Read CHAPTER III - In which the “Yankee” Cruises for prizes of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

It was evening, the evening of the day on which the “Yankee” sailed from Tompkinsville bound out on her maiden cruise as an auxiliary ship of war. The afternoon had passed without event, save that which attacks the amateur sailor when he first feels the heaving swell of old ocean. The crew had shaken into its place, and the men of the watch on deck were commencing to appreciate their responsibilities.

The ship was quiet, save for the faint chug-chug of the propeller under the stern and the occasional clang of a shovel in the fire room deep down in the innermost reaches of the ship. The sun had vanished in a hazy cloud which portended a stiff breeze, but the wind was still gentle, and, as it swept across the decks from off the port quarter, it seemed grateful indeed to those who came from below for a breath of air.

Orders had been issued to darken the decks. The running lights of red and green were still in the lamp room, and, except for a soft, rosy glow from the binnacle-bowl, there was a blackness of night throughout the upper part of the ship. Cigars and pipes and cigarettes had been tabooed, and doors were opened in the deck houses only after the inside lights had been lowered to a flickering pin point.

Up on the forward bridge Captain Brownson stood talking in a low voice to the executive officer, Lieutenant Hubbard. The lurching swing of the ship caused them to sway back and forth against the rail and a metallic sound came from a sword scabbard suspended from the captain’s belt. The presence of this sword, betrayed by the clatter it made, told a secret to several sailors gathered under the lee of the pilot house, and one said, in an excited whisper:

“There’s something up, Chips. The old man is fixed for trouble. I’m going aft and stand by.”

The speaker started off, but before he had taken ten steps the shrill blast of a bugle suddenly broke the stillness of the night. The discordant notes rang and echoed through the ship, and, while the sound was still trembling in the air, two score of shadowy figures sprang up from different parts of the deck and scurried toward the ladders leading below.

The transformation was instant and complete.

From a ship stealthily pursuing its way through the darkness a part of the mist the “Yankee” became the theatre of a scene of the most intense activity.

There was no shouting, no great clamor of sound; nothing but the peculiar shuffling of shoes against iron, the hard panting of hurrying men, the grating of breech-blocks, low muttered orders from officer to man, and a multitude of minor noises that seemed strange and weird and uncanny in this blackness.

A belated wardroom boy, still carrying a towel across his arm, slips from the cabin and hastens forward to his station in the powder division. The navigator, an officer of the regular navy, whose ideas of discipline are based on cast iron rules, espies the laggard and administers a sharp rebuke. A squad of marines dash from the “barracks” below and line up at the secondary battery guns on the forecastle. Some of the marines are hatless and coatless, and one wiry little private shambles along on one foot. He stumbles against a hatch-coaming and kicks his shoe across the deck.

Suddenly an order comes out of the gloom near the main hatch and is carried from gun to gun.

“Cast loose and provide!”

The hitherto motionless figures waiting at the battery spring into activity. Hands move nimbly at the training and elevating gear. Breech-blocks are thrown open, sights adjusted, the first and second captains take their places, the former with the firing lanyard in readiness for use at his gun; then there is silence again as the officer in charge of the division holds up one hand as a signal that all is prepared. Then comes the word to load.

In a twinkling the ammunition hoists are creaking with their burdens and boxes of shell appear on deck. These are quickly lifted to the guns and taken in hand by the loaders. The latter do their part of the general work thoroughly and with despatch, and presently the breech-blocks are swung to and the battery is ready for action.

In the meantime there has been systematic preparation in other parts of the auxiliary cruiser. Down in the sick bay aft, the surgeon and his assistants have made ready for their grewsome task. Cases of glittering instruments have been opened, lint and bandages and splints are in their proper places, and the apothecary and bayman are getting the cots in trim for instant use.

In the fire room the firemen and coal-passers are heaping up the furnaces, a couple of men hurry away to attend to the fire mains, and, standing by in readiness for duty, are the engineers and crew of the off watch. The carpenters are ready below with shot-hole plugs, and everywhere throughout the ship can be found officers and sailors and marines and men of the “black gang,” each at his proper station in readiness for the word to begin action.

But that word does not come. Instead a stentorian command is heard from the bridge:


Laughing and joking, the crew of the “Yankee” hasten to restore the ship to its former state. All this has been a drill, the drill known as general quarters. It is the first time it has been held under service conditions, and when the captain steps down from the bridge and says in his brisk, authoritative way, “Very well done, very well done indeed,” the boys of the cruiser are satisfied and happy.

Twice during the night the drill is repeated. There is no grumbling because of disturbed sleep, for a rumor has gone about the ship that Spanish vessels have been seen off the coast, and even the cranks on board admit that drills and exercises are necessary.

Sea watches have been set, and the rules followed when under way are now operative. A brief explanation of the routine attending the first hours of a naval day may help to make succeeding descriptions more plain. The ship’s daily life commences with the calling of the ship’s cook at 3:30 a.m. The ordinary mess cooks are awakened at four o’clock, so that coffee can be prepared for the watch. Coffee is always served with hard-tack to the watch coming on deck at four. It is all the men get until breakfast at 7:30, and a great deal of work must be accomplished before that time.

After the hard-tack and coffee had been consumed and it went to that spot always reserved for good things the lookouts of the other watch on the port and starboard bridge and the patent life buoys port and starboard quarter were relieved. As soon as the first streaks of dawn Were to be seen a long-drawn boatswain’s pipe, like the wail of a lost soul, came from forward, and the order “scrub and wash clothes” given.

A day or two before the “Yankee” left the navy yard, one of the pretty girls who had come over to visit her asked: “Where do you have your washing done? It must require a great many washerwomen to keep the clothes of this dirty [glancing rather disdainfully at her somewhat grimy friend] crew clean.” Though we knew that the luxury of a laundry would not fall to our lot, we were at a loss as to the method pursued to clean clothes.

We soon learned.

We who had been anticipating an order of this sort came running forward with bundles of clothes that would discourage a steam laundry. This was the first opportunity we had had to clean up. The forecastlemen led out the hose, which was connected to the ship’s pump, and, after wetting down the forecastle deck (where all clothes must be scrubbed), we were told we might turn to.

The “Kid,” who was the youngest member of the crew aboard, very popular with officers and men, and who afterward became the ship’s mascot, said, “How do you work this, anyway?” I confessed that I was in the dark myself, but proposed that we watch “Patt,” the gunner’s mate, who had served in the navy before. Presently we saw him lay his jumper flat on the deck, wet it thoroughly with water from the hose, then rub it with salt-water soap. Then he fished out a stiff scrubbing brush and began to scrub the jumper as if it was a floor. We then understood the significance of the order scrub and wash clothes. In salt water the clothes have not only to be washed, but scrubbed as well.

The “Kid” remarked, “Well, I’ll be switched,” and forthwith fell on his knees and proceeded to follow “Patt’s” example.

Though we scrubbed manfully, “putting our backs into it” and “using plenty of elbow grease,” as instructed, still the result was hardly up to our expectations. The navigator remarked, as we were “stopping” the clothes on the line, “You heroes might scrub those clothes a little bit; it does not take a college education to learn how to wash clothes.”

I agreed with the “Kid” that, though cleanliness was next to Godliness, cleanliness, like Godliness, was often a difficult virtue to acquire. We found it almost impossible to be cleanly without the aid of fresh water, so the schemes devised to avoid the executive’s order and get it were many and ingenious.

One man would go to the ship’s galley, where the fresh water hand-pump was, and, without further ado, begin to fill his bucket, remarking, if the cook attempted to interfere, that he had to scrub paint work or he had orders from the doctor to bathe in fresh water. These excuses would be successful till too many men came in with buckets and plausible excuses, when the cook would shut down on the scheme for the time. The man with fresh water was the envy of his fellows, and must needs be vigilant, or bucket and water would disappear mysteriously.

The “Kid” happened to be next me when “stopping” his clothes on the line, and remarked, as he tied the last knot on his last jumper, “I like to be clean as the next chap, but this scrubbing clothes on your knees is no snap.”

He stopped to feel them.

“Why, I can feel the corns growing on them already. How often do we have to do this scrubbing job, anyhow?” he asked.

“You can do it every morning, if you really feel inclined,” I replied, smiling at his rueful countenance; “clothes can only be washed during the morning watch (four to eight), I understand, and, as the starboard men are on duty one day during that time and the port watch the next, each is supposed to ‘scrub and wash clothes’ in his own watch. See?”

The “Kid” looked up at the dripping line of rather dingy clothes, then down at his red and soapy knees, and said, as he turned to go aft, “Well, when we get back to New York, I am going to have a suit of whites made of celluloid that can be washed with a sponge.”

At 6:30 the order “knock off scrubbing clothes” was given, and then all hands of the watch “turned to” and scrubbed decks, scoured the gratings and companion-way ladders with sand and canvas, brass work was polished, paint work wiped down, and everything on board made as spick and span as a new dollar.

A vast quantity of water is brought from over the side through the ship’s pump, and the men work in their bare feet. In fact, the usual costume during this period of the day consists of a pair of duck trousers and a thin shirt. On special occasions even the shirt is dispensed with. During warm weather it is delightful to splash around a water-soaked deck, but there are mornings when a biting wind comes from the north, and the keenness of winter is in the air, and then Jackie, compelled to labor up to his knees in water, casts longing glances toward the glow of the galley fire, and makes his semi-yearly vow that he will leave the “blooming” service for good and go on a farm.

This scrubbing of decks and scouring of ladders put an extra edge on our appetites, so we agreed with “Stump” when he said, “I feel as if I could put a whole bumboat load of stuff out of commission all by my lonely.” “Stump’s” appetite was out of proportion to his size.

When the boatswain’s mate gave his peculiar long, quavering pipe and the order “spread mess gear for the watch below,” at 7:20, we of the watch on deck realized that there was still forty minutes to wait. Every man’s hunger seemed to increase tenfold, so that even the odor of boiling “salt-horse” from the galley did not trouble us.

Finally the order came, “on deck all the starboard watch”; followed by the boatswain’s mess call for the watch on deck. The scramble to get below and to work with knife, fork, and spoon resembled a fire panic at a theatre. It is first come first served aboard ship, and the man who lingers often gets left.

The gun deck of the “Yankee,” like the gun deck of most war vessels, is Jack’s living room. Here he sleeps, in what he facetiously calls his folding-bed, which is swung from the deck beams above; here he enjoys the various amusements that an ordinary citizen would call work; here he goes through his drills; here he fights, not his shipmates, but his country’s enemies, and here he eats.

The remark, “he spread his legs luxuriously under the mahogany,” would hardly apply to Jack’s mode of dining. His table is a swinging affair that is hung on the hammock hooks a mere board a couple of feet wide and twelve or fourteen feet long, having a ridge around the edge to keep the plates from sliding off in a seaway. Jack’s dining chairs are called “mess benches,” and consist of a long folding bench that with the table can be stowed away in racks overhead when not in use. A mess chest for each mess, an enamelled iron plate and cup, and a knife, fork, and spoon for each man complete the “mess gear” outfit.

The ship’s company is divided into messes, each man being assigned to a certain mess at the same time his billet number or ship’s number is given to him. There are from fifteen to thirty men in a mess. Each has its own “berth-deck cook,” who prepares the food for the galley; each, too, has a mess caterer, or striker, whose business it is to help the mess cook and see that all goes well. The caterer is a volunteer from the mess, and generally serves for a week, when another volunteer takes his place. If the quantity or quality of the food is not up to expectations, it would be better for the caterer that he be put down in the “brig” out of harm’s way, for Jack is apt to speak his mind in vigorous English, and his mind and stomach have generally formed a close alliance.

The twenty minutes allowed for meals are well spent, and the clatter of knives and forks attests the zest with which Uncle Sam’s man-o’-war’s-man tackles his not always too nice or delicate fare. The nine dollars a month allowed by the navy for rations is expended by the paymaster of the vessel, not by the men, so, if the paymaster concludes that the men shall have “salt-horse,” rice, and hard-tack, Jack gets “salt-horse,” rice, and hard-tack, and that is all he does get unless his mess cook and caterer are unusually prudent and save something from the previous day’s rations, or the mess has put up some extra money and has “private stores.”

As the man with the biggest appetite or the fellow who eats slowly are putting away the last morsel of cracker hash or the last swallow of coffee, “Jimmy Legs” (the master-at-arms) comes around, shouting as he goes, “Shake a leg there, we want to get this deck cleared for quarters.” He is often followed by the boatswain’s mate of the watch, who echoes his call, and between them they clear the deck. Then begins the real work of the day.