GreatJobs 12 - On To The South Pacific
Back at the Union Hall, following the Philadelphia cruise, I asked how I could get out to the South Pacific It was now April of ’44, and being young and ‘eager’ I thought I was going to miss the whole war.
“Well, you can catch the Greyhound”. Was the first answer. ‘But, let’s see what we got”.
After a scan of all the listings, pretty soon the agent says. “How many guys hangin’ around here want to go to Galveston and hop a tanker to San Pedro”?
“You mean San Pedro, like in the port of Los Angelis”? I asked.
“Yep, that’s it”.
“They payin’ the trip to Galveston”?
“Yep, a one way bus ticket, and there are a bunch of engine room jobs and deck hands too”.
“Well,” I said, ‘I see they got an oiler’s job on the 12 to 4 watch, I’ll take it”.
“You’re on your way, Leo. Get out of here and don’t come back for a while”.
“You don’t have to worry about that, once I get to the Pacific, I am stayin’.
Well, a couple of other guys and me hopped the Greyhound to Galveston, and little did we know what we had signed up for. Yes, it was a tanker and the name was ‘La Placentia’, home port, Port Arthur, TX. it had been refitted and was headed for the West Coast by way of the Panama Canal. And it had a 7 man Navy gunnery crew already in place. Not only were they to defend the ship, in case of attack, but they were to train the merchant marine crew too in handling the deck guns. Could be dangerous, but hey, an extra ten dollars a month for a tanker assignment.
And, more, this old ship, was built in 1909, and was a very large capacity tanker. It originally was built for inter coastal service between the refineries in and around the gulf area. And, it had an engine that was a rare one indeed. A quadruple expansion, 5 cylinder steam engine, top speed 70 rpm. Had a 6 foot stroke and top to bottom it was over 3 decks tall. 6 Scotch type boilers in the fire room, 3 on each side with a donkey boiler and evaporators in the center area. Two diesel electric generators had just been newly installed on the third engine tier, one on each side of the engine. They needed that now for lighting and additional power for ice machines that had been installed., and also for the new high speed electric cargo pumps. You could load and unload this old lady in about 8 hours even if it did take 6 months to get where it was going. Top speed, 9 knots, too slow for Pacific convoys, which by now had the new T2 tankers that could run at 14 knots, or better. If we were going any place we were going to be on our own. Thus the Navy Crew for defense.
“Well, I said to myself, you wanted to get to the Pacific Ocean, so here you are”.
We loaded up in Port Arthur with high octane airplane fuel, and I thought, ‘if this thing goes up at least I’ll never know what hit’ . No smoking aboard except on the fan tail and never at night. The glow of a cigarette can be seen by subs a thousand yards away. At night we ran completely blacked out. No lights anywhere.
Well, we did make it through the Panama Canal and got to San Pedro, CA in a matter of about 12 days. There they stopped to build a wooden top deck over the tank holds. And, then they put on a deck load of plane parts and Hell Divers. Those were the two-seated planes that dove out of the sky to drop torpedoes on enemy ships. Took about a day and a half for loading that; those guys worked fast, and then we were on our way.
Where? Well we didn’t know ’til about 3 days out. That way nobody told anybody anything.
We were going to the Philippines by way of the Great Southern Route. We did stop at Pearl Harbor for supplies and fuel and lots of Pineapple juice. And, since we were too slow to travel in a convoy we had to take the ‘safe route’ which was along the equator and through the Marshall’s and Marietta’s islands. It may have been early spring, but let me tell you it was hot. And it was hotter in that engine room. Usually about 140 degrees when you had to climb the three decks up the side of the engine to check and oil it, and on the catwalks between the cylinders.
All in all it took about 43 days to get over to Australia and another week on to Manila By then most of the Japanese had been cleaned out of the Philippines and we were beginning to bring our fleet to the area, rather than at Pearl Harbor which was too far away from the action. But, Pearl was still where major repair work was done.
Our planes were loaded aboard a carrier with the parts. And the high octane fuel was pumped into storage tanks near the docks. And now guess what?
We were going to go to the Persian Gulf for more fuel oil for the battle wagons and cruisers and other ships in the area. We might have been slow but we could haul more than most tankers at the time.
Getting there was fairly easy. Just headed south to the Indian Ocean and on over to the Persian Gulf. The Indian Ocean is a rather calm ocean and somehow we made good speed in that area. And no worry about subs in that area by this time of the war. The Japanese fleet was pretty well down to little or nothing by this time. All in all it was a fast trip for our ‘slow boat past China’.
Well, we got over to the Gulf, loaded bunker fuel for the big boys and got back in a matter of about a month. Pumped off the fuel to the battle wagons who needed it and then we were told to go back to San Pedro and get some more High Octane fuel, and some more planes and parts. A lot of fighting was still going on around the Philippians. And, we were told to take the direct route; if any Jab subs were going to torpedo us, they weren’t going to get much glory knocking off an old empty tanker headed for home.
So back we went as ‘fast’ as we could, but even that took about 3 weeks.
Maybe an explanation 'bout knots, which is ship speed. A knot is actually a mile and a quarter at sea. It takes into consideration the curvature of the earth. On a flat map a mile turns out to be a mile and a quarter when the map is curved to represent the globe. Our old tanker could travel at 9 knots per hour, or about a little over 11 miles an hour. Thus in a 24 hour day the ship would cover close to 300 miles. And the Pacific is a very wide Ocean.
And, now you know.
Watch for Helmer's next chapter on Great Jobs in the December issue.
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