Generations of junior officers have known that there is only one fate worse than being in the duty section on New Year's Eve, and that is drawing the mid watch—the first watch of the New Year. Bad enough, when the ship is in port to forego a big time ashore; worse still to stand chilled to the bone on a deserted quarterdeck and glumly greet the still celebrating shipmates who manage to make it back before dawn.
And so grew up the custom of logging the first watch of the New Year in verse, providing some diversion for the wretched watch officer, and amusement for his shipmates the next day. The unwritten rules for this game have always required that even though in verse, the log be complete, containing all of the information normally found in every 0000-0400 watch. The poetic license invoked in rhyming the berth and anchor bearings or course and speed, boilers in use, ships present, wind, weather, and tide has often been fearful and wondrous to behold. Yet, as always in folk songs and stories, there is a message expressing the mood of the times and the personality of the author.
The quiet and well ordered Twenties are reflected in the peaceful log entries of that period, in which it is evident that the watch officer had little more on his mind than his bad luck at having the deck and the discomfort of the night. In those days a large part of the Fleet regarded San Pedro, California, as home, and much of the discomfort there came from the heavy swell that frequently rolled the battleship boat booms under before the days of the Long Beach breakwater. For example, in the USS Idaho in 1926, Ensign E. V. Dockweiler noted:
"We are anchored in Pedro Harbor
Tho there isn't much of a lee,
And why they call it a harbor
Is something I never could see!"
Then he apparently had some qualms about getting his skipper to sign the log and added:
"That's all the dope this morning,
Except just between us two
If the Captain ever sees this log,
My Gawd, what will he do."
This afterthought might well have been suggested by Lieutenant (jg) D. V. Gallery who had the four to eight. In any case, boldly written in pen above his signature are Captain A. St. Clair Smith's comments: "The Captain is glad to see that the old Navy custom of writing up the first watch of the year in rhyme is known to the younger members of the Service. The watch stands as written." This obviously encouraged the JO Mess, because a year later the Idaho was back in Long Beach and Ensign F. N. Kivette, still not impressed with the berth assignment, wrote,
"Buried in berth B-9
The center anchor lay;
It's called San Pedro Harbor
Though we're most to 'Frisco Bay."
After struggling with a long list of ships present which stubbornly fouled up the meter, Ensign Kivette got some help with the last verse:
"To cook our chow and give us heat
Steams boiler Number Nine;
From ten days leave came Ensign Clark
To finish this damned rhyme."
The USS Indianapolis ten years later enjoyed New Year's day in San Pedro, but Ensign C. T. Doss was unenthusiastic:
"It's the twelve to four and pretty cold,
In berth C-B our hook keeps hold;
What if we are in dear Long Beach,
New Year's cheer is out of reach."
However, on January 1, 1940, the Indianapolis was comfortably settled on the keel blocks in dry dock at Mare Island, and after noting this fact Ensign F. M. Culpepper, unconcerned with weather, boating and anchor bearings, needed only to report that:
"We get our fresh and flushing water
Right off the dock just like we oughter."
Frequently the chief concern of the watch was the sheer discomfort of a long four hours in the middle of a freezing cold night, exposed to a driving rain on the open quarterdeck. This was well expressed by Ensign M. Hall, Je, in the USS Oklahoma, who after listing the ships present, wrote:
"All face the fresh southeaster gale
That drives the wave tops up the shale
While rainsqualls sweep the weatherdecks,
Urging water down the watches' necks."
Sometimes though, in other parts of the world it wasn't so bad. The famous old transport, the USS Chaumont, was,
"Steaming alone on the open sea
En route San Diego to Balboa, C.Z.
The weather is clear and the starlight's bright,
The breeze from the north is steady and light."
Some ships were very particular about listing all the others present The USS Guam was in the Philadelphia Navy yard in 19,15 when Lieutenant A. T. Emerson wrote in his log:
"The French sub Casablanca and the namesake of the Yard,
The latter vessel mentioned has the military…guard.
The Atlanta and…Savannah we really must include,
Also…yard and district craft; but wait we can't be rude
And forget the mighty warship of our allies 'cross the sea,
HMS Lord Nelson sits in Drydock No.3."
In the Atlantic, as World War II approached, the USS Kane was doing her part Lieutenant (jg) J. C. Ford spoke for all the four-piper destroyer sailors of that difficult time when he logged:
"As usual we're out to sea
With no land near to form a lee,
We once were young—we'll soon be old
On this neutrality patrol
The North Atlantic's rough as heck
We small ships get it in the neck.
The wind's northwest—an awful roar,
The mercury’s down and going lower."
and after noting course, speed, and boilers, he philosophized:
"A few more days and port we'll log
If we don't get held up by fog
And then we all will go ashore
'To rest up for patrol some more.
So Happy New Year all you lugs,
You alcoholic jitter bugs;
Just keep in mind that we feel swell
While your heads ache to heat all hell!"
And another destroyer sailor, Ensign L. H. Carlson in the USS Nelson, flagship of Captain A. C. Murdaugh, Commander Destroyer Squadron 17, so near and yet so far from New York city, faithfully recorded:
"We anchored out in Gravesend Bay
The air is cold, the night is gray.
CDS 17 lies in his sack,
Weary and tired but glad to be back;
When the colors go up at break of day
He'll probably still he SOPA…
Our Nellies' head is strong and true (320°)
A Happy New Year from me to you."
The impact of the war shows through the light-hearted efforts to liven up the first watch. The USS Marhlehead, for example, on New Year's day in 1940 was on the China Station, and Lieutenant (jg) K. B. Smith got off a carefree verse:
"Neither of our chains are under hack,
Both being out with plenty of slack;
But let the temperature go way below
Let the rains come and the typhoon blow;
For what care we if we could only be
Forever in the Whangpoo, many miles from sea."
This of course was not to be, as we all now know. A year later she was peacefully enjoying New Year's in Manila Bay, and Ensign R. E. Fahnestock entered philosophically:
"Yet in Manila Bay in berth Cast-8
We seem to be anchored in a world without hate;
The night filled with sound but yet without strife,
On Blackhawk and Pacos and Asheville nearby
Are officers with the duty even as I;
They're thinking as we are of dancing and beer,
And muttering gloomily, Happy New Year."
Less than a year later, the war in the Pacific began, and on January 1, 1942, Lieutenant Commander N. B. Van Bergen entered in the log:
"Steaming darkened in the Timor Sea,
With all eyes peeled for the Japanese;
At one-oh-five the rains began,
The sleepers grabbed their beds and ran,
And the ship abandoned the zig-zag plan."
The ship's company of the Marblehead could not, of course, foresee the entry that Van Bergen would place over his signature only a month later:
"4 February 1942: 1027 Received two direct bomb hits—and one near miss exploded underwater close aboard—ship settling down by the head."
And again on the next day:
"Steering with the engines—continuous pumping and bailing with buckel brigades necessary throughout the night and ensuing day."
The Marblehead's recovery from this nearly mortal battle damage and her return under jury rig to the United States, halfway around the world, provided one of the most inspiring stories of the war. Two years later the Marblehead, back in commission, logged the first watch of 1944 as Lieutenant R. B. G. Creecy spoke of the ship:
"Oh, we sail the South Atlantic
Where the Fourth Fled rules supreme
But it's not so damned romantic
As some would have it seem,
We welcome in a New Year
That we hope will end the war;
So here's to all hands, 'Good Cheer'
For nineteen forty-four."
During the war our far deployed ships came into port whenever they could for New Year's day, but often these were not places which the ship's company would regard as good liberty ports. The Detroit put on a cheerful front in Iliuliuk Bay, Unalaska Island, with Lieutenant D. C. Goodrich saying:
"So out went the old and in carne the new
And we stood and froze as we always do;
And we'll pray for a fight and the end of the war,
As we usher in nineteen forty-four."
Gloom pervaded the watch of the USS Quincy even though they were lucky enough to be in New York City. For anyone with memories of a wet winter's night on a big city waterfront, Lieutenant (jg) A. E. Hohn's words carry a vivid picture:
"The great cruiser Quincy, nine lines to her side
Lies quietly sleeping and riding the tide;
The rain drizzles mournfully, the hour black and late,
To port looms the vast bulk of Pier 88."
More often than not the ships were underway on New Year's eve during the war years, and the busy at-sea watch kept things in a more cheerful mood. In the USS Alabama, a cheerful spirit prevailed as Lieutenant E. R. Blair, Jr., wrote up his watch in a very thorough fashion:
"In a holiday mood on the tropic sea
We're steaming for Pearl in thirty-point-three;
The ships are disposed in formation three Love.
Appropriate surely a full moon's above.
Both axis and course are nought-seven-seven
The zigzag's two-five, not a watchstander's heaven—
Yoke's the condition in doors and hatches
And III the gun watch dozing in snatches;
Our protection we hope from a Nip submarine,
Lies in Oakland, Brown, and Cowell in a forward bent screen."
Then with a thought for the reviewing authority in Washington, perhaps to insure the log wouldn't bounce:
"Happy New Year, gentle reader,
At your desk in the Bureau
From your colleagues who've fought
In Nauro and Majuro."
A certain amount of resignation to a sober New Year's eve was clearly foremost in the mind of Lieutenant R. F. Harrison underway in the USS Ticonderoga, when he wrote:
"With little hilarity and practically no jive
We here on the bridge ushered in '45;
No wine, no women, no night club, no song,
Nothing but water as we go along."
A typical mixture of humor and fighting spirit shines through many of the logs of the war days. The USS South Dakota was underway on January 1,1945, and Lieutenant J. C. Hill, II, had the mid watch. He paid tribute to the engineers as follows:
"At forty after one o'clock
The engineers made known
Their need to start the New Year clean
And so the tubes were blown."
And typical of the fighting pitch of the task force:
"Came Admiral Halsey on the air
His words they rang out crying
The best of everything to come
And keep the bastards dying."
Inevitably the log must end and be signed. Finding a suitable graceful phrase must have taken much consultation between the OOD, the quartermaster, bosun's mate, and messenger of the watch over countless cups of coffee. The agony of this final composition might be inferred from Lieutenant (jg) W. H. Shea's entry in the log of the USS Trever:
"At four o'clock on this mid watch
I close the log and sign;
And hope that in the years to come
Others will write it—not I."
The ending, of course, was always a good place to get in the season's greetings. Lieutenant R. P. Axten wrote in the log of the USS Texas, in 1944:
"Our Captain has wished us the best of the Season
A sentiment all hands return with good reason;
There's no dancing, imbibing, or revelry here,
We're right on the job but we're all of good cheer,
And we join with our loved ones in a prayer sincere
For a happy, successful, victorious New Year."
Sometimes the ending could be direct and businesslike while others managed to include even their signatures as in this record from the USS Chaumont:
"The weather is clear and the starlight is bright
The breeze from the north is steady and light;
Bringing the year in with a midwatch may rankle,
But Happy New Year says
S. R. Frankel (Lt. (jg) USN)"
And again, the JO's qualms about the Old Man's reaction on seeing the sacrosanct log treated in such informal fashion was expressed neatly by Lieutenant (jg) A. W. Dinwiddie in the USS Tuscaloosa:
"And so, a Happy New Year All,
No more we hear the whistle,
But if its noise reached Washington,
I doubt if ever this'll."
Having survived the long midwatch and struggled through his log, Ensign D. Kraushaar in the USS Watts spoke for generations of watch standers, and perhaps unwittingly also for his friends just returning from all night revelry, when he closed his log by saying:
"But with license poetically I'll say here
I'm grateful New Year's comes but once a year!"
A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy in the Class of 1938, Captain McNitt was Engineer Officer in the USS Rhind (DD-404), Executive Officer of the USS Barb (SS-220), and CO of the USS Taylor (DDE-468). Since World War II he has been GunneryOfficer, USS Midway (CVB-41), Naval Assistant to Technical Director, Naval Ordnance Laboratory, Assistant Director, Research and Development Division, Bureau of Ordnance, and is a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He is now Commander, Destroyer Division 322.