SS Scapa Flow



Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 1







FOREWORD

In times like ours a merchant ship is a microcosm of a civilized country
at war. A freighter's function in wartime is different from its function
in peacetime, but only in degree.

The United States at war is devoting part of its national purpose to
defeating the enemy; but people still live in homes, do their jobs of
work, and send their children to school--just as they did before the
second world war began. Similarly, life on a freighter or a tanker is
largely the same today as it was in peacetime. The sea watches are the
same; the discipline is the same, except for the blackout provisions at
night; living conditions are the same; the air is the same; the water is
the same, and the horizon is the same distance away.

A Flying Fortress or a Motor Torpedo Boat, about which writers have
become so lyrical of late, is a perversion of human invention. Military
airplanes or war vessels remain potential death-dealing objects in
peacetime, hardly touched by the peace. Their crews are trained as
killers, in peace as well as in war.

The crew of an American merchant ship is composed of civilians, mostly
union men, who are doing a war job which nobody else could do so well.
They are doing the job by the use of their peacetime skills and
training. And yet every man on board knows that each minute at sea for a
six-month voyage may be his last one alive. Ships are torpedoed without
warning. A torpedo may hit the hull near him.

In some ways a six-month trip in wartime, broken only by shore leaves,
could be likened to enduring a six-month con-

[vii]


tinuous air raid or being under fire in a slit trench for six straight
months.

But there is a difference, too. In the case of the hypothetical air raid
or ordeal in a trench you would know what the danger was, with one, at
least, of your five senses: you could hear it, or see it, or smell it,
or do all at once.

During the major part of the voyage at sea there is every sensual
inducement to forget danger from the enemy; he is nowhere evident. But
you can never get him out of your mind. And that constant awareness of
hidden danger generates a mounting tension which does queer things to
all the members of the crew.

Lars Skattebol
New York City


[viii]


CHAPTER ONE

In Mid Summer of 1942 an old Merchant ship left New York for Africa. She
carried a general war cargo. The outward voyage was successful, and the
ship was discharged at a port in Africa. A half cargo was taken on at
this port; the balance, at another.

When the ship was homeward bound, about a thousand miles at sea and
traveling alone, she was attacked by a German submarine. Two torpedoes
sent the ship down in less than a minute.

There were sixty-one men on board. Thirty-three were either killed
outright by the torpedoes or drowned in the sinking. The survivors spent
seventeen days in a small steel lifeboat before rescue. One man died of
untreated malaria while adrift.

The surviving seamen eventually reached New York, where they could pay
the Victory tax on their accumulated wages.

Those are some vital statistics on the Scapa Flow,* and on her voyage,
sinking and crew. They are not unusual for these times. The outline
story of this ship is not greatly different from those of many hundred
others which have been destroyed since the beginning of the global war,
yet such an outline tells nothing of the human drama that is enacted in
every sinking of a merchant ship.

The Scapa Flow was built in Germany in 1914 and still had her original
engine and boilers. She was used by the Germans during the last war and
seized by the British at its conclusion.

* This was her real name, but in the book was called Quien Sabe as the 
real name could not be mentioned because it might, just possibly, 
reveal information of value to the enemy.

Later the ship was sold to the Finns, who seem to have been the only
ones to put up any cash during her many changes of flags. The United
States took the ship from Finland when we got into the present war. She
was placed under the flag of Panama, although her title of ownership
remained with the United States Maritime Commission.

Even after she had her full West African load, there was a lot of
trouble getting the Scapa Flow away from her Brooklyn pier.

The shipping company maintained a skeleton crew aboard the freighter,
composed mainly of officers and seamen who had made the previous run to
West Africa. A few others were taken on, but not many. On grounds of
economy the shipping company did not want to fill up the ship's
complement until the last possible moment before sailing. The company,
an old-line private firm which was operating the Scapa Flow on charter
from the Maritime Commission, got a percentage of the net profits on the
trip, after paying all expenses. There was no need for a full crew until
the ship was actually ready to sail. But when the hatch covers were
battened down the delay began.

Immediately there was an exodus of stumblebum seamen and officers, who
had come aboard to work the ship at "stand-by" while she was in port,
but who had absolutely no desire to go out in her to take their chances
with submarines. I have characterized these men as stumblebums, but this
may be foolish. They may well have been actuated by accurate
premonitions or have made a good inspection of the machinery of the
ship, or noted that the Scapa Flow had no compartmentation.

At all events, these men walked off; their places had to be filled, and
the rest of the crew had to be signed on. Because the Scapa Flow flew
the flag of Panama, there was no need to be squeamish about the number of
aliens signed on her, even though she was an American-owned ship. The
aliens could even be neutrals--Spaniards, for example--which seems odd,
to say the least, inasmuch as Spain appears to be little less than an
actual Axis partner.

This charitable personnel policy made signing on a crew relatively easy,
but not a cinch. Filling out the deck and steward

[2]

departments was not hard, but getting a black gang below was another
thing.

The Scapa Flow was a coal burner, requiring nine stokers, three coal
passers, and three oilers. Most of the reasonably intelligent men who
went below into the Scapa Flow's engine and boiler rooms came up a few
minutes later, shaking their heads and heading for a saloon near the
pier, never to be seen on the ship again. Eventually a Yugoslav decided
to take a chance, and so did four Portuguese.

The Yugoslav, it developed later, was led to take a job as stoker solely
because of a conviction that the Gestapo was after him; he believed that
in order to save his sanity he had to find haven in some relatively safe
place.

The four Portuguese serve to document the thesis of economic
determinism. On ships of their own flag, these Portuguese stokers could
have made the equivalent of about fifteen dollars a month. They would
have had to sleep on the deck, using the same deck as a mess table from
which to eat meals consisting mainly of fishballs and rice. Three of
these men were supporting families in Portugal in what must have been
unusual style, as they could make ten times the Portuguese wages on such
an American-owned ship as the Scapa Flow. The fourth one was trying to
save up money so he could feel free to propose to an English girl he had
met in Barbados. He had banked much of the money he made on previous
ships, and was almost ready to declare himself.

The boiler room still needed four more stokers. For a time it seemed as
if no other suckers would be forthcoming, but eventually a number of
Egyptians appeared. Four of them agreed to fill out the stoker crew,
another Egyptian took an oiler's berth, and still another became a coal
passer. The remaining jobs as coal passers were taken by two teen-age
Americans of Polish descent, who had run away to sea from Chicago's
South Side.

The two other oiler berths were filled by an American who was on parole
after serving ten years of a sentence for murder in Pennsylvania and by
an American oiler from the Great Lakes who had never before shipped on
salt water.

Of the fifteen men who composed this black gang, thirteen were killed or
trapped to drown when the Scapa Flow was sunk.

 [3]

There are five engineers on a ship of the Scapa Flow's size: the chief
and his four assistants.

The chief engineer is the vice-captain of a merchant ship. He has
complete charge of the engine and boiler rooms. He can refuse to take a
ship out of port if he believes that some mechanical aspect of the
vessel is not up to the mark. If the captain decides to overrule him,
the chief engineer has the privilege of filing a protest in writing for
his own protection in case trouble arises at sea.

During the course of her last voyage the Scapa Flow had two chief
engineers in succession. The first was a wheezing, fat old Belgian with
a loud voice which was heavy in accent and asthma. He seemed to spend
most of his time in a perspiring waddle between the engine room and the
bridge, bellowing irritatingly over the condition of the Scapa Flow. The
ship broke down several times during its slow course south along the
east coast of the United States. The chief felt the ship was in no shape
to make the ferry run from Manhattan to Staten Island, much less a war
crossing of the South Atlantic. At each breakdown the old Belgian would
howl for a complete overhaul in a competent shipyard, and for an equally
complete replacement of his crop of polyglot assistants. He received
satisfaction on neither count, so he finally gave up the struggle in Key
West, Florida, and walked off the ship. This action may have saved his
life, as he was constitutionally incapable of any hurried physical
action, and the necessity of making a rush for the boats after the
torpedoing probably would have been too much for him, even if he had
survived the torpedo explosions.

The shipping company flew his successor to Florida from New York. The
new man turned out to be a Norwegian who may have been full of
efficiency on a Norwegian ship, but who only added one more language to
the confusion on the Scapa Flow. This Norwegian had barely enough
English to get around Brooklyn. Moreover, he had been used to the crack
mechanical virtues of Norwegian ships, with their invariably high
standards of personnel. This chief was fifty years old, which made him
the oldest man on the ship. His long serviceon Norwegian-flag ships

 [4]

had pushed much of his practical knowledge into the back of his head,
leaving him relatively helpless to order vital repairs on such an
ancient rustpot as the Scapa Flow. In addition, his fuzzy ideas had to
be presented to his assistants in a wholly weird version oś the English
language. There was a considerable element of mystery in even his
simplest command, particularly as two of his assistants could understand
little English in any version.

The Scapa Flow's assistant engineers were a Canadian first assistant, an
American second, a Portuguese third, and an Egyptian fourth.

The Canadian had just returned from a journey to Russia, and perhaps to
commemorate his survival of this feat he had embarked upon an alcoholic
celebration. When sober he was easily the best engineer on the Scapa
Flow, but unfortunately he was rarely sober. He showed the alcoholic's
craft in hiding his liquor supply. Persistent searches by his superiors
were never successful; it was thought he had hidden some of his liquor
in the mazelike coal bunkers. He also appeared to be afraid his liquor
would run out, for he drank all he could get of other men's before
retiring alone to his cabin for a nightcap from his own supply.

He may have been sleeping between drunks when the Scapa Flow was
torpedoed. Anyway, he was in his cabin, which was well above the
waterline. Of the five engineers, he was the only one to lose his life,
demonstrating that there is not always a special Providence who looks
after drunks. The other engineers were all saved, though they were on
the floor of the engine room--about forty feet below the surface--when
the torpedoes crashed into the ship.

The second engineer was an American, which was pleasant from the
standpoint of communication, English being the dominant tongue on the
ship. But he wasn't a qualified engineer. The lax Personnel policy for
Panamanian ships, besides permitting the employment of neutrals, allowed
officers who could not be employed as such on ships of any standard
merchant marine.

The second assistant has a job of high responsibility. On Amer-
ican-flag ships he must serve a number of years at sea in berths of
lower responsibility, and then he must pass rigid examinations. No
such qualifications were required on the Scapa Flow,

 [5]

although it was American-owned. This American second had served only as
an oiler on American ships, but through adroit maneuvering and good
fortune had managed to land himself this job. He was twenty-three, which
is very young to be functioning as an officer on a merchantman even in
a pseudo, or Panamanian, capacity. Although he had never finished
grammar school, he could read fairly thought-freighted prose, but
agonized over the mathematics which is so important a part of a marine
engineer's background. He had considerable mechanical aptitude, however,
and coulld improvise repairs by short cuts he had learned during boyhood
tinkering with Model-A Fords.

The two other engineer officers, the third and fourth assistants, also
were under thirty. Both refugees from ships of their own country's
registry, they were drawn to the Scapa Flow by the much higher pay.
Perhaps the relatively slipshod personnel standards were another
inducement.

The Portuguese third was an excellent machinist, and under direction he
turned some fine emergency parts while at sea, although he had almost no
idea what use would be made oś them.

Altogether, he had little knowledge of his actual job, which, together
with his lack of English, made it imperative that his sea watches
coincide with those of an English-speaking oiler who could act as
translator. Otherwise, even the simplest speed changes ordered from the
bridge Would have been beyond this third engineer.

The Egyptian fourth assistant spent much of his time calculatlng his
coming pay and trying to force the Egyptian stokers to wash his clothes
for him. He advertised himself as an upperclass Egyptian on the ground
that one of his brothers was a judge in Egypt. This may have been
impressive to some of the stokers, of his own nationality, but not to
anyone else. The fourth was of extremely dark hue, as are many of his
race, but he resented angrily any suggestion that he wasn't a white man.
In shredded English he boasted endlessly of conquests among American
girls, appending to each story the statement that the conquest had been
genuine, and that he hadn't been forced to pay a single dollar. He was
gawky and quite small, though possessing a full-sized Egyptian nose. His
appearance and his miserliness led to the opinion on shipboard that he
lacked the

[6]

appeal to win women and the disposition to buy them and must, therefore,
have.been at least a near-virgin despite his stories. He maintained that
a prominently displayed photograph in his cabin was a picture of his
most recent conquest: he said she was a model he had met in a telegraph
office while he was cabling his judge brother in Egypt for a great deal
of money to finance high living in New York. The picture was that of a
well-known movie actress and both picture and frame were of the kind
found in five-and-dime stores.

The deck officers were much better qualified for their jobs than their
equally important parallels in the engine room, but even they left much
to be desired. Only two of them could have served on American-flag
ships, and they were the captain and the first mate.

The captain was a wiry, intensely nervous man of about forty. He kicked
at the ship's cats and the Roosevelt administration with equal violence.
He was sharply opinionated, and I know of only one time during the
entire voyage when he accepted a suggestion; this was under the duress
of a near-mutiny, which came while the ship was lying off the coast of
Liberia.

The impression was widespread that he forced the Scapa Flow through the
voyage without proper repairs or competent officers because he thought
the ship probably, would make it, and he could, therefore, hasten the
day when he would assume command of the new Liberty ship that was
promised him on his return to the States. I once heard him express the
wish for more reading matter in his cabin, something to supplement his
steady fare of back-numbers of Life magazine. With the condition of the
ship in mind, I offered him a copy of a book I liked. It was that
splendid handbook for wartime seamen called How to Abandon Ship. The
captain looked gravely insulted. "Mr. Skattebol," he said, "I know how
to abandon ship." The sequel belied his statement. During the few
seconds that the Scapa Flow remained above water after the torpedoing he
advised the seamen within earshot to go over the port side of the ship.
None obeyed him. The torpedoes had struck on the port side, and to go
overside there would have been to risk being 

[7]

sucked through the torpedo holes and into the sinking ship. Perhaps the
captain jumped over the port side. Nobody knows. He was in the safest
place on the ship when the attack came; he was awake; he was an active
man. But he lost his life just the same.

The best-liked officer on the Scapa Flow was the first mate. This is
paradoxical, not on only one count but two. To begin with, a first mate
has working charge of the largest department, the deck. Ordinarily he
doesn't stand the regular sea watches of four hours on and eight off,
but puts in white-collar hours-nine to five, with an hour off for lunch.
He is responsible for keeping the ship tidy, and he thinks up
innumerable jobs for his department to do, both at sea and while in
port. It is hard for a first mate to do his job well without being, or
seeming to be, a slave-driver. The Scapa Flow's first mate was exacting,
but he was popular nonetheless. A second possible cause for dislike
would have been the fact that this officer was of German descent and had
a German name. With a ship's complement like that of the Scapa Flow,
made up so largely of men from countries overrun by the Nazis, a first
mate of German blood might have had an unsettling time, but this first
mate overcame the disadvantage of blood as well as of position. He was a
thoroughly Dodgerconscious American from Long Island, a big, strong and
loving man of thirty. He possessed an inverted snobbery, pre{erring the
company of his subordinates in the deck department to that of the
captain and the other officers. He drilled the crew unceasingly in
abandon-ship rehearsals. Some of the first trippers owe their lives to
his training. Less than fifteen seconds after the torpedoes struck the
Scapa Flow, the first mate, the bosun, an oiler and I were grouped round
a life raft, trying to launch it. The crash of the torpedoes may have
warped the raft's steel runners--though I can't be sure--but in any
case, we couldn't get the raft cut loose by the time water came onto the
main deck. The first mate advised us to make for the boat deck. This
involved a sprint down the main deck to a ladder which ran up to the
boat deck. We four started the sprint together, and that was the last
anyone saw of the first mate.

The navigating on a merchant ship is usually done by the second mate.
The Scapa Flow's second mate was thoroughly in-

[8]

competent, but he did the navigating just the same. He was a brave man
and patriotic; but he never should have taken, or been allowed to take,
a job as second mate in wartime. His only sea service had been in the
Navy during the last war, where he seemed to have learned little. During
the period between wars he had a minor job in the civil service. When we
entered the present war he was almost fifty, but he decided he was
needed at sea again. He took a hot-shot course in navigation in New York
and, realizing he couldn't possibly make the grade as a mate on an
American-flag ship, got a job as second mate on the Scapa Flow. In this
capacity he was making his first sea voyage in a quarter of a century.
The first and third mates usually helped him out. The captain did too,
often prefacing his assistance with a blast of sarcasm. The poor second
studied his navigation endlessly, but never quite succeeded in licking
it. Once, when he had misplaced his logarithm tables, he appealed to me
to save him from being pathetically humiliated by the captain. A quick
search had failed to discover the tables, and the captain was waiting
for the day's position. Could I do square root without tables? he asked.
I could, and with this elementary help he got by for that day. His dimly
apprehended navigation was always a source of amusement to the crew.
They knew little mathematics. Not so funny was the second mate's
behavior on the bridge. The able seamen knew all about what should
happen there, and no jokes were made about his bridge actions while the
Scapa Flow was in convoy. There was always considerable apprehension
among the crew when the second mate's watch on the bridge coincided with
that of the Portuguese third assistant in the engine room. On one such
occasion only the independent action of the helmsman (technically wrong)
kept the ship from a collision. A convoy was forming up, and the Scapa
Flow was traveling at half speed ahead.

Here the second mate made one of his worst mistakes. He wanted a bit
more speed ahead. Instead of telephoning to the English-speaking oiler
in the engine room and ordering a few more revolutions, he rang full
speed ahead on the bridge tilegraph. Down below in the engine room was
the Portuguese third. The oiler, unfortunately, was making his rounds.

The Portuguese third heard the sharp double ring of the indicator, 

[9]

lost his head, and put the ship into full speed astern. The helmsman on
watch up on the bridge was a Brazilian. As the ship slewed to a stop, he
felt he had to remonstrate, and quickly. He lacked the English to tell
the second mate that a fast Norwegian tanker was roaring up on the Scapa
Flow's stern, so he took the decision into his own hands and swung the
ship hard to starboard. The Norwegian swung to port and sailed past us,
with her Crew bellowing the foulest of imprecations; their tanker was
loaded with high-test gas. Even a spark from a shoenail can blow a
tanker with such a load to ungatherable bits. A collision with the
tanker would have meant two ships lost, and the death of most, or
possibly all, of the men in their crews. The crew of the Scapa Flow
chipped in a package of cigarettes apiece as a gift to the Brazilian
helmsman. As for the second mate and the third engineer, they got many a
black look within the next few days. The second mate's first sea trip in
a quarter of a century was his last. He was off watch and asleep in his
cabin when the Scapa Flow was torpedoed. He didn't even have time to get
out on deck, and, as with so many others on the ship, his cabin became
his tomb.

The third mate talked and acted like a grown-up Dead-End Kid. He had the
dark coloring of a man whose immediate ancestors came from Sicily, and
this coloring was intensified by a persistent case of yellow jaundice.
The yellow, added to the gray-brown of his skin, made him look very much
like an American Indian. He had served for a number of years on American
ships, on deck, and was now going up the officer grades via the easy, or
Panamanian, route. Compared with the second mate, he was a paragon of
seamanship. He knew the helm and some navigation. He got much practice
in navigation, which was important from a promotion standpoint, by
helping the addled second mate. He tough-talked a good deal, which might
have been taken by the crew as showing a disposition toward democracy,
but wasn't. Generally speaking, a crew member appreciates fraternity in
an officer, but an officer whose grammar is too bad is immediately
suspect. The merchant officer is supposed to have a good education,
which the crewman very often does not. An officer who uses exactly the
same lingo as the crew courts the 

[10]

suspicion that he is attempting to win favor. This interpretation was
often put on the conversation of the third mate, but it was probably
erroneous. He talked that way because he had grown up as a toughie, and
hadn't learned any differently. He would have been a good able seaman,
but as an officer he was better than the second mate only because the
second couldn't possibly have held down a job as an able seaman. The
third, who was the officer on watch when the ship was torpedoed, rang
the ship's emergency bells, which did not show particular intelligence.
Any man who cannot hear the explosions of two torpedoes against the side
of his ship is not likely to hear the jangle of a bell. The third mate
was never seen after the Scapa Flow went down. Perhaps he was caught
under one of the flying bridges.

The fourth--or junior--mate was easily the best deck officer' on the
ship, not excepting the captain. He was only twenty-six years old, but
he was the sole officer on board who seemed to accept the sea as a way
of life rather than as a timeserving job. He was a Dane, and his
nationality was all that barred him from an excellent job, on an
American ship. He was a fine navigator, but the snobbery of ignorance
prevailing on the Scapa Flow prevented him from doing much of the
navigation. He had the usual Scandinavian sailor's aptitude for
languages, and could speak about five of them besides Danish. He knew
the ways of a ship and how to load and discharge a cargo. Despite his
youth, he had served two years on large sailing ships in the grain
trade, several times making the round trip from the north of Europe to
Australia. This experience proved fortunate indeed, as he had traveled
under sail right through the waters in which the Scapa Flow was sunk.
His value as the man in charge of the survivors' lifeboat cannot be
overestimated. He was a slight man and not very strong--his only
handicaps. The Danish fourth mate was the only one of the five deck
officers to be saved in the sinking. He was asleep in his cabin at the
time of the torpedoing. He got to his feet, put on his shoes, tied their
laces, put on a life jacket, ran into the pilothouse to try to find and
save the ship's sextant (he couldn't; the second mate had probably
misplaced it), and tried to help launch a lifeboat--all in the space of
about forty-five seconds.

[11]

The Scapa Flow, in common with many American-owned ships, had two cadets
on board. The American cadet system is a good one, though an American
cadet rarely gets the training furnished his British parallel, the
midshipman. The cadet studies ashore for a while and then is sent out
for about six months' seasoning. He may be trained for an officer's
berth in either the engine or the deck department. He studies some more
on land and finally is given a chance to pass examinations which will
get him an officer's license. The cadet system is sponsored by the
Maritime Commission with the co-operation of the shipping companies.
Cadets under competent officers on American ships get a lot better break
than the poor unfortunates on the Scapa Flow. These two boys--both
nineteen--had almost no chance. For the most part, their superiors had
little sea knowledge, and, in the engine room, much of what knowledge
did exist was in foreign languages and could not be communicated
effectively to the cadets.

Of the two cadets on the Scapa Flow, the deck cadet had the better
opportunity. He became very friendly with the Danish fourth mate and got
tips he couldn't have got from the American captain and the American
second and third mates. The first mate was competent enough, but he
didn't appear to believe in the cadet system; usually he set the deck
cadet to the most menial and least educational of jobs--soogeing
overhead (a housewife would call this particular occupation scrubbing
the ceiling with soap and water). The deck cadet was one of the
survivors.

The engine cadet had a job that would have discouraged a saint; it
certainly discouraged the engine cadet. The engine and boilers of the
Scapa Flow were obsolete and foreign: he would never have run into a
similar power system on an American ship had he gone on to become an
officer. Moreover, the polyglot group of incompetent engineers could
teach him almost nothing. It was a case of the blind leading the blind,
forty feet below the surface of submarine-menaced waters. Before the
voyage was half over the engine cadet had resolved to give up this
career the moment he hit land. His life was stopped without much of what

[12]

is said to be the wartime consolation of doing a worth-while job for
one's country.

6

On a merchant ship there are often two men who do not fall into any of
the classic departments of deck, engine and steward. These are the
wireless operator and the spareman. The Wireless operator is an officer,
and the spareman is listed as a member of the crew.

The Scapa Flow's wireless operator (inevitably called Sparks) was a
Filipino. He had grown up in the suburbs of Manila, and was the type
often termed "goo-goo" in the far western states. He got his start at
sea as a cabin boy on one of the inter-island steamers in the
Philippines. He studied radio at a school in New York and managed to get
his Panamanian license. Because he lacked the American citizenship
required for officers on a merchant ship flying the American flag, a job
on such a ship as the Scapa Flow was about the best Sparks could expect.
Sparks had the prosaic Filipino's craving for flamboyant clothes--wildly
colored shirts and flaring bell-bottomed trousers. Physically, at least,
he was one of the cleanest men on the ship; his only rivals in this
regard were the Brazilians.

The wireless operator on a wartime freighter has a job of great
responsibility. When a ship is traveling alone, either by design or
because it has been lost from a convoy, radio directions are often given
from the United States, and special bulletins are broadcast which warn
of newly established areas of U-boat activity. In case of sinking, the
wireless officer may have time to get off a message, which may bring
warcraft to search for the submarine, and, the rescue lookout, if any is
undertaken, will start immediately instead of only after the loss of the
ship is suspected ,when she becomes increasingly overdue in port. In
wartime, SOS messages have a precisely opposite effect on other
merchantmen from what they do in peacetime. In time of peace, an SOS at
sea is big news, and most vessels in a radius of hundreds of miles will
change course and make for the damaged ship. But in wartime, when Sparks
hears a nearby SOS, he reports it to the captain immediately, and often
there is a change of course--in the opposite direction. A lone
merchantman is no match for a submarine; every 

[131

merchant seaman knows it. This remains true even when freighters are
equipped with surface guns and gun crews. Though the. effect of an SOS
is negative so far as rescue from other merchant craft is concerned,
Sparks can plot SOS calls on a chart and get his own picture of U-boat
attack patterns. This is of inestimable value to his ship, as the
captain may change course accordingly, twisting and turning in order to
avoid the submarines.

A little bell was attached to an automatic SOS recorder on the Scapa
Flow, which Sparks used to say rang almost as often as the bell
announcing the ship's meals. He made it clear that it was an awfial
thing to listen to these distress calls and realize that every wireless
operator on still-safe freighters or tankers near-by would be doing the
same thing he was doing: marking the distressed ship's position down on
a chart--to be avoided. But Sparks was, unusually imaginative, anyway.
He was one of the few politically conscious men on board. There was no
doubt that he was a communist or a strong communist sympathizer. He
would never define his political allegiance in a single word, knowing
inevitably that to label himself a communist would destroy whatever
value he might have had as a propagandist. It was easy, however, to get
his line from his constant use of catchwords and phrases which might
have, and probably did, come from the columns of the Daily Worker or New
Masses: "defeatists, .... Munichmen," "left-wing infantilism, ....
vanguard of the working class," and many others. Sparks was the ship's
barber; he would give you a free haircut, accompanied by a lecture in
his flowery Filipino English'interlarded with Marxist slogans. He was
well-liked. No one, with the exception of some of the Egyptians, looked
down on him because of the color of his skin. Sparks was at his radio
when the ship was torpedoed. He never got out of the radio shack. He had
no time to warn other ships, of the position and loss of ours.

My job on the Scapa Flow was that of spareman. This is, as the name may
suggest, a sort of proletarian trouble shooter. The job pays better than
that of an ordinary seaman, but is by no means in the officer class. The
spareman fills in for any member of the crew who is sick or drunk, and
almost needless to say, there is usually something for him to do. During
one part of the

[14]

voyage I would be stoking a furnace in the black gang, because one of
the stokers had a heart attack; sometimes I would stand lookout; once I
acted as messboy for the crew because the regular messboy, a Brazilian,
had got into a knife scrape with one of the Portuguese firemen. I peeled
many potatoes, too, but this was a long trip and they didn't last out.
This, however, was no gain to me, for after the potatoes were gone I
sometimes had to clean African wild rice, a job designed for an idiot or
a Buddha. I had been a regular seaman on my previous ship, a Norwegian
tanker on the British run. Soon after our entry into the war, our
immigration officials decided American citizens should serve on either
their own ships or Panamanian ones. This was all right with me; I had
chosen the Norwegian vessel rather than one of another anti-Axis nation
merely because I wanted to study the language of my ancestors. A
Panamanian vessel such as the Scapa Flow would provide polylingual
practice, though living conditions aboard were not good. In peacetime I
had been a chief of bureau for the Associated Press Radio. America's
entrance into the war meant for me an involuntary entrance into the
armed services sooner or later, and I preferred doing my stint toward
defeating the Axis as a merchant seaman. The Army might have put me to
work writing propaganda to encourage other men my age to go out and
fight. The Navy might have given me a desk from which I could help to
suppress news of importance to our people. These jobs, if or where they
are necessary, can be done perfectly well by men or women with a limb
missing, and need not be done by those who still retain their standard
physical equipment. The Merchant Marine provided a place of personal
honor in the war, together with relative freedom from servitude to
goldbraid and brasshats.

I was recovering from an attack of malaria when the Scapa Flow was
torpedoed. I was up and about, and was due to go back to work in a day
or two. I managed to get into the fo'c'sle bunkroom and.came out with
my life jacket and a sweater. I tried to help launch a life raft and
started for the boat deck with the first mate. I was taken under with
the ship as she sank, but managed to fight free and up to the surface
before my lungs and strength gave out.

[15]

As with the other regular departments on the ship, the deck crew
consisted of some Americans and many other nationalities. The crew was
more than half union, however, their labor consciousness cutting across
national lines. This stood us in good stead later on in the trip, when
we felt we had to get better food, although the ship didn't sail under a
union contract. For the three standard watches on a merchant ship there
are three ordinary seamen, one for each watch. The ordinary seamen on
the Scapa Flow were all Americans. Two were boys under voting age; they
went to sea on this, their first deep-water trip, because they wanted to
see some foreign whores and perhaps some sea adventure. They saw both.
One of them got "clapped up" in a West African whorehouse, and he kept
bashful silence so long that his medical treatment didn't begin until he
was in dreadful shape. Both boys were killed in the torpedoing. One of
them was on lookout in the crow's-nest when the ship was hit. Concussion
from the explosions quivered up the forward mast and shook him off to
his death; he hit the deck near me as I was starting for my life
jacket. The other boy was in the fo'c'sle toilet and never got out. The
third ordinary, who was about forty, got off the ship all right. There
are six A.B.s, or able seamen, needed in the crew of a ship the size of
the Scapa Flow, two for each watch. The A.B.s on the first watch were
Puerto Ricans, a man and a boy. The boy had made only one previous trip
to sea, which made him still relatively a novice. He received no
examination before signing on the Scapa Flow, but a certain air of
seaworthiness--in his case quite spurious--fooled the first mate into
taking him on as an A.B. instead of as an ordinary. The Puerto Rican boy
was afraid of almost everything, from submarines and depth charges down
to a tiny monkey which one of the crewmen bought while we were lying off
the coast of West Africa. He survived the torpedoing, but was a
considerable trial to the morale of the other survivors during our days
in the lifeboat. Even before the sinking, the boy would wake up shouting
from the lightest of naps, and would leap uncontrollably at any
unexpected shout or noise. He owes his life to his watchmate, the older
Puerto Rican, who

[16]

shed an already strapped life jacket and gave it to the boy a few
seconds after the torpedoes ripped into the Scapa Flow. The boy seized
the life jacket from his older fellow national and did what in most
torpedoings would be a completely foolish thing: he ran to a deck rail
and dove over the side.

Ships sometimes take several hours to sink, and in the meantime they
are forging ahead from the former drive of their engines. Often a man
who dives overside in this untimely mariner will be chewed up by the
propeller. Even if he escapes death from the propeller he may be carried
so great a distance to stern as to be overlooked by the survivors who
have contrived to man lifeboats or rafts. This boy was lucky; the
quickness of the sinking made his leap into the water seem almost wise.
The older Puerto Rican went into the bunkroom to get another jacket --I
met him slowly going in as I was quickly coming out--and he was trapped
there. Those two Puerto Ricans were always together on the ship; they
had the same watch, and they also spent most of their time off watch
together. One of them had a guitar and the other a concertina. They sang
Spanish laments, to the continual distress of thee rest of us. We called
them Romeo and Juliet, though never bothering to ask ourselves which was
which. There was no suggestion that either was a homosexual.

Their relationship was normal enough. The older man had spent many years
at sea. He was about forty-five and seemed to suffer from some serious
internal illness which partially disabled him for several days at a time
throughout the voyage. I suspect he had a cancer or perhaps a bad case
of ulcers. But he didn't complain. It is quite possible that his
action in giving up his life jacket at the time of the torpedoing was
not due to heroism.

Even now I am struck by his casualness in going for another life jacket;
his face was calm and he was moving ever so slowly. It may be he didn't
particularly want to get another jacket. The A.B.s on the second watch
were a thirty-year-old American from the Tobacco Road country and a
forty-year-old Brazilian. The American had been married a couple of
months previously. He continually described his wife as a delicate, pure
girl, but seemed in his own life to be trying to provide an epic
contrast to her. He survived the torpedoing. The American's watchmate,
the Brazilian, was his opposite in almost every re-

[17] 

spect. He was personally immaculate, and kind. Except for an occasional
violent temper-tantrum he treated all on board with equal consideration.
He was far and away the best seaman on the Scapa Flow. It was he who
saved the ship, while in convoy, from the vagaries of the second mate
and the third engineer. He spoke almost no English, but even so the
mates had little trouble making him understand orders. He knew them and
the sea so well that he could follow orders almost intuitively. Often he
would actually anticipate an order while the mate was beginning to give
it, and do the job so well as to flatter his superior's knowledge. He
was a survivor of the sinking. As a boy, he had spent a number of years
fishing off the Brazilian coast, and he knew small boats and sail. This
man saved our lives in the lifeboat on one occasion, when we were
attacked by a small school of whales.

The remaining A.B.s, those on the third watch, were a couple of
youngsters, but quite competent seamen. They were both twenty-one, a
Latvian and an Englishman. Both had gone to sea at about fifteen, and
for the past three years they had been shipping together as buddies. The
Latvian spoke American English very well. Perhaps too well. He was
always trying to give the impression that he was an American, not
necessarily because he was ashamed of Latvia, but because he wanted to
claim for his own a country which was still independent. He was a native
of Riga and came from a family whose menfolk for the most part had
followed the sea. The young Latvian detested Soviet Russia; he
considered himself a radical. He was one of the best, most clearheaded
union men on the ship. Those union men on board who were sympathetic to
the government of the Soviet Union would argue with him, and he would
inevitably ask them to describe the problems of a potential strike
organizer or other dissenter in Russia. Although born and reared in
Latvia, formerly a part of Imperial Russia, he was very proud that he
had never been in Russia. He was an Independence baby, having been born
in 1921 in the Latvian Republic created after the last war. He had left
the country before the Soviet Union swallowed Latvia during the period
in which the communists were nonaggressing with the Nazis. He talked of
becoming an American citizen after the war, and had taken the first
step: he had got

[18]

himself a girl in Detroit. He must have been quite fond of her, for he
went to see her whenever he paid off a ship in the United States. This
involved a long trip inland, one of the supreme sentimental earnests
that a seaman can give to a girl. He and his British watchmate buddy had
gone through three years of this war without a torpedoing, which was
remarkable considering their many close escapes. And, on the Scapa Flow,
they both came through their first encounters with tin fish. The
Britisher was really lucky on another count. As a British subject, he
might have been serving on British merchant ships and enduring their,
ghastly pay and living conditions. He had, however, managed to get
himself on one of the Panamanian ships early in the game, and was
allowed to continue to sail Panamanian. Most of the time this young
Britisher gave every indication of striving and studying for an eventual
master's ticket. He had just about every qualification: he was
intelligent, had a fair educational background, and at twenty-one had
already had plenty of experience at sea.

On merchant ships there are usually at least two men who have
intermediate ranks: they are not crewmen and not officers. These are the
carpenter and the boatswain, and they are members of the deck
department. In the rigid class lines which exist on even American and
American-owned ships, the carpenter-always called Chips--and the bosun
get preferential treatment compared with the crew and invidious
treatment compared with the officers. They usually have a cabin
amidships, but not a good one, and they must make their own bunks and do
their own policing up. As a rule, they eat at their own messtable, being
considered too good to eat with the crew and not good enough to eat with
the officers.

The name "carpenter" is pretty much of a misnomer nowadays. It is a
carry-over from the era of wooden sailing vessels. The carpenter of a
modern merchant ship may often do such jobs as welding, although he must
know at least enough about regular carpentering to make a box. Often
Chips will handle the winches when the anchor is raised or lowered, and
it is of value to him to know something of machinery repair. Chips on
the

[19]

Scapa Flow was the ship's greatest trial. So great a trial, indeed,
that he got the ship into a state of mounting terror during the days of
the outgoing voyage until we reached the island of Trinidad. He was a
monstrous Egyptian of thirty-five, six feet six inches tall and nearly
three hundred pounds in weight. Without question he was the strongest
man on the ship. He was the strongest man I ever saw outside a circus or
amusement park. He could take a sixteen-pound sledge hammer and use it
with one hand, with the ease that another man might use an ordinary
clawhammer.

The man was almost illiterate. He could tell numbers at sight-that was
the extent of his literacy. Through his travels, by a process of
osmosis, he had managed to absorb something of about five languages, and
seemed to have the same prejudices in them all. From the beginning
nobody liked him, but he was not actively feared until the ship had
left the United States. From his Egyptian fellow nationals we learned
something of his background, and it was a pretty unnerving background,
considering how formidable a man owned it. He had jumped a ship in the
United States three years before. The FBI had not managed to locate this
Egyptian giant, despite the fact that he had started a ship chandler's
business in Baltimore and walked past the noses of FBI men and
Immigration officials nearly every day, on visits to ships. He had even
been provided with a Coast Guard pass, which allowed him to go on the
docks and past the men of the Coast Guard who are supposed to protect
the docks against suspicious characters. He had the most selfish,
undemocratic personality it has even been my misfortune to see, and the
grasping "gimme" quality of a petulant child. He would tear up a pack of
cards if luck ran against him in a blackjack game, or would wheedle a
tin of fruit from the steward for his personal and exclusive
consumption, all the while smirking at the envious glances of crewmen
who had been denied.

He eventually ran afoul of the authorities in Baltimore, not through
their vigilance but because other Egyptians got fed up with being in the
same town with him. They reported his whereabouts; he was seized, put on
the Scapa Flow--a ship which would take him despite his record--and told
he could not come back into the United States again, ever. It developed
later that 

[20]

the idea of going back to Egypt gave him great dismay. There were
Egyptians among the crew who had known him back in the old country, and
they revealed that he had escaped from Egypt while wanted by the police
on a charge of smuggling dope. Chips resented greatly his enforced labor
on the Scapa Flow, yet he realized that if he were to malinger too
consistently the captain might hand him over to the British, who would
make things rough for him. His primitive attempts to reconcile his fear
of the British with his resentment of his job made him oscillate from a
flurry of work for a few days to a short term of faked illness which
kept him in his cabin. A rebellion of the crew, partly caused by his
homosexuality, forced him off the ship at Trinidad. This probably saved
his life, for had he survived the torpedoing, with his personality he
almost surely would have been killed in the lifeboat.

A good bosun must be a magnificent diplomat. He is a sort of strawboss,
his main job being to carry the first mate's orders to the deck crew.
The bosun works office hours, the same as the first mate. Every morning
the two men get together for a conference. The mate outlines the work
he thinks should be done that day on the ship, and the bosun must see
that it gets done. The Scapa Flow's bosun was a very good one, though it
would have been a difficult job to get any of the deck men to admit it.
Grousing against the bosun is a sea tradition. He is in the middle. If
he carries to the first mate all the protests he gets from the crew,
then the first may think he is not doing his job as bosun properly; yet
if he allows the grousing of the crew to become too vociferous, he again
lays himself open to the charge of incompetency. Controlling a polyglot
deck bunch such as that on the Scapa Flow was not easy. Somehow the
Scapa Flow's bosun was able to do it without earning the outright enmity
of the crew and without alienating the first mate. The bosun was an
Estonian, about thirty years old. He spoke good English, had a
smattering of other languages, and had little trouble in making his
directions understood. He had one disturbing idiosyncrasy, and the
crew's endless concentration upon it, and only it, showed how satisfied,
relatively, they were with him as bosun. He was a tireless teller of bad
jokes, many of them without point, or so it seemed to me. Most of the
members of the deck crew thought it

[21]

discreet to laugh at these jokes. But even if they didn't laugh, the
bosun always did, putting his face up to his hapless listener and
hee-heeing through enormous rotted teeth. He was a survivor of two
earlier torpedoings. He was one of the men who sprinted with me toward
the boat deck from our positions at a forward life raft. He got off the
ship all right. 

The Scapa Flow's roster of regular men is completed by the steward's
department. This is a department much maligned by romantically inclined
seamen, but a moment's thought would show it to be of importance
comparable to that of the other departments, particularly on a long
voyage.. The men of the steward's department work just as hard, and in
wartime they are in just as much danger. It is significant that,
notwithstanding the glaring inadequacies of the engine and deck
departments, which I have touched on, the dissatisfaction with the food
on the ship was the major reason for a mutinous protest of the crew
while the Scapa Flow was off the West African coast.

The steward was an obese little Spaniard of about forty-five, Who
weighed two hundred pounds although only five feet tall. Since the crew
was thoroughly against Franco, where they were not against all
Spaniards, the steward was forever deprecating the Spanish fascists and
proclaiming himself a sympathizer with fallen Loyalist Spain. His
natural cupidity, however, unwittingly revealed considerable
contradictions. He was fond of saying that had it not been for world
conditions he would be a rich man. He maintained that he had a great
number of pesetas in a bank in Bilbao, which he would use to retire on
after the war. I used to ask him how it would be possible for him, as a
Loyalist sympathizer, to get this money away from Franco's government.
He would answer mysteriously that there were ways of doing such things
and that he knew one way to get the money, but that for the time being
he wasn't talking. After the torpedoing, he failed to get out of his
cabin before the ship went down.

The ship's chief cook was an American Negro, with a wife and a daughter
in his home in Harlem. He was the ship's leading union man. He was
appalled by, and often agitated against, 

[22]

things that happened on the Scapa Flow and the condition of the ship,
which would not have been allowed on a vessel provided with a union
contract. The National Maritime Union' had got him his job on this ship.
As a good union man, it was up to him to talk union to the nonorganized
men on board. And he talked well. But, he would have been a better
organizer had he been a better cook, a fact which the men on board did
not fail to call to his attention. He did his best, and in his defense
it must be said that the shipping company put pretty bad food aboard the
Scapa Flow. Moreover, the refrigeration system was always breaking down,
and thousands of pounds of meat went at least half-bad before it could
be eaten. The chief cook was around forty and had sailed for at least
half of those years. The poor man couldn't find his life jacket after
the ship was torpedoed. Perhaps it was stolern. He went from one man to
another as they were leaving the ship, asking if they knew where there
was another jacket. They didn't. He couldn't swim, and he did not
survive.

The second cook was an Egyptian. I call him that despite his
citizenship, wife and seven children--all American. He had been in the
United States for ten years or so and had actually managed to become a
citizen, although he knew little of the language or customs of his
adopted country. This voyage on the Scapa Flow was the first of his
life, with the exception of the passenger trip he made in emigrating to
the United States. I never found out precisely why he signed on the
Scapa Flow. He was a survivor of the torpedoing.

The Scapa Flow had four messmen, one each for the saloon, pantry,
gunners and crew.

The man who waited on the officers in the saloon was a tough little
Irishman from Brooklyn. He talked consistently in Brooklynese, and
seemed incredibly daring in the things he would say to the officers. He
judged them all acutely and knew just what each would stand, always
keeping them testy, but rarely getting them outraged. His pastime was
needling: the officers didn't get along, too well amongst themselves,
and he would play the prejudices of one against another until he had
many of the officers furious--but not at him. The Egyptian fourth
engineer, the man of the self-advertised conquests among American girls,
was 

[ 23]

the particular target of this Irish messman. Nobody liked the Egyptian,
so there wasn't anything particularly dangerous about needling him. But
occasionally the messman would feed the Egyptian a line to be used
at the expense of, say, the second mate. This would give others the cue
to needle the second mate, and so things went in the officers' saloon. I
substituted for this saloon messman once in West Africa, while he was
ashore. I got by all right, though I found there must be few jobs in the
world more exacting than waiting on a table at which the men are snobs
without table manners. The saloon messman was one of the survivors of
the sinking.

The pantryman works with the saloon messman. The Scapa Flow's pantryman
was from Georgetown, British Guiana. He was of Portuguese descent and
hated the Portuguese, always carefully letting all understand that he
considered himself thoroughly British and knew not a word of Portuguese.
Occasionally, however, he would wince at something one of the ship's
non English-speaking Portuguese said to him. He was a boy of twenty, of a
quite high intellectual cut. He liked the sea and wanted to progress. He
said he was going to try to get a job as a wireless operator on his next
trip--that is, if American Immigration officials would allow him enough
time in the United States to study at one of our radio schools. He got
off the ship after its torpedoing.

The gunners' mess, at which the carpenter and the bosun also ate, was
handled by one of the most pathetic pieces of human driftwood I have
ever seen. The man, quite literally, didn't have a friend in the world.
He was an American of about thirty-five, with a curious loping gait
caused by a slight shortness of one leg. He was incredibly foul-mouthed,
though his use of profanity lacked the savage bite that would have made
it genuinely profane. He wasn't very versatile in his use of terms. Over
and over again he used variations of one particular phrase. Any person
he didn't like was a "mother ----er." Any object he didn't like, even
something he happened to trip over, was also a "mother ----er." He
invariably referred to the Scapa Flow as "this mother ----ing ship."
Occasionally one of the gunners would rebel when, on asking what there
was for dessert, he would be told, "mother ----ing pie." But the
gunners' messman

[24].

never changed his way of speaking, and before the ship's voyage was over
most of the gunners had adopted this particular phrase as their often
used own. The messman, called Red in recognition of the color of his
partly vanished hair--had one habit which soon caused the rest of the
men on board to characterize him as punchy. He would stand quite still,
looking out toward the horizon, and laugh--his laugh taking the form of
two quick short barks. Usually you could get no clue to what seemed
funny to him. But I knew what he was laughing at during one period.

I had loaned him one of my books, a pocket edition of Ben Hecht's Count
Bruga. He kept it for quite a while, and I sometimes asked him whether
he was through with it, as others wanted to read it. "I ain't quite
finished with the mother ----ing book," he would say. After about two
weeks he did finish the book, and so far as I know he never read
another. He was completely captivated by the character of Count Bruga.
He would often break out into his little laugh when he thought of him.
Sometimes he would say to the man nearest him, although his listener
might have no knowledge of the Count: "Christ! that Count Bruga was a
mother ----er." Red was taking a nap when the Scapa Flow was torpedoed.
He Probably was drowned in the sinking; he was never seen after the
explosions. The fourth messman, the one who took care of the crew, was
by far the hardest-worked man on the ship. I know, for once I had to
substitute for him. He was a Brazilian, around thirty-five, with a wife
and child in Rio. He seemed almost unfathomable. He was affable enough,
but he never would tell you anything. I could talk to him by using
Spanish. His language was Portuguese, which sounds very much like
Spanish spoken with a mouthful of cold mush. As nearly as I could gather
he was working on this ship for its wages, which were relatively high
compared with those prevailing on Brazilian vessels. He regularly worked
ten or eleven hours a day, taking care of the crew's meals and messroom.
He was endlessly soogeing and sweeping and polishing. He even polished
the tableware, which seemed quite unnecessary to me, as many of the men,
far from appreciating clean silverware, hardly used it at all, mostly
using their fingers instead.

[25]

It may be that this Brazilian messman threw himself into his work only
to occupy his mind; he could read, but there were only one or two books
aboard which were in his language. The old seamen in the crew agreed
unanimously that he was the best messman they had ever seen. He did his
job so well that someone was bound, eventually, to try to take advantage
of him. The Portuguese firemen on the ship had never had even semidecent
jobs in their lives before signing on the Scapa Flow. On ships of their
own nationality they would not have had a messman to take care of their
food. Their relative prosperity went to their heads, and they treated
this Brazilian as if he were their personal servant. They were always
saying things to him which bothered him and making him do little errands
for them which were demanded by no one else. The Portuguese stokers
usually spoke so rapidly that I couldn't follow them very well with my
Spanish, but I did hear and understand the phrase which finally caused
the Brazilian messman to threaten physical retaliation. One of the
Portuguese addressed the messman with a phrase which, translated, means
"son of a great whore." This provided a situation that lasted for
several days. The first mate came up to the fo'c'sle to try to patch the
matter up, but for a while both sides in the controversy were adamant.
The messman wouldn't serve the Portuguese, and the Portuguese wouldn't
be served by the messman. As spareman, I was put into the messman's job
for a while, getting private coaching from the first mate not to do my
job too well, so that the crew would want their regular messman back.
They would then see to it that peace was kept between him and the
Portuguese stokers. This advice was quite gratuitous. I couldn't have
done the messman's job as well as it had been done without at least a
year of practice. The first mate was right: eventually the matter was
patched up somehow, though the Portuguese stokers and the Brazilian
messman never again spoke an unnecessary word to each other. The
Brazilian helmsman explained to me that much of the trouble arose from a
traditional detestation of Portuguese by Brazilians. The helmsman didn't
like the Portuguese much himself. The messman survived the torpedoing,
and in the lifeboat he never mentioned the four Portuguese stokers, all
of whom were killed in the sinking. 

[26]

The roll call of the men aboard the Scapa Flow is completed by the Navy
men. They were not regular members of the crew, of course, being a
purely wartime phenomenon. The men were all in the regular Navy; they
got Navy pay and were under Navy discipline at all times. They were
supposed to man the armament of the Scapa Flow in case of attack, and
nothing else. A voyage often lasts six months in this war. Usually there
are few, if any, attacks, and they therefore suffer dreadfully from the
debilitating condition which comes from months of tension without any
compensation for the mind in the form of work. Most of the regular
seamen aboard the Scapa Flow loathed the Navy men. They thought the Navy
men were worth nothing to the ship, believing that the regular seamen
could have been trained to man the guns during an emergency, and they
were resentful of the Navy men's easy life of sunbathing, cards and
reading. The more imaginative of the crew were sorry for the Navy
personnel, most of whom were little more than boys.

The Scapa Flow's armed guard included a lieutenant (j.g.), a coxswain,
and ten gunners.

The lieutenant knew no gunnery, and he had no knowledge of signal flags,
or of Morse. He had been a lawyer of the slick corporation,
telephone-messaging type. One instinctively pictured him as a key figure
(probably underpaid) in an interlocking directorate. It is hard to
imagine why he should have been at sea at all, much less as a lieutenant
of gunners. The only qualification for his job that he possessed was an
ability to use the telephone which connected the bridge with the gun
platform. But even this was not an outright qualification, as the
lieutenant was a Harvard man and all his gunners were southern boys who
had difficulty with his accent. There was a time when we were about five
hundred miles off the African coast when the lieutenant wanted to fire
on three lights which appeared one night off our starboard bow. He flew
into a fury of sink-mindedness and proposed to try to sink this vessel.
But the helmsman, who fortunately happened to be the Brazilian,
intervened. He had little English, but he raised an uproar, pointing at
the lights and howling "Portugaise o Es-spain," until the lieutenant
finally 

[27]

grasped the fact that the ship was a neutral and was showing lights
partly to obviate such schemes as he harbored. It is the sturdy belief
of most seamen, incidentally, that these Portuguese and Spanish ships
continually supply submarines with food and fuel and tips on convoys,
and that their lights serve as welcoming beacons for undersea craft.
Almost any seaman dreads the appearance of Spanish or Portuguese
neutrals, and trusts them not at all. It is no wonder that we detested
the State Department's appeasement policy toward Franco. This attitude
was not necessarily caused by a political bias against fascism, but by
the possibility that the Spanish and Portuguese vessels might minister
to the U-boats which killed our shipmates and sank our ships. But to get
back to the lieutenant. He hated the sea, and he hated the Scapa Flow.
The saloon messman used to tell me that almost every day the lieutenant
would curse the ship and express the wish that the Germans would sink
it. The Germans accommodated him, but failed to give him time to get
off. He probably was drowned in his cabin; nobody ever saw him after the
torpedoing.

The coxswain was on the Scapa Flow against his will. He thought he would
avoid action by getting into the Coast Guard when war came, on the
theory that it was the safest of the services, but through some
bookkeeping error he found himself in the Naval Reserve. There is true
irony in his case. In peacetime he had gone to sea and had gained his
third mate's license. The Navy noted his training as a mate, and thought
he deserved a higher rank than apprentice seaman. He was made a coxswain
for the armed guard. So here was a man on the Scapa Flow who was an
American and a qualified third mate with absolutely nothing to do of any
value to the ship, whilst on the bridge was at least one mate who didn't
deserve to be there. The coxswain got off the ship after the torpedoing,
but died in the lifeboat.

The ten remaining men in the armed guard, those who were supposed to man
the guns, were all but one under twenty. And all but this one were
making their first sea trip. They'd got into the Navy, been given a
quick course in gunnery, and slapped aboard the Scapa Flow, a
twenty-eight-year-old ship made in Germany and flying the flag of
Panama. All the boys were from the inland South, and none of them liked
his job. They had only 

[281

one chance to prove their competency. On the outgoing trip across the
Atlantic, a crate was pushed overside to give them a target for their
four-incher. They fired three shots at short range and missed every
time. Some of these boys, as well as two of the regular seamen and one
of the mates, were on watch when the Scapa Flow was torpedoed. Although
we were attacked in the middle of the afternoon, nobody saw the
submarine until it came to the surface half an hour after the Scapa Flow
went down. Even had we known of the presence of the submarine before the
attack, there would have been nothing for these ten American Navy
gunners to do. And half of them were killed in the sinking of the Scapa
Flow.

[29]


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