Chapter IX: The Ticket
Now that I was back in San Francisco, I had to come to a decision fast as to how I was to sail. Should I ship out in my old capacity as fireman-oiler-electrician, or should I use the years of knowledge of the engine and boiler rooms and sit for an examination to get my engineer's license and sail as an engineer? There was a big demand for engineers and I concluded that I could serve the country better by getting my engineer's ticket. I could go about obtaining my license in several ways. One was to sign up and attend the government training school across the Bay in Alameda. Here the government supplied you with all the necessary books, instructors, meals, dormitory, uniforms, doctors and other essentials. The only fly in the ointment was that first you had to spend a couple of months at the school and submit to camp life as one would in any military base. Another way was to go buy some books, go home and work like hell, and when you thought you had digested enough knowledge, go and sit for the exam. The third way was to take advantage of the "free enterprise system" by attending any of the half-dozen quickie schools which, for a small fee, prepared you for the exam.
The advantage of these schools was their ability to know the questions most likely to be asked by the examiners. You would be home in the evenings, minus all that discipline that your brothers at the government school were subject to. I opted for the quickie school, and for the next several weeks I was to think, drink, and consume short division, cube roots, square roots, fractions, logarithms, trigonometric functions, solutions of triangles, mensurations--all of which led me to manage so many formulas that they were coming out of my ears. I was taught the shortcut in arithmetic solutions, and for a fifth-grade grammar school dropout, this was a shock to the human system so great that I had to keep concentrating on the thought that if I made any mistakes the entire Nazi system, with Shicklegruber leading the pack, was going to laugh at me. That thought of not being able to add my weight to winning the war gave me lots of strength to stay awake for hours on end while I crammed knowledge into my think tank.
I was close to a nervous wreck when the day finally came--when I and ten other men sat down in the examiner's room at desks, poised with pen, pencils and paper and ready for that moment of truth. The examiner sat at a desk facing all the candidates. On his desk was a layer of pigeonhole compartments, one for each of us, with our names on them. Not all of us were seeking the same grade. I was trying for a third assistant's license, some others their second's, two were sitting for chief's tickets and two for their first assistant's tickets.
For the next two days we would approach his desk, and he would give us several cards with questions. Our job was to find the answers and include the methods we used to get the answers. Each card and worksheet was brought back to the examiner one at a time, and if all were correct and above board, he handed you the next set of questions. This went on for two days until he exhausted the packet of questions. With all questions and answers tied neatly in a bundle, he signed a document stating that you had passed and directed you to another office where your certificate was to be made out. What an accomplishment to have that certificate in my hand! I felt like a giant standing 20 feet high. Miss O'Rafferty, that dear old schoolteacher in Public School Number 5 in Hoboken, told me once that given half a break, I was the kind of boy that could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I wished she were alive to see this.
Two weeks before the examination, I had run into Walter Stich, an old buddy of mine. Walter had just made first assistant on a Liberty ship named John Paul Jones. He was elated that I was preparing for my ticket. "Look, Bill," he said, "we'll be going into the shipyard for a lot of patching up and to maybe get some bigger guns put on the ship. When we come put we'll be taking on a crew, including engineers. I'll keep the third's job open for you. It'll be nice to make your first trip out with friends. We'll make a good trip out of it. What do you say?"
I was not about to say no to this friendly gesture. And so it was that the John Paul Jones headed out the Golden Gate with me at the throttle, slightly shaken up and waiting for a disaster to happen. After a few watches with no breakdowns to contend with, confidence in my ability to handle the watch slowly mushroomed to a mere routine. We zigged and zagged our way across the Pacific Ocean alone, always thinking the enemy was out there just waiting till we crossed hairs in his sights. But the enemy must have had something more important to do than to chase after an old Liberty ship, especially one named John Paul Jones.
On a bright sunny morning almost 15 days after leaving the Golden Gate, we pulled into Milne Bay in New Guinea, passed through the anti-submarine nets, and dropped anchor among some 20 other ships. I appreciated the silence of the engine room and the stillness of the ship as it rode its anchor in the safety of our armed forces. What I could not understand after arriving was what the hell some 20 or more ships were doing there, anchored, when we were desperately in need of ships. Why weren't they being discharged and set free? I raised this question with a military officer who came aboard to receive the ship's manifest. "I don't make the rules on any of this," he told me, "but we don't have any place on land to properly store everything until it's ready to be used. So we pull in whatever ship has the cargo we need and unload. After all, it's better that goods stay aboard ship than lie out in the open. If the enemy decides to retake this island, it makes no sense to give him an island full of goodies as a bonus does it?"
I couldn't find any argument with that, but it boiled down to the fact that we were going to be here for a while. That "while" would be some 30 days. Then the anti-submarine nets were pulled open and we sailed out alone and headed to what we thought would be the Golden Gate, but soon we found our bow headed toward South America. The third day after our departure from Milne Bay we plowed head into a storm. With our vessel empty, we bounced and dove. As the vessel headed nose down into the sea, her stern would come up out of the water and her propeller, free of traction, would pick up speed. When the stern went back into the water, there would be a chugging and rattling and shaking of the ship from stem to stern. To keep the engine and other parts of the vessel from serious damage, we put into operation the "Butterfly" watch, or throttle watch as some called it. This was where the engineer stayed at the operating platform and pulled the Butterfly valve closed as the vessel's stern began its climb out of the water. This maneuver aborted the full blast of steam from going to the engine and slowed down the engine. As the propeller went back in the water, the valve was opened, a full blast of steam entered the engine, and the propeller once again resumed its required momentum. It was a tedious, time-consuming job, dull, but necessary.
What a joy it was when after 23 days of this arm-bending maneuvering the sun came out and there before us was the West Coast of South America. Another day and we pulled into a small town in Chile called Tocopilla. The little port, just big enough to handle one ship at a time, was crowded with people who greeted us with curiosity as we entered in our wartime colors with guns mounted fore and aft. This poverty-stricken town, where the tallest structure was the spire of the town church, was nestled against a backdrop of mountains. From a distance, you could make out what seemed to be primitive roads and paths cut into them. All these paths led into the town's only source of wealth, nitrate mines. We were there to pick up a cargo of nitrates. Now that the war was on, nitrate was a valuable cargo. We used it mostly in munitions production. Like most mariners, we were interested in what the town offered us. Was there a restaurant where one could get a decent meal? A dance hall or nightclub? Some souvenir shops? Yes, there were a little of each, including some women who had some personal assets to sell.
The three days at Tocopilla were good. We stretched our legs, had a few drinks, and enjoyed the people in the town who seemed to enjoy our company as well as the little prosperity the war was bringing them.
With a cargo priority we passed through the Panama Canal, our destination being Jacksonville, Florida. Leaving the last lock of the canal on the Caribbean side, we saw 15 ships at anchor. We learned they were waiting for more ships to join them in a convoy into the Atlantic under an armed escort.
I had expected some sort of escort to Florida, since the Caribbean was a submarine captain's delight; they used that area as one would a shooting gallery. The loss of our merchant vessels, especially tankers, was running pretty high around there. Yet, they were having us make the trip solo. We hugged the shoreline as closely as safety permitted.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three