pump had started to loose suction. This sea water intake is essential for condensing the steam as it leaves the turbines. It is pumped in through a very large inlet in the side of the ship and then filtered before entering the condenser. Loosing suction probably meant clogged screens in the filter. I could (and did) divert the water to a second set of screens while I cleaned out the first. Out came vast quantities of jelly fish, all jammed into the screen! Why they decided to “attack” the Newcomb I will never know. As soon as I cleaned one screen, the other became clogged. This went on for about 15 minutes; continually repeating the process; more and more jelly fish. They came so fast that I couldn’t call for help and I gave up trying to put them in buckets. Eventually the “attack” stopped, but I was knee deep in jelly fish. It seemed like enough to feed the entire ship for some time! Somehow, perhaps from pleading shock, I got out of cleaning up this mess. Just try to imagine some hundreds of pounds of jelly fish in a room at 130 degrees. I did not receive a battle star for this action!

The old Navy lived on coffee. Coffee beans keep very well and we had a goodly supply on board. But the black gang could make the best coffee, and could make it faster than anyone else. Just put water (clean and fresh from our evaporators) into an enameled pitcher, add a few handfuls of coffee, and then heat. The job of making coffee fell, naturally, to the lowest rated man in the gang. The strength of the coffee seemed to vary with the size of his hands! Our method of heating was through a coil of copper tubing that would just fit into the pitcher and was attached (via a valve) to a high temperature steam line. It didn’t take many seconds to produce a great cup of coffee. All of our fresh water was distilled from sea water in the engine room; both water for washing, drinking and cooking, and the higher-purity water needed for the boilers. We had access to both, so our coffee was great!

(In the New Navy where gas turbines have replaced many steam turbines, how in the world do they make coffee?)

Steaming at sea, on duty, suddenly the “Vacuum God” made his appearance. The vacuum in the de-aerating tank was dropping. Without vacuum, very bad things happen! After I had a few seconds of panic, an ensign appeared (as they do at times). He had been playing “touch my valve” (turn a valve to see what happens). My words to him did not include many from the King’s English. [As an aside: I happened to meet him on a commuter train after the war—and we made up!]

I always will remember the December ’44 Pacific typhoon. I was on duty and stayed on duty for many hours because no one could move about on deck. We rolled 45 to 52 degrees or more. One minute I would be on top of the throttle and then the ship would slowly roll until the throttle was on top of me. A wild night, but we were lucky, we survived; others did not.