Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mystery Aboard the Tippecanoe

This story was previously published on the Tacoma News Tribune blogspot "In Your Neighborhood." It is my father’s story and I believe it to be true although so far I’ve not been able to verify the incident that occurred on the U.S.S. Tippecanoe when my father sailed on her from San Diego. Although my father liked a good joke as much as the next person and maybe more, I believe that he was deadly serious when he told this story. Deadly. It would have made a good story for the old "Lights Out" radio program so turn off the lights and enjoy a scary story to tell in the dark.

My father was eighteen, in the Navy and stationed in San Diego that January of 1941. He had been ordered to report aboard the USS Tippecanoe for transport with Patrol Wing One. Dad would be joining his 20 year old brother whom he'd followed into the Navy. Life in San Diego had been vastly different from the hills of the Missouri Ozarks for the brothers. My father anticipated his assignment as an adventure. He didn’t realize the trip there would be an adventure in itself.

The young men of Patrol Wing One, fresh from basic, were greeted by a surly coxswain in a motor mac from the U.S.S. Tippecanoe, when they in their spanking whites a contrast to the grubby boat and crew, who snarled, “Airdales,” and an expletive, the Naval Air Corps not being seen as real Navy by sailors stationed aboard a ship.

My father tried to ask the coxswain what sort of ship the Tippecanoe was. “You’ll find out soon enough, Mac. She’s a rusty old bucket and the crew is a bunch of goof-offs! I think they moored her out on Point Loma so she don’t clutter up their nice clean harbor!”

The Tippecanoe was an oiler of pre World War I vintage and the dreariest old bucket in the Navy fleets of auxiliary and support ships. The seamen were disappointed that they would not be sailing with a more stately ship.

Instead of taking my father and his crew mates to the pier where the Tippecanoe was moored, the coxswain laid the whaleboat alongside the platform at the foot of the steep sea accommodation ladder where the motor mac tossed their bags with a bow hook. Not an auspicious beginning. The men had a difficult time negotiating the ladder carrying their heavy sea bags with hammocks lashed around them.

Once they had achieved the main deck and had properly saluted the colors aft and the officer of the deck, a burly CPO identified himself as the boson, Larzenarski who took their orders. He left them sitting on the cofferdams in the hot San Diego sun for more than thirty minutes before a seaman appeared and led them to their quarters.

Just as they were laying out their hammocks and horsehair mattresses on the steel bunk frames, Chief Larzenarski came down the steep entry ladder. His weathered round face was set in a perpetual scowl.

“Listen up, you people,” he growled. “You goddam airdales ain’t in for no pleasure cruise. You are temporary ship’s company of the Tipsoo assigned to the deck division of which I happen to be the chief.

“Your division officer is Lieutenant Williams who is one mean s.o.b. that goes strictly by the book. Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill is posted on the bulletin board aft by the mess compartment. Check it out.

“Uniform of the day is dungarees unless otherwise posted so get out them whites before evening chow. As long as you are aboard, you are in the working Navy.!”

It was 1600 hours, the end of the work day so Dad and his mates changed into dungarees, finished stowing their gear and went topside. At the stern they found the mess compartment and the bulletin board the CPO had mentioned and found the grim coxswain of the motor whaleboat sitting against a bulkhead stropping a wicked looking belt knife on the leather of his shoe. The name stenciled on his blue dungaree shirt was “Sullivan” and there was the badge of a second class petty officer in stencil on his left sleeve. Dad dropped down beside him.

“Hi, Sullivan. Some ship.”

The coxswain eyed Dad piercingly, but some of the antagonism went out of his sour face. “Yeah, some ship! This here old bucket just been reactivated from the reserve fleet. Standard Oil had her. She’s a pile of junk and you’ll find out most of the crew are either the dregs of the Navy or are reserves. Only thing worse than an airdale is a reserve!”

“Chief Larzenarski doesn’t seem very friendly,” Dad observed ignoring the affront.
Sullivan snorted bitterly, “Friendly! Bastard is the meanest sonabitch on the ship. Wasn’t for him, I could make chief and be the boson’s mate myself. I was first class and he got me busted! Ten years I got in this canoe club and he gets me busted for bringing a little booze aboard. I’d like to see the sonabitch go over the side some dark night!”

Sullivan tested the sharp edge of the knife by shaving some hairs from his forearm while Dad said, “Larzenarski says Lt. Williams is a mean s.o.b. How about that?”

The coxswain sheathed the knife.

“He is and he ain’t. Regular Navy ring pounder out of Annapolis, but he must have fouled up somewhere or he wouldn’t be on this old scow. Yeoman says he been passed over once for promotion to lieutenant commander. Hard man and Navy regs is his bible, but he don’t seem to have many friends. He’s the ship’s first lieutenant and division officer of the deck gang. He’ll ride the hell out of you just like Larzenarski and you won’t like him, but you gotta respect him.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the P.A. system. The boson’s pipe shrilled and a bored voice said, “Now hear this. Chow down.”

The next day Patrol Wing One found out that the Tippecanoe would not sail for two more weeks. In the meantime the ship would be subjected to an admiral’s inspection. To make the old ship ready, both Lt. Williams and Chief Larzenarski drove the men unmercifully. Paint parties went over the side to scrape the worst rust spots, coat them with red lead, then apply a fresh coat of navy grey. Everyone scraped and painted the ship from bow to stern except for the brass. “If it moves, salute it. If it don’t move, paint it!” became the rule. And all the brass was polished.

By the time of the admiral’s inspection came the transformation of the old ship was amazing. Decks, bulkheads, and side plates were resplendent in fresh grey paint. Every bit of brass gleamed in the sunlight. Quarters and all other below deck decks spaces had been scrubbed and painted. The ancient brass washbasin in the head gleamed like gold. When the inspection party was piped aboard, the entire crew had been mustered in immaculate white uniforms and shined dress shoes. At that moment Dad was proud of the old Tippecanoe.

Two days after inspection the Tippecanoe’s engines rumbled into life and the P.A. system blared, “Now hear this. All hands, man your special sea details

Dad had been assigned to the first crow’s nest watch on the high foremast so he scrambled up the seventy feet of steel rungs welded to the foremast to the small, waist-high metal can that was the foremast lookout.

Below, the ship’s crew not assigned to sea details manned the rails in non-dress whites. The mooring hawsers splashed into the water and with a “whoop, whoop” of the ship’s horn and a blast from the sire, Tippecanoe backed away from the pier, where a few wives and children waved, and headed to sea.

On February 13th they put in at Long Beach, CA to take aboard a full load of fuel oil. The next day they sailed for San Francisco where they arrived three days later where they got no liberty. Dad had to be content with looking at the lights of the Barbary Coast and gaping upward as the Tippecanoe slipped beneath the main span of the Golden Gate Bridge. They came upon a tug and barge waiting for the ship and the tug transferred the tow line of the barge to the Tippecanoe. Now they had a barge in tow.

Three days out of San Francisco they ran into a wicked gale that they later found out was one of the worst in that area in three or four years.

That third evening out the sky was leaden at sunset and the ocean was dark grey with a froth of whitecaps and spume from a wind that came off the port bow. The horizon was indistinct. The dark grey of the clouds simply merged somewhere into the darker grey of the angry ocean. Neither was there a sunset glow to fit the old saying, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.” Dad figured there must have been a blazing sky that morning as the wind was rising rapidly to gale force. Even with the stabilizing influence of the tow, the ship was rolling and pitching so that they had to sleep with a grip on the bunk rails and their toes hooked on the bottom rail.

Dad had barely gotten to sleep when the watch petty officer woke him. He had the twelve to two watch on the port wing of the bridge. The watch petty officer warned him to wear his peacoat and watch cap as it was cold and wet topside.

When Dad emerged from the foc’sul hatch he found the watch P.P. was right. It was raining and the wind buffeted him as he struggled through the blackness along the catwalk above the main deck over which green water was breaking in the dark. Rain drops and salt spray stung his face in the fifty-knot wind. The whitecaps towered well above Dad’s head from the catwalk level as the heavily laden Tippecanoe slugged her way through the mountainous waves.

Dad reached the bridge at 23:50, ten minutes before eight bells when the watch would change so he ducked into the dimly-lit bridge before relieving his man on the exposed port bridge wing. He looked at the chart spread on the navigator’s table at the rear of the bridge and was impressed by the ferocity of the wind. The line of their course was actually going backward because of the wind. With the drag of the towed barge, they’d lost ground for six or eight hours.

Dad reported to the watch officer and began his watch amidst the wind and rain of the gale.
The two hours of his watch were interminable and miserable. In the wind-whipped blackness Dad was pelted by rain and spray from the waves that broke level with the bridge and the bridge was forty feet above the waterline. Other than the red running light, Dad cold see nothing but blackness abeam and could barely make out the bow of the ship. Every thirty minutes, as required by regulations and custom, he reported to the watch officer, “Nothing in sight. Port running light burning bright, sir.”

Sometime during the first hour of his watch Dad saw a dim figure moving along the catwalk. The individual was wearing the hat of a chief petty officer with the visor strap under his chin against the wind. It was apparently Larzenarski on a round of inspection of the decks, but he did not come to the bridge and Dad could not be sure. The figure went out of sight in the darkness toward the stern. Dad thought for a minute that he saw someone else move back there, but in the driving rain and spray it could well have been an illusion.

The next morning the weather had cleared a bit, but the wind was still at gale force. Green water was still breaking over the main deck and, periodically, over the fantail that was held down by the tow hawser to the heavy barge. The deck division was told to stand by for muster in the mess compartment instead of on deck.

Chief Larzenarski did not show for muster. It was held by Sullivan. Afterward, scuttlebutt was that Larzenarski was missing. A search of the entire pitching, rolling ship was made and no trace of the abrasive CPO could be found. Dad found himself remembering the figure in a chief’s hat that he’d seen on the catwalk during his watch and presumed that he had gone down to the fantail to check the tow cable and was swept overboard.

Dad was still wondering if he should report what he had seen when the stern and very disliked division officer, Lt. Williams, appeared in the mess compartment. The men came to attention and, after he had told them to stand easy, he said, “Men, the tow cable is chafing and needs to be lengthened. I need four volunteers to go to the fantail with me and do the job.”

There was a prolonged silence. The men of the regular ship’s company simply looked down at their hands. Dad noticed that the officer was wearing dungarees and he had said “go down to the fantail with me.” Even though the word was “never volunteer for anything” Dad suddenly blurted out, “I’ll go, sir.”

Another member of Dad’s unit volunteered and not to be outdone by airdales, two of the ship’s company rose. Dad was surprised that one of them was Sullivan. Dad kicked off his shoes and stripped off his socks because he felt that he would have better traction barefoot. The lieutenant led them out onto the wave-washed fantail.

The fantail was clear except that every fifth or sixth wave was large enough to crash green water over the deck. When the big waves came all the men could do was hang on with both hands until the water subsided. Dad found himself next to the officer as they struggled with the heavy wire cable.

When the water subsided Dad realized that the lieutenant was no longer beside him. He had lost his hold on the cable and was hanging half over the scuppers holding the bottom chain of the lifelines with one hand. Dad believed that another wave cold take the lieutenant over the side so he let go of the tow cable and lunged for the lifelines. Dad caught the upper cable with his left hand and held out his right to the officer. Williams seized it with his free hand and, as the ship rolled back to port, dragged himself back aboard. Without a word the lieutenant checked that the cable stopper was secure and led the men back to the shelter of the mess compartment. There he said, “Well done, men.” Then turning to Dad he said, “Get some dry clothes, Frieze, and see me in the wardroom in fifteen minutes.”

When Lt. Williams had gone in a low voice Sullivan said to Dad, “Goddam, airdale, whyn’t you let that bastard go—we’d have been rid of him and Larzenarski both!”

Clearly Sullivan was pleased about Larzenarski’s disappearance and would like to have Williams thrown into the bargain.

Officer’s country was strange to Dad so he rather timorously made his way to the ward room amidships after getting some dry dungarees and a clean white hat. The lieutenant, hair still wet and a towel about his neck, was sitting alone at one of the tables.

“Help yourself to a cup of coffee, sailor,” he told Dad. “You earned it. And sit down a minute.”

Dad thought it sounded more like an order than an offer so he drew coffee into a china cup and sat on the edge of the chair opposite the lieutenant who eyed Dad a minute.

“Just wanted to say thank you, Frieze. There are probably men on this ship that would not have offered me a hand. I am fully aware that many of the men think I’m a mean s.o.b.”

Dad was embarrassed and could feel his ears and face getting red. Remember, he was just a kid.
“Wasn’t anything, Sir. I reckon you could have made it by yourself.”

“Probably so, but you did offer me a hand without waiting to see.”

Dad was at a loss and stammered “Well, uh, I didn’t know how soon the next big wave might come along. Ain’t as if I saved your life or something.”

“Right,” the officer said briskly, “and you’re not going to get a medal or anything but I will see that there is a note of commendation in your service record.”

Lt. Williams looked down at a paper on the table that was the watch list from the previous night and changed the subject, “You had the twelve to two on the wing of the bridge last night.”

“Yes sir.”

“You know that Chief Larzenarski is missing, apparently overboard during the storm. Di you see anything on deck during your watch?”

A sort of montage flashed into Dad’s mind—the dim figure in a chief’s hat on the catwalk going aft, what could have been the shadow of another man back there, and the gleam in Sullivan’s eyes when he told them at muster that the hated CPO was missing. Dad also recalled the way Sullivan had cursed the CPO the first day his crew came aboard, but he knew he should not attest to anything of which he was not totally sure.

“Well, sir, yes. Sometime around 0100 or thereabouts I saw someone who I think was wearing a chief’s hat going along the catwalk from the bridge aft toward the stern. That’s all I saw. It was dang dark out there. I figured it was the chief checking the decks.”

“No one else?” the lieutenant asked.

“Not that I could swear to—too dark and too many shadows. Couldn’t see good through the rain and spray,” Dad told him.

Lt. Williams dismissed Dad and the ship’s log recorded that Chief Boatswains Mate Larzenarski was apparently lost overboard while carrying out his duties on the ship. For the rest of his life Dad wondered about Coxswain Sullivan and his knife. After Larzenarski’s disappearance, Sullivan’s first class rate was restored and, being the ranking petty officer in the deck division, he was made acting CPO for the rest of the voyage. Every time Dad looked at him he wondered if Sullivan had been responsible for it.

On March 2nd they sighted land on the far horizon. By muster at 0700 the next morning a grey Navy tug met them and just after noon on Dad’s 19th birthday. It was March 3rd, 1941 as the Tippecanoe steamed through the anti-submarine net at the entrance to Pearl Harbor, the Territory of Hawaii.


Grandma L said...

What an interesting story. It sure sounds like somebody got away with murder.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Yes, they probably did, but since Dad hadn't see who it was or even say for sure he saw someone in the storm he couldn't point fingers. He was a kid on a ship with maybe a murder.

Jo said...

Your Dad was a brave man. What an unusual story. Thanks.

brix1 said...

this brought back memories of Don, our dad. He was on a DD Destroyer. Just a goofy 17 year old kid, off on an adventure of a lifetime. I could listen to his stories for hours. They usually revolved around carousing and shore leave, with an occasional reference to bombarding the coast, a sea battle, and sometimes accidentally depth charging whales. Oh yeah, tatoos, how he ended up with the best one I've ever seen, the bully on his boat and his duty in fire control for their antique aiming techniques.
More memories flood back as I write.

Stephanie Frieze said...

It was not until I was the mother of teenage sons that I understood how young my father and his brother were on December 7th. As a child I just assumed that it was normal for daddies to go save the world and then come home and be daddies. What amazing kids they really were.

Jimh. said...

Another amazing post! Love it! Of course, you probably know that!