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The Gray Ship

By Howard Fast

THIRD ENGINEER: When you come down to it, they all claim credit, and there's enough for all of them, isn't there? What the Marines done, that don't take credit from the Army, and the Army's victories, that don't come off from the Navy's share. We don't ask to forget what the Russians done because we went into France and Germany. But I ask you, where would any of them be, any of them, the Marines or the Russians or the French Underground, if it wasn't for the gray ships?

With work well done, the gray ship lay in the Indian sunshine and slept. Moored to the dockside with heavy hawsers, fore and aft, she was as immobile as part of the earth, the dock, the rusty, war-weary storage sheds. She had come half way around the world, her holds stuffed with the food and the teeth of war, her decks piled; she had threaded her way through the islands and atolls of the Pacific, crawled around the belly of Australia, crept lightless and soundless through the tropical night. She was sufficient to herself; when her engines broke down, she hove to and repaired them; when danger threatened she manned her guns and slewed them belligerently to the part of the horizon which menaced her. She had been a living, vibrating world, rusty and hard; now she was painted over from head to foot, and she lay in the sunshine and slept.

The purser was nervous; big, heavy, his usual smile gone, he stood by the rail, drummed his fingers on the hot metal, and wanted to be away. That nervousness had communicated itself to the whole crew; longing for port, talking port, dreaming it; when it came it was always less than it should have been, and when port time ran over schedule, they became restless and uneasy. And this they tried to cover over by pointing out that their pay went on, good pay in this, a danger zone.
"It stinks," the purser said. He meant it literally; in the basin, the garbage could not be thrown overside; it littered the aft deck, mixed indiscriminately with the dunnage. A ship in port, loading or unloading, isn't clean. Crows screamed and cawed and swooped over the garbage. Flies made a netting over it.
"A dead ship," the purser said. "She sleeps, she lays on her belly like a whore. I don't like a ship that way." He began to hum, "Don't fence me in — give me land." The chief came up and joined his music; the chief's eyes wandered from the burnished metal skies, to the ship to the crows. Of the crows, he asked, "What are they?" "Crows." "I don't like crows," the chief said. "I don't like crows by the hundreds. I like to hear them way off across the meadows at home, but not like this. What's new?"
The purser said he didn't know what was new, and anyway, what should be new? The chief thought that maybe he had some news on where they were going, but the purser only grunted. But inside, momentarily, he had a quick wide thought: fifteen thousand miles from stateside, the whole world was theirs, its waters washing motes of land, unimportant land, wretched, hot land; he had a sudden sense of freedom, and he pitied the Army guards, seeking shade under the rusty shed, he pitied the natives of the land who were like the trees, rooted to the land. "I want to hear the turbines," he said.
"You want to hear the turbines," the chief muttered. "The rottenest noisiest can I ever been on, and you want to hear it. You got bugs in your head."
"When the engines turn over, she's alive; now she's dead. A ship without power, she's dead."
"We ought to have a funeral service," the chief said; but the purser, pouring ample quantities of sweat, drummed with his fingers on the rail and wanted to be away.

The gray ship was a Victory. Which meant that whatever her given name, it would be followed by the word Victory, as, for instance, the Arkansas Victory or the Burnside Victory. It also meant that, in a very limited sense, she belonged to an aristocracy; she was meant to survive for the postwar period, providing that no torpedoes ripped out her guts, that no mines caved in her plates, that no shells or bombs smashed her superstructure into scrap; providing all that, she was a little less expendable than the bathtub hulls of the Liberties, a little more expendable than the C1's, the C2's and the C3's.
Her displacement was about ten thousand tons, her length something over four hundred feet. She had a forecastle deck, which gave her a graceful swoop up to the bow, and differentiated her immediately from the unbroken deck line of the Liberty. Amidships, she had a deck housing. Square, ugly, undifferentiated from the gray-painted metal of the rest of the ship, it climbed from the main deck in this fashion: boat deck, which housed the four lifeboats and gave the ship's officers a limited promenade; quarterdeck, bridge, topside and flagdeck. One fat stack poked out of the housing, and four kingposts surrounded it.
The gray ship was built for the belly of cargo she could carry, and every detail of her was a concession to cargo — no more. Five huge hatches opened to reveal that she was no more than a shell. The seven masts and kingposts swung booms to load and unload her, and her own forest of booms, cable, and rope made her capable of eating and then disgorging her own diet. Whatever comfort she held existed because cargo could not be disassociated from men, and her guns watched over that same cargo.
Her guns gave her a will of her own; expendable she was, but not defenseless. She had the power to strike, and to strike hard. Fore and aft were two gun tubs, raised platforms sheathed in half-inch steel plate. The forward gun was a seventy mm., quick, agile, able to swivel and snap like a swan's neck; aft, long, ugly, was five-incher, able to fight a surfaced sub on equal terms, able to fling its shell six thousand feet into the air. Amidships, in six smaller tubs, were the twenty mm. machine-guns, good for a curtain of lead when the dive bombers came in. She was not quarrelsome, the gray ship, but she could hit back if someone struck at her, and she could make her blow felt.
The guns were a Navy affair, and under the five-incher was the gunner's forecastle, where eighteen Navy men slept. Six more Navy men slept forward.
As the purser said, the life of the gray ship was in her engines, oil burning turbines which, when put to it, could turn over one hundred and five revolutions per minute and drive her at seventeen and a half knots. Turbines, boilers, fires and generators were housed amidships, heart and guts, the bull's eye for torpedoes, for shells and bombs.
Such was the gray ship, unlovely, stubby, confident, long of range, ready to go where the orders took her.

About two hours after the purser's impatience, the gray ship cast off, and from slumber she came alive. From the 'midship housing aft, she trembled and purred; her plates vibrated; her propeller washed the dirty water, and the basin water washed back. The master, his patience tried the limit, demanded the pilot. In all his years, he'd never known a pilot to be on time, never; but the first officer, easy now, said. "He's on board, sir." "Then, mister, where is he? Is he drinking his tea? Is he sitting on the head? Or is he blowing his nose over the rail?" But at that moment the pilot came up the companionway, natty in his white suit, white shorts, white socks and shoes.

Below, on the gray ship, those who slept felt the change, the slight movement, the vibration, the waking up and the coming alive, and they turned in their sleep, more easily than uneasily; in their sleep too they heard the hiss of the tugs, the chugging, the shouted orders, the second officer's repeat of the pilot's command, "wheel amidships — ," the blast of the whistle, the swirl of water, brown water which would presently become green water, and then blue water. The purser went back to his books, his nervousness gone. Two short whistles warned the change of watch, and the men coming off duty leaned on the rail and watched the harbor swing as they warped toward the canal. All over the basin, packed ships, merchantmen of all nations, patrol craft, destroyers, and menacing ships of war watched them. There was around the harbor the regrets men feel when they see another ship putting out to sea, the envy and the nostalgia. The gray ships, in time of war, have no proclaimed destination; somewhere, men wait for a ship; somewhere else a man knows where all ships are going and from whence they come: but he who sees the ship passing by knows only that it's outward bound.
The English pilot stood on the bridge and called his orders. London was in his voice, but he had been out here twenty-five years now. He went nowhere; for twenty-five years he had taken the ships in and out of the complex channel, released them from their brief, fretful imprisonment, and given them leeway for the ports of the world, San Francisco, Rio, New York, Antwerp, Saipan, Said, and then himself gone back; no ship liked his port, and sometimes it occurred to him, though he was not an imaginative man, that no ship liked any port. By now, he went through his movements mechanically; you could roll back the water of the river, and it would not make much difference to him; he knew every mud hummock, every bar and channel. Always ahead of him was the thought, somewhat unclear, like the muddied waters of the channel, that he would take ship one of these days and go home; but he stayed on and the gray ships came and went.
Some of the men on the ship wrote letters, because the restless wonder of open sea again had to be expressed, and they would say things like, "... my darling, we are going through the channel, and finally will be out to sea. So we should be home soon..." Or, "... it was so hot here that it is good to be away..." But it could have been too cold as well as too hot; the core of the matter, on the gray ships, was movement. Logistics, the military called it, and on the gray ships movement expressed their purpose and their reason. Indeed, there were a few men on the ship who never went ashore, in any port, as if the covenant to them was so dear that it couldn't be violated.

So the gray ship, which had slumbered, which had been dead to the purser, stinking dirty to the engineer, shirking to one, whore-like to another, came to life again and sailed out to the open sea. The gray ship was a stitch in a broad-woven pattern which had only slight variations in the whole of the warp and the woof. It was a part of the United States Merchant Marine in the greatest war mankind had ever fought. It sought little credit and found less. Though there was glory enough to go around, the gray ships did their job without glory; as their men wore no uniforms, so did they wear no medals.
They put out to sea again, and in a way that was its own reward. The brown water turned to green and the green water turned blue. The time-old phrase went the rounds of many lips, blue water, blue water, no bottom and a deep swell. The pilot shook hands all around, wished them good voyage, and climbed overside to his bobbing boat. On shore the blinker gave them clearance and wished them good voyage too. The captain, relaxed for the first time in many days, took his sharp turn on the quarterdeck, six paces port, six paces starboard, six paces port again. The messmen dumped the garbage overside, and the crows flew back to their own hot land. Full speed ahead came down to the engine room from the bridge, and given a lasting course finally, the helmsman fixed his eyes on the compass. Night fell and land dropped away, and in the brief, tropical twilight the gunners stood at general quarters. With darkness the ship blacked out and faded into the inky sea, and in the crew's mess three sweating AB's sat down for their evening of euchre.
And somewhere a man knew where the gray ship was bound, and somewhere men waited for her bulging hold of goods.