Monthly Archives: September 2014

USS Tutuila – At Last

After an all too short stay aboard the USS Amphion, the repair ship USS Tutuila (Too Too Wee’ La) returned to Norfolk and tied up at its customary spot. I was detached and left the Amphion with a heavy heart; due not only to the recent tragedy, but because I was leaving what had quickly become an otherwise happy home. I had fit in nicely in the Amphion’s engine shop, and had made new friends. I also liked that the ship was located at the D & S (destroyer and submarine) piers which were separated, just a bit, from the main portion of the naval station.

I was fond of the destroyer, as a ship type, and had originally, unsuccessfully, requested assignment to one of these “greyhounds of the fleet”. While this was not to be, at least aboard the Amphion I was surrounded by destroyers, and could at least feel that I was somehow a part of it all.

So once again, for good or bad, I ventured forth into the unknown. I transported myself, and all of my stuff, to my new destination; this time the repair ship USS Tutuila (ARG-4), located at Pier 2 of the sprawling main complex of the Norfolk Naval Station.

Also tied up just then at Pier 2, across from the Tutuila, was the USS Long Beach (CGN-9), a guided missile cruiser with the distinction of being, at the time, one of only three surface ships with nuclear power; the others being the USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25), and the famous aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) — successor to the even more famous USS Enterprise (CV-6).

 Additionally on Pier 2, at the time of my arrival, was a sharp looking Marine detachment from the Long Beach going through close order drills. It was through this altogether impressive example of the real Navy that I walked, with all my stuff, to my new home; an ancient — but nonetheless shipshape — member of “Service Fleet, Atlantic”.

The “Toot” was the last remaining repair ship dedicated almost exclusively to the service and repair of diesel engines; which the Navy employs in great numbers. From small boat engines, to generators, to the main propulsion of small ships, diesel engines are, literally, everywhere, and the Tutuila’s large ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) Shop was kept quite busy.

In the U.S. Navy, ships are named by type, and each type for particular things. (i.e. Battleships were named for US states, Aircraft Carriers — with exceptions — were in those days named for battles (or for very important persons), Destroyers for war heroes, and Submarines for fish and other sea creatures, and so forth.

Ships of the ARG (Auxiliary Repair, Engine) class to which the Tutuila belonged were named for islands which were, or had been, owned by the United States. Tutuila is in fact the principal island of American Samoa, on which is the capital of Pago Pago. So our old repair ship did have an exotic, if somewhat unusual, name.


Temporary Duty: USS Amphion (AR-13)

After six days aboard the USS Vulcan, I was reassigned yet again. This time I was happy to go, and even happier when I reported aboard the repair ship USS Amphion (AR-13), located, not in the main portion of the naval station, but at the D & S (destroyer and submarine) Piers about a mile upriver.

Aboard the Amphion I finally got to work in a shipboard engine repair shop. Located abaft (behind) the mid-portion of the ship one level below the main deck, the shop was small by the standard which I would later come to know. However, it was adequate to the needs of a ship not dedicated solely to the repair of internal combustion engines. The shop was a comfortable environment, the work – that which I was assigned to do – was interesting, and I immediately got along with all the personnel there. Soon thoughts, and discussions, of my requesting a transfer to stay aboard started to occur. Alas, this was not to be; the Amphion had no billet for an additional Engineman rating, and the soon to return Tutuila apparently had need of me.

A feature of the Amphion’s engine shop was the large hatch trunk which took up a fair amount of the shops floor space. A hatch trunk is a large opening, first in the main deck, then in decks directly below, creating a vertical passage by which items large and small may be lowered into, or lifted out of, the interior spaces using the ship’s cargo crane. Under normal circumstances hatch trunks were closed with several removable metal covers, and on the main deck sealed by an additional watertight canvas cover as well.

One Friday, just before lunchtime, working in the engine shop, we heard a loud crash from somewhere below. Almost immediately a call came over the PA system for the ship’s doctor to report immediately to the Metal Hold — a metal and materials storage space two decks directly below our shop.

Very soon thereafter we received a call to remove the covers from our hatch trunk, and I was ordered to help with this task. As we removed the covers — and covers were removed on the deck immediately below — a terrible scene presented itself.

A few days prior, in the Metal Hold, several large thick metal plates, used for patching the sides or the decks of ships, had been delivered and temporarily leaned against one of the ships frame members and secured with a large C-Clamp. On this day a sailor had removed the clamp in preparation for properly stowing the plates. When he did so the plates toppled, trapping him beneath.

It was this scene, and the futile attempts by the ship’s doctor to revive the sailor, which met my eyes; a sight I will never forget.

It was a mournful weekend aboard the Amphion, and appropriately rainy and grim. I recall being awakened the next morning to a memorial message on the PA. For me, the petty annoyances of recent weeks — the loss of my boat engineer job, holey-stoning the decks of the Vulcan, not being able to stay with my new friends aboard the Amphion — were put into stark perspective.

Before going to breakfast that morning I stood along an outside passageway and stared out at the gloomy, rain-swept Elizabeth River and felt sad, and alone, and very homesick.


Temporary Duty: USS Vulcan (AR5)

While awaiting the return of the repair ship USS Tutuila — to which I would be permanently assigned — I was enjoying a rather pleasant interim job as small boat engineer on the waters around Norfolk, VA. Suddenly, along with several others at the receiving station, I was assigned to temporary duty aboard the repair ship USS Vulcan. And guess how we spent our days. That’s right, we cleaned!

My Engineman Striker status counted for exactly nothing aboard the Vulcan, and though I protested that I should be assigned to the ship’s engine repair shop, each and every one of us was relegated as extra personnel in a deck division. Looking back, I am speculating that perhaps the receiving station was filling up and the Vulcan simply had space, and the temporary need for extra laborers who, unlike me, had little else to do.

One of the activities in which we engaged was holy-stoning the expansive teak decks of the old ship. Teak decking was still common in larger ships in those days. Laid over the steel deck plating the narrow teak boards formed a surface which provided sound footing, resistance to salt water damage, and, when clean, looked pretty spiffy. Keeping it clean, however, required two small items, and a large amount of human effort.

A holy stone is a small brick of white limestone which the Navy, from its beginnings, has used to clean teak decks where they existed on ships large and small. The stone, and a swab (mop) handle used to manipulate it, were the tools. The driving force of this activity was the brute labor of a large number of sailors.

The brutes, me included in this instance, were lined shoulder to shoulder, with the stones placed before us in a line along a single board of the wooden deck. There was a depression ground into the top of the stone into which one end of the wooden swab handle was placed, and in unison — somewhat like a Radio City chorus line – we would lean in and push the stones back and forth along the grain of the teak. A couple of lucky sailors would be assigned the easier tasks of splashing saltwater and sprinkling sand onto the deck to enhance the cleaning.

When each board was cleaned to the exacting satisfaction of the petty officer in charge, a signal was given and we would index the stones one board forward, and the process would begin again, and again, and again… This task, on which we toiled for two full days, remains my lasting memory of the USS Vulcan: that and wishing fervently and often that I were somewhere else. The ship — to me a hulking monstrosity in most ways — did however have a fine looking deck.


The Music of My Time – Random Thoughts

Having met and surmounted the challenge of kindergarten, and endured the long, slow drag through grade school, in the fall of 1958 I achieved the next major milestone in my life — the transition to junior high school. At about that time I was also becoming a aware of, and increasingly interested in, the popular music of the day, and the dominant music of the demographic into which I was now entering was of course Rock ‘n Roll.

For the most part early Rock ‘n Roll was an uncomplicated music, at least from the listener’s perspective. Sure there were back-up singers, and a lot of orchestration in some of the hit songs — mostly violins it seemed — but to start a band, all that was really required was the tried and true four-person formula; lead and rhythm guitars, bass, and drums. Or simpler yet, a few guys and an acoustic guitar, or maybe just some guys standing on a south Philly street corner singing A capella.

As to the singers, there was Elvis of course, Bill Haley and his Comets. Buddy Holly, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, Bobby Rydell, and the like. There were the ballads of Connie Francis, The Lettermen, and Brenda Lee, and the upbeat songs of Dodie Stevens, Paul Evans, and The Playmates (Beep, Beep). And the teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Dion DiMucci, and of course Ricky Nelson.

Rock ‘n Roll instrumentals included the guitars of Duane Eddy, Santo and Johnny, The Virtues, and the Ventures. And, lest we forget, there were a few orchestral holdovers from prior times; Percy Faith, Prez Prado, Al Caiola, the beautiful, but lesser-known, “Our Winter Love” by Bill Purcell and his Orchestra, and always Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.

As time moved along, as it always does, the music was changing, as it also always does; but it was a slow evolution and hardly noticed. And then something happened. On a Friday evening in September 1963, I was allowed to use the family car – the 58 Chevy – to go to the Y, or the CYA dance, or wherever Vern and I would decide to go. While driving to pick up my friend I was of course listening to WLS on the car’s radio. During a break from the music, and the occasionally frantic patter of the DJ, I heard a very cryptic ad stating simply – “The Beatles are coming”. I didn’t know what that meant, so the phrase passed quickly through the conscious part of my brain. But it stuck somewhere because I do, in fact, remember quite clearly the time and place where I first heard mention of the Beatles.

From such innocuous and insignificant moments sometimes spring life-changing events, for soon the Beatles did come, bringing with them the rest of the British Invasion, and Rock & Roll — as we knew it — was dead. Actually, even before the Beatles, popular music (that is to say, the music of the young) was starting to splinter into many genres. In addition to the introduction of the Brits, which brought us everything from the Beatles and Stones, to Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, and Mary Hopkin, the homegrown stuff now suddenly seemed different as well.

It wasn’t just Rock ‘n Roll anymore. Hits like The Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and “Washington Square” by The Village Stompers, and groups like the Kingston Trio gave a hint that folk music could join the mainstream. And so it was that traditional folk music, transitioned by the likes of Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, became “Folk Rock” and was now a large part of the popular music scene.

Phil Spector changed American pop music forever with his “Wall of Sound”, and with the girl groups of the 1960s; the Crystals, the Chiffons, the Shirelles, the Ronettes, and so on.

That old time rock ‘n roll now had a theme; the music of “Big Surf” and “Fast Cars” was rolling, or catching a wave. Spearheaded by the Beach Boys, the genre included Ronny and the Daytonas, The Rip Chords, and a lot of good stuff by Jan & Dean.

Doo-wop was gone, but Motown added a rich diversity, bringing R & B to everyone’s transistor radio and phonograph, and introducing us to superstars like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, and oh so much more.

And thank God for all of it. I’ve stated elsewhere in this narrative that I believe we are all defined, to a large degree, by the music we experience in a narrow band of years*. For me that time was the first half of the 1960s. What a grand musical era in which to come of age.

      *See “Generations” in the Jr High School Category