L' Ecritoire

Location: Sacramento, California

I am a retired lawyer and administrative law judge, aged but active, with a variety of interests.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Beergonauts

The life of a sailor has been hard in all times and climes. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and wit, said that it was like "being in a jail with a chance of being drowned." The crew of a vessel of the U.S. Navy in the far Western Pacific in wartime 1944 would not disagree with that assessment.They felt their imprisonment most keenly in being deprived of the company of women, but another, and almost as serious a deprivation, was the ban on alcohol aboard ship. By statute, the American navy was, and is, "dry." By contrast, ships of the Royal Navy at that time meted out rum to their enlisted personnel, and their officers' messes were allowed unlimited spirits, and typically furnished a variety of liquors.

Officers of American naval vessels suffered less than enlisted personnel because there were officers clubs in even the most advanced bases, and on those occasions when ships came to anchor the officers usually found their way very quickly to these establishments, most of which supplied a number of forms of ardent spirits, and occasionally even aged scotch whisky. The commanding officer of my own ship, a four-striper, was suspected, probably not without justice, of maintaining - and replenishing - his own private stock of booze, as he was observed always to carry a small satchel on leaving and returning to the ship. ("What’s the Old Man got in that bag, do you suppose? A change of skivvies? Bullshit!")

The fate of the officers’ enlisted subordinates was, alas, less happy. They were sent ashore to drink beer, but on occasions less frequent, and in circumstances less congenial. Milne Bay and Finschhafen, names which appeared on charts of the eastern coasts of New Guinea, and whose existence depended as much on that fact as on other physical evidence, could not be characterized as pleasure resorts, however vivid the surrounding greenery. Ulithi Atoll, a place comporting with pre-war impressions of the South Sea Islands, but now uninhabited except for very transient American naval personnel, was the rare exception, but even that lovely isle was found lacking. ("We got some shade here, and it ain’t too hot, but I don’t see no hula girls. Wouldn’t you know they’d move the women out!")

The Rest and Recreation people who provided the beer-drinking venues for enlisted personnel did not always supply the beer. As a matter of practice, many vessels were required to carry their own supplies of beer, which were struck below immediately upon being received to an inviolable cargo space, against the time when opportunity (regrettably rare)allowed the crew to visit a beach,not too close to the operations of the Japanese enemy, to consume some of it. Thus it was that the writer, then a buck ensign, was placed in charge of an expedition which was to pick up several hundred cases of beer from a supply dump on Guadalcanal, across Iron Bottom Sound from our ship's anchorage near Florida Island. My command was a 36-foot LCVP landing craft with a crew of two (a coxswain and a bowhook) and a four-man working party headed by a boatswain's mate second class. The ship's navigator showed me my outward course on a chart and pointed to a distant peak as a landmark. ("Tell your coxswain he can steer for the highest point in that ridge, which is Mount something-or-other. Would you believe it’s over 8,000 feet?")

Our outward voyage was uneventful: the sea was flat, our landmark in clear view, and our progress rapid. The Gray marine diesel engine functioned perfectly, and we arrived at our destination about three hours after our departure, having traveled perhaps twenty nautical miles. The always surprising and enterprising SeaBees had constructed a regular pier, although without some of the usual appurtenances, and to this we moored our small vessel. The loading of our cargo from a nearby warehouse took almost as much time as the outward leg of voyage, the several hundred cases of beer requiring transportation to the pier, and then careful stowage.("How come you got this Hudepohl and Iron City horse piss? They put embalming fluid in it!
Whatever happened to Pabst Blue Ribbon?)

When our full allotment was finally stowed and we were ready to depart, it suddenly dawned on me that our craft might not be seaworthy, its draft having increased a good three feet. Indeed, the remaining freeboard was so slight that I expressed my apprehension about leaving the dock with the full load. My crew made it quite clear, however, that despite this perilous condition, they would take it badly if I left even a single case behind. ("You officers don’t have to drink this shit, but it’s the only booze the crew can get! And when are we gonna be able to get some more?")

Against my better judgment - but taking into account my future relations with the ship's enlisted personnel - we set out upon the return leg of the voyage with the full lading. We discovered almost immediately that the sea state had changed, and that our flat, plain-green sea was now all swells and whitecaps. Our craft was sluggish in its forward progress, because of the sea state and the heavy lading, and began to roll and pitch rather ominously. The possibility of foundering, which I had foreseen at the dock, now seemed likely and even imminent. I was also concerned that we might not reach the ship before dark. We had no landmark to steer by, and relied upon our compass, our heading being the reciprocal of our outward course. Spray began to break across our bow and we were quickly wet to the skin. I feared that even the smallest sea breaking over our gunwales would cause us to founder, and I suggested that we should jettison some of our cargo. Indications of incipient mutiny persuaded me of the unwisdom of such a course. ("If we don’t bring back a full load our name is gonna be mud! Yours, too, Mister Moose! Yours, especially!") Thus, we persevered, arriving at the ship as darkness fell, and to the cheers of many of the crew, who were on the fo’c’sle waiting for the movie to begin.

That we completed our voyage without foundering, or losing so much as a single case of beer to the sea, seemed to me at the time – and seems even now, almost sixty years later – a miracle of the first order. But whether or not one can attribute the successful issue of this undertaking to the supernatural, one thing is certain: although I did not become a hero with the crew, neither did my name become mud – not completely. ("Ensign Moose wanted to deep six the whole load when it got rough. You can thank Blackie Coan and Red O’Haire for talking him out of it. If we hadn’t been along, this old bucket would be fresh out of beer!")