The next morning pandemonium broke out on deck during morning chow. The cook went into a terrible rage and every navy officer from CO to deck officer assembled at the entrance to the mess hall. The navy was stunned. Their monkey was gone. He went over the side! That morning, the story goes, he had swooped down as he always did, grabbed a Marine’s hat and then leaped out on the boom, only to miss his grip and fall into the sea. At close inspection they found the boom had been greased. The CO called for an investigation. The culprit would found, and the book would be thrown at him. But, of course, he never was. No one on deck had seen Scotty drop his skivvy shirt overboard. It was covered with lard.
On October 1st, USS Napa stopped at Saipan, and on October 7th we watched the southern end of Japan come into view. We lined the deck, thankful the war had ended, knowing at it wasn’t this barren, inhospitable coast that would take our lives. “A hell of a place to die,” Marsden said.
“The bomb saved us, didn’t it, Sarg?” Chandler asked.
“Yes, maybe a million of us,” Marsden replied, reflecting or a minute or two on those words, and then continued. “And maybe twenty million Japanese.”
“It was worth it then, wasn’t it? We’d be dead now, and all those Japs too.” Chandler commented.
Was it worth it?” Marsden repeated, hesitating over his words. We waited for we knew he would answer his own question. Finally, he replied: “Yes, it was worth it, for us, but I’ll tell you, the world may not think so in years to come.”
Aboard ship work parties were our daily routine. Every square inch of deck space, above and below, had to be swabbed own twice a day. Aside from the need for swab jockeys there was mess duty. Given the choice, a Marine would rather swab than stand with arms up to his elbows deep in hot soapy water.
It was a miserable assignment, but there was one even worse, and that was trashman in the furnace room. All trash aboard navy ships had to be burned. Nothing was ever to be thrown overboard. The concern wasn’t the environment. The navy didn’t want to leave tracks. So someone had to shovel trash into the furnaces. Each morning after chow Pappy Preston, the company gunny sergeant, appeared in each quarters, and with duty roster in hand he called out names and handed out assignments for the day. He had a tough time pronouncing names and often had to repeat himself several times to be understood. Since there were several Marines aboard with the same name as mine, or names sounding close to it, he would merely call out STEVE. I discovered, quite by accident, that by hesitating and not answering immediately, another Marine would answer up for me. Even my friend Stevenson never caught on and took work assignments that should have been mine.
This went on for about a week, until one morning instead of sneaking into my hideout I made the mistake of climbing back into my bunk and there I fell asleep. Before I knew what happened I found myself tumbling from the top bunk to the hard steel floor below. When I came to my senses I was looking up at an irate gunny sergeant straddling me with a heavy boot on each side. He was so angered that even Stevenson, who Pappy said was dumb enough to stand in for me, was assigned to the furnace room with me.
The furnace room where we burned trash was midship and the only good thing I can say about it is that it was but one floor below deck. The heat was so intense, the air so stifling, that every fifteen minutes or so, while stripped to the waist, we had to charge topside gasping to get fresh air. The door to the furnace had been removed and so vast was the opening that a boxcar could have easily fit through without touching the sides, or so it seemed. We were given wide, flat shovels to use, and we learned quickly they had a purpose other than shoveling trash. When the ship rolled sharply to starboard, we used the shovels as props to keep us from lunging into the open furnace. The fire was as vicious as the flames of Hades. It consumed piles of trash as fast as we could shovel it in. Not once did we manage to get ahead so we could rest, for as soon as we had shoveled clean the deck space in front of the furnace, another batch of trash would come tumbling down a chute completely inundating us. It never ended.
Our troubles aboard USS Napa, and for all ships in the China Sea, were just about to begin, however. During a break from the furnace room, I noticed the sky had turned an ominous black, and very strange was the texture of the sea. It was flat and an oily calm. Something was about to happen, and one didn’t have to be an old sea dog to know that. The next morning we learned a typhoon was approaching.
The news of the coming storm didn’t bother Gunny Prescott as much as did the news that Stevenson and I had been relieved from our duties as trashmen. Stevenson was summoned to company headquarters located in a tiny compartment next to the bridge. The Exec reassigned him to his old duties-Fox Company clerk. From yard bird trash burner to pencil jockey.
Not bad. My calling was of a different nature. Our convoy was sailing in seas that had been heavily mined by the Japanese, and Navy gunners were put on alert and called upon to man 20mm guns to look for floating mines. Also those Marines who had scored Expert Rifleman were called upon with their M1s to be on the lookout for mines. Having fired 307 at Parris Island, one point over the mark, my name was called. Hecklinger also got the assignment, and for an Oklahoma cowboy it was a natural, but he wasn’t too pleased standing deck with a storm coming up. “This ain’t like hanging on a bronco,” he said. “Why did I admit I could shoot a gun better than anyone? Hell, lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back.” For me it was better than the furnace room.
During daylight hours I was assigned to stand guard duty with my Ml in a gun turret that extended far out over the superstructure to the right of the bridge. I had a clear, unobstructed view of the bridge and all the activity that was going on inside. I didn’t know it but I was about to have the ride of my life.
The first words from the bridge that caught my attention were that the barometer was falling. Terrifying words to seamen. I remembered those words from reading Jack London. In one of my favorite stories of his, he wrote about the barometer falling when a hurricane was coming. Odd that I should remember this now. The average for a barometer reading was 29.90, and now the deck officer was saying the barometer was down to 29.62. The only difference between Jack London’s world and ours was that we were in the China Sea, and they call the storms here typhoons. In Jack London’s Tales of the South Seas they were hurricanes. Whatever name we gave them, there was no doubt the USS Napa and the ships of the convoy were directly in its path. Orders went out for Marines to remain below deck and for the crew to close hatches and secure everything on deck.
I felt ridiculous, standing in the turret, holding on to a tiny rifle, and looking out at a raging sea. This was no time to be on the lookout for mines bobbing up in a tossing sea, but I guess it was better than being cramped up below deck in our quarters, or even worse, in the furnace room.