The Owasco Chronicles

THE CHAPLAIN

By Dave Moyer

 

Underway replenishment was an exercise I always looked forward to. Everything from food to fuel, movies to men, were transferred via highline between two ships traveling on a parallel course, separated by about 15 to 20 yards, moving along at 8-10 knots.

The wake of the two ships causes the water to boil through the trough between them, making it ever more exciting to watch. There were tankers for fuel, refrigeration ships for food stores, and ammunition ships for shells and projectiles. All had some things in common—mail, movies, and an occasional surprise.

As is the case with all shipboard routine, each crewmember had his specific job to do during this evolution. Mine was on the signal bridge in the capacity of visual signalman. It was a good job.

While approaching the supply ship, course and speed would be passed to us via the signal light. Once we were alongside and the lines passed, a sound-powered phone hookup between bridges was in place and the signalman’s job was done for the time being. I could "converse" with the supply ship’s signalmen using semaphore. These conversations were simply idle chatter as two housewives would chat over the backyard fence on a Monday morning. Liberty ports, women, even the weather was discussed, all silently, using a series of arm signals that to the laymen may look as if we were trying to fly.

Upon completion of replenishment, the lines were returned to the proper ships and we would veer away from the nurturing vessel. Her signalmen would then send via flashing light a sort of "bill of lading" listing the number of gallons of oil passed, or total ammo received. As I mentioned before, the signalman’s job was a good one.

During the initial approach to a tanker one bright afternoon I passed on their course and speed to the bridge and "rogered" the message, then their light flashed again with our call sign, "W9." After I told him to go ahead he said, "We have a chaplain for you." I passed this down, too, but didn’t get the usual "Very well" response. Instead the Captain appeared on the starboard bridge wing rather quickly and ordered me to have them repeat. I gave the signal to repeat his message, but his message didn’t change. "We have a chaplain for you," which I relayed to the Captain. He wasn’t happy, then mumbled something under his breath and sent the messenger to his cabin to remove some pictures.

First came the suitcase and gear followed by a slightly built Lieutenant wearing a blue baseball cap with a little gold cross above the bill, sitting in that damned metal cage dangling 20 feet over those boiling waters, bouncing and bobbing as the lines slacked and became taut. Through it all he just smiled, a strange smile, sort of like a "my pants are on fire but all’s well" smile.

That night we received orders to stand in close to shore and heave to, the ground pounders were going to be busy and our gun may be needed. It was a calm night—no breeze and quiet seas. We were close, too close for most of us. The poor "mudsloggers" were busy. Flares and tracers were streaking over the treetops and flashes of mortar fire could be detected a few hundred yards behind the beachhead. We couldn’t see the action but we could hear the occasional dull "thud" of mortars. We knew someone was kicking butt. The ship was darkened and the lookouts and myself were on the flying bridge, stone quiet, staring towards the beach hoping we would not be on the receiving end of those tracers. Out of nowhere the silence was broken by a booming voice from above. "LET US PRAY."

We looked toward heaven simultaneously and for a split second we all thought the Good Lord himself had just decided that the Coast Guard Cutter OWASCO and everyone aboard was dead meat. I remember a chill. Then I remember looking at Seaman Winchester and starting to laugh. You see, the rather large flying bridge speaker was over our heads about 15 feet up the mast and we hadn’t heard a personal message from God after all. It seems our illustrious Executive Officer had decided to have our visitor offer a shipboard prayer at 2000 hours, using the ships address system. We were saved!

The revelation was in the Plan of the Day, which is posted each morning to let everyone know of upcoming events or drills. It happily announced that church services would be held on the recreation deck at 0900 hours the next day, Sunday. The XO was beaming all day Saturday. By 0915 Sunday he was PO’d. I’m not talking your average PO’d, I’m talking your rip-roaring PO’d. You see, Sundays are what is called a "holiday routine" and you can sleep in if you don’t have to stand a watch. Let me tell ya, sometimes you had to remain awake and at station for as long as 24-36 hours, so when there was an opportunity to sleep in, you took it.

The XO fumed that services would now be mandatory. Fortunately, the Captain interceded—he liked to sleep late, too. Through it all the Chaplain simply smiled.

This guy was on board 72 hours and already had the crew in trouble with the XO. To make matters worse, his favorite place was on the bridge, my work station. Now the bridge on this Cutter was small. With the binnacle, steering gear, radar scope, annunciator, chart table, various stored weapons, a Captain’s chair, and five people, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of room for visitors. Nonetheless, there he stood, right smack dab in the middle of the bridge leaning against the forward bulkhead, staring out the center port, smiling, always smiling.

The language on an extended cruise in a war zone, unfortunately, has a tendency to deteriorate. Four-letter words were a way of life. It was so bad that if a word had more than one syllable, a four-letter word would be inserted between them. It just sort of came out, then the realization would hit, a Chaplain was only three feet away!

"Holy shit. Whoops, excuse me Chaplain. Jesus Christ I didn’t mean to say that. Damnit, I didn’t mean that either. I mean . . . aw, frig it."

And he just stood there with that blue cap on smiling, just smiling.

He finally got in the way once too often while we were at General Quarters in a rather tight spot, and the Captain literally ran him over. That was it. The skipper banned him from the bridge. Thank God! Or so we thought.

This meant he now wandered about the ship, showing up anywhere and everywhere. Once I was carrying a paper shredder out of an after compartment and the ship rolled, causing my fingers to get pinched between the shredder and the bulkhead. I cut loose with my best profanity. When I looked up there was that blue cap and smile.

Once I lost my balance coming down the flying bridge ladder and wrenched my knee; I outdid myself with my mouth on that one, and as I picked myself up off the deck, there he was again, smiling.

No one that I remember asked him for spiritual advice or assistance, and I don’t believe anyone attended a service, nor do I remember anyone saying that they heard him utter a sound. He just smiled!

Hell, at least Alice’s Cheshire cat spoke. Then again, he didn’t wear a blue baseball cap.

He departed a week later the same way he came, in a bosun’s chair during an underway replenishment. I learned that he was assigned by the Navy to be the Chaplain for Coast Guard units on the line. Damned Navy anyway. We were just fine and didn’t need a Chaplain. Thank God he never came back.

 

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