At Cape May, New Jersey, Coast Guard basic training, there was a petty officer who spent most of his time herding recruits to their next training session and slept in his own room in the barracks.
On our first night, we were warned that after lights out at 8 p.m. “there would be no talking.” Of course as soon as the lights went out, the chatter started.
Out he came – slapped the light switch on. Of course everyone was sound asleep under their blankets. Not a whisper of noise. He informed the room that it was raining outside and if we would like to spend the rest of the night in the rain, just keep talking.
Back into his den, slamming the door behind him. Someone shouted, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Out comes the bosun: “Ok, who said that, who said that?” Of course everyone was sound asleep. Back into his cave and as soon as his door closed I heard, “Patrick Henry!”
We spent half of the rest of the night running around the barracks in the rain and mud, in our skivvies, with our sea bags over our shoulders. It was still funny. We were laughing while we were running. Well, at least for the first five minutes. Everything got wet, cold and miserable pretty quick.
They offered to send me to radio school. I declined. I wanted to be on a ship’s deck force – one of many errors in judgement on my part.
There was a vessel in the Coast Guard shipyard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. We were told that they were putting her into commission in a few weeks. What a deal! Brand new ship. The Escanaba, a 255-foot seagoing vessel.
We saw pictures. Wow! Depth charge racks off the stern and K-gun racks port and starboard amidships used to fire depth charges out to the sides. Quad-40 millimeter Roy Hubbard Local columnist
anti-aircraft guns just under both bridge wings, a big 5-inch canon on the bow. Twin 20-mil machineguns port and starboard.
Not exactly the battleship Missouri but impressive to a kid from Georgia who had never been on a boat longer than 20 feet.
You would have thought that I was raised so far back in the woods that they had to pump sunshine to me. At 17 years of age and under close supervision, one night in Atlanta to get sworn into the USCG was the total of my experience with big cities.
I have since spent time in every major city on the eastern seaboard. I can tell you I haven’t lost or found anything in any of them that would require me to ever go back. That includes Atlanta – and I seriously hope the powers that be here eye Richmond Hill with quality, as opposed to quantity.
I had no idea what to expect in a place like Baltimore. At the train station, I inquired about a bus to Curtis Bay. No buses, take a cab.
Take a cab? I told a cabbie sitting at the curb that I had five bucks left and how much did it cost to get to Curtis Bay? He loaded my sea bag and told me not to worry. He flipped the meter arm off. I arrived at the gate, handed him my last five bucks and thanked him profusely.
Later that evening, sitting around the usual poker game I commented how lucky I was that I was broke at the train station and a cabbie brought me all the way out for just five bucks. There was a moment of silence, a gaggle of laughter and then I was informed, right after being called “Dumb--” that a taxi was three bucks all day long. The next day we were
introduced to our new home, the Escanaba. We didn’t actually board her to live. We were a work party. The pictures and the description provided to us earlier were not quite accurate, to say the least.
As I understand it, there was more than one Escanaba. The story is that the first one was sunk in the Pacific during WW2. The one I was looking at in Curtis Bay was the second Escanaba.
She was designed to be 355 feet long. The war ended so they took a pair of scissors, cut a hundred feet out of the middle of the blueprint, shoved the remaining pieces of blueprint together and built her, 255 feet long.
The keel was laid in 1944. She was mothballed for many years while turning into a massive rust bucket then eventually brought to the East Coast to be re-fitted.
I went aboard my “brand new” ship amidst a huge tangle of tools, cables, hoses, pipes, saws, sanders and many, many people in dirty jeans and overalls grinding rust off the super structure, either welding stuff together or cutting it apart. Sometimes I think it was the same thing being welded on or cut off. Depended on what day it was.
She was powered by a combination of systems engineered by General Electric. Their engineers were all over the ship because nothing worked.
One could see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from our dock. The way to the open sea was under that bridge. The Escanaba had yet to make it that far on trial runs. She refused to go in reverse. They would get almost to the bridge, throw the engine room telegraph full astern. She would shake and shudder and keep right on going. Cut the engines and drop anchor! Tugs would have to nudge her back up river to her berth.
I was a firm believer in the story about how she came to be with the scissor-cut blueprints. Scuppers are something on a vessel that directs seawater or rainwater, out and over the side. But the Escanaba’s scuppers directed the water in the opposite direction.
At 55 feet wide and 255 feet long, she wasn’t properly proportioned for rough seas, or it seemed so to me. Now, I will say that she turned out to be a very seaworthy ship. We weathered some pretty heavy stuff in the North Atlantic and did a lot of good work.
Things are probably done a little differently now, but 65 years ago when the President of the United States was going to fly overseas, there would be a row of ships lined up all the way across under his flight plan. If Hurricane Hanna was passing through at the same time, tough!
Every time I went on leave back to Georgia, I was pointedly reminded by a spokesman for the chief petty officers group that, although they certainly were not asking me to purchase or bring illegal contraband aboard a military vessel, they just wanted to remind me of how much they appreciated good corn liquor.
Made my luggage a little heavier on the return trip. I had an inside with an uncle that made the stuff over around Charleston. I was reasonably certain that one would not go blind drinking his product.
When we were kids, Uncle Sidney always kept a close eye on the young nephews visiting. As soon as we got to close to the wood line, he would come running out of the house shouting for us to “Come back outa them woods before you get on a snake!”
I had seen the “snake” in the trunk of cars that would pull into the driveway in the form of huge sacks of corn mash and sugar.
I forget how long we were at Curtis Bay, but the day finally came when we slipped under the bridge on our beautiful, stark white, freshly painted cutter. Old Glory and all the signal flags were proudly whipping in the wind. Our destination was Guantanamo Bay for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training, surface and aerial gunnery practice and subsequent disposal of a lot of WW2 ordinance we had onboard.
If my memory serves me correctly, the Escanaba had a crew of about 125 total, including about eight or 10 officers. Only about 25 crew and five officers had ever been to sea on a vessel of the Escanaba’s proportions. Fortunately, there was a depth of experience represented in each department, certainly by the chief petty officers and a few lower rank petty officers.
We departed Curtis Bay and set course for Cuba. The Escanaba would make about 12 knots full throttle with a following sea. Even with roll chocks, in high seas she was sort of like a giant white tub rolling around out there.
Roll chocks are like wings attached to the hull below the water line. They are hinged and tend to counteract or resist the roll of the ship. We were not going to outrun any weather, or go around it. We just took whatever Mother Nature threw at us.
It was my first time ever going out of sight of land. To me there is nothing more spectacular than the open ocean and all its moods. Beautiful blue and white sky and deep blue and green seas that met on a never ending horizon. It could all quickly turn into massive dark clouds and black water moving around us in a circle on a stage of endless proportions.
The Navy at Guantanamo had no idea what they were in for. During the crew’s learning curve, the Escanaba seemed like a real life “McHales Navy“ with “Ensign Pulver” thrown in for good measure.
If you are old enough to remember that TV series and the movie “Ensign Pulver,” you are probably ready for a nap.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and environmentalist who lives in South Bryan. Email him your thoughts at Roy39hubbard@ gmail. com.