[For Patrol Wing One the 1941 voyage from San Diego to Pearl Harbor was peculiar from start to finish.]
She lay at a pier so far out on Point Loma that it would be more than a thirty-minute bus ride into downtown San Diego. Tippecanoe was an oil tanker but she was surely the dowdiest old frump in the Navy fleets of auxiliary and support ships.
The old girl was an oiler of World War I vintage. She had a tall single stack that towered above a large after deck house and fantail, a deckhouse structure just forward of amidships topped by the bridge, and a raised foc’sul deck—all connected by an elevated walkway that spanned the main deck clutter of cofferdams, oil transfer houses, and faked-down manila hawsers.
The bow hook in the whaleboat had been right—she was a rusty old bucket. Ocher streaks soiled the Navy grey of her side plates although there were sailors working with paint scrapers and paint buckets on scaffolds and boson’s chairs over her sides. The upper works appeared to be fairly recently painted; however, the first impression was “she don’t much give a damn”.
The Tippecanoe was empty of cargo and riding high in the water. The Coxswain did not take us to the pier but laid the whaleboat alongside the platform at the foot of the steep sea accommodation ladder. It was difficult to negotiate the ladder carrying our heavy seabags with the hammocks lashed around them. No one offered to lend a hand except that the how hook and motor mac heaved the seabags onto the platform as each man disembarked. After the snide remarked about “Airedales” of the coxswain we were determined to make it on our own—and somehow we did.
Once we had achieved the main deck and had properly saluted the colors aft and the officer of the deck, a burly CPO identified himself as the boson, Larzenarski, and took our orders. He left us sitting on the cofferdams in the hot sun for more than thirty minutes before a seaman appeared and let us to our quarters.
The ship’s crew was berthed aft below the after deck house which contained the mess deck and galley; however, the berths for temporary ship’s company aboard for transportation were in a compartment in the forecastle just aft of the anchor chain locker. It was strictly primitive and bare bones. There were three-high steel bunks welded to stanchions where hammocks had once been slung at night. In a clear area at the foot of the entry ladder there was a single mess-type table with a bench on each side. Beside it was a trash can. This would be our home for the next four weeks.
Across the compartment from the entry ladder, an open door led to the head, such as it was. It was a narrow compartment lined on one side with eight brass wash basins each having a small mirror. Along the other bulkhead, the sanitary provisions consisted of a mental trough at sitting height through which sea water was circulated. Cut out seat boards for eight had been installed over the trough as a gesture at comfort.
We selected our bunks and unlashed our gear. Just as we were laying out our hammocks and horsehair mattresses on the steel bunk frames, Chief Larzenarski came down the steep entry ladder. (Note: In Navy terminology, stairways are “ladders”, floors are “decks”, ceiling are “overhead”, walls are “bulkheads”, and upstairs is known as “topside”.)
Larzenarski’s weathered round Polish face was set in a perpetual scowl. He growled, “Listen up, you people. You goddam Airedales (a derogatory cognomen applied by men of the surface fleet to anyone in Naval Aviation) ain’t in for no pleasure cruise to Hay-wa-yee! You are temporary ship’s company of Tipsoo assigned to the deck division of which I happen to be the chief.
“Your division office is Lieutenant Williams who is one mean s.o.b. that goes strictly by the book. Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill is posted on the bulletin board aft by the mess compartment. Check it out.
“Uniform of the day is dungarees unless otherwise posted so get out of them whites before evening chow. As long as you are aboard, you are in the working Navy!”
Langford and I looked at each other and shrugged as the CPO disappeared up the ladder without further comment. As we were changing to our dungarees, the P.A. system came alive with the whistle of a boson’s pipe and a voice boomed in a bored chant, “Now hear this! Sweepers starcher brooms—clean sweep-down fore and aft!”
It was sixteen hundred hours, the end of the work day. We finished setting our gear and stowed our seabags in a rack along the bulkhead (no lockers were provided in our austere compartment) then, not knowing what we were expected to do, went topside to check out the ship.
The late afternoon was beautiful, the wide bay calm beneath a blue sky studded with white cumulus clouds. Gulls circled overhead and flights of pelicans winged ponderously past. We made our way aft along the raised catwalk above the cluttered main deck, noting as passed around the bridge structure that a brass plate above a watertight entry door read “Officers Country”.
At the stern we found the mess compartment and the bulletin board the CPO had mentioned. Beyond that was a wide wood fantail deck scored clean by holystoning and above which a white canvas sunshade was stretched. Some of the ship’s crew were lounging there.
I saw the dour coxswain of the motor whaleboat sitting against a bulkhead stropping his wicked looking belt knife on the leather of his shoe. The name stenciled on his blue dungaree shirt was “Sullivan” and there was the badge of a second class petty officer in stencil on his left sleeve. I dropped down beside him.
“Hi, Sullivan—some ship.”
He eyed me sharply but some of the antagonism went out of his sour face. “Yea—some ship! This here old bucket just been reactivated from the reserve fleet—Standard Oil had her. She’s a pile of junk and you’ll find out most of the crew are either the dregs of the Navy or are reserves. Only thing worse than an Airedale is a reserve!”
“Chief Larzenarski doesn’t seem very friendly,” I said.
Sullivan snorted bitterly, “Friendly?! Bastard is the meanest sonabitch on the ship. Wasn’t for him, I could make chief and be the boson’s mate myself. I was first class and he got me busted! Ten year I got in his canoe club and he gets me busted for bringing a little booze aboard. I’d like tosee the sonabitch go over the side some dark night!”
Sullivan tested the keen edge of the knife by shaving some hairs from his forearm while I said, “Larzenarski says Lt. Williams is a mean s.o.b.—how about that?”
The coxswain sheathed the knife. “He is and he ain’t. Regular Navy ring pounder out of Annapolis, but he must have fouled up somewhere or he wouldn’t be on this old scow. Yeoman says he been passed over once for promotion to lieutenant commander. Hard man and Navy regs is his bible, but he don’t seem to have many friends. He’s the ship’s first lieutenant and division officer of the deck gang. He’ll ride the hell out of you just like Larzenarski and you won’t like him, but you gotta respect him.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the ubiquitous P.A. system. The boson’s pipe shrilled and the bored voice said, “Now hear this—chow down.” Sullivan stretched, and walked off toward the mess compartment.
The food was surprisingly good on Tippecanoe and was plentiful. After supper, not wanting to go back to our dismal quarters right away, we once more lounged on the fantail. It was a languorous evening—the sunset was fading beyond the point and a nearly full moon was in the east. In anticipation of our destination, Hawaiian music was coming over the P.A. system.
I lay back on the scoured wood with my hands behind my head and looked up at the canvas gleaming white in the soft moonlight while I listened to the strains of “Lovely Hula Hands”. That music was known as “shipping over music”. It was totally peaceful and I was content. A whole new life of adventure awaited me out there somewhere. The rusty barbed wire fences and dusty little country roads of the hot Ozark hills seemed a million miles away—a distant past.