USS Denebola, AD-12
An Enlisted Man's Life aboard her in WW2
By Stephen Sherman, April, 2010. Updated February 16, 2012.
These are a few short essays about life aboard the U.S.S. DENEBOLA AD-12, which was based in Casco Bay, near Portland, Maine. The Denny was a destroyer tender, that is, a ship that serviced and repaired destroyers at sea. For most of us, our new life started at, of all places, the old Portland railroad station.
Since Portland is in the northeast part of the country, practically all of us arrived there from basic training (boot camp) on the old Boston & Maine Railroad. Men serving on the Denebola came from all parts of the country. A U.S. Navy van took us through downtown Portland to the Navy pier. This trip, of about three miles afforded us our first impressions of Portland. Our lives in the deep water navy had begun.
Everything here will be written as though any man on the ship might have written it. Of course we did not all share the same incidents, but life for all of us was more or less the same.
Upon arriving at the navy pier, a large and cavernous former freight shed, we were at once taken by the ambiance of the waterfront: the salt air, the water lapping at the pilings, the combined smells of fish and oakum, and the ever-present screech of the sea gulls. It made some of us recall John Masefield's poem, Sea Fever. It was a great and appropriate way to start our tour of duty in the U.S.Navy.
USS North Haven
We were a small draft, only seven of us all destined for the receiving station on Long Island in Casco Bay. By this time we had opened our sealed orders (against regulations) so we knew our ultimate assignments. One man of us had served a hitch in the navy before the war. His orders were to the U.S.S. North Haven. He was convinced that because of prior service he would get a good assignment, most likely a capital ship. That is, a Cruiser, Battleship, Aircraft Carrier, etc. None of us knew that such ships were not part of the regular scene in Casco Bay. After we were comfortably ensconced in a forty foot motor launch and had started our first seafaring adventure, destination; receiving station, and were rounding the end of the pier, there tied up to the pier was an aged, small wooden ferry boat, weatherbeaten and in need of paint whose hail board proclaimed it to be the 'North Haven." At least three of us hollered in unison "Hey, Barnet, there's your ship", And it was. It turned out to be one of the former commuter boats that ferried people and freight to the islands of the bay.
It was not nice of us to steal a moment of amusement from poor Barnet's disappointment, but that sort of thing was part of life in the Navy.
The Old Salt
We arrived at the receiving station where an elderly navy retread greeted us on the dock. He was a chief petty officer of about fifty years old and had come to take charge of us. Obviously he had volunteered for limited wartime service. He was gnarled and salty in appearance and reckless and loud of voice. After a noisy but good natured harangue about do's and don'ts he indicated his readiness to escort us to our barracks,with this admonition."Aw'right youse guys, pick up your gear and folley Christ," as he started up the dock.
This nearly turned Barnet, the former navy man, inside-out with combined delight and laughter, obviated with a mighty slap of the knees while asserting, "This is the Navy alright!" Plain to be seen, that performance did much to water down his disappointment about his assignment to the North Haven. Our time at the receiving station turned out to be a kind of vacation. We were not required to do anything other than hang around the barracks, eat, sleep and wait. There was no attempt to find work for us, which would have helped to cut down on the boredom, about ten days worth. The ship was in plain sight and we could hear the shrill call of the boats'ns pipe and it made us be glad when in two weeks or so we got the word. "be prepared to go aboard the Denebola tomorrow."
This essay starts at the head of the Denebola's after gangway. The word "after" in this case indicates the gangway toward the stern of the ship. The word gangway is nautical language for a stairway on the outside of the ship between the surface of the water and the main deck. There is another gangway near the bow of the ship called the forward gangway. This is the one used by the officers that come and go from the ship. This separation is only a matter of practical considerations. When we report for duty and we reach the main deck we are greeted by the officer of the deck. Navy protocol says that any person, upon reaching the main deck, first will salute the colors. The colors (the stars and stripes) are displayed at the stern.
Having done that we say our name and rating and "reporting for duty sir" and the O.D. takes the papers. After examining the papers the O.D. calls the messenger and instructs him to "take this man to the repair office." Here the Yeoman processes the paperwork and then tells the messenger to take the man to proper chief petty officer. The man's naval career has begun.
When I reported to the 8th division machine shop I was fortunate indeed as there were two friendly men in a position to see me arrive with my sea-bag. They greeted me cordially and offered to help me with my "gear" and to show me where the locker room was and to help me to store my belongings in the locker. In addition to this they took steps to put me at ease by telling me not be be concerned or apprehensive about getting along with my new shipmates because they were all friendly and good natured. And that proved to be the case. Life on the Denny was good.
The next subject my two new friends explained to me was the sleeping arrangements. It was a relief to know that the 8th division men did not sleep on typical stacked bunks, but on cots that we set up and take down daily. It was good news because the thought of being in the cramped sleeping quarters that are usually the style on navy ships really had me troubled.
This arrangement was also in place in the 7th division electric shop to which I transfered after a year or so in the 8th division. I did not join that group until the war was almost over. We were in Eniwetok, in the Marshall Islands at that time. Indeed that was where we were when the war was declared over. Mixed emotions prevailed at that time. We were all ecstatic when that news broke. But what a place to be at a time like that. It was only about eight degrees north of the Equator and eight or ten degrees west of the International dateline which is 180 degrees east or west of Greenwich (England). We were a long way from home then. Especially for a ship that "can't go anywhere because she's stuck on a mountain of coffee grounds." That was the answer I got when, shortly after going aboard I asked a man "Does this ship ever go anywhere?"
The old Denny did a lot of traveling in 1944 and 1945. After spending three years in Casco Bay she went on her first extended cruise as a Destroyer Tender, to the Mediterranean theater. It was far more eventful than the trip to Eniwetok but we spent much less time on the high seas.
The Panama Canal
The high point of the Pacific cruise was the trip through the Panama Canal. At this point I should say something favorable about our Captain, J.P. Curtis. While he ran a reasonably taut ship, he was careful not to overdo it. By this it is meant that, in general he did not make things difficult for the crew, such as requiring all hands to remain in their quarters while transiting the canal. Some captains would do that. As a result most of us had a splendid view of the entire procedure and it was extremely interesting. We left the Cristobal (Atlantic) end early in the day and it was early evening before we were in the Pacific ocean. Shortly after entering the first lock the ship entered Gatun lake, a large fresh water lake that remains fresh.
An interesting fact is that there is a difference of approximately four feet in the mean levels of the two oceans. To transit the Panama canal in broad daylight is indeed a memorable experience.
It was a long trip to Eniwetok. The total travel time must have been more a month or more because it took twenty one days to come back from Eniwetok to San Diego. That was a nice trip. The war was over, the weather was fine, the Pacific ocean was calm and everything was "rest and relaxation." You've no doubt read "The Rime (sic) of The Ancient Mariner. "- and every day for food or play the albatross came to the mariner's hollow." Well we were privileged to have an Albatross with us for many days. And those days were beautiful day in and day out, and the presence of the Albatross with it's constant gliding,and swooping provided no end of entertainment.
We had a ship-mate that was different from the rest of us because he always seemed happy no matter what. He had a "loud smile",(to coin a phrase). Whenever approached he would flash his receptive and positive grin. Some people might call him simple minded, but it was something better than that, much better, but I don't know what. Anyway, one day while the weather was gorgeous, I came upon Charlie standing there on the main deck transfixed as he watched the Albatross putting on it's show. I eased up and alongside of him and quietly said--- " I'll bet you wish you were that bird, huh Charlie?" All aglow, he turned to me and said with such feeling, "YEAAHH." I replied, "So do I" To my knowledge no one ever picked on him nor taunted him. To my mind this says something good about the crew of AD-12.
Mess Hall Food
Nearest and dearest to our hearts of course is the important question of how well or how poorly did we eat. Next of interest would be the conditions under which we dined, then comes the matter of; is it good for us, is it nourishing? Let's take a look at these questions. First in a kind of reverse order is that of nourishment. It is fair to say the Navy did not provide anything for the mess tables that was less than nourishing.
We ate very well on the Denny. Everything tasted as it should and there was always plenty of it. Now let's try to recall some of the regular staples that appeared on the table when we were in Portland. There was not a lot of variety at breakfast time and it always seemed to be the least interesting. One item that was most always well received was a ground beef mixture of meat onion and gravy that was ladled over piece of toast. Oatmeal showed up often as were eggs prepared variously from day to day. Canned fruit was a regular as were grapefruit halves. The "noon meal" as it was called, was the most substantial. The center piece was usually well and tastefully prepared beef, pork, fish or poultry. Plenty of bread, butter and milk or coffee was regular accompaniment.
One of the delights that are worth recalling are the terrific pies the bakers used to make using canned fruit such as peaches, pears, and apples. Often a mix of these with maybe some pineapple thrown in. There never seemed to be enough for a second helping, for everybody, that is, One of the regular items that always made a hit was the generous size hunks of deep fried haddock or sometimes cod. It whets my appetite to be writing this stuff! So you see, the men of the U.S.S.Denebola were well fed. Some were fat and happy and all were well nourished. There were very few complaints at least until we had been at sea or away from the source of replenishment for a long time. This happened during our stay at Eniwetok. That place was a long way from everywhere,and this meant that the commissary dept. had to fall back on dehydrated products. That kind of fare was not very tasty. The up side of it was that it did not last very long. A few weeks maybe.
There is at least one other element of this whole dining scene that has not been mentioned and that is Decorum. Call it manners, call it behavior or call it order. By any name it must be said that on the Denny it was very good. At each table there sat ten or twelve men. As a rule the same group of guys occupied the same table day in and day out. One of them functioned as "Mess Captain." He was elected or appointed by acclaim and served the very worthwhile purpose of keeping order.
Ordinarily the conduct at the mess tables was orderly. Usually there would be quiet discussion between all those at the table who wished to participate. Once in awhile things would get out of hand and belligerency would set in. When this happened the mess captain would call for order. Being the highest rank at the table his commands would have to be obeyed. Everything would quiet down and sociability would again prevail.
There is something within this category that is interesting as well as amusing and should be brought out. That is coffee! Yes! Coffee: it is always available at all times in all compartments. There is little that can interfere with the flow of nice hot coffee. The same goes for it's naval companion, evaporated milk. This seemingly frivolous yet universal practice is what gave rise to the gag about the mountain of coffee grounds and the often used statement that "the navy would run out of ammunition before it would coffee."
A few words now about the mess hall itself, its location and prevailing conditions. It was forward and directly under #1 cargo hatch on the second deck. To have placed it under the cargo hatch was good planning because in good weather the hatch would be open, as would the hatchways in the side of the ship where the mess hall was located. These things helped make "chow time" a pleasant experience on the old Denny.
There is bound to be some curiosity about what we had to do upon entering the mess hall and in what degree of readiness were the tables as we arrived. The tables were completely set up with all necessary utensils by the mess cooks. Thus we only had to sit down and start eating. Grace was said only at tables where someone had expressed the desire and the others assented.
Inevitably this raises the question: who are the mess cooks?" They are the non-rated men whose duties (menial at first) include three months of assisting the cooks and bakers in the galley and setting the tables for the crew. They also have other duties of cleaning and polishing, stacking utensils and stocking supplies. It is rugged duty and a long days work. As if all of that is not enough, they must also clean up the tables and the mess hall in general. On the upside, the mess cooks were afforded a rest period after the noon meal clean- up. By that time they had earned it and certainly needed it.
(Apparently there is a break in the manuscript. - ed.)
Since we were in Hawaii for a short time we felt we were lucky to have even one all day liberty. It is surprising how much sightseeing can be done in so short a time. During the tour of the island we stopped to visit the very formally landscaped grounds of the Mormon Temple. It is a point of interest and worth seeing, but I don't remember much about the place. I have some snapshots that we purchased there and I guess if it were not for those it would have been forgotten.
The memory is a funny thing: Mine proved quite effective with something much more prosaic than the Mormon place, and that was two types of fruit that are native to Hawaii but not North America: Papayas and Mangos. They are much more delicious there than around here because they are tree ripened there. For my taste the Papayas are the best. They are more melon like and Mangos are more citrus like. When we tried eating the Papayas while standing up they were so juicy and slippery that the juice ran down our hands and arms and so proved to be quite a challenge. But they were good 1 Having what seemed to me a trace of pine flavor, or I guess what pine smells like. They do not resemble any other fruit that we know of. Of course they can be purchased around here now and so can Mangos, but at that time neither was available here. The Mangos had a tough green skin that had to be peeled something like an Orange. But they had a property that is absent in an orange, and that is a stringy pulp that appeared to be attached to the skin making them nearly impossible to peel. Most of us agreed that Papayas were worth the trouble and Mangos were not.
Curiously, we didn't have any contact with pineapples. Due to the time limitation we missed out on the tour of a pineapple packing plant. At the time we heard that the water fountains in the Dole plant gave Pineapple juice instead of water, or maybe it was a choice. Most of us did a little shopping in Honolulu but the memory is very limited on that. I bought one of those decals that displays Hawaii's coat of arms underneath the inevitable word, ALOHA. What else! I wonder if anybody on this side of the ocean knows what it means. I guess it's more like welcome that goodbye because there is a tower very visible to incoming ships at the entrance to Pearl.
I still have the decal in my photo album of my travels on the Denebola.
There are always people that are more easily remembered than others. That is usually because of memorable incidents we shared rather than the people themselves. Maybe it is because of out of the ordinary traits or behavior. The following are in one or the other of those categories. Note that we have already covered Capt. Curtis, Commander Bagshaw, and "Boats" Daugherty.
One noteworthy officer, Lt. Matecki got nicknamed "the eye doctor" because of his special and effective way with one enlisted man on the 8 to 12 watch (night) while somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean. The man had been on watch for maybe a few minutes and Lt. Matecki came out of the pilot house and inquired: "See anything sailor?" "No sir," came the reply. This was repeated twice again with the same reply. The third time things were different. Lt. Matecki raised his voice noticeably to say, in a most convincing manner, "SAILOR, IF YOU DON'T FIND A LIGHT OUT THERE INSIDE OF THREE MINUTES YOU'LL BE ON THE 12 to 4 WATCH FOR A MONTH." (That's midnight 'til 4 a.m., and that's not good!) That sailor (yours truly) found a light on the horizon at 345 degrees in a lot less than three minutes. Thus, LT. Matecki became known as the eye doctor, even though he was Gunnery officer.
My high favorite among the officers was LT. Commander Robert B. Trainer. Also, I regard this to be my best story to come out of my Navy days. Central to the story is the long delay in my promotion to Machinists Mate 2nd Class. Having no luck at all in finding out why from my division officer, I was becoming desperate. This had gone along for three months and by then the war was winding down and I wanted one more promotion before it was over.
I decided to "go for broke" and take the matter to the executive officer. This was Lt. Cmdr. Trainer, a young man not much over my age. Somehow I was quite certain this action would produce results, which it did. I felt that I was on firm ground because I had, long before this matter, observed, or thought I had, that Mr. Trainer was a cut above the other officers in manners, refinement and all-around decorum. He had a superior appearance. So one day while on duty in the same general area as Mr. Trainer, I "button-holed" him and asked to have a word with him. This he readily granted, and not some other time but right there and then. I laid before him the whole story of my troubles with my division officer, Mr. Crepeau.
The most memorable detail of the meeting is HOW CLOSELY HE LISTENED to my recitation. Not once did he interrupt or show any inclination to derail my thoughts. At the conclusion he simply said "I'll look into it." And look into it he did, because my division officer was enraged. How the fur did fly!
(Lieutenant Commander Robert B. Trainer certainly was a fine man. In my Dad's correspondence is a hand-written letter from Mr. Trainer, dated 1990, in which he wrote, "Dear Mr. Sherman, I was most impressed, and I must say, touched, to have heard from you after 45 years. I do, of course, remember the incident of your troubles with Crepeau and was glad to have been of help in straightening them out How long ago it seems now." By this gracious reply, 45 years after the events!, I can see that my Dad's high estimation of Mr. Trainer's character was entirely accurate.)
THE SHAFT ALLEY
The shaft alley was, judging from the scuttlebutt, a place worth seeing but to which nobody wanted to go.
The shaft is the ship's propeller shaft and the alley is the alleyway through which the shaft passes. It is a miserable place; cold, damp, noisy, poorly lighted, and is found in the very bowels of the ship, Any ship! Therefore it was a fitting place for my contact with Mr. Crepeau, 8th division officer. On the Denny the division officers were warrant officers, the lowest officer rank; only semi-commissioned. The day following my talk with Mr.Trainer word reached me that Crepeau was on duty in the shaft alley (a suitable place for him and his talents) and wanted to see me "on the double."
Needless to say, I knew what was in store for me, yet I had no idea that he was going to turn in such a splendid performance by providing me with the most delightful and cherished memory of my Naval career.
As I approached, he became so uncontrollable and vulgar that fortunately I was speechless. Under such circumstances one must display control, respect, and subservience for a superior officer. In this case the officer was superior only in theory. It seemed that he was trying to break me with the sheer weight of his expletives and vulgarity. This was not possible of course since all I had to do was keep quiet, and that was easy. It also seemed that I was progressively getting the best of him just by being patient, and that he was wearing himself out.
Sure enough! Apparently he had assigned me to shore patrol duty in Portland (a much coveted assignment) as a kind of consolation prize for not getting the advancement I had earned. As a final salvo he tried to shoot me with this gem of eloquence, "You wuzn't worried about no rate when ya' wuz sittin on ya dead ass over in Portland on shore patrol." Instantly I knew I had won.
With that he sort of threw in the towel and dismissed me with this admonition, "Now get the hell up the ladder before ya get in trouble." That pair of quotes are the only specific things that I clearly remember him saying and I knew that I had a story to tell for the rest of my life. And so it was, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that fine day in the shaft alley.
Not only did I get the advancement I had earned, but also was transferred (shanghaied) from the 8th to the 7th division, where I would work with a fine group that included Dick Patrick. A decided improvement for me.
THE BOS'N MATE OF THE WATCH
What did he do ?
He did many things, but that which he did on a daily basis and that affected all hands was, "pass the word." By now every one has seen movies or documentaries on TV wherein is heard, even if not seen, the bos'n passing the word. Preceded by a shrill whistle comes the words "NOW HEAR THIS." Following comes the "word", "All division mail P.O.s (petty officers) lay up to the post office and draw your mail." That was always what we wanted to hear. It was not always said that way, though.
Most of the time the message was preceded only by "Now," As in, "Now all men going on the stores working party lay aft to the after gangway." We didn't always want to hear that.
Sometime the "word" had an element of humor: "Now the man with the keys to the battery locker, return them to the master-at-arms shack." Someone had put the keys in his pocket and forgot them. Once in awhile a real gaffe would be made that would set all hands to laughing. " ----- lay up to the post office and mail your draws."
Now about that word "lay"; it is navy jargon for "go to" or, "come to" and is followed by a direction; up, down, fore, aft. It's use is limited to the ship. He wouldn't say lay over to the receiving station, or to Portland. At least he'd better not.
Bos'n is a contraction of the word Boatswain and is certainly one of the oldest designations in the navy, going back to the early days of the British Navy. Many of our traditions are hold overs from centuries ago.
The use of the Bos'n pipe (sometimes called a call) is such a tradition. It serves no real purpose now. It's use came into being long ago in the days of sailing ships and fierce storms. A way was needed to communicate during such storms so the shrill call of the pipe was used to send signals that could heard above the noise of the storm. It does not sound very effective though does it. The pipes used in the navy were made of sterling silver.
They produced only one note, so the variation in pitch was made by opening and closing the hand which is wrapped around the pipe for use.
Most enlisted ratings comprise four steps: 3rd class, 2nd. 1st,and Chief. These are the Petty Officers of the navy. Like many other enlisted ratings, they are known as mates; Bos'ns mates.
Unlike the other enlisted ratings, there is no 3rd class bos'ns mate. That level is called "Coxwain", or cox'n for short. Motor launches are usually "skippered" by a Cox'n and he is in charge of the launch and mans the tiller. Thus you might hear the Officer of the Deck (O.D.) callout "COX"N, SHOVE OFF, MAKE THE PORTLAND FRONTIER BASE, PICK UP THE QUARTERMASTER."
(The manuscript ends abruptly here. - ed.)
Personal recollections of Milton W. Sherman (1919-2010). He served in the U.S. Navy during WW2, on board the USS Denebola, AD-12, when he was in mid-twenties. His stories of his navy days enthralled his children for many decades, and he wrote them down in 2001.