SP Duty

by Jack A. Eckert



This was my first. . . .

It was sometime in mid 1951 when my ship, the CGC EVERGREEN, returned to Boston after the post-season oceanographic and northern loran runs. I had just returned to even keel after the port list I developed when I sewed on my first crow. Short of getting, "The Hat," there was no bigger promotion than making third class. The real problem was wondering what you were supposed to be. Had I changed? I don't think so, I was a short blonde sailor "boy" who tipped the scales at 128 lbs., soaking wet. Add to that a baby face that made me look younger than my 19 years. Then dress me up in our white uniform of the times with a rolled neckerchief. This set the stage for one of my most trying days.

The Boston ships, those moored at Constitution Wharf and those moored at Castle Island in South Boston, were required to supply shore patrols every day to the Navy. The larger weather wagons normally would send a first class and a third class petty officer from their duty sections. The EVERGREEN, SORREL, YAMACRAW, and CACTUS usually sent one, normally the lone assigned Gunners mate, or a spare Boatswains Mate. The smaller WHITE HEATH and the Lightships weren't bothered with that requirement.

Normally I stood a six on six off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off in port engine room watch. One day it didn't work that way. We had an extra fireman in my duty section and he was newly qualified for the watch. The YN1 caught me in the starboard passageway on a day when I was coming off liberty and heading for the berthing area to change into my dungarees for the noon to six watch. "Eckert, there has been a change in the duty list," he said, "You have shore patrol duty, you lucky devil you; the GM2 is on leave and you are the only one that can be spared from the duty section."

"Who, me? Are you kidding! I’m a snipe and I hate SP's."

"Ask the OOD" said the YN1, you’re stuck with it."

The OOD confirmed the bad news.

"When do I have to go and where do I have to go?" I inquired.

"In about half an hour, the duty driver will take you over to Joy Street."

Good grief, the only set of whites I have to wear is what I have on, Atlas cleaners doesn't get here until just before afternoon quarters and my only white hat is dirty. What do I do? Off went the jumper and pants. I chalked the ring around the collar, turned them inside out and pressed them quick. Wiped my shoes with a wash rag, borrowed a white hat, got the paper work from the Ships Office and was off on an adventure I had never bargained for.

The ride to the Joy Street Station was quick, too quick. I hadn't even collected my thoughts when suddenly I was standing before a grizzled Navy Chief sitting at a desk and handed him the paperwork. I also added that I had never done this before.

"You'll learn quick" he growled as he scanned me with his bloodshot eyes from head to go. "Now go over there and sit down."

Aye aye, sir," I stammered.

About 45-minutes later, another man and I were called—he was a Navy First Class whatever (I didn't know a lot of their rating badges). We were issued SP arm bands and nightsticks. I asked the first class if he had ever had SP duty before. He glared at me and grunted.

This will be a day to remember, I thought.

"You two are assigned to Dudley Street in Roxbury."

Oh, oh, that ain't a very good neighborhood," I thought.

Four subway tokens were issued, two to get there, and two to get back, which the Navy man was given. A mere EN3 and a Coast Guardsman at that, can’t be trusted with two tokens.

We walked to the station and got on the MTA. He paid my way with a token.

It was late afternoon and there wasn't much going at this time during our patrol; we paced up and down and around. We saw a couple of white hats, but they weren't doing anything wrong and we left them alone.

I tried to strike up a conversation with my Navy counterpart and all I heard out of him was bitching about having a baby-faced partner who couldn't cover his back.

He must have had weak kidneys as he stopped every block or two. I waited quietly on the street in front of whatever establishment we stopped at while he went inside for 10 or 15 minutes. Coincidentally every stop was some sort of oasis or watering hole.

Early evening came and we continued our walking and stopping, walking and stopping, and he seemed to be acting a bit tipsy. He still wasn't conversing with me, just grunting and growling. The white hats started showing up. He picked one out, ambled over to him, took out his billy club and jabbed him severely in the ribs and says "Square your hat, sailor or I'll run your gawdam ass in."

Now I begin walking into the bars with him but thinking, What am I doing in here? I am not even old enough to drink.

When the 1st class whatever sees a black sailor sitting with a white girl, he doesn't like it and jabbed him in the ribs with his billy club and demanded to see his ID and liberty card. This black guy crumples momentarily then jumps up with rage in his eyes. This guy was big, and he was madder than a boiled owl. The barkeep and other customers ignored the fracas. Another couple of jabs and whacks with the billy club and the sailor is pretty beat up. He tells the black sailor to get out of his sight or he'll run him into the brig for resisting arrest. Great, it isn't even ten o'clock and there is trouble brewing.

The SP sits down with the girl and promptly puts the make on her, which she seems to be responding to. He takes off his duty belt and SP armband. "Get out of here punk, I'll see you at the subway station at one." That is the most he has said to me the entire day.

I went out on the street and begin slowly walking my beat alone, not having the vaguest idea what to say or do. I couldn't hide because of what I looked like, my baby face, my white uniform, my badge of authority, and my billy club. All alone in one of the roughest parts of town and a couple of hours to kill. Nowhere to hide, just pace the beat and hope for no more trouble.

A couple of cops cruising around stopped and called me over to ask if everything was all right. The cops both began laughing when they saw how young I was, but they didn't mention it.

I continued walking when the beaten up black sailor came down the street with several allies. He spotted me and started heading at me. "Leave him alone, man, he's my shipmate from the EVERGREEN."

There was a seaman from our deck force in the group. He assured the rest of the posse that I was an OK guy and wouldn't pull any sh-t like the other SP did. They left me alone, walked into the bar looking for my partner. Evidently he and the woman were gone.

After midnight, I got on the MTA train, rode it all the way to Somerville and then returned downtown to Joy Street having killed an hour.

I turned in the SP gear, got in a waiting Coast Guard vehicle and was taken back to Constitution Wharf. Nobody asked me anything and I didn't volunteer anything. I wonder if that lout still has an extra subway token!

In those early years there were several black guys on every Cutter. They had just been allowed to strike for all rates; in the past only Steward and Cook were the only rates open to them. I had never lived around blacks before but found I could get along with them. In general, my philosophy in those and later years was and is, "if he or she is a decent person, after five minutes I don't see any color difference." I am glad that I had a mature philosophy at that young age, otherwise I probably wouldn't be writing this now.

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