Guarding the U.S. Navy
By Al Schreiber
On January 22, 1942, after graduating from boot camp, and sewing my Seaman 2c stripes on my cuff, I left boot camp, Curtis Bay, Maryland. All seamen not selected for school were assigned to the Fifth district. We boarded the day steamer out of Baltimore and sailed with my shipmates to Norfolk, Virginia. We were then trucked to the Federal Building in Norfolk. We stood for hours, outside the building awaiting further orders. Finally a Chief Boatswain Mate arrived and told us to "fall in." Being fresh boots we immediately fell in at attention in alphabetical order. The Chief then walked down the line and stopped at me, "All you sailors to the left are assigned to the DICKMAN, fall out," he shouted. I fell out with the rest, wondering what a "dickman" was. "Sonny, I said up to you .... get back in line." Which I promptly did. The other group was trucked off and we lolled some more. Finally the rest of us were loaded in trucks and taken to District Moorings, Berkley, Virginia.
Arriving at the moorings, we were dispersed to various units, beach patrol (sand pounder) duty, District mooring duty, and to the fleet. I was lucky to be assigned to the CG-1286. She was a 42 foot, clinker built "Jersey Sea Skiff" yacht. There were over 100 boats moored at the piers. From sailing yachts, picket boats, and motor yachts of all types. All painted gray, with white CG numbers painted on their bows.
The USCGC 1286 had a five man crew. The captain was a Boatswain Mate 1c, who came into the Coast Guard with the yacht. The remainder were all seamen like me. I was immediately made cook, even though all I ever made was corn flakes. The mahogany interior below was partially gutted to make room for six pipe bunks forward. There was no place to stow a sea bag, so they were piled on the deck between the bunks. The tiny head had a stool and sink. You could do the call and brush your teeth at the same time. The galley had a iron upright stove, fueled with coal. The smoke pipe poked up thru the mahogany overhead. It was firmly bolted to the deck. A small alcohol stove, and sink were all that was provided for cooking.
The food locker was on the after deck .The galley had a huge population of cockroaches to vie for food. Suffice to say meals were quite simple.
The open cockpit did have an overhead, but no side curtains. The lockers on the stern held food, potatoes, and coal. The deck opened to the engine space. A 6 cylinder Gray Marine (gasoline) engine occupied the huge space. Bosun Murphy informed me, that the original engine was a Dusenberg, and the boat was very fast. Now it just plodded along.
Across from Berkley Moorings was the US Navy Portsmouth Shipyard, Naval activity there, with the Naval ships coming and going was very interesting to watch. Our time passed mostly waiting for food to arrive from a grocer to our pier. The picket boat sailors were more fortunate than we were. They could not live aboard, so they lived in the barracks ashore, and ate in the mess hall. The sailing yachts patrolled off shore in Chesapeake Bay, no one envied them. The picket boats also consumed a lot of gas, therefore very seldom left the piers.
Our patrol area was Hampton Roads. We would proceed, at night, from Berkley Moorings, out to the "Roads", making a large circle past the Naval Operating Base Complex, across to Newport News Shipyards. Then back to the Elizabeth River and Moorings, arriving at dawn. Often the Roads would get quite rough and toss our boat around. We then made a beeline for the Newport News Fish Docks and moored there until time to return.
Our orders were to look for suspicious activity anywhere in our operating area, (while we tried to keep from getting run over by destroyers, cruisers, merchant ships, and the like). It was cold nasty duty. One eventful evening found us designated to look for a possible U-boat that had been rumored to have slipped thru the nets at the entrance to Hampton Roads. The Boats positioned me on the top deck with a Thompson machine gun, that I had never fired, to watch for the sub. The navy vessels anchored all around, their prey. After about an hour of this duty, I began to wonder about my capability to stand off a submarine attack on our exposed Navy fleet. Cold, wet and shivering the Boats thought better of it and called me down. It was just a rumor after all.
One early evening, as we were abreast of a U.S. Navy cruiser our engine quit. The Boats jumped down in the engine room to fiddle with the engine. Meanwhile the wind was carrying the boat toward the cruiser. I stood on the fore deck and watched in horror as we rapidly approached the ship. Worst of all, we were nearing the officers gangway and the Captains gig! Sailors, in their whites, looking down at the Coasties in their dungarees, shouted epithets at us, derisively calling us Hooligans and other choice names. We finally bumped the platform of the gangway, barely missing the gig. The Officer of the Deck was furious and shout to us to leave. Suddenly our engine caught hold, the propeller engaged, and we shot forward, grazing the gig. We sped away, hoping we wouldn't be reported to our command. Fortunately for us, no further word was heard.
In April of 1943, the threat to shipping was winding down. More and more of the yachts were tied to their piers and their crews were leaving. I applied for Motor Machinist Mate school, and after a rigorous physical, was accepted.
The wise guy Pharmacist Mate said, "I had to join the Coast Guard first."
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