GOOD WILL TO SOUTH AMERICA
Early April brought a new level of excitement to the crew. The USS San Francisco and
two other heavy cruisers of Division 7, the USS Quincy and the USS Tuscaloosa were
for a good will cruise around South America. From Norfolk, we steamed down around the
east end of Cuba to Guantanamo Bay which was located on the south eastern side of that
island. At that time, we were on the best of relations with Cuba, had a big Marine base
there at Guantanamo, an airfield, and a ship anchorage. After taking on food and fuel
supplies, we set out for La Guaira, Venezuela, and the capital Caracas. Arriving at the
seaport of La Guaira, we were greeted by a local sportsman flying a Ryan ST and doing all
kinds of acrobatics around the ship. The harbor had its share of local seagoing peddlers, all
selling souvenirs from their boats alongside.
The harbor lies at the base of a nearly vertical cliff covered with vegetation and rising
out of the sea to an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet. The city of Caracas was just over the top
of the cliff. It was a wild taxi ride up the narrow road on that cliff. One could go to the
west along the coast for twenty or so miles then take a better road up, but that, of course
was the coward's way out. Looking back down on La Guaira from the road, one could see
the numerous hovels of rusty, corrugated iron roofs, weather worn plywood, and cardboard
cartons that made up the homes of several thousand inhabitants. It was my first look at
poverty in the raw. Once in Caracas, we spent the afternoon enjoying the cool altitude of
the city, ogling the senoritas, and trying out our impromptu Spanish on the natives. After
picking up a few souvenirs, we then braved the ride back down the cliff, much of which
was in a heavy fog by this time.
Next morning found us getting underway for Rio de Janeiro. Already there were rumors
going around ship as to the terrible punishment that the Pollywogs were in for in the days
just ahead. A Pollywog is an uninitiated Shellback, or in other words, a sailor that has
never been across the equator. My well earned certificate of recognition as a Trusty
Shellback is dated April 17, 1939, and signed by Davy Jones himself. It came not without
great pain and trauma.
The scene was on the equator at west longitude 37-00-00 aboard the USS San Francisco.
That initiation into the order of Shellbacks took all day. To start the rites off, candidates
were liberally covered with grease. They were then run through multiple gauntlet lines
where each Shellback had a long blackjack like canvas sock that was filled with sand and
cotton and soaked in saltwater to increase the effect. There were black and blue blotches
inflicted that day that didn't go away for several weeks.
The Shellback's gauntlet line
There was the case of a cocky new Ensign that found his mustache full of aircraft dope
which was allowed to cure in place. He spent the following week trying to rid himself of
Each Pollywog faced a judgment tribunal that would order special punishment such as
being buried alive in a saltwater filled coffin, or being forced to eat a mixture of mustard
and motor oil, or having to go back through the gauntlet line, or being flushed full in the
face with the ship's fire hose, and on and on. Some were posted as lookouts in boatswain's
chairs suspended from the big guns on the turrets, others took up watch on the well deck
dressed as aviators in shorts with full flying gear.
Pollywogs begging for mercy
When the Shellbacks felt that you had experienced enough, they ran each of us through
a purifying session which involved taking a seat on the edge of a big tank of saltwater.
This seat was arranged to tip over backwards and dump the occupant into the tank. Before
you were dispatched, you were force fed a mixture of mustard, horse radish, and other tasty
concoctions with a tire pump type syringe.
Pollywog purification by oil and mustard
King Neptune and His tribunal
You did get a mouth full. Once you had ingested the lot, then it was
into the tank and saltwater. There in the tank, ten Shellback attendants were waiting to see
that you were adequately washed by being held under for a proper amount of time. As you
were tossed up on the side of the tank, belly down, there was a liberal application of
paddles until you could scramble down and away. One more trip through the gauntlet line
completed the initiation rites. We all lived through it, but there were some very tender
sailors until we arrived in Rio. Once Corcovado hove into view, the new Shellbacks were
not thinking of the punishment they had received the few days back.
Final cleansing of the Pollywogs
Shellback subpoena and summons
Rio de Janeiro in 1939 was one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. We "stood
into" the harbor area about 0700 on a sunny morning with a few wisps of fog here and
there. The entrance to Rio brings you directly in toward Copacabana Beach with the big
resort hotels forming a local backdrop. Above that scene was the peak of Corcovado, the
local name for hunchback. On this peak was a massive concrete statue of Christ with
outstretched arms overlooking the city. As we neared the beach, we made a turn to the
starboard, moving us into the Rio harbor proper. Progressing up the bay, we passed Sugar
Loaf Mountain with its ascending cable cars, then on around to the dock area for tie up.
There was quite a reception waiting for us, confetti, a marching band, fireboats with their
geysers, whistles and all. The scenery on entering the harbor from the sea is much the
same today as it was then, I'm told. Probably many more resort hotels ring the crescent
shaped, mile long Copacabana Beach today, as compared to 1939.
Our stay of five days in Rio was one of official meetings and parties for the Admiral and
the ship's officers. The awnings for the fantail area came out of storage. The ship's band
furnished dance music for the afternoon teas and evening parties aboard. Looking back, it
was obvious now that there was a great deal of social politicking and "good will" being
spread for the influential VIPs. We sailors were still somewhat naive at that time as to the
awareness of what was taking place in Europe. It was not yet September 1, 1939, which
was the day that Hitler crossed into Poland, starting World War II. Roosevelt was
maintaining neutrality. It was still the "good ole days" as far as we were concerned.
In reality, I didn't see much of the shipboard formalities except for the few times that I
was tied down with the duty. Most of the time in Rio was spent sight seeing. There was a
trip up Sugar Loaf Mountain for a grand look at the city, and touring of the tin shack
poverty area on the north side of town, which I understand is still there today only much
larger. Shopping in Rio was a pleasure after the home crafted souvenirs of Caracas.
Workmanship here was much more finished and professionally done. For example they
used brilliant blue butterfly wings to form decorative surfaces for tea trays and jewelry. I
believe that we still have one of those trays around home somewhere.
The weather in Rio during the summer was quite warm but pleasant; lots of sunshine.
The American sailor was received just as warmly. People in Rio were very metropolitan,
even back then. The average man on the street was very well dressed. The gals appeared
trim, well manicured, well dressed and attractive. The downtown streets were alive with
people and traffic all day. Rio was a jumping town then, I wonder what it is today?
With Portuguese being the principal language of Rio, we had to start all over again but
managed to make it. In the contacts that we did make, where English was spoken, we
found that it was very precise British Isles flavor, certainly not American style. The
explanation that we received was that many of the older business men had immigrated from
England, married into local Indian blood lines and consequently had a strong influence in
the training of those of the younger generation. It was an interesting experience to be in
conversation with a dark brown, well groomed, Indian appearing young lady and hear
perfect king's English. Rio was fun. No one wanted to leave when we hauled in the
gangway, and got under way for the next stop, Montevideo.
Montevideo lies across the Rio de la Plata about 110 miles from Buenos Aires. This
was the port that later became famous during World War II for harboring the German
pocket battleship, the Graf Spee, only to see her scuttled, at sea nearby, to prevent British
capture. This city was not as big as Rio but was a very industrious place. A good bit of
American money was at work there, even in 1939. The Swift Packing Company operated a
major meat packing plant here, supplying the world market with South American beef from
the inland plains of Uruguay and Argentina.
With only one day of liberty, we did a quick take of the local scenery, tried a couple of
cafes and were off to Buenos Aires. We departed the dock at Montevideo promptly at
midnight. After clearing the harbor with the aid of our big carbon arc search lights to spot
channel buoys, a course was set due west for Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata. The
next morning found us in the middle of the river about half way to our destination.
The river was muddy, so muddy that we had the illusion of being stuck in a mud bank in
the middle of the ocean, since we were out of sight of any land. We docked at Buenos
Aires that afternoon accompanied by another display of bands and confetti. I recall
Buenos Aires as a beautiful city with wide streets, broad decorated walks, stately buildings,
lush public parks with many statues, and a city full of friendly people. It was a busy place
but with not quite the feverish activity that we saw in Rio de Janeiro.
I particularly recall an afternoon dinner in a plush garden restaurant that couldn't be
topped by the best today. The restaurant, called "LA CABANA" at 436 Entre Rios al 454,
has probably long since disappeared but back then, their steak dinner was the best.
La Cabana restaurant
The social activity with the local VIPs and the officer's parties aboard ship followed the
same pattern as before. It was here is Buenos Aires where a selected group of enlisted men,
of whom I was one, spent a great afternoon at one of the local estates as a guest of one of
the Argentine VIPs. The family just wanted to do something nice for the United States, so
had arranged a party for a few of the enlisted men. I recall the great quantities of delicious
food served at long tables on the huge green lawn, the servants attending to the food and
drink, the monstrous home, and the beautiful riding horses behind their white corral
fences. Buenos Aires was not far from hundreds of big ranches and the cowboy country of
the Pampas to the west.
The last evening in town was spent in having dinner at a local night club. We had met
an English speaking jewelry merchant in Montevideo that had agreed to have dinner with
us over in Buenos Aires. When we met him at the restaurant, he had with him a couple of
local senoritas that were anxious to meet the American sailors. We gladly obliged. We
had a fine dinner, heard lots of rhumbas, tangos, and congas, however as the evening wore
on, we almost turned into pumpkins. We were due back on the ship at midnight
preparatory to getting underway early the next morning for Valparaiso, Chile. We paid off
the taxi and stepped aboard at 23:59 with one minute to go.
To get to Valparaiso, we were going to have to sail down to the tip of South America,
then through the Straits of Magellan and back up the Pacific side to Valparaiso. Little did
we know what was in store for our three heavy cruisers during the next few days at sea, off
the Patagonian Coast.
Departing Buenos Aires at an early hour, it was back into the muddy Rio de la Plata and
on out to sea. The weather was overcast, almost foreboding. The open sea was not smooth
but tolerable. Our course was to take us down the eastern coast southward, passing
between the Falkland Islands and the eastern coast of South America to the entrance of the
Estrecho de Magellanes or in our words, the Straits of Magellan. The distance to the
entrance of the Straits from Buenos Aires is roughly 1300 nautical miles. The passage
through the Straits involved some 300 miles of heads up navigation.
On the western side of the Straits as the channel enters the Pacific, are located the Grupa
Evangelistas. These are three very dangerous rock islands in mid channel that have
claimed their share of clipper ships and sailors down through history. Even though there
were good navigation charts on this area, there was a certain air of apprehension about the
bridge the first day out. There was no celestial navigation due to the heavy overcast, only
Once through the Straits, the trip from the western entrance of the Straits to Valparaiso
added another 1400 nautical miles making this leg of our journey a total of about 3000
nautical miles. Normally, we cruised at 15 knots which meant that we should have made
the run from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso in about 8 days. The first night out was one of
moderately rough seas. When I relieved the watch on the bridge at 08:00 the next
morning, the weather had turned decidedly worse. The overcast was very heavy, the wind
was blowing from the south west and had picked up to 35-40 mile gusts. The Skipper had
already passed the order to batten down hatches and secure all loose gear for gale
conditions. Two of the ship's aircraft were stowed inside the hangar behind closed doors
and secured to the deck by "J" hooks, the other two were secured on the catapult. Extra
lashings were used on the ship's launches, boats, and other loose items about the decks.
By 11:30, the wind was gusting to a measured 90 knots. We were plowing into waves
that appeared to be 50 feet high. The bow of the ship would bury itself under huge rollers,
as if it were going to the bottom. After what seemed to be an eternity, the bow would start
to rise only to come out of the water with a result like Niagara Falls.
The bow of these ships measured 50 feet from the forecastle to the keel. There were
times when the keel was readily visible on our sister cruisers. There were times when the
waves covered the decks all the way to the bridge. Even the well deck and the fan tail
were awash from time to time. No one was permitted or desired to be out on deck. The
ship was subjected to violent rolling and pitching, and when a big wave would hit the bow,
it would be felt over the entire ship. From the bridge we could see the other two cruisers,
close on our port quarter, taking the same degree of punishment from the sea.
The USS Quincy takes heavy seas off Patagonia
Down below decks, many of the crew were sick. For those not at their duty stations
there was nothing to do but stay in their bunks or stagger around below decks hanging onto
rails and ladders. The galley crew gave up on preparing hot meals. Instead they went into
the sandwich business and kept the crew supplied through the blow with sandwiches and
hot coffee. To serve mess, the tables which were stored in the overhead of the mess hall,
couldn't be used. With the ship rolling and pitching as it was, there was no way that anyone
could be served a hot meal.
The Patagonian wind at work
I was lucky. I had the day's duty on the bridge in the fresh salty air. That kept me going.
No one got much sleep that night of the big storm. The next day the storm had abated
somewhat but we were still clocking wind gusts of up to 60 knots at noon. There had been
no reported serious damage to our ship but one of the other cruisers signaled over that they
had suffered a split seam in their fore deck. They were still sea worthy. By the time we
arrived at the east entrance of the Straits a couple of days later, the wind had slacked off to
a mild 30 knot steady blow. We had apparently experienced a not so unusual storm for
that area off Patagonia for that time of year.
We entered the Straits under dreary, cold and heavy overcast skies with the ever present
wind and waves in our face. During the entire passage, we saw no life of any kind, only the
bleak rocky shores. It was an eerie feeling to be there in that desolate, unfriendly
environment, although we knew that there were a few sparsely settled villages along the
run. It really felt like one was at the end of the world. The ship continued its rolling and
pitching until noon.
As we picked up the north westerly course, we seemed to have more protection from the
weather and less motion. By the time we had left the Three Evangelistas on our port side
and moved out into the Pacific, everything began to smooth out. The remainder of the run
of 1250 nautical miles to Valparaiso gave us time to get things back into shipshape
condition, and when we docked at Valparaiso, everyone was ready for liberty.
Having been through this encounter and reflecting back on the days of the clipper ships
was a sobering experience. Knowing that they had to negotiate the same type of storms,
the navigation hazards, and the other unknowns with only sail power to propel their ships,
leaves one with a truly awesome respect for their skippers and crews. They earned their
rewards whatever they were.
Our stay in Valparaiso was short, only a couple of days. We didn't see the formal
activities around the ship that had taken place at the east coast cities. The formalities were
held in the capitol of Chile, Santiago, which was inland from Valparaiso about 60 miles or
so. It was my luck to have the duty with only one afternoon for liberty so, Santiago
remained a picture on a postcard for me.
Before granting shore leave to the crew, we were lectured about the good and the bad
areas of the city of Valparaiso. Shore patrol with their black arm bands for identity, were
always sent out to patrol the streets where sailors could be found. They acted as military
police preserving the good name of the US Navy as well as protecting the sailors from
undue local abuse.
Valparaiso had its share of rough and ready sailors, probably survivors of treks through
the Straits. My shore leave in the city, involved the afternoon of taking in local sites, a late
lunch, then returning to the ship before liberty was up. At about midnight, the shore patrol
reported aboard carrying one of our crew. The fellow was covered with blood and
unconscious. It turned out that he had gotten into a brawl at one of the local bars. A fight
ensued when a local caballero pulled a knife and promptly cut his throat, literally from ear
to ear. He fortunately survived the episode but had to face Captain's Mast for being
AWOL and creating a disturbance ashore. When we dropped the mooring lines to get
underway for Lima, Peru, three of our crewmen were not aboard. They were recorded as
having abandoned ship and were never heard from again.
The cruise to Callao, the seaport of Lima, Peru, was smooth and the weather was good.
It was good to be back in the blue Pacific again. The crew took this time to catch up on
housekeeping tasks and to rest from the rigors of the past two weeks.
The navigator had planned an early morning landfall at Callao, however, what we
encountered that morning, was an intense fog extending about 10 mile from the coast. We
were obliged to creep into the harbor using the ship's direction finder to monitor the line of
position. There is a crescent shaped spit of land that protrudes out from Callao at the end
of which was located a low powered radio transmitter beacon. We used our direction
finding equipment and this beacon to very slowly maneuver our way into the anchorage.
During the last hour of this activity, we were so close to the beach that we could hear the
drumming of the local traffic in town. Visibility during this period barely permitted us to
see the bow of the ship. By noon the fog had cleared and the liberty boats were along side
waiting for the first trip ashore.
Most of the sailors stopped in Callao just long enough to board a bus for the city of
Lima, 10 miles inland. Lima was not the modern, throbbing city of the style that we had
seen on the east coast of South America. The area was very dry, and very hot. The
buildings were old. The people appeared to be really scratching for a living. There were
the usual souvenir peddlers selling their native silver trinkets.
We visited the Cathedral in the center of town, my first experience to be inside a
catholic church. I was impressed by the wealth within as contrasted to the poverty in the
streets. I have never forgotten that dichotomy. The private chapels were very, very ornate
with gold and silver icons, and jewels. On display in one end of the cathedral were the
remains of the body of the Spanish explorer Pizarro entombed in a glass walled crypt for
everyone to see, his dried skin pulled tightly over his bones. He was a small man, about 5'
2" tall and very, very dead.
After purchasing a genuine llama wool blanket and a bottle of native wine, I returned to
the ship. Bringing any form of alcoholic beverages aboard was against Navy Regulations
and risked of a court martial. I guess that I must have been feeling my maturity as a
seasoned salt. My boarding salute and the big bundle of blanket with the bottle of wine
neatly wrapped inside, passed the Officer of the Day without a ripple.
Later on that night during the midnight bridge watch, a signalman friend and I were
enjoying a taste of wine, when I thought that I heard the ladder below rattling as if someone
were coming up to the bridge. Looking down over the flag bag, I saw that it was indeed
the Officer of the Day on his way up. In my haste to maintain my innocence, I grabbed the
half filled bottle of wine by the neck and gave it an end over end toss to the seaward. Little
did I realize that the breeze was from that direction and was to pick up the contents of that
bottle and give the Officer of the Day a generous bath. He arrived on the bridge for his
routine check a few seconds later grumbling something about "careless sailors". Nothing
further was ever heard, fortunate indeed for both of us.
The next morning the dolphins were along side keeping up with the ship's 15 knots. We
were on our way to the Panama Canal, the last stop before Norfolk. After a routine trip
through the canal, we headed back through the West Indies then picked up the Gulf Stream.
A few days later we docked at Norfolk with a boatload of Shellbacks that were truly
somewhat more salty than the day we left that port.