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Said and Done

Said & Done: Water water everywhere, but how do you supply a naval vessel with some to drink?

A letter has come here from a Boston correspondent who reports he found a recent Recorder Thanksgiving issue especially good reading.

He noted that he, like so many county veterans, celebrated more than one Thanksgiving away from home during military duty days.

He wondered then, and still wonders, how “they managed to get the turkeys to the boys.”

I have puzzled over this — and thought I was alone in my puzzling. How did logistical supply find us all, out miles and miles from anywhere, to get enough turkeys to our cooks so that, whether at sea or in some remote island harbor, we had the traditional meal so far from home.

Four times this happened in my own experience. Twice our crew had been on “C” rations, boxed and preserved, nothing fresh for many weeks. When Thanksgiving and Christmas showed on the calendar, turkeys were on the menu.

All this has triggered other thoughts, some dormant and nearly gone in this passage of the years.

In all of the war literature that was generated after Pearl Harbor, not one line I have ever read made anything of the problem of keeping hundreds of thousands of shipboard sailors supplied with fresh water.

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”

Seas are wells that never run dry, but they offer not a drop to drink. Converting salt water to drinkable water required engineering feats that went well beyond the relatively simple job of disseminating a few tons of frozen turkeys to ships scattered over oceans.

Sailors who sailed on ships that had the condensing and distilling machinery to make salt-free water simply took it for granted.

Our boat did not make its own water. Sub-chasers had no machinery for converting sea water to fresh water. We were entirely dependent on craft that had that capacity.

After several weeks at sea, we were always anxious to refill our fresh water tanks. This was priority A-number one upon returning to harbor. A new supply, especially while we were in the process of taking it on, meant we could run the showers to our heart’s content. Once our tanks were filled, we rationed water, and had to be very careful of it.

Those of us who stuck to the rules of hygiene bathed daily in salt water, rinsing with our quart of fresh water. We stood naked on the “fantail,” pouring buckets of ocean water over each other, using salt-water soap to rid us of sweat and dirt. Without the meager allotment of fresh water to finish the job, it wasn’t worth it. Sticky salt water never seemed to dry, leaving you clammy and uncomfortable — worse than being dirty.

One one occasion, our boat was riding quietly in the roadstead of Guam’s harbor, waiting its turn to draw alongside a barge that made and supplied fresh water.

We were all “topside,” enjoying the relief from being bounced by the bounding main. It was sunny and warm. I suppose we were careless. Our watch had been lulled by the absence of normal underway pressures, didn’t have his eyes open.

We were shaken out of this somnambulent state by the piercing blast of a diesel whistle, looked up to see ourselves dwarfed under the bow of a huge Navy tanker that stood practically above us.

I can see their watch laughing at us yet. We hot-footed out of there post-haste.

I should be embarrassed to relate how once under watering conditions I took the short step from my ship to a water barge, and plummeted straight down into the briny deep between us.

I had taken my shower, donned a fresh uniform and gone up to witness the last of the water transfer operation. As I attempted the step from one vessel to the other, a wave from a passing ship parted us. I had a choice: jump and risk a serious injury, or fall and get fished out. I chose the drop into the water. There was no laughing at me when I was fished out and I never heard a word of it later.

Accidents, ships colliding and men overboard were not common, even though most ships were manned by landlubbers-turned-sailors during that period when naval reservists far outnumbered “regulars.”

One hates to break the hero mold, but the fact is that for every true story of courage and bravery under fire during that long war period, countless yarns could be spun to show that miracles did happen when they were needed under prosaic and dangerous times.

Once, for example, a sailor on a troop ship in convoy was relieving himself at the stern of his ship, a common practice since the “head” was miles away in his ship’s innards, when somehow he fell off the deck.

The word went out immediately, the convoy slowed to a crawl, the sailor was picked up by the first ship astern and returned to his ship by motor launch. The whole episode was played out in 20 minutes.

Most of us were away from home at least one Thanksgiving and one Christmas. Not all got back. For those of us lucky enough to get safely home, our holidays were never better.

More than 70 years separate us from the substance of memories like these. Yet they remain fresh enough to make holiday periods something very special.

In semi-retirement after 58 years of writing for The Recorder, Paul Seamans of Gill continues Said & Done on a regular monthly basis. Some of his columns will have been previously published.

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