THE 36" SEARCHLIGHTS

An excerpt from the book "TIN CANS MAKE MEN" by:  Robert T. Hill*

       "Straight up, Sailor.  Have a good time!"  Thank goodness our speed had been reduced and the ship was not challenging every wave in the Atlantic Ocean.  As my ascent took me toward my position as a mean fighting machine for the next four hours, a bright star appeared in the heavens. For a brief moment there was something besides that defying black. Probably this was an illusion.

        As my hand reached what was the last rung of the ladder, a voice rang out, "It's about time! I thought I was going to have to stand your watch, too!" Obviously the sailor to be relieved had no sense of humor. As the disgruntled one disappeared down the ladder I turned to introduce myself to my watch partner. "Hot damn! Is that you, Hill?" came the voice of my watch mate. It had to be.  As dark as it was and the fact that we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean made no difference, that voice, it had to be Bill Hatch, my boot camp buddy from Toledo, Ohio. Wow! Look out, Japs. Two mean Ohio buckeyes are about to get this here war over with . . . pronto!

        On my train ride to the Great Lakes boots, Hatch had boarded the train in Toledo and proceeded to sit next to me. For the next 10 weeks we served in the same Company 295 for our training. We ate, slept, drilled, and had the measles together. Following our boot sentence we were granted a brief leave prior to our initial assignment. As Bill departed the leave-bound train in Toledo, we said our good-byes, knowing the likelihood of seeing one another again would be extremely remote. At this point in time, teamed with Hatch on this searchlight watch, the air became refreshing and the whole nasty picture began to gain a qualified definition.  War buddies can do this.

        Following our brief interlude of becoming reacquainted, we got down to the business at hand. Inasmuch as Hatch was wearing the phones that connected our very important post with the rest of the watch, he suggested he would man them for the first hour and advance them to me for the second hour. With this agreed upon I asked Bill to show me how to operate the searchlights. With a loud "What?!" Hatch proceeded to explain that Bosun Rickman had advised him that his watch mate (me) would explain the searchlight function to him. Gosh, this is serious.  Here we are, two official United States Navy sailors...on the destroyer USS Stevens...in charge of the very critical searchlights...in a war zone- and we don't even know how to turn them on!  Big trouble.

        While we acknowledged we didn't know from squat about the searchlights, we did agree we had better report this to whomever was at the other end of the phones.  Following a review of several possible messages to explain our plight, and after saying the verbiage of choice over and over, Hatch asked to speak to the bridge.  Almost as if he knew what he was doing, Bill said, "This is the searchlight watch calling (responding). We can feel the searchlights, but we can't find the 'on-off' switch."  We felt that the "on-off" hybrid jargon would elevate our accepted intelligence level.  Without a quick response, the message was repeated with deliberate enunciation.  As we shared the earphones for the response, we were greeted with ear-splitting laughter and the following: "Don't sweat searchlights.  We don't trust you with no 'on-off' crap.  We'll turn the lights on or off for you! The Watch Chief will have a visitation with you soon.  Bridge off." Ouch!

        Wow!  The chill of that response from the bridge sure didn't help warm us up as the late-hour cold of the Atlantic Ocean began to become a factor. Applying the best of Yankee ingenuity, we found that the searchlight canvas covers, which had been removed in the event we had to spring into action, not only provided a windbreak, but served as a blanket.  The first two hours of the watch passed rather quickly as we shared some of our more recent leave experiences.  Having each manned the phones for an hour and with Bill on his second hour, we kind of ran out of sea stories.  Hatch suggested that there was no sense in both of us staying awake, so why didn't I sleep while he manned the phones...and he would sleep on my shift.  Again, Yankee ingenuity at its very best. Yeah, sure.


        As unlikely as it would seem, I did fall asleep. Until a terrible commotion took place in Hatch's direction.   An extremely loud voice was shouting something about falling asleep on watch, and being put on report!  I jumped to my feet as I realized it was the Watch Chief making his visitation, and Hatch had fallen asleep with the phones on!  To make matters even worse, the Chief had tripped over Hatch's body wrapped in the canvas cover!  Impious profanity filled the air as the Chief identified himself as Chief Boatswain Mate Egloff and we were to "damn well report to me at 0800 hours."  Good grief, big trouble...and the Chief never did show us how to operate the searchlights. Ouch!

        After being relieved at 0400 hours, it sure did feel great to crawl into my sack.  We didn't have to see Chief Egloff until eight, so we could get at least three-and-a-half hours' sleep.  Wrong.  At about six o'clock (0600 hours) the shrill sound of a bosun's pipe came out of the compartment speaker, followed by, "General Quarters.  All hands man your battle stations."  As I leapt from my prone position and hit the deck I asked the sailor across from me if we were being attacked. "Hell, no.  Just a stinkin' routine," was his irritated response.  The routine he referenced was that all hands went to their general quarter battle stations one-half hour before sunrise when the ship was under way.  About this time I realized that I had not been assigned a battle station.  Should I crawl back in the sack?  Why not?

        Gosh, it is hard to realize how great sleep is until it becomes a premium. Just about the time my dreams included me about to make a long putt on the fifth hole at Mayfield Country Club, that miserable bosun's pipe sounded off.  Again, following the whistle was that habitually irritable voice, "Now hear this. Secure from General Quarters."  Why does he have to say "Now hear this"?  As the men returned from general quarters it became quite evident that the day had begun.  By this time it was about 0700 hours, and I had better get washed and have breakfast (chow) prior to that dreaded one-on-one with Chief Egloff.

        Boy, those drill specialists at boot camp were tough.  However, they couldn't hold a candle to Egloff.   He was all pro.  Midway through his discourse there was no doubt in my mind that my immediate future in the Navy could very well be behind bars, with a dishonorable discharge!  All this, with "hard labor" thrown in.  Negotiations of any nature-or the possibility of an appeal process-with Chief Boatswain Egloff were an impossibility.  Geez, here are Hatch and I, prime mean fighting machines, and we could be relegated to a rock pile in some God-forgotten place in Georgia!  Egloff wound down his tirade with "You would-be sailors report to
Rickman and tell him I said to put you on the sh-- detail.  Don't ever let me hear of you screwin' up again.  Now get the hell out of here."   Wow! Both Hatch and I agreed we had just lost part of our backsides.   Bill said something about a real "reaming."  Whatever, my mind was made up.  Somehow, someway, I wanted to be a Boatswain Mate.

        Upon reporting to Bosun Rickman, and relating the Chief's orders, we were issued the miserable wire brush and chipping hammer, and pointed in the direction of the fantail work station.   At about 1000 hours Rickman showed up with a cup of coffee (joe) in his hand.  He had new watch orders and general quarters stations for Hatch and me.  Perhaps Egloff had interceded, for we were no longer searchlight "specialists."  My new assignment was lookout on the flying bridge, 1200-1600 hours and 2400-0400 hours.  My general quarters station was hot-shellman, #3 five-inch gun mount, Jim Wardell, Gunner Mate 1/C, Gun Captain.  Super!  At last I was truly a mean fighting machine in the United States Navy!

        There are all kinds of rates in the Navy, such as yeoman, carpenter's mate, and quartermaster.  However, wire brush and chippin' hammer (also called scraper) technician is not one of them.  Gee whiz, one would think a brand-new ship would not begin the rusting process.......

HATCH'S SEARCHLIGHT

      *  Served on USS Stevens as Boatswain Mate 2/C

 

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