Column: Navy days long ago

careyThree score and 10 years ago, I suddenly became “an officer and a gentleman.”

This was quite unexpected, since my classmates and I had nowhere near the number of credits in naval science normally required for a commission as a Navy ensign. One of us was even denied his commission because he was not yet 18 years old; he got it later on.

Why the rush? We were told simply that the navy needed to man more and more landing craft for its accelerating Pacific island-hopping operations. I put in for submarine service, but got anti-submarine warfare instead.

After a few days’ leave, I was ordered to report to a certain ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then a bustling beehive of activity where ships damaged in action were sent for repairs. The brutal spirit of the times could be gathered from a large sign on a Marine Corps building: “Kill Japs; Kill More Japs; Kill All Japs.”

In the two weeks between notice of our imminent departure and our receiving commissions, we had constant lectures and drills in all manner of navy lore, trying to crowd in as much training as possible. A full-semester course might be run through in a few days. Exams followed, but without sufficient faculty to grade papers, so students were told to grade each other. One classmate gave me an almost perfect score. I told him he could not do that. He said, “I did it, so there.”

One of our last-minute sources of naval lore was a film on officers’ etiquette. Included was the procedure for reporting to a new ship. Before boarding, you were to salute the flag at the stern of the ship, then ask the officer on guard for permission to board, then salute the flag at the bow, and only then step aboard, if invited.

Through the winter drizzle, I found my new ship, the U.S.S. Loy—destroyer escort 160—lying outboard of two other DEs alongside a pier at the navy yard. I wasn’t sure whether I needed permission from someone in charge of either of the other two ships, but no one was in sight, so I climbed over them and approached a figure huddled out of the rain on the Loy. He was not dressed in any uniform that I recognized and bore no visible indication of rank.

He did have a pistol at his waist, which reminded me to be polite.

When I asked if I could board, the reply was a surprised, “Huh?” I announced myself as “Ensign John Carey, reporting on board for duty, sir.”

“OK, come on and I’ll show you where to find the Officer of the Deck,” he said

“I thought that was you,” I replied.

“Naw,” he said. “I’m only a chief petty officer, standing out here so the OD can go inside and warm up with
some coffee.”

“Thank you, Chief. I appreciate your welcoming me on board.”

The OD was surprised to see me, and shuffled among some papers to find a copy of my orders. “I’m Brad Fancher, the gunnery officer,” he said. “You will bunk above the engineering officer, which is good, because he doesn’t stand watches and won’t be waking you at all hours by cussing his luck when he has to get out of the sack. You will be standing four-hour watches on the bridge as assistant watch officer under Ensign Marcus. He has been in the Navy a long time and worked his way up from ordinary seaman. He deserves to be at least a full lieutenant, but that’s what happens if you enlist. Not everyone can go to sea already an officer like you.”

The engineering officer slept soundly that night, so I did too. I barely made it to morning chow before the executive officer grabbed me and told me to be ready in five minutes to leave in the motor whaleboat, a 20-foot-long part of the Loy’s equipment.

Wolfing down my coffee, I threw on a Navy parka and went on deck. The whaleboat was already alongside the ship with two men on board. I let myself down to the small craft bobbing in the water. Off we went, I knew not where. The exec told me to follow the Loy and meet up with them later. Where and when I was not told.

I sat in the stern of the small boat and watched the men operate the engine as we splashed our way in the choppy water of the lower East River. Just as we reached the tip of Manhattan, the engine quit. The two men tinkered with it for nearly an hour before it finally sputtered to a start.

So then we were to follow the Loy, but where was she? We had watched her steam out of the navy yard and churn her way through the chop down the harbor. But then she vanished from our sight. What were we to do?

We could pass through the closely guarded narrows into the Atlantic Ocean and look for her on the horizon. We trained binoculars every which way and, finally, just short of where the Verrazano Bridge now touches the Brooklyn shore, we dimly made out our ship at a dock. I was informed by the men that she was there to retrieve her ammunition, since all war ships entering New York Harbor were required to leave their ammo outside the inner harbor to decrease the danger of an explosion to match that which had flattened much of Halifax, Nova Scotia,
years before.

Next morning, fully rearmed, we raced up the coast to Casco Bay, just beyond Portland, Maine. There we spent several days practicing with our 20 and 40-millimeter machine guns, trying to hit a target towed through the air by a plane. The rest of our armament consisted of three cannons, with a bore of three inches, and depth charges, to bomb submarines if we could detect them nearby by the magic of sonar. Once outside protected waters, the sonar would be operated 24/7, sending sound signals out to see if anything solid sent us back an echo.

From Casco Bay, we steered south to the Virginia Capes. I gathered that our preparations were about to be put to use. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I sat at the Norfolk Navy Yard Officers’ Club with the gunnery officer and the executive officer. They referred obliquely to our scheduled departure the next morning for sub hunting while escorting an aircraft carrier.

The exec made a cheery comment to his gunnery officer. “Brad,” he said, “your gunners are such lousy shots that I’ll tell you what will probably happen. We will come upon an enemy sub just as it breaks the surface. And even though their crew can’t shoot their cannon at us until they have come up from below decks and got the gun ready, while we can be steadily blasting at them, they are going to sink us instead of the other way around. Our three cannons, and our 40 and 20-millimeter machine guns will be no match for their one cannon.”

I excused myself, went to a phone and told my mother that she would not be hearing from me for a while. Fortunately, a few months later, I was able to call her again, from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, on another warm, sunny day. I was dying to relate our adventures in the Bay of Biscay and off the coast of Africa, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She was right, as usual. “Loose lips sink ships.”

But this many years later, harmless stories can’t hurt. More later, whenever City Hall is ship-shape and needing no outside critiquing.


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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.