Accent on Living

Notes from a Navy Cruise

This was a shakedown cruise for Bigelow, a fine thing because the ship was on her own, by herself, after two solid months of training exercises off Cuba. Bigelow was commissioned only last November, and the cruise was the last test of her installations, her personnel, and indeed of the ship herself before she joins the fleet to work in concert with other vessels.

Our itinerary began in mid-March at Guantanamo Bay, where I joined the ship, and continued to Saint Thomas, Curacao, Trinidad, through the Canal to Peru, and back to Boston via the Canal, Honduras, and Charleston, South Carolina. We encountered rain only once in the five weeks of the cruise, a two-hour cloudburst off Florida, and no rough weather at any time, save for the first night beyond the Canal. We had picked up there as passengers a couple of southbound U.S. army officers, one of whom spoke up feelingly the next morning about the motion. “Someone ought to speak to that driver,” he said. “He was hitting all the bumps last night.”

A reader berated me a few years ago for asserting that the crew of any destroyer tend to think of their own ship as the best of the lot. My idea, he contended, came from soothing influences exerted on me by the officers, and I was reminded of the episode on my first visit to Bigelow’s store, a tiny T-shaped cubicle of 16.17 square feet, stuffed with small items of merchandise, and barely room behind the counter for two men standing. “They don’t give you much room,” I remarked, stupidly, to the Storekeeper 2/c. “Room, I’ve got plenty of room,” he replied. “Why, on some destroyers the store is just nothing but a hole in the wall.”

It was easy to share anyone’s admiration for Bigelow. She carries a crew of some 260, 17 chief petty officers, and 15 officers. Her shaft horsepower is about ten times that of a merchant vessel four times her size. Eighth to be commissioned in the new Forrest Sherman class of destroyers, she is sizable (419 feet, 3700 tons), potent, handsome, and — not least — her living spaces are air-conditioned. One tropical afternoon, when the cooling system was shut down in an exercise to simulate battle damage, the thermometer in my cabin rose from 70 to over 100 degrees in less than an hour, and, with ocean temperatures in the 80s under the fierce sun, another hour would have boosted it at least twenty degrees higher.

Bigelow’s air-conditioning comes from two centrally controlled units, each covering about half the ship and holding daytime temperatures to about 70 to 75 degrees. The air in even the most out-of-the-way spaces was fresh and odorless; the same was true in the mess hall during the evening’s movies, regardless of how many people were smoking. The effectiveness of the system in the stifling heat of some of the ports we visited suggested to me the wisdom of checking up on the “individual “ air conditioning advertised by certain cruise ships: is it really air conditioning or just blower ventilation?

Navy laundry in the tropics is a vast operation. The ship’s laundry operated twenty-four hours a day in three-man shifts. For reasons that I did not inquire, the laundry did not iron handkerchiefs or pajamas, but its performance with shirts would compare favorably with that of a first-rate New York hotel. As one of the men in the laundry explained it, “Well, the shirt-tearin’ machine and button-crusher is both out of order.” The navy creates a laundry bag simply by knotting the end of a trouser leg.

I set all this down from a passenger’s view, a layman, a traveler lacking competence to evaluate the exercises, the drills, and the hard work at odd hours which lay between our ports of call. The most vivid scene of the cruise for me was the putting off of a shore party in a boat from Bigelow’s floodlighted deck at dawn, against the background of a tropical sunrise, but for the professional it may well have been the moment when a sleeve target vanished in the first burst from the ship’s antiaircraft battery.

At Rodman, the small naval station in the Canal Zone near Balboa, the ship was busy for most of the night, fueling and loading supplies for a government scientific, expedition to the south, but my own problem in that episode was how to stop eating the marvelous doughnuts provided for the crew’s coffee break at midnight. There must have been thousands of the doughnuts, some plain, some lightly frosted with vanilla, some with chocolate, all impossibly hot and delicate.

Invitations to dine on a navy ship or at an American base are highly regarded by residents in any of the hot countries. The main reason is that one can drink the water and eat the food without fear of the consequences. Lettuce seemed to top the list of foodstuffs most esteemed, with potatoes in any form a close runner-up, milk and ice cream next.

In a service scattered around the globe, coming and going in a constant reshuffle of assignments, navy people protect themselves with a ready hospitality that makes for quick but nonetheless warmhearted friendship. “It’s hard sometimes to leave your friends so suddenly,” the Captain remarked one evening, “but you tell yourself that sooner or later you’ll see them again, and you do. I saw an old shipmate in the Gatun Locks this morning that I hadn’t met for fifteen years. He was going the other way, commanding a DE. We had quite a nice little chat there for a minute or two.”

Navy ships in the Canal usually take advantage of the fresh water of Gatun Lake for a general swabdown, and the orders of the day contained a warning that “skylarking with fire hoses” could be dangerous. “Better get under cover,” said the Captain as the cleanup began. “Of all the dangers of life at sea, the most formidable is a sailor with a fire hose in his hand.”

I should like to try to get on paper some time a decent account of Commander Audley Hill McCain, Bigelow’s commanding officer, a trim, high-spirited South Carolinian who knew more about the ship and all her complex apparatus than anyone else aboard. His inspections left a wake of awestruck comments that lasted for days; he would gravitate to an unfilled greasecup as if he had the blueprints in hand; the code number on a box stored in a wrong compartment was enough to bring from him a precise mention of the space where it did belong and why it belonged there.

I believe Bigelow’s Commander could have repaired an engineering or electronic breakdown as well as any of the specialists on board. He was equally effective, warmhearted and sensible, in dealing with human problems that arose. He was thirtyeight, as agile as the liveliest of the youngsters, and his handling of the ship in anything like a tight place was a delight to see. I could not help wondering how many executives of his capacities could be found in private employment. Bigelow’s liberty parties, I might add, encountered no boos or stone-throwing anywhere on the cruise. It was stirring to see this handsome ship lying in a foreign port, with her air of competence, cleanliness, and well being, and to hear far from home the accents of Alabama, Indiana, Monhegan, and Manhattan.

( To be continued)