SS Scapa Flow

Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 3


During the six months that I was occupied with the last voyage and death
of the Scapa Flow, many distressing phenomena mushroomed extravagantly
at home--black markets, zoot suits, race riots, bobby sockers, and the
like. And what a growth of larceny in the souls of normally civilized
people! After my return to the States, my wife and I had dinner with a
woman acquaintance who told us that she had found a service station that
would sell gasoline to her, beyond that called for by her gas coupons,
at a premium of only ten cents a gallon. Immediately my mind was full of
memories of bits of torpedoed tankers I had seen along the eastern
coast, with an occasional corpse floating near a patch of oil. And my
wife was thinking of the apprehensive times she had spent scanning the
Merchant Marine casualty columns in the newspapers. Such manifestations
as these are undoubtedly due in great part to the perversion of life
caused by the war and if I am right in my contention that a merchant
ship is a microcosm of its society, then it might be expected that there
would also be excesses on shipboard in wartime which would not be
manifested so clearly in time of peace. There are. Take the madness to
get into a uniform, any kind of uniform, which has grown so great that a
walk down Fifth Avenue, New York, can be a sickening experience. There
was a man on the Scapa Flow who loved uniforms, too. He was the ship's
inferior: Flathead, one of the ordinary seamen. Nobody else on board was
really interested in uniforms. Even the teen-age boys in the naval gun
crew had learned to dislike them. They kept watch at their stations
dressed in nothing


but shorts and steel helmets on the hot days. When it was cold they
wore life jackets for warmth, not naval greatcoats, When action finally
came, not one was in uniform. More than half of these naval gunners
died for their country, but they did not die in uniform. Flathead
suffered from the delusion that he would be safer from submarines if he
could wear a uniform, or at least part of one. No amount of statistical
evidence could persuade him that a torpedo just didn't give a damn about
how its victims were dressed. He said that he had come to sea because it
was a safe and well-paying place to sit out the war, and he felt that
his safety would be absolutely secure if only he could get into uni-
form. But none of the Scapa Flow crewmen wore uniforms.

Uniforms were optional apparel among the officers, and they rarely wore
them. Flathead was convinced that the officers were much safer than the
rest of us because they possessed uniforms, and that they were insane
not to wear them always. Somewhere ashore in the United States this
forty-year-old ordinary seaman had bought the uniform cap of a Merchant
Marine officer. He had had just enough sense to take off the badge
denoting rank, but it was an officer's cap just the same. Our first few
days at sea he wore it proudly. He would climb up the forward mast to
the crow's-nest, sit on his perch, and scan the sea for subs from
beneath a carefully shined black visor. Everyone ribbed him about his
cap, but he didn't take offense. He would smile knowingly, warmed
from within by the feeling that he had taken the utmost precaution
against a hostile world: he had joined the undemocratic mass of
uniformity. Flathead had no business wearing the officer's cap, of
course, but for a while he got away with it. Only the captain eyed him
sourly. At first he made no protest, but then, after two or three days
at sea, for some unknown reason, he decided that Flathead must not wear
the cap any more. The English A.B. was at the helm when the blowoff

Flathead was standing watch from the bridge this time. It was just at
daybreak, supposedly a bad time for submarines. The captain and the navy
lieutenant were pacing up and down the bridge. Neither of them was
dressed in his full uniform, but both wore their uniform caps. From time
to time they would 


scan the water through binoculars. Suddenly the captain shouted at
Flathead: "Goddam it, what are you doing in that uniform cap?" Flathead
might have answered that he was doing just what he had done in it for
several days, but he said nothing. "Take it off," ordered the captain.
The Englishman said that Flathead hesitated quite a time before taking
off his precious cap. The captain ordered him to go forward and stow the
cap, and to come back with something else on his head, or nothing at

Flathead appeared in the fo'c'sle, choking back sobs. When he found his
voice he told us of the ban on the cap and threatened the captain with
the darkest fate possible if he were ever to meet him ashore. Flathead
took the uniform cap to his bunk and placed it carefully beside his
pillow. My bunk was just across the aisle. I watched him as he stood for
several minutes trying to think what to do. "Never mind, Flathead," I
said. Knowing that he was also worried about his growing baldness, I
tried to rally him with: "That cap fits too tight around your head,
anyway, Flathead. Cuts off the circulation of the blood to the scalp.
You shouldn't wear caps like that if you want to keep your hair."
Flathead was unimpressed by this argument. He turned and looked at me,
tears in his eyes. "The c----r wants me to die, Professor," he said.
"Them officers, they got uniforms. They're safe. You don't see the
captain taking off his cap, do you? No, just me. He makes ten times the
dough I do, but I can't even wear my cap to keep safe."

Flathead returned to the bridge with nothing on his head except his
thinning hair. Often from then on, when he came off watch, he would be
shaking with fright. No longer did the sea seem the safe wartime place
he had thought. Off watch, he confined himself pretty exclusively to
the fo'c'sle, and wore his cap. He continually pleaded with us
to intercede for him with the captain, and obtain permission for him to
wear his officer's cap on watch, but the crew didn't fall in line. The
request seemed too preposterous. We were beginning to have what we thought
were legitimate grievances against the captain, and we


didn't want to jeopardize our case with ridiculous requests. Fur-
thermore, it was hard to feel really serious about Flathead's
predicament, despite his quite obvious fright. On land, his super-
stitious love for his officer's cap would have seemed no different in
motivation from the yen of any, home-front nonbelligerent for a uniform.
The stresses on the home front are not so great as they are on the sea,
and ashore the crew might not have realized that Flathead's yen for a
uniform was rooted in a desire to get protection in a chaotic world by
submerging himself in a mass. But at sea, the chaos implied by a
submarine menace is very real. And Flathead's motive was clear to us
all. The rest of the crew did not believe in uniforms, and his
superstition therefore seemed ridiculous. Other superstitions, equally
ridiculous from a logical point of view, were of course not considered
so by the men. The ship abounded with talismans of various kinds--lucky
coins, four-leaf clovers, bracelets, trinkets,, charms, and so on. But
in spite of our lack of sympathy for Flathead, something obviously had
to be done to get him calmed down. I don't remember who provided the
solution, but it was a good one. The gunners aft all were equipped with
regulation navy beanies, and one of these white caps was obtained from a
gunner and given to Flathead. Naturally it didn't come up to the quality
of his officer's cap, but a soberly arguing crew eventually persuaded
him that the little white naval cap was, after all, a genuine part of a
genuine uniform. So Flathead began to wear this beany around, on watch
and off, and, though he never stopped carping about the ban on his own
officer's cap, his fright subsided. Flathead lost all his caps in the
torpedoing, and indeed all articles of clothing, except a pair of


The Stoker's hole on an old ship like the Scapa Flow is probably the
worst of all places to work in wartime. This firing pit is amidships,
far beldw the surface of the water, and is reached by descending a
rattrap system of narrow steel ladders. It would be a devilish place to
work even in normal times because of the disagreeable coal dust, and
because of the violent changes of 


temperature suffered by workers in the firing pit. On the Scapa Flow,
three firemen were always on watch in this pit, and a coal passer came
into it from time to time. There were nine furnaces, three under each of
three boilers. Except for brief moments when one of the firemen would
go on deck to dump ashes, the stokers had to stay down in the pit for
their entire four-hour watch, and then return again to the pit after
eight hours of liberty. The heat near the furnace doors was terrific
while the ship was in tropical waters--almost unbearable. Lumbago was
common, though usually in a mild form. Two ventilators let air down
into the firing pit from the deck, and the only semicomfortable spot in
the pit was directly beneath these ventilators. Habitually, the stokers
would feed their furnaces for a few minutes, and then, while this coal
was being consumed, would step back under the ventilators. This
subjected their bodies to a continual variation in temperature of
perhaps fifty degrees. Strangely, the old hands among the black gang
were not so susceptible to the pains of lumbago as the younger men,
probably because the older men were more used to lumbago. But none was
wholly free. It is notorious here at home that fads are more violent,
and more brief in wartime than in peacetime. And it is the same on
shipboard. There even was a severe lumbago fad among the stokers. For a
short time most of them complained bitterly. One day an Egyptian stoker
came up to me and, by a combination of rudimentary English and sign
language, made it clear that he had a bad case of lumbago in his back.
His case was genuinely severe, of that I am convinced. He believed, as
did a number of the other semi-illiterates on board, that my almost
constant reading of books had given me a great store of medical
knowledge. This was of course not true: the first mate, the ship's
doctor, knew far more about medicine than I did, but not in the eyes of
some of the Egyptians and Portuguese, for the sole reason that he did
not do much reading. The Egyptian stoker made a plea that I do
something to help him, and the only thing I could think of was to rub
his back with liniment. Up to this time I had never had occasion to use
my bottle of the stuff: about all I knew was that it was powerful, for
the label stated that it could be used for veterinary purposes. I got
the Egyptian to take off his shirt, and spread some liniment on his


back. He was a pretty tough-skinned man, and the liniment seemed
innocuous, so I rubbed it into his back over the area where he indicated
the pain was greatest. I asked him from time to time whether or not his
back was "too hot." He could understand this, as the English
expression was used continually in the firing room to get him to stop
firing when he got his boiler above the necessary pressure. The Egyptian
kept saying "more steam," which I took to mean that he wanted me to rub
some more. He was still calling for more steam when I decided that he
had had enough. He lay down on his bunk in the stokers' bunkroom, and I
went to the other bunkroom to take a nap. I didn't fall asleep
immediately, though, as I was getting worried about the amount of
liniment I had put on the stoker's back, and, most of all, worried about
the rubbing. So I went back to him and asked if he were "too hot." He
replied: "Is okay," and, somewhat relieved, I went back to my bunk and
fell asleep, I was awakened by a sharp pull on one of my arms. It was
the stoker. "Too hot," he bellowed, his eyes round and staring. He
showed me his back. The area I had rubbed was an angry red. For a moment
I could think of nothing to do. The Egyptian got hotter. He began to
cruise up and down the bunkroom howling "too hot" and pawing at his
back. Before his condition became too critical I remembered the jugs of
salad oil on the tables in the messroom. I poured a liberal amount of
oil on his back, and rubbed it in until the liniment was counteracted,
and then the stoker's anguish subsided. In a few hours he came to me,
indicating that his back felt fine and that he was full of gratitude. By
the next day practically all the Egyptian and Portuguese stokers had
come to me complaining of severe lumbago, and requesting the same
treatment I had given the first stoker. It was just a fad; these men
were most of them old-timers at stoking: genuine cases of lumbago would
be very few. I used up my bottle of liniment on them, and then,
suspecting that the cases were now being faked, tried applying nothing
more than water scented with a little alcohol. This worked just as well
as the powerful liniment. But soon the lumbago craze ended as abruptly as
it had begun, It was the same with all the other fads during the voyage.


Most of them were genuine in the beginning, as the lumbago fad had been.
Similarly, they had extravagant popularity and quick death, for the same
fundamental reasons that they would have at home: our continual
uneasiness in our state of insecurity, and our attempt to get emotional
relief by concentrating on something new. Thus there would be ads of
various games. For a couple of days most of the crew would spend every
off-watch moment playing poker. This game might not be played again for
a month, and would be replaced by blackjack, which would be succeeded by
hearts. Ticktacktoe proved extremely popular for a long time--three or
four days--partly because it could be enjoyed by even the most
tentatively literate. In card games, the only factor that remained
constant was the gambling. For about a week out of Our first port there
was a little money aboard, but this week was enough to put it out of
circulation. In that time most of the money got into the hands of a few,
who hoarded it against an opportunity to spend it ashore. Some other
form of wealth had to be used for gambling stakes, and cigarettes were
elected. Not individual cigarettes, but packages and cartons of them. A
large supply of cigarettes was stored in the ship's slop chest at the
beginning of the trip. The slop chest was run by the first mate.
Sea-store cigarettes are free of the revenue taxes, and cost us only
eighty cents a carton, or eight cents a package. Almost all the men
aboard smoked cigarettes, and thirty cartons were earmarked for each
man. These could be drawn against wages. This was six thousand
cigarettes apiece, for one voyage, which seems enormous, but the men
were heavy smokers, particularly at dawn, at twilight, and at bedtime,
when torpedo nerves were at their worst. The most interesting feature
of the gambling in cigarettes was the resolute ban on I.O.U.s or scrip.
It was, from a sensible point of view, silly to use the actual packages
and cartons of cigarettes, principally because the piles of cigarettes
took so much room about the playing area. But there seemed to be a deep
sensuous satisfaction to the men in the actual handling of the
cigarettes rather than bits of paper as scrip to represent the packages.
Eventually, of course, the store of cigarettes, large as it was, 


gravitated toward the best or luckiest players who then lost con-
siderable interest in playing, There followed severe crises, because
those who had lost all their cigarettes still had to smoke, and could
draw no more from the first mate. The holders of the big stores began to
profiteer remorselessly. They would barter cigarettes against
cherished articles in the possession of those who wanted cigarettes.
Sometimes the terms would be so stiff that a carton of cigarettes,
worth only eighty cents in money, could be bartered for a pair of
trousers worth more than five dollars. The slop chest, though bare of
cigarettes, had other commodities--shoes, clothes of many kinds, candy,
etc. These could be drawn out by those who had lost their cigarettes,
and then bartered with the seamen who had won the cigarettes. Some of
the poorest, or unluckiest, card players eventually found themselves a
couple of hundred dollars in hock to the slop chest (about a third of
their wages for the entire trip) and without a single article to show
for the money, Such costly gambling undoubtedly would have been unlikely
in time of peace, but the gambling instinct flourishes wildly at sea as
well as ashore in wartime, Because the ship was torpedoed, the
profiteers of course lost all their winnings, where they did not lose
their lives. But the losers did not win their losings. The losers had
signed for all the articles drawn from the slop chest. Through a stroke
of bad luck for them, the captain air-mailed to New York a statement of
each man's current financial position from our last West African port.
The ship was sunk a week or so later, and, although the captain was
killed and all records lost with the ship, when the survivors finally
reached New York their financial statements awaited them in the office
of the shipping company. 


Except for the radio receiver in the custody of our wireless operator,
no radios were allowed on the Scapa Flow. The captain gave a reason for
this ban. He said that a radio receiver sets up a small area of
resistance which might be heard by listening devices on submarines. I
know little about the mechanics of radio, but I find it difficult to
believe this theory. My objections 


to it are based on the fact that radios are permitted on ships in the
British Merchant Navy. There were radios on the giant transport which
brought the survivors of the Scapa Flow back to the United States from
West Africa. Moreover, radios for the crew were permitted on the
Norwegian tanker on which I had sailed before my trip on the Scapa Flow.
Finally, Sparks had a receiving set for the reception of SOS and other
messages. It was used all the time. The captain couldn't have the
argument both ways: if a receiving set might be heard by the Germans,
then Sparks's receiver might be heard, and he should not have been
allowed to use it. Although the captain wouldn't admit it, and I have no
way of being sure, I believe his ban on radios was based on his fear of
possible Axis sympathizers or agents among the crew. Of course, no crew
is absolutely safe against enemy agents, and agents have been known to
send messages to submarines from converted radio receivers. I have been
told by wireless operators that a receiving set can be altered by an
expert and made to send dot-dashes. Our captain might have felt he had
reason not to take chances with the crew of the Scapa Flow, as there
were a good number of neutrals aboard whose loyalty to the cause of the
United Nations could not necessarily be taken for granted. Anyway, for
whatever reason, the members of our crew could not have radios. I had no
personal objection to this barb as I had books to occupy my time during
some of my hours off watch. But I was sorry for many of the other crew
members who either could not read or didn't want to, and whose time
would have passed much more pleasantly if they had been able to hear
their favorite radio programs from the United States. Popular tunes had
a really great hold upon a number of the men and, in the absence of
radios, they were always ready to sing popular tunes for us. Alabama
could always be counted on for a song, and so could the Latvian A.B. and
the two boy ordinary seamen. It was extraordinary to watch the
Portuguese firemen during the singing of these popular songs. They
understood hardly a word but seemed fascinated by the tunes. Because of
their interest, they would be asked occasionally to attempt to sing one
of the melodies, but they always bashfully declined. I didn't 


realize how strong an impression the tunes made upon them until the
first time I substituted for a fireman in the stokehole, Johnny, the
Portuguese fireman whose love letters I had helped to write, came down
with heart trouble of a different kind one night when we were traveling
between Trinidad and West Africa. Owing to the difficulty of translating
into English the symptoms which he described volubly in Portuguese, we
never knew precisely what was wrong with his heart. Perhaps the trouble
was caused by the heat. In any event, as spareman, I substituted for him
for a couple of watches until he could take over again, The other two
firemen on Johnny's watch were also Portuguese, and they showed me
what to do. I had never fired before, and I had a rough time of it for
an hour or so. The physical demands of the job were not beyond me, but
there is quite a knack to throwing a shovelful of coal so that it will
go clear to the back of the firebed. My first attempts were disgraceful,
and even dangerous to me. I opened the door of one of the furnaces and
heaved in a shovelful. Instantly, one of the brawny Portuguese tackled
me, almost as if I had been carrying the ball in a football game. He
slammed the furnace door shut as I climbed belligerently to my feet, and
then in a combination of sign language and excited Portuguese he
explained his action, It appeared you had to be careful to lean away
from the furnace door after you threw in your coal, or the furnace might
spit the coal back at you and roast you. This is what had happened to
one of the Egyptian stokers, and he had been burned so badly that he had
had to leave the ship at Key West, Florida. Much of the coal was very
fine, and the intense heat of the furnace, might ignite it and spray it
back unless you heaved in your shovelful just right. Even if you did, it
was always wise to lean away from the furnace door, just in case. Each
fireman had to keep three fires going well enough to maintain his boiler
at a pressure of about 190 pounds of steam, Eventually I got the knack,
and though I wasn't doing my work as easily as the two other stokers,
still there were periods when I could put my shovel down and lean back
for rest and air under one of the ventilators, Up until my first rest
period I had been too intent on learning 


the new job to be much impressed by other aspects of the firing room,
but while resting I had a chance to take stock of the place. It was
pretty grim. The ship was in low latitudes on the South Atlantic, and
even on deck in a sea breeze the temperature was in the nineties. Near
the doors of the furnaces the temperatures ran as high as 140 degrees.
Sweat actually dripped from my body. I had to drink water copiously to
keep up the struggle. I avoided ice water, being sure that it would give
me a cramp, but the other firemen drank it without apparent harm. It
seems to me that even the most nerveless person alive would have at
least a touch of claustrophobia in such a place. I know I did, and the
other firemen did also. In the first place, you were far below the
surface of the water, and getting to the deck in case of a torpedoing
would be about a two-minute job, providing the ladders to the deck were
still intact after the torpedo struck. In addition, your position was
right beside the ship's three boilers. An explosion, even in a remote
part of the ship, might wrench the vessel in such a way as to rupture
the boilers and send steam out on you to scald you alive or kill you by
concussion. And obviously you had no chance at all if a torpedo struck
the hull near the firing room. My heart went out to these Portuguese
firemen who had taken such dreadful work of their own volition simply
because of the wages paid. All the Portuguese firemen on board, with the
exception of Johnny, were supporting good-sized families in Portugal.
And Johnny was saving up to get married. While the Scapa Flow was at
sea, they could make about a hundred and eighty dollars a month at this
work. There was a thoughtless disposition on board the ship to scorn
these Portuguese stokers because of their frugality. But these men, in
contradistinction to many of the rest of us, were doing this work
because it was the only way they could make that much in wartime. The
elements of patriotism, love of democracy, and antifascism counted not
at all. With all the Portuguese firemen except Johnny, their jobs were
outright gambles against destiny for wages which could keep their
families in better condition back in Portugal than would have been
possible had they worked on land or on ships of their own registry.
These men were getting what they considered to be splendid


wages out of an American shipping company, on an American-owned ship,
because of the peculiar circumstances which made our Merchant Marine a
vital service in the winning of a war in which the Portuguese firemen
were neutral. They were making hay, or rather steam, while they could.
Their time-span for getting wages like a hundred and eighty dollars a
month was necessarily limited, even if they were not killed at sea. Just
before this war, the merchant fleets of the world were far greater than
was necessary to carry on international commerce, Properly apportioned,
the ships of just one nation could have carried all the world's cargo.
The seagoing nations possessed so many ships that competition for
cargoes was fierce; shipping costs were cut as much as possible by the
private shippers of each nation, and the wages of seamen were inevitably
very low. The American private shippers have never been able to run
solvent businesses in world competition, not even when they paid
American seamen as little as thirty-five dollars a month for a
twelve-hour day. Always the private American shipper, while vigorously
defending the private profits system and free enterprise, has had to
depend on the American taxpayer to keep him in business. In peacetime,
the government helps him build ships by supplying ninety per cent of the
money, and enables him to make enormous profits by outright subsidies to
protect him from foreign competition, and indirect subsidies such as
mail contracts. But now, in wartime, the government builds a ship free
and hands it over to the private shipper, gives him a high profit free,
and provides low-rate insurance against the sinking or damaging of the
ship. The government also provides free schools for the training of
young men who will not be tainted with unionism, and puts these men on
the ship as officers and crew. The government routes the ship and gets
the cargoes. The private shipper does little--as a private shipper--but
maintain an office with a few bookkeepers to keep track of his profits,
The United States Government provides all these wasteful profits and
services to the private shipper, rather than nationalize and run the
shipping industry like a parallel service, the Post Office, for two
reasons: because the big private shippers are prominent on the directing
boards of government shipping agencies like the Maritime Commission;
and because of the prevailing

[ 100 ]

faith of the government in the virtues of the private profits system. As
soon as the war is won, of course, the merchant fleets of the world will
begin to disintegrate. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ships will rust
at docks, and on the ships which continue to sail, sturdy attempts
will be made to get seamen to accept the ten to fifty dollars a month
wages of the thirties. With such a dismal future in mind, all seamen,
including such men as the Portuguese firemen on the Scapa Flow, realized
that their time to make war wages on American-owned ships was
drastically limited. These Portuguese had had only three years in which
to gamble their lives against what they considered good wages. In 1940
and 1941, the merchant fleets of some of the seagoing nations--Britain,
Norway, and Holland--were involved in the war, leaving a shortage of
ships for their former trade routes which could be filled by
American-owned ships, with or without the American flag. Thus the
Portuguese could get on American-owned ships which, for instance, took
scrap iron and oil to the Japanese. And, when the Japanese had enough of
these to attack us, it became easier than ever to get jobs on
American-owned ships which were now pouring from the ways, or on old
ships, such as the Scapa Flow, which had been seized from other
countries to be used in the fight against Germany, Italy and Japan.
Every one of the Portuguese firemen was killed when the Scapa Flow was
torpedoed. Some of them were on watch in the firing room when we were
attacked. No one knows whether they were killed by the torpedoes,
scalded or mangled to death in a, boiler explosion, or drowned. In any
case they had no chance to get out, as the ship went down in less than a
minute. Even the Portuguese who were on deck were drowned, as they were
asleep in their bunks in the fo'c'sle and weren't able to get up and
out. Although the Portuguese in the firing room had chosen their jobs
freely, they were not impervious to the feeling of claustrophobia
engendered by the place. They tried to keep their minds busy during the
periods of rest between bouts of firing the furnaces. These men were so
used to their work that they had energy 


left over for horseplay. The two Portuguese who were my watch mates
wrestled on the steel floor plating, and danced jigs to the snapping of
their fingers. During one of my rest periods I caught the two of them
eying me covertly, and trying to decide some point by argument. I
could understand enough of their conversation to realize that they
were wondering if they could sing and dance tonight just as they did
when their regular watchmate, Johnny, was working with them.
Apparently they decided that they could, for then they went into one of
the most bizarre routines I have ever witnessed. One of the men brought
out a bucket and turned it upside down. Both Portuguese calmly began to
remove their clothes. Thc coal passer on watch, one of the boys from
South Chicago, came into the firing room at this time, and I asked him
what was going on. "You'll see, Professor," said the coal passer. "These
guys do this damn near every watch." When the firemen were naked, one of
them mounted the bucket and began to weave his body in a lewd, savage
dance, The other one clapped his hands in time to the tune both of them
were singing. They didn't know the words, but they knew the tune well.
It was "I'11 Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You." This was one of
the songs they had heard sung on the foredeck, and which they had been
too bashful to sing up above. They danced and sang quite a while. The
oiler came in from the engine room, and even the engineer deserted his
post for a moment to come in and watch. The Portuguese were delighted
at the attention. Perhaps the lewdness of the Portuguese in their
dancing and singing was the same as that of the young jitterbugs in the
States, and had the same causes. Anyway, it was no surprise to me when,
shortly after my return to New York, I saw in one of the newspapers that
some seamen whose ship had been torpedoed had sent Frank Sinatra a good
luck dollar bill. 


The abnormal manifestation of larceny on the home front, brought about
by a combination of opportunity and a wartime perversion of ethics, had
its parallel on the Scapa Flow. The 

[ 102 ]

chances for cheating and theft on our ship were, of course, severely
restricted as compared, say, to the opportunities of manufacturers in
the United States who have war contracts. But, despite this fact, some
seamen capitalized on their opportunities to good advantage. For the
most part, the men stole from the ship and sold the stolen articles
ashore to the natives. However, they were not averse, where it was
possible, to stealing each other's clothes and selling these to the
natives, blaming the thefts on other natives who came to work aboard the
Scapa Flow at the various West African ports. Long before the Scapa Flow
reached West Africa, many of the crewmen began steady raids upon the
linen supply of the ship, storing the stolen linen in their lockers, in
the coal bunkers, up the ventilator shafts, and in other places. Cloth
articles are in heavy demand in West Africa. The messmen on the ship
made up the officers' bunks every day, and changed the linen once a
week, getting the fresh supplies from the steward in the linen cabin,
and turning in the dirty linen. The officers, therefore, had little
opportunity to steal linen, even if they had been disposed to do so.
Such thievery would have seemed petty to them, in any case, for they
were in a position to steal and graft on a slightly bigger scale. The
captain and the first mate used one of the ship's sickbays as a
storeroom, and put considerable supplies of clothing articles in this
storeroom. These were cheap articles, bought wholesale in New York, and
they were sold for several hundred per cent profit to Syrian dealers in
West Africa. Customs guards on both sides of the water are susceptible
to bribery; the various duties which should be paid were thus not hard
to circumvent. There were no transport expenses to the captain and the
first mate, and these two men could make as much on this profiteering as
their wages for the entire voyage. There was little danger that they
might buy articles in New York suitable for sale to customers in the
tropics, and then find themselves going to the arctic. The captain and
the first mate knew where the ship was going long before she left New
York, and so did the rest of us. The talk about sealed orders and
unknown war destinations is largely fiction. 

[ 103 ]

Although the crew knew the ship was going to West Africa, and had
discussed the possibility of doing a bit of purchasing for resale, they
lacked the capital that was at the disposal of the captain and the first
mate. Some of the Scapa Flow's seamen had to bum carfare to get from the
New York waterfront out to the Brooklyn dock where they could sign on
the Scapa Flow. Thus the crew had only one good source of supply for
articles which could be sold to the natives, and this was the linen
cabin, The crew members made their own bunks, or left them unmade, and
each week were supposed to take their dirty linen to the linen cabin
where the steward would exchange it for fresh linen, The steward was a
lazy man, and would tell the men simply to stack their dirty linen
outside the linen cabin while he idled around somewhere else on the
ship. Then, during what constituted only a few minutes' work, he could
issue all the clean linen at once. The men in the crew who were disposed
to steal could, therefore, maintain that they had laid their dirty linen
down already, and the steward would issue them fresh. What the thieves
did, of course, was to leave most of their dirty bedclothes on their
bunks, and each week cache away the fresh bedclothes issued by the
steward, As is the case with most reasonably normal men, wherever it was
possible the crew sought to justify their thieving. They said that the
shipping company was cheating them, and that stealing the bedclothes was
therefore only a way of getting back a little of what was coming to
them. There may have been some justification for this rationalization
later in the voyage, when it became evident that the shipping company
was bilking the crew out of many things it should have had, but the
linen stealing began long before that became apparent. By the time the
Scapa Flow reached West Africa, some of the crewmen had really amazing
quantities of bedclothes stored away for sale ashore. One of the
Egyptian stokers, as I remember it, had upwards of thirty sheets, a
dozen pillow slips, a dozen bedspreads, and four or five heavy
woolen blankets. These brought him in around a hundred dollars when all
the articles were sold. This stoker made the biggest haul, but smaller
hauls were made by at least fifteen other crewmen and gunners, The
steward was a thoroughly unpopular man with the crew 

[ 104 ]

because he tried to get the cook to give them inferior food and save the
best for the officers. Otherwise there might have been a few, a very
few, conscientious scruples about putting the steward in line for great
trouble with the shipping company over the immense shortage in the linen
supply entrusted to him. The steward, however, apparently was convinced
of his ability to blame any shortage on natives from ashore, for one
night, while the English A.B. and I were coming back to the ship from
town, we saw the fat little Spanish steward waddling along the road,
followed by two native boys, each carrying on his head a great sack of
bedclothes. Ever after that, until he was trapped to drown in his cabin,
the steward was deferential to the Englishman and to me. 


Among the most popular antidotes to torpedo nerves throughout the
voyage were exercise and bull sessions. Exercise is well-known as a
means to quiet nerves, and often in the evening, when fear of submarines
ran highest, the men would wrestle or run around the deck playing tag.
Although the idea was never discussed, there seemed to be tacit
understanding that if you could get yourself tired enough you would be
able ro get to sleep. Sometimes the exercise would take the mild and
traditional shipboard form of promenading. Even with the decks covered
with cargo, it always seemed possible to find enough room to pace. It
seemed good to pace at sundown, always a nervous time, and again just
before turning in, at ten or eleven at night. Also popular among the men
were boxing matches, for these provided diversion as well as exercise.
The Navy had equipped our gunners with several pairs of boxing gloves,
and there were several good boxers among the crewmen. Great Lakes was
the best, having been a Golden Glover. Another oiler, the ex-convict
from Pennsylvania, was also very good, and outpointed many of the bigger
men. As an average, the Navy gunners, being typical American boys, were
better boxers than the other crewmen. It was humiliating to the regular
crew to be so often bested by the gunners, who were despised on almost
every other count; 

[ 105 ]

but the solace provided by the boxing gloves outweighed this humiliation
and we continued to box with the gunners even after their average
superiority was clearly established. The Navy gunners, for their part,
were overjoyed to get back at us for our many gibes at them. Probably
the greatest escape-amusement ever provided on the ship, with the
possible exception of the animals, came when one of the good boxers
would tangle with a powerful but ignorant stoker. Several times the
Egyptian and Portuguese stokers were persuaded to box with some of the
experts, and the discomfiture of the stokers was so great that even they
would laugh. As important to morale as the exercise were the
never-ending bull sessions. Over and over again men Would sit on the
foredeck and tell each other what they would do when they paid off the
Scapa Flow in New York. It was usually taken for granted that shore
leave in the various ports on the voyage would be utilized for drinking
and whoring. These were generalities and accepted as such. But there
were few generalities in discussing what would be done by each seaman
when finally the voyage was over and we walked off the ship, each with
something over five hundred dollars in his pocket. In about ninety per
cent of the cases, men who paid off with more than five hundred bucks
apiece would be broke within three weeks. It was common on the beach in
New York to hear of a seaman who had paid off with a couple of thousand
dollars after a run to India or Murmansk and who was ready to ship out
again--because he was broke--in a fortnight. And though many of the men
on the Scapa Flow knew in their hearts, and sometimes would admit, that
they probably would spend their time and money in New York on booze and
women, still they made elaborate plans for their money and their free
time ashore, For instance, Alabama said many times that he would make a
down payment on a little farm in the South with the money he made from
this particular trip. He had the land all picked out, he said. He would
get a car. He would hire a couple of Negroes to work for him. He would
get his wife to stop work; they would take it easy for the rest of their
lives and let Negro help do the work for them. Alabama is one of the few
men I ran across 

[ 106 ]

in New York after the survivors were landed. It was about two weeks
after we got on American soil. He had, he said, made a trip of four
days' duration to see his wife in the South. Now he was ready to ship
Out again. He was dressed in dungarees, for he had hocked his suit to
get enough money to live on until he got another ship. He was in need of
a shave. He bummed me for a shot of rye. The most prevalent dreaming
among the crewmen was of the officers' licenses they would get after
this voyage. Many of the crewmen were not American citizens, but it was
possible for the aliens to get licenses on ships flying the Panamanian
flag, even though these ships often were owned by the Maritime
Commission, The English and Latvian A.B.s talked of getting licenses:
they had the requisite formal educations, and the money made on the
current voyage would be enough to keep them in food and lodging while
they studied for their licenses. But they had had more than five hundred
dollars apiece when they paid off their former vessel, a Panamanian
tanker, and though the Englishman had actually started to study for his
mate's ticket, the effort had been abandoned because of a couple of wild
parties. When he went back to New York he would have to start all over
again. However, he said that this time surely he would get his ticket.
There were men on the ship who had been sailing as A.B.s or members of
the black gang for longer than fifteen years. Many of them signified an
intention of buckling down, this time sure, to the job of getting an
officer's license. In smaller ambitions, too, there often was the same
kind of planning. Thus a man would not tell you simply that he was going
to buy a new suit. He would tell you exactly the kind of suit, and where
he would get it. He would even tell you the route he would take from the
waterfront to the store he had in mind, being absolutely specific as to
which subway would be taken and at which stops changes would be made
from the local to the express, or vice versa. Often you would hear a
heated argument between two seamen over the exact location of a store
which both of them favored as a place to buy a new suit. One would
declare the store was on Second Avenue, and the other would be sure that
it was on Third Avenue. Despite the fact that we were thousands of miles
away from Second and Third 

[ 107 ]

avenues, it seemed urgent to each of these seamen to prove to the other
the location of the store. All the rest of the crew members who were
familiar with New York would be questioned, and even the officers might
be asked if they knew on which of the two avenues this particular
clothing store was situated. I remember that some of the men were
greatly exercised over getting cuffs on their trousers when. they got
new suits. One of the dressier of the men would declare flatly that he
would go to practically any lengths of bribery to get cuffs made on his
trousers; another would then come up with the idea that soon all
trousers with cuffs would be out-of-date, and that perhaps it would be
better to get cuffless ones even if the others were obtainable. An
argument would then be launched which might be revived again and again
for weeks. 


During 1943 there were some hideous manifestations of racial prejudice
in the United States, particularly the disturbances which took place in
Detroit, in Beaumont, and in Los Angeles. To a varying degree, most of
the articles I have read on this rioting have laid some blame on the war
stresses which have been imposed on our economy. A perfect parallel to
these racial troubles could be found on the Scapa Flow on her last
wartime journey. Both on shore and on our ship, the nervous intensity
caused by the war, plus other factors, tended to bring out racial
prejudice which would not have been likely to manifest itself so openly
in calmer times. Classified by occupation, seamen are probably the most
racially tolerant of the workers of the world. A seaman goes to many
parts of the world and works beside men of many nationalities and races.
Just as race prejudice is usually the worst where one race is declared
of inferior status and segregated in subjection, so tolerance is
greatest where risks are shared with men of other races, for the same
wages and under the same working conditions. As an example: ashore an
American worker might tell you that Americans are superior to
Brazilians, because the latter often have dark skin like Negroes,
because they have Indian blood, etc. On the Scapa Flow, one of the A.B.s
was Alabama and another was the Brazilian. The men had the same rank,
shared the same bunkroom and messtable, and got the same wages. Whatever
their preconceptions might have been, the other men on the .ship knew
that the Brazilian--so dark that he had been Jim Crowed in
Baltimore--was by far the superior of the two men, in manhood,
seamanship and intelligence. Not a man of us could have failed to make
an invidious comparison between the American A.B. and the Brazilian
A.B., at the expense of the former. The similarity of pay and living
conditions for all races, plus the proletarian breadth of view which a
seaman often acquires from his traveling, put racial tolerance quite
high, comparatively, among seamen. In spite of this, the over-all
tension and distress of the voyage, both during the actual time at sea
and during our periods of shore leave in West Africa, caused racial
prejudice to develop against one of the men on the ship--our chief cook,
who was an American Negro. When the Scapa Flow left New York, there
probably were not more than two of the regular crewmen--Alabama and
Pennsylvania--who would have been willing to admit any outright,
permanent racial prejudice against Negroes. (I am excepting the naval
gunners, who were not regular seamen and were fresh from the South.)
Most of the regular seamen were familiar with Negroes, had sailed with
them before, and accepted them as equals providing the Negroes comported
themselves as equals. Doubtless while ashore these regular seamen would
have betrayed a little prejudice, perhaps as much as liberal college
professors, but certainly no more. The regular seamen, I must record
for accuracy, were almost all anti-Semitic, as a majority of otherwise
racially tolerant seamen are everywhere. The reason seems to be that
Jews rarely become seamen in the world's merchant fleets. This might be
taken as an evidence of their good sense, but seamen call it an evidence
of their cowardice, or love of easy money and occupations. But the
point I wish to stress here is that, at the beginning of her last
voyage, there was very little racial prejudice against Negroes
manifested by the regular crewmen. Almost all of us agreed that the cook
was a swell guy. And not a swell guy "for a Negro" either; he was a
swell guy for a

[ 109]

man. He wasn't too good as a cook, but a cook is hardly ever admitted
to be good by his current shipmates. The chief cook was clean,
well-spoken, and extremely active in all movements to safeguard or
establish the elementary rights of the crew throughout the voyage, On
the outgoing part of the voyage, as we went toward West Africa, the cook
would sometimes tell the rest of us: "Well, boys, I'll soon be with my
own people. We're goin' to Liberia, ain't we? That's a free country. No
Jim Crow in Liberia." We would laugh self-consciously and assure him
that he was talking nonsense, that he was an American, and that those
snot-nose gunners from the South might hold his color against him, but
not us. After all, wasn't he one of us, a shipmate in our crew, and paid
more wages than many of us ? The chief cook was then at the zenith of
his popularity with us. The Spanish steward was never very popular from
the beginning; he almost always kowtowed cravenly to the officers. In
our tedious journey down the American coast, during which time our ice
machine gave us much trouble, it was inevitably the consistent agitation
of the chief cook which got prompt action in getting the refrigeration
system repaired. The moment the ice machine would begin to falter, the
cook would commence to heckle the officers, saying that our meat was in
danger of spoiling. And he would continue in this vein until the
engineers, and sometimes shore mechanics, got to work on the ice
machine, The steward, who was the man who should have led such
agitation, was a sycophant, convinced of the unassailable superiority
of the caste of officers as convinced in this matter as many of the
officers were themselves. The Spaniard had worked as steward on a number
of ships in the British Merchant Navy, where, owing to the relative
weakness of the British unions, the caste system is even more rigidly
operative than in our Merchant Marine; and he sought to bring many of
his exaggerated caste ideas onto the Scapa Flow. It was largely due to
the efforts of the Negro chief cook that the steward usually was unable
to put these ideas into operation. The cook's most important victory
over the steward, a victory acclaimed by the whole crew, was in
obtaining absolute equality for the crew and the officers in the food
prepared in the galley. Our cook contended and, for the 


most part, was able to enforce his contention that every man aboard
should have the same food. The steward had wanted to serve the best
food--the best vegetables and cuts of meat--to the officers and leave to
the crew inferior grades and cuts. For this offense he was never fully
forgiven by the crew, and was ragged throughout the voyage. Had the
cook's point of view coincided with the steward's, the officers would
have been favored mercilessly in the division of the food, for the crew
would have found it impossible to keep a continual check on the steward
and the cook in the matter of food allocation and preparation. But the
Negro said--and he made it stick--that the officers might get to eat off
linen, and off better plates, and have better service at table, but his
brothers in the crew would get the same food from the galley, and just
as much of it per man. True, because of his control of the storeroom,
the steward was able to get certain delicacies into the officers' saloon
which never found their way forward to the fo'c'sle messroom, such as
olives, chowchow, Piccalilli, pickles, and the like. But in the main,
with the staple foods, the cook's ideas of equality prevailed; for which
you would think the crew would have been permanently grateful. The
racial tide began to turn against our chief cook when we got on the West
African coast. Because I feel it is relevant here, I must go ahead of my
story a bit to tell something of the living and working conditions on
the West African coast. We touched four Ports, one in the Gold Coast
(British), two in Liberia (free), and one in Sierra Leone (British).
Living conditions, food scarcity, and wages--except for superficial
differences--were about the same in all four ports, and what is said
here about the first port, the one on the Gold Coast, will suffice for
all four of the ports we visited. The Scapa Flow was unloaded entirely
by Negro longshoremen--"crew boys," they were called in the
condescending jargon of our shipping company, despite the fact that a
"boy" might be, and often was, more than fifty years old and a highly
skilled Winchman. The cargo carried by the Scapa Flow was worth several
millions of dollars, if indeed any war cargo can be assayed in purely
monetary terms. It was unloaded by these colored longshoremen with
dispatch and precision, with only one 


minor mishap: one crate was broken against a railroad flatcar, with only
slight damage to the contents of the crate. This was an excellent
discharge of our cargo, and could hardly have been bettered by the
counterparts of the Negro longshoremen in the United States, the white
workers who loaded the Scapa Flow in New York. , For their jobs the
longshoremen in New York made about sixty-five dollars a week apiece
(figuring an eight-hour day, and a six-day week, at $1.25 an hour, with
time and a half for the sixth day). The Negro workers in West Africa
made about $1.20 a week (figuring an eight-hour day, and a six-day week,
at one shilling--twenty cents--a day, and no overtime for the sixth
day). Thus the white workers in New York made about fifty-five times as
much money as Negro workers doing similar work in West Africa. In
addition to their pay in money, each of the Negro longshoremen got one
meal (lunch) on board the Scapa Flow. It consisted of about four ounces
of native wild rice, prepared by the longshoremen themselves. The cost
to the shipping company was less than one cent per meal. As for the
prices paid for goods by the Negro longshoremen: for almost everything
you can name, the colored man had to pay at least twice as much in West
Africa (because of import costs and profiteering) as the white worker
in New York. Therefore, if the Negro longshoreman bought an undershirt,
he would pay eighty cents for it (four days' wages); a cheap cotton
shirt would cost two dollars and a half (more than two weeks' wages),
and a pair of dungaree pants would cost five dollars (or about a month's
wages). A can of pork and beans worth twenty cents in New York would
cost the Negro at least forty cents in West Africa, or two days' wages.
A package of cigarettes costing seventeen cents in New York would cost a
Negro fifty cents in West Africa, in the remote chance that he might
want to buy it. About the only staple items which are cheaper in West
Africa than in New York are bananas and oranges. They sell for about a
dime a dozen. Because food is the predominant item in a West African's
living costs, and because he is forced to eat so disproportionate an
amount of fruit to sustain his life, I will arbi- 


trarily balance his cheaply bought fruit against his dearly bought
clothing, and again arbitrarily declare that his money is worth as much
to him in sustaining life as is the white longshoreman's in New York.
This arbitrary peg of the cost of living brings me back to the original
question of the relation of wages paid to the longshoremen in New York
and West Africa: the white worker makes about fifty-five times as much
money for work of no greater value to civilization, the war effort, or
whatever. Wage earners in most other jobs in West Africa also suffer
from just such a disparate ratio as this. The West African longshoremen
conducted a strike almost as soon as they came on the Scapa Flow. They
did not strike for more money, or better working conditions, or shorter
hours. They said they had been promised, for their noon meal, clean
white rice from the United States instead of what they got, which was
native wild rice from their homeland. They struck for the difference
between the two kinds of rice. The strike was broken, because there
was not enough white rice on the Scapa Flow to supply the longshoremen,
and native wild rice from ashore had to be used, or none at all. I do
not draw these comparisons to attempt to prove that the American white
worker is overpaid. What I am attempting to establish here is the shock
suffered by the crew of the Scapa Flow at the working conditions and
wages on the West African coast. It must be remembered that the crew of
the Scapa Flow was more than half Union, and that seamen on
American-owned ships, whether union or nonunion, are probably as labor
conscious as any workers in the world. For the first few days at our
first port in West Africa, the crew members who had never been to West
Africa, and this was most of us, wandered round shaking our heads in
pity and indignation, saying of the Negro longshoremen, "The poor
bastards. Jesus, what a life! The poor c----- s." Inevitably, the man
who was most outraged in our crew was the Negro chief cook. For several
days this old union organizer, this man with a generous supply of
fraternal consciousness, went about his duties with an incredulous look
on his face. He simply couldn't believe what he was told about the lives
and wages of his African blood brothers. 


As soon as the longshoremen realized that there was a Negro cook aboard
the Scapa Flow, they took to standing patiently about the galley, hoping
for a handout from a cook who, because of his color, might be more
generous than a white cook. The Scapa Flow already was running short of
food and the chief cook had to tell the longshoremen, on the first day,
that he had received stringent orders against handouts. He thought they
expected plates of food, or sandwiches, like the longshoremen in New
York. He didn't realize that what the West African longshoremen wanted
was the leavings, the slops. They would eat almost anything. The
livestock ashore had been slaughtered long since, to be shipped off to
feed other members of the British Empire in the war. The longshoremen
had eaten their pets. Even rats were eaten ashore, and monkeys, and any
manner of wild life which hadn't receded too far into the bush to be
caught. The native workers were desperate for some taste of meat or
vegetables or fruit other than the few varieties which could be found
ashore. They would eat gristle, marrow from bones, potato peelings.
They clamored around the galley with their dry rice in tin cans, begging
for "soup." To them the word meant anything, anything at all, which
could be put on the dry rice. Salad oil was "soup," and so were gravy
and grease, a potato, a piece of fat--and so, of course, was soup. The
chief cook saw no reason for depriving these longshoremen of the
inevitable leavings of any crew's meal, which always had been thrown
over the side. So he let these men lick out his pots. When the natives
were through with the pots and pans, they needed only to be scalded to
be ready for use in preparing the next meal. The captain, on tour of
inspection, came by and furiously ordered the chief cook to cease this
activity. "Don't give these black bastards a thing," he ordered--a
rather ill-advised way in which to give orders to an American Negro cook
who was also a strong union man. "Give these crew boys an inch and
they'll take a mile," the captain continued, The cook did not refuse
verbally to obey orders, but he continued to pass out the leavings
when the captain wasn't around. I sometimes worked in the galley and
would help him set out the pots for the longshoremen to lick, and also
the garbage can


for them to go through. Occasionally one of them would come across a
piece of meat skin or bacon rind in the garbage. Then he would poke it
through one of the portholes in the galley, asking humbly, "Roast please
?" He wanted it placed on the stove for a few seconds. After the
longshoremen had been unloading our ship for a few days, they commenced
bringing friends on the ship with them, These friends proved to be
intelligent men, familiar with the ways of a ship. They would seek out
members of the crew and offer to do their work. It appeared that the
friends could do practically any work on the ship, and, after being
given a trial, they showed that they could do our port work, which
usually didn't call for specialized skill, just about as well as we
could do it ourselves. Ships are usually painted when they are in port
any length of time, and often rust has to be chipped, an extremely
tedious job. Our port work in West Africa was particularly trying
because of the heat. There was no sea breeze to offer relief; often it
was unbearably hot on the steel decks, with no protection against the
sun but a cap, and the temperature at 110 degrees. The Negroes offered
to do our work for us. They would put in a full day, eight hours, and
guarantee to do as much work as we could.

These men, barefoot and nearly naked under the equatorial sun, would
work a whole day for a package of cigarettes apiece. The first mate had
been in West Africa before; he knew all about the practice. "Go ahead,"
he said. "Hire the wogs. Ail I'm interested in is getting the work done
on the ship. If any special work has to be done which they can't do,
I'll let you know, and you pitch in and do it. Then you can let the wogs
take over again."

The situation provided an interesting problem in ethics. By the terms of
our contracts, we regular seamen averaged about five dollars a day, plus
our food and lodging, while at sea or in a foreign port. We would be
unloading in this first African port for three weeks or so, during which
we'd earn around a hundred dollars apiece. Most of us could turn
nearly all our work over to shore Negroes, and take it easy for three
weeks, diverting ourselves as we liked in the near-by Gold Coast towns.
There were enough temporary diversions to satisfy all of us. Those who


wanted to could go drinking and whoring; others could do a bit of
amateur exploration and try to see some wild animals; others could pal
up with British soldiers and sailors; others could make use of the
brand-new Merchant Navy retreat, a sort of Y.M.C.A. affair with a
splendid list of Penguin and Pelican books, good easy chairs and writing
desks, and pool and ping-pong tables, All you had to do was draw your
five bucks and three meals a day, and hand over a package of cigarettes
to some able colored man to do your work for you. This package of
cigarettes cost you exactly eight cents from the slop chest. The Negro
didn't smoke these cigarettes: he couldn't afford to. After his day's
work he would take the precious American cigarettes to one of the Syrian
storekeepers in the nearest town. The Syrian petty profiteer would give
the Negro one-and-six (thirty cents) for the eight-cent package of
cigarettes; he would then sell the cigarettes--which, incidentally,
were marked "Sea Stores" and were not supposed to be resold ashore--to
some Britisher Or well-heeled Arab merchant, or to another Syrian, for
two-and-six (fifty cents), even if he had to wait a year to find a
customer, This might have seemed instantly an almost never-never-land
setup to the crew of the Scapa Flow, but it is surprising how many of
the men offered initial objections to the ethics of this situation. I
have no desire to describe seamen as more virtuous or energetic than
other workers, but there is a strong element of radicalism in merchant
seamen. Political consciousness is unusually high among these men,
considering their often rudimental literacy, and even where political
consciousness is not strongly developed, there is usualIy a strong
feeling of fraternity for all workers in a seaman's system. Even with
the go-ahead from the first mate, and a similar nod from the chief
engineer, not more than a quarter of the men took immediate advantage of
the Negroes' offer. The Egyptians seized upon the offer right away, and
so did the two Puerto Ricans, but the rest of us demurred for a day or
so to think and talk it over. From one point of view it was, of course,
hideous to play a petty capitalist and make a profit of $4.92 and three
meals out of the sweat of some poor Negro and on an outlay of only eight
cents. But what about the Negro ? He was more than anxious to sell his
labor power for eight cents a day, and if you didn't let 


him work you were robbing him of a chance to earn the price of a shirt
in a fortnight's time. This was, of course, the perennial apology of the
capitalist for his system. It was hard to supply a socialist solution
here. At home you might say to the worker: join a party which will
advocate taking over the factories for the workers, and join a
consumers' co-operative into the bargain, but such advice was somewhat
impractical for this particular three week period on the British Gold
Coast in West Africa. By the following day, most of us were agreed that
the part of wisdom was to hire the Negroes to do our work wherever this
was possible. One of the men who could not participate in this deal was
the Negro chief cook. He had to cook for the crew. We turned up for our
meals pretty regularly, for even with our $4.92 it was practically
impossible to get an eatable meal--for us--ashore. The Navy gunners
never had any work to do, at sea or in port--they didn't even have to
sweep the deck outside their bunkrooms--so, after they ate their meals
they were usually allowed to wander off to the towns. The British could
protect us if the port were attacked. We who let the Negroes do our work
could not temporize in the matter of wages. If we felt like it, we might
pay the men we hired two packages of cigarettes a day, but not more.
Otherwise there would be a mass desertion among the ranks of the
highly skilled, irreplaceable longshoremen, who would be drawn away
from their work if we paid such phenomenal wages as three packages of
cigarettes, and the unloading of the ship would be delayed. This would
bring a cancellation of the whole setup, with us having to do our own
work and the Negroes bilked of their chance to work for us. So we hired
our Negroes, some at one package apiece per day and some at two. The
chief job assigned to me in this port was to sooge as much of the ship
as I could. This meant going over the woodwork and bulkheads and
overheads with soap and water. I figured that eight Negroes might be
able to wash all the ship in three weeks, so I hired eight men at two
packages of cigarettes daily. This cost me about $1.25 a day. I pocketed
my $3.75 in graft every day, and ate my three meals too. Slowly the
sight of the Negroes working on the ship began to 


have a deleterious effect upon the crew. It wasn't evident at once, and
other factors were contributory, but the hitherto very slight or
nonexistent--prejudice against Negroes began to develop. Without
realizing how or why, most of the crew began to resent the Negroes,
although for the most part they were doing their work well. They
resented them for at least three reasons: First, for their helplessness,
which injured the crew's sense of rightness or fitness. In the same way
you often resent a cripple or a blind man who is around too much; pity
turns sour. Second, just as you often resent a man you have hurt, a
constant needler of your conscience, so the crew resented the Negroes
because they were being cheated out of almost all the pay we got for
similar work. The third reason was that the Negroes voluntarily accepted
their inferior stares, and the crew, who might not have noticed this
inferiority had they not been assured of it by the actions of the
Negroes, now began to feel the stirrings of a master race. Their
prejudice began to manifest itself first in the way they referred to the
Negroes. In the beginning, with the exception of a few men such as
Alabama and Pennsylvania--and of course the southern gunners--the
Negroes were called just that, or possibly "blacks." Then the phrase
"crew boy" became predominant, followed by "nigger"; then came the
British word "wog"; and eventually, of course, nearly all the crew
referred to the men they had hired as "lazy black bastards." The men
began to notice their growing prejudice, and invented various reasons
to justify it. There had been some stealing by the hired Negroes: a few
undershirts were missed, and one or two pairs of old dungarees. These
offenses were exaggerated greatly by the crew, now often drunk on native
wine, and they conveniently forgot that a majority of them were stealing
various articles from the ship and selling them ashore or to the very
Negroes they accused of stealing. In addition, the abject poverty ashore
had made a beggar out of practically every child, and a host of these
children would invariably follow us through the streets with continuous
pleas for alms with which to buy food. At first, as in the case of the
longshoremen on the ship, these under fed children aroused the men's
pity, and they scattered money about generously, but this pity too
turned sour and the crew began to look upon them as infernal pests and
born beggars; this 


despite the fact that food for our ship was being requisitioned in this
town, to impoverish it further. The seamen also attributed their
increased racial prejudice to the actions of the Negroes during some of
the fights ashore--and one on shipboard--with our men, which usually
were instigated by the drunken carousing of the crew. During the first
week or so in this port it was the custom of the crew to allow the hired
substitutes to come into the fo'c'sle messroom after our meal was over.
The Negroes could lick off our plates and eat whatever food was left
over in the pots which came up from the galley. Alabama and Pennsylvania
had protested against this off-the-cuff business right from the first;
but in the beginning their protests had been downed by the rest of us:
we were sorry for the Negroes and saw no harm in letting them eat our
leftovers. To the charge brought by Alabama and Pennsylvania that the
black bastards would, after all, be eating off our plates, and that this
was unsanitary, we pointed out that the Negroes always appointed one of
their number to wash up carefully after they were through eating, which
was a great boon to the Brazilian messboy, who thus was really through
with his work at a meal when he brought the pots forward from the
galley. However, as time went on, Alabama and Pennsylvania found
themselves winning converts to their prejudice. Eventually, a majority
of the crew would grouse during each meal at the appearance of the
Negroes on the well deck. The Negroes would hover around the door of the
messroom, eagerly anticipating the time when we would all be finished
eating and they could come in and eat our leftovers. But still some
incident was needed to set the crew in favor of a ban against further
entrance into our messroom. This was supplied by a petty theft. After
the noon meal one day a seaman (I forgot who) happened to walk by the
door of the messroom while the Negroes were cleaning up our plates
inside. He saw one of the Negroes stealing quinine capsules from one of
the half-gallon jars of them which always stood on the messtables. This
had been forbidden early in the game; that is, the Negroes had been
forbidden to touch anything in the room besides the plates from which
they ate. True, there wasn't much they could take, as few articles of
even the slightest value were left in the room--just some cheap
magazines, packs of cards, a 


box of checkers, and the like. They had not been disturbed. Nobody had
thought to tell the Negroes that they couldn't take quinine capsules,
for these had no monetary value to us, and were supplied by the ship. We
were supposed to take one of these five-grain capsules each day as a
safeguard against malaria. That the Negroes might want to steal some of
our quinine had never crossed our minds, or we undoubtedly would have
given orders to the messboy to lock the capsules up. It is odd that it
never occurred to me that these capst]les might be stolen, for I had
noted with pity that quinine capsules were sold in all the post offices
ashore at fourpence (about seven cents) apiece; or a full day's wages
for just three capsules, The theft of the quinine caused great
indignation among the crew when they heard about it, though of course
the insignificant theft had in reality been an offense against the
shipping company which furnished the pills, the very shipping company
that many of the men had no compunction against robbing of hundreds of
dollars' worth of bed linen, blankets and bedspreads. The Negro
malefactor was bawled out angrily by various members of the crew, and
very narrowly escaped a thrashing. By common consent, in a
magnificent burst of self-righteousness, he was fired and hurried off
the ship. Of course, all his fellows suffered for his offense, for they
were banned from the messroom from then on. It was a depressing thing to
see, at the next mealtime, how ostentatiously the seamen cleaned off
their plates into a garbage pail, then ordered and watched the messboy
throw the contents of the pail over the side, rather than let the
Negroes have the scraps, The Negroes watched this with tragedy on their
faces. Although the crew's prejudice obviously was greater from here on,
this particular childish trick of throwing the scraps overside was
abandoned. At the next meal the messboy was ordered to clean off the
plates into a pot, and to take the pot to the Negroes on the well deck,
where they still congregated hungrily, hoping for a change of heart.
From then on, as long as they stayed on the ship, they were permitted to
eat out of the pot of scraps on the well deck, but not permitted, ever,
to come into the messroom. Our own supply of food was running short now,
and this shortness served to increase still further the growing racial
prejudice, I don't know who it was that started the story, but it was

[ 120 ]

eagerly by Alabama and Pennsylvania that our Negro chief cook was giving
much of our food away to the longshoremen, despite the captain's ban on
such gifts. Some of the crew went to see the cook about this charge, and
he denied it. But he wasn't believed, of course. He insisted that the
shipping company in New York had put far too little food aboard the ship
for a voyage of this length. This was a fact, and it had been common
knowledge before we ever reached West Africa. In New York, the shipping
company had put two months' food aboard the Scapa Flow, and two full
months had elapsed when we touched our first port in West Africa. We
were to visit three others, and still had the  return journey to make.
Nevertheless, because they wanted to believe something against our Negro
cook, the men were sure that he had disposed of a great deal of our food
to his blood brothers in West Africa. Someone unearthed the phrase about
blood being thicker than water, and this phrase was parroted as evidence
against the cook all the time the Scapa Flow was on the West African
coast. The gunners, who were almost all from the American South, now had
a good chance to vent their prejudice against the cook. This prejudice
had been in evidence from the first few days of the voyage. Several
times they had stopped members of the crew on deck, even before the ship
left New York, in an attempt to get the crewmen to join them in a
protest against having a Negro cook. The gunners got exceedingly short
shrift on those occasions, for two reasons: first, none of the crew
wanted to join the gunners in a protest about anything, and second, the
cook was a member of the crew, one of us, a good union man, and it was
unthinkable to protest against him simply because he was colored. The
crewmen did not fail to point out that Negro cooks often cooked for
whites in the South, and that the real objection of the gunners was not
to having a Negro as a cook but as a shipmate. But now, in West Africa,
the gunners revived their agitation against the cook. They of course
couldn't get him off the ship, but they could amuse themselves by
agitating against him as a man because he was a Negro, and allegedly was
a bad cook, kept a dirty galley, and had disposed of our precious food
to the longshoremen. 


I worked in the galley from time to time, and I defended the cook as
well as I could, stating positively and truthfully that never while I
had been there had any food except scraps been given to the
longshoremen. But I hadn't much of a case in the eyes of the already
self-convinced crew members, for they pointed out continually, "Yeah,
Professor, but you ain't there all the time. That bastard cook is smart
enough not to hand out any food when you're around." The second cook, an
Egyptian, also defended the chief cook against the charge of giving away
good food, but unfortunately the second cook was also absent from the
galley a good deal; he was off in the afternoon because he had to get up
particularly early in the morning to do the ship's baking, As the ship
moved up the West African coast, and as our food got less plentiful and
more restricted in variety, sentiment against the cook continued to
mount. The crew was always threatening as they ate in the fo'c'sle
messroom, to take a plate of "the black bastard's slop" to the galley
and throw it in his face. They never did, but protests against the
cooking were frequently made in the galley, and the cook was avoided by
the men when he appeared on deck after his work was over. Altogether, it
was an easy matter for the crew to transfer to our cook the racial
prejudice which had been started, or revived, by the longshoremen and
substitutes who had worked on the ship in West Africa. Later, when the
crew was agitating against the captain, I got the Spanish steward to
give me a list of the food which had been put on the Scapa Flow in New
York, and the weekly deductions Which had been made from the
refrigerators and storerooms all during the voyage. Although this was
done for the purpose of bolstering our case against the captain, the
list I got from the steward gave me proof that the withdrawals of food
during our three-week stay in our first West African port were not
greater than they should have been. I spread this information around the
crew, as evidence that the cook had not been guilty of giving away our
food to the longshoremen. The proof was accepted for use against the
captain readily enough, and ironically the cook was allowed to join us
in our protests, and later to join the near mutiny which resulted. But
the prejudice against him because of 

[ 122 ]

the color of his skin did not abate, and he never even remotely achieved
the equality with other crew members which had been his when the ship
left New York. The cook's work was considered bad for the rest of the
voyage. In the eyes of most of the crew he was a dirty nigger bastard.
Protests against his cooking were constant, both from the fo'c'sle
messroom and from the gunners' mess. The officers were not so touched by
the prejudice as the other men on board, but their protests, too, were
far more numerous than they had been at the beginning of the trip. Even
while the crew was staging the near mutiny over conditions on the Scapa
Flow, with lack of food the chief cause of the trouble, they simply
would not realize that no cook could overcome the difficulty of working
with insufficient food, and food which was often half-rotten through
age. The cook had a few friends and champions on the ship. The second
mate was one of these, which was unexpected. The messmen liked the cook,
and so did the bosun and I, and three or four of the other men up
forward. Toward the end of the three weeks at our first port we
contributed to a collection to buy him a present. The reason, of course,
was to give him a bit of a lift from the unrelieved pressure of
prejudice. The amount collected was a pound, and with this I bought a
pair of gaudy red embroidered slippers at one of the little native shops
ashore, which the chief cook could give to his sixteen-year-old daughter
when he got back to his home in Harlem. As I presented them to the cook,
I used as a reason for the gift the fiction that the crew appreciated
his cooking for them every day, and was sorry that he could not take it
easy like the rest of us by hiring someone ashore to do his work for
him. The cook looked down at the slippers in his hand. He didn't raise
his eyes or smile, but said simply: "Thanks, Professor. The kid'll go
for these." And then he hurried out of the galley to put the slippers
away in his cabin. The chief cook shared a cabin amidships with the
second cook. It was a lucky thing for the feelings of the Negro that he
didn't live in the fo'c'sle, where most of the crew lived with their
torpedo nerves. Had he lived forward, he would have been the victim of
even more abuse than he did receive, and at times feeling against him
was so high that had he been immediately 

[ 123 ]

at hand he might have suffered bodily injury, as did hundreds of Negro
workers in his wartime homeland.

According to the second cook, who survived the torpedoing, the chief
cook was taking a bit of air outside their cabin the afternoon of the
attack. The second cook said that the Negro went into the cabin for a
life jacket. The second cook's jacket hanging outside the galley, a bit
farther forward on the ship, and he went over the side as soon as he
could get it. He said he didn't see the chief cook again after he
disappeared through the door of their cabin. The Negro was seen later,
however. Apparently he searched in vain for his jacket in the cabin and
then ran aft down the sinking ship. Here he was seen by the gunners who
survived the sinking. As they went over the side (about half of them got
off all right) the chief cook asked them if they knew where a jacket
was. He had to have one, as he couldn't swim. Not one of the southern
boys said to the Negro, "Come on, let's jump over together. My jacket'll
hold us both up." By the surviving gunners' own admission, he was just
passed by. Nobody saw him after the Scapa Flow went down. 


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