Fish Food

They called 'em fish food

May 6, 1944
They Called `Em Fish Food
By Lt. (jg) Robert C. Ruark, USNR

Some of the most hair-raising stories of the war are told
By the Armed Guard, those valiant Navy gun crews who thought
That assignment to a merchantman was a sentence of death.

	The graduating officers of a Navy indoctrination school were
staging a farewell play, the corny,  earthy kind of play dreamed up by
students whose sufferings have come to an end.  Suddenly, an officer 
walked on the stage, held up his hand for attention and bawled, ""Ensign
Joseph Smith, report to the duty  officer immediately for orders.  You
are being assigned to the Armed Guard."

	The subsequent hush was broken by the wail of a doomed banshee
from Ensign Smith's seat high  in the balcony.  "Oh, my God, not that!"
cried the young ensign.  Another moment of quivering silence,  followed
by a pistol shot, and what appeared to the Ensign Smith's body plummeted
from the balcony into  the orchestra.  The ensign-or so it
appeared-rather than accept his condemnation to death, had hastened  his

	This bit of vaudeville occurred nearly two years ago and, though
exaggerated, it had more than an  inkling of how young naval officers
felt at that time about a duty which has since become one of the most 
coveted assignments of fighting men in the war.  Even so late as a year
ago, candidates for gunnery jobs  aboard merchant ships were regarded
and spoken of pityingly by their Navy comrades as "fish food."   When a
man was assigned to the Armed Guard, his roommates rolled their eyes in
burlesqued horror, made  strangling noises and drew their fingers
slitwise cross their throats.

Tanker set afire by a torpedo
Stricken Tanker

	Today, the Armed Guard is probably the Navy's most popular
seagoing assignment.  Officers who  have served their year, and have
been transferred to the fleet, sometimes sigh over their idyllic
existence in  the Armed Guard, and curse the day they left the good old
SS Rustpot for the more complicated, less  comfortable life on a regular
Navy vessel.  Enlisted men who have risen in rating to a point where
they are  a trifle too rich for the Armed Guard's blood have been known
to refuse higher rates for fear of being  transferred to destroyers or
battle wagons.  Men who have been sweating out the war in destroyers and
escorts, not to mention as assortment of shore jobs, have been busting
a gut for a shot at the formerly  maligned Armed Guard.  A great deal of
the duty's danger has departed, its training has improved 100  percent,
and a remarkable esprit do corps has flowered among its members.

	The Armed Guard has met the enemy oftener and on more widely
divergent fronts than any other  branch of our fighting forces.  Stroll
into the officers' bar of the Armed Guard base in New Orleans and 
eavesdrop on a bunch of breeze-shooting lads who haven't seen one
another since they shipped out a year  ago.  They wear the ribbons of
every theater of war, they've been wounded, decorated, and they've been
in  every invasion from Guadalcanal to Salerno. They've been bombed,
strafed and torpedoed.  They've spent  days in life rafts, and they've
been starved, frozen and broiled in the sun. Their experiences make
fantastic  conversation.

	". . . and all we had to ear for a week was one albatross and a
pint of turtle's blood."

	"I had a little ammunition trouble in the Persian Gulf.  It got
right hot-about a hundred and sixty- five degrees."

	". . . and when my coxswain woke me up, he said, `Excuse me for
bothering you, sir, but the ship  just broke in two.'"

	"The chief mate turned around and said: `Don't look now,
lieutenant, but I think there's a German  raider just off our port

	"When the ship cracked in two, it caught one of my boys in the
crevice.  It was pretty horrible."

LT (jg) Robert C. Ruark, USNR
LT Robert C. Ruark

	Some of the Armed Guardsmen have had year-long picnics, and
others have stacked horror on  horror, but they all ship out again.

	One of our typical hard-knocks boys was Lt. (j. g.) Robert
Stephan, of Lafayette, Louisiana, an  artist before he joined the Navy. 
Stephan's ship got off to an inauspicious start in New Orleans, when she
dropped the hook and lost the while business-anchor, chain and all. 
Then, in New York, the vessel fouled  a ten-inch line in its screws, and
it took divers four hours to untangle the mess.  A few days out of New 
York, off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the luckless Liberty was
involved in a ramming so  thoroughly screwy that it might have been
planned by Abbott and Costello.  A tanker was rammed, and  flew up right
beside her.  Then Stephan's Flying Dutchman locked horns with an
ammunition ship. Which  promptly caught on fire.  Stephan's ship fouled
its anchor on the smoldering ammo ship and the two vessels  wrestled
with each other, while everybody aboard expected momentarily to be blown
out of the water.

	When the two vessels finally broke out of their dangerous
embrace, Stephan's trouble seeker  smacked into still another ship,
which sank.  With a hole in its blow big enough to drive a cow through,
the  antisocial ark finally reached England.  Coming home light, the
evil-geniused tub ran into the famous  September wolfpack attack, which
took heavy toll of Allied shipping off Greenland.  She took a torpedo in
her belly, and snapped in two like a twig.  The midship section sank in
less than a minute, and her after  portion disappeared in less than a
minute and a half.  Thirteen Navy gunners were killed, and twenty 
merchant seamen were lost.  Stephan's escape was miraculous.

	The explosion's force hurled the lieutenant across the boat
deck, crushing him between the deck  and the lifeboat., crushing him
between the deck and the lifeboat.  His life jacket was ripped off and
both  shoulders smashed so badly that his arms were useless for weeks
after.  As the ship went down, Stephan  was sucked under with it.  And
then the horseshoe began to function.

	"As I sank," the officer said later, "two big pieces of wood
somehow drifted under my arms and  wedged there.  They were heavy enough
to hold me up, and they forced me to the surface.  A long time 
afterward I was picked up by a raft, and eventually somebody heaved me a
line and hauled me aboard the  rescue ship."

	Leaving the convoy to pick up more survivors, the rescue ship
ran smacked-dab into a surfaced  submarine, turned tail, and then bumped
into two periscopes.  It finally got back to the convoy, after 
zigzagging for hours between the double evils, and once more was
involved in a heavy submarine attack.   The convoy finally reached
Halifax, and Stephan went to the hospital.  It took months for him to
recover  from exposure, shock and the frightful pounding he took when
the explosion smashed him overside.

	The adventures of Lt. Gordon Morton, of Detroit, followed the
pattern of a B movie.  A Jap sub  threw a fish into Morton's ship
somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but all hands made the boats safely. 
They  spent seventeen days at sea, but they had plenty of food and
water.  One man even managed to shave every  day, enraging his
itchy-chinned fellow passengers.  Hewing closely to the movie motif, a
huge shark  followed the boats for days. Once, a whale broached so close
to the lifeboats that Morton says you could  smell the fish on its
breath.  One of the voyagers went off his rocker and began to see
fancied flights of  rescue planes, ships and tropical shores in plain

	Morton, scratching off the days on a sheet of soft lead, had cut
his seventeenth mark when they  finally made a landfall.  Sure enough,
out came the friendly natives in outriggers, and the lifeboats were 
towed through a break in the coral reef.  The island was Kavaratti in
the Laccadive group, and somebody  had been telling the natives about
the Good Neighbor business.

	The king of the island personally undertook to entertain the
survivors, and for the next couple of  days they were stuffed to the
scuppers with goat's meat, coconuts and rice.  There was the usual
tropical  moon, soft breezes soughing through the palms, the throb of
native drums and native chants.  Finally, the  big shot took the
Americans over to another coastal village, whence they were shipped to
Ceylon and a rest  camp there.  As he left, Morton was vaguely uneasy,
conscious of something missing.

	"I kept expecting Dottie Lamour to turn up," he said. There are
a thousand stories in the Armed Guard files, all of them good.  One
officer and drew,  torpedoed a scant fifty miles from shore, were forty
days of a lifeboat before they finally reached the beach.   Another went
ashore in East Africa and killed a huge elephant, putting a .30-caliber
rifle bullet in the  beast's eye.  One bunch, three hours out of Mobile
on their first trip, contacted a submarine, got two direct  hits and a
probable kill, and then went to sea for nineteen months thereafter with
no action. In my own case,  I topped off a screwy cruise by being rammed
by a submarine, attacked by another while sitting at anchor,  by seeing
one of my lads explode a torpedo as it swished past the ship, and
finally by being struck by  lightning.

Freshman Year of War

A lot of things have happened to the Armed Guard since the Navy first
stuck gun crews aboard  merchant ships.  In the bare beginning, the
ensign or lieutenant who put to sea with the merchant marine  could be
reasonably sure of many unpleasant things.  He could count pretty well
on a hostile attitude from  the merchant seamen, who resented the Navy's
presence as a curb on their personal freedom, and who  generally
believed that the Armed Guard crews were but the first step in a Navy
plot to take over the  merchant service.

	The new Armed Guard officer could be pretty sure that he and his
men would be inadequately  trained and that his armament would be
sketchy.  Many an officer has gone to sea without any preliminary 
training, and with no knowledge of guns or seamanship. One young officer
I know went to Malta in that  famous blockade-running convoy of the
summer of '42.  The British installed 20-mm. Oerlikons before the  ship
left England, and the Navy crew had only half an hour's lecture on the
use of the guns.  When German  planes hit the convoy in the
Mediterranean, the men got just one round out of the Oerlikons, and
after that  the guns were useless.  Somebody, it appears, had neglected
to tell the gunners that unless you grease each  shell, the gun won't
work. Nor has it been so very long since we braved that roughest of all
funs, the  Murmansk route past the North Cape, with only a few
.30-caliber machine guns as antiaircraft armament.

	In the days before we organized the convoys with an adequate
escort, you just figured you were a  potential corpse, and let it go at
that.  That was the picture, and small wonder the Armed Guard drew few 
volunteers.  Of course, we still get killed in this duty, for so long as
ships carry ammunition and high- octane gas into the teeth of enemy guns
there will be casualties.  But we are no longer sitting ducks.

	There was a time when, if you had a ten-man gun crew, a 4-inch
gun and a couple of .50-caliber  machine guns, you were considered a
very lucky guy. Today, the average Liberty ship carried two 
semiautomatic, dual-purpose, 3-inch guns or a 4 or 5 inch gun aft and a
3-incher forward, and eight 20- mms., which fir explosive shells with
appalling rapidity.  The 20-mm., probably more than any other single 
factor, has made aircraft attack on convoys highly impractical.  Sixty
or eighty ships armed with Oerlikons  and 3-inchers can toss up a foam
of flak that a hummingbird couldn't fly through.

	For men to run those guns, you get a stock complement of one
second or third class boatswain's  mate; three gunner's mates, two rated
signalmen, two rated radiomen and twenty gunners, all of whom  have been
subjected to months of training.  That training covers, as well as shore
training can, every  possibility that may arise at sea.  The men work on
guns until they can practically build a 5-inch, 38-caliber  out of a few
tin cans and a little rusty wire.  They learn blinker and flag hoists
and semaphore. They go out  on firing ships for days, until the spitting
crack of a 3-inch 50-caliber is no longer a startling novelty.  They 
fire at surface targets, at sleeve targets on antiaircraft ranges, and
further refine their potential deadliness,  on a polaroid gadget that
comes as close to being the real thing as a substitute can.  When the
Armed Guard  officer takes a ship today, his skull is bulging with fire
control and gunnery, seamanship, communications,  navigation, convoy
procedure, aircraft identification, first aid and simple surgery.

	The big bugaboo in our business has been, and always will be the
maintenance of cordial  relationships with the merchant personnel. 
Although the master is boss of the ship, he has no jurisdiction  over
the Navy detachment, and in time of combat is actually ranked by the
ensign or lieutenant.  Such a  situation has created some fancy footwork
on both sides, especially if the skipper is one of those I-am-
master-of-all-I-survey gentlemen.

	During the early days of the war, the Armed Guard was almost
purely on the defensive.  We were  resented, and with some justice.  Our
merchant ships were already cramped for space, and our presence  aboard
overcrowded them badly.  To skippers accustomed to Jovelike powers at
sea, the fact that we were  in no way responsible to the master
sometimes acted as a gadfly.  We were a minority group whose dress, 
regulations and experience differed vastly from those of the men we
sailed with.  We were largely  inexperienced at sea, and undoubtedly
some misguided, green officers exceeded their authority and  wrongfully
interfered in the handling of the ship.

	The Navy made one serious mistake in the Armed Guard's
infancy-that of sometimes assigning  noncommissioned personnel as chiefs
of gun crews, and frequently sending fuzz-cheeked, too young  officers
to sea as commanding officers.  It quickly was seen that the job called
for the authority and prestige  of a commission, and the level head that
goes with maturity.  As a consequence, the noncoms were swiftly  weeded
out and the shiny products of midshipmen's schools were plucked out and
sent to other, less taxing  duties. Your typical Armed Guard officer
today is in his middle thirties, is married, has had executive 
experience, wears a stripe and a half or two full stripes on his sleeve,
and is aware that the job calls for  something more than keeping the
guns clean.

	Friction between merchant seaman and Navy lessened as the naval
units became larger and larger,  and the professional sailors became
accustomed to our presence aboard ship.  The expansion of our 
freighting fleet, plus the heavy casualties of the early days, has
necessitated the employment of thousands  who never saw the sea before
the war.  Every ship that sails today is heavy with those men, and they
accept  us as a matter of course.  They've never been to sea except in
company with the Armed Guard.  Also, the  inclusion of planned quarters
for the gun crews, in our newer ships, so that merchant and Navy
personnel  may be bedded and fed separately, has greatly eased the
strain between the two groups.

	But the great ameliorator has been the commercial sailor's
appreciation of the Navy complement  as something more than merely
decorative in the seagoing scheme.  Any sailor who has been through a 
couple of stiff air attacks loses any animosity he might have cherished
toward the gun crew.  I remember a  snappish old engineer who had no use
for the Navy, and never missed an opportunity to get in a couple of 
cracks at us.  A few weeks and several attacks later, the old boy could
have been seen dashing around the  exposed flying bridge, in a perfect
hail of flying flak and falling bombs, with a bucket of water for my 
gunners-the same "sea scouts" he used to ridicule.  When we finally hit
the dock, after a mean run up the  Adriatic, the merchant marine fell
all over itself trying to buy drinks for my boys.  And right here is an
apt  spot to say that some beautiful auxiliary loading and firing jobs
have been done by the merchant sailors  when the Navy drew was
inadequate or depleted by casualties.

	The most alluring feature of the Armed Guard is that we get home
often.  The Army goes  overseas, and there it stays.  Escorts and
destroyers ferryboat between the States and foreign ports, but their 
crews don't see much shore time. Carrier and battle-wagon duty carries a
long absence from America, and  the saying is that once you land in an
advanced base, you stay there until the war's over.  But the merchant 
ships go out, dump their load, and unless they get fouled up in a
shuttle run, they usually head back for  another cargo.

	Nobody who hasn't been away from this country for months can
understand what getting back  means.  I've seen tough Army officers,
with nearly two years of  foreign service, actually weep as they  waved
good-by from the dock of some beat-up hole in Africa.  They knew we were
going home to  everything they wouldn't see for God knows how long, and
there wasn't a man who wouldn't have paid ten  years of his life for
deck space on my rusty, dirty old Liberty ship.  Our homing-pigeon
proclivities make  us the fat cats, the anointed few, of the righting

	If there is a serious drawback to the duty, apart from the
ever-present chance that you'll be slightly  dead on a moment's notice,
it's the boredom.  After about forty-five days at sea, the most timid
chap  aboard begins to wish a couple of JU 88's would pile out of the
clouds to provide a little excitement.

	Even though it's boresome, continually riding a hot cargo does
get to you.  You know your nerves  are all right, and you don't have
trouble sleeping, and you never entertain the thought that you might be 
blown to pieces at any moment.  But you also begin to notice that your
cigarette consumption has trebled,  and you're drinking an awful lot of
coffee.  Finally, when the last bomb is one the dock and the final 
slingload of gas rides out of the hold, you discover you're immensely
relieved.  A light ship is very  pleasant, because you feel you've at
least a couple of chances to get off the thing.

	That's our duty. It's not so adventurous as combat flying, nor
so glamorous as sliding around in a  submarine, nor so tough as
chauffeuring a tank.  It's dull in spots, uncomfortable in others, and
danger is  always riding with you.  The Armed Guard isn't a dream
service, but it's our baby, and we love the brat,  especially since time
has made her a touch more legitimate.  We've come a far piece since the
days when  our password was "Sighted sub, glub, blub," and our views
inspected our insurance policies with more than  passing interest when
we went down to the sea in merchant ships.

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