A Young Cowboy’s Story

by W. D. Bonner

 

 

 

I caught a Greyhound Bus to Abilene, Texas, and walked from the bus station to the post office to see the Navy recruiter. I told him, “I want to be in the Naval Air Force.”

He said, “Son, you are in the wrong office go to the Army Air Force office.”

“I did, and they told me I was too young, that I had to be 18-years of age and graduate of high school.”

Disappointed and downhearted, I was on my way out of the post office building when a Chief Petty Officer took my arm and said, “Young man, you look like you need a Coast Guard buddy.”

I replied, “What is that?”

“Why son, that’s the Treasury Branch of the Navy.” He gave me some papers to take home to my parents.

Mom and dad both refused to sign the papers, reiterating, “You are too young.” I protested as no 17-year-old dared, in those days. In the meantime, dad had to go to a New Mexico pumping station for Texas Gas and Electric. That provided me the opportunity to really push my mom. Finally, she relented and filled out and signed the papers. I knew she expected the recruiting officer would deny the application on account of the “17” in the age box. So, I changed the “7” to an “8” with her pen. What the heck was six months anyhow? Who knew, I might be fighting Hirohito or Herr Hitler with some of my old buddies by the time they discovered this discrepancy.

My life before this decision to enlist was hard, and bittersweet. The long depression years had been hard on my family. A dairy ranch is rich with chores, seven days a week. The only rest was the mandatory attendance in church, twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night. I loved the singing in church¾it would fill my soul with joy, taking me far from my chores and school. From nine to 17-years of age, I worked on plows called, “planters,” “cultivators,” “busters,” “harrow,” and “disks,” pulled by a team of two horses. We planted row after row of cotton, corn, Sudan grass, millet, and cane, and completed my mother’s garden plowing every spring. All of the above, except cotton, were feed for the cattle and horses during the long Texas winters when no pasture was available to feed our stock.

As a teen, my job was to milk 14 of the 75 milk cows morning and night. My dad and Uncle Rual milked the rest, and I helped mother bottle the milk and put twelve to the case. Then put cases in the International Step-van for delivery with my dad. Now you know why a skinny 128-pound teenager wanted desperately to enlist with my pals. A green “turnip” in the middle of Texas has no concept of the world at large.

 

May 1943

 

After boarding a troop train in Sweetwater, I headed for the USCG boot camp in Florida, I was extremely happy to be on my way to helping win the war. With my ill-conceived notion that I would soon be with my "buddies," who had gone on before me. I had no inkling that I would never see a face I had known and grown up with in my hometown for years.

Days later the troop train stopped just short of the Atlantic Ocean, and a USN bus delivered us to our destination. I found myself standing in front of the most beautiful hotel in St Augustine, Florida, the Ponce de Leon Hotel. With walls and ceiling painted with murals of the gods, surrounded by hundreds of tall palm trees, it was an awesome sight for a country boy accustomed to austere sagebrush, cottonwood, and mesquite trees.

Finding myself in the foyer I proceeded to look for a restroom. Up and down the hallways I went¾no restroom! In desperation I asked a sailor standing nearby and he pointed, exclaiming, “Three doors down is the ‘Head’." I went to the door marked “Head” but hesitated to go in and bother anyone just for permission to pee. But urgency overcame my reluctance. Imagine how relieved I was, in more ways than one, to find the restroom, as I slowly opened that door and instantly learned a nautical name.

It was a shock the next morning to awaken to a bugle blasting throughout the sound system. In a way it was a relief because I had been in mortal combat with a platoon of mosquitoes all night¾not puny Texas mosquitoes but four-engine bomber, Florida 'gator skeeters.

I was assigned to Company K-1. We were the pride of the USCG, in our opinion¾the sharpest marchers, boat handlers and barracks cleaners, ever. For twelve weeks we worked our proverbial tails off. My dairy ranch upbringing probably gave me an edge over some. I don’t regret my childhood, but it was pretty hard some years, which inured me to excel in Judo, obstacle course, boat handling, marching, knot tying, firefighting, and the Coast Guard way to do all things safely.

Our company survived boot camp in fine shape. I gained from 128 lbs. to 158 lbs., plus learned to shave. Company K-l got the prized “Rooster” flag and we were then put on a troop train for Wilmington, California. What a rough seven days that was. We took turns sitting and standing, as there were not enough seats for all to sit down at once. When we got to Sweetwater, we were given a thirty-minute leg stretch privilege.

I dashed to the station pay phones and very excitedly dialed “228” which was our family phone number in 1943. It was happy to hear my mother’s voice. She asked, “Where are you?” and I replied that I could not tell her, nor say where I was going, or when, or even the time of day where I may be. All I could say is, I am well and happy to be in uniform for our country. As some of you may well remember censorship of everything spoken, written, or even contemplated was foremost in our minds. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” signs, and other slogans were everywhere. So, with great resolve and determination, I proudly re-boarded the Santa Fe train and moved on with my new pals to our destination.

Seven days after leaving St. Augustine, FL. We arrived at the Los Angeles Union Station at high noon on a cloudless day; palm trees tall and swaying slightly in the breeze, we felt we were given a view of what Heaven must look like. Then, we were put on a bus and taken to our ultimate destination, the Coast Guard barracks at Wilmington. Upon disembarking, we lugged our sea bags up to the quarters assigned. Then it was fall in at muster and march down to the mess hall for chow. We bunked down for a long night when taps played its familiar refrain on the base sound system. I lay awake for a long time, wondering what tomorrow would bring. Would I be put on a ship at last? I dreamed of a big ship with lots of guns.

The piercing reveille, offending my senses, announced the new day. Calisthenics began each day, then mess (breakfast), then to take tests to find out what our skills were. There were so many tests it seemed we were back in school. No grade was reported as we went from one examination room to another. After a few days, I found myself on Catalina Island at a place referred to as the “Itmas”(sic). We are now at gunnery school, learning Morse code and semaphore, and became well acquainted with small arms and water-cooled .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns. Most achieved Sharpshooter ribbons; a few achieved at least a Marksman. We swam a lot and did 25-mile hikes, and soon were in good condition.

Orders came for me to report aboard Eastwind (WAGB-279), constructed by Western Pipe & Steel Company, was being prepared for commissioning. I was temporarily transferred to Santa Barbara to Beach Patrol N-21, to walk patrol until Eastwind was ready for commissioning in approximately three months. A shipmate, Chuck Avery, and I went on liberty to Roosevelt Dry Dock, Long Beach, where she had been moved, to see the ship. We were in awe of the size of the three screws that propelled her. About a month later we reported aboard.

I remember sea trials. We shot at sock targets, which were towed by plane, with 50 cal, 20 mm, and 40 mm pom-pom guns. We shot targets on barges towed by ships, with twin 5.38” mounts, fore and aft. We had a good report card.

The shakedown and sea trials were concluded July 14, 1943. We left for the Panama Canal on July 20, in perfect weather and headed for Boston. On July 24, we arrived at Balboa, Panama, to find many ships waiting to go through the locks. We did not have to wait for them¾we went to the front of the line and preceded to Coco Solo, or “Colosa,” as some called the town on the Atlantic side of the canal. Our first liberty in another country was only for a few hours, but it was just what the crew needed after working so hard and long on sea trials to perfect the ship’s performance. Next day we cruised past Jamaica and Haiti and could clearly see a village on the Haitian shoreline. Someone said, “That’s Port au Prince.” But I doubted that as there were no large islands in the harbor. It was most likely Jeremie, a village on the southern peninsula.

Soon monstrous ground swells began and most everyone on board was seasick. This was the first heavy sea the ship had encountered. The sea trials were fun and we hit the various targets often in the smooth Pacific, but in this water you could not hold your balance. One second you’d be in free fall downward and the next your legs almost buckled under you as the ship rose upward with the next swell. So long as we were going straight into the swells it was easier. Once, when we were caught in an apex of swells, the round bottom wallowed and pitched with each roll. We knew we were in the dreaded Bermuda Triangle of the Caribbean. Boy, were we happy next day to be out of that area and moving up the USA coast.

We arrived in Boston harbor the last day of July and learned this was to be our homeport. The ship was fueled, supplies and spare parts loaded, ammunition was loaded into the magazines, depth charges loaded into port and starboard racks, hedgehog rockets were loaded into the firing tubes located on the forward main deck, lifeboats and life rafts were stocked with C rations, fresh water, and life-support gear. All hatches were then battened down and sealed for the heavy seas expected in the North Atlantic as we headed north.

Our first port of call was in Argentia, Newfoundland, where more supplies and mail were taken aboard to be delivered to other ships in the area. We then proceeded northward to Narsarssuak, Greenland, which were a few miles up a fjord (river) on the southern tip of Greenland. There, we delivered more mail and supplies to the army base.

During the days and nights that followed at sea, searching for U-boats and any sight of the enemy, we had lots of General Quarters practice operations. GQs are designed to sharpen our skills and speed up response time to the sound of the klaxon horn and wail of the emergency battle station loudspeaker system, always followed by the Bos’n Mate’s intense proclamation: “Now hear this, all hands, man your battle stations.” Sometimes, we would have several alerts in one night or day.

When we reached the Arctic Circle, we had an initiation party; all Pollywogs that had not been across the circle were herded into the mess hall to appear before to King Rex’s Neptune Court, where we were tried and found guilty of trespassing, and then blindfolded. Our penitence required us to kiss the Royal Baby’s belly; then we ran the gauntlet on hands and knees under the mess tables the full length of the mess hall while Shellbacks popped us with wet towels and belts. We were then declared full-ledged Shellbacks and became apart of the notorious organization known as the Greenland Growlers.

The time frames of the cruises are somewhat dim in memory, but as I recall, the first cruise North was only a few weeks because we had to return to Boston for repairs on the forward and both aft propellers. The forward screw worked well in open seas, especially dodging torpedoes. The ship could literally turn around in its own way by reverse engine on the bow motor and either port or starboard motor, according to the direction the captain wanted to turn with respect to an approaching torpedo. I recall one Battle Stations call that lasted over 72 hours. We were attacked over and over by a wolf pack of U-boats, from St. Johns to Narsarssuak. Torpedoes missed by as little as five feet to approximately 50 yards. We confused the U-boat commanders with the swift changes of direction we could maneuver. We prayed a lot, four decks below the water line.

My GQ battle station, at that time, was engine room #3. My CPO, “Smokey” Stover, was a very good Chief. Everything in the engine room was always in perfect shape, or we worked around the clock until it was in perfect shape. My duty station, when battle stations were sounded, was to man the throttle overrides of the governors on the two Fairbanks-Morse 2000 hp diesel engines. I would remove the toilet tissue wads from my ears, which were used to dampen the awfully loud noise of the engines, and put on my sound-powered headset and transmitter to hear commands from CIC, the control center of the ship.

When orders came for Full or Flank speed on the engines, I pulled the levers on engines 5 and 6 to override for as long as needed. The engines normal rpm underway was 350 to 450 according to the knots the Captain wanted to achieve given the sea and wind conditions. The generators that were pulled by the big engines were direct current generators connected to the switchboard, which distributed the current to the 5000 hp DC motors that turned screws. The rpm’s of the diesel engines determined the volt/amp output of the generators, which in turn make the three 5000 hp motors turn the ship’s propellers to attain the speed the Captain ordered.

 

Engine Rooms

 

The air would be so filled with oil vapors that at times it would be hard to breathe. To give the reader an understanding of what developed that horsepower, each engine has ten cylinders, twenty pistons and two crankshafts. The ten pistons and rods weighed approximately 400 lbs each. They worked in opposed alignment so that as two piston heads came toward each other in a cylinder, the pressure per square inch increased dramatically to over 3000 psi. That pressure ignited the diesel fuel injected into the space between the pistons after they passed the exhaust ports of the cylinders. The result of this pressure as the pistons travel toward each other is an explosion that produces a lot of heat and power. That heat multiplied, by the 40 pistons at the normal 320 RPMs was an average 120 degrees ambient heat in the engine room.

At battle stations, when engine governors were overridden for flank speed, the air fills with ozone and diesel fumes, and was almost unbearable. The engines were designed to operate at 320 to 350 and would really roar at twice that speed. The scavenging air blower would whine like a jet engine forcing air into those cylinders to flush out the exhaust and input clean oxygen for the next explosion. The full 15,000 HP of all six engines generates DC power that is used by the three motors and is transferred through long shafts approximately two feet in diameter and 60 feet long to hull glands. The screws at that time were a brass alloy and weighed 30 tons each, I was told.

 

Icy Grave

 

We relied on each other’s proficiency for survival in the most adverse sea conditions you can imagine, with topside temperatures –60 degrees, while engine room temp averaged 120 degrees.

We had ice cleaning when the ship became top heavy. A huge sheet of ice from the boat deck hit R. J. Harley as it crashed behind him as he walked out of the mess hall on the main deck. We all screamed, “Man overboard” and Harvey waved for the couple hundred yards it took the ship to stop and he slipped from view as the ship turned around. We could not find him. Man can live only four or five minutes in that brashy water. He had been a happy crewman. Everyone liked him.

 

Returning to the North

 

After the ship’s screws were replaced and The “Mighty E” was out of dry dock, and the crew back from leave; stores, supplies, and mail aboard, we set off again for the far north. Making the usual stops at Argentia, St. Johns, and Narsarssuak to deliver the mail and supplies. We then headed north to Greenland's isles of Shannon and Little Koldaway.

Our bi-plane, the “Duck,” had spotted activity and camouflaged supplies on Shannon Island and Little Koldaway, and a large supply ship approximately 100 miles away, working it's way out of an ice field. Captain Thomas, after debriefing the pilot and his Radioman, put into motion a plan of action to capture the Germans and their supplies and ship. They had constructed radio stations on both islands and were sending the information back to Germany.

Captain Thomas brought Eastwind through heavy ice to a point on the backside of the islands opposite the Germans on the seaward side of the island. Lt. Lewis took charge of a landing party formed up of 36 volunteers. They traversed approximately five miles across the island through old “storis ice” that was sharp as broken glass in places where the men had to climb up a mile-long hill. Ice cut through the arctic boots to the brogans of several men. The crossing was difficult, but was easier going down hill behind the weather stations where all of the Germans were watching absolutely transfixed in awe of such power of a large ship approaching them through ten feet of ice at three knots per hour. When they realized that in the meantime a platoon of armed men had the drop on them, they hastily laid down their guns and surrendered. One officer ran into the makeshift shelter and was trying to burn the German code papers when C. F. Chaffin rescued them from a coal-oil soaked sack as the Nazi struck a match. It was the first German code papers captured by a naval crew in WW II.

The twelve prisoners were happy the war was over for them. They should have been¾they got to eat officer’s chow, including cake and ice cream at times. The Philippine officer's cooks never gave us, the tired hot crew of the three engine rooms any ice cream¾ever!

One item before we leave the German weather station men: One day, as the Germans were being marched in file from the mess hall, center ship, to their compartment in aft section C of the ship, the lead guard slipped on deck ice and fell on his butt. The Germans quickly picked him up, brushed the snow and ice off. Another German picked up his Browning machine gun weapon and after wiping the weapon off, gave it to very politely to him. The rear guard had his Browning at the ready, but it was obvious these men were happy to be prisoners.

Now the German prisoners were safely confined to their quarters, the “Duck” went looking for the mother ship again. This time she was not moving through leads in the ice fields but was frozen in solid about two miles from open water. The “Mighty E” charged through the thick ice to within firing range and sent two 5.38” salvos across the transport’s bow. The radio and blinker signaled immediate surrender; they were warned not to scuttle the ship. The crew of the SS Externstien put their machine guns on deck, disembarked onto the ice field and were escorted to the “Mighty E’” where they were given the same medical exam, hot shower, and clean dry clothes as was given to the previous prisoners. A manning crew for the ship was picked, among them was W. Muller, who spoke fluent German, and was able to help the engineering officer identify and rename the controls and engineering valves of the ship. Our engine crewmen Howard Strauss, John B. O’Connor, and Electrician J. Dondero, and others disarmed Booby traps. The bottles of nitro wired to the steam engine’s connecting rods were found and removed so the ship’s hull wasn’t blown up when the main engine was started again.

The “Mighty E” circled the ship in ever-smaller circles, to avoid causing the ice to break her hull, released the ship from the grip of the ice field. Once free, she was christened the East Breeze by the boarding party of 32 men from Eastwind's crew. Lt. C. Howard, navigation officer, was assigned as commanding officer.

Equipped with a transmitter and coding equipment, and with controls renamed in English, the ship sailed south. In late October '44 at Boston’s Constitution Pier, she was put on display as the first German ship captured during WW II. The “Mighty E” also captured German U-234 on the way back to Boston with the East Breeze. The German officers and men all surrendered peacefully, but two Japanese officers aboard killed themselves in the submarine rather then surrender. The U-234 carried a load of badly needed supplies things for Japan, including Heavy Water.

 

Tightening Our Belts

 

I think the hardest cruise north was the time we were out some seven or eight months and ran out of fuel and food. A Navy officer rigged up hoses with support cables and refueled us at sea, and our sharpshooters went out on the ice and killed a polar bear and two walruses as we had no meat for sometime. The walrus tasted like fat fish. I was told the bear tasted the same. I threw my piece of browned walrus steak to the fishes. It was so greasy I swear you could have threaded a wick into it and had a candle. That was the trip we came home with one propeller blade left.

 

Peacetime

 

The day finally came when the war was over and there was still nothing out of Washington regarding the Presidential Unit Citation that was the talk of the ship’s officers and crew. Someone said President Roosevelt’s death was the reason for the hold up. It was thought that President Truman would complete the paper work and we would be notified, but that idea faded into the past like the smoke and thunder of the game of war.

My Chief, “Smokey” Stover, and Chief Neal, left the ship for other assignments. The guys were leaving the service in droves. It only required 100 points to ask/qualify for service separation. I was made Acting Chief Petty Officer of engine room #3 for 18 days, until Lt. Lusk told me my “acting” rate could become permanent if I would ship over and go to a station in New London, Conn. for CPO school. I said, “Sir, I have 168 points and my desire is to go back home”.

It was only important to me to serve during the war, but the war being over for the “Mighty E” was over for me also. I was sent to St. Louis, Mo. for honorable discharge, and a few days later, I was discharged of my last permanent rate, Motor Machinist Mate 3rd class (MoMM3c) and compelled to sign the reserve papers to receive my separation pay ticket on a Santa Fe train back to Sweetwater.

That is my “Sea Story” for what it is worth.

 

 

Return To Coast Guard Stories