THE 5" LOADING MACHINE
an excerpt from the book "TIN CANS MAKE MEN" by: Robert T. Hill*
Following the retrofitting of the USS Stevens (DD479) at the Mare Island Navy Yard and subsequent to its return to the Pacific Theater action I was assigned as a loader on the newly installed #3 five inch .38 caliber gun mount. Big Jim Wardell, Gunners Mate 1/c was the gun Captain. The balance of the loading crew included "Smitty" Smith, Baker 3/c. powderman and Bill "Wateright" Hatch, Seaman 1/c, hot shellman.
The Stevens initial assignment upon return to action was the invasion of Kwajalein Atoll. While offering support fire for the invasion troops, gun #3 became a genuine fighting machine in short order. As we departed Kwajaein to a "to be announced" next destination we had an opportunity to evaluate our performance. Gun mount Captain Wardell was discreet and showed especially good judgement as he suggested that we did well, but, he wanted us to report to the pracice loading machine. We all agreed on one thing; Bill Hatch's hot-shell handling stunk! During one rapid-fire session at Kwajalein, eight red-hot empty powder cases wound up on the deck of the gun mount! Hatch was supposed to catch and throw these extremely hot suckers into a discharge hatch in the deck! Geez, and Hatch was the only one with asbestos gloves!
The practice loading machine is located on the starboard side of the main deck, just aft of the topedo tubes and essentialy resembles the loading area to the rear of the barrel of a five inch .38 caliber gun, with a simulated ram action. Practice on this simulator is to develop a harmonious muscular action between the powderman, the loader and the hot-shellman, so that they might function as one. Not easy, but doable. Sequentially, the 35 plus pound powder charge in a brass case is placed in the breech first, with the 50 plus pound projectile loaded in front of the powder can. With the powder and projectile in place, the loader stikes the ram handle that pushes the powder can and projectile into the gun breech. The "catcher" of the team, the hot- shellman, participates in the simulation excercise catching the discharged empty brass powder case, following firing.
Wardell was right on the money when he had us work out on the loading machine. Quite frankly, we all stunk! Obviously, the other five-inch crews recognized their shortcomings also, for soon all five crws were working out on the loading machine. It did not take long until a spirited competion began, with the Gunnery Officer acting as the official timer. At the first go-round our crew came in third, with Roy Rickman's gang on top. With an opportunity for frequent practice, perhaps more than any other crew, Smitty, Hatch and I began to jell. With unofficial timing, we had reason to believe we could compete with the Rickman crew. On the day of the big shoot-off, Rickman's gang went first and set a blistering pace. Undaunted, our crew got off to a good start, and about halfway through our alloted time we kinda' looked like winners. Wrong! In the heat of the contest my left hand got a bit out of synch and got hung up between the breech and the projectile. Ouch! As I jerked my hand out, the blood started to spurt! The projectile had smashed my wedding ring, which broke and penetrated my ring finger. Geez, I blew it, there goes our chance for number one, and, of course, my wedding ring, Good grief!
As the yellow caution flag was thrown out we once again had to bow to a superior bunch, and my dilemma became compunded. The busted ring was really embedded in my finger and was going to take the skill of an expert to remove it. Hell, the blood was flowing lke a gusher! The options for removal were quickly narrowed down to two: sick bay and the Pharmacist Mate Maurice Mulligan, with his saw-bones instruments; or Chubby Hughes,the Torpedoman, with his needle-nose pliers. Smitty and Hatch lobbied for the Torpedoman, and I agreed. Gosh, that Chubby sure was handy with those pliers, and even with the shakes from several torpedo juice coktails, he had the ring off on the third try. The blood wouldn't stop, and in lieu of Smitty's offer to apply a tourniquet, I opted for the Pharmacist Mate and semi-professional medical attention.
A call was put out for Mulligan who was not in sick bay. Charlie Morehouse, Laundryman 2/c came by and suggested he had just seen Mulligan in the head. With my bloody hand wrapped in my skivy shirt and my gun crew at my side we proceeded to the head. There we found a kinda' green looking Pharmacist Mate sitting on the can with a bad case of diarrhea and afraid to move. With blood dripping on the deck, and Mulligan incapable of moving (other than his bowels), Smitty volunteered to retrieve the emergency medical kit from sick bay. That way, the indisposed Mulligan could do the necessary repairs on-site.
Wow! Talk about a violation of the Medical Sterilization Act. The surgeon is sitting on the can. The task of applying pressure to stop the flow of blood was assigned to Hatch who was still wearing his asbestos gloves. Smitty, with his hands all greasy from the powder cases, would hold my hand steady while the Pharmacist Mate stitched up the open wound. After dusting the wound with sulfa and applying a painkiller shot it was time for the needlework. Before the first stitch was completed ol' Mulligan dropped the needle in the head and had to start over. Then he had to wait momentarily while he passed some gas. Finally five stitches were completed and the wound was secured. In an attempt to wrap the finger with a bandage the weary Mulligan dropped the roll of bandage on the deck and Smitty inadvertently stepped on it. A second roll did the job and after thanking the still kinda' green Pharmacist we turned to depart. Just a miute chimed Mulligan, "Will you get me another roll of toilet paper, the last one fell in the can"!
* Served on USS Stevens as Boatswain Mate 2/c.
It has been over sixty years since this incident took place on the high seas in no mans land, and yet at the age of eighty-six the vivid details are firmly embedded in my mind. In sixty years it is not only possible, but also very probable that one will have forgotten many, many happenings of those distant days. The name of a particular ball player, the first date, or the name of the history professor have been erased from memory many moons past. However, eternally riveted in a wartime sailor's mind are legions of memorable occurances. The earsplitting sound of the big guns, the apprehension of the call to "general quarters - man your battle stations", and the violence of an angry sea during a typhoon. Nothing can make a wartime sailor forget the scream of a Kamikaze as he dives for his target - your ship, nor those countless days of separation from loved ones.
In retrospect was it worth it? You bet it was. Perhaps I am a naive octogenarian, however I sincerely believe that the efforts of the Navy, Marines, Army amd Air Corps World War Two participants made it possible for this great country to be what it is today.
R. T. Hill