The Last Cruise Of The YP-438


I took the ferry to Manhattan, admired the rather dashing manner in which the ferry captain handled his ship, and proceeded to 90 Church Street to report to the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier. I was sent to a commander, who motioned at me to sit. He had a copy of a letter he had written to the First Naval District, which he pushed at me.

“Thirty of these ships have come through New York,” he said, “and every one of them has come through in miserable condition. I have made a list of the most common problems, and before you tell me yours I’d like to know if any of them apply to you.”

I looked at the list. It was a long one, but only two of the items applied. We had spent so much time in the yard that we were better equipped than most ships of our class. The commander beamed when I explained that, but when I told him what had happened so far, he hit the ceiling.

“Goddammit, Captain, why do you sail with a ship in that condition? You’re the commanding officer, and it’s your responsibility to see that things are right.”

He apologized immediately and said, “I know you have little choice in the matter, but every damn one of these ships has been a waste of money. This time I’m really going to raise hell and see that you get fixed up.”

He left me waiting for a long time but returned with every requisition I had brought approved, including a complete breakdown and overhaul of the main engine. (Ordinarily one was doing well if 50 percent of requisitions were approved.) The commander had stuck out his neck for me, a stranger, and had won the fight, even down to a new anchor winch. The allotted time for overhaul was a generous three weeks.

I left feeling very happy and called my wife to say that we would be together for Christmas.

The YP-438 got the best cooperation from the Tompkinsville Section base, and the engine was broken down in short order. But the more they got done, the more they found that needed doing. The men worked very hard over the engine, especially Hansen, who by now seemed to be able to create something out of nothing. More than one workman came to me in wonder not only at the work he was doing, but also at how he had managed to keep the ship running in the first place. I had promoted him once and hoped to do so again as soon as he had his minimum time in. But that was not to be.

Hansen had been walking around redeyed with lack of sleep, and I told him to get some rest. He just said, “Yes, sir,” and went on working. Then one evening when every piece of the engine had been gone over with minute care and reassembled, and the hand-machined spare parts put in place, they tried to start it, and the damned thing would not work. It would have to be broken down all over again. Somebody laughed out of sheer discouragement, and Hansen went berserk. He yelled, screamed, and brandished a kitchen cleaver. The crew subdued him, and he was led off to a hospital in a straitjacket.

This willing and capable man had simply been driven mad by a crazy demon of an old diesel, and as is so often true, his downfall was hastened because he was too conscientious and worked too hard. Many a good man struggled over that engine and gave up. But had Hansen not been so fanatical, we would never have survived the storm on our shakedown cruise.

We got a new engineer named Zimmerman. He was older than Hansen, and competent, but he lacked the fervor needed to breathe life into that engine.

At this time the President announced that a million men would be overseas by the end of the month. I had a feeling we were not going to be among them, and my discouragement was increased on seeing men who had returned sporting African campaign ribbons. Not only had they gone to Africa and made a landing, but they had come back, and all the while we had been stuck to a dock.

I was learning more than I realized about how to get things done at a shipyard. In every yard there was always somebody whose only desire was to get the job done and to hell with red tape. Sometimes he was a civilian, sometimes an officer. The important thing was to find that guy. If you allowed yourself to be moved around for long enough by the paper shufflers, you would eventually meet the guy, the one who did the work. In Boston a civilian, in South Boston a chief, in New London, the CO of another ship, the commander in New York, a foreman in Tompkinsville.

Because of the added complications of the engine, we got another week’s availability, during which time we received our dock trials and regular trials. Then the sailing orders came by messenger.

JANUARY 16, 1943