The Harsh Life

At Sea in the 19th Century

“No man will become a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself placed in jail.”—Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1773

Samuel Johnson’s advice is not something one would expect to see in a navy recruiting pamphlet in 1800, but it was an honest appraisal of the life of a seaman in that year.  From every account, from around 1775 to the mid-1800s, life at sea was so difficult that most men avoided it in the same way they would avoid bubonic plague, and it was infrequent when a ship went to sea with a full complement of crewmen.  During the Revolutionary War, American ships remained tied up because few men were interested in taking on the harsh life.  Young boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen, on the other hand, filled as they were with romantic notions about life aboard a ship, became a primary focus for navy recruiters.

Generally …

Life at sea was about the same for Americans as it was for an Englishman, a Swede, or a Spaniard.  A grown man imbued with common sense, particularly one with previous experience at sea, did his best to avoid the sea service because sailing ships were filthy, smelly, unhealthy, and rampant with rats and other vermin.  If that wasn’t enough, sailing ships were cold, damp, and confining.  Once at sea, one may as well have been placed in jail because there was nowhere to go, but as Dr. Johnson suggested, jail should be preferred.  The general unattractiveness of life at sea was so predominant that ship’s captains often sent “press gangs” ashore to round up able-bodied seamen, many of whom, having been whacked on the head, were carried unconscious aboard ship and placed in irons until the ship left harbor.  Once the ship was at sea, the impressed men were welcomed aboard, congratulated for making a good decision, and given “the word” — the rules by which they would govern themselves while a member of the crew.  The term “able-bodied seaman” meant that a crewman had two legs, two arms, and most of his fingers.  

The Word

At a time when most Americans were illiterate, navy training was an oral tradition and “on the job” instruction.  The first task assigned to “trainers” was to make sure that all hands acknowledged the Navy’s regulations and the policies of the ship’s captain.  In most cases, “the word” lasted until the ship was again in port because this was when sailors had an opportunity to escape.  Some historians claim that desertion from the naval service numbered in the thousands, prompting ship’s captains to send out impressment crews in the middle of the night to locate and “recruit” drunken sods.  Age didn’t matter, but the younger person was always preferred, and it would help if the impressed crewman spoke English, but this was not a hard and fast rule.  French speaking sods could be whacked on the head just as easily as a Spaniard.

Manning the ships with officers

Navy officer uniforms 1803

There were two sources of recruitment for young seamen.  Generally, midshipmen were officer trainees.  The term originated in the 17th century from the place aboard ship where they worked or birthed — amidships.  Army and Navy candidates for officer service were often the sons of wealthy families not destined to inherit their fathers’ estates.  Unless the eldest son died before maturity, a younger son did not expect any inheritance.  Still, in fairness, it was believed that something should be done for the younger sons.

It may have been that if younger sons had no demonstrated ability or interest in the study of law or accountancy, or some other noteworthy profession, particularly if the younger sons were disrespectful or rebellious, then their influential fathers would try to have them accepted into the army or navy.  Obtaining officer’s commissions differed between the British Army and Royal Navy, and some of these traditions were transferred to the US Army and Navy.  Between 1683 and 1871, British Army commissions were frequently purchased; a wealthy father would pay to have a son placed at Sandhurst; afterward, the purchase of commissions was up to the officer.[1]

The Royal Navy employed a different system.  Beginning in 1661, influential fathers would obtain “letters of service” from the Crown.  The King’s letter instructed admirals and captains to “show the bearer of this letter such kindness as ye shall judge fit for a gentleman, both in accommodating him in your ship and in furthering his improvement.”  The bearer of the King’s letter was titled/rated as volunteer per order, also often known as the King’s letter boys; it distinguished them as a higher apprentice class from those of normal midshipmen ratings.

The life of a midshipman was particularly challenging — more so than for an army subaltern.  Rising to a position above midshipman required six to eight years of training at sea, the favor of ships officers under whom they trained, passing a written examination, and the approval of the ship’s captain who always had the last word.

Historically, there were four classifications of midshipman.  Between 1450-1650, a midshipman was an experienced seaman from the deck who supervised ordinary seaman below the rank of ship’s officers.  This fellow may also have called a master’s mate.  He was not an officer trainee, but perhaps more on the order of a warrant officer.  In the 1700s, midshipman extraordinary were young men serving below the rank of post-captain, paid as midshipmen until they could find a position aboard another ship.  Midshipman served as apprentice officers, and midshipman ordinary were older men who either failed to pass the examination for lieutenant or, men having passed the examination yet deemed of insufficient character for advancement.  Midshipmen did not have the luxury of “resigning.”  As a King’s letter boy, a midshipman was honor-bound to serve the six-to-eight years, after which he might resign to find other opportunities.

Manning the ships with enlisted men

Once “recruited,” the young seaman received his initial and ongoing training under the authority of the ship’s schoolmaster.  It the ship did not have a schoolmaster, the duty for training fell to either the ship’s chaplain or captain’s clerk.  Not much effort was applied to the formal training of boy-seamen, however.  Most seamen learned their tasks while “on the job.”  Life at sea was already dangerous, particularly among the youngsters who had to learn, in addition to their routine shipboard tasks, to manage their fears.  Climbing into the rigging some 80 feet above the main deck was a frightening experience — worse when at sea with the ship rolling from side to side.  The only way to conquer such fears was to ‘just do it.’  More than a few boys fell to their death.

In 1837, the U. S. Navy adopted the Naval Apprentice System for enlisted boys no younger than thirteen years, nor over eighteen years, to serve until age 21.  Occasionally, a ship’s captain offered a boy-seaman a temporary appointment to serve as an apprentice officer.  Still, generally, the boy-seaman remained in the lower ranks for the duration of his service at sea.

In 1902, the U. S. Navy published its first Bluejacket’s Manual, written and issued to recruits as an instruction for basic seamanship and shipboard life.  In 1902, as in the previous 100 years, literacy was a problem among recruits for navy service.  The Bluejacket’s Manual continues to serve this purpose with annual updates to keep pace with evolving technologies.

Health and Hygiene

In 1818, U. S. Navy Regulations required captains to keep wind sails and ventilators in continual use.  The purpose of this regulation was to keep ships at sea “well-ventilated.”  Senior officers believed that a well-ventilated ship (drying below-decks from ever-present seawater and dampness) was a healthy ship.  The proposition may have been true, except that a constant stream of cold air blowing through the ship could not have been beneficial to men with colds and may have even caused more than a few illnesses and deaths.  Navy regulations also prohibited seamen from wearing wet clothing.  The ship’s system helped dry wet clothing.  With limited facilities to store extra clothing, this too became a chore aboard ship.

Meals aboard ship today are generally tasty and nutritious but it wasn’t always that way.  In 1818, the American sailor could expect three pounds of beef per week, 3 pounds of pork per week, one pound of flour, 98 ounces of crusty bread, two ounces of butter, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of tea, one pint of rice, a half-pint of vinegar, and three and a half pints of rum.  Boy-seamen below the age of 18 were not permitted to have rum; they were paid money instead … about thirty-five cents per week ($6.86 today).  In later years, seamen were provided with raisins, dried apples, coffee, pickles, and cranberries.  Food aboard ship was always “salty.”  Before refrigeration, food subject to spoilage was packed in brine.  It was often “too salty” and unsuitable for human consumption.  These problems led some sea captains to keep livestock on board, including pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens.

Ships of the Navy carried enough fresh water to last a typical cruise, carried below decks in wooden casks.  Stagnant water was a problem, however, which frequently required the rationing of water.  When water stores became a problem, the ship’s captain would order a boat ashore to obtain fresh water when possible. Getting freshwater was no easy task, either.  Regulations stated that crewmen were not permitted to drink any water alongside the ship, that freshwater, when obtained, must be allowed to settle before consumption.  In the early 1800s, no consideration was given to the natural impurities of freshwater, which did cause sickness among the men, including cholera.  Boiling water before consumption did not evolve until many years later.

Navy enlisted uniforms, 1888

As previously mentioned, there was no heat aboard sailing ships.  The only fire allowed aboard ship the carefully controlled fire maintained for cooking in the ship’s galley.  If there were any heated spaces aboard ship, they would most likely be found in the sickbay and usually took the form of hot coals in an iron bucket.  These conditions assured that the men were always cold, and it became a worse ordeal when the men’s clothing became wet or damp.

Regulations also required crewmen to wash two or three times a week, which must have been an unhappy task while operating in the North Atlantic during winter months.  Among the common ailments of seamen were rheumatism, consumption, debility, scurvy, and syphilis.  The latter disease often endangered the operational efficiency of the ship due to physical incapacitation.  In certain seasons, ship’s crewmen experienced outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox.  Since there was no cure for consumption (tuberculosis), men so affected continued their service until death overtook them.  Whether these men were isolated away from others is unknown.

The Slops and other Uniforms

The American sailor’s wardrobe, called “slops,” generally consisted of a peacoat, two cloth jackets, two cloth trousers, two white flannel shirts, two white flannel drawers, two pair of white yarn stockings, two black handkerchiefs, two duck cotton frocks, two duck cotton trousers, four pair shoes, one mattress, two blankets, one canvas hammock, one red cloth vest, and two black hats.

Quarters — or not

Living quarters aboard the ship were spartan.  Officers were assigned cabins according to their rank and seniority, but crewmen lived communally.  For the crew, sleeping quarters were dark, frequently awash in seawater, and almost always infested with vermin.  Despite rules for bathing, crews’ quarters were often rancid smelling was nauseous.  Part of this problem is explained by the fact that ship’s crews washed their clothing in urine and saltwater.  Presumably, this was designed to save freshwater for drinking and, perhaps, to address the problem with lice and other biters.

Religious Instruction

The US Navy always mandated religious services while at sea, but not every ship was large enough to warrant a chaplain.  In the case of small ships, it was either the ship’s captain or his clerk who conducted religious services — which included two divine services each day and sermons on Sunday.  Attendance at religious services as mandatory for everyone not on watch.  But even when there were shipboard chaplains, it was unlikely that the individual fulfilling that duty was an ordained minister.  In 1862, US Navy Regulations stated that ship’s captains “… shall cause divine service to be performed on Sunday, whenever the weather and other circumstances allow it to be done,” and recommended, “… to all officers, seamen, and others in the naval service diligently to attend at every performance of the worship of Almighty God.”

Recreation

In today’s navy, recreational pursuits are available to every member of the crew, including workout rooms, libraries, computer centers, and various thematic clubs.  It wasn’t until 1825 that the navy set aside a place for libraries, which were generally placed under the charge of chaplains and ship’s clerks.  Since most crewmen were illiterate, officers were the usual patrons of ship’s libraries.

Members of the crew who played instruments often provided music.  In the old navy, the number one recreational activity was shore leave or liberty.  Officers often went on sightseeing tours, hunting parties, or were “invited guests” to the homes of locally prominent members of society.  Enlisted men were left to their own devices, which were generally activities in contravention of every religious service or sermon heard while aboard ship — and this may be the one remaining tradition of the early American navy.

Paying the Piper

Discipline aboard ship was draconian.  Among the more severe transgression was the stealing of food.  Individual discovered stealing food were in some cases punished by nailing the offender’s hand to a mast and then cutting it off.  Flogging was also a common punishment — the number of lashes depending on the offense charged, but several dozen was not uncommon.  If it ever actually existed as a punishment, Keelhauling was, to my knowledge, never employed in the US or Royal Navy, whence American naval traditions originated.


Endnote:

[1] Primarily a system in the British Army whereby an officer would pay a sum of money to the Army for a commission in the cavalry or infantry, thereby avoiding the need to wait for a seniority or merit-based advancement.  The payment was a cash bond for good behavior liable to forfeit in the case of cowardice, desertion, or misconduct.  This system was abolished in 1871.

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”

 

Just Another Extraordinary Man

USN Chaplain Corps 001Commander Leo Stanis, Chaplain Corps, U. S. Navy, served in the US Army during World War II. He was inspired to one day become a military chaplain. In 1967, he re-joined the service—this time as a Navy chaplain, and his service took him to Vietnam where he teamed with a local Catholic church to recover religious relics from the control of the North Vietnamese. When he wasn’t doing that, he was taking care of Marines at a place called Con Thien.

Jim Coan[1] wrote about this place, located just south of the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Ask any Marine who was there, and he’ll tell you there was nothing demilitarized about it. It wasn’t only the enemy that was trying to kill Marines … sometimes, it was tragic human error. Conan tells us that human error was “… inevitable. Someone would make a mistake, and lives would be lost. That happened on August 15, 1967 at Con Thien. Ron Smith, a corpsman assigned to 1st Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines had just removed his boots to wash out his socks in his helmet when he heard a loud explosion. That dreaded cry went up: ‘Corpsman, get a corpsman over here!’ HM3 Smith, accompanied by another corpsman named Bob Wilson, ran barefooted over to the scene of the explosion. Both corpsmen had been through a lot that summer, but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw laying on the ground beneath a pall of smoke and dust. Two blood-covered Marines lay writhing in pain out in an old minefield. They were combat engineers clearing mines out of an area of Con Thien called ‘Death Valley’ where some Dyemarker bunkers would be constructed.

“The two Navy corpsmen never hesitated. They made two perilous trips through the deadly minefield to the side of the mortally wounded engineers and carried them to safety. One of the Marines was Corporal Gerald B. Weaver; he died in the arms of his corpsman Bob Wilson while expressing concern for his family, asking over and over, ‘How can my mother make it without me?’ The second Marine, Lance Corporal Andre R. Latesa, held Navy Chaplain Leo “Chappie” Stanis’ hand tightly, reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over, while the two corpsmen worked rapidly to save his life. He would later succumb to his grievous wounds.”

Highland Vespers The moaning wounded
 The crying dead
 Are growing quiet. 
His weary arms droop 
From signing the cross 
Over these lost. 
Where mortars whistled 
In the long rice grass 
Now it is only the wind 
And his hymn is of return.
Highland Vespers
The moaning wounded

The crying dead

Are growing quiet.

His weary arms droop

From signing the cross

Over these lost.

Where mortars whistled

In the long rice grass

Now it is only the wind

And his hymn is of return.

Al Hemingway also wrote of A Place of Angels. “For the Marines manning that outpost just south of the DMZ, Con Thien was hell on earth when the NVA attacked.” Marines had another name for the firebase; they called it the meat grinder.

“Incoming! To men in combat, this warning means just seconds to find any obtainable shelter before enemy shells land. And for the Marines manning the desolate outpost at Con Thien, those seconds meant the difference between life and death.

“There is nothing more terrifying than to experience the feeling of sheet helplessness during an artillery barrage. There is something impersonal about the deadly whine of metal fragments as they search out victims to maim. These thunderous projectiles would hurl white-hot shrapnel everywhere, both large and small, ripping, tearing, and slicing human flesh. Prolonged shelling of this nature can also be psychologically detrimental.”

“’I can’t stand that artillery,’ one shaken Marine confessed. ‘There’s no warning, no rhyme or reason to who gets hit and who doesn’t.’”

“While traveling between companies to hold religious services, Navy Chaplain Leo Stanis had a rule. He never said mass for more than 25 individuals at a time. He would state from the outset: ‘Men, before we start, look around you. In case we receive incoming, we don’t all want to jump into the same hole. Let us pray…’”

TIME Con ThienThe old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes applies to moments such as these when everyone is experiencing sheer terror —when the prospects of meeting their ultimate fate confronts them head-on and there is nothing they can do to alter the next few moments —which often seem like hours. It is also a time when the comforting words of men like Leo Stanis are most needed. “’Incoming at Con Thien many times makes us feel that the earth is removed and that the mountains are carried into the ocean,’ the chaplain said.”

“The Marines at Con Thien found solace in Stanis’ words. Anywhere he opened his Bible on ‘the hill of angels,’ that spot became his altar. And anytime a Marine feared for his life, he was there to alleviate his dismay. He was truly a man of compassion.”

Commander Stanis came under fire several times; he was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received while in the service of God and His Marines. Yes, an exceptional man … and what many people do not realize is that there were hundreds of Chaplains just like him: men of God in military service. It is a tradition that began during the American Revolution. During the Vietnam War, 3 chaplains received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity for service above and beyond the call of duty —all three of these men were Catholic priests.

 

___________

Notes:

[1] Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, 2007