Shakedown Cruise

Dominic Legato GM2/c

This is a story of my experience as I remember it. Hope my shipmates enjoy it and bring back their memories.

I joined the Navy at 18 in November 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor, and I took my nine weeks of boot training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Milwaukee. Twelve weeks of Gunnery training following boot camp earned me a petty officer rank of 3rd class Gunners Mate. In May 1943, I took twelve more weeks of advanced Gunnery training at the San Diego Destroyer Base in California. In August 1943, I was ready for sea duty and was transferred to Lido Beach, Long Island to be assembled with the crew of the USS HUNT, DD 674 a new modern Fletcher Class destroyer.

The crew, the ship, and I are about to enter into a “common law” marriage to enter the fight. After two weeks here at Lido Beach, on the bulletin board are my first orders; “the following men will assemble at 0600 hours, Wednesday morning as the advanced crew to man the USS HUNT during delivery from the Naval Shipyard at Kearny, NJ to the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard for outfitting. Peters, Marin, Kowalski, Legato…..”.

Well, at last I’ll be a sailor, hey, I’m part of the first crew, I guess a gunners mate must be important. On Wednesday we arrive at the Kearny shipyard at lunch time and MY ship is waiting for me and the others. A lot of workman are still fussing over her, and in the spirit of the war, greet us warmly. I feel warmed, they are looking at me as a warrior, our country’s defender, their defender. “I helped build you the best fighting ship there is, now it’s yours to use, good luck”, they seem to say. After we are settled in, we get a box lunch each and sit down on deck to eat. I don’t seem to notice the preparations to get underway and suddenly we are. Hey guys, we’re moving, here we go.
This is the first of many such trips to come, no thought of danger on this mission, but butterflies in the stomach nonetheless. The ship moves away from the dock, effortlessly pulled by big bruiser type tugboats. I feel a floating sensation, a lazy slight rolling from side to side, not yet the seasick ingredient I’m told it is. The afternoon is sunny and mild, this is early September and waning summer. The ship moves steadily now; I’m looking at the moving scenery of the shoreline with a slightly cool breeze in my face when the Chief gunners mate says; “hey Legato help Peters strip and clean that 20MM he’s got apart amidships”. A half hour under way and we are in Oyster Bay. I step into the cabin, the ship rolls more it seems, and I set to work. Why do I feel so woozy? The gun barrel rolls freely back and forth on the deck, it makes me dizzy, things appear to move in great arcs and more quickly than before. I want to just sit. Hey Legato–you alright–you don’t look so good–you’re not seasick are you? That does it, his words seem to trigger my feeling. My stomach churns, growls, begins to contract wildly, I jump up and run desperately for the side with my hand over my mouth, and I feed the fish my box lunch in wild contorted heaves. I hear nothing in my agony until the laughter and cajoling of the workers and my shipmates filters through to awaken me. The great warrior, reduced in a little more than 30 minutes to the lowest form of life, immobilized by the relative calm of Oyster Bay. I don’t want to see the grandeur of 60 foot waves spraying across my valiant ship, and we conquering Father Neptune’ worst. I do not want to be a warrior either, I would rather stay home and read about sailors and sea battles. Slipping pitifully to the deck and collapsing against the guard rail in sitting position I know this is how I will die, the JAPS will never get me.

At 0700, next day, the loud speaker blasts; whoo eeee, a shrill whistle like sound; the boatswain’s (pronounced boat suns) ever ear- piercing pipe always precedes an announcement. “NOW HEAR THIS. All hands will be in dress blues and muster on the fantail in one hour for commissioning ceremonies”. The Navy likes tradition and ceremony . They commission a ship for duty just like they commission an officer. A ship is not in the Navy until it’s commissioned. Right on time Admiral somebody begins to speak. “In accordance with Naval Regulation 300.6 of the Sea Manifest first written in 1776 etc., I commission you the DD 674, USS HUNT a fighting destroyer of the United States Navy”. Applause. Then; “Commander Mitchell, with this flag I charge you with this command. May you lead this mighty ship and its valiant crew (he should have been at Oyster Bay) to victory against the enemy”. Finally, whoo eeee now hear this. All hands secure from commissioning ceremonies and turn to (work). Why don’t they just say it is over or something?

The scuttlebutt has it we are going to shakedown cruise to Bermuda. I find out that ‘shakedown’ is an exercise to work out the bugs in a new ship by putting it through all its’ paces. It is also a workout for the crew to familiarize them with the handling and operation of the ship. The crew must become expert in operating and maintaining the ship in peak performance in preparation for wartime activity. Concurrently the crew must be trained to switch immediately from routine chores to fighting readiness at any moment and in seconds from alarm (General Quarters). We will train to man and shoot our guns at sea and air targets and learn to detect, maneuver, trap and sink enemy subs. A Navy ships’ existence is to act as a mobile platform for its armament and shelter its crew. Its crew must support its ship, love it, take care of it, respect it, be proud of it. The shakedown cruise consummates the marriage of ship and crew as on a honeymoon.

Friday morning, 0630 hours. Whoo eeee, whoo eeee, now hear this, set the special sea detail, secure all loose gear and prepare to get underway. Oh! shit, is this the start of the shakedown, I’m not ready to go yet? Hey guns, where’re we going? We’re going to a provisioning ship to load stores (food) and then to the ammo depot to fill our magazines, Legato, so get ready to work. Jeez, with food and ammo we’ll be ready for war. I shiver at the ominous meaning. What used to be glorious fantasy now comes closer to reality. But why worry now, it will be a long time before we are ready to fight and we are nowhere near the war zone. <p>

In an hour we tie up to the provisioning ship. Soon after, work details are drawn from all the gangs;  gunners mates, torpedo men, radio men etc. All hands up to 1st class petty officers are included, with the 1st class and chiefs as leaders. We work five hours without stopping before we are through. I never knew how much food 329 men need for a month’s supply. When all supplies are aboard and stowed we take a break.  Oh boy, a rest and a smoke, how good it feels.

We get under way immediately. I do not want to think of the ammo now. We pull alongside a large barge and tie up. What! we’re here already? Only a half hours rest, God, I’m still tired. Don’t they know a skinny 125 pound kid like me needs more rest? Alright Legato, let’s go, get off your ass and go aft. This is our stuff so pay attention. The red flag of warning is flown from the halyard. The smoking lamp is out and extraordinary safety measures are observed when loading ammunition. We have to load 5 inch projectiles, powder cases to go with them, 40MM projectiles and 20MM shells. Depth charges for the K guns (these are used to hurl depth charges from the sides of the ship) and larger depth charges to be rolled off the stern of the ship. Also about 25 torpedoes for our two torpedo launchers (5 torpedoes each). We are armed with five 5 inch guns, five 40MM guns, seven 20MM guns besides the 6 K guns and two depth charge ramps astern, and of course the torpedo launchers. We really work our ass off this time, 8 hours and the breaks are so short they don’t even count. We eat sandwiches and drink joe (coffee to you landlubbers). It is so late we had to rig up lights for us to see. My arms and legs ache, my back won’t straighten, my muscles move mechanically, and the ammo comes without end. The radio is playing a popular propaganda song “praise the lord and pass the ammunition”. I decide not to throw a 20MM shell at the friggin speaker. Finally, some one yells, “here’s the heavy one” and the work gang cheers, the last shell is aboard. Where’s my friggin bunk, I’m going to sack out forever and no one better come near me. Ah! natures blessing, rest at last. My body seems to thank me as my muscles and bones reposition themselves into comfort patterns. I begin to dose immediately. HEY LEGATO, I want you to check out the 20MM magazines before you crap out (go to sleep). Jeez chief I’m dead and it is 10 o’clock at night. Don’t give me that shit Legato, I’ll tell you when you’re dead, get moving.

The following day we really start the shakedown. We set the special sea detail at daybreak and head out to sea. As the shore line shrinks behind us, the recognizable features blend together into an unrecognizable mass that becomes the first sight of land when returning to port. Fortunately, the sea is not rough, (not to be compared to Oyster Bay rough at all), and so the feeling of unsteadiness and the inner ear imbalance creeps slower to sea sickness than usual. I fight the feeling, for I must survive. We were instructed earlier that we would go to general quarters (red alert) without notice and how important it is to reach our battle stations (assigned earlier) as quickly as possible. In war ‘there is only the quick and the dead’, we were told. Mid-morning and suddenly; dong, dong, dong, dong in quick succession, the gong clangs the alarm. Now hear this, general quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations. I look around. Instant chaos and mass confusion prevails. Men running frantically in both directions up and down the narrow deck. It reminds me of bargain basement shopping back home. The veterans are yelling “you morons, up the starboard down the port”. Everyone seems lost in their haste; where’s number three quad? Is the starboard 20MM amidships on the right or left? Thank god it is only a drill. I’m no better off, I find number three five inch gun, it is amidships on the upper deck. Since I can count to three and it’s the biggest gun aboard it only takes me 8 minutes. But getting there I would go in one direction and be pushed to the other. I find a ladder to go up but there are more coming down. I finally get into the shield. Hey Colly, I’m the gun captain, what the hell does he do? He looks at me with disdain and fears for his life to think his life may be in my hands during battle. You jerk, I thought you were a gunners mate, put the goddamn phones on and report to control that number three is manned and ready. Okay, that’s easy, where’s the phones. Over there dammit, in the box. Oh yeah, I guess they go on like this. How do you plug them into the wall plug. Idiot, they’re voice powered and already plugged in; just press the talk button and talk. You do know how to talk, don’t you? “Jeez, this will probably be my second ship sunk from under me”, he says. I’m so busy I forget to get seasick. A short time later; whoo eeee, whoo eeee, now hear this, this is your captain. You only took 16 minutes to man your battle stations. By this time we would all be in the deep six (six fathoms down in the sea). Before I’m through with you it will only take you 15 seconds, and your ass will be draggin till you do. That is all, carry on. Needless to say, by the end of the shakedown we were down to 18 seconds, but later during battle alerts we sometimes broke the 10 second barrier.

It took us three days to reach Bermuda. Normally on a straight run it is an 18 hour cruise. I really can’t recall many events after the first day, I was so sick that I stayed the rest of the time at my battle station. The gun is completely enclosed by the gun shield and I crapped out on the bench the whole time, so that when general quarters sounded I would be there. We had frequent gunnery practice and each time the guns are fired they must be completely disassembled and cleaned. The chief, after several futile attempts to inveigle me out of my gun station to clean my guns (I had all seven assigned to me) gave up. The last retort was, “OK Legato, I guess you don’t give a shit if you live or die the way you feel, so there’s no sense putting you on report”. I couldn’t believe he was so human, but he was right, I hoped I would be reincarnated when we docked.

When we finally approached Bermuda and the crew first sighted land, strangely I got up and began feeling better. I hadn’t eaten for three days (the smell of food is nauseating when you are sea sick) except for an occasional apple or poggy bait (candy bar) offered to me by sympathetic shipmates. I looked and felt terrible, but latter on in port; fed, showered, and shaved I was reincarnated. I found out that more than half the crew were just as sick as me. To survive such an ordeal is akin to being victorious in battle. The rest of the cruise lasted three weeks with frequent three to seven day trips. While I never in my years aboard got over my propensity to sea sickness, I was able to acclimate myself to the sea and achieved status as sailor and warrior, US Navy.

Now the honeymoon is over. We head for the Panama Canal to cross into the Pacific and make port at Pearl Harbor on Christmas eve day, 1943. We are to participate in all the major battles and invasions of the Pacific under Admirals Halsey and Mitchner. A job Well Done.