The Real Navy

We arrived in Norfolk a day early and reported aboard the USS Wisconsin.  It was one of four Iowa class battleships built for World War II.  It was 900 feet long, 96 feet across, and weighed 64,000 tons. It had a very low profile in the water, possibly because of the 6 armor plate, which surrounds the entire ship below the water line.  Three 16 gun turrets with three guns each gave it an ominous appearance.  Dual 5″ gun turrets surrounded the superstructure, and 50mm quad turrets were attached everywhere.  It was clearly designed to throw a lot of metal everywhere in a hurry.

The training cruise was scheduled to last six weeks.  For the midshipmen this was our first contact with the real Navy. It was the first time we were required to wear uniforms all day, every day.  It was the first time we lived in crews quarters built for dozens of bodies in each compartment.  We were expected to use all the proper terminology, some of which should not be repeated.  We were expected to salute officers appropriately.  We were expected to report to our muster stations first thing in the morning after breakfast.  When your name was called you answered “here”.  If not, you were late.  The rules were clear and simple.  We were expected to get the word, know what it meant, and respond accordingly.  This was a whole new ballgame compared with living in a fraternity house and attending class at Oregon State.  Toto knew we were no longer in Kansas.

Midshipmen were neither fish nor fowl aboard the ship.  As a group we must have been a royal pain in the butt.  This is not quite the exact Navy terminology for midshipmen, but is as close as is socially appropriate.  There was no such thing as socially appropriate aboard ship.  Politically correct language had not yet developed.  At the time the Navy had females aboard hospital ships only.  The real Navy had only real men aboard, with little need to monitor their language.  There were no his and hers restrooms, just heads, his heads.  The absence of females encouraged uncensored banter among the thoroughly horny sailors.

To maintain midshipmen as a visible class, the uniforms were tailored to make them instantly recognizable.  We had navy blue, suntan, and white uniforms.  The most distinctive marking was on the white hat of first year Midshipmen. It was designed exactly like the enlisted white with the addition of an inch blue stripe around the top edge of the hat.  The sailors didn’t want midshipmen to compete for the local honeys in port.  To fix this they passed the word that those with blue stripes on their hats had VD.  It is surprising how fast the word is spread.  While wearing a VD hat, like the one below, it is better to smile.


          We spent a lot of time at general quarters, during which all hands were at their battle stations.  My battle station was in the number two 16 gun turret.  This is the same turret that exploded in the 90s, creating a substantial incident for the Navy.  The turret itself is huge and had only one outside entry up a ladder from the main deck.  The guns are loaded and fired from the top deck inside the turret.  There are two projectile decks immediately below the gun deck, and powder decks below that.  The center portion of the projectile decks, and all other decks in the turret, rotate with the guns, leaving the outside storage areas oriented with the ship.

Loading and firing the big guns is quite a process.  The projectiles were over six feet tall, 16 in diameter, and weighed 4,000 pounds.  Getting each one from the projectile decks to the gun deck required hydraulic lifts and rams for inserting the projectiles into the breach.  Then six powder bags were inserted behind the projectile.  A triggering device is inserted, and the breach is closed.  With a full charge of powder at the proper elevation, each projectile could travel up to 30 miles.  The cost of firing one gun one time was the same as the cost of a new Cadillac.  On one occasion we fired all nine 16 guns to the starboard side simultaneously.  The recoil force on the ship pushed it 100 feet toward the port side from its former track, an impact felt clearly.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is possible to see the projectile immediately after it leaves the gun, and follow its path through the sky, like a small Cadillac hurtling through the air.  When all guns fire, it is best to be below decks with earplugs, or far removed from the muzzle of the guns. The picture taken from the bow of the Wisconsin, shows the two forward 16″ gun turrets, pointed directly at us with white muzzle covers.  Many of  the 5″ guns may be seen sticking out from the superstructure like the quills of a porcupine.


          The shipboard environment was Spartan at best.  There was no air conditioning anywhere in the Navy except on the Newport News, a new cruiser with air conditioning in select areas.  Sleeping quarters for the crew were all dormitory style compartments with upper and lower bunks and a locker for each bunk.  Air circulation came from blowers with vents into each compartment.  They were inadequate, unless you happened to have a bunk next to a vent.  There were no desks, chairs or other furniture in the living spaces.  All areas below the main deck were watertight compartments with access hatches 8 above the deck level.  To walk the length of the ship below the main deck required stepping over each hatch opening into or out of each compartment.

Non-working hours aboard ship was spent writing letters, sunbathing, or watching a movie.  There was no other entertainment. The fantail on the main deck was huge, and was protected from the wind by movement of the ship.  In good weather a movie screen was hoisted into place on the fantail and movies shown in the open air.  In the Caribbean the open air was frequently the only comfortable place on the ship.  The best space for letter writing was in the mess-hall before and after meals.  It was usually full of homesick midshipmen telling their mothers and girlfriends how miserable they had become since the last liberty port.

With 4000 bodies on board, a fair amount of time was spent standing in line.  We stood in line for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We stood in line for the head before and after breakfast.  We stood in line at the ships store, the clothing store, and the geedunk store, the Navy equivalent of Dairy Queen.  As we had little else to do, it really didn’t matter.  Being under-way at sea is an amazingly peaceful experience. After a full day of work, it was easy to relax on the ships weather decks and simply watch the ocean go by.

The cruise was not without its casualties.  Two midshipmen were killed through freak accidents aboard ship.  One walked under an open hatch several levels below the main deck when a piece of plate steel fell through the hatch striking him directly on the head.  According to the stories, he never regained consciousness.  The second was assigned a battle station above the bridge.  This area was a maze of radar installations, radio antennas, rangefinders, and miscellaneous equipment.  He became caught among some of the moving equipment, and was crushed in the process. After an incident or two like this, you become far more careful where you walk and what you do.

This cruise first introduced me to the concept of using smoke and mirrors to good advantage.  One of my workstations was in an engine room where it was my responsibility to check on combustion efficiency.  At first this reminded me of a snipe hunt designed for nave midshipmen, and I was holding the sack.  The ship was powered by steam turbines in several engine rooms on both the port and starboard sides.  Crude oil fired boilers were used to generate the steam, which ran the turbines that turned the screws to push the ship that Jack built.  Through a system of mirrors, it was possible to see the color of the discharge from the ships stacks, which came directly from the boilers.  If it was smoking black, the combustion was fuel rich and required a leaner mixture.  If the smoke was white the combustion was too lean, and required more fuel.  I would report the color of the smoke through the mirrors, and a boilerman would adjust the fuel mixture appropriately.  When the mixture was just right, the discharge in the stacks looked like heat rising from the surface of a desert on a hot day.  When I did my job right, the boilers produced most efficiently, turning its four screws as fast as they would go on the least amount of fuel.  While smoke and mirrors worked beautifully in the Navy, the concept has been badly corrupted throughout mainstream government.

One of the more exciting shipboard experiences was the speed run conducted just prior to returning to Norfolk.    One might suspect a ship of this size and vintage would be ponderously slow.  The speed run may have been conducted to determine exactly how fast it would actually go.  It was probably designed to burn the carbon residue out of the boilers.  It required putting all boilers on line and generating maximum RPM from the ships four screws, then sustaining this output for a sufficient period of time.  A ship of this size is not a dragster, and may require ten miles at maximum power before it actually achieves top speed.  The Wisconsin achieved a speed of 34 nautical miles-per-hour.  That converts to well over 50 miles per hour for landlubbers.  Motion aboard ship is not apparent until you watch the water.  During this speed run, the ships four screws were blowing a rooster-tail of water twice as high as the fantail, – a height of 50 to 60 feet into the air at the stern of the ship.  It was an awesome display of brute power, as shown below.


In addition to the speed, there was also a pounding vibration, which continued 45 minutes throughout the speed run.  The vibration could be a normal consequence of churning water.  It could also be a residual from the unscheduled stop the ship made earlier in the cruise on the New Jersey shore.  In retrospect that stop was one of the highlights of the cruise.  For a while it appeared that the Wisconsin might become a permanent companion  to the Statue of Liberty in New Jersey.

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