The Newsroom At 55 Park Place – Chapter 14 – McHale’s Navy


 The Newsroom At 55 Park Place

                                                               By Don Storch


                                                       Books By Don Storch

                                              The Newsroom At 55 Park Place
                                                       Snakes in the Swamp
      If a Passive-Progressive Leads from behind he is a Double Oxymoron



            This book is dedicated to my Mom and Dad, mentors of an only child, with daily memories of loving gratefulness, Viola Pauline (Helmstatt) Storch (1910 – 1969) and George John Storch (1903-1984)

Twin boys, stillborn, (1965) 

Norman B. Tomlinson Jr (1927-2017)


Chapter 14

McHale’s Navy

 Shortly before I joined the Daily Record, I was finishing up a two-year tour of duty in the United States Navy.

I was a draftee who upped his call status in order to complete my military obligation.  The date was November of 1955, and as it happened the Navy needed 30,000 more men and selected to draft 10,000 each month from October thru December.  The selective service was, as usual, also drafting in the U. S. Army.

While expecting to be drafted in the Army and heading for basic in Ft. Dix New Jersey, I was selected for the Navy and headed for boot camp in Bainbridge Maryland.

My first deployment was shore duty in Virginia Beach as ship’s company at a Guided Missile School at a base then called the Fleet Air Defense Training Center at Dam Neck Virginia, right on the beach.

My part time job at the school was as a mail man, my full-time job was playing third base and pitching for the Dam Neck Gunners the main base baseball team and helping them win the Hampton Roads Service League title in 1956.

I was an all-state third baseman in high school and thought major league baseball was in my future. 

I had major league tryouts with the New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbits Field and the Boston Braves.

I played varsity ball in my freshman year at Fairliegh Dickinson University and Semi pro-ball in the Essex County League in New Jersey for the Maplewood Maples, where I played with and against several major and minor league players.

After 18 months on shore duty, I was transferred to a ship based in Key West Florida where it was known by the locals as Building 16.  When it moved, coffee grounds came to the surface of the sea where it was berthed.

Building 16 was the USS Howard W. Gilmore AS 16, a sub tender of World War II vintage.

It was a named after a hero of WW II, Commander of the USS Growler, a diesel sub operating in the Pacific.  After sinking several Jap ships, Gilmore, Commander Gilmore surfaced his sub to ram another enemy ship and while on the conning tower he was mortally wounded, but rammed the ship sinking it and then gave the most famous naval commands of sub commanders, “Take her down.”   Commander Gilmore was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic act.  His achievements were recorded in a Department of Defense film, on eternal patrol, The Growler Story 1958.

When I reported aboard the Gilmore I was assigned to the personnel department and was assigned to obtaining social security numbers for sailors that didn’t have them, working on officer candidate school and limited duty officer applications and to write stories for the ship’s newspaper.

Having now been in the Navy 18 months, I learned to look for opportunities that would make my life more comfortable.  So, I checked into the Ships’ Manual and there it was – the ship had a band and it was obvious I couldn’t play baseball on board despite the size of the ship.

However, I never told the Navy I played the trumpet, even in drum and bugle corps – thinking that my baseball acumen would carry the day rather than the sour notes that might come from my horn.

But there in bold letters in the ship’s manual it said if you played in the ship’s band you got early chow at lunch, in order to practice with the band on the boat deck, exempt from standing any watches and open gang-way, which meant you could walk on and off the ship when you pleased when in port – a privilege even the captain didn’t have.

Band members were obligated to participate in band events, play anchors aweigh when the ship (building 16) left port, and play for submarines when leaving and returning to port.

The next day I headed for the boat deck and sure enough there was the band practicing and playing all the old familiar military marches 

While standing and listening, the band took a break and its leader walked over to me and asked, “what are you doing up here?”  “Listening to the band play,” I said.

He replied, “nobody comes up here to listen, do you play an instrument?”

  I told him I played the trumpet and he became ecstatic, he said he was losing his number one trumpet player tomorrow due to redeployment.

“I have another trumpet in the band room, join us,” he said

I did.  Played all through the practice session and at that time he asked me to join.  I asked what were the benefits and he recited what I already knew. I asked him when I could have my open gang-way pass and he said show up for practice tomorrow and I will have it for you.

I did, and he did.

The Gilmore left port once while I was on board to relieve its sister ship the USS Bushnell AS 15 in Norfolk for about a month.

 At first, I thought I was on a cruise ship, they allowed dependents living in Key West to join their sailors and even allow some to bring their cars which were welded to the boat deck.

 It came time for ‘building 16 to leave its outside berth, where cruise ships today make a stopover in Key West, and yes, we stirred up the coffee grounds resting under the keel.

 Oh, and I was up on the boat deck playing Anchors Aweigh as we departed Key West.

 Now, all sailors’ have battle stations when at sea even those with open gangway and mine was labeled 1 J a reason for no one explained.

 I had a 2 AM two-hour watch and we happened to be passing Cape Hattera’s North Carolina at 15 knots in calm seas.

 However, this part of the Atlantic is never calm and we were taking waves over the bow on a ship of 529 feet, 18,000 tons with a 73-foot beam and holding 1,000 men – women were not yet allowed sea duty – and for some reason the captain who was on the bridge with me as his voice decided to try out aft-steering.

 Aft steering was used in WW II to enable control of a ship if the bow steering was incapacitated or damaged.

 Why the captain was going to try this maneuver, at this time under these sea conditions, in the main shipping lane, was below my sea-grade of a Seaman to question. I repeated his orders to aft steering and in order to execute these orders another sailor had to throw a lever to accomplish this and it had to be confirmed with me if they had steering at the stern of the ship.

 Now this ship was launched in 1943, and although I can’t confirm it, I’ll bet that lever was never thrown again since sea trials.

 The captain ordered me to see if they had control of steering in the stern of the ship – and they didn’t.

 The captain asked the helmsman, you know, the one that once stood behind a big wheel, whether he had control, and he didn’t.

 I felt a sense of panic on the bridge.  The captain ordered the sailor flipping the lever to flip it a few more times and we finally regained control of steering on the bridge.  I heard the captain say under his breath, ‘We’re not going to try that again.’

 The sailors and those with dependents had a fun time in the Norfolk area.  The ship actually had a party. And I volunteered to help prepare for it by setting up tables and chairs, because I heard they were going to tap the beer kegs at about noon.

 I never made the party, we had our own, I returned with the service detail and went to my bunk in the exec’s office.

 As we were preparing to return to the Keys our department was missing few sailors impacting on my future responsibilities.  The Chief Petty Officer I reported to in the personnel department was in the brig in Norfolk after being picked up drunk and disorderly and the glockenspiel player in the band and ship’s newspaper editor was being held by Secret Service in Norfolk for being gay – ‘don’t ask don’t tell didn’t exist’ – you either were or you weren’t and if you were you were out.

 We played Anchors Aweigh as we departed Norfolk without the glockenspiel player, and my increasing responsibilities.  The reports I was filling out in behalf of the Chief, were now my responsibility and I was the only one with some journalism background to put out the ship’s newspaper, “The Gilmore Globe,” and of course there was the band.

 A Lieutenant to which I reported was now responsible for the Officer Candidates and Limited Duty Officer’s reports due in Washington by a certain date.

 By Navy standards I had plenty to do.  These reports by a certain date, the ship’s newspaper, the band and rest and relaxation at the base pool in the afternoons with my open gangway pass to prepare for an evening on Duval.

 I bonded with the new Lieutenant even to the degree my new office was in the officers sleeping quarters so I was not disturbed with the work I had to do.  Too bad it didn’t apply to my sleep time.

 Each morning when we mustered on port side near the personnel office, I gave a report on the progress of my work.

 The day finally came when the reports were ready to be typed and shipped off to Washington DC.  That evening I had the entire personnel department at my disposal, no matter rank and the next day the reports were sent off and arrived on time.

 Now, I could concentrate on the ship’s newspaper, the band, R&R in the afternoon and Duval in the evening.

 I was what they call a ‘short timer’ for discharge, but the captain seemed to have one more war story for me.  He announced a day of maneuvers in the Gulf of Mexico where we would fire the ship’s 5 inch and 40/40 antiaircraft guns at a target, better known as target practice

The target was prepared in our metal working shop with four 55-gallon steel drums welded together with steel sides, a super structure on top from which a pirate’s flag would fly.

 We stirred the coffee grounds under our ship for the second time while I was on board and headed into the Gulf.

 I had more sea time on The Kiptopeke Ferry between Virginia Beach and Cape Charles, on Chesapeake Bay, than on the Gilmore while taking weekend leave to go home from shore duty on Virginia Beach.

 That familiar clanging sound of battle stations from vintage World War II movies sounded. I headed for the starboard ladders from the main deck to the flying bridge, was told to look for a helmet in a bin labeled 1 J and report to the captain.

 When I got to the bin only one helmet was in there, it was blank.  I quickly looked around the flying bridge to see if any other sailor had my helmet.  Didn’t see any.

 The captain was now yelling for 1 J. “Here sir,” I said.  “Why don’t you have 1 J on your helmet?”  “When I got here this blank helmet was the only helmet left in the bin, sir, and no other sailor on the bridge is wearing 1 J.”

 “The next time you’re at battle stations make sure that helmet, says 1 J,” the captain ordered.

 “Yes sir,” I said, but thought I’ll be gone by then. I left the paint job for the next 1 J.

 “Has anyone told you what your responsibilities are up here,” the captain questioned.  “No sir,” I said, “just that I was 1 J and the captain’s voice.”

 I thought I heard him mutter, “Great.”

 He went on to show me a large chart mounted to a piece of plywood and a grease pencil that was attached to it with a string.  He said that I would be getting coordinates of the target from Counter Intelligence Command (CIC) and that I should chart the target after it was released from the port side.

 Sailors released the target from the port side of the ship and I could see the pirate’s flag flapping in the wind.

 CIC began reading off some coordinates to me and there were a lot of them on my chart; however, I could visually see the target off amid ship and marked my first x.  After about 5 x’s I noticed my grease pencil dripping onto the chart. I could tell at this point one could fry eggs on the deck because blisters seemed to be forming on the souls of my shoes if not my feet.  Perhaps this is why they had two grease pencils attached to the chart.

 By this time, I could no longer visually see the target and I noticed that according to my chart the target was still amid ship and thought how this improbable, if not impossible.  After all, the ship was moving at a faster speed than the target was drifting. I think I was counting on the captain’s binoculars as a backup.

 “One J where’s the target,” the captain said with some concern.  I pointed to the chart and that position didn’t compute with his binoculars. “God dam it, 1 J, we lost the target.”  It was then that I realized that God was not my co-pilot.

 The captain grabbed my headset to talk to CIC, picked up the coordinates and he could now see the target through his binoculars.

 We came within range of the target and I noticed others on the bridge putting cotton in their ears. I couldn’t do that, I needed to hear my captain say, ‘Fire One.’

 Fire one he said and all I could think of was John Wayne and ‘Operation Pacific.

 After fire one came two, three and four and I didn’t want to hear anymore for my brain seemed to be rattling around in my head.  This went on for about 30 minutes and nary a target we hit.  The Pirates weren’t even shooting back.

 At this point the gunnery officer asked permission to try-out the 40/40’s.  The target was brought within range and the next visual sighting I saw were the shells from the 40/40’s coming closer and closer to the ship, when I blurted out, “My God, we’re going to shoot ourselves.”

 “You don’t have to worry about that 1 J,” the captain said, “there is a stop on the gun that prevents it.”

 It was then that the captain ordered two Marines with M1’s to the main deck to sink the target.

 The captain then took the ship back to its berth at Key West to remain until my discharge, resting on the coffee grinds where the Gilmore was comfortable.

 The band didn’t even play when we tied-up.

 To Be Continued . . . 

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