Life at Sea on the Amy J

by George Alton

Chapter Nine of FS's- The Little Ships That Could by George Alton 2000 - This excerpt reprinted by permission of the author

 

Brief Review: During the Second World War the Coast Guard expanded and took on a number of different jobs. Little known nor long remembered were the years they manned a bevy of small U.S. Army transport ships called, "Island Hoppers". The author was a junior officer on the FS-268 which operated in the South Pacific in support of the war on New Guinea and related locales. He has compiled an excellent work where he describes the war theater they operated in in macro terms and then brought it down to the micro view of the small ship, her operations and the crew life. He is very candid in his opinions and rightfully so. 

The FS class was a little smaller then the Coast Guard 180 footers, had similar machinery and equipment on board and were manned at approximately the same level. Two of the vessels were turned over to the Coast Guard after the war and a similar one, the USS PUEBLO was captured as a spy ship by the North Koreans.

I find that some of the shipboard life described by Mr. Alton was very similar to that on the CGC EVERGREEN when it was operating independently on Oceanographic patrols. I have selected Chapter Nine of this book to provide a vignette of life aboard the little ship aptly nicknamed the "AMY J." - JACK

The book can be purchased from Mr. Alton by e-mail, letter, or telephone. His address is 2524 Longview Dr. San Leandro, CA 94577. His phone number is (510) 351-6869. The cost of the book is $20 postpaid via priority mail. 

 

"My watch was over at 0400. I turned the deck over to my relief, Mr. Rogers, and made my way out of the pilot house, down the ladder into the passageway leading to the wardroom. I was ready for a hot cup of cocoa and a good night's sleep. I downed the hot chocolate and trudged back down the passageway to my cabin. By this time I was in a state of exhaustion and ready for a long session of sack time. I undressed, and carefully folded my clothes and hopped into the sack with just my shorts and skivvies on to keep me warm. It was quite cold the first few nights at sea and necessitated the wearing of something at bedtime. As we made westerly progress the climate became more salubrious and I was able to sleep quite naked. As I lay in bed I thought about the hectic day and night we had  just experienced, about all the things that had to come together in order for our departure to come about smoothly. I was sure that after all this activity I would fall asleep quickly, but this wasn't to be.

The noise produced by the two engines and the clanging of the generators would not allow me to get a decent nights rest. At 1000, I slid out of bed, bleary-eyed and feeling more tired than when I went to bed. Thinking a good breakfast would ameliorate my condition, I staggered down the passageway toward the wardroom, lurching from side to side, all the time trying to maintain my balance to keep from falling. It seemed the ship was rolling more than usual. I was beginning to feel a little giddy. I made it to the wardroom and sat down at my assigned place and asked the cook what was on the menu for breakfast. His reply was to bring me a bowl of cereal and milk, a cup of coffee, and a sweet roll. I had previously downed a glass of orange juice. The ship was rolling about 30 from side to side, pitching, and doing corkscrews. My stomach began to act in a similar manner. I knew I had to get out in the fresh air at once before unpleasant things took place. I made my way up the ladder to the pilothouse and saw that we were taking green water over the bow and that it was going all of the way up to the pilot house windows. Down below, I could hear the sound of galley crockery hitting the deck along with other debris. It was stuffy in the pilot house so I made my way up to the flying bridge where I had to hold on to one of the machine gun mounts to keep from being thrown across the deck. It wasn't raining and the weather was clear, but a heavy sea was running and the wind was blowing about 30 knots. The ship would rise to meet the oncoming wave then fall into the trough with a resounding crash, of course, the higher one goes on a ship, the greater the arc of the roll. I broke out in a sweat and my stomach felt as if it had climbed into my throat. I made a dash for the port rail, hung my head over the side and tossed my cookies. It could not have been timed any worse if I tried, for at that very moment of tribulation the Captain walked out of the pilot house door and received the deluge from above. He shook off the debris from his hat, looked up at me, and proceeded to give me a tongue lashing the likes of which I'll never forget. I'm afraid I made a very bad impression on him. I was very sick after that episode, and I rushed back to my cabin and sought the only relief one can get when one has this condition and that is bed. I must have heaved about 15 times before the condition got better. I was in such a state that I couldn't keep saliva down. I was afraid I was going to live. I still made it up to my watch at 1200 and somehow managed to survive the ordeal. We didn't have hot food that day as the cook and most of the crew were in the same condition as I was. It is rather ironic that I got seasick at this time because I had been subjected to far worse sea conditions in the past and did not become sick. The Lupine's trips out the Golden Gate every Friday would take us over a much rougher patch of water than what we had just experienced. The "Potato Patch" in the San Francisco Channel was infamous for its ability to give one a rough ride. I am of the opinion that every ship has its own rhythm and motion and one has to get conditioned to this on an individual basis. It is similar to getting used to a horse, in that each horse has its own unique gait and way of moving. So too, it is with a ship. One had to get one's "sea legs" and adjust to each ship that one sails on.  

U.S. Army FS-268 Manned By A Coast Guard Crew - Photo Courtesy of Ken Laessar

After resting for four hours in my bunk, I began to feel somewhat better and I noticed the ship wasn't rocking and rolling so much. I never got seasick on this FS again. In fact, the next ship I was assigned to was a PC craft and though I experienced a typhoon on the PC in Okinawa, I never got seasick. Sometimes before going on my morning watch at 0330, I would wake up feeling slightly giddy. I found that if I had a piece of toast with a generous quantity of honey on it, this condition would immediately be alleviated. Also, I found it wise to keep one's stomach in a non-acid state. You now have "Dr. Alton's" solutions to all of your "mal-de-mer" problems

I thoroughly enjoyed my midnight watches on the bridge. Except for starlight and the bright path of light dead ahead from Venus, it was pitch black. Every constellation and star stood out in bold relief. I could have reached out and grabbed Orion by the belt. The Milky Way shone in all its glory with its billions of suns and thousands of galaxies. Since the ship was running blacked out at night, we had to wear red goggles before going on watch in order for our eyes to adjust more readily.

As I lay in my bunk, I spent a lot of time thinking about my future wife and about our short romantic interlude. I was madly in love with her and wrote her many romantic letters. I came from a family in which very little love was offered either verbally or in actions. My father was not an openly compassionate man. He was not able to relate to any of his children once they reached the age of independent thinking. Neither was my mother very expressive in these matters; we knew she loved us, but she never verbalized it. I was always reticent to express myself about romantic love until I met Patricia. I was most passionate with her and easily expressed my feelings of love in the many letters I wrote to her on an almost daily basis for the ten months I was on the FS. I have been reviewing these letters now as she saved them. They have helped me remember time and place of events I had nearly forgotten.

Mr. Rogers asked me asked me to pay him a visit when the opportunity arose. One morning before I went on watch, I knocked on his cabin door. After hearing "enter," I stepped in. He was happy to see me and we had a pleasant visit. He informed me the ship had an extensive (200) library of soft-cover books, mostly novels. These were presented to the ship by the good ladies of the community when the ship was christened. I borrowed an historical novel by Harvey Allen titled "Bedford County." It was the story of the early history of the northern frontier of Pennsylvania and its settlers. I was impressed. I'd always had an interest in history. I minored in it at Cal. Mr. Rogers seemed pleased that he had someone to engage in a conversation on an intellectual level he was use to. He seemed out of his element on this ship. We held many intellectual conversations on various subjects of mutual interest over the following weeks.

Prior to getting his commission in the Coast Guard. the Captain was in the Merchant Marine. He was a mustang. He went to sea at the age of 14 when he was a young man. He had little formal education. He wasn't well read but he was a good seaman. One could feel quite safe with him when he was stable. ">However, as an administrator, he flunked the basic requirements. I was to find out soon enough from personal experience and from officers who had been with him for awhile. He had a drinking problem which at times hecouldn't cope. I soon learned he was a racist and a bigot. Mr. Rogers intimated he wanted to get off the ship at the earliest opportunity. He said he would apply for a transfer when we reached Finschhafen. He informed me he couldn't get along with the Captain. He said the man wouldn't confide in him about anything of importance on the ongoing ship's business. I was indeed, sorry to hear of this state of affairs. It would catapult me right into the vacuum. I enjoyed the company of the rest of the crew. I found them to be a great group of guys. They were so young. Their average age was about 22, and it ranged from 17 to 27. How strange they put their lives  on the line with a few men who weren't much older than they were. I don't recall a single incident of friction among them that had to come to us for adjudication. Considering the confined spaces they lived in and the fact that we were going into an environment in which there was no western culture, no cities, no women, no open spaces, no radio or news, it was a miracle that we had so little trouble and friction. About the only entertainment they had was playing cards and listening to the phonograph. We were like family, all eating the same food and sharing the same experiences each day. The one redeeming feature was that we could offer them good food and cold fresh water. This was an important factor in keeping morale in an elevated state. The only incident that I can recall that required action to be taken against one of the crew was one of a minor nature, when one of the young men had to have a pistol confiscated. It was against regulations for a member of the crew to have a private arsenal on his person; The Captain confiscated it and kept it for himself. It would come to haunt him at a later date.

One morning as I was gazing out to sea on the port side of the ship, I noticed a disturbance in the calm water and as my eyes focused on the scene, I witnessed an occurrence that shall always remain in my memory. As far as the eye could see were thousands of sea turtles undulating in the gentle swells of the sea. The scene stretched to the horizon. I felt privileged to have been able to witness this event of nature. One can become very philosophic when one witnesses such a phenomenon. The ocean is so vast and there are so many creatures that make it their home. Man is not the only species of life on this planet. Why does man think that all of the other creatures are here to sustain his every whim? Don't these creatures have the right to exist? Are we to destroy them all, specie by specie? It seems we are well on our way to doing just that.

I would, from time to time, walk to the bow of the ship to watch the dolphins frolic. They loved to dash back and forth and take great leaps out of the water. We first sighted them as we passed San Clemente Island and they continued to play with us for days on end. Flying fish put in their appearance at about the same time. Frequently in the morning when I came on deck I would see flying fish who visited us but did not make it back to the water. The whole Pacific Ocean is the playground for these creatures. I often wonder if we are destroying their playground and them with it.

If one saw the movie, "Mr. Roberts," filmed sometime after the war, it was made on an FS as was its sequel, "Ensign Pulver." There is a comic scene where Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) loads the washing machine with an overdose of laundry powder and consequently floods the compartment with soapy bubbles Our FS was not fortunate enough to have a washing machine. We either did our laundry by hand, or we stuffed the clothes in a bucket, tied a line to the bucket and threw it  overboard. after awhile, we hauled the bucket in, removed the clothes, and proceeded to rinse them in fresh water. We placed them on the hatch covers to dry in the sun. We didn't wash clothes often. Our uniform of the day consisted of shorts, shoes with open ends, and sides eliminated to make them into sandals. We wore no skivvy shirts except while on watch. 

In "Mr. Roberts," a doctor is portrayed by the actor William Powell; there were no doctors on FSs. We were a small ship and we were very informal in our attire, but discipline was maintained and the officers were respected by the crew, at least in the open. The Captain was, more or less, the exception to the lack of formality. He was from the "old school," and believed that formal attire was the prerequisite for maintaining discipline. He pretty well stuck to protocol and remained aloof from everybody including his own Exec, Mr. Rogers, who did not have privy to any information he should have had. 

The Captain was very secretive about information on the ship's business. He was a very taciturn individual. One would think his own officers were secret agents of the enemy, I believe the Skipper was very uncomfortable around people who had more formal education than he. It was probably in his subconscious, and explained his drinking addiction. In a sense, he must of had an inferiority complex. The more I got to know him over the ensuing months, the more I was sure my theory was correct.

As the ship made its way westward toward the Hawaiian Islands, the days became increasingly warmer and the nights balmy. Everyday at noon the Captain took his sextant and shot the sun to get his position on the DR Track. Mr. Rogers had the navigation watch and would get a star fix in the evening. We had to know our position at all times. 

After awhile, I got to know Chief Goodman very well. Often he would arrive an hour early on my watch and we would chat about many things. Goodman was born in Philadelphia of wealthy parents. He was of Pennsylvania Dutch extraction. He informed me he was 44 years of age and had been given a good education. He was on his third attempt at marriage and lived in Pine Hill, Pennsylvania, at #8 Democracy St. Pine Hill had, a population of 22. He told me he had lived a fast and varied life. He had traveled allover the world and had done everything imaginable. He had been a stock broker on Wall Street, a radio announcer, a singer in the chorus of the Philadelphia Opera, in the import and export business in Sweden, and the wool business in Denmark. I had heard scuttlebutt that he was a dropout of the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut. He apparently received his warrant as a result of his experience there. He told me he had made millions of dollars over the years and lost most it. He had a wonderful dry sense 'of humor that reminded me of the late Will Rogers. He was a good listener as well as an interesting conversationalist. He had the watch from 2000 to 2400. He often kept me company on my watch after I relieved him of his duties. He loved to speak about his sojourn in Sweden where he spent many years in business. He spoke Swedish fluently and apparently liked the country. He mentioned the problems he encountered when he first arrived there and they thought he was of Jewish descent. They made it difficult for him to do business because at that time there was so much anti-Semitism in Sweden., He said his latest wife is well educated and that they just lived in this little mountain town and sat in their respective porch chairs and watched the world go by. His favorite advice to me was, "after the war, find a position in which you can make a comfortable living, and take life easy and enjoy the things in life that are free." "Nice work if you can get it," so the song goes. One of the Chief's sayings during the holidays was, "Merry Christmas and a Happy South Seas." The latter half of the greeting was put rather dryly. It was now January 1st, 1945, and we were 1700 nautical miles from the California coast. The days were getting warmer and the nights increasingly balmy.

We had our first test drills on the New Years day; Fire Drill, General Alarm and Man Overboard. Each of them required the participation of the whole crew. We all had our respective stations to rush to. Fire Drill involved the unlimbering of the fire hoses and the turning on of the water to see if all the hoses and valves were viable. With the sounding of the General Alarm Bell the crew and officers took to their respective battle stations. The Man Overboard Drill involved a swinging out of the lifeboats from the davits and lowering them into the water while the ship was still had a certain amount of way on. 

At battle stations the crew donned their steel helmets and fastened their lifejackets. The cover was removed from the two twin 50s on the flying bridge and the ammo belts inserted into the breech of the guns. The handle on the breech was then pulled back and a cartridge fed into the chamber. On deck, a crew member was designated to release a large target balloon into the air. At the command "Commence Firing" given by the gunnery officer, the guns blasted away at the target. The cannon at the stern of the ship operated in a similar manner except it was fed with a clip loaded with 40mm shells. When the cannon fired, one heard a loud boom boom noise, which was earsplitting if one was too close to the action. When the "All Clear" was sounded we all returned to our normal activities. 

It was not a good idea to have the drills too frequently because it could lead to a cavalier attitude toward them. My battle station was on the flying bridge with the gun crew on the 50s. Sometime for recreation and fun, I would go to the bow of the ship and take pistol practice with my side-arm, a Colt 45 semi-automatic pistol. I would aim at the flying fish leaping ahead of the ship, but of course, I didn't expect to hit any of them. My proficiency with the weapon improved as time went by. I later managed to acquire a 30 caliber carbine from the Army and this was a much better field weapon.

In the late afternoon of January 4, 1945, the shout of "Land Ahoy," was given by the bow lookout, and we could see the clouds surrounding the peaks of the high volcanoes on the big island of Hawaii. Our navigation was right on the beam. The night before, I had a wonderful star finding session with Mr. Rogers. We were on the flying bridge, the night was ink black, and the sky clear, Overhead the night sky was studded with celestial bodies like gleaming pearls on black velvet. It was indeed, a stellar night to study heavenly bodies. The "Amy J." made its way through the placid waters without a sound. We were relaxed on deck chairs on the bridge and fully absorbed in the beauty of the southern skies. Mr. Rogers opined that one of the paramount problems we had to overcome in the months ahead was boredom. I could hear the faint sound of music emanating from the crew's quarters. The phonograph was playing a popular record of the day, "The Moon of Monicura." It seemed appropriate.

When sailing the waters of the volcano studded South Pacific Ocean, the mariners of the 19th century could always tell when they were approaching a landfall by the sight of a crown of clouds around the peaks of the volcanoes and lightning playing about their crests. They knew that below the clouds there was a mountain and a landfall was near. This phenomenon was named "Lighthouses in the Sky." The clouds were formed by a process known as adiabatic pressure in which the heat of the day rises up the sides of the mountain in the late afternoon and turns to water vapor to bring about the clouds around the high peaks. These clouds are spotted from a vast distance at sea, and at night the lightning plays around the peaks of the mountains."

 

Statistics Courtesy of Ken Laessar's Coast Guard History Site

Hull Nos. FS type

34, 140-290, 309-319, 343-356, 361-367, 371-374, 383- 400, 404-410, 524-529, 546-550

The Amy J. was Hull No. 268
 

The report of the Chief of Transportation of the Army Service Forces indicates there were 510 F-FS boats in service at the end of WWII, the Army list showed 554. Cancelled contracts and unused numbers actully brought the official number to 363 vessels. Of these the United States Coast Guard manned 21 of the F boats and 188 of the FS boats. Many of these boats served in the Pacific and were known as island hoppers

Records indicate that six boats with Coast Guard crews were lost - the 163 in a typhoon, the 172 in New Guniea, the 255 torpedoed off Mindanao and the 290, 406, and 410 lost in a typhoon in 1945

Dates manned by CG ranged from May of 1944 to January of 1946

Note: FS 396 and FS 397 would later be transferred to the Coast Guard and become Cutters Trillium {WAK 170) and Nettle (WAK 169)

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