Early one morning the USS Enterprise left San Francisco and steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge. That night, while heading west to Hawaii, a fire destroyed the Marine detachment’s living quarters. With over 5,000 men aboard, rumors ran wild among the crew about what caused the fire. Weeks later, in port at Pearl Harbor, this story was told by one sailor to another while the two were eating chow in the ship’s galley. Be warned that sailors who tell stories in the galley are notorious for stretching the truth, spreading rumors and even telling outright lies. This is an excerpt from Sailors Delight a nautical novel by Malcolm Torres.
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The USS Enterprise tied up to the pier in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii
When the watch officer shouts, “Fall out!” the formation breaks and Chris walks across the hangar, picking his way through aircraft chained to the deck and stacks of wooden crates. At a watertight door in the gray steel bulkhead he steps over the knee knocker into a narrow ladderwell and climbs below to the galley.
A long line of guys waiting to eat goes back through the eight-foot-wide main deck passageway, continues into a dark living compartment, down a ladder to the deck below and into the ship’s laundry where washers and dryers the size of garbage trucks clank and growl steadily.
He waits 45-minutes for powdered eggs, hash browns, chipped beef on toast and pineapple chunks, and sits at a small stainless steel table.
A second later, Martin Weary, who must have been a few guys behind him in line, sits across from him.
“Fucking Marlow,” Weary says as he shakes pepper on his eggs then plucks the Tabasco from the table.
“What’s up Weary?”
“I’ll tell you what’s up,” he says. “I was golfing with a pal of mine on the flying squad yesterday and you’ll never guess what that cocksucker told me.”
“What’d he tell you, Weary?” Chris asks as he squirts ketchup on his eggs.
“You know what the flying squad is, right?”
Chris knows. “No, Weary, what’s the flying squad?” He folds a forkful of chipped beef inside a piece of toast.
“How long you been on this boat, Marlow?” Weary asks.
“Three years,” Chris says around a mouthful of food.
“Three fucking years, and you don’t know what the flying squad is, damn, I had no idea you were still such a fucking nugget after all this time!” Weary shakes more pepper over his eggs. Apparently, he likes them spicy. “It’s the ship’s emergency response team, numb nuts! Every time you hear that ear splittin’ buzzer,” Weary says “buzza” because he’s from Boston. “You know those guys who run through the passageways like a fucking stampede, all wearing red jerseys and yelling shit like ‘gangway’ and ‘make a hole!’ Marlow, you never heard of them?”
There’s a tremendous amount of clattering trays, chairs scraping across the deck, cutlery clicking at the metal tables all around them and a roar of conversation, causing a terrific headache to grind away inside Chris’s head.
“So what did your friend say?” Chris chugs a glass of water, attempting to extinguish the peptic ember smoldering at the base of his esophagus.
“You remember that fire we had the first night out of San Francisco,” Weary speaks around a mouthful of food, “the one in the Marine living compartment.”
“Sure.” Chris remembers the alarms going off.
For several days afterwards, stories went among the crew about the fire. Apparently, there was some welding and the heat from a torch penetrated a bulkhead and ignited the paint on the other side. It turned out that a half-dozen old coats of paint had built up on the bulkhead and the welder’s torch ignited them. There was a fire watch posted, like there was supposed to be, but when the paint started bubbling and smoking, the watch squeezed the lever on his CO-2 fire extinguisher and nothing came out because the old fire-bottle was empty. Within seconds, the paint was bubbling off the bulkhead like wallpaper in hell and smoke as black as the backs of your eyelids filled the compartment. The temperature shot up over 300 degrees. The alarm for general quarters was sounded and the entire crew went to battle stations. Before the Flying Squad put out the blaze, it incinerated the entire marine living compartment, torched their mattresses, burned all their uniforms and melted their TV. The entire compartment was reduced to an old, broken barbecue grill, leaving the marines homeless. For the next eight weeks, all the way from San Francisco to Hawaii, the marines slept on the aircraft hangar and worked shifts around the clock. The night before pulling into Pearl Harbor the captain announced that the marines had completely restored their living compartment.
Members of the Flying Squad, the ship's fire fighting team are ready to battle a blaze.
“Well, check this shit out,” Weary says. “My buddy on the flying squad tells me the blaze was a whole lot worse than what everyone was led to believe.”
Chris pauses with a forkful of scrambled eggs in front of his face and thinks it might be a bad idea to eat such a big tray of food, because he feels like someone wearing steel-toe boots kicked him in the gut, but he decides he’s hungry and continues shoveling chow into his mouth.
“Below the compartment where the Marines live, there’s a large weapons magazine,” Weary says.
“Oh shit, that’s right.” Chris realizes why the captain put the crew at general quarters that night. He remembers the klaxon blaring and an announcement from speakers throughout the ship telling all hands to man their battle stations. In over three years aboard that was the only time he’d ever heard “man your battle stations” followed by “this is not a drill.”
“The whole reason the marines live right on top of that magazine,” Weary says, “is because that’s where they store nuclear warheads.”
“No shit!” Chris doesn’t want to believe it but he knows it’s true.
“That blaze burned through into the magazine and lit off two heat seekin’ missiles.” Weary says. “But that ain’t half of it, Marlow. What you ain’t gonna believe is the part about the marine guard and the two cats on the flying squad.”
“They get burned in the fire?”
“Worse,” Weary says. “The marine guarding the magazine heard the alarm and smelled smoke and freaked out. When the first guy from the flying squad came through the watertight hatch into the area outside the magazine, the fucking marine shot him in the fucking chest.”
“Right through the heart, man.” Weary makes his hand into a pistol and points it at Chris. “Pow!” he says. “The marine thought it was a security breach or something. Then two missiles exploded inside the magazine, which is basically a gigantic bank vault full of high explosives, and the marine shot the next flying squad guy who came through the hatch.”
“Shot two fucking guys!”
“That fire was blazing out of control in a magazine full of bombs for twenty minutes before the head of the Marine detachment finally deprogrammed the fucking guy so the flying squad could get in there to flood the magazine and put out the fire.”
“That’s insane,” Chris says. “We’re a few decks above on the flight deck and we never heard about any of that!”
Weary shovels chip beef into his mouth. “But the worst part is, one of them nuclear bombs got melted and that plutonium shit came out all over the deck!”
“No fucking way!” Chris says.
Weary says, “Seriously.”
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This sea story is an excerpt from Sailors Delight, a nautical fiction novel, available on Amazon in paperback and ebook format.