Farthest Forward

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Our bases were miserable collections of huts and tents where the base force lived in conditions worse than the boat crews.

Life aboard a PT boat was surprisingly comfortable. I had better qualify that. I never saw a fat man on a PT crew. If you were in your early twenties and not bothered by heat and humidity, were agile and flexible so that bending, twisting, and climbing when you went from one place to another did not tire you, and could thrive on food so monotonous it would depress a cow, then you would find this life quite tolerable.

 

The crew lived in the bow section of the boat, the fo’c’s’le, as in the old sailing vessels, with eight double-decker racks and a table in the middle; two or three more crewmen bunked in a little cabin over the gas tanks. Aft of the crew quarters was a compartment that housed the exec’s room and the galley, which had an oven, electric stove, sink, and refrigerator. Of these, the refrigerator was the most important, because it provided ice cream. Our menu featured canned stew, canned string beans, and powdered eggs. A commonplace item like ice cream therefore became king, queen, the whole royal family of our cuisine, so much so that some boats installed armor plate behind their refrigerators, making it the only protected equipment on the boat.

Aft of the galley were the fresh-water tank, the ladder to the chart house and cockpit, and, on the starboard side, a tiny officers’ wardroom with a table and a bench for two that I used for meals, letter writing, reading, censoring crew’s mail, and nattering with senior crew members and sometimes visiting boat captains. How about my executive officer? To be honest, after my first exec was transferred to another squadron and was soon thereafter killed in action, and then his replacement was killed in action on the 105, I never got close to a succession of replacements who wished they were someplace else—except for Phinn Percy and John Iles. The latter were entertaining fellows who laughed at my jokes and did not mind that the 105 seemed to find trouble more often than other boats.

 
Life on a PT boat was surprisingly comfortable if you were young and flexible and liked food that would bore a cow.

Aft of the wardroom were the ammo storage and my cabin, which for a junior officer was sumptuous. I had a big bunk on which I could stretch out my six-foot-three frame, a small desk that I never used because there wasn’t enough knee room, a small bureau, and a closet. Behind the after bulkhead were three tanks holding the three thousand gallons of aviation gasoline, and aft of the tanks resided the great Packard engines.

 
 

The humid heat of the Solomon Islands was so relentless that most nights in harbor we could not sleep below. Nights on patrol, usually every other night, the watches were two on and two off. On my off watch I slept sitting up against the day-room bulkhead behind the cockpit, but I seldom got the full two hours, either because something happened or because Mechin, my quartermaster, who stood the other watch, thought something was going to happen and nudged me awake to have a look. On nights off patrol I looked forward to a good long sack time. I slept under the stars on a roll-up pallet next to the port forward torpedo tube, a life jacket for my pillow, and when the rain came, as it usually did, I slid down the forward hatch and into my bunk without really waking. Most of the time we were stationed so far forward that there were no shower facilities. I stopped in the Russell Islands one day on the way to a rear base after a month at our most advanced and primitive base in Rendova. I was standing upwind of the duty officer, so he quickly invited me to use the shower attached to the abandoned plantation house. The water supply came from a wooden tank that collected rainwater from the roof. I stood under a shower head as big as a pie plate and pulled a string, and cool, fresh water cascaded down on me, and it was glorious. That after more than half a century a shower remains a memorable event may give you some feeling for the conditions in which we lived.

The islands had an abundance of unpleasant diseases like malaria, dengue, dysentery, and elephantiasis. We also contended with cockroaches and rats. For a short while just before I was succeeded as boat captain by John Iles, I dealt with the cockroach problem by trying to adopt one as a pet. I was succeeding quite well. The little fellow would come out when I had dinner in the wardroom and wiggle its antennae at me. However, when I tried to explain to John lies that I had made an incipient friend, he misunderstood and thought I had gone Asiatic—around the bend. This was very embarrassing because I had indeed gone somewhat around the bend.