SS Scapa Flow

Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 4


It is well known that seamen often commit violent excesses while in port
after a long voyage. Even in time of peace, seamen are apt to try to
make up in this way for all the drinking and cavorting they have been
forced to forgo during their time at sea. As might be expected, a voyage
in wartime, with its greatly magnified nerve stresses, will usually
cause a seaman to behave even more extravagantly when he reaches port
than he would in time of peace.

The behavior of many of the Scapa Flow's crew in their first West
African port is as good evidence as their behavior at sea of the strains
imposed upon the nervous system by the long and dangerous sea voyage.
Except for a few days, the Scapa Flow traveled the last leg of this
voyage--the South Atlantic--in complete solitude. We left the island of
Trinidad in a convoy which numbered fifteen ships. Knowing that German
submarines concentrated around the island, the British gave the fifteen
ships as much protection as could be spared until they got a few hundred
miles out. Despite the fact that many of the fifteen ships were American
vessels, the United States Navy could provide no protection at all.

At Trinidad, all the overworked British Navy could spare for our convoy
were two little escort vessels. They were converted fishing boats which
could not even make the potential speed of a couple of Norwegian and
Dutch ships in our convoy. Nevertheless, these little escort boats had
listening devices and depth charges, and they safely took us a few days
out into the Atlantic. Then the escorts turned back to get another
convoy, and the

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fifteen ships in our bunch scattered, each to try to make the dash to
West Africa on its own. Some of these ships were brand-new Liberty ships
on their maiden voyages. These sea-cows, slow (eleven knots) and
unwieldly, each had approximately sixty men aboard, plus a war cargo
worth millions of dollars--or hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, to
our forces overseas. Each craft was supplied with a four-inch naval gun
and a gun crew composed of a dozen or so Navy boys, as were the other
American-owned ships in the convoy, There probably is no attack in
wartime so safe for the attackers as the torpedoing of a lone merchant
vessel by a U-boat. The submarine simply gets up close to the freighter
or tanker and lets go a couple of torpedoes. The sub can maneuver and
sight at leisure. There is nothing the merchant vessel can do to protect
themselves except use their speed and maneuverability, and the Liberty
ships, not to mention old rust-buckets like the Scapa Flow, possess
little of either. Even if one of the periscopes of the submarine is
seen, which happens rarely, there is little that the gun crew can do,
for the submarine is under the water. Small wonder that our naval armed
guards are ironically dubbed the "Ready, Aim, Abandon Ship" department
by other men in the Navy. The word "die" might, just as well be added to
this title. The Scapa Flow got across the South Atlantic all right--on
the outgoing part of the voyage, that is. Our ship was on the West
African coast for a couple of months, long enough for us to learn the
probable fate of the other ships which had set out from Trinidad with
us. It seemed that eleven out of the original fifteen ships, each
traveling alone, were caught and sunk by the Germans. Probably the most
erroneous, face-saving theory which has yet been put over on the American
people is that our country is so powerful that it can replace lost
ships and cargoes. No country at war can do that. A ship has an absolute
value in wartime, not a relative one. In time of peace, many vessels are
not in use, and many cargoes might better be left at home than dumped
abroad. During peacetime the loss of a ship and cargo can really be made
good. Often it actually helps rather than damages business, for such is
the nature of business. But during wartime every ship and cargo are
needed. If a ship and its cargo go down, they cannot 

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be replaced by a new ship and a new cargo, for the old ship and cargo
were needed as much as the new. Until victory we never can have enough.
When even such an old rustpot as the Scapa Flow goes down it cannot be
replaced. The war merchant fleet of the country is reduced by
one--permanently. After more than two weeks of lonely, nerve-racked
plodding across the South Atlantic, the Scapa Flow made landfall on the
Gold Coast. During the crossing, we had often seen bits of wreckage,
life jackets, abandoned life rafts and lifeboats--although it was a
relatively little-traveled part of the Atlantic. We always looked
carefully over the life rafts and lifeboats, but we never saw any sign
of life. It sobered us and half-silenced us when we saw such evidence of
a torpedoing, and instinctively men would stroll near the rails for a
time, scanning the horizon, as if feeling that the U-boat which had been
responsible for the torpedoing might still be around. We knew, of
course, that the lifeboats or life rafts might have been floating many
months, and that there was hardly more chance of a U-boat being around
here than somewhere else, but still we looked. Afterwards, there was
idle speculation as to what had happened to the men who once had been in
those lifeboats or on those rafts. It was silly to speculate, and we all
knew it, but it seemed better, after the shock of seeing the evidence of
the torpedoing had passed, to talk about it a little than to keep it
inside. Very likely, the men had died and been thrown over the side, one
by one, with the last man stepping overside to go for the well-known
glass of beer, or soda pop, at the corner. But there may never have been
any men on the rafts or in the lifeboats. These often float free from a
ship as it sinks, particularly the rafts, even if the men don't get
off-an unhappy thought. A pleasanter thought was that some rafts and
lifeboats are abandoned by survivors, who crowd into one or two craft to
make for more efficiency. The men might have been picked up by a passing
ship, although in such a case the rules were that the lifeboat or raft
should be picked up too, or sunk. It was rare, however, that freighters
or tankers went to the bother of doing anything about the life rafts or
lifeboats after the rescued crew was aboard. Some of them were hard to
sink, and the Navy gun crews weren't very accurate. The lieutenant of
gunners aboard the Scapa Flow never offered to try to sink any we saw, 

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and for a very good reason. He and his men had already been humiliated
publicly before the officers and crew of the Scapa Flow, when the
four-incher was tested on the crossing; a target was flung overboard and
the naval gunners hadn't been able to hit it at practically point-blank
range, The drifting lifeboats and rafts were a menace, if only a slight
one, to navigation, and that in itself was enough reason to sink them.
In addition, they wasted the time of ships investigating them for
possible survivors. It was thought, too, that the Germans might plant
dummy figures in some of the lifeboats or rafts and then wait to torpedo
a ship which stopped to pick up survivors. I have not yet heard from an
eyewitness that this has been done, just as I have never yet heard an
eyewitness story of men in a U-boat machine-gunning the helpless,
unbelligerent crew of a torpedoed ship. On the contrary, humanitarian
acts by German U-boat captains, sometimes involving considerable
trouble, and often risk to the U-boat, are well-known among seamen,
authenticated for me not only by my own experience but by the
experiences of hundreds of torpedoed seamen with whom I have talked. The
sight of lifeboats and rafts had another effect upon the men on the
Scapa Flow, a curious one. These mute objects, giving their dumb show of
past distress, were used by our men as a means of keeping time. We did
not know how long our crossing would take us, for we changed course
often and our route was by no means as direct as it could have been. The
drifting rafts and boats and wreckage were from ships which hadn't made
it, and our men took heart, some time after each drifting object was
seen, in saying, "Well, we're getting closer to shore. We're still
afloat; we got further than they did anyway." They seldom admitted
that the sunken ship, from which this lifeboat or raft or wreckage had
come, might have been going in the opposite direction and therefore been
a great deal closer to home than we would be for many months. Our first
physical evidence that there actually was a West African coast came
after we had been out of Trinidad for more than a fortnight. A
Hurricane fighter plane appeared, flashing in the sun, its Rolls motor
purring beautifully. The plane came directly at our ship, flying so low
that several of the men ducked 

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as it passed over the masts. The plane was immediately identified as a
Hurricane, and the fact that it was a fighter, with a short range, was
good evidence that we were close to the other side. The plane's flier
must have been feeling happy, for, once he was assured that the ship was
from an. ally, he stunted for five minutes or so, doing steep banks, and
several mock dives at us. A majority of the men on the Scapa Flow were
soon on deck,  watching the plane and waving happily to its pilot. Then
he raced off, doubtless reaching land in a few minutes, while it would
take us most of a day to cover the same distance. When we reached our
port on the Gold Coast, there was space at the dock for our ship. This
made unnecessary an anchorage in the harbor, which would have been
excruciating to the men, all of whom were agonizing for shore leave.
Many of the men on board had not been ashore, any place, since the ship
left New York. When it became evident that we were going to dock right
away, a delegation went to call upon the first mate to find out how soon
we could expect shore leave. To our considerable surprise and great glee
we found that, except for skeleton watches in the engine and firing
rooms, we were to be allowed ashore immediately after we docked, for two
full days. Money was issued to us. In our happy preparations to go
ashore, there was little disposition to wonder why we were being graced
with so generous and prompt a shore leave. Later, when the mood of the
men was different, there was considerable speculation. Most of them then
agreed that we had all been allowed ashore--except a few men below who
couldn't see what was happening on deck, to give the captain and first
mate an opportunity to dispose of the private goods they had brought
from the States for resale at a staggering duty-free profit.

Although those of us who were strangers to Africa had not exactly
expected to see wild animals patrolling the shoreline, we all were
surprised at the urban aspects of our first port of discharge. The dock
area looked similar to that of an American or English port, except for
its smaller size. This urban vista was cause for elation, for it was
presumed, in spite of the testimony of the few on board who had been
here before, that the civilized aspects of the dock were an assurance of
conventional amusement areas near-by. A majority of the men got out
their best clothes, 


and there was an excited borrowing of one another's shaving equipment,
pomade, talc, and prophylactic devices. The first mate came into the
fo'c'sle while the dressing was proceeding and brought the unwelcome
news that eighty per cent of the natives ashore had or had had at least
one venereal disease. He said he had a good supply of prophylactic tubes
which he would issue free to those who wanted them. He also said that
those who came down with venereal diseases and had to miss work would be
docked pay for the time lost, that such sickness was not considered
legitimate. It was a fair warning, and the men treated it as such. After
the Scapa Flow was moored, the men were free to go ashore immediately.
They came out on the main deck, rigged out in their best, and when the
gangway was lowered you would have thought they would have stormed
ashore, released at last after two full months of imprisonment coupled
with danger. There was no such rush. The men lined the rail, looking at
a near-by town which was visible over the dock, and talking quietly
--happily, but quietly, Some drifted back to the fo'c'sle, saying that
they had forgotten various articles, but they took their time about
getting back on deck again. Perhaps this reaction was caused by a
subconscious urge to relish the long-absent sensation of free will. We
had been hungry for safety and shore for a long time, and had been
unable to get it. Now these were ours for the taking or leaving. It was
satisfying to savor the possibility of choice for a while without
actually asserting it, just as a man who has been hungry for food
sometimes delays eating for a bit when a meal is finally before him.

Eventually there was a movement toward the gangway and it swept with it
all the men who were free to go ashore. An insistent cue formed at the
narrow gangway, and those in the rear of the cue called impatiently for
those ahead to hurry up, and most of the men actually ran down the
gangway, whooping for joy. 


Immediately the crew members of the Scapa Flow got ashore in West
Africa, a majority of them made for the bars. Inevitably liquor was
sold, at fantastic prices, by the Syrians. After the 


men got tired of paying five or six dollars for a half pint of whisky,
they would branch out into the native liquors, which were cheaper but
much more dangerous. By the first night, fully half the men were very
drunk and being entertained in Negro whorehouses. All but a couple
recovered enough to come back to the ship the next day for some food and
more money before again going back into town. But from the moment
Alabama went ashore until six days later, when the English and Latvian
A.B.s and I went to get him, he was not seen on the ship. Although none
of the three of us had any particular liking for Alabama, we thought he
should be brought back to the ship. A system of fines, based upon the
principle of arithmetic progression, was being imposed upon him by the
captain, and if Alabama stayed ashore too long he might find himself
losing more money than he would make on the entire voyage. The first two
days he was ashore he was not fined, as all of us had had the privilege
of two days' shore leave. But for the third day ashore he was fined two
days' wages; his fourth day cost him four days; his fifth, eight days,
and his sixth, sixteen days. Alabama had no real friends on shipboard,
and there was little desire to save him from more fines for his own
sake. But he had just been married a few months, and had assigned part
of his wages to his wife in the States, and some of us felt that just a
little trouble on our parts might safeguard this source of money for
her. Alabama was not really needed on the Scapa Flow, as the practice of
hiring natives to do substitution work had already been inaugurated; but
it was a rule of the ship that we had to turn up once a day just in case
there was some special work for us to do, and Alabama was taking these
whopping fines needlessly. The three of us who went to look for him
found him in a native village about twelve miles from the ship. We
brought him back. Our worry about Alabama's fines was needless, after
all, for they were entered only in the captain's logbook, and this went
down with the Scapa Flow. Alabama's carousing was the most extravagant
of any of the men's but at least half of the Scapa Flow's men--including
the naval gunners--cavorted, in my opinion, far more violently in this
West African port than they would have in time of peace. 

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The Portuguese, who were so penurious that they wouldn't buy work shoes
from the slop chest but worked in homemade wooden sandals, got drunk on
occasion, and after we left the first port one of them told me
contritely that he had spent three pounds (twelve dollars) there. Three
pounds in three weeks: he thought this was frightful. The Egyptians were
not so close with their money as the Portuguese, but they were by no
means freehanded. And yet these men, too, spent far more than they had
wanted to spend in the first port. Our Egyptians made friends instantly
with the Syrians ashore, as all spoke a common language, and though for
this reason the Egyptians got better prices than the rest of our crew
members did, they seemed depressed at the money that they had allowed to
slip away from them. I am sure that the amount of liquor consumed by the
crew in the first port was at least twice as much as they would have
drunk in peacetime, Although it seems quite obvious that the
extravagance of their behavior was due mostly to a reaction from two
months of nerve strain on the voyage from New York, there was another
contributing factor. The reaction from this nerve strain was by no
means all subconscious; the men talked about it a great deal, and the
standard excuse for buying just one more drink was: "After all, we've
been in hell. We've had a tough time." 


Carousing in the prosaic sense, drinking and whoring, was by no means
the only evidence that the men were suffering a violent reaction to our
voyage from New York. The impulse to carouse was very high, but so also
were the impulses to fight and argue. Sometimes all three impulses were
evidenced at the same time, and it was then that the Scapa Flow's crew
got into their worst scrapes. The worst of all, which resulted in the
smashing of a Syrian's store and bar, and the arrest of two of our men,
was the result of a political argument with some British merchant
seamen. There were a number of British merchant vessels in the port
during the time the Scapa Flow was there, and we often would 

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run across crew members from these British ships while we were in the
native towns. Friendships of an ephemeral sort were struck up with these
Limey seamen for the purpose of exchanging drinks, stories and views. On
the occasion of the trouble at the Syrian's shop, three or four British
seamen were seated at tables near the bar, together with half a dozen
members of the Scapa Flow's crew. The British seamen were having a
boisterous time with the native waiters, ordering them about with an
abandon and a selfconscious contempt which made it obvious that they had
rarely, if ever, before been in a position to order anyone about. The
Limeys were having a great time making fun of the natives by using the
prevalent jargon of the West African coast, which is often used for
communication between natives and whites. Thus, instead of merely
ordering a drink brought to them, the Limeys would tell the native
waiter to go and get a drink, and come back with it "one time." In other
words, in a hurry. When the waiter brought the drink, just before he put
it down on the table, the Limeys would chorus "lefit! .... Lefit" was
used by a white to tell a native to stop whatever he was doing, and if
he was carrying anything, to put it down. The waiter obviously had no
intention of doing anything else, but inevitably before he could get the
drink placed on-the table the British seamen would say "lefit" over and
over again. The English and Latvian A.B.s from the Scapa Flow, who were
seated near-by, grew increasingly irritated at this. The drinks they had
had probably loosened their tongues and made them a little careless, in
what they said. The two A.B.s began to pass comments to the effect that
the men in the British Merchant Navy had finally found somebody who made
less dough than they did, and who had to work even harder for this
smaller amount of money. One of the Limeys began to overhear, and to
resent. "What's the matter, chum?" he began, friendly enough, but then
he went on with: "If you don't like our company, you can drink with the
other officers at the pub down the road a bit." "Don't think I couldn't
afford it," said the Scapa Flow's Englishman. "I can buy drink for drink
with any of your officers since I had sense enough to get out of the
Merchant Navy." 

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This brought all the Limeys into it. Not belligerently, but definitely
on the testy side, they implied that our man was a deserter for getting
onto an American-owned ship, that he was a profiteer, that he couldn't
take the hard work of a British merchant vessel. Our man, in turn and
in the same mood, declared that British seamen were hardly better than
slaves, that they let themselves be kicked around without standing up
for their rights, that they were underpaid, overworked, and lived like
dogs on their ships. "That's in the old days, chum," said one of the
Limeys, tractably. "We're getting our bonus now, you know. Making our
eighteen quid a month." This was only seventy-two dollars a month, and
our English A.B. was making two and a half times as much on the Scapa
Flow, for doing the same work. "I've been bumped three times already in
this war," said one of the Limeys, somewhat irrelevantly. "How many
times," he asked our Englishman, "have you been bumped ?" Our man had
to confess that he had been sailing all during the war and hadn't yet
been torpedoed. This wasn't anything to be ashamed of, but all hands in
the argument seemed to feel that the Limey had made a point, Our
Englishman now went into the question of what had happened to the
British merchant seamen which had caused them to remain so poor,
hard-worked and ill-fed, all the years between the wars, while the
American seamen had been going ahead and winning some decencies for
themselves. The Limeys thought the reason was that the American
shipowners were softer. Our man countered with a recitation of some of
the beatings and shootings which hired thugs of the shipowners in the 
States had administered on occasion to striking seamen. He said that
the English seamen had lost out because they had never freed themselves
of the "emergency" measures taken during the last war. At that time
seamen had given up certain rights, supposedly for the duration, which
had never been returned during the two decades of relative peace which
followed the last world war. The British unions, during the last war,
had accepted joint shipowner control of the hiring halls and had also
accepted a Continuous Discharge Book. This book gives the chronological
record of every voyage made by a British seaman, and often gets 


a militant unionist put on a blacklist, for his record may show many
short trips utilized for urging union militancy among his shipmates. So
far the American seamen have resisted the acceptance of the American
counterpart of this book, called the Copeland Book in the United States,
although the Maritime Commission, largely through the influence of the
shipowners in it, has not yet given up trying to force the American
unions to accept a Continuous Discharge Book. Our man went on to tell
the Limeys that the American shipowners were getting lots of valuable
tips on holding seamen in check from the British shipowners. Now that
the Maritime Commission was laying down policy for both shipowners
and, so far as it was possible, for seamen, it meant that government,
capital and labor were under the same roof. In Britain, this had crushed
the usefulness of the British seamen's unions, to the seamen at least.
In the States, unless the unions were ever vigilant, the same trick
would crush the unions. The Limeys wanted to know how our A.B. could
expect them to be concerned about the problems of American unions when
seamen of these unions were already getting more than twice the wages of
seamen on British ships. Our man answered that, unless the British
unions did something to strengthen themselves, American conditions would
topple after the war, and, in the cut in American wages, the seamen of
other nations would lose their best propaganda example and eventually be
even worse off than they were now. "Suppose you let us take care of the
British Merchant Navy, now that you're sailing an American-owned ship,"
one Limey advised our A.B. "But what happens to you is as much my
business as it is yours," said our A.B. "All seamen get ahead or go back
together in the long run." The Limeys didn't see it that way. They
thought the temporary prominence of the American Merchant Marine would
fade again after this war, just as it had after the last war, and that
most of the world's cargoes would continue to travel British during
peacetime. Our A.B. contested this, pointing out that the Americans
would soon have by far the biggest merchant fleet in the world, and that
the crisis in American business which would 

[ 135 ]

follow after the war would mean that businessmen would continue to keep
our ships in service as long as possible; they would try to sell to
foreigners the products made in America which Americans wouldn't have
the money to buy. Shipowners were so influential in government agencies
such as the Maritime Commission that, for the most part, American goods
would be shipped in American vessels in order to ensure the continuous
flow of profits to the pockets of the shipowners.

The argument rapidly became more acrimonious, but although voices were
raised high, fists were not. Here the Syrian storekeeper, who also
tended bar, tried to get the arguing men to be quieter. He was told to
shut up. He tried to get the seamen to leave, but before the store was
left it was pretty well smashed, and six or seven men were arrested. 


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