Chapter XI: The Big Ticket
Since the government needed more skilled men on the ships, they were willing to pay for those willing to better their standing to come to school. The Maritime Commission set up a class for upgrading certificates. All that was required was that you had put in some sailing time on the old license. I had already accumulated enough time as third assistant to have it upgraded to at least second assistant or higher. I was satisfied with one hop up to second.
The school ran from 8:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon. Unlike the commercial, "free enterprise" school which I attended to obtain my first license, this one cost me nothing. In fact, in addition to the free education, if you passed the test and got your license, the government would throw in your uniform and topcoat as a bonus. If you flunked the test, you got none of the goodies. It was a good incentive.
After two strenuous weeks, I took my examination, got the uniform and topcoat, and was ready for my next ship with a brand new license. I was now a member of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA), and the dispatch hall was run the same way as the Firemen's hall: all the jobs were chalked on the board and the rotation system applied. I looked over the list of ships on the board. Of course, there was no way of knowing what part of the world they were heading for. While I was still looking, the dispatcher walked over to my side. "Hey, Bill, I have a brand new ship in the Richmond shipyard which will be commissioned for sea duty tomorrow. They need a first assistant to go aboard this afternoon and sort of take charge. The rest of the crew will follow in a day or two. How about grabbing her?"
"But I only have a second's ticket," I replied.
"That will make no difference," he said. "We'll make it on a waiver. You'll have no problem. I assure you."
"Okay," I said, if the company is willing to take me on that basis, I'll give it a try,"
My dispatch card had my name, ship and rank. The dispatcher directed me to the company office. There I met the port captain who would drive me to the ship. He was a nice, friendly old guy who made me feel comfortable as we rode across the Bay Bridge to Richmond. There she was, a brand new Liberty ship, the Samuel Gompers.
Old Sam Gompers was at one one time head of the American Federation of Labor, and like most of the top leadership of his period, he was a strong conservative. He was long gone, and now he had a Liberty ship named after him. The ship was teeming with men and women shipyard workers. Three other ships were being built there at the same time, but the Gompers was the only one that had a wisp of smoke coming out of her stack. Her propeller was slashing the water and all her mooring lines were taut and emitting squeaks for mercy, as if they were ready to break from the pressure.
We went down to the engine room and found the shipyard crew with open-neck quart milk cartons, dousing the engine with oil. The oilers were clad in rain gear and much of the oil splashed on them. They poured it on the engine, a quart every fifteen minutes. Every motor, every pump, was being tested at that moment. In fact, the testing had started at eight in the morning and here it was three in the afternoon, and the engine was still racing wide open.
While I walked around the engine room looking at the newness of everything, the port captain was consulting some of the big wheels in the shipbuilding business. I heard one of the yardsmen say to the port captain, "She's all yours now, cap. Let's shut her down for a rest." The engine came to a stop and men started mopping up oil and washing down the rods. A short while later the port captain said to me, "She belongs to us now. Take good care of her, Bill."
The next day the rest of the crew came aboard, including the chief engineer, a nice old character who had been coaxed out of retirement. The second assistant and third assistant engineers were young men and took to the responsibility immediately.
The Samuel Gompers steamed empty down to Port Hueneme, near Los Angeles. There we picked up a load of war materials, then took off to points in Alaska where we would engage in the battle to win back the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. It was new territory for me. With a crew of eager-beaver youngsters--with the exception of a few old-timers who preferred the cool north to the hot South Pacific--we merged our energies to make the trip a success. After all, it was a brand-new ship, and what could go wrong on a brand-new vessel?
The first crisis came quickly. One of the crank pins on the main engine got hot from lack of oil and ended up scorching the babbitt, creating a totally new sound in the engine. In the beginning the engine had a beautiful purring sound. Now there was a horrible-sounding clunk-clunk every time the engine made a revolution. There were a few moments when I could have lassoed the young, lazy-ass oiler to the connecting rod and watched him go up and down for the rest of the voyage.
We spent close to four months running up and down the Aleutian chain feeding supplies to our troops. It was always cold and gray and one hell of a place to ever get torpedoed in, since the waters were frigid. But we came through it okay. New orders took us down to Seattle for refurbishing and new assignments. I was sitting at my desk there when a young man came to the door. He introduced himself and said he was from the FBI. He did not address me by name, but by rank.
"I hear you have some Communists on board," he said. "How is their performance? Any problems with them?" I smiled politely at him and gave him the best answer I could, "Hell, if you know where I can get my hands on more of them, let me know. They're the best darn workers on board."
He looked a little taken aback, but that was the end of the conversation. Apparently he had not been cued in as to who the Communists were on the Gompers.
Before the Gompers was to sail again she would have to undergo some repair work on her engine, especially on the connecting rod, as well as minor repairs on the air extractor. It would take maybe two weeks before the Gompers would work her way to the head of the list for a machinist gang. I packed up my bags and took a train for San Francisco.
It was at about this time that the Party leadership, being so wrapped up in winning the war, forgot what the bourgeoisie was all about. It was true that there was a lull period when most differences--that is, class differences--were set aside while the war raged on. Such things as strikes, stoppages of work, or lockouts were not the main issues. Labor had given a no-strike pledge for the war's duration. Most beefs and complaints were settled quickly. Both management and labor were pulling together to win the war. Of course, both the workers and shipowners had viewpoints of what life would be like after the war ended. The employers were thinking of how they were going to reap bigger profits once the war was over, and, foremost, they were thinking of how to handle the union situation. Meanwhile, the workers were being lulled to sleep with dreams of grandeur.
At this stage, the head of the American Communist Party, Earl Browder, wrote a book called Teheran and After. The unity and determination of these nations in the war was above reproach. Browder--and most of the Party leaders--had come to the conclusion that the capitalists and the working class were now sitting down and working together to win the war and to work out the peace, and that the future was going to be a great time. What the leadership was telling us was that "progressive capitalism" was anxious to let bygones be bygones, and from now on they would sit down at the same table with the workers. Together they would work in harmony to make the world a heaven on earth. This was the way the heads of the Communist Party were seeing things. The class struggle as defined by Karl Marx was about to be swept under the rug, and perhaps Marx with it.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three