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The Gray Ship's Crew

By Howard Fast

The following is the third of a series of sketches, "The Gray Ship," written by Mr. Fast on a voyage to India before V-J Day. The first two appeared in the preceding two issues of NM.

   The enduring part of the gray ships, the continuity of them, the thing that linked one with another through the long war years, was the crew. The ships were, first and foremost, expendable; when the torpedo hit, nothing was left except broken dunnage, and oil slick, and those of the crew who were fortunate enough to live. Sometimes it happened that a merchant ship took a heavy battering and came back to port, to be repaired and to sail again; but that was the rare thing, the exception; for the most part, one smashing blow and they died. And the crew rowed away, or sailed for a thousand miles in cockleshells, or clung to rafts, or choked on oil and died; but for the most part, some of the crew were left.

   On the articles, the Gray Victory carried fifty-eight men, and for the war times, they made a good cross-section of the men who sailed our merchant ships. They made a cross-section of the country too; they came from twenty-three states, the sea coast and the West Coast, the prairie states, the Midwest and the South; there were aging men who had sailed for thirty years, and there were youngsters out on their first trip. There were men from the factories, the farms, the schools, degrees from B.A. to Ph.D.; there were two citizens of England, a Finn and a Swede. The oldest man in the crew was sixty-three, the youngest was sixteen.
   On a merchant ship, the crew is divided, broadly, into three sections: the deck, the engine room and the steward's department. The deck includes twenty men, the four ship's officers--deck officers, to be exact--the purser, the chief radio man, the second radio man, and, on some ships, a third radio man. Next, there is the bosun, with a rank similar to that of chief petty officer in the Navy, or master sergeant in the Army. And any seaman will tell you just how important the bosun is; you can have a bad deck officer and a good trip, but if you have a bad bosun, there's hell to pay. The deck, which means all of the ship including the maindeck and up from it, is the bosun's responsibility. The hundreds of miles of rope and cable a merchant ship carries is his to look after, to check and repair. He must see that the ship's boats are in working order, that the life rafts are ready to drop at a moment's notice. Under his direction, the six ordinary seamen and deck maintenance men fight a constant battle against rust and decay; and when the fight becomes sharp, he can call in the six able seamen to join his forces.
   A ship begins to die the moment it is launched; sea water hates iron, and actually a ship lives its life in a pool of corrosion. Every storm leaves the ship rust-streaked, battered and bent. When the Gray Victory drove through four days of battering monsoon, it emerged with its gear smashed, two lifeboats put out of commission, a bent rail, and great areas from which the paint had been stripped as neatly as if by a blowtorch. Even in the middle of the storm, the bosun and his crew were on deck, repairing, battening down; and afterwards, they scraped rust, painted, scraped rust again.
   The ABs, or able seamen, work on the bridge, directly under the deck officers. Theirs is the physical act of steering the ship, braced against the wheel, their eyes on the gyro compass. Each shift at the wheel is an hour and twenty minutes of curious, blank concentration. The helmsman doesn't look at the sea, nor is it his concern where the ship is going; he is given a course, 160, 275, and he holds the point of the gyro on that course until a deck officer orders it changed. Whether in storm, or under attack, or in a fog-bound night, his job is to remove himself from the world, attach himself to the gyro, and forget all else. One of the strangest sights of Gray Victory was to see the helmsman at night, standing like a motionless shadow in the dark wheelhouse, his eyes fixed with almost fierce intensity on the luminous point of the gyro.
   Since in air or surface attack the wheelhouse is an important target, two other places are provided from which the ship may be steered; one is topside, the outside top of the midship housing, and the other is aft, close to the five-inch gun, the last resort if the midship housing is shot away. On topside too is the flagdeck, storeplace for the brightly-colored pennants with which ships talk at sea.
   As large as the deck crew--and, as they will point out to you, of equal or more importance--is the engine room. They drive the ship; they maintain the throbbing vibration which means life and power. They work under hellish conditions, and they have a casualty list which, they will point out with pride, is proportionately more than four times that of any other service.
   On the gray ships only the captain outranks the chief engineer, and the engine room officers hold equal rank with the deck officers. The articles on the Gray Victory called for a chief, four assistant officers, three junior officers, two cadets, three oilers, three firemen, three wipers. Two electricians complete the roster. They are divided into the same four-hour watches the deck takes, and the two watches, one above, one below, coordinate their work by telephone. On the Gray Victory, the power plant consisted of oil-fired boilers which transmitted their power to steam turbines--obviating the necessity of the grimed stokers who worked in prewar holds. Oilers, firemen and wipers had jobs modified a good deal from those original tasks which gave them their names. The firemen did not fire; the wipers did not wipe; the oilers did other things beside oil. If nothing went wrong, the huge, modern power plant of the Gray Victory almost operated by itself--men checked gauges, watched dials, opened valves, adjusted the fires, oiled parts, oiled the long, smoothly-rotating propeller shaft, checked the machines one by one, maintained the amazing cleanliness of the engine room, and watched over the engines the way a hen watches over her chicks.
   For all of that, the engine room on the Gray Victory was a hell, as is the engine room on every sea-going vessel. The noise of the turbines was deafening; conversation could be carried on only by placing your mouth an inch or two from the ear of the man you were addressing. In the tropics, the heat of the engine room passed a hundred and fifty degrees; in the North Atlantic the heat dropped to a hundred or a hundred and ten degrees. The whole atmosphere was tight with pressure and power; seven hundred and fifty degrees of super-heated steam fought against the containing influence of boilers and pipes. In the space between the boilers the heat was a tangible wall, and the menace of the steam that backed it was never lost. The engine crew understood fully what that steam could do. A wide break, a torpedo hitting the vessel amidships, meant instant death for everyone in the room; a mine striking fore or aft could part a seam or a pipe, cooking the engine room a second or two more slowly, but cooking the men in an agony of screaming torture.
   On any one of the gray ships, the engine room was the bull's eye of the target. On the hairline sights of a sub, it was always direct amidships; Stukas tried to drop their eggs into the engine room well, which rises up through the center of the deck housing; surface vessels made the same spot their target; even magnetic mines were so constructed that the probability would send them up amidships, and contrary to popular belief, a floating mine explodes more often amidships than at the bow. Even the protective explosions of depth charges can open a weld in the engine room, turning it into a steam-filled death-trap.
   Even in the worst enemy waters, in the worst times, in the Channel, in the North Sea, on the Murmansk run, seamen would not resign themselves to death; you stood a fighting chance; it would be the next ship, the next guy; you would hit back, maybe win; you had an escort cover; even in the water, you might be picked up before your feet froze--but with the engine room it was different. When the watch went down into the well, it was the end of hope for four hours; in those four hours, engineers, oilers, wipers, firemen accepted death. When they came out of the well, gray-faced, it was the resurrection and the life. Eight hours would go past before they had to die again--and there were waters where the engine room men died, not once or twice, but a hundred times.
   There were times when the death toll was so high that the War Shipping Administration advertised and pleaded for engineers, any kind, any age, but engineers. Seamen talk very slowly when they remember those bad times; the words come out with an effort, and they only come at all because these men, without glamor, feel a need that such things should be written down and remembered. They will recall times in the Channel when the depth charges came one every thirty seconds, and each time the ship shook to a depth bomb, it was a quick small death. They recall the Murmansk run, at a time when the dead ships outnumbered the dead men in our armed forces. An engineer spoke of coming off watch three minutes before the torpedo struck and the whole next watch was dead, and his guilt because instead of pity for the dead, he had only amazed wonder at his own existence. They spoke very quietly about how steam-burned men died; they told stories that are not good to repeat, there is so little glamor in an engine room.
   But a wiper, asked why he was in there at all, said only, "Somebody has to be in the engine room." That was about the sum of it. The hardest thing for a man to explain is why he willingly walks and works and sleeps with death.

   They feed better on the gray ships than in any other service; that's a widely confirmed opinion, and it's due to several factors: freezing and storage facilities, trade unionism, tradition, and the American industrial standard, to name only a few. Certainly, they feed better than on the ships of any other nation, and this is one service where crew and officers eat the same menu, the same food, out of the same pots and galleys.
   Food is the steward's department; along with that is the whole domestic life of the ship--bedding, linen, soap, laundry, etc.--which, as you can see, makes the steward far from the least important officer on board ship. Actually, much of the crew's comfort depends on the ability and nature of the steward. He orders the food, makes out the requisitions, supervises the kitchen, plans the menus, watches the ports for fresh fruit and vegetables, examines the quality of the meat and eggs, combines the jobs of buyer, hotel manager, chief cook, dietician and maintenance expert. He rules that mad world known as the galley, and according to his tact and diplomacy, either promotes peace and happiness, or lets the instability--that instability which every artist shares--of the culinary experts turn the ship into an asylum. Twelve men work under him in a Victory, perhaps one or two less in a Liberty--a chief cook, second cook, baker, galleyman, messman, and seven mess-utility men. They cook three meals a day, unnumbered gallons of coffee, and wash the resultant pots and dishes. They bake bread three times a week, wait on table, scrub floors and counters, produce cake, pies, puddings, make beds, launder, see that cold meat and cheese is always present for the night watches, and keep this squirrel-cage process going for the hundred or two hundred days the voyage takes.
   And usually, the food is good, astonishingly good. Here, for example, is one day's menu on a gray Victory. For breakfast, fruit or fruit juice, canned or fresh, depending on the stage of the voyage. Eggs, old or fresh; ham or bacon or corned-beef hash, hot-cakes or biscuits with honey or jam. Coffee or tea. For lunch, a choice of two meat entrees after a soup, three or four vegetables, pie or cake or pudding for dessert, and coffee. For dinner, again a choice of two meat entrees, no soup but still at least three vegetables, dessert and coffee. Coffee is made constantly, drunk constantly. Watches operate through the day's twenty-four hours and consume an endless stream of coffee.
   Men in the steward's department are hard workers; cooks and bakers are usually skilled men, very often middle-aged professionals of long standing who wanted to do something for the war and found this more satisfying than a stateside job. Whatever the messmen were before the war, they make a good cross-section now--college men, boys and old gaffers; they serve with surprising good nature and remarkable patience. They appreciate that good hot food is not the least of morale builders.

   The chief difference between the crew of any gray ship, between the merchant marine as a whole and the men of other services, is the difference between a military and civilian service. The men on the gray ships are civilian workers, very essential workers, closer to the war than any other workers--but still civilians. That is both a pride and a challenge to them. They know that they operate with less than a third of the crew of any similar service ship, and they are proud of the fact; but years of working in close conjunction with the few dozen naval armed guards who manned their guns gave them a sound respect and a close companionship with the Navy. Whatever hostility there was in the beginning soon went. However, the challenge remained, and that challenge together with the union is mainly responsible for the splendid discipline aboard the gray ships.
   Orders are given quietly and obeyed immediately; there are very few cases of insubordination. Officers work with the men; they lend a hand. If you were to watch a deck gang rigging booms, you would be hard put to locate the bosun among the others. The men know their jobs; they work well, or it counts against them. They study for upgrading and promotion. There is no job on shipboard that is without some special dignity; there is no menial work, no servants in the sense you have servants aboard a passenger vessel.
   The men are fanatically loyal to their union. Our merchant marine has the highest standards in the world, the cleanest ships, the best, the best food, the most developed crews; that isn't a jingo statement. The ships of other nations are a constant object lesson to our seamen, and the difference is constantly "the union." Old sailors recall how it was before the maritime unions won their struggles, the broken, homeless men who made up such a large part of the crews, the sickness, the slop which went as food, the fights aboard ship, the pathetic "toughness" which gave rise to a whole literature of the sea. Then decency aboard ship was rare; today the shipboard roughneck is an isolated exception.
   Union schools upgrade along with government schools. The National Maritime Union has the finest wartime no-strike record of any body of organized labor. Union casualty lists run into the many thousands. The real hatred of fascism and Nazism which helped our seamen to take their ships anywhere came in a large measure from their union training. The good food, the better working conditions, the relationship between officers and men is also very much due to the maritime trade union struggle.
   In the days when Westbrook Pegler led the vicious campaign of lies and false accusations against our merchant service, the legend was fostered that all merchant seamen were draft-dodgers and received fantastic pay. Actually, the government has seen to it that none are draft-dodgers; many of them are well past middle age or 4Fs with no obligation except a moral one to service, and the pay averages out to about thirty-five dollars a week, certainly less than that of any other civilian war workers. As with any other service, there is no yardstick for the men on the gray ships; generalizations don't fit them, nor do they fit the generalizations. On the Gray Victory, the wiper who thought that someone had to be down in the engine room was a small, chubby Jewish boy from St. Louis, and Chips, the carpenter, past sixty, was a former tournament bridge player. A messman went to sea at fifty-two because he couldn't sit back any more, and the first officer, who limped from a piece of shrapnel in his kneecap, was a serious ship career man. An AB had sailed ships since he was a boy; he loved the sea, as so few sailors do. Most of the crew of the Gray Victory were in their jobs for the war; but the sea is something that calls you back, and a personal love or hatred means little.
   Yet the sea does certain things to all men; you can't sail the ocean, month in, month out, without absorbing something from the immensity. Whatever their background, seamen tend to develop a curious, rich turn of phrase; they are well read, better read perhaps than any other industrial group of men. On the Gray Victory at least a dozen men had a warm, constant interest in art. An oiler sketched; a wiper ground his color out of pastel, mixed it with eggwhite, made brushes and painted the ship. Seamen still make bits of jewelry, shaping the metal slowly and patiently. The steward hammered rings out of silver cons, so that the engraving was on the inner surface; an AB who dreamed of owning a yacht some day, carved beautiful and careful ship models. The bosun loved Huxley and James Cain, and had them both in his private library.

   As the war becomes a thing of the past and yet the still more distant past, it will be more and more difficult to recall the roll of the gray ships. All too few reporters sailed on their long, seemingly endless journeys. Their creeping, six-knot convoys made travel an eternity for which news could not wait; news flew overhead on the quick wings of a new air age, and with the development of science, it may be that soon the gray ships will sail no more.
   But it should be recalled that there was a time, not so long ago, when their bulging holds were all of the thin thread which kept civilization from perishing. There were brave men in plenty who loved freedom, but only the gray ships could bring them the tools of war--otherwise the fascist and the Nazi would have triumphed.