Students of the Sea
THE three longest weeks of my life were my three weeks in ‘Detention,’ and yet, to make a paradox, the time passed with surprising rapidity. With the soft spring warmth now filling the air, and a brush of green over the surrounding fields, those three snowbound weeks seem long ago. I suppose it is because there have been so many changes since; and every change you make in the Navy seems revolutionary and drastic.
There were about two thousand men in Detention — boys, more properly speaking, for the average age was slightly less than twenty. Each day a bunch of raw recruits began their life there, to fill the places of those who, having passed their period of inspection and having received the various vaccinations, had been transferred to the great camp beyond. For some, an exact three weeks was all that was required; for others, the period was longer; and those who had seen a month in the camp were madly impatient to shoulder their neatly packed hammock and clothesbag, and be gone to take up the more intensive training for sea.
My detention period ended on the morning of the twenty-second day, a fine clear still winter morning, with a below-zero temperature that creaked in every footfall on the dry packed snow. For two days I had been ready, ‘rairing to go,’ as the Texas boys called it; and when the message finally came from the regimental headquarters, I needed only a few minutes to pack and shoulder my belongings, say good-bye to my companions, and take my way.
The Great Lakes Naval Training Station comprises the main camp, a complete naval training establishment of permanent brick buildings, designed to accommodate approximately fifteen hundred men. Surrounding this central unit, are the great recent additions, occupying about five hundred acres, with buildings of semi-permanent construction. These camps hear the suggestive names of naval heroes, and each camp is complete in its equipment, a naval training station in itself. To-day the united camps will accommodate over thirty thousand men; and since the beginning of the war the station has sent more than sixty thousand men to sea. It was to the main camp that I was transferred from Detention.
The next few weeks passed with relatively little incident. I was quartered in one of the big permanent brick buildings, and the days were so filled with ceaseless activity that time passed quickly.
In a great room on the second floor our hammocks were swung in two long rows, quite as they were in Detention; but here I was associated with boys who had all been some time on the station, and more was expected of us. Every morning at five the bugles sounded through the camp: first, one far off and very distant to sleep-filled ears; then others took up the summons; and before the last notes were stilled the Master-at-Arms was up and shouting, ‘Hit the deck, boys!’ and we were drunkenly swinging down from our hammocks, a good seven feet, to the floor below.
The company was divided each week into details, each with its particular work to perform. To our detail the floors, always spoken of as ‘the deck,’ were given to be scrubbed, mopped and dried. Another detail polished the wash-room or ‘head,’ to immaculate brilliancy. I was on a ‘sidewalk detail,’ and with half a dozen others cleaned the concrete walks about the building of snow or dust, as conditions demanded.
There was something about those morning hours that most of all identifies to me my sojourn in the Main Camp. Clear, cold mornings many of them were, when with brooms we brushed a powder of snow from the walk, often by moonlight. Often in those cold dark mornings, as we brushed the kitchen steps of the mess-hall we would scent on the warm air from opened windows a rich fragrance that is unforgettable. Breakfast for the petty officers’ mess was on the fires, and the aroma of bacon, with its suggested complement of fried eggs, filled stomachs empty from five to a seven-o’clock breakfast with infinite craving. Reluctantly we turned our faces and bent to our sweeping. Then as the moon slowly set behind the mess-hall, the dawn flushed the East with light behind the black silhouette of the Administration building, and with fingers numb with cold we tramped back to the barrack.
Two thousand sailors ate together in each of the two dining-rooms of the main mess-hall. It was a well-ordered crew, but the sound of so many voices, and the rattle of knives, forks, and dishes made a tumult that could be heard a block. At noon a part of the band played, while we ate, all the popular airs that the boys seemed never to tire of. It was fulsome music, with much brass and a great beating of drums; but it’s the way to make ‘Over There’ send a thrill through you. Mess was served by a white-clad ‘ mess detail,’ and everything was put on the white board tables with a filled plate at each place, before the men marched in. Navy slang is required, and wore a billof-fare printed, you would see ‘Java’ for tea or coffee, ‘punk’ for bread, ‘sand’ for salt, and something that sounds like ‘ slumgullion ’ for any kind of stew.
Our days were filled with drilling in the drill-hall, and, in fact, the greater part of the time of the recruit while on the station is taken up with foot-drill. It is difficult to teach seamanship to landsmen on a station, especially during the winter months; and even were an intensive course in seamanship practical, it could not give the fundamental value derived from these few weeks of drill. It is impossible to describe the change which this work quickly brings in the whole physical and mental bearing of the recruits. From a mob of slouching individuals, a few short weeks of training develops a company of alert and well-set-up men. Back and forth on the smooth floor the companies pass, white-shod legs swinging in perfect synchronism, shoulders thrown back, and chins drawn in above bare throats. On every shoulder the gunbarrels slant in parallel lines; feet beat a drum cadence on the floor. Company commanders and petty officers shout crisp commands; there is a rhythm of drums; the dark blue lines break to form ‘Company square,’ or ‘on right into line.’
On Wednesday we passed in review before the commanding officer. With our leggins and braids scrubbed to snowy whiteness, we swung down the hall behind the band. There are bands and bands, but the Navy bands play a music of their own; there is a spirit in their fast marches that makes you forget everything; you would follow on anywhere.
Often in the early morning, while we were still sweeping the sidewalks, distant calls and cheers would tell us of a draft leaving for sea; and sometimes we would see the long dark columns marching to their trains. There was no band at their head, but none was needed; and even the intermittent cheers from opened windows brought a vivid realization of why we were here and what it was all about.
Curiously, there is little discussion of the war at the station. There is too much to occupy us, to leave time for speculation. Every one knows he will some day go to sea; a vague realization to most of the boys, for very few have ever seen the ocean, and many have never even seen anything bigger than a row-boat. The general desire is to see Paris, and it is confidently assured that this will be granted, and that at some later date we shall probably march in triumph through Berlin, with the station band at the head playing a Sousa march. Then we will all come home and be comfortable heroes for the rest of our days. Germany is personified in the Kaiser; and whenever he is mentioned it, is usually in relation to some picturesque form of personal violence that the speaker hopes he may wreak upon him. It is a happy-go-lucky crowd, filled with youth and enthusiasm.
In connection with the cheerful unconcern of the average recruit, it is hard not to mention its relation to the effect which the death of one of the boys has upon his fellows. In so large a community sickness is sometimes fatal; and although, considering our numbers, these occasions are rare, there is now and then a call for a ‘firing squad,’ if a sailor’s burial is to be held in Chicago or some nearby town. At these times the prospect of a trip, despite the occasion, brings many times the required quota of volunteers, and the squad invariably departs with a holiday aspect. On their return the two chief topics of conversation centre on the appearance of the deceased and the meals which the party enjoyed; and the next day we are drilling again, and the world moves quite as cheerfuly as before.
In the eyes of our captain we are boys, and, to be sure, our average age is scarcely twenty. In those years between seventeen and twenty character is moulded, and it is here that the navy in general, and perhaps this station in particular, performs its greatest service to the country. From these months of healthful exercise and clean environment comes a strengthening of the moral as well as the physical fibre; there is born a sense of unity, order, and discipline; right and wrong are clearly separated and character is brought forward as an honorable and desirable attribute.
In an essay, ‘A Twentieth-Century OutlocK, written not long before his death, the late Captain A. T. Mahan voices an opinion that finds fulfillment in the Great Lakes Station, by a happy coincidence to-day commanded by a man at one time his aide: —
Is it nothing, in an age when authority is weakening and restraints are loosening, that the youth of a nation passes through a school in which order and obedience and reverence are learned, where the body is systematically developed, where ideals of self-surrender, of courage, of manhood, are inculcated, necessarily, because of fundamental conditions of military success? Is it nothing that youths out of the fields and the streets are brought together, mingled with others of higher intellectual antecedents, taught to work and to act together mind in contact with mind, and carrying back into civil life that respect for constituted authority which is urgently needed in these days when lawlessness is erected into a religion? It is a suggestive lesson to watch the expression and movements of a number of rustic conscripts undergoing their first drill, and to contrast them with the finished results as seen in the faces and bearing of the soldiers that throng the streets. A military training is not the worst preparation for an active life, any more than the years spent at college are time lost, as another school of Militarians insists.
In connection with the part the Navy plays in preparing boys ‘for an active life,’ no better illustrations could be found to verify Admiral Mahan’s contention than here before my eyes. Foremost come those general fundamental builders of character which are here taught and inspired — subordination, discipline, team-play, cleanliness, and the readiness instantly to obey. With minds and bodies well-ordered, the boys are separated into groups, to specialize according to their past experience or inclination. In the Yeoman School hundreds of young men are learning stenography, typewriting, and the fundamentals of their mother tongue. For paymaster advancements others are taking up studies, including finance, political economy, geography, and mathematics. In the Department of Public Works, engineers, architects, and draftsmen are being made. Here, with the inspiration of the tapering towers, often lost aloft in morning mists, others learn to send ‘winged words.’ In the hospitals some are taught the merciful arts of healing, and almost a thousand, under the guidance of the world’s greatest band-master, are learning to stir men’s souls with music. But chief of all, in the many schools for seamanship, they are learning to guide our argosies from sea to sea, in the peaceful years to come, and to bring back the heritage of the past. Nor must I fail to mention that great school of ground aviation, where several thousand are learning the intricacies of our coming navy of the sky. We have here a vast university, with a curriculum that builds strongly for the future.
My departure from the main station to one of the big outlying camps came — as all things seem to come in the Navy — at a minute’s notice. It was a Saturday, and I was already in line to march out for thirty-six hours ' shore leave,’ when the order came for me to ‘shove off’ for Camp Perry, to take up the job of assistant company commander in the Sixth Regiment.
The rank of company commander is peculiar, I believe, to the Great Lakes Station. From the recruits, from time to time, men are selected to act as chiefs of companies of approximately one hundred and fifty men. They are to their companies as a captain in the army is to the men under him — a commander in drills, responsible for the welfare, cleanliness and comfort of the men, and responsible further for the condition of the barracks in which they live. In the front of each barrack, facing the company street, is the room of the company commander and his assistant. In the rear, in two long barracks, the men swing the white hammocks from iron jackstays high above the deck. Under them are the company clerk, who checks the muster-roll and attends to the clerical details, and two chiefs of section, who exercise an under-authority over the men and lead their respective sections in drill.
Camp Perry was filled with men who had practically completed their sojourn on the station, and many of them were serving their second ‘hitch,’ or reenlistment in the Navy. I had, up to this time, known only the credulous recruit, and my new experience with a crowd erudite in station ways was at first discouraging. In the eyes of a sea-going ‘salty’ sailor we are all landsmen, and hence ‘rookies,’ until we have made one cruise; but even among rookies there are grades of distinction, and every man is almost childishly eager to have, at least, a ‘sea-going’ appearance, although he may never have smelled salt water. Our leggins, for instance, when new, are a rich tan color, but the constant scrubbing of months bleaches them snowy white. Accordingly, the few weeks’ recruit soon learns to spend incredible energy bleaching his leggins by artificial means, to approximate the longer enlisted men, and any recipe is eagerly accepted to attain the desired end. I remember, in Detention, how a number of the boys utilized the otherwise futile can of talcum powder provided in our Red Cross kits to powder their leggins each morning. And an enterprising tailor in the nearby city of Waukegan must have acquired a small fortune sewing stiff with cotton thread the brims of our white hats, to give them the desired ‘salty’ appearance.
There are many types of men here, but they quickly become distinguishable and fall into natural groups. Of these one is the ‘hard-boiled’ variety that delights in harmless bullying, and when given a little authority, becomes sometimes a burden to the rest of the community. Most of our ‘hard-boiled members have achieved their reputation with the hope that it would give them a bearing supposedly more seafaring. There are a few who are natural bullies, but they are the minority; in the majority of cases, however, the men are without affectation, natural in their ways and speech, glad to exchange letters from home, and unashamed to show their finer emotions when the occasion arises.
There were about fifteen hundred men in the Sixth, and for the most part they were enlisted in the groundaviation branch of the service — expert motor-machinists from the great Detroit automobile factories, taxidrivers, garage-workers, machinists, and a general mixture of various trades combined into one unit. Several of the men in my company wore red ‘hash marks’ — a diagonal band of red on the sleeve, just above the cuff, each mark signifying an enlistment in the navy. To these was accorded a natural deference due to their long experience, and their habits of dress and speech were quietly observed as a pattern to follow. From them also, in the few idle periods that were allowed us, came tales of foreign ports, of target practice, of the fleet, and of ‘shore liberty’ in every quarter of the world, with the inevitable windup of a free-for-all to the ultimate victory of the Yankee tar over the crew of some foreign battleship.
Our entertainment is well provided. In the great drill-halls are shown nightly the latest moving-picture films, and on frequent occasions complete theatrical productions are gratuitously staged by the managements of the Chicago theatres. Never, I imagine, have some of the actors and actresses received such ovations. Only a few nights ago I attended a vaudeville performance. Three thousand sailors crowded the front seats in the vast drill-hall. A sailor orchestra played the overture. Then, before the curtain appeared a woman in an evening gown of the rich theatrical vogue, and to the silent hall she sang a new topical song, to the effect that we had crossed the Delaware, we had crossed the Rio Grande, and we would cross the Rhine. At the last note a roar burst from the audience. Again and again she repeated the last verse; and when she finally left the stage, she was weeping, and the crowd had taken up the refrain under the guidance of the waving arms of the leader of the orchestra.
The manly art of self-defense is not neglected in our curriculum, nor, for that matter, are any of the sports that bring recreation to healthy men and boys. A former champion of the Atlantic fleet, now an ensign, U. S. N., is in charge of the boxing, and from our great numbers is drawn a wealth of pugilistic material. On Wednesday evenings in the winter, and in summer in the afternoons in a natural amphitheatre, the talent of the several camps is matched in the ring; and before the cheering white-clad audience nerve, skill, and determination are matched in clean-cut bouts which give indication of the spirit that is here undergoing training to meet on another day, in more bloody fields, an antagonist who may not play so closely to the rules of the celebrated marquis.
Athletics are an important part of the life of a sailor. On sea there are frequent boat-races between ships of the fleet, and at the station we find equivalent competitive exercise in boxing, track-races, and football and baseball games between the teams of the several camps. In winter the basket-ball team makes a fairly extensive tour of the country, and such trips of the athletic teams have their positive value in attracting young men of virile type to the Navy. Wrestling is another sport that brings to the front the manhood of the boy, and I have seen a thousand faces tense in the white electric light following the snaky twistings of the heroes of the padded ring, impulsive cheers recognizing the subtlety of each particular hold. In the basement of one of the main buildings is a large white swimming-pool; on the floor above, a complete gymnasium stands open for the use of the sailors; and in another part of the same building is a bowling-alley. Jack’s physical fitness and entertainment seem assured.
It would be ingratitude to fail to mention the various buildings maintained through different organizations by public contribution, for the recreation and amusement of the enlisted men. First, if for no other reason than by the scope of its operation, is the Y.M.C.A., and the Great Lakes is fortunate in possessing at least half a score of these practical buildings. In them are provided writing materials and desks, and this alone, I am confident, is responsible for fifty per cent of the ‘ letters home ’ — letters that without this simple suggestion might never be written. Here also are big warm stoves, magazines, and occasional moving pictures in the evening. I am sorry that the rules of the station, due primarily to the frame construction of the buildings, prohibit indoor smoking. It is the only thing of the kind that the Y.M.C.A. cannot afford us.
Similar buildings are maintained with equal efficiency by the Knights of Columbus; but there are two other activities which seem to me to deserve perhaps even more detailed mention than the foregoing, because of the fact that the more limited scope of their operations has given them less general publicity.
The Young Women’s Christian Association fills an unquestioned place in the life of our station. There is something, truly, in the ‘woman’s touch’ that can be found in no organization under masculine direction; and to boys and men far separated from mothers, wives, sisters, and sweethearts, the open fires, chintz curtains, and dainty furnishing of the Y.W.C.A. Hostess Houses give a touch of femininity that is tacitly appreciated. But the even greater function of these houses, presided over by gracious women, whose presence is an inestimable service, is their contribution to the station of a meeting place for men and women; a right environment, where mothers and fathers may meet their boys, and where Nancy may meet Jack for a cup of tea and a sandwich, and listen to something or other on the phonograph while conversation flows on in the quiet channels of decent surroundings.
The other organization that I have in mind is the American Library Association. During the past two months I have been stationed‘west of the tracks,’ in Camp Perry, and, later, in Camp Dewey. Midway between is the building of the A.L.A., and here I quickly found a quiet haven for study, in a big, warm, well-aired building, filled with books that met every desire of study or relaxation, presided over by intelligent gentlemen eager to give their help to the war by sharing with the boys their wider intellectual points of view.
Our health is a matter of no less concern, however, than our mental welfare, and in this matter the government shares no responsibility with outside interests. Needless to say, our hospitals, dispensaries, and so forth are of the highest order of efficiency; but a description of these is but the description of efficient hospitals anywhere. It is the incidentals that give the pictures. In our barracks our hammocks swing side by side in double rows down the dormitory. To check the spread of colds and contagious diseases, the hospital authorities installed movable cotton curtains, which each night are easily adjusted between the heads of the hammocks. These ‘ sneeze curtains,’ as they were immediately dubbed, very soon had an appreciable effect on the sickness lists of the regiments.
Happy is the sense of humor of the sailor. Several times each week we are inspected for indications of measles or scarlet fever. As the first sign is a rash on the stomach, it is here that we are inspected. There is a cry by whoever first sees the visiting surgeon, of ‘Attention!’ then comes the word, ‘Belly inspection,’ and we fall into line, and with our blouses and shirts pulled up above our breeches march past the doctor. It was a Texan who, with a fine disregard for the majesty of our goldstriped surgeon, secured from the clothing depot a paper stencil, such as we use to mark our clothing, and with black paint lettered his bare stomach with ‘Good morning, doctor.’ There are times when even an officer laughs.
• All Texas has certainly enlisted in the Navy, and as our average age is below the draft age, it suggests even to the casual that the spirit of the Alamo goes marching on. Tall and lean, they come from Texas towns, villages, and the open plains. All speak with the rich accent of the south, but most of all they are distinguished by their native manners, which seem to be invariably present. Few of them have ever seen a boat, but all of them are eager to leave their native element and become sailors. They are a splendid class of men, a type that seems to exemplify the ideal American.
Among the men who were directly under me in the regiment was a short sandy fellow who, I learned, had spent a number of years as a sailor on West Coast freighters. Twice ship-wrecked, he had finally retired from seafaring to the less tempestuous occupation of a gold-prospector in Alaska. On a periodic trip to a nearby town he had learned that the country was at war, and without stopping to dispose of his claims, — which held greater possibilities of wealth with every telling, — he hurried to the States and enlisted in the Navy. His chief desire while on the station was to climb one of the fourhundred-foot radio towers and perform a hand-spring on the top; a desire, happily for life and limb, never to be gratified. As it was, his leisure time was completely filled by embroidery and the weaving of mats and fringes from ropeends.
In the same barracks slept a young ex-minister of the Gospel, whose slight figure and quiet manner contrasted with the rugged physique and picturesque speech of the gold-prospector. They were both willing workers, and a friendship sprang up between them, for each found in the other qualities for wonder and admiration. I never heard the history of the minister, but there was in the intensity of his patriotism a promise for his future.
Many of the men were married, and on Wednesday afternoons, which were set apart for visitors, wives and children were much in evidence. One of the men, a dark boyish-looking fellow, with fine wide-set eyes and constantly smiling mouth had particularly attracted me by his quiet willingness. He had been a motor-expert in one of the big automobile factories at Detroit, and threw up a high-pay job to join the Navy. One Wednesday afternoon he proudly introduced me to his wife and three-year-old daughter. Later, the wife told me of her pride in her husband’s enlistment and her satisfaction in having been able to find a good position for herself in order to keep up the earning capacity of the family in his absence.
I was listening one morning to a fellow company commander drilling his company in the street before their barracks. The men were listless, and there was absent from the drill the smart precision that instantly identifies the drillwork of a sailor. Without long patience he finally halted his men, and in a few short sentences demanded their attention. One sentence in particular I shall never forget, for it is a crystallization of the spirit of the Station.
‘Don’t just do your bit,’ he said; ‘The men on this station do their best.’
There is another phrase that is in a sense our motto. It is, ’For the good of the ship.’ Landlubbers though we are, we are taught by our captain to consider our camp as a ship in which we must take a true sailor’s pride, whose reputation is intrusted to us, a sacred thing. All our speech must be nautical, our life is nautical, and although we live on land, our floor is our deck; when on the station, we are on board ship; and to step outside the gate is to ‘go ashore.’ For the good of the ship we are taught that the Navy in general, and our station in particular, are judged by our behavior and appearance. To go on liberty requires personal cleanliness; to remain on liberty demands exemplary behavior. It is a single but an inclusive creed, that guides the accumulative spirit of youth.
A few weeks ago we passed in review before the Secretary of the Navy. With our regimental colors standing out in a strong cold breeze from the Lake, we formed in the one wide street and swung into line behind our band. I was marching near the head of the column, and as we turned a bend in the road I looked back at the regiment, extended at right angles to the foremost company Fifteen hundred strong, four abreast, we filled a long half-mile of road. The sky was blue, and the sun heightened the brilliance of white caps and leggins and caught here and there a flash from gray gun-barrels. In the middle of the column, the red bars of the flag made a dash of color, and beside it the blue regimental flag, with its yellow device of the Aviation, flapped in the breeze. From every regimental street similar columns were emerging. Bands were everywhere playing, the music in windtorn fragments sounding now and again loud in our ears.
Before the Administration Buildings we finally formed, and for an hour we marched past the reviewing stand. Men from every state in the Union, brought together by a common call, we went past. The great band, massed together, thundered its music. From roofs, flag-staffs, and towers multicolored signal flags dipped and waved. High against the blue above us was the flag of our country. Here was America, with its answer to the world. Here were the inheritors of Perry, Decatur, Hull, Farragut, and Dewey. Here were men from whose number would come new heroes.