by Willie Lagarde
Living conditions described in this story are no doubt familiar to all Yorktown crews but visitors with no military experience may be curious about some aspects of life at sea for the ordinary Gunnery dept sailor during WW2
For those people and for crewmen who may have forgotten read on.
When we operated in the central Pacific there was no such thing as good nights sleep. To begin with it was only on every third night that we had the “night in” where we were off watch from 8 PM until 4 AM.
There were forty or more bunks in many sleeping compartments and only a few of them could feel the air from the oscillating fans. These bunks were claimed by the senior petty officers and no one argued about it.
If you got in your bunk and actually fell asleep you would soon awaken soaked with sweat. Many of us tried covering with a towel we had wet down with cold water but it would quickly assume room temperature and once again you were sweating. Your bedding became damp with sweat and the fire proof mattress cover kept it from drying out completely during the day.
We did have opportunities to air bedding occasionally but we learned if you attempted to sleep in your bunk the only way to keep it from becoming smelly was to leave the cover on.
As for myself, once the cold wet towel method failed I looked for other places to sleep about 70 to 80% of the time we were at sea.
Temperature on the flight deck at night was always bearable, even pleasant most of the time, but it rained almost every night, usually it seemed, just about the time you fell asleep. Sleeping under an airplane didn’t work, the rain drops would find you.
Covered weather decks like the foc’sle and fantail were popular sleeping spots but they were crowded.
Wherever you decided to sleep it had to be some place where you could be found in the dark when it was wake up time for your watch.
None of the gunnery department people I served with ever got enough sleep. Anytime of day or night if you were able to lay down in a cool spot there was no tossing or turning, you fell asleep almost immediately. “I gotta get some sleep” was the most uttered phrase in the gunnery department.
Places that I found that were good for sleeping were the top of the gun deck ammunition ready boxes, and in the wire mesh bins under the port side flight deck overhang. These bins were used to store empty 5" powder cases and when they were full, or nearly full, if you didn’t tie a safety line around your waist you were in danger of rolling over the side of the bin into the sea below.
It was always cool and breezy but I was never completely comfortable knowing a long forty foot drop to the sea and probable death awaited me if I made a mistake and fell in. It is doubtful the sleeping men on the fantail would have heard me yelling as the ship left me alone in the sea at night.
The longest hour at night was on the 12-4 AM watch when it was your turn with the phones. When control would start calling mounts for a phone check every hour or so invariably someone was sleeping and men on other mounts would holler or try to get over and wake him up before the third or fourth call.
Even though I managed to sleep through the GQ gong one morning, (I was already on my battle station) reaction of the men to the GQ gong was almost like a reflex reaction or instantaneous as if they had been hit with a jolt of electricity.
One moonlit night while standing the 12-4 watch on Mt # 5 40 MM, I had the phones on when we were alerted that bogies were about ninety miles out and closing. Whether or not they knew of our whereabouts or intended to attack we expected GQ to sound shortly.
Since I was already on my battle station, for the first time I was able to observe the men on the flight deck react to the gong. The initial sound of the gong and men moving was almost simultaneous. It was reported on one of these nights a man jumped up, ran over the side and was never seen again
Fresh water priority was drinking, boilers, cooking and bathing last. When we were “battle cruising” in Indian country (combat zone) often at high rates of speed there were sometimes water shortages. Shower opportunities were limited and when allowed the rule was 15 seconds to wet down, turn off water to soap down and then 15 seconds to rinse. No one was timing with a stop watch but if anyone was wasting water the other men let him know about it.
Body odor was a fact of life and almost everybody had a can of talcum powder in his locker. Men who used it frequently to hide the body odor were called “puff dusters.”
There were five cold salt water showers down on the fourth deck along with salt water soap that would lather in salt water. These were available for use as often as anybody wanted them. They got the dirt off but left a film of salty residue on your skin that was irritating to heat rash and other ailments.
Some of us began beating the system by taking a salt water shower then filling a gallon can from the scuttlebutt (drinking fountain) to wash off the salt. When this was discovered we were threatened to have the drinking water cut off. They actually did this for a short period and put a stop to our little scheme. In retrospect, the gallon of water wasn’t critical to water management and shutting off drinking water was only to encourage adherence to the spirit of the regulation.
In spite of the water restrictions, which we understood, we were told to keep our bodies as clean as possible to lessen the possibility of infection if we were wounded.
Almost everyone had heat rash and some had other conditions like impetigo and acne. One of my gun crew mates had acne so bad when we came into the states in 1944 he didn’t go home.
Heat was a part of our lives during the Pacific war and we endured it because there was no other way. Also, we were aware whatever hardships we faced, our brothers and friends running up those beach heads had it worse.
This working party may not have been typical but was not unusual.
We were loading 50 cal ammunition. We used a lot of it because each of our F6F fighters had six fifty caliber machine guns while the TBM’s had two in the wings and one in the turret.
Three of us were down in the magazine stacking the wooden boxes as they came down on the bomb elevator. These boxes weighed about sixty pounds and there was only a slight indentation on either end of the box to grab them with the finger tips. When we first went down, the deck in the magazine was spotless. Temperature was probably well over a hundred. We stripped to our skivvy shorts and began stacking the boxes in the bins. Before we were finished we were slipping and sliding in what appeared to be a thin muddy slurry on the deck. We realized that every bit of the moisture came from our bodies and the particulate matter from the boxes.
I believe if they had told us to clean it up the Port Chicago mutiny may have been the second in WW2 history. Not really.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wash our own clothes as we did in boot camp. Dirty clothes were collected in bags and sent to the laundry on the designated day for your division. There was always some enterprising individual, or individuals who for a monthly stipend would sort the laundry when it was sent back to the sleeping compartment. If you didn’t ante up you would have to scrounge for your clothes. It was well worth the buck or two.
When we were operating near the Japanese home islands especially Hokkaido, it actually got cold and we were issued jackets and foul weather gear. Kamikaze activity increased but what a pleasure it was to sleep in our bunks and covering with a blanket.
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