Destroyer Duty – Home Port

Early Monday morning, ships exited Long Beach harbor following a standard order of egress. Minesweepers went first, sweeping for mines. Destroyers went next, for sonar purposes. Heavies followed through their cleared channel.

As we passed through the breakwater to the open sea, a lookout on the bridge reported seeing a periscope and a whip antenna extending from the water. The captain called down to sonar but their equipment hadn’t warmed up enough to give an accurate reading yet.

We sent a message by flashing light to the destroyer in front of us asking for their confirmation. Finally, the destroyer coming out of the harbor behind us confirmed the sonar contact. The Captain immediately authorized the transmission of a submarine contact message, addressed to the appropriate fleet commanders, which I transmitted over the local ship to shore circuit using Morse code.

US Navy aircraft from a carrier at sea were already in the air running anti-submarine warfare exercises. Within minutes of sending the contact report, they were flying over the water nearby and communicating with our ship’s Captain on the bridge through a voice circuit patched in from the radio shack. Sonar had finally locked on the target by then and we were maneuvering north along the California coast at high knots.

I climbed up to the signal bridge for a quick check on the action. Prop-engine planes, flying low around us, were dropping sonar transducers with flare markers. Helicopters hovering just above the water, were extending transducers beneath the surface.

The ship made an abrupt maneuver at high knots and a voice came from the squawk box, saying: “Bridge, sonar. We’re losing them.”

When the Captain saw me there, he said: “Radioman, take this message.” The submarine had turned westward, heading for deeper waters and the Captain wasted no time in making his report to our immediate operational commander, stating that we were breaking off from the chase and returning back to our regular assignment.

While operating in US coastal waters, we were often in port on weekends, either in Long Beach or in San Diego. Many sailors lived for these weekends. Even the Captain did his part, getting us into port as early as possible on a Friday afternoon to assure a good berth. He usually had us doing an all out power run on the way in as an engineering exercise. I went on liberty a few times just to check out the bookstores, the restaurants, and the bar scene. But I mostly stayed aboard the destroyer, enjoying the peace and quiet with many other sailors gone for the weekend.

Instead of writing letters and not sending them, I started a journal. Interspersed with my philosophical thoughts on life, I recorded dates and places traveled. The fact that I spent more time looking through my dictionary and grammar book than writing did not bother me, I enjoyed it. I could read almost anywhere, including the sleeping and eating compartments, sitting out on deck, or standing in the chow line. But the seclusion of the radio shack became my preferred writing location.

Before we departed for the Western Pacific, I passed the examination for advancement from seaman to third class radioman petty officer. My duties in the radio shack did not change but everyone aboard the ship treated me differently. Even the two seaman strikers, Fred and Ned, who worked with me in the radio shack now accepted my authority as the leading radioman without question.

A lending library formed aboard the ship as our departure to the Western Pacific approached, the range and quality of reading material surprised me. The sailors who made their books available also surprised me. I would have thought some of them didn’t even knew how to read, judging by the way they talked.

While looking through the library, a collection of Henry Miller and Aleister Crowley works caught my attention. I wondered who would own such books. To my surprise, they belonged to the First Class Boatswain’s Mate, now a Chief, from my earlier cruise in the Western Pacific. He didn’t seem to remember me when I asked him about the books. Or maybe he just decided to ignore the past and start all over again. Now that I was a Third Class Petty Officer, he showed me more respect, with the hint of a possible friendship centered around our mutual interest in books.

And I finally learned his full name, Benjamin Burnside Bingham. Everyone called him Big Ben, of course, since he was one of the largest men aboard the ship. As I began to know him better, I realized he was also one of the most intelligent, and most mysterious. He could be cynical and pessimistic yet inspiring and motivating, all at the same time. I wondered why he lived his life as a Boatswain’s Mate in the US Navy. And I wondered if I would become like him when it came time to either reenlist or return home. Had the destroyer become his home? Was it becoming mine?

On the day our division of four destroyers departed for the Western Pacific from Long Beach, California, dependents and visitors were allowed on the pier to say good-by. Since I had no one seeing me off, I watched from the signal bridge. Couples were hugging, kissing, and crying while their children stood close around them on the crowded pier. Big Ben stood out amidst a large group of well-wishers, mostly attractive middle-aged females in evening dress: which added to my level of curiosity about the man.

I welcomed the solitude during the long voyage at sea, and every other sailor aboard the ship seemed to be experiencing a similar inner-directedness. After performing our duties with mechanical precision, we had ample time to ourselves. Like many others, I developed the habit of sitting on deck and staring out to sea. The ocean itself has a spiritual presence.

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