BEATING THE PANTS OFF THE NAVY
George Gross, LST-794
copyright 1999 by George Gross
Some background: An LST has three signalmen, they stand watch around the clock in the conning tower with the OD, four hours on, eight hours off. If you happen to have the mid watch. Noon to four and midnight to four, you do your damnedest to get some sleep after dinner before the messenger wakes you at 11:30 to relieve the watch fifteen minutes early at 11:45. This can become very tiresome when you are at sea 30 or 40 days.
But my signalmen, McKay, Murphy, and Holmes, were so dedicated that when signal traffic was heavy they would all come up to the conn to help out, even when it was not their watch.
On one voyage we were assigned to a Navy group commander with four navy LSTs. He put us fifth at the end of the column, where we wouldnt bump into anybody. He was also very addicted to flag hoist signaling, which meant that the whole signal gang was putting in lots of overtime.
If you dont know, in flag hoist there is one flag for each letter of the alphabet. The flags are kept in a square canvas flag bag in alphabetical order, with the top rings of each flag wedged in slots at the top of the bag. When the signalman is told to fly Mike, Charley, Nan, he grabs the snap hook at the end of the signal halyard, snaps it onto the ring for Mike, pulls Mike out, grabs the snap ring at the bottom of Mike, snaps it onto the top ring of Charley, and soon has all three flags connected to the halyard. What he does next, depends on his place in the column. If he is working for the commander (and is therefore first), he hoists the signal all the way up the mast. This is called "two blocked". Then he watches the ship behind him. When it has the signal two blocked, it means, "I have looked up the meaning of the signal and all the ships behind me have correctly repeated the signal and know what it means."
The commanders signalman then informs the commander that he is ready to execute. This is done by taking the signal down as quickly and smartly as possible. All ships behind do the same thing and then carry out the order, which might be "change course to 345 degrees" or "report how much water and fuel you have left" or a thousand other things.
Now back to the 794. It is a beautiful day. The sun is shining brightly on a fairly flat sea. But we are pissed off because we have been placed last in the column. We want to show that we can keep exact ship station and signal better and faster than anyone else. Because of the flurry of signals the whole signal gang is on deck. Never mind whose watch it is. They lash a long glass to one of the blinker lights, which enables them to "steal the flags" as they come out of the commanders bag. Our gang is so good that they can recognize the flags while they are still crumpled up, before they are hoisted. In theory we are supposed to get our signals from the ship ahead, but we are getting them from the commander. The signalman at the long glass yells, "bend on Nan, Charley, Mike". Another at the flag bag connects the flags, but does not hoist them. Another looks up the meaning in the navy signal book and informs the OD. When the commander two blocks, the signalman at the long glass verifies that we have it right and shouts out to the signalman at the flag bag one deck below, "Two-block!" Up it goes!
Then come those delicious moments while the navy ships ahead of us scramble to get the signal, figure out what it means, check to see that the ships behind them have it right, and two block. Fifteen or twenty seconds might go by while we enjoy the navys embarrassment that it has been beaten by the Coast Guard. Especially sweet is the knowledge that the commander knows the 794 has beaten his navy LSTs.
The Captain comes up to the conn. "Whats going on here Mr. Gross?"
"Nothing, sir. We are just beating the pants off the navy."
"Well, keep it up."
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