April 1941: Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fireman

On April 1st, Elmer’s mess duty was finally up. Although the extra pay was nice, he was glad to be finally in the engine room, learning the ropes. His crew-mates immediately began training him. “I worked yesterday and today on our main air pump,” he reported on April 2. “I am working with several other fellows on it.”

Grandpa and the boiler room engineers had several major repairs to complete, but not enough to warrant moving the ship out of the water and into a dry dock. So to facilitate the process, the crew relied on a repair ship, the USS Whitney. As Elmer described it, “The ‘Whitney’ is a floating machine shop. They have all types of lathes, millers, shapers, and other machines for repairing ship parts . . . we take all the parts that need machine work to the ‘Whitney.'” Not surprisingly, “I like working in the engine room much better than mess-cooking.”

The USS Whitney (AD-4) at San Diego in 1932. [From Wikipedia: Official U.S. Navy photo NH 65007 from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS)]

Grandpa was already beginning to feel both the pride and responsibility that came with running and maintaining a destroyer’s engine. “I wish you could see our ship,” he told his parents. “I would like to show you around it. It’s not a new [ship], in fact it’s plenty old, but you sure can learn alot on it . . . it is an education in itself.”

On April 11th, Elmer filled his letter with notes on his new job as “an oiler and messenger” in Engine Room #1. “When at sea we stand 4 hours on watch and 8 hours off . . . it’s the only work you do at sea.” The rule of thirds prevailed in other ways as well. Elmer worked his shifts with two other men, and the three shipmates rotated weekend duty with the other Engine Room #1 crews. Although the on-duty hours were long, the two whole weekends of liberty were worth the effort. “I like it swell in the engine room.”

Once the repairs were complete, the Chew resumed its frequent cruising around the islands. However, the routine was beginning to change. The ship needed to begin testing its weapons systems, and completed several target practice drills with its 3″/50 caliber anti-aircraft guns, 21″ torpedos, and depth charges. Elmer and the other firemen, ensconced below deck and surrounded by metal, stuck cotton swabs in their ears to protect their hearing from the thunder above. According to Elmer, the anti-aircraft gunners did “pretty well” with their shooting. As fate would have it, one of those guns downed a Japanese airplane and damaged two more during the Pearl Harbor attack.

As the United States drifted towards war, Elmer steamed ahead with his training. Like many others in our family, including his two sons, Elmer had the mind of an engineer. He seemed to learn the inner workings of the engine quickly, and he soon began expressing confidence in both his own his own progress and in the process itself. “It’s wonderful,” he mused in a letter to his mom and dad, “how steam can be made to run a ship, light it, and make water for it.” With mess duty finally behind him, Elmer could finally immerse himself in the workings of the ship itself.

He was exactly where he wanted to be.

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It’s fun to stay at the Honolulu YMCA

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