Exhausted from the 120 hour ride in old passenger cars just taken out of the boneyards of railroad storage and so crowded that soldiers and sailors had to sit on the floors, or sit together in threes and fours on old seats made for two, Don like the other passengers stood in shifts or tried to get some shut eye by crawling under the seats and stretching out on the floor. The aisles were stacked with seabags and their other gear was stuffed in every nook and cranny the could find. For Naval recruits straight out of Boot Camp, it must have seemed crowded beyond belief. They were about to find out to their sorrow that their discomfort was just beginning.
The going was slow. Military trains were often sidelined because war materials took priority over troops. Brief whistle stops gave the boys an opportunity to get off, stretch their legs and maybe get a quick bite to eat at the train stations set up along the way. If they were fortunate perhaps they might find long tables set up by the Red Cross where coffee and donuts were served by volunteer girls. Often all they had were sandwiches and maybe an apple passed through the windows when the train stopped to water or coal. It was still a long hard trip even for young men in the physical prime of their lives.
Don’s train arrived in Newport News, Virginia on the 19th of May, 1943, where the sailors joining their ships were processed. The entire group spent the night in a temporary barracks built for WWI. The receiving center was jammed with sailors waiting for ships or transportation to other parts of the country. Boot camps were turning out roughly five thousand new sailors each and every week and still couldn’t keep up with demand. New construction was outpacing crew. The Navy was using it’s prewar sailors to polish up the Boots when they came aboard but there weren’t nearly enough to keep up. The learning curve for the new kids was going to be very steep.
Trying to catch whatever sleep he could and anxious about what tomorrow might bring Don slung his seabag on an available bunk and headed for the galley with other sailors he’d met him on the train. Most of the new crew were not assigned to specific ships and were at the mercy of clerks or yeoman as they are rated in the Navy. The would have had stacks of chits from ships at Newport listing requests for Able Seamen, Cooks, Gunners Mates and a myriad of other ratings. The navy was madly scrambling to man as many ships as it could and many crews in 1943 were made up primarily of boots. Experienced seamen, petty officers and commissioned officers were being shuttled from place to place in order to provide some level of experience but for the most part the navy was being manned by amateurs.
Hours standing in line, following the lines painted on the deck and dragging his seabag with him Don finally got to the Yeoman’s desk. Taking Don’s personnel file he noted his rating, storekeeper, shuffled some mimeographed chits around until he found a ship requesting a storekeeper. He filled in the chit banging away on his typewriter handed Don his file and a new set of orders, and said, “Portsmouth Yard, Spence,” He said, “next in line.” He never looked up, just held out his hand to the next man and said,”Orders?”
When the United States started preparing to send troops overseas in World War II, no other place in the nation could match Hampton Roads Virginia’s record as a military port. The city had multiple rail connections and it had an excellent deep-water, ice-free port. It also had several WWI camps that could be reactivated very quickly and reused.
In addition to the deep water off Newport News Point, there were excellent anchorages just up the James River, around Old Point Comfort on the York River and inside Cape Henry at Lynnhaven Roads, giving the port commander ample room to assemble vessels and organize hundreds of ships. You could bring ships into this harbor and they would all be protected by the mine fields at the mouth of the bay and the Hampton Roads channel, the coastal artillery at the capes and at Fort Monroe. The air cover at Langley Field and Naval Air Station Norfolk made Newport News impregnable.
Beginning Dec. 2, 1942, and continuing through the war, nearly 1.5 million people would pass through the gates of the giant complex on their way to or returning from war.
Getting off the bus, Don stood a moment looking up at the ship that would be his home. It was a uniform gray with its number picked out in white on it’s bow, 512 which identified it as the Spence. It was nested with three other, the Edison DD-439, Schroeder DD-501 and the Foote, DD-511.* Towering over the pier they were sleek and deadly looking vessels. He walked down the pier to the gangway, shouldered his seabag, stepped onto the Foote, threw a salute at the Ensign on the fantail, saluted the Officer of the Deck and requested permission to come aboard. “Reporting aboard Spence sir.” The Foote’s OD replied,”Permission granted, come aboard.” Don then crossed the Foote’s deck and onto Spence’s. The Spences O.D. returned his salute and directed a seaman to take him to the personnel office for assignment. Every sailor who ever served knows this routine. The Navy is like an old maiden lady set in her ways and things must be done just so. Don was carrying his orders in the tan colored envelope that followed him everywhere and had a life of its own. Without his service file, he literally didn’t exist. He would be an orphan until it was found or a new one was cobbled together. He followed the sailor through a maze of passageways before arriving at personnel to be checked in. Don was fortunate to have a specialty. Without one he was liable to be attached to whichever division needed the most bodies. He might have gone to the engine room or deck division. As a recent boot he would have been at the mercy of the four winds as most new sailors were.
Don’s ship, Destroyer, DD-512, Spence, was a Fletcher Class and just a little less than a year old. Built in Bath Maine, she was laid down on 18 May, 1942 and slid down the ways into the sea, wetting her hull for the first time on the 25th of January, 1943. At 376.5 feet stem to stern she was built for speed. With a beam of just 39.5 feet, she was most definitely not built for comfort. Crammed into her interior were all the machinery that made her go, boilers, turbines, reduction gear, fuel tanks, ammunition store stores, crew space, in short, so full of necessary things that there was barely any room for the 329 souls that made up her crew. That number was necessary to allow around the clock manning of gun mounts, repair parties, and other watch stations. By necessity most crewman held down more than one job. Being a storekeeper, Don had what you might call a day job, keeping records, disbursing various supplies needed to run the ship and working directly with his the supply officer. The supply officer, a Lieutenant nearly as young as the sailors he commanded was in charge of S division. The Supply Officer also had department head status. Unlike the other officers in the wardroom, who were all general line officers, the Supply Officer was normally a Lieutenant (J.G.) or Ensign in the Supply Corps. Supply officers were all referred to as “Pork Chops” because of the shape of their insignia. This officer stood no underway watches. But he had a good deal of responsibility. Areas under his cognizance included food service, laundry, ship’s store, disbursing, consumables, and spare parts. He was directly accountable for all expenditures of government funds.
Supply Department ratings, the navy word for those trained in a specialty included Storekeepers which were responsible for ensuring that the required quantities of spare parts and consumables were on board and maintaining the required records. This was Don’s rating. In wartime rating’s often rise in rank very quickly. From the time Don reported aboard until he achieved the rank of Storekeeper First Class was just over a year. This meant that he rose five full ranks in that short time, a testament to his hard work, intelligence and the fact that the Navy was expanding very rapidly and the need for qualified personnel was extreme.
The Supply Officer was in charge of more than just the Storekeeper clerks. He also supervised the Commissary men or CS ratings who were the ship’s cooks. Obviously they were the people who were most likely to take heat from the other crew members for their efforts, or lack thereof. Good cooks and bakers were so valuable that senior officers from other ships would forcibly transfer superior sailing cooks to their own vessels. This led to the occasional serving of lousy dishes to visiting dignitaries. Amongst the cooks was the Baker whose only job was providing fresh bread daily and that wonder of wonders, cinnamon rolls.
Charles Robert Craver, Baker Third Class was already aboard. He had reported to Spence when it was first fitted out. This made him one of the few “Plank Owners” on the ship. Plank Owners were members of the very first crew to go aboard a brand new ship. Sailors took great pride in this honor as you might imagine. Some ships presented these men with small plaques with a strip of wooden deck and engraved with their name and date that they reported aboard.
BK3 Bob Craver was from Miami, Florida where he had been working as a baker at the Romeo and Juliet Bakery. Perhaps looking ahead, he left work on December 5th, a Friday, 1941 and marched himself down to the local Navy recruiter and signed up. After recruit training in “Great Mistakes,” Naval Training Center in Chicago he was ordered to his first ship. The USS Bowditch AGS-30 was a Naval Survey ship. She was first launched in 1929 as the Santa Inez. She was later purchased by the Navy in 1940 and was outfitted as a surveying vessel by the Portsmouth Navy yard in Norfolk Virginia. A type unknown to most, survey ships accompanied the fleet into every war zone. Their purpose was to chart ocean areas to improve navigation. He must have joked that the Spence was a far cry from the Bowditch, which was a spacious former passenger liner.
The SH rating were the ships servicemen. They were the laundresses and operated the ship’s store and barber shop. They washed and ironed uniforms for over 300 men and they did it in a tiny room with only a single tumbler washer, dryer and a steam mangle iron. Sailors were to be clean at all times and the laundry did a land office business. They could never keep up with demand and sailors learned to hand wash uniforms in buckets while on deck. They made do, which was the watchword in the naval service, particularly in small ships.
The Disbursing Clerk Assisted the Supply Officer in performing his paymaster functions. This was a job held by Don “Poley” Polhemus. Crewmen treated the pay clerks with a great deal of respect. The Lieutenant who ran supply was nicknamed “Pay,” though he wasn’t called that to his face. Pay disbursements were made in cash, typically the old two-dollar bill. Sailors rarely drew actual pay beyond what they could spend on gedunk or gambling. The tiny ships store bar was usually open for longer hours than the Galley. They were stocked with a wide variety of consumables such as snacks, soft drinks and fresh coffee. Sailors refer to the snacks themselves as “gedunk”. The money raised went to the ships enlisted fund and was used for recreation and other things that benefited the crew.
The Stewards ran the Wardroom, the officers mess and provided valet service for the officers exclusively. In Don’s Navy they were nearly all Filipinos or Black. The Navy being far from integrated in WWII. They were the only enlisted men allowed in what was known as officer country. Though crowded into a very small ship, officers and enlisted men maintained very careful distances from one another. The stewards also served as crew for the ships guns but were typically segregated in their own compartments.
Don Polhemus was quickly promoted to 3rd class petty officer. In the rush to fill crews promotion for enlisted personnel was very fast. The Chief Petty Officer, SKC, was the senior enlisted man who ran the day to day operations of the supply department. The Chief being in charge of all the departments in S division. The supply officer, Lieutenant Alfonso Stephen Krauchunas was Don Pohlemus’s department head. Operating from cramped compartments below the after 5 inch 38 caliber gun mounts, they were responsible for the ordering, storing and disbursement of all ships stores. This included gunnery, engineering, deck division and officers mess funds. Basically their job was to run a warehouse, a very small but extremely busy one. One of the prime considerations for any sailor is to learn to get along with almost no space in which to live and work. The supply office was the size of a average walk in closet. All of the work needed to maintain and operate a ship the length of a football field with a crew of over three hundred men was done there by an officer and his men, often working literally shoulder to shoulder. A the officers mess the supply officer customarily sat at the foot of the table where he was in full view. The looks and comments he received were in direct proportion to the quality of the job he was doing.
There is an interesting custom in the Navy. Through the supply department, the service that provides the nuts, bolts, clothing, food, cleaning supplies and all of the other necessaries to keep the ship operating at an efficient level. What it doesn’t do is provide the critical luxuries that keeps crew happy. There is a somewhat different process for this. “Cumshaw,” a word owned by the underground Naval service. Underground, meaning it’s practice of and operation of is frowned upon, but enthusiastically practiced by the lowliest seaman to the Admiral of the fleet. The only basic consideration is; don’t get caught. It was probably British Navy personnel who first picked up cumshaw in Chinese ports, during the First Opium War of 1839. Cumshaw is from a word that means “grateful thanks” in the dialect of Xiamen, a port in southeast China. Apparently, sailors heard it from the beggars who hung around the ports, and mistook it as the word for a handout. Since then, U.S. sailors have given cumshaw its own unique application, for something obtained through unofficial means (whether deviously or simply ingeniously). Sailors are known to bend the rules a just a little, to outright bribery. Don wouldn’t learn this in Storekeeper school, but he would certainly be introduced to it by the senior ratings and chiefs of long naval experience. Whenever the Spence was in the yard or tied up to a destroyer tender or other supply ship, things of value tended to migrate from one ship to another. Things of value might be “Cumshawed” in the dark of night only to be replaced by an item of equal value from the ship alongside. Quid Pro Quo you might say. Don and the other ratings in supply made sure that naval records were squared away and ready for inspection at all times. Perhaps certain surplus items from the Spence might, just might, fall over the side and have to written off as lost or destroyed. This practice allowed for a basic and somewhat bare bones ship to be customized.
You might think a bare bones ship would have nothing to trade. That would be far from the real story. The Navy went to great pains to see that their ships were well supplied, particularly with food. Don and his mates, under LT. Krauchunas would typically put aboard and store a quarter ton of bread, 300 or more dozen eggs, 30 gallons of milk, 100 pounds of butter, 50 pounds of raisins, 150 pounds of tomatoes, 75 pounds of melons, and 200 pounds of bacon. They also loaded many cases of Life Saers and Spearmint gum. Furthermore, they loaded one of the most valuable of trading items, cigarettes. A typical load would be in the neighborhood of 5 cases each of Lucky Strikes, Camels and Chesterfields and 3 cases of chesterfields. This amounted to 180,000 smokes for a crew of 329 men.
Encouraged by cigarette manufacturers, the military made sure that soldiers and sailor were well supplied. To begin with, most men smoked to begin with. Pipes and cigarettes would have been considered a necessity by most of the crew. But beyond that it was known that smoking climbed nerves and suppressed appetite both seen a positive outcomes particularly in combat zones. In the Navy smoking was limited to specific locations on shipboard and further, limited to situation. On deck smoking after dark was prohibited, smoking while working was also forbidden. This led to the idea that being allowed to smoke was a treat, which in a way it was. The idea that it was a special thing was beneficial in a cramped, stressful and very hard life that. It became something to look forward to in a situation that offered little outright pleasure. If some boys didn’t smoke when they joined the Navy they likely took it up before long.
The small size of the Spence and all other destroyers and destroyer escorts served to foster a certain informality in naval custom. When planning for the Spence, the bureau of personnel or BuPers, allowed just about 11 square feet per man or roughly three feet by three feet nine inches in which to sleep, store uniforms and personal items. In peacetime this allowed minimal but ample room for the crew but in wartime the complement went from roughly 226 men to 329 which strained accommodations to the limit….
To Be Continued Next Friday September 24th.
* The photograph of the four destroyers was taken at the Portsmouth Naval Yard, Newport News, Virginia on the actual day Donald Pohlemus reported aboard, May 23rd 1943. Dept of Defense Photo