Below decks, the officer's quarters, the ward room, the officer's mess, the flag admiral
quarters, and the skipper's quarters were all in the forward area under the bridge. Midships
area included the crew's galley, the mess hall and supporting shops such as the laundry,
barber shop, post office, and the PX (ship's department store). Below the mess hall, in the
bottom of the ship, was the engine room with the propulsion machinery, and further aft,
the huge reduction gears which drove the propeller shafts. The rudder control machinery
was located in the stern of the ship's bilge, directly under the Chief Petty Officer's quarters.
Fuel tanks and supplies store rooms filled the remainder of the bilge area.
Personnel complement for wartime conditions totaled 1200 officers and men. The
crew's quarters occupied the first deck down, in the aft portion of the ship. Chief Petty
Officers were bunked in the stern. The crew slept in bunks and used lockers for clothes
storage. The bunks were three high, suspended on chains from the overhead, and could be
folded up in order that the space could be made available for daytime use. Quarters were
quite adequate since the bulk of the time was spent topside or on duty when not "sacking
The crew's compartment
The midships "well deck" and aircraft hanger along with two steam operated catapults,
were set up to handle the four SOC-2 scout planes. These catapults consisted of a rotatable
rail structure mounted atop a thick steel cylindrical tower located on each side of the well
deck. A plane would be lifted by a crane to a cart mounted on the catapult rails and secured
by quick release hooks. On launch, the plane was revved up to full RPM, then the catapult
was fired. At the end of the track, the cart hit stops and the aircraft was flying.
Acceleration of the aircraft was from 0 to 60 MPH in a distance of 70 feet. The pilot
would sit erect with his head braced against a rest while the radio man would lean forward,
head down, and grab a set of hand hold brackets. Flaps and wind always helped. For
launch, we usually had at least a 15 to 20 knot wind due to the ship's speed plus any
natural wind. The aircraft had a speed of at least 75 knots when initially airborne.
Looking aft from the signal bridge toward the catapults
Atop the hanger were situated the aircraft handling cranes and further aft, the radio
transmitter shack and above that, the Secondary Fire Control station. Aft of the hangar was
a big flat deck, referred to as the fantail deck. The after eight inch gun turret filled the
center of this deck. All the weather decks aboard the ship were made up of two inch thick
by three inch wide oak planks laid over the armor deck with about a half inch of caulking
between the planks.
Each week, seamen were assigned to "holy stone" these decks. This operation consisted
of polishing the decks with a sand stone brick with hole in the middle of it. Each sailor had
a long stick not unlike a broom stick, to push and pull the stone fore and aft on the deck.
Salt water was used as a lubricant. The net result, other than a lot of sweat, some of which
was mine, was that of a beautiful outdoor floor. The fantail deck was a great place to
lounge, play cards, or otherwise enjoy the sea air, the sunshine, the sea gulls and the blue
Pacific. As the seasoned hands used to comment when describing the USS San Francisco,
"She's a home and a feeder".
On reporting to the ship, I was assigned to the signal gang as a seaman signalman. My
duties involved sending messages to and from other fleet and shore stations by semaphore,
by blinker lights, by blinker search light, and when on fleet maneuvers, by signal flags
hoisted at the forward mast. I was a part of a signal staff of twenty one signalmen, and
dubbed a signal striker, second class. Although it was not flying, I was close to airplanes.
Signaling was a lot of fun. We had one of the best work stations on the ship, that being just
below the navigation bridge. We had a wide open view of every activity and were in on a
good part of what went on from the command point of view. The signal bridge was fitted
with chained platforms that protruded out over the ship's sides to give an unrestricted line
of sight. They made great diving platforms whenever we would stop for a swim in the
tropics. We were well equipped. There was a powerful telescope on each side of the
bridge for reading distant semaphore, and for identifying ships even when they were "hull
down" beyond the horizon.
Semaphore was used extensively for close in ship-to-ship work. One signalman would
send or receive the visual message and a second would read or copy the message for him.
It was a very efficient way to pass messages without breach of security. A twelve inch
blinker search light was used in the daytime for long distance visual communication. We
would routinely work ships as much as ten to twelve miles away, sometimes hull down
below the horizon. There were occasions when we would use the big carbon arc
searchlight for long distant messages. One night, not long after I came aboard, we were
anchored off the island of San Clemente. Communication was established with a ship
moored in San Diego harbor by aiming the searchlight over the horizon and reflecting the
beam off clouds. That was a distance of over 80 nautical miles.
Under night time blackout conditions, we would use a blinker gun consisting of a tube
four inches in diameter and about two feet long. In one end was a flashlight which could
be triggered on and off. By aiming the gun at the intended receiver, he could read your
message. The general night time mode of signaling between ships was done by the blinker
lights mounted on the yardarms. When there was no traffic to pass, we used them for "rag
chewing" with neighboring vessels.
During fleet maneuvers we were usually the "flag command" of our group, which
meant we had the admiral in charge of our cruiser division aboard. Fleet tactical messages
were sent to the other ships in our formation during daylight hours, by means of signal
flags hoisted to the fore yard arm. There was a flag with an individual pattern for each
letter of the alphabet and for each number. These flags were roughly eighteen inches
square and arranged with rings at the upper edge and snaps on the bottom. They could be
snapped to a halyard, then snapped together in any combination, and hoisted up to the
yardarm for the other ships to read.
These flags were stored in an oblong box, one on each side of the bridge, just under the
yardarms. It was a fast operation to "bend on" and run up a signal combination to the rest
of the division once the command was given. Commands that were passed during
maneuvers could mean such things as "reduce speed to 10 knots", "cease making smoke",
or "turn 9" for a ninety degree turn. One command that was definitely not the crew's
favorite was the turn nine signal executed right at noon when most of the crew were at the
folding tables down in the mess hall. It seemed that one of the flag officers occasionally
insisted on changing course right at noon time. At normal cruise speed, a sharp, ninety
degree turn would result in a roll of about 18 degrees list. All the mess tables, food, dishes,
and sailors would be piled up in one side of the mess hall. That maneuver in olden times
may well have been the origination of the word "mess".
The fall of 1938 was spent in and out of Long Beach practicing tactical maneuvers and
in gunnery practice. At that time, we were with three other heavy cruisers which made up
Division 6. For gunnery runs, we were operating around the San Clemente Island area,
firing at targets being towed by tugs or other utility vessels. All nine of the eight inch guns
were fired simultaneously at targets usually eight to nine miles away. When the big guns
fired, the whole ship felt as if it were moving sideways through the water by at least a foot.
Along with the overpowering noise of the blast, each firing was accompanied by a ball of
fire from each turret of some fifty feet in diameter. It was impressive. The smaller caliber
five inch guns were exercised at closer range on similar targets. During gunnery practice,
there were always maneuvering signals and a great deal of communication.
It was during this period of operation that I got my first look at cruiser aviation. Our
aircraft were catapulted each morning to either spot the results of the ship's gunnery or to
go off and practice their own aerial gunnery. The launching was always interesting and the
"Cast Recovery" of the aircraft was a show. We had a front row seat on the signal bridge.
Landing for a Cast recovery
For the recovery, the ship would trail a sea sled along side and position a crane directly
over the sled. The ship would then make a turn into the wind toward the side where the
sled was rigged, creating a slick on the surface where the pilot could land.
Cast recovery hookup
Once the landing was accomplished, the pilot would taxi up to the sea sled, run up onto
the sled and hook the nose of his pontoon into the sled's net. At that point, the pilot would
cut the engine, the radio man would jump up out of the rear cockpit and climb forward to
stand just over the pilot. He would then remove the lifting eye from the compartment on
the top wing, grab the crane’s hook and snap it into the lifting eye.
If all went well, the crane operator would lift the aircraft up to the catapult and they were
ready to go again. It was amazing how often it worked quite well. A rough sea made it
very tough, sometimes the pontoon would not catch or would come unhooked due to
rough seas. With the engine dead, it could be very embarrassing. The radio man had his
hands full of the crane hook and the lifting eye at a very crucial time. I had a great
opportunity to learn the basics by just watching from the bridge.
Friday was field day aboard ship where every one "turned to" and cleaned up their areas.
Field day was followed on Saturday morning by Captain's inspection. The entire crew
lined up like "two rows of corn" at their assigned areas, and underwent a "white glove"
looking over by the Skipper and the Executive Officer. It was dress whites or blues, with
clean everything including neat haircuts and shined shoes.
Long Beach was a good liberty town. Liberty usually started on Saturday just after
completion of inspection. Sailors made it ashore via the two big motor launches that were
normally stored atop the hangar deck. A gangway was situated on one side of the well
deck from which boats could be boarded. The ship's liberty boats were big rugged boats
open to the weather. If it rained, you were wet, but of course it never rained in California.
These boats were constructed of thick oak sides and fitted with Gray Marine diesel engines.
A captain's gig furnished transportation for the captain and other officer personnel. That
boat was smaller, and a little faster, and was enclosed to the weather. In Long Beach
harbor one could get a water taxi for a fee. If you missed the last liberty boat back to the
ship at night, you could buy your way back to the ship. Adherence to liberty hours and
assigned duty was strict. One could arrange a swap of duty with a buddy, but a missed
duty watch or late return to the ship was an AWOL which meant a Captain's Mast with loss
of liberty, loss of pay, or if repetitive, brig time, or even a reduction in rating.
The Captain’s gig
During this period of the fall of 1938, I had just begun to get acquainted with Long
Beach and the Los Angeles area. I had made it ashore about three or four times to discover
things like the big red P & E streetcars when it was announced that we were getting under
way for San Francisco to go into Mare Island for a week of ship overhaul.
Mare Island is located at the north end of the San Francisco Bay, near the small town of
Vallejo, about an hour and a half's ride at that time, to the big city. I saw the bottom of the
ship for the first time in dry dock, as a matter of fact, I got a very close look at it. I
received my first experience at scraping the barnacles off the bottom and applying red lead
paint right there at Mare Island. We soon found the whole purpose of this cleanup
operation was to put the ship in good condition for a trip to the east coast for duty there.
Our stay in San Francisco was very brief. I remember getting ashore for a one day walk
up Market Street and a ride on the old cable cars. Next thing that I was aware of, I was on
the signal bridge watching the Golden Gate bridge disappear aft of us into the mist of the
bay as we began to feel the ground swells of the hazy Pacific Ocean. A short stop in Long
Beach and then it was off to the sunny south and Panama. When we left for the east coast,
I was still a seaman second class, signalman striker attached to the signal gang.
Our boss of the signal gang was a Chief Signalman that wore many hash marks of his
left sleeve indicating that he had been in the Navy for at least 100 years. For every four
years of service another hash mark was added. An old time Chief in the Navy had it made.
His word was law. To make Chief Petty Officer, I was going to have to pass through the
ratings of seaman 1st class, 3rd, 2nd and 1st class signalman, then to Chief. For the long
term, an enlisted man could set a goal of eventually achieving the rank just above Chief
P.O., that of Warrant Officer. Finally if he lived long enough, he might make the rank of
Commissioned Chief Warrant Officer. There weren't many of that breed around in the
peacetime Navy. They called Commissioned Warrants "mustangs" and rightly so, since
they were self made men, and were considered the ultimate authority on technical and
traditional matters of the regular Navy.
My goals were still relatively simple in that I first wanted to fly and secondly, wanted as
much radio communication experience as I could get before my four years were up and I
returned to civilian life. Being a Navy signalman for the rest of my career was just not part
Seaman second class, McKinley
Our first passage through the Panama Canal was a true tourist treat with the Gailard Cut,
the locks, Lake Gatun and all. It was hot and it was very humid. We hadn't had that kind
of climate in California. The city of Colon is located on the Atlantic side of the canal. We
docked there for a short, one day stay where I received my first taste of sidewalk bargaining
for not so valuable souvenirs.
The trip from Colon to Norfolk was uneventful. We occasionally saw an island or a cay
and lots of the blue Gulf Stream. I do remember the Latin dance band music from the
radios that filled the warm nights down around Cuba. It was cold and wet when we tied up
at the Norfolk Navy Yard a few days later. It was January of 1939.
Initial operation around Norfolk involved weekday exercises at sea in navigation and
division maneuvers, as well as the ever present Navy Yard work. In March of 1939, the
flag command of Cruiser Division 7 was transferred aboard. When Admiral Kimmel was
piped aboard, he brought a staff of several officer aides with him, however his signaling
crew was to be made up of ship's personnel. So that is how I happened to find my self
assigned to Admiral Kimmel's staff. He was, later on, the Admiral in Command of the
Pacific Fleet in Honolulu in 1941 when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, and was
promptly relieved of his Command a few days later by President Roosevelt.
Admiral Kimmel at work
My job as a signalman continued on as usual with no change. From this time on, I made
a point of spending my spare time around the Radio Communication shack, copying code,
observing procedures, and in general, getting to know the personnel. My uniform now
indicated that I was a seaman 1st class, but still a signalman.