Times Get Better

We stopped at Espiritu to fuel and departed immediately for Nouméa. At Nouméa, our stop was hardly longer and we learned we were to take to Wellington, New Zealand for ten days of “Rest and Recreation.” Our big partner needed repairs to her propeller and the floating drydock at Wellington was available.

As we moved south from the Tropics, the weather got cooler, so we dug out our warmest uniforms. The Uniform-of-the-Day in Wellington would be Dress Blues with Pea Coats and Flat hats. It took a lot of digging and swapping to get the whole crew into Flat Hats with proper ribbons around the headbands. Before the war, our sailors proudly wore ribbons announcing “USS Maury.” Now, because of military secrecy, they could state only “U.S. NAVY”!

After a stormy dawn in Cook Strait between the two big islands of New Zealand, we turned left and started up the channel to Wellington. With the harbor pilot came Lt. John Law, RNZN, to welcome us to New Zealand. With a pilot aboard, the Captain turned the plotting over to the Chief Quartermaster and sent me below with Lt. Law to make arrangements for our visit. I had a list of fuel, water and needed provisions, but as I started to go over it with Law, his eyes started to glaze. “Look, if I’d known you only wanted things like that, I’d have stayed in bed and waited for you to arrive. I thought you might be interested in meeting some girls and having fun!”

We planned to let eighteen officers ashore each night, so Law arranged for thirty-six girls to permit ample choice. His fiancée was a RNZN WREN and had a nice “flat” in town. We were to assemble for cocktails at her flat that evening and take it from there. Liquor was strictly rationed in New Zealand, but visiting American Officers were allowed one bottle of whisky per day. It was available through the U.S. Army Quartermaster Office in town at 90 cents a bottle. It didn’t take much effort to multiply 21 officers by 10 days or even to find the cash, but it was quite a struggle to handle 18 cases of Australian Whisky in the back of John Law’s Jeep.

By lunchtime, we were securely moored to Aeota Quay, not far from the center of town with all supplies arranged. Captain Sims invited John Law for lunch ashore and suggested I join. As we chatted over the rather meager repast rationing produces, the Captain asked about a good hotel where we could get away from the ship’s noise at night. The St. George Hotel was Wellington’s finest and soon we had arranged the Hotel’s best suite for the Captain. Not to be outdone and knowing my fellow officers would be looking for a place to hang out, I rented an identical suite on the floor above. We’d make the St. George our headquarters while ashore for the next ten days!

In addition to arrangements for officers, Law had a sheaf of invitations for the men of Maury’s crew. There were several invitations for the weekend, over fifty for Sunday dinner, and an equal number for private parties. It was actually difficult to find enough volunteers to fill the invitations, but later, when the first groups had returned with glowing accounts of New Zealand hospitality, there would no longer be any difficulty.

At 1800 the first evening, John Law led eighteen eager Maury officers, including the Captain and myself, up the steps of a nice apartment building overlooking a park in the Wellington suburbs. Thirty-six attractive young women were already there to greet us. Formal introductions were not needed; smiles and laughter took their place. As required, we officers were all dressed in Blue Service, but the girls, though WRENs, were in colorful cocktail dresses, fully equipped with wiles and perfume. Though the Australian whisky was a treat to some, it had a raw taste, which took several attempts to accommodate. The New Zealand beer, on the other hand, was very good and most of our gang preferred the beer. The girls had done their best to make it a gala party and trays of hard-to-find goodies were offered as Hors d’Oeuvres.

About eight o’clock, the scheduled end of the cocktail party, some of the girls who had not been singled out by Maury officers started to make preparations to leave. We were so appreciative of their welcome party we refused to see them go and, by unanimous agreement, we invited all of the ladies to dinner. The St. George Hotel could not handle a party of fifty-four, so we ended up in a Night Club, filled with U.S. Marines. It took a while to get served, but no one seemed to mind.

After dinner, the party returned to the St. George and centered in my third floor suite. It was a great party—drinking, singing, dancing and telling sea stories. The phone rang a few times, but the closest person answered it and seemed to be able to handle the call. From time to time, I had also noticed a little man waving his arms as he was bodily ejected by the junior officers near the door.

About 0100 the crowd thinned out and the “little man” returned. He said he was the manager of the hotel and invited me to terminate my occupancy immediately. The captain tried to calm him down, but he was adamant, so I paid my bill and returned to the ship with the other officers.

Next morning was Sunday and most of the ship’s company stayed in their bunks. I was awakened about 1000 by the Quarterdeck Messenger, announcing that there was an Inspector-of-Police waiting for me in the Wardroom. He was a heavy-set, middle-aged man tossing his “Bowler” in his fingers as he waited.

“There was a fire in the St. George Hotel last night which started in the room of Cdr. Gelzer Sims who, I understand, is the Captain of this ship. I’d like to see him.”

I started to reply that the Captain was not aboard, but thought I’d better check. I found the Captain asleep in his Cabin and woke him with the news. “There wasn’t any fire when I left, and I left about an hour after you did.” He dressed and we went down to see the Inspector in the wardroom.

By comparing times with the Inspector’s police report it was clear that the Captain had checked out of the hotel about 0300 and the fire was sighted by someone passing along the street about 0345. The Captain said he hadn’t been able to sleep for thinking about how his Exec had been treated, so after about an hour in his room, he decided to check out of the hotel and return to the ship. He’d been smoking and couldn’t be sure whether he had put his last cigarette out, but he was sure he had left the hotel just after 0300.

The hotel manager claimed the fire had caused extensive damage and wanted the equivalent of $1,200 to compensate for the damage. Captain Sims felt responsible, because the fire was probably caused by his cigarette, but $1200 was a lot of money. The police inspector stated frankly that he thought the claim was exorbitant. He pointed out that the Captain was not legally responsible because the fire had started well after he had checked out of the hotel and the hotel management should have inspected the room. Captain Sims responded that the legalities didn’t satisfy him and he’d feel better if he paid a fair price for the repairs. The Inspector asked the Captain to let him handle the matter with the hotel. He returned next day with a statement from the hotel that all would be forgiven and forgotten for $100. Sims handed him a $100 bill, but we never went back to the hotel.

Continuing from the welcoming party, our stay in Wellington was delightful. We were invited everywhere and enjoyed the hospitality, especially the countryside reminiscent of England. We hiked and golfed and forgot the war. It was the perfect respite.

As our stay approached its end, a big Ship’s Party with all of the officers and men together seemed in order. The only hall big enough for a dance for the whole ship’s company was the Red Cross Recreation Hall, but no alcoholic beverages were allowed, so we weren’t sure the men would come. The delightful lady director offered to make all arrangements at a very attractive price and even provide a hundred pretty hostesses for those without partners. We had elected a Ship’s Party Committee with representatives from all departments and ranks, and its members were dubious that we’d get good attendance at a “Dry” party. But there was no alternative, so we accepted the generous offer from the Red Cross and scheduled the party.

On the appointed night, the Recreation Hall was brightly decorated and a good orchestra was playing the latest American hits. The hundred pretty hostesses were turned out in party dresses and each had received a rose corsage from the Ship’s Company for the occasion. Only a few men showed up at the beginning, but they found the girls were great dancers and soon the dance floor was sparkling with “Jitterbugs.” Additional men who had lurked in the shadows outside drifted in and the dance floor soon filled. The officers, most with girls from the first KT party, had as much fun as the men. By halfway through the evening, almost all of the crew was at the party and having a wonderful time. When the Dance ended at midnight, the men gave their hostesses a resounding cheer of appreciation. There had been no alcohol and no one seemed to miss it. It was a great Ship’s Party!

During our ten days in Wellington, Hunter Liggett had her propeller fixed and her bottom cleaned, one end at a time. The Floating drydock was not long enough for such a huge ship, so they raised the stern out of the water for the work aft, then shifted the dock forward and raised the bow out of the water—a bit unconventional, but it worked.

When we returned to Nouméa, we were assigned to Task Force 14, the reconstituted SoPac Carrier Task force. At the center were Saratoga and the British Carrier HMS Victorious. Our old friend and heavily scarred veteran, the Big E had been sent back to the states for repair. The new battleships North Carolina, Indiana and Massachusetts formed an inner ring of steel and the outer ring consisted of 14 destroyers plus the AA Cruisers San Juan and San Diego. All of old DesDiv 11 was back together with Gridley, Craven, Maury and McCall. Dunlap and Fanning of DesDiv 12 were also with us. The dark days of the previous fall, when we were almost out of aircraft carriers, had passed.

For the next six weeks, we operated out of Nouméa, patrolling the water around the Solomons as though we owned it. Each time we arrived or departed, much needed training “services” were supplied from the base in Nouméa and we exercised our guns and torpedoes as we had from Pearl Harbor before the war. They even provided an old “S-boat” as a tame submarine for ASW training. We honed our weapons to a fine edge, but only the Air Groups, which participated in periodic strikes up the island chain, got into any action. A few Jap submarines were encountered around the Solomons, but not by us.

But the Bureau of Navigation in Washington was busy. Young and Leveritt got orders to Flight Training. Sahlin had never been satisfactory in the Gunnery Department and, after trying a couple of other slots, was sent back to the States. To compensate we had been receiving fresh V-7s regularly, one of whom, Ensign Tommy Tressler, had gone to Torpedo Officer’s School at the Navy Yard in Washington. We didn’t need a Torpedo Officer, so we had made him an assistant to the Gunnery Officer and he was soon handling the director with increasing skill. When Leveritt left, Tressler was the best available, so we appointed him Gunnery Officer.

Hardly had we made this decision when orders came in for Chuck Cheyney, our Torpedo Officer, and he left immediately. While pondering what to do, we received a nice looking young Ensign from Nebraska, named Bachman, who had been to Gunnery Officer’s School and we were tempted to substitute him for Tressler, but Tressler was a couple of months senior and he was doing well, having already taken over from Leveritt and fired a couple of Gunnery Practices. We decided to make Bachman Torpedo Officer and leave the Tressler assignment alone.

I called Bachman to my stateroom and announced our decision. I gave him a speech about the importance of torpedoes and how they were our Main Battery. We didn’t have the luxury of time, so he’d have to be ready to take charge of the torpedo battery and fire at a “real enemy” next time we went to sea.

Bachman had been raised in a small town and had helped his father in the “monument” business, cutting and finishing gravestones. He’d gotten a BS from a local college, worked in the summers as a cowhand, and signed up for the V-7 program as soon as he finished school. He had enjoyed Gunnery Officer’s School and gotten good marks, but he knew nothing about torpedoes. I told him to learn everything about torpedoes and come back to see me when he thought he could handle the battery.

At the end of his second day on board, Bachman knocked on the door of my stateroom and said he was ready. I blew up! I gave him a lecture on the seriousness of his assignment and told him to get back to work and study the manuals. He replied he already knew what was in them. I posed a series of tough questions to demonstrate his ignorance—he knew all of the answers. I ordered him to a Torpedo Mount to explain the details—he knew every part, every position, and could perform every function I demanded. We went to the bridge where I set all of the knobs and switches on erroneous positions and told him to prepare the Director and Battery controls—in two minutes he had set everything right and reported, “Ready to Fire!” I put him through the drill for a surprise encounter, the standard test to qualify as an OOD—he performed perfectly. I ran out of questions and asked him how he had done it.

He had gone to Chief Torpedoman Fisher and told him of my orders to prepare to become Torpedo Officer. Fisher took him to all parts of the Battery, explaining as he went, then gave him a stack of manuals to study. When he had learned their contents to the satisfaction of the Chief, he was then exercised in every position on the torpedo battery. The whole torpedo gang took part in Bachman’s training and they stuck with him as he learned the director, the Battery controls, the torpedo mounts and the torpedoes themselves. He had even “routined” a live torpedo, preparing it in all respects for firing.

I was flabbergasted! He had crammed into his head every bit of knowledge I’d ever had about torpedoes, then some! I apologized for having chewed him out and told him that he’d done a great job. He replied, “Can I go to bed now?” He’d been working steadily for almost 48 hours! “Permission granted!” I replied with real admiration, “and I’ll tell the Captain we’ve got a first class Torpedo Officer.”

On one of my first trips ashore after getting back to Nouméa, I found that my friend and classmate Chuck Fonvielle was busily building up a CIC training center ashore at Nouméa. Chuck’s ship had been sunk in one of the earlier actions and he had been assigned to join my brother Bill in establishing a Training Center at Camp Catlin, near Pearl, training crews in the use of radar and the data that radar could produce.

With Air Search radars came the problem of keeping track of numerous moving contacts, identifying “Friend from Foe” and guiding our aircraft to and from their targets. With good Surface Search radars like the SG, the same functions had to be performed for ships. All of these activities required the use of many channels of radio, coding and decoding facilities, plotting devices and intelligent, trained people. The need to bring all of these elements together produced the idea of a “Combat Information Center” where all the electronic information available could be brought together, analyzed and acted upon. A “CIC” would be a powerful aid to a ship’s fighting capability, but nobody in the forward area really had one. Ships of the future would be designed around a CIC and some of the newest ships had some facilities already built in. For example, the 2,100-tonners had a small DRT plotting device and the SG Control Console with its PPI in the same compartment, just aft of the Pilothouse, so the Captain could step in from the Bridge to “take a look.” The need for adequate plotting and analysis facilities for the growing volume of radar information was becoming apparent to all.

Bill and Chuck had created the first CIC School at Camp Catlin and now Chuck was assigned the task of starting one at Nouméa. When we got together at the Circle of Seville while Maury was in port, most of the evenings were spent discussing the new ideas.

On the 10th of June, Maury was ordered alongside the tender Whitney to actually receive an SG Surface Search Radar! The control console with the magic “Plan Position Indicator” was to be installed in the charthouse, one level below the bridge, since there was no suitable space on the Bridge level. It was a wonderful location, protected from the weather and other activity, for observing the tactical picture, measuring ranges and bearings and analyzing the results, but the Captain, one level above, would have to told about the situation by phone or Voice Tube. Captain Sims immediately decided that my Battle Station at night would be in the Charthouse where I could evaluate and report what I could see on the PPI.

The Chartroom, designed for the convenience of the Navigator and the Quartermasters with their large, unwieldy charts and publications, would have to be rearranged for its new function. The 3'x6' Navigator’s Chart Table, secured to the forward bulkhead of the Charthouse, contained the Dead Reckoning Tracer (DRT), a device to trace the ship’s movement on a chart from continuous electric Course and Speed inputs. By cutting out a rectangle of the tabletop, covering it with a translucent panel, and projecting a spot of light upward from the DRT “bug,” we could trace our own ship’s track and develop an enemy’s track by plotting Ranges and Bearings from our own moving position. It would be much better than the small DRT plotting device we’d seen in the 2,100-tonners, because the plotting surface would be much larger. We also had room on the Chart Table for a circular plot for our tactical formations and to keep track of Air contacts from our SC radar. To construct all this required rare Plexiglas and other materials, which weren’t available on a Destroyer Tender. The SoPac Supply Center and Aviation Repair Facility was combed for the needed parts.

Our new arrangement required several men to do the plotting, but to keep these men from interfering with my view of both the plots and the PPI, we moved the Chart Desk away from the Forward bulkhead and stationed the plotters on the forward side of the table. We also installed a couple of vertical Status Boards, which could be seen easily from my central position, to keep track of tactical data and ship’s code names.

By the 15th of June, we had created the first complete CIC that any of us, including Chuck, had ever seen. Now, to learn how to make it work! We put Brian Medler in charge of the vital Surface Plot and Ken Bean on the Air Plot. Ensign Len Shavik, a new addition, backed them up and handled the TBS. We assigned Seaman Noble Acker, a pleasant Texan with a sharp eye and a love of radars, as the General Quarters SG Radar Operator. We modified the lighting to allow enough light to read publications and the notations on the Plots, but not be bright enough to interfere with the Radar Operator; we would work in semidarkness with red-filtered flashlights at the ready.

Task Force 14 was at sea when we completed our Tender availability and, after a few days of ASW exercises off Amadee, we were ordered to escort the Hospital Transport Rochambeau towards Melbourne, Australia, but our orders said nothing about visiting a port. Nevertheless, hopes leapt at the thought of a “Play Wave” to the fabled Australia and we sailed to the southwest with joy. On the night of the 29th of June, we made radar contact on Australia—surely they’d let us taste the “Promised Land”! Next morning, the huge Free-French Destroyer Le Triomphant came out from port, executed a high speed “Admiral’s Sweep” across our Bows and blinked, “I relieve you.” With heavy hearts we turned back to punch our way through stormy seas to Nouméa. It was the roughest passage I’d ever experienced—day after day of crashing into huge waves in endless succession. As the bow dug in, then struggled upward, shaking with the effort, tons of water were heaved into the air. The Bridge was continuously drenched in salty brine. By the time we reached Nouméa, our Main Deck had cracked from beam to beam in more than a dozen places!

After finding our way past Amadee to the tanker for refueling, and finally to our assigned berth, it was mid-afternoon. When I got down to my stateroom after Special Sea Details, I found a huge basket of incoming mail. Since we didn’t know when we’d have to sail again, I resigned myself to getting through the basket before the end of the day.

South, our lead Yeoman, had put the important things on top and I gotten through them in an hour. I was just digging into the remaining foot of paper when the Captain appeared at the door with, “It’s Club time, Russ. Let’s hit the beach!” I replied that I’d better skip it and get the paperwork finished. He looked at the heaping basket I was working on and said, “If this is all that’s holding you, I’ll handle it. Follow me!” He picked up the basket, proceeded through the ’thwartships passageway to the Forecastle, and ceremoniously dumped the contents of the basket over the side. “I’ll meet you at the Quarterdeck in ten minutes.” “Aye Aye, Sir.” I replied.

We got to the Circle of Seville at peak of the afternoon rush and it took several minutes to shoulder my way to the Bar. I finally made it and was trying to catch the attention of a bartender when a voice to my left said, “Where’ve you been?” It was Chuck Fonveille. I clapped him on the back with fond greetings and said, “Let me get a drink.” “I’ve already gotten you a drink.” “But the Captain’s with me.” “Got one for him too!” I looked down and there were six drink on the Bar in front of him—two for each of us!

It was a great reunion. Chuck had been watching the “Skeds” and the weather and knew we’d had a bad time. After the first drinks disappeared, I started to get refills, but Chuck stopped me with, “Haven’t time. We’ll be late for dinner!” Before I could ask what he meant, he continued, “We’ve got to get some wine and get over to ‘MOB Five’ where the girls are waiting.” It sounded as though he’d gone mad, but with Chuck, who knew!

Chuck led us to a closet behind the bar where they did indeed sell wine, two bottles to a customer, so we picked up six bottle of Champagne. He then produced an eight-passenger “carryall” for transportation and we were soon at Mobile Base Hospital #5. Chuck’s girlfriend, Candy Knabe, produced two other attractive Navy Nurses and we were soon winding up the road into the mountains above Nouméa. After ten miles on a paved road, we turned abruptly into a side dirt road and quickly came to a nice house surrounded by lawn and garden. The view of Great Harbour and the adjacent bays was breathtaking. A French couple who owned the farm welcomed us warmly. As the sun set, we enjoyed the several courses of delicious French cuisine accompanied by the proprietor’s special wine. Soon candles were brought to our table on the Verandah and champagne sparkled over the delicious dessert. The war was forgotten, the company was delightful and Chuck was a great host!

Chuck was also an organizer! He and Wally Coleman, head of the Torpedo School, soon got a small Club going for destroyer officers. They rented a bungalow near the growing training center and arranged for the necessary supplies. Staffing the Club was more difficult. The natives were too rough and primitive and military men couldn’t be used in a private club. They solved the problem by “buying out” the contract of a Tonkinese couple Indentured to a French family that had left Nouméa. It was written into the By-Laws of the Club that Mr. and Mrs. Lim, the Tonkinese, were entitled to meals and lodging at the Club and were to be paid a stipulated salary, quite high for local standards, so long as the Club was active. Upon dissolution of the Club, they would be completely free of their initial Indenture.

The Lims did a great job with the little Club and they made a small fortune while they were at it. Not only did they receive generous tips for all service, it became the custom of the Club to let Mrs. Lim roll the dice at the Crap Table to “change the luck” when needed. She was “staked” by the one who requested the change and kept any winnings on the roll.

Our settled routine with Task Force 14 and our pleasant visits to bustling Nouméa could not last forever and we were soon detached to escort a merchant ship SS Lew Wallace to Éfaté. Hardly had we arrived there, when we got orders to pick up the fleet oiler USS Lackawanna and escort her to Purvis Bay. We felt we had been taken off the “first team” and assigned to routine ASW escorting—there’s nothing more boring than slowly zigzagging though tropical seas listening to the “ping” of the sound gear. But we needn’t have begun to fret—there would be plenty of adventure ahead!

Copyright © 2003 Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., USN (Ret.)