Life On Board Ship

I have spent some time telling you what we were doing. Now I would like to try to give a little flavor of our life aboard and how we felt.

Our life was divided into two entirely different modes. One, when we were in a forward area, with enemy nearby, such that we were attacking, or being attacked, or expecting attack at any time; and two, when we were in a rear area, or on our way to a rear area, such that the chance of attack was small except from submarines—and we soon learned that for our ship, the aircraft were our major worry, not the submarines.


Those members of the crew whose assignments kept them “busy” when on watch and when at GQ became pretty well strung out. These were the bridge gang (us), lookouts, radar and sonar men, engine room and fire room personnel, etc. There were others (no less important to the ship) who were “busy” only occasionally; all the gunnery people, repair parties, medics, etc. Those involved with gunnery, torpedoes and depth charges were very busy once in a while, but could sit down, waiting, and waiting, most of the time.

We (the busy gang) were on our feet and (hopefully) alert all of the time on watch and at GQ. This amounted to 8 hours of regular “watch” every day plus anywhere from zero to 10, 12, or 20 hours of general quarters. We naturally were happiest (if “happy” is the right word) when any GQ coincided with our own watch. The rest of the time (if there was any) was used to eat, sleep, etc. And the loser in this game was sleep. We got so we could sleep at any time, anywhere. Often when I came off watch or GQ I would find an isolated piece of deck near the bridge, tell the Quartermaster on watch where I would be, use my life preserver as a pillow, and go to sleep. We tended to become a scruffy group. Probably the Captain had the toughest duty in this regard. He had responsibility for the ship 24 hours a day. And although he could (and would) doze in his bridge chair, he seldom got many hours of sleep.

It was a court-martial offense to fall asleep on duty; but it was very apt to happen at night when things were “slow.” I remember Lee Ebner (a southerner we all called “Rebel”), a signalman who stood watch with me. If it was calm, he could lean against the bulkhead and sleep standing up!

I also remember one calm, bright moonlit night when I had to take my turn at the wheel (steering). We used a gyro-compass mounted above and to the left of the wheel. It had the usual 360 degree compass card plus a small additional card that showed only a few degrees but to a much larger scale; so that we could (presumably) be more precise in our steering. The only problem was that the effect of these two cards, moving at different speeds, could be almost hypnotic. Certainly it was sleep-inducing!

On the night in question we were all alone patrolling near an island—calm—no enemy on the radar—very quiet. And I fell asleep at the wheel! I must have been asleep for some minutes because when I awoke, I was way off course; 30 to 40 degrees at least. But no one had noticed! So I very slowly returned to the correct course expecting all Hell to break loose at any instant because the moonlight shadows kept moving around. But nothing happened—and I didn’t ask questions. My guess is that the Officer of the Deck and the Junior Officer of the Deck, and the signalmen, and the lookouts, and … were all asleep. I’ll never know.

We all consumed large amounts of coffee to help stay alert. We had a pot on the bridge that was going all day long. In addition, at night, near the middle of each watch, one of the men on KP would come stumbling around with a 2 gallon pot of coffee in one hand, and a bucket filled with water and coffee mugs in the other. The coffee was always very sweet, had a lot of condensed milk in it, and by the time it got to us was not overly hot. [Perhaps that is why, to this day, I want my coffee black and very hot.] The routine was to take a mug from the bucket, fill it with coffee, drink it, and return the mug to the bucket for the next man. Not overly sanitary, but welcome. In rough weather, with both hands full, our delivery man had a tough time. On occasion the whole works would be deposited all over the deck!

In the best of times, ventilation in the crew’s quarters left a lot to be desired. Our bunks had green plastic fire-proof, water-proof covers that were supposed to cover our mattress pads when we weren’t in the bunks. In the hot, southern climate we would usually sweat copiously; so many of us slept on top of the mattress cover on a towel to soak up the sweat. During GQ, all hatches were “dogged down” (closed) for watertight integrity between compartments; also, all ventilation was shut down for the same reason. I leave it to your imagination to think what the atmosphere was like in the crew’s quarters when we had been at GQ all day, with a burning sun shining down on the deck!

Never-the-less, sleep we did. Vernon Leno, another Quartermaster who bunked near me, was a champion. If he had five minutes before going on watch, he would lay down and sleep for the whole time—we called him “Sleeping Jesus Christ”!

A destroyer is too small to carry supplies for an extended period. When underway, we had to refuel every 4–5 days from a larger ship; a cruiser, a battleship, aircraft carrier, or a fleet tanker. Sometimes this was quickly and easily done in a calm spot alongside a moored ship. More often (it seemed), it was done at sea, while underway. This could be difficult in calm weather, but was very difficult in bad weather as shown in the photo (and often impossible). We, would steam alongside the supply ship at 5–10 knots, trying to maintain a constant gap of perhaps 30 feet between the ships. A line would be “shot” across to our foredeck and used to pull heavier lines and then a large, 4-inch hose across to the Newcomb. The hose was suspended from a boom on the supply ship, and had a fair amount of give-and-take potential as the ships came closer or farther away.

However, no ship can steer a straight line, and when 2 ships are very close together it is even more difficult. Swede Hanson was our best helmsman, and he usually had the duty when we refueled. A couple times I did it, but I wasn’t nearly as good as he. On at least two occasions we separated too far, the hoses parted, and the heavy fuel oil was spewed all over the deck and the men working on deck—a real mess!

We also had to pass mail, documents, and personnel while underway. The same system was used as for refueling, and some of the same problems occurred. It was bad when a person got dunked for a few seconds; it was far worse if a mail bag was dunked!

In the forward areas we used a lot of ammunition, and we took on ammunition whenever we could. This could not be done while underway at sea, and we frequently became dangerously short. Ammunition was shipped out in Naval Ammunition Ships, Naval LSTs used for that purpose, and Merchant Marine Ammunition ships. The Navy ships were very cooperative in letting us load ammunition whenever we were able; early, late, in bad weather, etc. Not so for the Merchant Marine. There was one occasion when our Squadron Commander suggested the use of force to get a Merchant Marine ship to open its hatches. No great love was lost between the Navy and the Merchant Marine—at times they would razz us, call us “suckers”, for being paid so little compared to them—not good!

Food was another supply problem. The smaller the ship, the greater the problem. It was often a month or two between opportunities to take on food supplies. Any fresh foods (eggs, milk, vegetables, fruit, etc.) would be used up in a few days. Then we relied on dried and canned supplies plus frozen meat. Some items, such as flour, beans and rice, we had in large quantities. As the weeks went on, these tended to appear more often. I mentioned earlier that our bakers were really great, and our bread was very good. But even a diet of good bread and rice leaves a bit to be desired!

In spite of our frequently being run ragged, there would be slack periods when we could catch up on all that had been neglected, and the perennial military problem of boredom would set in. When our duties were all taken care of, what to do? Some could and would just sleep. The two things we really yearned for, good fresh food, and female companionship, were not available. Some liked to gamble (not for me). I enjoyed cribbage and played that a lot. We all re-read and wrote letters; but when you are not permitted to report on anything we were doing, it is not easy to write (all of our outgoing mail was censored by the officers and we were forbidden to say where we were or what we were doing).

Reading would have been an ideal occupation, but for some unknown reason, we had no regular library on board. The officers had their own small reading area in the wardroom with both sofas and chairs. The enlisted men could either sit on the deck or lie in their bunks; but in the bunks there was very poor light. Fortunately, some of the crew would receive books and magazines from home occasionally. The crew was very good about passing these around until they fell apart. A good book would have a long waiting list. I remember when someone received a copy of “The Life and Memoirs of Fanny Hill,” considered tp be a very risqué book in those days. By the time it got to me, the pages were starting to fall out, but I did enjoy it!


Periodically, after a month or two at sea, we would return to a rear area for logistics, maintenance, and repair. Typically, this would be at the nearest staging area, often 1,000 miles from the action, usually a large atoll. There would be beautiful beaches and reefs, small palm covered islands, many, many ships, and nothing else.

Once we were out of the range of Japanese aircraft, life took on a new, different, and much better aspect. We were still alert, and would go to GQ for the hour before sunrise, but we were relaxed. We could catch up on our sleep, and look forward to getting some fresh food and mail.

We would usually spend several days tied alongside a Destroyer Tender which was outfitted to care for the fleet of destroyers. These were large ships with all kinds of repair facilities; they could repair our boilers, repair our guns, radios or radar. They could also repair a watch or binoculars. They carried spare parts, paint, rope, etc. They had a store where we could buy shoes and clothes, and many incidental items. Incidentally, except for the uniforms we were issued at Boot Camp, we had to purchase all of our clothing.

When most of the repairs had been carried out, we would move to an anchorage to complete taking on supplies and to await our next assignment. We were able to catch up on our regular duties (charts, etc. for me), and we were able to get in a bit of “R&R.” If we could get them, we would have a movie on deck each night. Chairs would be set out for the officers, and the rest of us could “make do” as best we could. Many of the movies were pretty bad, but we enjoyed them.

Also, under the heading of “R&R” were “shore parties” where a group of us would be taken ashore in the whaleboat and given three or four cans of beer each. Usually we went, by whaleboat, to a small deserted island where we could wander around, play ball, try to climb a palm tree, etc. The reefs surrounding these islands were often beautiful; They would have been great for snorkeling—but we had no gear. Going ashore didn’t happen very often; once in the Solomons, and perhaps 3–4 times at various atolls. We did enjoy these rare occasions!

I should report that in each rear area we visited there was always an “Officer’s Club,” apparently the first thing constructed on most islands. Our officers were able to go ashore almost every other night, and there was liquor to be had, and Navy Nurses (officers) to (at least) talk to. You can see one more reason why I still carry a bit of resentment regarding officers—not so much against individuals, but against the system that gave them so many privileges compared to us.

One night, while we were alongside a destroyer tender and having a movie on the fantail, our Captain (McMillian) brought a nurse aboard, ostensibly to see the movie. To insure that none of the “sex-starved enlisted men” bothered her, he stationed two officers, with 45 cal. guns, as guards at the show! You can imagine the resentment—many of us boycotted the show.

To be sure, there were a few pretty sad members of the crew who could have acted like animals, but by and large, we were a group of decent, lonely guys—just looking at a girl was a treat!

Before we left a rear area, we would “top-off” our supplies of fuel, ammunition, and food. The fuel was easy; we would go alongside a large ship and pump the fuel aboard—no great physical effort. Ammunition and food were another matter; here every item had to be loaded and stored by hand. These were “all hands” activities in which all hands not on duty were supposed to work together until the job was done.

Loading ammunition can be really tough. Usually ammunition would be brought to the ship in a small landing craft; typically an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel) or a larger LCM. Most often we would send a crew to the ammunition ship to load the LCVP, usually using power equipment. However, to take the ammunition from the LCVP to the ship’s magazines was real work. Typically we would have a line of men passing the individual shells from hand to hand as in a bucket brigade. The only part of the ship low enough to load ammunition was near the stern, so much of the ammo had to be moved the length of the ship and then stowed below.

I well remember one day, we were lying-to off the south-east coast of Iwo Jima. It was calm, but there was a fair swell running. So the LCVP, alongside aft, would rise and fall a few feet relative to the ship. Aboard the LCVP one man would pass the ammo to another on the deck of the LCVP who, in turn, would raise it up until someone on the Newcomb could lean down and grab it. Aboard the Newcomb, which also was rolling in the swell, there was a permanent cable lifeline at the edge of the deck. It was about 30 inches high with netting between the cable and the deck. So someone with long legs had to straddle the life line, hang on with his legs to avoid falling overboard, and grab the ammo when the LCVP reached its highest point. There weren’t too many with long legs, so this job sometimes fell to me. Now remember, each 5-inch” shell weighed 55 pounds, and the powder case, 26, so to load a few hundred projectiles and powder cases was a real job!

On this particular day, Jimmy Watts, a Boatswain’s Mate was on the LCVP passing shells to me. He slipped and fell between the Newcomb and the LCVP and as the ship rolled, his hip was crushed. A couple days later he was put aboard the Hospital Ship Solace and we never expected to see him again. But he survived and after recuperating rejoined the ship.

That day, when we finished loading ammunition, I went up to the bridge to have a cup of coffee; my arms were so tired I had to use two hands to hold a mug, and still they shook so hard that I had trouble getting the mug to my mouth. At about this time “Chief Quartermaster Henry F. Grubb,” my superior came up to the bridge and demanded to know why I wasn’t down in the chart room correcting charts. I said that “all hands” had been called and that I had been loading ammunition all afternoon—the truth. He then lit into me saying that when HE tells me to do something that is what I should do. Even if “all hands” are called, I should do what he said.

As an aside, I should say that I got along well with most everyone on the ship; but Henry F. Grubb was not one of them! He was physically small (certainly not his fault) and had a personality and attitude to match. He loved to find fault and show his superiority. Unfortunately, in the opinion of many of us, he was not superior in any way except in his rank.

Back to the day Henry F. Grubb gave me hell for loading ammunition: I admit that I used a fairly loud voice to tell him that I thought I had been doing the correct thing by loading ammunition. The pitch of his voice rose as he yelled at me that I shouldn’t speak to him that way.

Now, this “conversation” took place in the Sound Room, just between the pilot house and the Captain’s sea cabin—and the Captain heard it all! So he came out and berated me in front of Chief Quartermaster Henry F. Grubb, saying that I couldn’t talk to a Chief that way. Grubb went away happy.

I got a new cup of coffee, and then the Captain came out and told me that in fact I had been right in doing what I did! He never knew how close I had come to throttling Chief Quartermaster Henry F. Grubb. I presume that by now old Henry has gone to his maker—and I expect he feels right at home down there.

Loading commissary supplies was a different story. Typically the items came in large bags, crates or boxes. The routine was to shoulder a box and take it to its destination. For some unknown reason it seemed that we often loaded supplies in the middle of the night—and again, “all hands” would be called to “turn to” to do the work.

I must interject that the food eaten by the officers was not only cooked separately, but was ordered and purchased separately, and was paid for separately by the officers. They were able to order many delicacies to which we had no access (unless sent from home). And yet we had to load their food stores for them—sometimes at night!. You can guess the rest. It was not too unusual for a case of choice canned chicken breast, or sliced pineapple, etc. to arrive at an unplanned destination. Dishonest? Yes. Justified? We thought so—it was sort of a game.

“Stealing” was a way of life, often a necessity out away from civilization. When we were tied up to other ships, destroyers or destroyer tenders, there were nightly forays called “midnight small-stores parties” (small-stores being the trivial but necessary items of every day life aboard ship). This of course was a two-way street; we stole from ship A, and ship A stole from us. It was an unofficial, fairly efficient, redistribution system. Consider an example:

On the Newcomb, for some reason, we never had enough paint brushes. We in the bridge-gang tried to keep the pilot house clean and neat. We could always requisition paint when we were alongside a tender, and we usually got it. However, when we requisitioned paint brushes, the tender always seemed to be out of stock. So in the wee hours we would go aboard a neighboring ship (or ships) and appropriate any paint brushes we could find. And they, (most likely) were appropriating paint from us!

One day while alongside a tender, my Storekeeper friend Dave Redmond came up to me clutching a paper package to his chest and said “Cook, how would you like to have a Bosun’s Pipe?” So he gave me a sterling Boatswain’s Pipe (that I still have); one of a dozen or so that he had “appropriated” somewhere!

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One of my jobs as a Quartermaster was to calculate the time of sunrise and sunset every day; these of course varied considerably as our location changed. One day Chief Quartermaster Henry F. Grubb gave me hell for mis-calculating these times. I was doing it all wrong (according to him), and he showed me how to do it properly. I got out the books, decided that he was wrong and I was correct; and I told him that I still thought I was correct. He told me not to think, but to do it his way! What to do? I finally referred the problem to our Executive Officer, who was our navigator, Lt. Arlie George Capps; an Annapolis graduate and arguably the brightest officer aboard. He said that my calculations had been absolutely correct, to keep on doing it my way, and if Grubb questioned me again to refer him to the Exec. I don’t know whether Grubb ever found out about this; I never heard anything more about it, but very little information escaped the Navy Chiefs. I doubt that this incident endeared me to Henry Grubb (or vice versa). (continued)