23 september 2020

USS Northampton

AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Dad joins the crew of the USS Northampton. Sept 1941.

As we go marching

And the band begins to play, 2, 3, 4

You can hear them shouting

The raggedy-ass Marines, are on parade

Once more

The motor launch pulled up alongside the gangway. I shouldered my seabag, and gingerly made my way up to the quarterdeck, where I saluted the Officer of the deck, and then faced aft to salute the colors. “Request permission to report aboard sir.” “Permission granted.” Replied the Officer of the deck. With this formality I became a member of ship's crew of the USS Northampton. She was moored bow to bow with the USS Salt Lake City, and it seemed to me that every eye from both vessels was upon me, waiting to see me blow the deal. I admit I had a problem wrestling my seabag up the gangway, but all in all it went pretty good. The Detachment Sergeant Major was there on deck to greet us and showed us below to the Marine Compartment which was to be home for the months to come.

Our detachment consisted of 47 men. Two officers, three staff NCOs, and 42 men ranked Sergeant and below. The 42 men shared quarters in the compartment, while the staff NCOs lived in the Chiefs Quarters, and the officers had quarters in the Wardroom. We live by a strict caste system, the lower in rank and seniority the worst the conditions. The compartment was an area of about 25 by 35 feet. In the area were bunks for 42 men, some tiered 3 high and others 4 high. There are also contained lockers for 42 men, a small area where we had a desk for writing, which also doubled as an ironing board, the Detachment Office, and a small recreation area which held the coffee pot, cups and a couple of chairs. Rifle racks were positioned in the starboard passageway just aft of our compartment, and the heads and showers were aft down the port passageway. We occupied the starboard area just aft of the Forecastle where the warrant officers lived. To our port was the Sick Bay where the medical department lived and worked. A rather tight knit society.

The Northampton was a Treaty Class Cruiser, displacing 10,000 tons, 650 feet long, about 60 foot in the beam. She mounted nine 8 inch rifles, eight 5 inch anti-aircraft guns, a number of 20 and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns, and carried 4 Curtis SOC, Scout Observation aircraft, which were launched from a black powder fired catapult. At the time I went aboard her crew was about 900 men. She was driven by four screws and at her best was capable of 33 knots.

As the junior man I was assigned the worst bunk. I was stuck into an alcove just wide enough for the four high-tier of bunks. Mine was the bottom bunk and to get into it I had to get on my knees and crawl in from the bottom or foot end, once there, I was as in a tomb. I had come from the cool third deck lanai of the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor, to this tortured, cramped chamber of horrors. The ventilation was inadequate. There was one blower forcing air into the quarters, and some enterprising Marine had taken mattress covers and cut and sewn them into long tubes of about 8 in diameter, and had worked a crazy maze of air ducts through the compartment to where air was distributed to even my far corner of the place. It wasn't much but it was something. From day one I prayed for the time when someone would be transferred off, so that I might move up, and hopefully out of the alcove and into the main compartment. The mess hall was on the same deck and located amidships. During non meal hours the tables and benches were slung up to the overhead on steel bales, and the place was used for the Ship's Exchange, Gedunk Stand (soda fountain,) and general below decks assembly area. It was here they would line up the entire crew for short arm inspections. I can still see Dr. Mahoney sitting on a bench with a flashlight in one hand and a sandwich in the other holding short arm drill. During meal hours, the tables and benches would come down and the steam table fired up and we would be piped to the mess hall by units. For the most part the food was good, very predictable, Wednesday and Saturday morning it was beans and cornbread for breakfast. In the months I spent aboard her I never saw a sunny-side egg. Scrambled, yes, boiled, yes, sunnyside up. Never.

Within a week we put to sea, and I had my first taste of life underway. On that outing we went to Maui and ran the degaussing range at Lahaina Roads. I was assigned a General quarters post three decks below in Central Station, or the plotting room. It was rough and noisy, and right in the center of it all was a huge compass which kept moving. It was not long before I was a sad sick Marine calling on the phone for relief, and relief came in the form of a bucket and mop for me to clean up my mess. The powers-that-be, were having their sport with me. I later found it was a standard form of hazing. I came up from there green. I swore I would never return. I didn't. I was assigned to one of the 5 inch anti-aircraft guns, I was an ammunition handler, but everyone said that with my size I would soon be in the premier job of first loader. (He who actually places the round into the tray to be rammed into the breach.) We did some practice firing on that trip, we fired at targets towed by aircraft, and its surface targets which were huge floating sleds towed by tugs. It was a ball. I was given an opportunity to try my hand as first loader, and found it was a lot harder than it looked. One took an 85-pound shell from the fuse pots, and swung it up shoulder high and gently placed it into the loading tray, then signal clear, by raising both hands so that the rammer could ram it into the breach. A good first loader could get off 20 rounds a minute if needed. I had more growing to do. Daily we spent an hour on the loading machine where I would load until I was ready to drop. Practice, and more practice. Our Marines manned 4 guns. Each crew stood watch together, trained together, bitched together, and when the opportunity presented itself, goofed off together. We were friends and shipmates.