LIFE ABOARD BATTLEWAGON (Dec, 1942)
LIFE ABOARD BATTLEWAGON
By Lt. Com. John T. Tuthill, Jr.
As described in his book “He’s in the Navy Now”
THE alarm sounds for general quarters. Across the steel decks of the mighty new battle wagon the bluejacket races on the double to his gun station in a turret.
He takes his appointed place near the monster weapon and waits, tense and overwrought while the rest of the gun crew tumble into the turret. A sudden hush falls on the scene and he notices that the other sailors are poised as taut as stretched strings. It’s like playing football on the high school team, back in Tennessee. They’re a team waiting for the quarterback to call signals.
The quarterback is the captain, far above, standing cool and proud in his station with a finger near the button which will fire nine 16-inch guns, the main battery, and ten 5-inch guns simultaneously. Proud of his new ship and crew.
The gunnery officer sings out over the telephone: “Report when manned and ready!”
Gears whirl on his gun. Wheels and machines turn and click. Now it’s like being inside the works of a gargantuan clock. From the handling rooms come big 16-inch shells. Then powder bagged in silk. The guns are loaded, primed, laid and ready. Gun muzzles swing. His turret is trained on the beam, he observes.
Over the ship’s battle circuits and loud speaker the word comes: “Stand by … stand by.” In breathless suspense he waits, motionless, alert. He has a moment to realize he is a part of this drama. A small part, but with definite responsibilities, A member of a team.
The captain’s finger presses the button.
A bone-shaking shock rattles the bluejacket’s body. Red flames shoot skyward above the mastheads and streak across the ocean’s surface, disappearing somewhere among the distant waves. Thousands of pounds of smokeless black powder have hurled tons of heavy steel projectiles into space in an instant.
His ears are stuffed with cotton, but still the roar is deafening. The hot breath of the great guns penetrates the turret. Again a hush falls over the group. He winks at the sailor who is grinning his way. It’s something like smacking the ball out of the park—a home run in the ninth with bases loaded—this job of firing one of the fleet’s big guns.
It’s teamwork on Uncle Sam’s team.
Everyone aboard the huge, new battlewagon had been waiting for this drill which was to mark the final test of a series given every new ship to determine the effect of firing on its structure. In this test the entire main battery and half of the secondary battery were fired simultaneously from a single key, not much larger than a doorbell button.
He wonders, as the ship plows ahead in a brisk 25-knot wind with the acrid, ether-like smell of powder still hanging about her, how she had stood it. His own sense of shock had disappeared and his mind has turned – to the ship. Pretty soon word seeps throughout the craft. It gives every man a warm thrill.
This battlewagon is okay.
It isn’t the kind of activity that makes the headlines, this testing of new ships and new crews. This training of new American teams to play the game of war on the widest field of action the world has ever seen. But the life of the nation depends on it. And as every new ship and every new crew passes the test, the day of victory is brought nearer.
Today, the nation can rest assured on this: American warcraft and American crews are passing the teamwork test in the greatest numbers in history.
To produce these teams, life on a battlewagon is conducted by strict rules, though it is pleasant enough if a man conforms willingly. . From the moment the bluejacket climbs the gangway and salutes the colors before stepping to the deck, his duty is to learn his particular job whatever it may be, so that when the time comes to fire the 14- or 16-inch guns of battle, he will function as perfectly as a cog in the great machine. He has certainly spent months, he may have spent years in the Navy preparing for that moment—a moment that might change world history.
The 16-inch guns can discharge tons of shells every thirty seconds or less, and such discharges can sink anything afloat. Therefore, it is imperative that everything be in readiness and that every man know his job when the great moment comes to fire them. Every officer and enlisted man in the far-flung naval organization has exerted his energies toward this end. The men detailed to recruiting, to the ordnance offices, to the shipyards and other vessels of the fleet—to all the vast interlocking network of naval activities in their many ramifications— have applied themselves throughout their careers to the end that at the zero hour our dreadnaughts can get into proper position to discharge their broadsides speedily and accurately before the enemy has a chance to fire first.
Battleships are about 95 percent steel and so compactly arranged that regulations governing the conduct of the men aboard must necessarily be more stringent than they are in an army camp. To prevent our ships from sinking they are divided into many watertight compartments separated by heavy steel doors which can be shut, isolating the compartment, if it is damaged by a torpedo. These doors are marked with big letters on each side. The newcomer quickly learns, if he has not known it before, that the letter “X” on a door means that particular door always must remain shut; that the letter “Y” on another door means it must remain closed after working hours, and that the letter “Z” means that doors so designated must be kept open at all times during battle.
Living space aboard some ships is sometimes limited to the point where the crew may have an insufficient number of bunks. In that event the new bluejacket must sleep in the hammock first issued to him. The place assigned to him for sleeping quarters is known as his billet. On a crowded ship this billet may be a gun turret where he hangs his hammock from hooks in the steel hood covering the gun, rolling and stowing it out of the way when he is not using it.
Since everyone is cramped for space he stows his belongings in his seabag and a small steel box about two feet square. The only thing stowed separately is his heavy waterproof raincoat which is hung on a rack.
Once a week he must remove all his effects from his bag and spread them on the deck in a straight line with the clothing arranged on top for bag inspection. Everything must be folded or rolled and placed in proper position as prescribed by regulations.
Clothes are usually scrubbed with stiff brushes, each man doing his own washing. He hangs his clothing on lines along the deck to dry, observing strict regulations as to how they shall be hung or “triced up.” If he occupies a cot, he must air his mattress periodically. Some of the larger ships have laundries where the bluejacket who feels flush and chooses to indulge in the luxury may have his clothes washed cheaply. Every item must bear his name, clearly marked with a stencil and ink. His blanket must even be marked eight times, in each corner on both sides, so that his name will always show, no matter how he folds it.
All sailors must learn to handle and shoot rifles, and periodically they receive target practice, but primarily their job is to help operate a warship, whose big guns must be kept free of dirt and water. Men detailed to the gunnery department must be experts in caring for and firing the guns. To keep them clean they plug the ends with tampions and protect them with canvas covers known as bloomers.
Anticipating the day when the ship may go into action, all activities aboard are carefully planned, and much time is devoted to drills. Periodically the fleet engages in target practice, training the guns at wooden targets towed to sea by a tug. Dirigibles may hover over the targets to observe the marksmanship.
Again, a man-overboard drill may be scheduled, in which event the ship is stopped and parties attached to the deck force are sent overboard in rowboats to search for the practice dummy, popularly known as Oscar.
Other standard drills are fire, abandon-ship and collision drills, and all bluejackets must proceed to their stations on the double with fire extinguishers, rations and repair equipment.
Drills are usually announced by a gong, with a bugle call following almost immediately over the ship’s loudspeaker system. This can be heard even by men working deep in the bowels of the ship who hustle to their stations on the double quick, in their work clothes known as undress blues.
Along with the drills which are held several times a week and which present the practical aspect, every bluejacket must attend classes. He may spend an hour in the morning on gunnery and another hour in the afternoon in a seamanship class where he becomes acquainted with the problems aboard his individual ship.
Most bluejackets have learned all about bugle calls in training school, so the sound of reveille coming over the amplifier at 5:30 a.m. is nothing new. Then comes the bo’s’n’s mate with his “Up all bunks” or “Rise and shine,” which means business. There is no more sleep. All hands wash and dress before turning to at 6:00 a.m. Five minutes before sunrise the quartermaster’s striker hoists the “prep” on the starboard side of the yardarm and turns off the anchor lights.
The master at arms and the police Petty Officers who arouse the crew are called at 5:10 a.m. by a bluejacket on the anchor watch who also turns out the battle lights. By 5:35 a.m. all hands are stirring except late bunks, men who work in the laundry or have night details. They have an extra hour.
When the men have stowed their hammocks or triced up their bunks, the smoking lamp is lighted in the living and mess compartments—an old tradition.
A bo’s’n’s mate passes the word to “pipe all sweepers” and promptly at 6:00 a.m. all hands turn to. They scrub and wash down all weather decks, shine the airports and various brass appurtenances. With several hundred hands at work, it doesn’t take long, but the job must be thorough.
At 7:30 a.m. the meal pennant, or “bean rag,” is hoisted on the mainmast yardarm, and breakfast is ready.
At 7:50 a.m. the Guard of the Day is called and the word is passed over the loudspeaker system to go aft and make ready for the call to colors. The band plays the National Anthem. At 8:15 a.m. on the deck, the division officers outline the plan of the day and detail working parties.
At 8:30 sick call is piped for those requiring medical attention, while all others clean their quarters. After that come the various drills and classes, which occupy the morning.
When the meal pennant has been hauled down after noon-day chow, a bo’s’n pipes the sweepers to clean the mess, the living compartments and “topside.” At this time bedding may be aired.
Promptly at 1600 by the ship’s clock (4:00 p.m.) all bluejackets not on special duty may knock off work. If the ship is in port, those with liberty cards can make ready to go ashore. The liberty call is sounded over all the crew circuits at 1630. At 5:30 p.m. the meal pennant is hoisted and the crew is piped for supper.
Ten minutes before sunset the Guard of the Day is summoned by the band or by all the duty buglers. At five minutes before sunset the prep is hoisted. After it has been hauled down at sunset, the evening colors are hauled down.
At 1800 the anchor watch, which changes every two hours, is mustered, and frequently the motion-picture screen is rigged, usually on the afterdeck, weather permitting.
Taps is sounded by a bugler on the quarterdeck at 2100—9 o’clock. Tired, but with a fatigue which brings a contented feeling, the bluejacket turns in. He doesn’t realize it, perhaps, but most of his activities of the day are part of the drill, the teamwork which brings perfection and coordination. But it is all teamwork.
That’s life aboard a battlewagon.