Back in calmer times — when Jack Kennedy was President and gasoline was 29 cents a gallon — I enlisted in the Navy for the second time, hoping for a career that had been interrupted 10 years before due to my dad’s rapidly declining health. After the swearing-in in Jacksonville, Florida, I was sent to Charleston, South Carolina for a couple weeks of re-indoctrination training, which consisted of additional physical exams, skills testing and clothing issue – sea bag issue, as it was known back then.
It was late autumn of 1960. I had experienced a “Navy winter” in Groton, Connecticut in 1949-’50 and found out that ice and snow weren’t really that great. I certainly wasn’t ready for a fast climate change, and I was imagining getting sent to Great Lakes, Illinois, or Bangor, Maine, or possibly Kodiak Alaska. But my orders said to Report to Commanding Officer, Waterfront Division, Florida Group Atlantic Reserve Fleet, at Green Cove Springs, Florida.
I had very little knowledge of what a “Reserve Fleet” was, or what I’d be doing there, but I was fairly certain it would beat shoveling show and chipping ice. With those frightening thoughts still in mind, I didn’t mind getting off the Greyhound bus in a chilly Florida rain in Green Cove Springs with another raw recruit who had been my bus-mate on the ride down from Charleston. A Navy vehicle was waiting for us, and we found the evening meal was ready about the time we finished checking in at the quarterdeck and taking our sea bags to our assigned barracks.
After getting nutritionally replenished at the Mess Hall, I returned to the barracks and began to unpack my sea bag into my assigned locker. I also began learning what a Reserve Fleet was. While I was unpacking my clothing issue I mentioned to another guy in the barracks, the first sailor I really had a chance to talk to since my arrival, how lucky I considered myself to not be spending the winter shoveling snow and chipping ice. He said he had been in Green Cove for a couple months, looked at the two tiny E-2 stripes beneath the radioman insignia on my sleeve and said, “Buddy, I hate to tell you this, but we got no radiomen on the St. Johns River waterfront. What we do have is about 350 old mothballed Navy ships dressed in faded gray paint. You don’t want to chip ice, huh? Guess what you’ll be chipping for the next year.”
The following morning, a Tuesday I believe, I gathered with about 200 other guys dressed in dungarees. We marched from the barracks, across Highway 17 to the river. At 8:00 AM we were lined up in neat rows on the waterfront dock, with quite a few acres of mothballed ships and the St. Johns River behind us. The Chief Bo’sun gave us two minutes of building a fire under our butts and we were then divided into teams of five or six non-rated men and one Petty Officer.
Each group was assigned to a different ship to wire brush, chip, sweat and complain until the Petty Officer was satisfied with our particular spot, and then we were given the privilege of painting our completed area — maybe a watertight exterior door or two – and perhaps even part of the adjoining bulkhead if we had worked really hard. After about seven-and-a-half hours, including the 250 yard walk to the Mess Hall and back for those of us who didn’t know to bring some cookies or Twinkies with us, we were allowed to march back to the barracks.
Anyone who has been in the military service, or has heard much from folks who have, know the one thing that a non-rated serviceman should NEVER do is speak or move if the petty officer or officer in charge of a group says, “I have a special detail for one man. Do I have a volunteer?” The Waterfront Commander himself asked that question at muster the next morning. No one even breathed, except me, and I used a whole lungful of air to raise my arm and yell, “Here, Sir!”
Commander Raymond then asked, “Do you know how to type?”
“Yes, Sir!” I responded, feeling better about this volunteering thing already. I knew whatever he had in mind had to be better than chipping paint. Thankfully, it turned out much better than I could have imagined.
As I followed the Commander into the waterfront engineering office I still had no idea what I was actually getting into, but the whir of an air-conditioner helped allay any misgivings I might have had. Once inside, he introduced himself as “Mr. Raymond, the Waterfront Engineer,” and asked my name. He told me that one of the staff members had been transferred, so he needed someone who could type a few letters until the personnel office mainside could get him another yeoman.
In the front office was a large desk faced by a couple of fairly comfortable-looking chairs. Mr. Raymond told me that this was the office of the guy who greets visitors, handles the mail and screens incoming phone calls. No one was at the desk. Mr. Raymond remarked that he didn’t usually show up until about 8:15, because he had to pick up the mail at the mainside Post Office.
“Go on into the other office,” he said, “and meet the Assistant Engineer, Lt. Commander Mosely.”
Mr. Mosely stood up and shook my hand as Mr. Raymond introduced us. Mr. Mosely said, “We’ll try to keep you busy, Webb. For starters, do you know how to make good Navy coffee?” I answered that I did, and he told me the pot was in the other office and the coffee was in the locker underneath the pot.
Now I was beginning to get the picture. For a few days, I’d be the guy who made the coffee, ran mail between the Waterfront and mainside, and maybe do some typing. Not great, but it would sure beat chipping paint. Just as I was finishing setting up the coffee pot, a yeoman second class (E-5) wearing a summer white uniform came in with a mail bag in his hand. He put the bag on the desk, and asked if I was the guy who would be filling in until they got another yeoman. I told him I supposed so, but all I knew for sure was that I’d be doing some typing until personnel sent another yeoman down.
I introduced myself. He shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard. Your desk is in the other office, across from the Engineer’s desk. I’ll bring the coffee in as soon as it’s ready. How do you like yours? They both take theirs black and bitter.”
I mumbled something like, “Uh…OK. same for me.” My dungaree shirt had no rate markings on it, and I didn’t think this would be the right time to point out the peculiarity of an E-2 having his coffee brought to him by an E-5.
I went into the other office feeling just a little confused. Mr. Mosley told me that the engineer was on the phone with the Commodore. “While they are talking over the day’s schedule, why don’t you start familiarizing yourself with what’s in your desk? If you have any questions, ask the Yeoman to help you figure things out. He’ll be your helper while you’re working in here.”
Questions? Did I have any questions? I had nothing but questions. As I sat in my chair, looking through my desk and feeling even more confused, my helper brought the coffee. I hope I remembered to thank him.
I had no idea what my duties would be, other than typing, but had just been informed by the assistant engineer, Lt. Commander Mosley, that the E-5 yeoman who had just brought me – an E-2 – a cup of coffee, would be my helper. I did have an idea, however, that before getting into an unpleasant situation involving the US Military’s customs of rate and rank protocol, it might be a good idea to make it known that I was only an E-2. My dungaree shirt was not marked with my rate, and no one had asked. When I carefully informed Mr. Mosley of this fact, he said something on the order of, “We don’t pay too much attention to rate and rank in this office. We have a job to do and that is all we do, and as long as you can type, you are the engineer’s yeoman until personnel finds the boss a YN-1 to replace you.”
About that time the chief engineer, Commander Raymond, hung up his phone. Mr Mosley introduced me to him as “Webb, your new yeoman.” The engineer said that he and the commodore were going to play a round or two of golf before lunch, so it would be a ‘good idea’ for Webb to go up to the barracks during lunch and change into whites and get back to the office.” I had just been instructed that my work uniform would be whites, and tht I was to be back before 1300.
The yeoman came in from the front office and began explaining my job. I had expected to be typing a few letters for Cdr. Raymond , but when he mentioned “tow check-off sheets” that I’d have to check, I really got interested. He told me the reserve fleet at Green Cove Springs was in the process of being closed and all the mothballed ships were being towed to facilities in Orange, Texas and Norfolk, Virginia. He also mentioned that the Bureau of Ships had given the commodore a target date for decommissioning the base sometime in the summer of 1962, and that about 350 ships had to be moved. On a good week, he said, they were getting two or sometimes three sets of check-off sheets ready for the engineer’s signature so the tugs could move the ships.
It was late Autumn of 1960. With a quick mental calculation I came up with something less than 100 weeks. At two ships ready for tow on a good week, “sometimes three,” that meant that Green Cove Springs had more ships moored in the St. Johns River than they could get rid of in less than two years. When I mentioned that to the yeoman, he said it wasn’t his problem; he was just the guy who answered the phone, then added, “When you get back from lunch the engineer will explain what you have to do to get the check-off sheet packets ready so the ships can be towed.”
Check-off Sheet packets? It would be my job to get the packets ready so the ships could be towed? About 350 ships in less than two years? Maybe 18 to 20 months?
I suddenly realized why it wasn’t his problem.
Having just learned that getting check-off sheet packets ready at a rate of two or maybe three a week, so that ships could be towed to other Reserve Fleet bases would be part – possibly the main part – of being Cmdr. Raymond’s clerk. I was a bit apprehensive, so I started doing some serious looking through my newly-inherited desk. I was digging through the desk, trying to find a copy of a packet, when the yeoman came in from the front office to look for a typewriter ribbon. He thought there might be one in my desk. I remembered seeing a couple in the center drawer so put one on the pile of manuals and files I had placed on top of the desk.
YN-2 Gary Miller — I finally got a chance to look at his name tag — asked, “What are you doing?” I told him that I was looking for a copy of a check-off packet, so that I could familiarize myself. Gary said that the engineer would familiarize me with the packets after lunch, and that there were none in the desk. He suggested that I head up to the barracks, stow the dungarees in my locker, and get into a clean set of whites. He also recommended that I go over to the Ships Stores office and have a name tag made. Anonymous was not going to be my name and rate much longer!
He didn’t have to tell me to get back to the office by 1300, because I remembered that part of an earlier suggestion, but he did feel it necessary to remind me anyway. I headed up the street to the barracks, changed clothes and headed to Ships Stores to get my name tag made. They didn’t use nicknames and my first name was too long, so the ID tag came out printed “T. Webb, SA” pretty impressive for an E-2 sitting behind the desk formerly and soon again to be occupied by a yeoman first class, an E-6.
I walked over to the mess hall for a spaghetti lunch, then back to the barracks for another white shirt without spaghetti stains on it, but I was back in the office when Cmdr. Raymond returned from his golf game with the commodore shortly after 1300. He said he had a couple of letters he wanted typed, and then he’d go through a check-off packet with me, explain what it was, why it was needed, how many pages were in the average packet (“Usually only about a hundred”), and what I had to do with the five copies after they were ready. Five copies? I was wondering where the printing press was, when the engineer told me that Miller would get the copies made mainside and bring them back to me for boxing and shipping. Terrific! Now I was also a shipping clerk. However, I could hear the chipping hammers and “doodlebug” chippers getting started to work on the ships at the dock across from the office – and I wasn’t using one. I was in an air conditioned space wearing a clean, white uniform.
Mr. Raymond brought two rough-draft letters over to me and said I’d find a couple examples in the FORMS folder in the desk.That was when I discovered the IBM Selectric typewriter. The chief bo’sun had only asked if I knew how to type. He didn’t say anything about an electric typewriter. I’d never used an electric typewriter in my life, but I knew it was time to learn – fast!