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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Storm and a Disappearnce

The trip was not all monotony.  Three days out of San Francisco we ran into a gale that we later found was one of the worst in that area in three or four years.  That was when I learned to like coffee.
The third evening out the sky was leaden at sunset and the ocean was dark grey with a froth of whitecaps and spume fro a wind that came off the port bow.  The horizon was indistinct.  The dark grey of the clouds simply merged somewhere into the darker grey of the angry ocean.  Neither was there a sunset glow to fit the old saying, “Red sky at night—sailor’s delight—red sky at moring—sailor take warning”.  There must have been a blazing red sky that mornig as the wind was rising rapidly to gale force.  Even with the stabilizing influence of the tow, the ship was rolling and pitching so that we had to sleep with a grip on the bunk rails and our toes hooked on the bottom rail.
I had barely gotten to sleep when the watch petty officer woke me—I had the twelve to two watch on the port wing of the bridge.  The watch PO warned me to wear my peacoat and watch cap as it was cold and wet up there.
When I emerged from the foc’sul hatch I found the watch petty officer was right.  It was raining and the wind buffeted me as I struggled through the blackness along the catwalk above the main deck over which green water was breaking.  Rain drops and salt spray stung my face in the fifty=knot wind.  The whitecaps towered well above my head from the catwalk level as the heavily laden Tippecanoe slugged her way through the mountainous waves.
I reached the bridge at twenty-three-fifty, ten minutes before eight bells when the watch would change so I ducked into the dimly-lit bridge before relieving my man on the exposed port bridge wing.  I looked at the chart spread on the navigator’s table at the rear of the bridge and was impressed by the ferocity of the wind—the line of our course made good was actually going backward.  With the drag of the towed barge, we lost ground for six or eight hours.
I reported to the watch officer who was a grey-haired and spectacled elderly “re-tread” reserve lieutenant from the World War.  He was a mild-mannered little man and was the ship’s executive officer.  (I do not recall that I ever saw the captain of the Tippecanoe.)
The two hours of my watch were interminable and miserable.  In the wind-whipped blackness I was pelted by rain and spray from the waves that broke level with the bridge—and the bridge was forty feet above the waterline.  Other than the red running light, I could see nothing but blackness abeam and could barely make out the bow of the ship.  Every thirty minutes, as required by regulations and custom, I reported to the watch officer, “Nothing in sight—port running light burning bright, sir.”
Sometime during the first hour of my watch I was a dim figure moving along the catwalk.  The individual was wearing the hat of a CPO with the visor strap under his chin against the wind.  It was apparently Larzenarski on a round of inspection of the decks but he did not come to the bridge and I could not be sure.  The figure went out of sight in the darkness toward the stern.  I thought for a minute that I saw someone else move back there, but in the rain and spray it could well have been an illusion.
By the time I was relieved at 0200 hours I was wet and chilled to the bone.  I needed something hot to drink and knew that the cooks left an urn of coffee in the gangway outside the galley each night for watch standers.  With difficulty and clinging to the lifelines, I made my way aft.
I had tried coffee at home prepared just the way my father did with cream and sugar, but I never liked the taste of the stuff.  This night I was desperate and cold enough to try it again.  There was hot coffee in the urn; however, I found that the condensed milk can left out was empty and so was the sugar bowl.  Shrugging, I tried it black and, to my delight, found that it tasted delicious.  I sat at the mess table and enjoyed a warming cup before I braved the blow back to the forecastle.
The next morning the weather had cleared a bit, but the wind was still at gale force.  Green water was still breaking over the main deck and, periodically, over the fantail that was held down by the tow hawser to the heavy barge.  The deck division was told to stand by for muster in the mess compartment instead of on deck.
Chief Larzenarski did not show for muster.  It was held by Sullivan.  Afterward, scuttlebutt (rumor) was that Larzenarski was missing.  A search of the entire pitching and rolling ship was made and no trace of the abrasive CPO was found.  I found myself remembering the figure in a chief’s hat that I had seen on the catwalk during my watch and presumed that he had gone down to the fantail to check the tow cable and was swept overboard.
I was still wondering if I should report what I had seen when our stern and very disliked division officer Lt. Williams, appeared in the mess compartment.  We came to attention and, after he had told us to stand easy, he said, “Men, the tow cable is chafing and needs to be lengthened.  I need four volunteers to go to the fantail with me and do the job.”
There was a prolonged silence.  The men of the regular ship’s company simply looked down at their hands.  I noted that the officer was wearing dungarees and he had said “go down to the fantail with me”.  Even though the word always was, ”never volunteer for anything”, I suddenly blurted out, “I’ll go, sir.”
Langford then volunteered and, apparently not to be outdone by Airedales, two of the ship’s company rose.  I was surprised that one of them was Sullivan.  I kicked off my shoes and stripped of my socks because I felt that I would have better traction barefoot.  The lieutenant led us out onto the wave-washed fantail.
The fantail was clear except that every fifth or sixth wave was large enough to crash green water over the deck.  When the big waves came all we could do was hang on with both hands until the water subsided.  I found myself next to the officer was we struggled with the heavy wire cable.
The lieutenant loosened the stoppers on the tow cable and we inched out several yards.  He had just re-secured the stopper when the great-granddaddy of the waves buried us under solid green water.  I barely had time to get an arm securely around the tow cable.
When the water subsided I realized that the lieutenant was no longer beside me.  He had lost his hold on the cable and was haing half over the scuppers holding the bottom chain of the lifelines with one hand.  It was apparent that another wave could take him over the side.  I let go of the tow cable and liunged for the lifelines.  I caught the upper cable with my left hand and held out my right to the officer.  He seized it with his free hand and, as the ship rolled back to port, dragged himself back aboard.
Without a word the lieutenant checked that the able stopper was secure and led us back to the shelter of the mess compartment.  There he said, “Well done, men.”  Then turning to me he said, “Get some dry clothes, Frieze, and see me in the wardroom in fifteen minutes.”
When Lt. Williams had gone, Sullivan said to me in a low voice, “Goddamn Airedale, whyn’t you let that bastard go—we’d have been rid of him and Larzenarski both!”
Officers’ country was strange to me so I rather timorously made my way to the wardroom amidships after getting some dry dungarees and a clean white hat.  The wardroom was not plush but had a sliver coffee service, curtains at the portholes, and mess tables with green baize overings and chairs instead of benches.  The lieutenant, hair still wet and a towel about his neck, was sitting alone at one of the tables.
The officer said, “Help yourself to a cup of coffee, sailor.  You earned it.  And sit down a minute.”
It sounded more like an order than an offer.  I drew coffee into a china cup with a blue Navy emblem and sat on the edge of the chair opposite the lieutenant.  He eyed me for a minute.
“Just wanted to say thank you, Frieze.  There are probably men on this ship that would not have offered me a hand.  I am fully aware that many of the men think I am a mean s.o.b.”
I was embarrassed and could feel my ears and face getting red.  “Wasn’t anything, sir.  I reckon you could have made it by yourself.”
“Probably so, but you did offer me a hand without waiting to see.”
I recall being totally at a loss.  I believe I may have stammered, “Well—uh—I didn’t know how soon the next big wave might come along.  Ain’t as if I saved your life or something.”
“Right,” he said briskly, “and you’re not going to get a medal or anything, but I will see that there is a note of commendation in your service record.”
He looked down at a paper on the table that was the watch list from the previous night and changed the subject, “You had the twelve to two on the wing of the bridge last night.”
“You know that Chief Larzenarski is missing, apparently overboard during the storm.  Did you see anything on deck during your watch?”
A short montage flashed into my mind—the dim figure in a chief’s hat on the catwalk going aft, what could have been the shadow of another man back there, and the gleam in Sullivan’s eyes when he told us at muster that the hated CPO was missing.  I also recalled THE WAY Sullivan had cursed the CPO the first day we were aboard.  I knew, however, that I should not attest to anything of which I was not totally sure.
“Well, sir, yes.  Sometime around oh one hundred or thereabouts, I saw someone, who I thin was wearing a chief’s hat, going along the catwalk from the bridge aft toward the stern.  That’s all I saw.  It was dang dark out there.  I figured it was the chief checking the decks.”
“No one else?”
“Not that I could swear to—too dark and too many shadows.  Couldn’t see good through the rain and spray.”
The lieutenant dismissed me then and the ship’s log recorded that chief Boatswain’s Mate Larzenarski was apparently lost overboard while carrying out his duties on the ship.  For fifty years I have wondered about Coxswain Sullivan and his knife.  After Larzenarski’s disappearance, Sullivan’s first class rate was restored and, being the ranking petty officer in the deck division, he was made acting CPO for the balance of the voyage.
Scraping, painting, and holystoning seemed to go on interminably; however, his temporary promotion made Sullivan much more human and he did not make our lives as miserable as the Polish CPO had done.  Two or three days after the storm we sailed into calm waters and within the week were under blue skies and a tropical sun.

Before sunset on March 2nd, we sighted the island of Molokai on the far horizon.  By muster at 0700 the next morning we were sailing past Diamond Head and Waikiki on Oahu.  A grey Navy tug met us when we had downtown Honolulu broad on the starboard beam and relieved us of the barge we had towed.  Just after noon chow Tippecanoe steamed through the anti-submarine net and up the entrance to Pearl Harbor.  We arrived in the Territory of Hawaii on my 19th birthday, 3 March 1941.

[My father had sailed into his second paradise, Washington State being the first.]

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