By: Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
It was 0730 January 2nd and my head was killing me. Scotch was not supposed to do that, but again, that is if one drinks in moderation. After my dumb Seaman-duce antics the J&B distilleries were surely on overtime! I rarely get my head torn-up but it was New Years Eve and the Chief’s Club was wall-to-wall revelers, one thing led to another…well, you know how that goes. Anyway, it should be one hell of a bang-up year ahead, as it was brought in with unbridled exuberance!
Looking out the Operations office windows the falling snow had accumulated into huge drifts bringing everything to a virtual standstill. Listening to the hissing radiators pop and clank I vowed for the umpteenth time that I would never drink again! With the winter storm and over half the crew still on holiday leave, things were extremely quiet. As I took off my blouse and loosened my tie, I thanked the good Lord for the tranquility.
Now, if only the damn steam radiators would slack off…the dry stuffy office spaces were unbearable. I believe some vindictive asshole comes in at night and turns the heat up just for kicks…I threw up the sash on all the windows in hopes some cold fresh air would clear away the funk. The snow that had accumulated on the sill fell in a wet sloppy heap on my trouser legs and shined shoes…this was not going to be my day.
The falling snow took me back some years’ to another winter day. It was a memorable and happy time as we were returning from a long deployment in time for the holidays. Staring out across the stark stillness, I could see my Jackie standing on the pier…feathery snow flakes accumulating on the shoulders of her bright red coat as she searched for me among the sailors massed along the ship’s rail. I smiled at the fleeting, but indelible image…
That deployment had been our first separation. I miss her and the children. However, with the long overseas deployments and the children growing and starting school we decided for this separation, it was best if they lived near family in Florida rather than New England. I’ve learned first hand over the years, no matter how many times you are separated; you can never totally adjust to it, or overcome the gnawing void and emptiness within.
The Club must have dispensed a batch of bad ice as my taste buds were shot…the coffee had no taste and my mouth was drier that an Iraqi sand dune. Bitching and moaning, something we Chiefs are famous for, I handed my cup to Joe Hardy one of my Strikers, a nice kid, telling him if he wanted to make the “crow” he’d better make a pot that tasted like gin-u-wine Navy black, not horse piss! Two of his cohorts updating the Personnel Assignment Boards cackled at my descriptive remark and razzed Hardy as to where he kept his horses? Hardy grabbed a broom, whinnied, slapped his ass, shot them a “bird,” and then rode the handle out of the room. It was the first bright moment of the day…I started to laugh, and then a pain shot up through the back of my head.
I pulled a chair up in front of the large slotted display board I had the shops make when I took over the Ops job. It contained information cards with the names, rates, history and current assignments of every man in the Command including the 18 Officers and 24 Chief Petty Officers. The Skipper and XO took a liking to the big locator board and came by periodically for visual updates. Now, thanks to my brilliance I had to stay on top of the damn thing’s accuracy. With holiday leave expiring by the weekend I had to have a training plan to support our upcoming Newfoundland deployment, plus work details, mess cooking and so forth by Monday morning muster. Damn, I wish I could get my thoughts together!
Several weeks later the OPS Officer, Lieutenant Commander Fred Browning, approached me, “Chief, are you ready for a little sea duty?” Before I could reply he followed with, “The MERCER, just arrived at Quonset Point. As you know this will be the first deployment that our Seabees will live aboard ship, she will be our home for the next eight months. Being unfamiliar with shipboard duty the Skipper is going to send a detachment up with the ship to the Naval Base, Argentia. They can clean up and prepare the transient spaces for occupancy by the main body. That way when the unit arrives on the MSTS transport we can move aboard without any delays or confusion.
He is sending Lieutenant Parker as O-in-C. Parker needs the experience and you will be his assistant. The Captain knows that you will keep him from stepping on his pecker. I want you to particularly keep an eye on the rehab of the old small-craft boat facilities. They are adjacent to the ship’s berth and will be used as offices for the CO, XO, Admin, Ops and Supply as there is not space on the ship for that purpose. The boat-house hasn’t been used much since the end of the war so I am afraid it is in dire need of repair.” As he rambled on thinking up additional tasks, I thought, damn; I’ll need half the battalion and the entire deployment to accomplish all this crap!
When he finished his spiel, he looked puzzled at my somewhat bewildered expression. “Sir, I’m ready to go…but I am concerned. I’m not trying to be a smart-ass here, but I assume everyone topside knows what time of year it is? I have not questioned my Navy’s infinite wisdom in the past however sending us to Newfoundland after eleven months in the tropics raises some questions? We are not trained for cold-weather construction. Then to ship us up there in March with much of our work involving outside and underground utilities raises a big red flag for me! Hell it’s the middle of winter! With the ground frozen we probably can’t get a shovel or pick in the ground until June!”
I checked his reactions and then continued, “I don’t think there are sufficient suitable projects to keep our crews busy until the weather warms up. With the EM Club adjacent to the pier and some 600 men cooped-up in confined conditions with time on their hands…spells trouble with a capital “T”! Of course I’m just a Chief Petty Officer and probably don’t see the big picture.”
Frowning at the dig, he turned to the window and replied, “It all has to do with ship scheduling out of LantFleet…besides we have to get out of here to make room for other units rotating back to homeport. The Skipper has some of your same concerns, as do I, so we will cross that bridge when we need to…meanwhile, the ship leaves in two days…be on it. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
The USS MERCER, APB-39 was a self-propelled barracks ship. She was built on an LST hull and commissioned in September 1945. Decommissioned in 47 and then brought back in service for the Korean conflict. She sat high in the water with a flat profile above the main deck. A small square bridge punctuated by a short uncluttered main mast was her only distinguishing feature. The ship was 328 feet long and carried a crew of 160. She could house and accommodate 900 troops for an extended period. Since we were deploying with approximately 600 there would be ample room which was a plus. There were also sufficient transient officers’ quarters for our CPOs. I was most pleased with that and was beginning to take a more positive view of what lay ahead.
We sailed north along the coast of Nova Scotia passing Sable Island on our starboard. Though we were not directly exposed to the open waters of the North Atlantic the sea in that area during the winter can be fierce. With the ship riding high we bobbed like a cork through the unrelenting icy gales for several days. Sighting Cape St Mary and Placentia Bay beyond was a most pleasant sight and welcome occasion as this sailor has had problems obtaining his sea legs in the past. I faired well on the voyage however and was proud I had not embarrassed myself…
Placentia Bay was breathtaking! I have never seen water so clear and calm. The twin-rounded peaks of “Mae West” appropriately tagged by the GIs’ during World War II loomed on the horizon. On the far side of the bay craggy mountains covered with birch and spruce rose in the distant mist. This was in vivid contrast to the near shore which was a dismal barren expanse…more specific, a gray treeless rock dotted with aging weathered structures. Viewing the uninviting panorama of the base as we tied-up my spirits began to fade. Forward over the bow, the small craft facility was literally falling into the bay. Shrouded in clouds of steam from broken lines my gut tightened, damn, what have I gotten myself into…?
The main body arrived and moved aboard without incident. After extensive repairs before their arrival the boat facilities were barely habitable except there was no heat for several weeks until we could install new steam lines. Cold-weather gear was the uniform of the day inside the admin spaces.
Some station building projects were started and except for the usual fights between Seabees, ships-company personnel, station sailors and air-dales; things were more orderly that I had expected. Surprisingly, everyone quickly adapted to the cold weather and shipboard living. Daily activities soon became routine and we settled in for the long haul counting down the days until our November return to the States.
Then it happened…during the night of the full moon in April the soon to be infamous “Phantom Crapper” struck! On that memorable morning, Chief Boatswain Mate “Red” Watson our endearing Chief Master at Arms [CMAA] preparing to hold reveille stepped into the passageway and lost his footing on a small brown pile of what appeared to be human excrement! It had been neatly deposited on a sheet of stationary on which was written in felt pen, “ALL CHIEFS EAT DO DO!” it was signed the “Phantom Crapper.”
Red stumbled back into quarters his face purple with rage! He had gooey brown stuff on the bottom and side of his shoe, up his trouser leg and between his fingers where he had put his hand on the deck to break the fall. Speechless; eyes bulging, his body in spasmodic convulsions he extended the brown stained sheet of paper for all to see!
Most of us found it hilarious as Red, a crabby old curmudgeon, was not one of our favorites as noted in “A Caribbean Caper.” To see him in distress was a joy to behold! He was finally reaping what he had so readily sowed. Catching his breath he swore, “Damn, damn, what in hell is my Navy coming to? Look at this stuff…we got some crazy a-hole running loose on this ship! The disrespectful punk is going to wish he was dead when he feels the wrath of old Red Watson descending upon his worthless ass!” Red vowed to expose the culprit before nightfall…
An intense investigation by the Master at Arms force proved fruitless. Sleuths they were not. The following week in the same spot, “CHIEFS EAT KHA KHA AND THE CMAA CAN’T FIND HIS BADGE WITH BOTH HANDS…PC” The investigation was expanded. Red asked the ship’s Masters at Arms in on the case and the Fire Watches were doubled.
Give this some thought; doubling the Fire Watch was like putting two foxes in charge of the hen house. Hell, the Phantom Crapper was now a legend and the crew’s hero. He was Zorro, The Lone Ranger and the Cape Crusader wrapped into one! Again, nothing turned up. The only clue was the Crapper had a very hardy appetite and had eaten corn for supper…hmmm, come to think of it, so did the entire ship…alas, another dead end!
It was mid May; a month had passed since the villainous excreting bandito first struck. This time the elusive shadowy figure targeted the Master at Arms’ shack. He was so bold and brazen he left the deposit right in the middle of Watson’s desk. The Duty MAA reluctantly rousted Red from quarters at 0-dark-thirty to report the dastardly deed. “THE CMAA’s MOMMY AND DADDY AREN’T MARRIED…HEE HEE…the Phantom Crapper.”
I wish I could bring this exciting slice of naval lore to a conclusion…to reveal “The Crapper” and the finale of this epic adventure to my many loyal readers. But alas, I cannot for at the very moment the Phantom struck, a message was being received in the Com shack for me to be detached and report immediately to COMOPTEVFOR Staff, Norfolk for duty.
Catching a hop on one of the VP Squadron P-2Vs I looked down on the ship as we circled out over the bay winging southward. The joy in a wife’s voice and the children’s exhilarating laughter on news of the unexpected assignment, balanced somewhat the equation of departure from shipmates you care for deeply and respect as brothers...
Memories, sweet memories, the enduring bond shared by those who have worn the anchors, remain forever in the heart…