Following the Mother of All Journeys, I was greatly relieved to arrive in Sasebo in one piece. The trip from California to Sasebo by plane consumed well over three weeks. The Gardiners Bay was still operating somewhere, and had not yet arrived in port. I checked into the Bachelor Officers Quarters, and waited for the ship. It was a fascinating experience to be in Japan, an exotic eastern culture, with nothing to do but wait. After two days the ship tied-up along a dock, directly across the bay from Jane Russell mountain, a stimulating sight. Among the ships in the Navy at the time, the Gardiners Bay was equally attractive. Unlike most war ships, which bristled with guns and catapults and rockets, it looked more like the cruise ships of the day. It was painted the standard Navy gray, but otherwise was not an ominous military signal. Our presence would not send anyone a message.
From my orders, I knew I would relieve the assistant supply officer, and perform whatever other duties might be assigned. As a tender, I inferred the ship had some supplies or stores aboard which were needed by seaplanes. Beyond the fact that it was a seaplane tender, the ship’s mission was almost a mystery. We actually tended seaplanes twice in 14 months. In the final analysis, the ship was a floating filling station, and provided a critical support function in earlier years. As I had discovered, airplanes were ponderously slow covering long distances, and frequently required support along the way. As new and improved airplanes came along, the need for tending seaplanes was quickly vanishing. While the ship retained little utility as a tender, it was still the prettiest little ship in the Navy. It is shown below tied alongside the pier in Alameda in December of 1954.
While the mission of the ship was not so viable, its culture was clear. There were two distinct groups of officers aboard. They were the fliers, affectionately called air-dales, and the non-fliers. Of the 16 officers on the ship, they were evenly divided between the two groups. The fliers were mostly senior grade officers. Captain Asman was their leader and the Commanding Officer of the ship, who we rarely saw. He seemed to hide in his own private quarters, and was rarely seen anywhere on the ship except the bridge. He took his meals in his own cabin, never eating with the rest of the officers in the wardroom. It must have been a lonely life. In the wardroom there were two tables of officers. The senior officers by rank sat at one table. They were exclusively the fliers, so we referred to them as the table that flew. The rest of us sat at the non-flying table. Table conversation was similarly divided, with the air-dales spending large blocks of time talking about flying and waving their hands in the air, while the rest of us discussed more earthly matters. They were all officers and gentlemen, and a thoroughly congenial group.
The executive officer deserves special mention. He occupied modest quarters immediately forward of the wardroom, but he also chose to eat by himself. In spite of his position of authority, he came across as one who was unable to make a decision. Exactly how he might function as an airplane pilot was a matter of some speculation. As executive officer of the ship, the assessment of his competence was never in doubt. When important decisions for running the ship needed to be made in a hurry, every effort was made to avoid the executive officer, who could mumble his way through every conceivable aspect of any situation. He came to be known as mumbles, for this tendency to talk aloud to himself in tones barely audible. We could never understand what he was saying, and simply accepted the mumbling as a necessary part of his work. Hopefully, he was more comfortable in an airplane.
The word at the non-flying table was that the primary mission of the ship was to provide sea duty for the fliers. It was thought that a tour of sea duty was a requisite for promotion to higher rank. If such a small ship had any more brass aboard, it would roll over. At one point we had a captain, three commanders, a lieutenant commander, and two lieutenants aboard, all fliers. The non-flying table in the wardroom included two lieutenants, four JGs, an ensign (me), and a commissioned warrant officer. Counting sleeve stripes, that is 25 stripes at the flying table on the port side of the wardroom, and only 11-plus stripes at the non-flying table on the starboard side. The chief engineer often used this imbalance to explain the ship’s slight list to the port side.
A second function of the ship, because of the number of fliers aboard, was the need to be in port at least once every month. For a legitimate sailor, it really didn’t matter. For a flier it was essential to make port, go to the nearest Naval Air Station, book a plane for a flight of any kind, and get into the air. This allowed them to keep their flying credentials current. One driving force behind this was the extra pay provided all pilots each and every month they flew. Over the years, their standard of living grew to require the additional flight pay for survival. Their wives and children depended upon it.
Because of the time required flying overseas, I arrived just in time to catch the ship back to the states. I did manage to relieve the officer designated in my orders before we left Sasebo. He packed his stuff and flew away, leaving me to fend for myself as the ships disbursing officer, fresh out of school. The ship had a crew of about 150 officers and men. My primary responsibility was to see they were paid every two weeks. Every payday was in cash, in amounts each individual designated, provided they had a balance in the bank. I was the bank. It was an efficient process, and throughout my tour was carried out without a major hitch. While I was the junior officer aboard, I was instantly the ships most popular officer, – because I was their paymaster. They saw me every two weeks, and went away smiling.
As the paymaster, I learned very quickly there are different kinds of money managers among the crew. Most withdrew everything they had coming in cash every two weeks. A few were so tight they squeaked, and withdrew only a pittance each payday. They scrimped and saved, and allowed a substantial balance to accumulate on the books. They were saving for a rainy day. There was also a substantial group who could hardly wait for payday. At their first opportunity with fresh cash, they would collect into small groups around the ship, and gamble until their last penny was gone. This might require several days, depending on their luck or skill at the moment, but they all knew the next payday was only a few more days away. I had been told that gambling aboard ship was strictly forbidden. To the contrary, I discovered that shooting a shipmate was strictly forbidden. Almost everything else was fine.
At the time, Korea was still a shooting war along the DMZ, and the U.S. dollar was in high demand for its black market value. To defend against this, all the services used Military Pay Certificates (MPCs) in all combat zones of the Far East. As the ship’s banker, the safe was full of two kinds of currency. It was half-full of standard greenbacks, and the other half was full of MPCs, which looked like money from a monopoly game. We were in the MPC zone when I arrived, so dealing with that was my first challenge. All ships and military bases accepted MPCs exclusively for currency. Greenbacks were not supposed to show up in the MPC zone, except in my safe.
My office aboard ship was one of the finest in the Navy. It was located on the port side of the ship, one level above the main deck, and had only outside access. I spent many hours on deck in a comfortable chair watching the sea on the ship’s return trip to the states. It was so pleasant, the only work I recall was changing the MPCs back into greenbacks prior to arriving in Hawaii. With a pocket full of greenbacks, the crew was more than ready for liberty in Hawaii, prior to arrival in the continental U.S. In Pearl Harbor we tied up across from the USS Curtiss (AV-4), a large seaplane tender fit to provide all the needs required of a seaplane, plus much more. The shadow of the Gardiners Bay may be seen as a silhouette along the starboard side of this much larger ship.
After a few days in Pearl Harbor we resumed our journey to Alameda. The ride home was much rougher than expected, and demonstrated that our little cruise ship was nicely seaworthy. At one point we took green water over the bow, an experience that works best when you are secured nicely inside water-tight doors.
We tied-up in Alameda just in time to prepare for Christmas.