For dozens of good official reasons, the Hamilton County had its homeport changed from Long Beach, California to Sasebo, Japan shortly after we arrived in Westpac in the fall of 1956. This may have been to avoid the two months transit time across the pacific each year, or possibly to keep honorable sailors from pouring iron filings in the main engines on each trip through Hawaii. This latter trick offers ten days of unexpected liberty at Waikiki Beach on each crossing. While such nefarious tricks may be commonplace in the Navy, officially changing the homeport to Sasebo controls only a few tricks. It also sets in motion an entirely new set of unofficial incentives and priorities that are weighed carefully by the crew. Whenever you mess with the minds of sailors, it is important to post a careful watch. With the watch posted, it is interesting to know who-all were active participants in these unofficial games.
The Hamilton County was a supply ship, and for better or worse, I was its supply officer. This did not make me quite God, but I did find myself close to him, – the captain. This relationship was never a smooth one from the day I reported aboard, and the captain questioned whether the Hamilton County was really a supply ship. The admiral of Mine Forces, Pacific Fleet had assured the Captain that I was fully responsible for the stores aboard the ship. This understanding was planted in a minefield, the captain’s mind. I was not sure how many times the field had been smashed during his illustrious career.
As a product of submarine forces until 1955, Captain (Lt.) Vernon W. Weatherby, a mustang with a sixth grade education, was thoroughly familiar with the system of accountability practiced in the underwater forces. There was either little or none. Most of the subs of the day did not have supply officers, as such, so when payday rolled around, for instance, they needed to find a ship with money, and a supply officer, to pay the crew to go on liberty. It was not a very efficient system, but the Navy had learned decades before that money lying around loose had a half-life of under a minute. Everything else that was not attached to the ship had a half-life somewhat longer. This is not an impeachment of the thoroughly honest and honorable men of the Navy. It is simply an acknowledgement that government property and personal possessions do not fit into the same category. One might guard personal possessions with a degree of vigor. As the ships supply officer, I discovered the crew did not guard my supplies with the same vigor they expended with their own stuff.
The notion of accountability was all that was missing. The captain, as the final authority aboard ship, believed that he had the last word. Unfortunately for me, the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts in Washington had me believing that I was responsible for the proper use and accounting for all my departments supplies aboard ship. I was thoroughly familiar with the stories of supply officers who ignored their warnings, and spent time in small cells in Leavenworth for their failings. I never heard of a single captain spending time in such a secure facility. Unfortunately for me, the captain was never able to master the concept of accountability, a notion for which he had no compartment.
The Supply Department had a ship full of valuable stores of all kinds, and a highly capable crew of sailors and men working for me. By contrast, the captains navy, the one full of longstanding custom and hallowed tradition, also knew the ship was full of valuable stores of all kinds. This was McHale’s Navy to which the captain subscribed. If we needed critical supplies, a jeep, or other valuables not within our immediate grasp, the process was to locate an item or items of comparable value, and exchange them for what you needed. It avoided all the paperwork and bother, otherwise required by the system. This system is called cumshaw, and might involve an exchange of equal values, or could be an outright gift in exchange for favors. My safe prevented an exchange of money for services, because it weighed 3,000 pounds, and was welded to the deck. Everything else was coveted by those with needs.
We had just come through a typhoon that produced about 50 cracks in steel plates in the hull, main deck, and other internal structures of the ship. Dry-dock was required to perform all the repairs. In dry-dock the ships main deck was oriented about a foot from a parallel walkway ashore. It was an easy reach over the main deck railing along the length of the ship. This made it convenient to transfer material from the shore to the ship, or visa versa. The visa versa was the one of concern to me. The deck-watch was posted by the gangway near the stern to oversee the ships official carryings-on. The ships unofficial carryings-on were not handled through the deck watch at the stern.
After a day or so in dry-dock, I was pulled aside by the Chief Petty Officer on watch, who told me that one of my storekeepers had been seen, he believed, hustling a box of goods off the ship. He didn’t know what was in the box, but it appeared to be quite heavy to carry. He had placed the goods on the walkway a considerable distance from the gangway. Then he walked off the gangway himself and back to the box, which he picked up and carried on off. The rest of the story, according to the CPO, was that the storekeeper, a bachelor, had an arrangement with one of the local honeys with whom he was shacking up every night. Given this critical piece of information, a motive, I suggested that he alert subsequent watches to keep a close eye on my storekeepers goings and comings.
The following afternoon the deck watch caught him red handed with another box of goodies. I was called to the deck immediately where we examined the box and its contents. It was full of canned goods and other consumables required for housekeeping. He was reported to the captain for disciplinary action, as the captain might deem proper. Within a day or so, I was told the captain had seen the offender in his quarters, and was given a slap on the wrist. It was several days before I fully understood the captains rather feeble handling of this serious, second incident of theft.
With the ship resting high in dry-dock, it was possible to examine the hull thoroughly in detail. The work was started locating, buffing, welding, priming and painting all of the dozens of cracks where they were found. The deck was a wasteland of activity, and one that could hide a multitude of sins. With the compelling need to repair the ship, it was also a perfect opportunity to take full advantage of other shipboard needs while we were there. During the previous two years, a laundry list had been developed of all those things that somebody believed would make the ship a better place. For this reason, an additional list of repairs, modifications, improvements, upgrades, and enhancements was submitted through the chain of command for their consideration.
As is always the case, you never get everything you want through the bureaucracy, and some of the things scratched off the list are considered essential by shipboard authorities. Each department head has a little authority, but the Captain retains final authority for many shipboard issues. The captain pulls the strings, holds mast, kicks butt, and has the final say. Our particular captain was the byproduct of the submarine fleet, and based much of his action upon his experience underwater, where oxygen for thought may be rare.
To supervise the ship’s repair, a civilian foreman was assigned to coordinate the shipyard authorities and workmen. In this middleman role, he dealt with the captain on a daily basis. He assured the captain that some of those things that had not been approved could probably be arranged for the proper consideration, – a little cumshaw. This understanding was outside of that given official sanction. And so, with this gentleman’s agreement, all the shipboard work was well underway.
A day or so later, a cook pulled me aside for a conversation. It went like this:
“Mr. Settles”, he said, “We need to talk in private”.
“What is it, Charles?” I asked.
“Captain Weatherby called me up to his cabin a few days ago. He gave me a long list of things he said I should put in a box, and take to the foreman’s office over on the dock.”
“And what all was on the list?” I asked.
“It was mostly big food items,” he replied.
“Do you have the list?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “This is the list he gave me today.”
“Is there more?” I asked.
“Yes. He gave me another list two days ago. I took those things to the foreman’s office yesterday.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Yes. When the captain tells you to do something, you can get your a__ in a crack if you don’t do what he tells you to do.”
“Charles,” I said, “I appreciate you coming to me with this. Don’t worry about it. You wont get into any trouble with the captain. If anybody hangs, I will be the first to go.”
“Are you sure you can keep the captain off my case?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it, Charles. I will take care of Captain Weatherby. And welcome to Club Med,” I added as an afterthought.
With this final assurance, the stage was nicely set for a meeting with the captain at his earliest opportunity. I knew, of course, that the meeting would be brutal, and would involve trying to wedge a concept into the captain’s brain. I had tried to do this on numerous occasions in the past, and had failed miserably each time. The captain was ashore at the time, and was not expected to return until late in the evening. This delay afforded me time to choose among dozens of things I needed to say, knowing they would all be rejected.
When the captain returned, it was late evening. I was in the wardroom drinking coffee, where I had been most of the evening. It didn’t help. As the two of us were alone in the wardroom, and the ship was deserted, we started.
“Good evening, Captain”, I said.
“Hi, Bob”, he replied.
“Help yourself to the coffee. I just made a fresh pot”.
“Why are you here on the ship this evening?” he asked. “Your old lady is probably home waiting for you,” he added.
“One of my men came to me this afternoon, and told me he was concerned about what you asked him to do. He gave me this list of provisions, and said he was supposed to collect them all, and take them to the foreman’s office on the dock.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” he asked.
“I have a serious problem with that.” I answered. “I have to report to the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts on a regular basis about the status of the ships stores. This includes all the food on this list.”
“Why haven’t I seen any of these reports?” he asked.
“The Bureau requires that I report directly to them. The chain of command would require seven months for a report to arrive in Washington. Because I am personally responsible for accounting for all stores and money spent officially by the ship from my department, I am supposed to make a record of everything removed from my secured spaces.”
“Since when are you responsible for the food on the ship?” he asked.
“The cooks all work for me, and they keep keys to all the food storage areas. We keep a running inventory of all the food aboard the ship. When somebody takes food from an area that is not recorded, I am held personally responsible for the loss.”
“The cooks work for me, too, he replied, and I am the captain”
“Yes,” I said, “But you are not personally responsible for the food, or anything else in my department. You are certainly not responsible for the money in my safe, are you?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “You are responsible for your safe and the money in it, he finally conceded.”
“And I am fully responsible for everything else under my control in the department. Everything under lock and key in my department is my complete responsibility.” I added.
“So what did you tell Charles to do?” he asked.
“I told him the only thing I could tell him. I told him not to do what you had asked.”
“You told him to disobey my order?” he asked.
“Yes I did,” I said.
“And on whose authority did you tell him not to obey my order?” he asked.
“The Bureau of Supplies and Accounts told me to,” I answered.
“Did you call Washington about this?” he asked.
“No I haven’t called Washington, yet. At this point, it is really between just you and me. At the end of my tour on the Hamilton County, the bureau will audit my accounts, cash, food, stores, clothing, and all. If my records don’t fully support my work, they give me an exception, and I can be held personally responsible for the value of any loss. This loss could come out of my personal funds.”
“Since when does the Navy hold people personally responsible for things that are lost? I have never heard of anybody paying the Navy back,” he said.
“Captain,” I said, “the stuff on the list you gave to Charles was not lost. Had he taken it off the ship, like the box you sent yesterday, then it would be lost. It was in my storerooms. It was under my control, and my storekeepers have the keys. That is why Charles came to me.”
“You know,” the captain said, “that I have access to all your storerooms through an extra set of keys.”
“Yes, I know you have access to all the ships spaces. If the ship catches fire, you need to get into every space for the safety of the ship,” I said.
“And what keeps me from sending somebody into the frozen food locker for ice cream?” he asked.
It was at about this point that I took my hat from the table in the wardroom, and threw it across the room, hitting the outside bulkhead.
“Damn-it, Captain,” I replied in total frustration, “If you think you need something out of one of my storerooms for official purposes, I want you to come straight to me, rather than going to one of my men and telling them to do something that is illegal. If you are willing to pay for the provisions you already sent ashore, I will see if we can work that out. I refuse to pay for what you have my men steal for you from my storerooms. If you can’t restrain yourself from stealing, I will file a formal exception to your action up the chain of command, just so I don’t have to pay for what you have my men steal.”
“Just a minute now,” he cautioned. “On the submarines, we did this kind of stuff all the time, and nobody said anything about it.”
“Captain,” I replied, “the Hamilton County is not a submarine. It is a minesweeper tender, a ship with a supply mission. I am its supply officer. I am responsible for the supplies aboard this ship. That is what the Admiral told you over the phone, didn’t he?” I asked.
“Yes, he did say that,” the captain replied.
“Because of this incident,” I added, “I will be telling all the men in my department that they will issue stores and materials from supply department spaces only when they know I would approve it, – officially. I also intend to tell them that any request from you, or any other officer on the ship, must meet with my personal approval, over my signature.”
With this, the captain stomped out of the wardroom.
The following evening, the officers from the ship had a party at the officers club ashore. Wives and girlfriends were all in attendance. On one occasion, the captain pulled my wife aside for a private conversation.
“Lois,” said the captain, “You need to have a long talk with your husband. He is out of control. He threw his hat across the wardroom the other night in a fit of anger. You should know that if he doesn’t come home some evening, I may have him courts-martialed.” She said the captain seemed to be exceedingly angry at the time.
When she told me about this conversation, she expressed concern that a courts-martial was pretty serious stuff.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The captain is far more concerned about the stuff he stole than my courts-martial. It is curious that he said this to you at a party, rather than to me in person.”
This was the last I heard of stores being passed over the side of the ship. Seven years after leaving the Navy, I received notice that my accounts had been settled. The deficit following three years of service was over $7,000, much of which was over-issue of food items. The navy forgave me the debt without prejudice, for which I was grateful. It was an uphill battle against the old sailors, who had grown up in the cumshaw navy. As for Captain Weatherby, he never did find room for the notion of accountability in the constricted space between his ears.