Attitude and Gratitude: Chapter Twenty One

Finally, on Dec. 3, I received orders to report to Astoria, OR. for the commissioning of my ship the U.S.S. Bollinger, which was held six days later. That day, I boarded the vessel which was to be “my home” for the next year. In addition to my supply and disbursing duties, I was the insurance officer, coding and decoding officer, member of the Summary Court Martial Board which consisted of three officers, head of the Chief Petty Officer Mess Audit Board, President of the officers’ ward room, one of the debarkation officers, and last but not least the “S” Division officer. As I write about my experiences aboard ship, I will describe several of the above duties.

Each member of the crew was assigned to a division depending upon his duty performed. Thus, all seamen were assigned to the deck division; radio operators to the communication division; engine room personnel to the engineering division, etc. Each division was headed by officer, i.e. the deck div. officer was the First Lieut.; communication div. by the Communication Officer, etc. I was the officer in charge of the Supply division which consisted of the storekeepers, cooks and bakers, laundry personnel and the steward mates.

At this time in the Navy, all Negro personnel were assigned to serve the officers and were not in any of the other divisions, other than the “S” division. Their duties comprised being waiters in the officers’ ward room, cooking for the officers, cleaning the officers’ rooms and making sure that the officers have clean, laundered clothing daily. The only military duty assigned to them was manning the anti-aircraft guns during combat. There were about 50 men in my division, including 12 steward mates.

Every morning at 7 a.m., the entire ship’s complement would gather on deck for muster; each division officer standing in front of his division and proceed with a roll call to assure the presence of every man. After muster, all would go to their mess to have breakfast; after which all would commence their respective duties.

After muster, I would retire to my room to put on my phylacteries and do my daily prayers. I always drew the curtain to my room so that I would not be disturbed during my communication with my Maker. The steward mates, seeing my curtain drawn, would know that they had to return later to clean my room and pick up my clothing for the laundry. I received nothing but respect from them and my fellow officers for my religious beliefs. In fact, my room-mate, Ensign Reilly loved to engage me in theological discussions regarding Judaism and Christianity. He was a devout Catholic from Bronxville, N.Y. and was engaged to a beautiful girl, whom I later met. He was particularly interested in Judaism’s stand on birth control since he would practice the rhythm method when he married.

Each member of the crew wished to ingratiate himself with his division officer because the latter was responsible for his promotion to a higher rate and increased pay, granting him leave to visit his family and defending him at “Captain’s Mast”. When a sailor went “on report” for an infraction, he was ordered to appear on the Captain’s deck and the Captain of the ship would administer punishment. This procedure was held for minor infractions and the usual punishment would be loss of pay for a specified period. The most common “sins” were not being in proper uniform, i.e. not wearing his hat, unbuttoned shirt, etc. and fighting. Unfortunately, our commanding officer was a clone of “Capt. Bligh” and exacted discipline far beyond what a normal captain would desire. Thus, our ship probably employed this procedure much more often than any ship in the fleet.

If a more severe act occurred, the culprit would be ordered to appear before the Summary Court Martial Board consisting of three officers; I being one of them. There was a prosecutor and defense counsel who pleaded their case. The punishment usually meted out was a reduction to the next lower rate, and occasionally incarceration for a period in the ship’s brig. The decision of this Board was final and could not be appealed by the defendant nor by the Captain. There was one instance where the Captain called the members of the Board individually to his cabin to request us to change our verdict of not guilty; not one of us bowed to his demand and that was the first and last time he interfered with us. He very well knew that his action was against Naval regulations and that if we reported him, he would be censured.

My disbursing duties consisted of paying the officers and crew semi-monthly. I would set up a large table in a large area with a large amount of cash. At all times I had to have in my possession a minimum of $100,000. I paid bills for supplies that were not obtained from Naval Supply Depots with checks signed by me. My Bureau of Supplies and Accounts Manual instructed me as to which articles I could buy and those I could not.

Once, I was called up to the Captain’s cabin and he attempted to ingratiate himself with me by calling me Max instead of Mr. Prager as he called the other officers; incidentally, I was the only officer aboard ship whom the Captain addressed by his first name. Perhaps, he had an ulterior motive as I soon discovered his reason for being so nice to me; and he wanted to set the modus operandi with his disbursing officer for the future. Being a graduate of Annapolis and being in the Navy for some time, he must have been successful with other disbursing officers in the past.

He purchased a beautiful, large and very comfortable lounging chair for his cabin which he showed me and even asked me to sit in it and give him my opinion of his purchase. He then proceeded to hand me the invoice which he wanted me to pay. I, being very familiar with the contents of the BuS&A Manual, knew that his purchase was in the personal category and could not, under any circumstances, be paid for by government funds. Also, I knew the regulation that if a commanding officer of any ship or base requests his disbursing officer to expend any funds for a prohibited purchase, the latter can do so only if the former signs a statement authorizing the payment and that I was doing so under protest.

You can just imagine the look on Carter Printup’s face when I recited the regulation to him. He returned the chair and never held this incident against me; in fact, his respect for me rose. Whenever we watched the movies on deck at night, he always made sure to sit next to me and converse. Once, while watching a movie, he asked me if, after the war, I could find a good employment position for him in New York. It seems that he was under the impression that all New York Jews were wealthy since he came from a small town in Georgia.

I was the assistant to the Supply Officer, Lt. (jg) R.C. Zell, a career Navy man who was commissioned to officer’s rank at the outbreak of the war. This position was in name only as he had 2 assistants, one of whom was a Chief Warrant Officer-a commissioned rank- and the other was a Warrant Officer, not commissioned. All three procured supplies-food and material- and supervised the crew’s mess.

Naval officers receive a uniform allowance when commissioned and annually thereafter. Their wardrobe must consist of 2 navy blue dress uniforms worn ashore, usually at night; 2 white dress uniforms for warm climates which I never wore; 4 work uniforms, 2 khaki and 2 grey. In addition as part of their pay, they receive a monthly meal allowance. Aboard my ship as President of the ward room, I purchased the food, phonograph records and other recreational items. I, enjoying classical records, bought many symphonies, concertos and operas. I assigned one of the other officers to purchase jazz and other records that he thought would be enjoyed. I set the monthly amount that each officer would be assessed for the above.

Each officer was assigned a battle station to which he went during combat. Also, each of us was assigned “watch” duties to be performed 4 hours on and 8 hours off, each and every day. It was a Naval tradition that Supply and Disbursing officers automatically became coding and decoding officers aboard ship and performed these duties on “watch” and at their battle stations. To accomplish these tasks we sat in a small room adjacent to the radio room.

After a coded message was received by the 3 or 4 radiomen on duty, they slipped the message through a small opening in the wall separating the two rooms. There were 2 different kinds of coding equipment; one was the electric coding machine (ECM) and the other, whose name eludes me, was used rarely. If the message was sent on an ECM, the decoding was done on that machine and if the message was sent on the other machine, then that machine was employed.

The coded message would read like this: xjydl pdieg siqvd, etc., always 5 garbled letter words. Every month the Communication Officer received a manual specifying the daily codes to be used in the machines. On receiving the message, I inserted that day’s code in the machine and then commenced to type the garbled message. A ticker tape would then emerge from the machine and state in perfect English the contents of the message.

At the beginning of each message, the security thereof would read “Top Secret”, “Secret” or “Conventional”. After pasting the strips of the tape to a sheet, I would immediately bring the top secret and secret messages to the Captain for his perusal. I remember reading one top secret message when, towards the end of the war, the USS Indianapolis was sunk with hundreds aboard; no survivors. To this day, the mystery of the cause still prevails. There were rumors that the ship was carrying atomic bombs.

We left Astoria and arrived at Seattle on Dec. 23. We loaded supplies and the left for San Francisco where we received our landing craft-LCVPs and 2 LCMs- and the crew to man them. We departed the same day for San Pedro in the L.A. area for our ten day “shakedown” period. We arrived in San Pedro on Dec. 29 and commenced this period which is going through many and varied sea tests to probe for any flaws in the ship’s performance.

After completing our “shakedown” on Jan. 12, 1945, we left for San Diego to undergo amphibious training and pick up the beach party assigned to our ship. This group consisted of Lieut. Whitaker, Beach Platoon Officer; Lieut. Ned Siner, Platoon Executive Officer-a Jew- and Lieut. F.E. Holstein, Platoon Medical Officer, a radio operator and several Medical Corp men. This group would establish communications with our ship prior to the landing of personnel on the beaches. When an invasion of an island took place, every APA in the attack force would set aside bunks for the wounded in addition to its sick bay which held about 12 bunks. The wounded would be treated by the pharmacy mates in the beach party and sent back to the APAs by LCVPs.

On the very first day of our training, we suffered our first fatal casualty aboard ship. The victim was a member of one of the LCVP crews named Victor Passerman, a young Jewish lad from Detroit. It was at dawn when visibility was very low that a boat (LCVP) was being lowered into the water and the cable from the davit broke. There were two men in the boat at the time’, one of whom was Passerman. The other sailor was thrown clear of the boat into the water and escaped uninjured except for shock. However, Passerman fell with the boat and hit his head against the hard metal deck of the boat. After one half hour, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage and a fractured skull. Had he worn his helmet that was mandatory, it is possible that he would have sustained minor injuries. His body was taken off the ship and sent to the San Diego Naval Hospital for disposition.

We stayed in San Diego until Jan. 29 when we pulled in to the repair base for our availability period until Feb. 13 when we embarked an air wing detachment of marines and headed for Pearl Harbor. We arrived in Pearl on Feb. 19 and left on the 21st for Majuro in the Mariana Islands and arrived there on Feb. 27 and dropped off the air wing. We stayed there for one day and left for the island of Eniwetok.

We arrived at Eniwetok March 1 and a day later we were on our way for Iwo Jima. At 0600 on March 14 we sailed into Iwo Jima and saw signs of continued action. The island was not secured as yet although 90% of Iwo Jima was in the hands of the marines. We immediately began to load cargo belonging to the 4th Marine Division and on the night of March 15 we took on 1400 marines from that division who were mainly artillery battalions.

From our ship, which was only 5000 yards offshore, we could view constant dive bombing and strafing by our planes and also continuous naval gunfire executed by a few destroyers lying offshore. Machine gun and mortar fire was plainly audible at all times. At night we could see many star shells illuminating the north eastern tip of the island where combat was still going on by the 5th Marine Division sector. The 3rd Marine Division also had a few small pockets of resistance to eliminate and therefore was not ready to evacuate as was the 4th Division who had secured their sector.

The army had come in a week before and was going to be used for garrison work and also to eliminate any guerillas or snipers that would probably continue to exist for quite some time. The Seebees were doing a marvelous job on construction work on roads, tunnels, airfields, etc. They would be there for a while giving us a first rate air base on this island.

Although the cost in lives was great-over 4,000- and other casualties ran very high, the importance of Iwo was appreciated when we saw the many B-29s landing and taking off on their to and from Japan aerial bombing missions. This island was an excellent emergency landing base and ultimately would repay the high cost in saving the countless lives of bombing crews and planes.

Also, it was used as a base for fighter escort planes for the B-29s and B-24s in bombing raids on the island of Japan. All day long we witnessed P-51 Mustangs coming and going even before the entire island was secured.

At 1800 on March 16, Iwo Jima was officially secured although many snipers and guerillas were still operating. On that day, we were fully loaded with troops and cargo and waited for all the other attack transports and cargo ships to be loaded before shoving off from Iwo.

At 0800 on March 20, the entire convoy, Bollinger included, left Iwo Jima for the next destination, Guam where all the APAs were to leave their boats-LCVPs and LCMs- for the replacement pool. At 1500 on Thursday March 22, we arrived at Guam and saw a fairly large island that looked to be well set-up. It was the largest island we had visited since we left the States, excluding the Hawaiian Islands. We had our boats taken from us and on the morning of March 23 we were off again.

On March 27 about 1500, we arrived at Eniwetok for fueling and just stayed there overnight. At 0600 on March 28, we left this island and headed for Pearl Harbor with our valuable cargo of valiant and tired marines.

The second tragedy that struck the Bollinger was another death of one of our crew members. He was a carpenter’s mate named Johnson who was married and the father of three children. While steaming from Eniwetok to Pearl, we hit a typhoon and Johnson wanted to secure the large, heavy steel plates that were on deck. He released the bar which secured the sheets of steel and, in a flash, the ship pitched acutely and resulted in the plates falling and pinning him against the bulkhead. The plates, weighing about ten tons, crushed his chest and heart. He lived for about 4 hours and during surgery, he died on the operating table.

This was the first and only burial at sea that I witnessed and cannot forget it. Being a friend of the head doctor, I was in the sick bay when his body was placed in a canvas bag which was the sewn so that the body would not fall out. A weight was placed at his feet so that he should sink to the bottom of the sea and not float. The entire ship’s company and the troops we were carrying stood at attention on the boat deck. All the ship’s personnel were dressed in their blue uniforms, officers included. An American flag was draped over the body and six pallbearers then carried the body from sick bay to the boat deck where it was placed on a “horse” near the rail.

A gun salute was then given by a Marine detail and the Chaplain then performed a religious burial ceremony. Taps was then played by the bugler and Johnson’s body was slowly dropped into the sea.

A few days later, one of the Marines we were transporting and who was a Jewish boy from Howard Avenue in Brooklyn, suffered a sudden fatal heart attack. He was about 35 years of age and married. Since we were due to arrive at Pearl Harbor within a day, his body was kept for transportation to his family.

On April 4, we arrived in Pearl and just remained there overnight and early in the morning we headed for Maui, a nearby island. A big home-coming celebration was awaiting the victorious Marines who were returning from Iwo Jima. A Navy band was playing martial music and native Hawaian women and girls and Waves were on hand to distribute leis-pronounced lays- to the men. Then a few girls dressed in straw skirts performed the traditional Hula dance amid great pleasure and enthusiasm displayed by the grateful audience. Even a fat and not very pretty Hula girl looked very tempting after several months at sea.

We debarked the troops and unloaded our holds which were filled with cargo and on the morning of April 6 we headed back to Pearl for an availability period of approximately 2 weeks. The term “availability” refers to awaiting a decision by COMSOPAC- Commander South Pacific- for our next assignment. Also this time period gave us an opportunity to take on provisions, supplies and repair minor damage to the ship. Since we were at sea for two months, we required the above. We arrived on the afternoon at Pearl and docked.

We stayed in Pearl for a little over 2 weeks performing all the tasks mentioned above and had the Bollinger completely repainted externally and internally. On April 22, we got underway and headed for Port Hueneme in California. Nothing of any importance occurred there and left that city for San Pedro where we arrived on April 29. We stayed there for a few days and then headed back to Port Hueneme on May 2 to load 400 Marines and Sea Bees, including 25 officers.

On May 5, we sailed for San Francisco with the troops and arrived there the following afternoon where we took on about 50 officers and about 150 enlisted men who were to form military government teams and about 150 men of a hospital unit. This entire personnel were to be taken by us to Okinawa where our forces were currently fighting the Japanese.

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