EXCERPT FROM THE SATURDAY EVENING POST 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 fate. 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.
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 bow.'" "When the ship cracked in two, it caught one of my boys in the crevice. It was pretty horrible."
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 view. 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 forces. 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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