Thursday, January 26, 2012

How to Not Get Killed: A Sea Story

How can you tell when an old sailor is lying?

his lips are moving.

Sometimes that's true but here's a tale from the high-seas that happened to me when I was a young sailor-boy on the USS Dehaven back in 1972.

Here I am on the good old Dehaven (DD-727) a Sumner class destroyer from World War Two.  It was a fine old ship with quite a  remarkable combat record.

Be patient, this will get more interesting as you go along.

The Dehaven

What a beautiful ship.  Note the gun-mounts forward (toward the pointy part)  each contains two five-inch guns.  They can hurl a 55-lb projectile up to ten miles or so with great accuracy. You can imagine that to achieve such a feat the gun must be complicated, well-engineered, and HEAVY

Here, Charlie Boothroyd stands at the rear of one of the guns, the sliding breach-block.  It weighs a couple of tons, and when the breech "clicks" shut the gun fires and the  block instantly (instantly) recoils about three feet rearward as the empty shell casing is ejected.  So you certainly would not want to be standing behind it when it fires, right?

Although I was a Radioman on the Dehaven, I found myself working in the forward five inch gun mount for a couple of weeks.  It was normally the battle station of the lowest ranking radioman on the ship.  Unfortunately he, and the next lowest guy were both on leave, so I was called down to fill in.  

At first I was down in the handling room sending projectiles and powder casings up into the mount.  The handling room is a small piece of hell on earth, where you try  to keep your balance on a greasy, moving deck, trying to not get your fingers crushed as you manhandle heavy projectiles from the magazine elevator into the ready racks and chain hoists which run them to the gun above. 
Sounds like fun, right?  Right.

As we were firing, from the small hatch above, appeared the grimy face of one of the gunner's mates up in the mount. While he was shouting the type of ammo to send up he spotted me, or actually, the petty officer insignia on my sleeve (the "crow") and inquired

"Hey a**hole, what the f@#k are you doing down there!?  You're a godd%##ed petty officer, get up here with us."

Seeing this as a welcome reprieve I  gratefully scrambled up the narrow ladder through the scuttle above and  emerged into the ear-splitting, bone shuddering, deafening, reeling and jolting world of the gun house.
My gunner's mate deliverer, realizing I'd never been in a mount before, gave me the simplest possible job - that of the "hot shell man".  Handing me one asbestos glove (instead of the required two) a glove, may I add, that had a large hole burned through the palm, and instructed me on my new job.

As the hot empty shell casings were ejected from the breach I was to grab them and toss them out a little scuttle that got them outside, out our way and out from underfoot.

They would pile up on the deck outside the gun mount.  Sometimes, after a sustained period of firing,  there would be hundreds of them out there, rolling back and forth with the motion of the ship

About ten guys worked the mount.  It was so noisy that the only communication was done with hand signals;  hand signals like the one I gave to the guy indicating that a casing had been lodged below the mount, impeding the elevation.  I gave him the "finger across the throat" signal and indicated the jammed casing.  He grinned, nodded, and gave me the "thumbs-up".  The fact that he'd been toking reefer all morning had some bearing on what happened next.

As I bent down, head behind the giant breech block, remember? the breech block that instantly hurtles rearward the moment the breach "clicks" shut and the gun automatically fires?  Yeah, that breech block.

Despite the smoky assurance of my shipmate of the "thumbs-up" signal, I heard that most frightening sound:

You know what happens at the click.

Instantly I felt myself flying backward; two huge, powerful, hands at my belt providing a jarring jerk clear of the breech block.

It all happened in the blink of an eye. I watched as the breech block rocketed before my eyes, filling the space where my head had been an instant before.
The guy who insured my continued future was a gunner's mate who I only ever knew as "Cracker".  A greasy, portly, and altogether unkempt sailor who was, for me, the man of the moment.

As I thanked him profusely, he shrugged it off with " Yer lucky that was the last shot or I'da been too busy to bother"

The guy with the bowl haircut: "Cracker"

And that's how I helped to defeat the commies.