Ordinary Seamen, u.s.n


FORTY miles north of Chicago, on the high bluffs that overlook Lake Michigan, the Naval Training Station of the Great Lakes stretches a mile back to the railroad tracks from a mile frontage on the shore; and even beyond the tracks the latest additions have crept out on the rolling prairie. Here, covering approximately three hundred acres, the vast camp, with its recent additions to meet the war emergency, houses an average total of 22,000 men — the largest and most complete naval training establishment in the world.

There had been a heavy blizzard in Chicago the first week in January, and when, on the eighth, I walked up from the railroad station to the great brick entrance, the ground was deep with snow. Beyond the iron gates, hundreds of jackies in white trousers and blue pea-coats were piling the snow back from roads and sidewalks. From the entrance a long, straight road stretched almost to the lake. On either side, and back as far as the eye could see, the substantial brick buildings of the station extended in orderly arrangement, like the buildings of a modern university. At the far end the tall, massive clock-tower of the Administration Building rose red against the blue winter sky. High above it, to the right, the slender tapering towers of the wireless caught their swinging cobwebs of wires up four hundred feet against the blue. Below, everywhere, the red brick buildings and the glitter of sun-touched snow in zero air.

In the recruiting building a long line of men already were waiting to swear their loyalty to Uncle Sam’s Navy, and merciless hostility to his enemies. One by one we filed into the recruiting-room, where a dozen jackies, in neat uniforms with their yeomen’s ratings on their blue sleeves, shamed our motley civilian clothes by contrast. Short and tall, stout and thin, from Texas, Ohio, Colorado, and Minnesota, in cheap ‘sport suits,’ sweaters, caps, derbies, every kind of clothing, with broken dress-suit-cases, cord-bound, with paper bundles, and many with hands empty — here was young America in its infinite variety.

To the room where physical examinations were held we were passed along with our identifying papers. Yellow sunshine shone warmly through high windows; there was the moist smell of steam radiators, and the unmistakable and indescribable smell of naked bodies which threw my recollection back to school and college gymnasia. At a desk by the window the surgeon faced the room; two assistants stood beside him; along the side of the room three or four yeomen at tables recorded the results of the examination.

The test was severe, and from our little squad of seventeen, two were cast out for defective eyesight, one for stricture, two for heart trouble, and another for some imperfection of the foot. Weighed, measured, tested for eyesight and color-sight, identified by scars and blemishes, we dressed and then recorded our finger-prints on the voluminous record, which grew as the examination progressed. It was late afternoon and the electric lights were lighted when we finally stood before the desk of the last officer, and, with right hand lifted, touched the Book with our left and swore to follow the flag by sea or land wherever the fate of war might call us.

In Two Years Before the Mast I recollect the phrase, ‘There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life’; and in that long first day of my admission to the Navy I began to realize —in but small measure, to be sure — the tremendous change that I was soon to experience, and the vastness of the education that I must acquire before I could hope to be of even slight value in a sailor’s capacity.

The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was originally built in 1911, to care for 1600 men. But with the declaration of war with Germany, the enlargement of its capacity was begun on a stupendous scale. South, north, and west of the station, additional acreage was acquired, and under the direction of enlisted engineers and architects complete villages or camps were built, increasing the capacity of the station to over twenty thousand men. Although the new construction was only for emergency purposes, on land leased for the duration of the war and a year beyond, nothing was omitted by which the comfort of the men might be increased, their health maintained, and the efficiency of their training most expeditiously promoted. They were grouped in camps, each holding several thousand men; the barracks of each camp were arranged about a central square or drill-ground, and each camp was provided with its central steamheating plant, mess-kitchen, laundry, dispensary, hospital, drill-halls, and such buildings as are necessary for the officers and the storage and distribution of supplies, as well as a system of hot and cold water, complete sewerage, electric lighting, and fire hydrants.

In order that as much of the material as possible may be salvaged when the war is over and the temporary buildings are taken down, each building was so designed that it might be constructed of boards and timbers of stock sizes, without cutting, so put together that the buildings can be resolved into approximately the identical piles of lumber from which they were built.

Each day hundreds of recruits pass through Chicago on their way to the station. From every corner of the United States, from every walk of life and representing practically every vocation, they swell the ever-increasing total of our naval forces. For about three months they remain at the station: three weeks in detention, then to the main camp for intensive training, and finally off to sea. With seabags neatly packed and shouldered, the blue-clad contingents depart; not with the great band playing, but by night, at hours unknown to the sleeping world. Under the stars the long trains pause, are loaded, and are gone. A few days later the men are put on shipboard at some Atlantic port.

In order to prevent recruits who have been exposed to contagious diseases from being immediately admitted to the main camps, to spread contagion among the men, a detention camp is maintained, where every recruit must pass three weeks of complete isolation from the world and the main camp. During these three weeks the men are not only regularly examined and constantly observed by the medical staff, but the several vaccinations against smallpox and typhoid are administered, throat-cultures tested, and other physical examinations made, and the elementary principles of seamanship and cleanliness are inculcated by the commander in charge of each company of men.

I had come in my oldest suit, which I planned to throw away as soon as my sailor clothes were issued; and I was a little disappointed to find that I should not get my uniform my first day in camp. My instructions and a friendly sentry directed me to Camp Decatur, and here my papers admitted me, past the sentry, dressed like an Esquimau in his great brown storm-proof suit, to a large frame building of substantial construction, where I answered the innumerable questions of inquisitive yeomen, and received my temporary pay-number and a list of clothing and other articles soon to be supplied to me.

It is interesting to learn the care which the Navy Department exercises in thoroughly equipping its men, and it is particularly gratifying, that, despite the fact that each week many hundred recruits enter the station and are fully equipped, there is apparently an abundance of every article that the recruit requires for his complete outfit.

A white hammock, a blue mattress (which also serves as a life-preserver at sea), a white cotton mattress-cover, two thick white blankets, and a large bathtowel were immediately given to me, and these were plainly stenciled with my name in black paint, in letters an inch high. With this cumbersome bundle on one shoulder, and in my hand the ancient satchel that I had brought, containing a few toilet articles, I followed my guide to the barrack designated as my home for the three weeks to come.

Deep-set in snow, the low green buildings edged the wooded ravines which empty, almost a mile away, into Lake Michigan. In and out, the winding roads led from group to group of buildings. Occasional groves of trees hinted of summer shade; but to-night, in the dry cold air, the street lights gleamed as sharply as the stars, and struck a twinkling radiance from the snow. Here and there the tall black stacks of the heating-plants flung a smearing streak of smoke along the light evening breeze; fires fed by strong arms and shoulders which in a few short months may be flinging like banks of smoke from racing destroyers to screen the protected fleet from hostile eyes.

It was almost dark when I reached my barrack, half-way down one of the long streets on the far south side of the detention camp. Each barrack building contains two entirely separate barracks, each accommodating one section, or twenty-four men. These buildings are about 120 feet long by 30 feet wide, with a dividing partition in the middle, thus making each barrack about 60 by 30 feet. The entrances are side by side, and lead into separate vestibules, which, in turn, open into the ‘ head ’ or wash-room, and the main sleepingand living-room. The washrooms are fitted with the most modern white vitreous fixtures; there are hot and cold showers; the floors are of cement, and walls and ceiling are painted white.

The main barrack-room occupies the rest of the space, and is lighted by day by six big windows on each side and four at the south end. Walls, floor, and ceiling are of bright clear matched pine, and the sashes, doors, and casements are painted olive-green. Radiators under the windows keep the room always comfortably warm. At the other end, by the partition which separates the two barracks, is the scullery, which is connected with the main room by a door, as well as by a large opening above a counter over which the food is served. As all food is cooked in the local mess-kitchen, there is no cooking done in the barracks. Below the counter, on pine shelves, scrubbed, as is everything else, after every meal, are neatly stacked the twenty-four white enameled plates, cups, and bowls; and in orderly line on the lowest shelf, lye, soap, cleansers, and so forth, are arranged.

On the right hand the wide counter extends along the wall under double windows, and beneath it is a compartment completely inclosing the garbagecan, which can be removed only through doors opening to the outside of the building, and reached from inside through a circular hole in the counter directly above the can and closed by an aluminum cover. The interior of this compartment is painted white. After every meal the garbagecan is removed by two of the men, the contents is burned in the camp incinerator, the can is sterilized with steam, and the interior of the compartment scrubbed with soap and water.

On the back wall of the scullery is a white enameled kitchen sink supplied with copious hot and cold water, and beside it a large metal sterilizer piped with live steam, in which all dishes, knives, forks and spoons and dish-rags are sterilized for fifteen minutes alter every meal. On the fourth wall, a small cupboard with drawers contains the ‘silverware’ and the writing materials; and on a shelf above are such books and magazines as the men may happen to possess.

In order to assure further the sanitary condition, a pail of formaldehyde solution is kept at one end of the sink, and in this is submerged the drinking cup, which must be taken out and rinsed before use, and immediately put back into the solution.

Half of the main room is occupied by a long pine table with a bench on each side, where the men eat, read, and write; and here along the wall is a long row of hooks, on which each man’s blue coat and caps and muffler are hung.

The hammock is a Navy institution. Here, high above the deck, Jack swings in comfort through the night hours. Where many men must be housed in little space, and where absolute cleanliness is necessary, the hammock solves the problem. A single piece of white canvas, six feet long by about four feet wide, is drawn together at both ends by a dozen ropes, the ends of which are braided together to metal rings, to which are fastened the lashings by which the hammock is suspended, tightly stretched between the jackstays. The result is a contraction of the sides of the hammock, making a receptacle for all the world like a magnified pea-pod in which even an amateur can sleep in comparative safety and comfort. The south end of the barrack-room is given over to the hammocks, which are swung between the big iron-pipe jack-stays in two rows of twelve hammocks each, head and foot alternating, at a height of about six feet above the floor. From the centre jack-stay are hung our big white bags, containing our belongings; and he is indeed unfortunate whose clothes or other possessions are at any time found in any other place.

I am perhaps elaborating in too great detail on the equipment of the Navy barracks, but it is in the belief that too little is generally known of the marvelous efficiency which is exemplified in this great camp — an efficiency which can be but an expression of a similar efficiency in the great department of which it is a part.

The barrack was only half occupied, and I was warmly greeted by the men, as complete uniform equipment would not be issued until the section of twenty-four men was completed. The barrack ‘chief,’ appointed by the company commander from among the first recruits in the barrack, whose luckless job is to maintain order and neatness among his fellows, without powers of punishment, welcomed me and showed me how to lay my mattress in my hammock, fold my blankets so that my name showed clearly, and hang my towel in an equally exact location on the foot lashings of the hammock.

‘ Chow! ’

It was only half-past four, but Jack is an early riser, retires early, and must be fed accordingly, with breakfast at six-thirty, dinner at eleven-thirty, and supper at four-thirty. Through the open door two of my new comrades suddenly appeared, with a great cylinder swinging between them. Behind them another lugged a huge can, like the old-fashioned milk-can but more complicated in construction, while a fourth carried four long loaves of white bread in his arms. Deposited in the scullery, the top of the cylinder was unclamped, and from it was lifted a series of aluminum containers nested one on another like the vessels in a fireless cooker. And, in fact, here was something not far different; for these containers, filled several hours before in the mess-kitchen, were opened in the barrack as hot as when the food left the fire; and from the apparent milkcan, in reality a glorified thermos bottle, poured steaming coffee into ready cups.

We sat down at the long table, and my first meal in the Navy was consumed with alacrity. That meal, and every meal since, has been distinctly good: no relishes or frills, but good food, well-cooked and served hot. I have since seen the mess-kitchen, and its system and cleanliness are beyond reproach. Beans are usually served at one meal a day — big red mealy beans, cooked almost to a soupy consistency. Coffee, tea, and cocoa are served daily, coffee with breakfast and dinner, and tea or cocoa at night; but for some reason unknown to me, all are indiscriminately called ‘Java.’ We have meat, usually in a stew, at least twice a day, and always two vegetables with dinner. Bread is provided with every meal, and flutter with breakfast. Two or three times a week we have excellent cereal with breakfast, and on the other days soup with dinner. Jam is often served with supper, and we have fresh apples or stewed fruit daily.


Our barrack contains a strange assortment of men, but perhaps no stranger than every other barrack in the camp. Here are two Texas boys, who, during the extreme weather of the past few days, have clung tenaciously to the radiators. One was a farmerboy, another a fireman on a southern railroad. The head bell-boy of a Middle-West hotel swings in a hammock near my own, and on one side of me is a lithe, alert, blond-haired young man of perhaps four and twenty, who in his vicarious career has peddled papers,

‘ ridden the rods,’ bumming from town to town, driven a motor-truck, won his laurels as a successful prize-fighter, and waited on the table in a city cabaret — of all the men he is one of the most attractive, with a lively humor, a pleasant manner, and a quick sense of fair play. He joined the Navy, he told me, because it ‘offered him the finest opportunity to make a real man of bunself.’

Another interesting character is a young Wisconsin farmer-boy. Of French descent, from the old Green Bay settlement, he has developed a rugged American character, the result of the purification and enrichment of the blood of an ancient nation by three generations of labor on our north-western frontier. His bursts of wild laughter and rough horse-play are constantly blended with sentiment when mention is made of the finer things of life, and with a frank affection for those who show their friendship. He was the joint owner of a small farm, which he gave up to join the Navy, with apparently no thought of exemption when duty shone clear.

I must not forget to mention the pessimist of our little company. Away for the first time from home, he weathered the early anguish of nostalgia to settle into a fixed atmosphere of constant gloom. It was he who gathered voluminous data regarding supposititious sickness in the camp, although it would be hard to find anywhere so large a number of men in such splendid health. It was he who always told with sour visage the latest camp-gossip if it held bad future omens. I last saw him on the way to the camp hospital, where he was to have his tonsils removed; and I think he was really complacent in contemplation of his discomfort to come.

Of the eastern colleges, Amherst and Harvard are represented in our barrack each by a graduate, and there are a number of boys from various western state universities. A painter, whose good-natured laziness and rotund figure immediately won him the nickname of ‘Butterfly,’ a hotel clerk, the assistant purchasing agent of a large automobile company, a carpenter, a bond salesman, and a number of youthful clerks and office-boys complete our numbers. It is interesting to find how many of the recruits are under draft age.

It is still dark with the blackness of five o’clock when the barrack chief calls us in the morning with his ‘Hit the deck, boys.’ Five minutes to tumble out into the brilliance of the electric lights flashed on sleeping eyes, fold our blankets, lash up our hammocks, and get out our toilet articles, is all the time allowed. In line we answer to our names, and then a rush to the showerbaths, with much friendly ‘joshing’ and cheering as those hardy ones who turn on the cold water spatter the crowd.

As soon as we are dressed comes the first of our three daily house-cleanings. After the entire room is swept out, all the cracks and corners are cleaned with water and a stiff broom, and then dried with a cloth. Then the floor is mopped and dried, and the whole room carefully dusted. The same complete cleansing is at the same time given to the ‘head’ or wash-room, the scullery, and the vestibule; and after dinner and supper the operation is repeated. At least twice a week all the windows are washed, and a weekly scrubbing is administered to our benches and tables.

For four days wo cleared the ground immediately about our barracks of the winter’s accumulation of snow, which had piled about the buildings in fouror five-foot drifts. With huge improvised sleds, carts, boxes, and every possible kind of receptacle, the forty-eight men in the two barracks beneath our roof loaded the snow and dragged it to a near-by ravine. Under a bright sun shining in a cloudless sky, hundreds of Jackies from the other barracks, like the uniformed students of some great university, dashed up and down the slippery roads with frequent collisions and endless merriment.

In command of each company of men in the detention camp is a young seaman who has passed through the School of Instruction, where these men are trained to instruct the recruits, not only in the rudiments of drill and seamanship, but especially in cleanliness, both personal and general, and in deportment and obedience. Our company commander is a fine big Texan, with a soft southern inflection, a ready smile, and a rigidity of purpose that compels prompt obedience. As likely as not he will appear at five in the morning to catch the laggard riser, or at midnight to check the man on watch in the barrack-room. By day he is our counselor and guide and drill-master. Under his crisp commands the long blue-clad lines tramp back and forth across the snow-packed drill-ground. ‘Squads right into line, march!’ and we swing sharply past him. A dozen other companies are drilling also, under their respective commanders. It is an inspiring scene.

A few days after my arrival our barrack quota was completed, and we marched down to headquarters to receive our complete outfit. Up to this time we all had to a certain extent retained our past identity; by the cut and fashion of our garments we clung to our little niche in civil life. But now all past identification was swept aside. Rapidly we stripped, in a great whitepainted room, casting to one side all articles, we did not wish to save, and tying in a bundle the garments we might wish to send home. Through a door the naked column passed, and here we were sorted into two files, each of perhaps a hundred men. We had brought our big cotton mattress-covers with us, and using these as bags, we passed to the end of the room, across which was a long counter. Behind the counter a dozen men served us with the various articles of our equipment, which they tossed into our bags with lightning-like rapidity and accuracy. And so specialized were they that a single glance at each man as he neared the counter was sufficient measurement by which to supply him with exactly the proper size and fit of garment. With distended bags we paused again in the back of the room, hurriedly dressed, and again formed in line. And now, as we stood fast, inspectors passed rapidly down the columns, to see that each man had been properly provided with shoes, trousers, and other garments of the right size. Wherever anything wrong was discovered, the fault was immediately corrected.

It may be of interest to enumerate the various articles provided each sailor by the government for his personal equipment. The following items are copied from my ‘Clothing and Small Store Requisition,’ and are issued to the recruits as the articles are needed:—

One pair of arctics, one pair of bathing trunks, two woolen blankets, whisk-broom, scrub-brush, shoe-brush, assorted buttons, needles, and thread, clothes-stops for tying each garment in a compact roll, knitted cap called a ‘watch cap,’ cloth ‘pan-cake’ cap, capribbon, comb, two sets of heavy underwear, four sets of summer underwear, woolen gloves, a dozen handkerchiefs, two white hats, jackknife, blue knitted jersey, two white jumpers and trousers, pair of leggins, silk neckerchief, heavy blue overcoat, blue overshirt and trousers, two towels, soap, six pairs of woolen socks, and a pair of high shoes. All this is provided without cost to the recruit.

To complete our equipment we were, a few days later, supplied with Red Cross ‘ comfort kits,’ and although they contained some duplications of our government equipment, they filled a big want and were promptly put in use by every one. Socks, mufflers, and wristlets also were given out, and these were particularly appreciated, because of the severity of the weather and our out-of-door life.

There are many hours in Detention, especially after supper, when time hangs heavily, and to the Y.M.C.A.

I owe a debt of gratitude for a slim shelf of books over the scullery sink, which the local Y.M.C.A. representative changes weekly. Collected from households throughout the county, these volumes possessed a rare variety. The first week it was School-Days at Rugby that stood boldly forth from the best-selling but less enduring volumes of more recent days. The next week came another assortment, and then it was Trilby, with Little Billee, Taffy, and the Laird, who helped me keep my thoughts from wandering too often homeward.

Every Saturday morning we are ‘inspected.’ Dressed in our blue suits, we stand at attention, with all our possessions spread at our feet on our clean white bag. Every garment is carefully rolled, according to an exact method, into a tight smooth roll, tied three inches from each end with a white ‘stop,’ or cord, knotted in a square knot. All the blue bundles are in one row, white bundles in another, and each garment is so rolled that the stenciled name of the owner appears in the centre of the roll. With swinging swords and full uniform, the officers check up our belongings and their appearance, and carefully inspect the cleanliness of the barrack, running white-gloved fingers along the doortops, in the sink, and along scullery shelves. A dirty window or a trace of dust brings the punishment of additional work in the week to come; but punishment is rarely necessary.

Sickness is the constant foe of any large body of men, but there can be little sickness here. First of all, Detention itself, through which every man must pass before entering the camp, practically eliminates all possibility of the introduction of sickness by fresh recruits. Furthermore, the breaking up of the men in Detention into several sections of twenty-four men, each section segregated from the others, prevents the spread of sickness in the detention camp. Conveniently located throughout Detention are a number of completely equipped hospitals and dispensaries, where the recruits are cared for when indisposed. An amusing rule, but one obviously necessary when the remedy is not palatable, is that the patient for whom pills or gargles are prescribed must present himself at the dispensary at the required hours, and take the remedy under the eyes of one of the doctors.

Filled with healthful work and drills that are a recreation, the days have passed quickly. Each evening we sit at the long white-scrubbed pine messtable and write letters home, read, study, and sew. Then there is laundry work to be done, for we seem to take pride in washing our own clothes, as it will soon be necessary for us to do on shipboard. Occasionally we have an entertainment, which consists of the Y.M.C.A. phonograph with its dozen worn records, an impromptu sparring bout, or, more often, an improvised band with a strange variety of instruments, to which all keep time with tapping feet and cheers for ’Dixie’ and ‘ Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.’ By nine we are ready for our hammocks, and deep breathing and occasional snores are flagrant, often before the guard has opened the last window. Sometimes during the night I wake with a sudden start, and as my eyes catch the matched-board ceiling so close above me, yellow in the glare of a near-by street light which shines in through the window, my thoughts carry me far away before sleep comes again. I am sure that there are many such thoughts here, although such things are rarely mentioned.

It was a bright blue morning and the sun was still stalking low behind the trees, when a bugle-note brought me suddenly to a halt. I was passing a turn in the road when it reached me. Everywhere bluecoated men and boys were working; their voices sounded here and there, word-snatches on the breeze. Half a mile away, against the pale western sky, a flagstaff pointed high above the green buildings. Fluttering, a flag was mounting to the peak. I stiffened and a shiver seemed to pass through me, the same emotional shiver that comes when the band goes by. My hand snapped to salute; the flag reached the peak, and the red stripes and star-flecked blue stood out against the sky.