Whenever I see the Goodyear Blimp (or any blimp), I believe that my Uncle Joe is sending me a “Hello” from the great beyond. For Uncle Joe, who joined the US Navy for a six-year hitch in 1940, was a “lighter-than-air” sailor from 1943-46. During the last years of World War II he served on a ground crew with Blimp Hedron #1, Lakehurst, New Jersey. (After the War, Joe was transferred to the Naval Air Station in Glynco, Georgia. But that’s a story for another day!)
Like most men who join the Navy, Joe started out as a seagoing sailor. His first posting was as a fire-room engineer (“snipe” in Navy parlance) aboard USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser. After eight months at sea, Joe was well aware of how dangerous the fire room watch was going to be once war came (as he knew it would). To be deep in the bowels of a massive naval vessel when the big guns are firing–which causes flames to blow back out of the boilers with every percussion–is to be in a very frightening place. In the summer of 1941, the Wichita went into dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There followed a chain of events that culminated with what I think was probably Uncle Joe’s favorite wartime story:
A Sailor Without a Ship
One day we were called to quarters, and the chief says, “I need two snipes for the Hawaiian Packet.” Joe and his best buddy were both snipes. So I nudged Mike, who was standing next to me. “Mike, Hawaiian Packet; that sounds like a ship without any guns. Let’s grab this. Let’s get off this thing.” It was obvious we were eventually going to get involved in the war in Europe, and we were on a fighting ship. “We’ll take it, Chief!”
But when Joe and Mike went down to the oil shack, where they were to check out of their department, the orders they were handed were not for the Hawaiian Packet (which had sounded so comfortingly un-warlike). Instead the orders said, “USS Seattle receiving station, Brooklyn Navy Yard, for further transfer to the USN Redwood.”
This wasn’t what we volunteered for. So we hightailed it to the chief’s quarters. “Hey Chief… what’s this?” We showed him our papers. “This isn’t what we volunteered for—This isn’t it!”
And the chief says, “Well, that’s what you got!” Typical! Anyways, we had only so much time to get off the ship. We got over on the pier, with our gear, and there’s about twenty other guys, all different rates. We’re all saying, “Hey, what is this? What’ve we got here?”
Well, there’s always somebody in a gang that’ll know what the hell is going on. Or he finds out. So one guy says, “Here’s the scoop. It’s a ship that’s being built in Cleveland, Ohio, and the shipyard is out on strike. So we’re just going nowhere until that ship is built, and it’s ready to move.”
Joe chuckled, remembering this bit of great good luck. “Well, this is interesting. So we all go over to the receiving ship. The USS Seattle was a World War I era cruiser and alongside it was the Camden, another old ship that was once a German sub tender; this old ship had boilers that supplied steam heat for both ships; and these ships bunked fellas that were in transit. We checked in, and a chief looks at our papers and says, “Ah, two snipes, huh? Well, you two guys report to the fire room.”
So Mike and I go down the ladder to the fire room, and they’re shoveling coal. So I say to Mike, real quick and quiet, “Mike, let’s get outta here!” And the two of us scooted back up the ladder and right off the ship. Nobody had seen us. The guys in that boiler room didn’t even know we were there. And I say, “Mike, we don’t want to be shoveling coal in this stupid old tub.” Joe laughs at this recollection. So we said nothing to nobody. From then on, we just showed up for muster every day, and then took off on our own. No problem.
Well, it wasn’t too long before we were transferred over to Manhattan to Pier 92—all of us, the entire crew that would be going on that ship being built out in Ohio. We were all shipped over together. Pier 92 was where the Italian liners used to tie up. It was the Italian pier, with pictures of Mussolini all over the waiting room. That’s where we were gonna bunk. We set up cots, and they brought the food over from the Navy Yard.
We were sent over as an advance party, and this pier was really something. There was a whole row all the way down of overhead doors, for freight. They wanted to winterize the entire structure so they could make it over into a temporary barracks. So they brought in bags and bags of asbestos; we were mixing it up and plastering it on these metal doors. This was actually the raw asbestos. We misted it and plastered it onto the doors. Nobody knew asbestos was bad for your lungs back then.
The Boiler on the Pier
Civilians were working on the pier, moving out all the merchandise and furnishings. The civilians that were in charge came looking for a couple of guys to man their incinerator. So Mike and I, a couple of firemen, are the logical choice for this job. The civilian guy, an old timer, showed us how to operate this incinerator. And he said, “Now there’s one very important thing. You’ve gotta remember this. He took us around to the back of the boiler, and he says, “See this glass? Never let the water get below this point.” He shows us the indicator. Now that’s very, very important.”
Well, all you had to do was turn a valve and the water would rise up, and the water jacket had the right amount of water in it. Days pass. The civilians are gone, and now we Navy guys are cleaning up the pier, getting rid of all the rubbish. And Mike and I are running the incinerator. Everything is going along fine… until the day that the whole thing was made official. The Navy moved the two ships—the Seattle and the Camden—over from Brooklyn and tied up alongside the pier. Now it’s time for the ship’s company from the Seattle to take over. So this chief comes over to us as Mike and I are preparing the rubbish to go into the incinerator. He says, “Okay, you guys, you’re out!” and points over his shoulder with his thumb.
I say “Wha—? Why? What do you mean we’re out?”
He says, “I’m takin’ over. I got my own crew. That’s it! You’re out.” Mike and I haven’t had any problems. We’ve been doing all right. But now, all the guy can say is “You’re out. You’re out.”
“Well don’t you want to know how the boiler works?” I asked him.
“I know how the boiler works,” he said.
“O-kay!” I said. “Let’s go, Mike.”
“But, Joe, don’t you want to tell him about the glass?” Mike asked.
“I guess he already knows, Mike. We don’t have to tell him nothin’! Let’s go.”
So off Mike and I go. Well, now we’re back to being on our own every day. We’re wandering around. And it wasn’t too long—a couple of days—we’re on the pier, and “Vroom!” A big explosion!
I look at Mike. Mike looks at me, and says, “They did it!”
Of course, we moseyed up along with everyone else on the pier who crowded around to see. “What happened? What happened?” everyone is saying.
And the City fire trucks are there. There are all kinds of emergency vehicles. The steam from that boiler had been used to heat the waiting room and other buildings along the pier. Now the boiler was blown to bits; the glass had been blown out of all the windows, and there were bricks everywhere.
Mike and I look at one another and laugh.
Six decades later Joe was still chuckling as he told this story, which we had heard many times before. And, as always, we were chuckling, too. “Guess that chief and his crew weren’t as smart as he thought.” Joe concluded. “We fixed that guy’s wagon, didn’t we?”
To this day, in the annals of the New York Fire Department, the true cause of the explosion on Pier 92 in the late summer of 1941 remains a mystery.