Chapter One: The Sea Devil to Japan

World War II ended in August of 1945. I was on watch on the signal tower controlling ship traffic in and out of Los Angeles harbor when the announcement was made. Everyone went wild. But I had to complete my watch and by the time I got into Los Angeles the party was mostly over. A few days later we were told to prepare to ship out to Japan. The Harbor Entrance Control Post at Los Angeles Harbor was no longer needed and we closed it down and packed our sea bags. Point Fermin became once more a cozy little public park in San Pedro.

Our entire crew with a few support positions was sent to man the Harbor Entrance Control Post at the entrance to Tokyo Bay. We were commanded by a mid-western high school principal by the name of Harris. He must have felt right at home since we were all recent high school graduates. Our small group was assigned a hold in a troop ship named the Sea Devil. The troops assigned were all Navy but bits and pieces of various units and replacements. I seem to recall that there were two to three thousand men on the ship. We were bussed to a small port called Port Hueneme just north of Los Angeles and then sailed to San Francisco Bay where we docked at San Bruno and completed loading supplies and two battalions of Navy Construction Battalions called Sea Bees. The Navy was segregated by race and all these sailors were black.

The Sea Devil then proceeded in a southwesterly direction at about 8 knots (9 to 10 miles/hour). To say it was a leisurely trip across the Pacific Ocean, about 5,000 miles, would be an understatement. We had more leisure than we knew what to do with. Many of us had hopes of stopping in the Hawaiian Islands, but that did not happen. We sailed north of them and turned south westerly, crossed the international dateline and sailed into the perfect lagoon called Eniwetok. There the construction battalions debarked. Later I figured out that they had been sent there to prepare for the atomic bomb test which occurred sometime in the fall of 1946.

The Sea Devil then sailed on to Japan where we anchored well out in Tokyo Bay and awaited orders to debark. And waited and waited and waited. By the time we actually left the ship we had been on board for more than a month. Clearly the American authorities did not need the reinforcements badly, though our specialized skills were well utilized when we landed and went to work.

What was life like on board a troop ship for over a month, with no duties and no watches? We were fed twice a day. Leftover food from those meals became snacks later on. Our quarters consisted of rows and rows of canvas bottomed bunks, four high. Mine was the top bunk. I could sit upright. If I stretched out flat I was almost invisible and could escape detection for muster.

What does one do for over a month of leisure? For one thing I read a lot. There was a small library which was not overwhelmed by readers. The books, I remember, appeared to be a collection from an old school library.

We also played chess, endlessly. The set we used was a small square of wood with miniature chess pieces with tiny wooden pegs in the bottom which fit into holes in the board. In my letters home, I reported on who I played with and my wins and losses. My letters report that I learned how to play bridge. Fact is, I do not remember that, and never became an avid bridge player. We played lots of poker. Once some of my friends staked me to a high stakes poker game with a bunch of big city kids who thought Americans west of the Hudson River were country hicks. I won a sizable amount of money and never tried that kind of poker again. But poker remained a favorite game for all of us. We also shot craps. We talked endlessly and discovered that porpoises are fun to watch and that flying fish are very small and really do appear to fly.

For audience entertainment we watched at least two amateur shows. They were mostly singing groups. I remember one sailor attempted to imitate Fred Astair. A rolling ship is no platform for dancing. We also listened to the World Series Ball game which I believe Detroit won.

One day we sailed into a hard rain squall. Many took advantage of the fresh water (our showers took salt water direct from the Pacific Ocean)  They stripped and soaped up just as we sailed out of the squall and they discovered that soap suds do not just rinse off in the salty shower water when they went there to finish the job. Someone in our gang had warned us, so we had not used soap. The toilet facilities consisted of four long troughs with lots of fast running sea water flowing through and a plank above with holes to sit on. The sea water was being dumped back into the ocean.

We sailed across the international date-line and lost a day, which we got back when we returned some eight months later. I still have my order of the golden dragon certificate to prove my membership.

My letters indicate that I attended church services several times while on board. Actually, they were impossible to avoid since they were held on deck where we spent our time. My letters home seem to show that I was attentive and thought the sermons were “good”. I really do not remember.

The ship proceeded to Tokyo Bay. From the anchorage we could see in the near distance the devastation which can only be imagined. Temporary roads had been bulldozed through the wreckage. Some dock areas were cleared to enable ships to tie up and unload. Huge cranes leaned in crazy angles and often in partial collapse. Later, on closer inspection, we  found the destruction to be even worse than it appeared from the ship. After several days the authorities finally found a dock where we disembarked. The signal gang was transferred as a unit to the Harbor Entrance Control Post for Tokyo Bay. That crew manned the signal tower for the next eight months as part of the occupation of Japan.

The night before we docked some sailors found a cargo hold filled with big boxes of green cans labeled with one word. Beer! The cans circulated throughout the ship. Shore Patrols came aboard and restored order. Next day, as we filed down long gangplanks, the water around the ship was completely covered with floating, empty beer cans.

I remember no intermediate billets so we must have been posted immediately to the Harbor Entrance Control Post at Toriga Saki, that is, at the entrance to Tokyo Bay.