This story began on November 28, 1937, in Ottumwa, Iowa, at the US Navy recruiter's
office. I was in the company of a number of young fellows about my age who were about
ready to become sea going sailors for the next four years. I was a very mature young man,
being roughly six months out of high school, having traded a scholarship to the University
of Iowa to study architecture for a more adventurous "education" in the Navy. What I was
really after was a chance to fly and to learn the radio communication game.
A couple of days later we found ourselves with very short haircuts, in sailor's garb, on the
drill field at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Waukegan, Illinois, learning how to
perform the manual of arms with a nine pound rifle. If we could last it out for three
months, we could then expect to graduate and be assigned to regular shipboard duty. There
were a number of technical schools that one could request with no assurance of being
assigned to any. There was a communication school in San Diego that sounded great. It
was in southern California; it was near North Island Naval Air Station; and they taught
radio code and operating procedures. Request it I did, and prayed a lot I also did.
Two and a half months went by. It was bitter cold near Lake Michigan. Christmas dinner
was a highlight, however. The biggest thrill was the midnight watch where I stood guard at
the two hangars on the north side of the training station. Thinking back, I'm sure the
Station Commandant kept those two training planes there just to entice "boots" like me.
Seaman third class, P.A.McKinley at
Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Waukegan, Ill.
With graduation getting closer by the week and with a possible assignment to the comm
school, everything was beginning to look up. There were still the Friday field days and
those inhumane early Saturday morning white glove inspections to deal with, not to
mention having to learn to sleep in canvas hammocks. I was even getting quite good at
company drill with that big rifle. Then it happened. Appendicitis - how could that pain in
my right side be that? The sick bay didn't give me a chance. This was where they were
going to shape me up for sea duty. So I spent the next five days in the local Naval Hospital
where a hypo in the back and quick removal of the problem put me in good shape again.
In a week's time I found myself back on the drill field but with a new company. Well,
graduate I did. California, here I come!
The train ride from Waukegan to San Diego was just a minor improvement over the days of
the covered wagon. The first day was filled with jockeying of sea bags and seats. The
route took us through Kansas City, then out through the hot, dusty, Spanish speaking
towns of the southwest. It took several days to get to San Diego with the open train
windows, and great quantities of soot and dust.
San Diego was even more than I had hoped for. My first look at the real Navy was from
the Naval Training Center bus while riding along the San Diego waterfront. There were
destroyers and supply ships tied up right down town. Just across the bay, docked at North
Island, was a monstrous real life aircraft carrier. It was a brief first view, but those light
gray hulls left a vivid impression to this day. I was in Navy country, no doubt about it.
Being a part of the Naval Training Center complex, the Comm school was then much as it
is today. The architecture followed the Spanish influence of arched outside walls with a
walkway immediately inside the arches. Cool in the summer and good protection when it
rains. It remains my favorite style of construction to this day. The Training Center was
replete with big, well cared for lawns, lots of tropical foliage with a palm tree now and
then, and best of all, the fresh ocean breeze blowing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Looking across the bay toward North Island Air Station, one could see an occasional
carrier based torpedo plane, commonly known as the TBD, or perhaps an SBD dive
bomber, making a final approach to the field. The school had it's own docks on the bay
with a small fleet of Navy whaleboats rigged for sailing. No hammocks, now we had
bunks. To say that this innocent but "mature" kid from Iowa was impressed would have
been the understatement of the century.
Semaphore instruction at the comm school, San Diego
The comm school was fun. We learned the Morse Code and how to send and receive
messages according to Navy procedure. We practiced semaphore, blinker light signaling,
and memorized the signal flags used to control fleet maneuvers. When Chief Warnock
found that I had experience in electronics, I was encouraged to repair a few radios for the
instructors now and then. That brought some extra privileges. I had a head start on typing
and the code when I entered the school, so was able to occasionally skip a class now and
then for some of the back room activities. I had a tough time keeping my photo developing
operation out of sight.
At the Communication School, San Diego
The spring season in San Diego was made for people. The cold winter on the drill field
back in Great Lakes seemed like a bad dream that I never wanted to go back to. Sailing on
North Bay however, was just the greatest. The exercise was well disciplined, and we did
learn to handle a Navy whaleboat. The whaleboat was a long heavy craft, a double ender.
It carried about eight sailors, some working and some looking on. The boat rigged out to
do a fair job of sailing particularly in a ocean environment. Compared to a modern sport
sailboat, it would be considered heavy and a little clumsy but it was rugged for good
Navy whaleboats at the Comm School
It was on one of these sailing days that we got an early look at real life Naval Aviation.
I was watching a torpedo bomber making his final approach to North Island. He was at
about 500 feet altitude and about a mile from touchdown. At that time, the Navy was
experimenting with a system of rubber inflation devices installed within the wings of these
aircraft. In case of forced landing at sea these were intended to be inflated to keep the
plane afloat. In this instance, the pilot was at the point in his approach where he would
normally have lowered his flaps. Instead of operating his flaps, he apparently pulled the
flotation device actuator because I saw a big orange rubber balloon billow out of his wing.
With the lift destroyed, the plane slowed and started to fall. The Douglas TBD carried a
crew of three, a pilot, a radio man, and a torpedo man. We saw only one parachute
followed by a big black column of smoke from the crash. That was a grim crew that tied
up the whaleboat that afternoon.
Like boot camp in Great Lakes, I had made many friends over the short time that I was
in Communication School only to see them disappear into the many different assignments
of duty upon graduation. In my case, I was being transferred to the USS San Francisco as
a signalman. Great ship, but I was not getting any closer to aviation. With orders in hand, I
boarded a Navy transport and experienced my first sea voyage from San Diego to Long
Beach Harbor. There I boarded the USS San Francisco, saluted the colors, and reported to
the Officer of the Day, for my first sea duty. It was a beautiful California day in mid
September 1938. There was no way of knowing at that time, that this would be my home
for the next four years along with some good and some very bad times.
Airing bedding was a weekly ritual
The USS San Francisco was completed at Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo, California,
the 23 day of April, 1934, at a cost of $12,000,000. A heavy cruiser, she was a sister ship
of the USS Minneapolis, the USS Tuscaloosa and the USS New Orleans. Being 588 feet
long, 62 feet wide, with a 20 foot draft, her total displacement including 1650 tons of fuel
oil was just under 10,000 tons. Four Westinghouse turbines drove the four propellers
developing a total of 107,000 horsepower. Flank design speed was listed as 32.7 knots.
On speed run tests, I well remember figures of 32 knots, during which time the fantail
would dance up and down eight inches or so. She did ramble.
The heavy cruiser USS San Francisco
The USS San Francisco was well armed. The gun complement included three turrets,
each with six inch thick armor plate walls. Each turret mounted a set of three "rifles" of
eight inch bore for a total of nine guns. The projectiles that these guns fired weighed 250
pounds each and had a muzzle velocity of 3000 feet per second. The impact energy of one
of these shells when it struck the target calculates out to be 16,240 foot tons. These guns
were loaded from inside the turrets, from the magazines below. The projectile went in the
breech first followed by two bags of powder, each two and a half feet long, all by
automatic loading devices. They were fired from Fire Control Central located atop the
bridge area, although they could be aimed and fired locally. There was a secondary Fire
Control Center atop the after superstructure. These big guns were never fired straight fore
nor aft since they were designed only to be fired somewhat near broadsides.
Along each side of the ship were positioned guns of five inch caliber. These were used
for close-in fighting and more particularly antiaircraft defense.
Sketch of the ship's layout
To complete the arsenal, a number of 20mm and 40mm
antiaircraft guns were placed at strategic points around the vessel. The powder magazines
for all these guns were located in the bilges, in armor protected areas. A shell for the five
inch guns consisted of a brass case that contained both powder and projectile. The shells
were moved from the various powder magazines up through the deck to the gun positions
through pipe elevators, then loaded into the guns by hand.
The navigation and handling of the ship was done under normal conditions, from the
bridge. The ship's command center during battle, reverted to the conning tower, located at
the fore parts of the signal bridge. This eight foot diameter room was actually an eight
inch thick steel armor plate cylinder, with small horizontal slits about head height, to
permit visibility. It reminded me of a medieval fortification. On more than one occasion
during peacetime, it provided a great place to catch a short snooze.
Signalman friend by the flagbag
The signal bridge from which all flag signals, semaphore, and blinker communication
emanated, was just below the navigation bridge. The operational radio room was located
below the signal bridge, or the first level above the main deck. Decks of the ship
contained three inch armor plate. Five inch armor was fitted along the sides of the vessel at
and just above the waterline.