The officer approached me waving a dispatch and shaking his head. “I offer you my prayers,” he said. “You’re ordered to a ‘mothballer.’ Here it is —go on down to South Carolina and reactivate a 2200-ton destroyer.”
I took the paper from him. In terse naval- ese it read: CDR JAMES C SHAW REL- I)ET NAVWARCOL PROREP COM- CHASNGRU TEMCON REACTIVATION USS WALDRON DD 699 ONBOWCOM AS CO.
I translated quickly: “Commander James C. Shaw, when relieved, detached from duty at the Naval War College, Newport, R. I. and from such other duty as may have been assigned; proceed and report to Commander Charleston Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet, Charleston, S. C., for temporary duty in connection with reactivation of the USS Waldron (Destroyer No. 699) for duty on board that vessel when placed in commission as commanding officer.”
I glanced out the window at Narragansett Bay, smooth and empty under the September sun, the mooring buoys, without the usual cluster of destroyers, looking like forlorn moles on the water’s skin. Some of those missing destroyers were already bombarding off Korea, other, churning water in the Mediterranean, but all were living ships. It would be so easy to step on board and take command. A mothballer, though, is a dead hulk. I sighed and remembered sad tales of weariness and woe connected with hauling a ship out of reserve. I was ready to accept prayers from anybody and add a few of my own.
Almost guiltily, as a professional naval officer, I thought of the personal upheaval the orders would cause, what with a family, three dogs, civilian friends, a mortgaged house, the familiar furniture collected in five peacetime years. Walking out lightly would be impossible. Perhaps the Navy was wise in allowing me only forty-eight hours to make the break, with no time for reflection. I blew dust from mildewed trunks in the basement, scattered cardboard cartons in the attic, rummaged through cluttered drawers outfitting me for the tropics, the Arctic, a formal ball, a crawl though the engineroom. (A frock coat, relic of the Old Nyvee, somehow went along and persuaded the young ensigns of the Waldron that I sailed with Dewey.)
On departure day we ate our usual breakfast just as if I were going to the office. My wife then drove me to the station and as the train pulled out shouted one last wifely injunction. The vacuum-sealed Pullman window which stopped her words seemed symbolic of the separation which sea duty brings.
I haven’t seen Newport since that day though more than a full year has passed. During that time the Waldron has been activated, shaken down, and tested. I look back and must confess that lots of the imagined grief did come my way, but all was counterbalanced by the satisfaction of performing one of the most stimulating and interesting duties in today’s Navy.
Everyone who goes down to the sea after a long hitch ashore is apprehensive. Has the Navy changed? Can one take over the conn with assurance facing new equipment, revised tactics, altered administrative concepts? Luckily my itinerary included a brief course at Key West’s Sonar School where most of the answers appeared. This “sonar” school is excellent in its field of anti-submarine warfare, but one of its principal assets is not written into the curriculum, namely salting down gold braid prior to hoisting one’s commission pennant. At Key West I sailed in operating ships, talked with the skippers, browsed through the latest hot publications, and gossiped with officers fresh from the Fleet. I discovered the Navy had changed, but not enough to render transition from shore to sea a hazard. I learned that the Operational Development Force chased away the bugs from new equipment before issue to the Fleet, that with the revised tactics one could still avoid trouble by following the old seaman’s rule of knowing how to go “from where you are to where you want to be,” and that administration, despite unification, remained about the same —even to the mountains of paper work.
The Bureau of Naval Personnel tossed in a week’s leave between Key West and Charleston, a week in which I thought—now comes the tough part, a supposition confirmed by my first look at the ship. Topsides, large yellow hemispheres covering the machine guns gave it the look of a city in Oz. The decks were lathered with a gummy preservative. Below them the machinery spaces, dusty and rusty, looked like a World War I four-stacker out of San Diego’s red-lead row twenty years after. The wardroom and forecastle interior were gutted to accomplish overdue alterations. The chief engineer greeted me saying, “You know they put this ‘can’ to bed because they couldn’t afford to give her an overhaul. Lord’s teeth, how she needs one!”
Need it or not, no overhaul was granted. “Make the ship mobile, habitable, and seaworthy; then shove off” was the word.
My executive officer, straight from an operating destroyer (bless the Bureau for that favor), appeared with an account of the ship’s company. “Three quarters of this crew are recalled Reserves, World War II vets five years distant from the Navy. Some of them, like our ex-Seabees, have never served at sea. Their rates don’t resemble their civilian jobs; a bank clerk takes over his World War II job of cook, an auto salesman is a quartermaster, a florist is a seaman. Worse, there remains no time to send these men to the fleet schools for refreshing their knowledge.” Later, I noticed one of my senior lieutenants, a Reserve officer with a chestful of World War II ribbons, intently staring at the ship’s mast.
“Something wrong up there?” I asked.
“No,” he replied “I’m just studying the navigational lights. I’ve never cruised when lights were burning.”
I shuddered. In peacetime, lights are to ships what traffic signals are to automobiles, and the mariner’s knowledge of them must be exact.
Even so, lack of training did not worry me excessively—civilians in uniform have always fought America’s wars. A deeper concern lay with the state of mind of these men. The nation was suspended in a sort of purgatory between war and peace. In Korea, Americans were shooting and being shot, but none of those bullets were reaching our shores. How did the Reserve sailor feel about severance from family and high-paying job? I found out quickly. He did not like it. But I also found out that he recognized the perilous threat to his country and would perform military service earnestly because he believed in its necessity. The handful of Regulars, many yanked from their first shore duty in years, exhibited the same patriotic philosophy. I watched the crew laboring long hours at disagreeable tasks and wished our potential enemies could witness this demonstration of the American’s determination to safeguard his way of life.
A handful of sailors did claim hardship at home and entreated for discharge. Several worried over ailing wives and expensive children. Others were marginal earners in civilian life who enlisted in the organized Reserve primarily for money. The Bureau discharged them and I called it good riddance.
Initially, the skipper who takes over a mothballer sets one foot ashore and one foot at sea. While the ship reactivates, readying materially and organizationally, he belongs to the reserve or “mothball” fleet. At the same time he receives supervision and advice from the active fleet. Within the Navy’s command pyramid the Waldron fitted into a “Sub-Group” of the “Charleston Reserve Group,” which in turn was a slice of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. The Sub-Group assumed responsibility for the physical rehabilitation. Teams armed with wrenches and oil cans revived machinery according to a prearranged schedule, while the Reserve Group supervised policy and controlled the purse strings. The active fleet was represented by an officer from the destroyer force and by the destroyer division and squadron commanders. Sandwiched into the picture was the local shipyard, hammering away at tasks beyond the capacity of the ship’s force or Reserve Fleet. In the Waldron still another organization, the Bureau of Ships, stepped forward to film an educational motion picture illustrating reactivation. However, the life of a movie queen was not all orchids since the camera took priority over reactivation.
Mechanical procedures filled a two-inch thick pamphlet—removing preservative, testing machinery, reinstalling equipage, painting, and titivating. Midway in this work came the commissioning ceremony and a chance to instill some pride and unity in the Waldron team. The ship owned an illustrious name and a fine war record, and in her rebirth the heritage must be revived. Washington supplied me with the address of Lieutenant Commander Waldron’s widow and I invited her to the commissioning. Though her presence would be a significant morale booster, no public funds were provided for a sponsor’s travel to a recommissioning. Fortunately, an anonymous benefactor supplied the rail fare.
During the brief commissioning ceremony, shipyard power chisels and air hammers stilled. After a few words from the Sub- Group Commander and a cheering message from Mrs. Waldron, I said, “I accept the ship.” There was a catch in my throat when the colors whipped aloft. Then while I described Lieutenant Commander Waldron’s flight to a hero’s death at Midway and the ship’s gallantry at Okinawa, I scrutinized the ranks of sailors. A month ago we had not known one another. Today we were little better than acquaintances. In the next few weeks we must fuse into a fighting team.
Dock trials—spinning the engines alongside a pier—shortly after commissioning, were trials indeed, the chief engineer averring that they were “ulcer breeders.” Stuck gages, weeping steam lines, dripping oil pipes, and smoking bearings were mended. Then came the sea trial when a tug shunted my destroyer into the Cooper River and pointed her down-stream. “All engines ahead ‘one-third’ ” and the shipyard fell astern. The engine-order telegraph clicked out “two- thirds,” then “standard” and, once beyond the sea buoy, “full” and “flank,” until the plume of foam astern looked like the feather in a saucy woman’s bonnet. “There’s life in the old gal,” a throttleman said.
The Waldron pranced back next day for the final primping to such accessories as the balky ship’s laundry, dilapidated from use and disuse. Install a new gear wheel and soon it would wear out-of-round from contact with an elderly companion. Time and again the shipyard diagnosed and healed ills only to have something else relapse—a variation on the one-hoss shay in that parts took turns in giving out.
About this time the squadron commander invited me to dinner in the flagship and over coffee expressed some views of a proper ship. “She must be clean and neat. The watch must pass the word in seamanlike fashion. Honors must be rendered correctly to visitors. The officers must dress in complete and immaculate uniform. Their staterooms must set an example of smartness—no clothes lying on chairs or bunks.”
I thanked him for the advice and rose to go.
“By the way,” he said, “Do you mind if I walk across the dock and take a turn around your ship?”
“Of course not, Commodore,” I said and crossed my fingers.
At the Waldron gangway the loudspeaker opened up, “Somebody by the name of Smith has gotta phone call”—about as seamanlike as a Kansas wheatfield. On the quarterdeck, three gongs sounded instead of the four required to announce the commodore’s arrival and the loudspeaker opened up again “ComDesDiv” it said, demoting the squadron commander one echelon. On board, we stepped gingerly over air hoses, pieces of machinery, litter left by yard workmen, and stores piled helter-skelter. The paintwork was blotched with the prints of grimy fingers. We entered the wardroom where the chief engineer was downing a cup of coffee before returning below to wrestle a recalcitrant pump. His dungarees were oil stained, his face a study in engine grease and perspiration. The commodore peeked into my cabin and saw clothing tossed in piles on chairs and bunk, left there while the yard ripped out cables back of my wardrobe.
“We still have some work to do,” I said timidly, feeling sorry for the commodore who had inherited not one, but eight, moth- ballers.
Normally a ship completing refit enjoys a readiness-for-sea period, a fortnight in which decks are uncluttered by yard workmen and no dashing hither and yon on the high seas is required. But in December, 1950, Korea loomed in heads and headlines and none could say but what every active ship might suddenly be called to stern duty. So minus the “readiness-for-sea,” the Waldron cast off her lines in Charleston just as the last yard workmen leaped to the dock. A cruise to Norfolk was enlivened by a leaky steam line which left the ship limping on one engine for anxious hours off blustery Hatteras.
A new phase in reactivation opened in Norfolk, Independent Ship Exercises, in which the vessel ran the gamut of general drills, shot her guns modestly, and tested and adjusted electronics systems. Here a- gain, urgency and surly seas abbreviated the exercises to less than a week.
One midwatch the general alarm bonged, the ship’s bell clamored, and the dread word “Fire” boomed over the loudspeaker. I scrambled from my bunk and dashed to the scene in pajamas. By the time I arrived the blaze was out, the sailors standing nearby with dripping hoses and extinguishers like veteran smoke-eaters. If these people are this good without training, I thought, there is nothing to worry about.
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, lies on the tropic 20th parallel but the Waldron arrived there in January to receive a shock like a plunge into the Arctic sea. For based at Guantanamo is a Fleet Training Group, a band who specializes in training a ship for combat. They send her to sea daily under the observation of “shipriders,” officers and petty officers who, like civilian industrial engineers, observe, advise, and criticize performance. I had expected a rough time under their tutelage, but the full impact of how far and fast we must go to fighting effectiveness was only brought home by seeing their long lists of deficiencies in organization, training, and material. Such crimes as improper Battle Bills, missing operating instructions, defunct machinery records; sailors untrained in radar, gunnery, or first aid; fouled-up telephone circuits, cranky steering gear, leaky hatches.
Shoot the guns, drop the depth charges, fire the torpedoes, steam in formation, fuel from the tanker, hoist the signal flags, scan the radar, simulate the engine breakdown, the bomb hit, the raging fire, the wounded man. And everywhere with his little notebook stood the shiprider peering, quizzing, telling. The Waldron’s damage control officer, a civilian a month ago with no training in this field, fumbled, fumed, and finally caught on as to how the ruptured bulkhead was to be shored or the emergency-power cable run. . Other departments similarly groped and grappled their way toward “smartness”—the Navy’s word for military efficiency.
One day a shiprider approached me with a fistful of listed mistakes. At the bottom of the last page was written, “This ship must learn to walk before it runs.”
Between exasperation and laughter, I spoke up. “Learn to walk? We’d like nothing better. But how can a vessel learn to walk when she’s had to gallop all her life to keep up?”
The “exec” placed no restrictions on Guantanamo liberty—no need for them. After a ten, twelve, or eighteen-hour day, few bluejackets retained energy or inclination to leave the ship. Besides there was always work to be done, preparing for the next day’s drills or keeping house—the ship never had stood still long enough to clear out the rust and rubbish of reactivation. One week-end the Waldron cruised over to Port au Prince, Haiti, for recreation and, as the recruiting posters advertise, “to see the world.” Exposure to a tropic sun and rum often inspires sailors to climb flag poles, battle taxi drivers, and whistle at girls, but in this port discipline was never breached— a tribute to the maturity and sobriety of the World War II veterans who comprised the Waldron crew.
As if simulated casualties weren’t enough, the lack of that needed yard overhaul manifested itself in all sorts of failures, a pump here, a blower there, a radio topside, a corroded pipe below.
“Captain, such and such a radar won’t work because we’re missing a condenser,” the electronics officer would say.
“Well, put in a new one,” I’d respond.
“We haven’t got a new one.”
“It’s on order, been on order for two months.”
I’d call in the Supply Officer. “How about this?”
“Sorry,” he’d explain, “but with so many ships recommissioning, spare parts are in high demand and short supply at the depots.”
“On order”—a horrendous phrase worse than the “Snafu” of the last two wars. At lunch if no dessert appeared somebody would certainly crack down on the mess treasurer saying, “I suppose dessert is on order.” An ensign chiding another about procrastination in marrying said, “Keep her on order and you will never have her.”
One day the flagship of His Britannic Majesty’s West Indian Fleet dropped anchor in Guantanamo and signalled that the grog was flowing. I dressed the gig in spit-and- polish and myself in whites (the capricious laundry in a good and capable mood that week). I briefed my boat crew in etiquette and sallied forth. The gig approached handsomely pulling alongside the accommodation ladder while overhead the British bosun’s pipe tweeted and sideboys and officer of the deck stood ready to welcome the visitor. My coxswain yanked the bell cord. Back her down! My engineer pulled frantically on the clutch. This sulky mechanism, long opposed to reactivation, refused to budge and instead of halting neatly alongside the ladder grating, the Waldron boat sailed on by under startled and curious British eyes. On the next try the gig made it and I climbed the ladder, acknowledged the side honors, and greeted my hosts solemnly as if Waldron boats always made dry runs before debarking. My face was the color of a nearby British Marine’s tunic.
Two circumstances kept me from insanity during the five weeks at Guantanamo. The first was the wholesome attitude of the crew who worked, learned, and struggled with spirit and diligence and whose mechanical ingenuity and rapid rebound from discouraging mishaps was a constant marvel. The second was the improvement in ability; imperceptibly at the start, then rapidly the ship rose to fighting posture. At last came the graduation exams, an all-out battle problem to measure the ship against her sisters who had never been out of commission.
The “battle won,” I doubled Windward Point and set course for Norfolk confident that the ship was now a fighter and her crew a team. But my dreams of repose were scuttled when the Waldron nuzzled into a berth at Norfolk’s Sewells Point and word came down from on high that the Admiral would inspect the Waldron formally. Consternation reigned particularly as the Admiral would first inspect a ship commissioned new at the end of the War and active ever since. How would a poor old mothballer stack up in such company. The men broke out swabs, chippers, wire brushes, paint pots, and brightwork polish and turned to while the officers prowled into bilges, storerooms, and cubbyholes, spying for dirt and disorder. The inspection required an honor guard adorned with rifles and leggings. Although the Navy issues dun-brown leggings to sailors, we were told that white leggings were in fashion. The serious task of finding the leggings fell naturally to the Captain. I combed Norfolk. A local firm rich in World War II surplus goods said, yes, they could supply us at five dollars a pair, the money to come from the crew’s recreation fund. I rejected the offer without consulting the crew whose ideas of recreation certainly did not include leggings. I tried the military police; no luck. I appealed to other ships, most of whom had not heard of the new vogue and at once became frenzied competitors in the legging market. Somebody suggested we paint the leggings white. An officer volunteered to fly to Annapolis and commandeer midshipmen’s white leggings. The crisis mounted until at last with the courage borne of desperation I asked help from the authorities who had suggested the white leggings originally. That settled it. The Waldron guard could wear brown leggings. (Lest the Navy be accused of fiddling while Korea burns, be it said that white leggings do add dash and that any ship’s guard may one day be called to honor and impress an Oriental potentate or European diplomat.)
On inspection morning I dashed through the ship for a last look-see, the while feeling that what had not been done would not be done at this late hour. In the officers’ country forward I came on a bulkhead disfigured by a huge scar where paint had been flaked off by the shock of gunfire.
I turned to the mess treasurer. “You were told to repaint this.”
“Yes,” he explained, “but it would take a Michaelangelo to match that moss- green color.”
“We can’t leave it that way,” I insisted, “Bring down that large map of Korea and paste it over the bare spot. Mark the battle situation and it will also show the Admiral that the officers are interested in current events.” I scolded him, “After all, you must realize that a sense of humor is indispensable to reactivation.”
In a living compartment I found several disreputable looking laundry bags. “Get rid of them,” I ordered.
An hour later the Admiral was piped on board and commenced his tour through the ranks. He did not notice the leggings but paused briefly by the gray-haired postmaster. “Old timer?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” the postmaster replied—old enough to fight in World War I, he could have added. A ship- fitter nearby if asked by the Admiral would have admitted to being a grandfather. The ribbons on blouses added up to a compendium of World War II from all seas and many ships. “Boots” were curiosities.
The Admiral descended the forward ladder into chiefs’ quarters and gradually worked aft to officers’ country. I breathed easier when I saw the map in place over the bare bulkhead; then did a double take for the map was not of Korea but of Montana. I suspected that a closer look would show a diagram of Custer’s Last Stand. The mess treasurer innocently whispered that Korea would not fit over the scar.
The Korean crisis passed and the Admiral moved on to the washroom which in any ship is notoriously difficult to clean. The seaman in charge sounded off, “Good morning, Admiral. After washroom ready for inspection, sir.” The Admiral’s eyes searched the washroom critically. “Nice job, son,” he said. In the living compartment the offensive laundry bags were nowhere to be seen —I remembered sighting some familiar and disreputable canvas on the fantail of the destroyer nested alongside. When the Admiral descended into a fireroom which gleamed like a Dutch kitchen, I relaxed, thinking how different it was from the dingy hole of two months ago.
A week later the Waldron cruised south to Charleston and tied up for that long awaited overhaul. With repairs, postwar alterations, and new equipment, the ship has at last completed the cycle of reactivation, a cycle which has cost the tax payer but a fraction of the money and the Navy but a fraction of the time required to build a new destroyer.
Thus the tale of one “mothballer’s” adventures, but it might be the story of any; the resulting man-of-war is a product of the energy of the Reserve Fleet, Shipyard, Fleet Training Unit, and sailors afloat from admiral to seaman.
The future offers possible difficulty. Never before in our history has one generation been called twice to the colors. Today the ship’s company serves with a will which, if war broke tomorrow, would jell solidly for the duration. Suppose, however, as General Marshall recently speculated, that international tension continues indefinitely. With no prospect of civilian life, spirits would sag for the engineman with the 150-acre farm in Mississippi, the musician with the promising orchestral career in New York, the barber with the little shop in Pennsylvania. The solution lies partly with the citizen at home whose own patriotic sacrifice and appreciation of the military man’s contribution will bolster service morale but whose greed and indifference will foster discontent. The solution also rests with the long-term mobilization policy. If the cold war remains indefinitely at present temperature, a constant influx of recruits will assure an eventual release for World War II veterans whose lives have been twice disrupted. Just such a plan is presently being implemented.
Recently a friend asked whether I could endure again the throes of reactivation. I replied, “It’s like a parachute jump; I’m glad to have had it but not too sure I’d like it again. However, if anybody offered me the choice of another mothballer or an active ship with the Battle-Efficiency Trophy, I’d take the mothballer—first as a challenge, second because she’s not adopted from somebody else but is entirely the recommissioning crew’s baby to rear and cherish. Besides there’s no direction a mothballer can go except ahead.”