by Janice C. Johnson
Here is the second installment of my 2008-2009 UTA Undergraduate Creative Writing Contest entry. See the previous post for Part 1, in which we left Bob handing out the latest radio dispatch to his shipmates aboard the Liberty Ship S.S. Edward P. Costigan…
From the earliest beginnings of the war, Allied military operations would not have been possible without the help of supply ships. As the war spread, the military needed increasing numbers of the ships – and needed them quickly. The US Maritime Commission, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, adapted a British vessel design to make it as efficient as possible to build. Using prefabricated sections and welding instead of the traditional rivets, a shipyard could assemble one of the 147-foot Liberty Ships in as little as four days. The plan provided maximum cargo capacity too, utilizing the specially-designed flat deck as well as the holds. The vessel was awkward (President Roosevelt called it an “ugly duckling”) and slow, but it served its purpose well. The US launched over 2700 of them during the war.
Each ship, of course, required a crew. Manning the vessels actually presented more of a challenge than building them. Since private shipping companies operated the ships on behalf of the US government, most crew members were civilians. An Armed Guard of Navy personnel manned the few guns on each ship. Qualified Captains and Chief Mates were especially scarce, and the Maritime Commission recruited aggressively. Many of the men hired to meet the sudden huge demand, though they held captain’s papers, had no experience with larger cargo vessels or the open ocean.
Such a man was “Happy” Hansen, Captain of the SS Edward P. Costigan. The Swede looked every inch the captain, with his wiry build and blonde hair going grey. His face was weathered and, like many of his men’s, often sported a few days’ careless stubble. Anyone who had not worked under him would never guess that before the war he had worked as master of a banana boat, sailing his exotic cargo over the Gulf of Mexico between Venezuela and New Orleans. Now Hansen found himself with much bigger shoes to fill. Essentially a good man, he occasionally bluffed to cover his insecurity. One day Bob, his face betraying bewilderment, approached Chief Mate Tackleberry on the main deck.
“Say, Tack -– Hansen just ordered a two-degree course change, and I can’t figure out why. I don’t believe he looked at a damn chart!”
Tackleberry replied, “Yep. I can vouch for you; I know he didn’t look at the chart.” He glanced at Bob, then stared back over the water. “One of these days . . . we’re going to run over an island.”
It was only by a technicality that Tackleberry’s words, some months later, failed to qualify as prophecy: Luzon, the northernmost large island of the Philippines, is much too big for a ship to run over. The Costigan had steamed around the west side of the island and into Lingayen Gulf, which boasted several villages, a few cities, and busy military and local traffic. The ship’s holds were laden with supplies to stock the Post Exchange store, or “PX,” on an Allied base near the city of San Fabian.
The required depth of a normally-loaded Liberty Ship was twenty-seven feet nine inches. Only one spot in the whole gulf was too shallow for the Costigan’s draft. “Happy” Hansen managed to find it.
The vessel, bearing its own weight in cargo, ran aground on a sandbar some distance out from the pier. Two nearby ships tried in vain to pull the Costigan off the bar. Finally Bob got orders to send a message to a base in Manila, two hundred miles away around the coast. The base replied that they were sending a thirty thousand-horsepower tug to the rescue. Tugs being even slower than Liberty Ships, their cargo would have to sit in the gulf for some time.
While they waited in the tropical heat, the port authorities arranged for a landing craft to start ferrying their cargo to the pier, to lighten the ship and make it easier to pull off the sandbar. This was the type of open, flat-bottomed invasion craft that the Allies had used at Normandy on D-Day. The landing craft wallowed back and forth from ship to dock several times, offloading supplies bound for the PX. Then the crew got to one hold that was full of beer. One hundred thousand cubic feet of beer. As the sun set, deck hands worked with renewed energy, transferring case after case until the landing craft could hold no more.
Bob and the Chief Mate leaned against the rail and watched as the boatload of beer started through gathering darkness on a ramrod-straight course. Straight, that is, until it got to an open area about halfway to the pier. Then they saw its lights veer off, and the boat began chugging around in tight circles. About the third time around, Bob asked dryly, “You think they’re lost?”
Something like a snort erupted from Tackleberry’s throat. “What do you think?” he said.
After fifteen minutes or so, the craft resumed its course and soon tied up at the pier. The men stacked the cases of beer on the dock, and if one case felt lighter than the others nobody said anything about it. In due time the tug arrived and freed the ship, the rest of the cargo made it to land, and the empty Costigan set out to Australia for another load.
Hansen’s habit of giving questionable orders just to assert his authority caused more than a few such scrapes and near misses. This did not inspire confidence among his crew. When Bob had concerns he went to talk privately with the Chief Mate; my dad was never one to buck authority. Tall and slim, with alert, intelligent eyes, Tackleberry hailed from California. Like Hansen, he was a civilian who held captain’s papers. He had been away from the sea for some time when he entered the Merchant Marine. Fortunately, however, he did have some large-vessel experience. The crew followed the Captain’s orders, but had come to depend on Tackleberry’s competence and diplomatic leadership to keep them out of real trouble. On one such occasion he told Bob, “Don’t worry, I’ve got my eye on him.” He grinned and added, “I’m not going to let him kill us.”