Sailors, Midshipmen, and Hatteras

In a recent post on the Facebook group “US Navy Gearing Class Destroyers,” Manny Gentile wrote:

When the midshipmen came aboard for their summer cruise, we went to great lengths to torment them.

i spent time on four Gearing class destroyers, the USS Lloyd Thomas (DD 764), the USS Hawkins (DD 873), USS Waldron (DD 699), and the USS Hollister (DD 788). i also had a tour aboard the USS Stephen B. Luce (DLG 7).

The Thomas was my ship for the third class midshipman eight-week cruise in the summer of 1963.

It was on the Thomas, my first time on a Navy warship at sea where seafaring reached into my gut and captured me…forever. It was also where tormenting of midshipmen was taken to an art form, and i was one of the targets, perhaps another reason for me to forever be a pocket of resistance.

i have told part of this before, but must repeat as the beginning had something to do with my first experience of Cape Hatteras, or to be more correct at sea east of Cape Hatteras.

In the summer of 1963, i opted to ride a bus from Nashville to Newport rather than flying due to my usual lopsided logic that i could save some money and use it for other things. My family drove me to Nashville’s Union Station where i caught a Trailways Bus. It left at noon Saturday and, with one transfer in Providence RI arrived in the Newport “square,” actually a deep triangle around 6:30 Monday morning, forty-two hours on a bus with stops only for passengers and some meals in my Navy Service Dress Khaki midshipman uniform.

When we offloaded, i found my seabag with all of my clothing had not been transferred to the new bus in Providence. i was assured my seabag would be delivered to the ship before we got underway.

Driving down Thames street toward the Navy base and the destroyer piers, i recall Newport as more of a sailor’s town: rough looking bars, a working waterfront much more so than a tourist attraction. When the bus stopped at the foot of the piers, i remember the USS Yosemite (AD 19) as the first ship pier-side in its grandeur as the flagship of the Commander, Cruiser Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet (i was Yosemite’s XO on my last operational tour twenty years later). As i walked down the wood creosote pier, i was in awe of the gallant destroyers nested in threes on the pier. I thought it was smoggy, but the tin cans were “blowing tubes,” cleaning out the boiler tubes by blowing residue out the stack, a practice soon prohibited from environmental concerns. But that day, the acidic soot particles landed on my blouse and cover putting small black holes in the fabric.

By the time, i walked across the  brow and awkwardly saluted while reporting aboard, i smelled worse than a goat on a bad day. We had a short introduction by the XO in the wardroom before we were hustled the to the 01 torpedo deck forward of the bridge and put into formation, 18 third class midshipmen and three first class midshipmen.

As we let go all lines and got underway, i was informed my seabag did not arrive in time but would be on another ship and transferred by high line as soon as practicable.

As we stood in formation, standing out of the harbor and the Narragansett Bay in incredible weather, a gnarly, old chief emerged from the hatch underneath the port bridge wing where all the midshipmen could see him but not visible from the bridge. The chief had grabbed one of the seasick bags, small paper bags that were a poor sister to the airsick bags available in aircraft. He had gone to chiefs quarters, crumbled vanilla wafers into the bag and then filled it about half full of milk.

As he emerged onto the weather deck, he grumbled, “Every time we get underway, i have to get my sea legs.” With that, he leaned over the lifelines and gurgled and belched as if he were throwing up. When finished, he raised up and announced so we could hear him, “And there’s only one way to cure it.” He then put the seasick bag to his mouth and drink the contents with the milk and crumbs of vanilla wafers spilling down his cheek, onto his uniform and the deck.

Of the twenty-one midshipmen in formation, eighteen immediately became seasick and rushed to the life rails to copy the chief’s throwing up but for real. i was one of the three still standing. i don’t know why, but i suspect i stunk so much from almost three days in the uniform on a bus that i was numb.

After sea detail was secured, we went to our assigned berthing on the fantail. All the third class midshipmen changed into the midshipmen version of an enlisted sailor’s dungaree uniform. with Dixie Cups that had blue piping on the rim. i remained stinking in my ripe service dress khaki but discarded the blouse. We went through an orientation and were assigned watches. Afterwards, we gathered in our berthing and became acquainted.

The evening meal on the mess decks was all greasy: pork chops, pinto beans, and other things i don’t remember. As we sat down, a couple of sailors walked through the mess deck announcing they would have an appetizer before the meal. They had tied strings onto sardines and had put them back in the sardine can. They opened their cans, held the sardines by the string and appeared to swallow them. Then they pulled them out announcing they were so good they would eat them again. They repeated this several times and more midshipmen rushed to the supply of seasick bags.

i had drawn operations as my first section of duty and was assigned the mid-watch. i was still in my gabardine, by now wreaking khaki trousers and cotton dress shirt, sans the tie. The first class radarman was the CIC watch supervisor. He gave me the job of staring at a radar repeater in the forward part of the darken ship space. The only lights beside the radar repeater were red to retain our night vision, and of course the glow from the repeaters. My station at the radar repeater required me to sit facing forward, thereby making the side rolls of the ship much more difficult to handle for seasickness. My seabag arrived three weeks later by hi-line. The destroyer who received it from the bus line had transferred it to the oiler in company and eventually the oiler transferred it to the Thomas.

i was already getting queasy as the ship came into the vicinity of Cape Hatteras. By my calculations today, i’m guessing we were about one hundred miles east of Hatteras, legendary for rough seas. The seas and Hatteras mix did not disappoint. The Thomas was taking twenty-degree rolls. That was about when all of the radarmen on watch lit up cigars. They kept changing stations while i rocked monotonously at my repeater turning green. Me turning green, not the repeater scope. As the radarmen moved from one station to another, each would come by my station to check on me, of course blowing as much cigar smoke as they could into my face.

i could feel myself getting sick. A lump came into my mouth from down below. It was nasty. Green to the gills, rocking to and fro, staring at the sweep of the radar on the scope, it appeared the sailors had gotten to one of the last three midshipmen who had avoided sea sickness. But from somewhere deep inside, i decided i was not going to give in. i swallowed down that lump and whatever else had come up from below, and gutted it out. By the time, the morning watch arrived, my green had gone away. Before i hit the rack, i brushed my teeth and had a drink of water.

i was given underwear and socks from ship’s store. A third-class radarman about my size donated enough sailor gear for me to wear.  He also donated some boots he had bought in Turkey on the last deployment. They were of camel leather that had not been cured very well. In short, they stunk. But the stench was nothing compared to the khaki i had been wearing for four very long days.

i never got seasick, or even close to it again. The ordeal was a blessing in disguise.

i soon realized all of the pranks the sailors were playing on the midshipmen and naive sailors, which continued on every ship i rode during twenty-two years. About three weeks later, i rotated to engineering and was assigned watches in main control and the fire rooms. On a forenoon (0800-1200) watch in main control, the watch supervisor instructed me to go to “A” gang (auxiliary engineering) and bring back some “relative bearing grease.” i dutifully headed for the “A” gang shop where i was told they were out and i should check with the BT’s (Boiler Tenders) in the after fire room. As i left their shop, i finally realized they were pulling my leg — “relative bearing” is the term for degrees from the bow of the ship often used to describe the ship’s position relative to another ship or object ashore — and there was no such thing as “relative bearing grease.”

i decided i just go take a nap in my rack. About an hour later, one of main control watch standers woke me up demanding to know what the hell i was doing. i acted sheepish and told him i was sorry, but i kept looking for some “relative bearing grease” but no one seemed to have it. Consequently, i was too embarrassed to return to main control empty handed.

The sailors never tried to pull my leg the rest of the cruise.

The tales of sailors pulling such stunts on new sailors reporting aboard or midshipmen are legendary. My favorite was the CIC watch on the Hawkins. It was at the end of a morning watch (0400-0800). The Boatswainmate of the Watch on the bridge piped attention with his Bosun’s pipe over the 1MC speaker which went throughout the ship and then warned “Stand by for heavy rolls” as the ship approached some rough seas. The CIC watch told their new striker, an RDSA, to go down the to the galley and wait in line to get some “heavy rolls” from the cook. The poor yokel did as he was told and spent an hour in a line of one at the galley hatch before he was told he had been tricked.

Sailors were fun. More seasick stories to come.

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