Overseas Again

October 22, 1945 I was discharged from the Evangeline and sent to the Fort Mason Vessel Manning Cadre in San Francisco for reassignment. The Coast Guard announced it was releasing the interisland vessels we were originally trained to man. All unassigned Jr. 3rd Officers were to be promoted to 2nd Mates and sent to the South Pacific to relieve homeward bound Coast Guard officers who had manned those ships.

The reassignment process moved very slowly as usual. With time on my hands, I caught the Southern Pacific Daylight Limited home to see my folks in Hermosa Beach. After a short visit, I returned to San Francisco on my Crocker motorcycle. I soon became bored and decided this would be a good time to obtain a discharge.

To my surprise, ATC authorities at the port seemed perfectly willing to accommodate my request. Authorities in Washington however, weren't quite so amenable to my wishes. They wired my superiors for more information before approving my discharge.

The requested details were sent to Washington but Washington responded again saying flatly, "At this time, a discharge is not possible". They did however recommend assigning me to shore duty at the port instead of sending me overseas. The port had no need for me so I was once again caught in the midst of a government SNAFU.

To break the bureaucratic impasse I upped the anti, requesting a medical discharge based upon the matter of flat feet, the same excuse that had gotten me out of the Army. I then found myself in a procedural regimen among fourteen or fifteen other officers also trying to get out due to various medical conditions.

Due to postwar demobilization, the port was still a hotbed of activity. Fully intending to get out, I remained in vessel manning cadre while waiting for my discharge. While waiting I found myself confronted with a constant procession of friends coming through the port en route to replace personnel returning from the Pacific Theater.

I found it increasingly difficult to watch ship after ship departing for the South Pacific with my friends on board. Most medical requests for discharge were being rejected by the Army Doctors in charge but due to my former Army medical discharge, Washington decided to release me from my contract anyway. At the last minute, I decided to abort the process and join my friends in Manila instead.

I received my new orders December 7th, the fourth anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was assigned to Army Forces Western Pacific and ordered to ship out to Manila on the USS Admiral Hughes, a Navy vessel manned and operated by the Coast Guard.

Fed-up with waiting around, and the dreary weather in San Francisco, I was looking forward to going back to the excitement and balmy weather of the South Pacific. I didn't want to end up without transportation in Manila so I contacted ATC authorities to arrange to take the Crocker me.

I was promptly advised that, transporting a privately owned motorcycle on board a Navy ship would be utterly out of the question. Ignoring the rejection, I developed a plan to have the machine disassemble. Some of my fellow officers agreed to help smuggle the parts aboard ship, and I would then reassemble the motorcycle upon arrival in Manila.

As our scheduled departure time neared, I began to have reservations so I decided try a simpler plan instead. The Admiral Hughes was docked and taking on supplies and it occurred to me that most high-ranking officers would likely be ashore. I might very well outrank whoever happened to be left in charge.

The day before departure, I got on the Crocker and rode down to the dock dressed in my officer's uniform and sporting a fresh GI haircut. I first encountered a sailor standing duty at the entrance to the pier--he saluted and waved me past. I proceeded to the ship and asked for the officer in charge who turned out to be a young Ensign around 25 years old.

Under the pretense of authority, I told the Ensign I was shipping out to Manila the following day, and asked him where the best place would be to stow the motorcycle for transport. After deciding to stow it with other equipment on deck, he ordered the crew to hoist the motorcycle aboard and cover it with tarpaulin. The helpful Ensign then summoned a car to return me to Fort Mason.

The Admiral Hughes departed San Francisco December 12, 1945 with about six or seven hundred sailors and equipment headed to Guam, me and a couple dozen other ATC officers headed to Manila, and one well-hidden Crocker motorcycle. Thanks to the Red Cross, we celebrated Christmas at sea with a Christmas present for every single person on board. Other than missing my family, it was a fun time.

Santa even provided a little extra something for me. On the first day out to sea, I struck up a conversation with a deck officer who was also a motorcycle enthusiast. Upon hearing that my Crocker was on board, he arranged with the ship's machine shop to do a valve job for me. When we arrived in Manila, the Crocker was purring like a kitten.

We anchored in Manila Harbor December 26, 1945. An Army LCM pulled along side the Admiral Hughes to take us ashore. The Crocker was loaded aboard the LCM along with twenty some officers and we were taken to one of the harbor piers in the vicinity. Upon docking, we were met by the driver of a 6X6 Army truck who was to take us several miles to Camp #2, which would provide a temporary roof over our heads while we awaited assignment to ships.

There were no booms at the pier to unload my motorcycle so the truck driver drew a map to the camp for me and departed with the other officers. The LCM driver then took me to a dock with a hoist. We offloaded the motorcycle onto the pier and the driver somberly wished me luck before departing. When I drove off the pier I immediately discovered the roads were little more than muddy ruts going in all directions.

A light rain was falling so the slick mud and deep ruts made it almost impossible to steer. When I finally arrived at camp, it was already dark and I was covered with mud and exhausted from falling repeatedly. I located my compatriots in a sort of Quonset hut, really just a tin roof and no walls, but our home just the same for the better part of two weeks.

We received assignments only when Coastguard officers on various ships in the harbor would ship out on their way home. I noticed more 2nd Mates in camp than 1st Mates. Once the available 1st Mates were assigned, I figured some of the remaining 2nd Mates would be promoted to fill any remaining 1st Mate positions. Therefore, I laid low until all the 1st Mates were assigned, and then made myself available.

Sure enough, I was almost immediately promoted to 1st Mate and assigned duty aboard the FS‑261, a 560-ton freight supply boat under command of Captain Eriksen. The day I reported aboard ship, I found no one on deck so I proceeded to the wheelhouse and started cranking the engine room telegraph handle.

Soon rude epithets filled the air, followed by an officer bursting into the wheelhouse sporting two .45 automatics in holsters slung from his waist. "Who's the G*** D*** idiot that woke me up?" he demanded. I introduced myself, and once he gained his composure, I learned Bob Peterson was the ships Chief Engineer. A brash young Scandinavian, Peterson had the appearance of a modern day swashbuckler.

At twenty years of age, Peterson was short on years but long on experience. He had served in the Merchant Marine during the war, having borne the terrors of numerous bombing and strafing attacks by the Japanese. On one occasion, he was the lone survivor of a ship the Japanese sank with torpedoes. Lacking any trade that could offer as much prestige and excitement as life in the Pacific, Peterson volunteered after the war for additional service with the ATC, as a Chief Engineer.

The FS‑261 was one of a fleet of five former Army vessels that had been sold to the Chinese government. We were to stay on board to oversee and assist when needed with the repairs that were under way in preparation for delivery of the vessels to Shanghai.

Life aboard the FS‑261 was a considerable improvement over conditions at Camp #2. We ate steak three times a week with chicken, lamb, veal, and everything imaginable for variety. The skipper, Captain Eriksen, was a swell fellow but he drank a lot. Moreover, he was inclined to take offense at having to drink alone.

In spite of the Captain's drinking habit, we grew to tolerate one another pretty well. Our relationship improved when I learned to keep tomato juice handy. Whenever he took the urge to imbibe, which was often, I could easily drink the skipper under the table. He was no match for me with my pure tomato juice against his pure booze.

I was placed in charge of a crew ordered to paint the ship. When the men told me they needed paint, I went to the captain for instructions. He handed me a requisition form. "Just take this to the port warehouse," he said. The form was blank.

"How much and what color," I asked.

"As much as it takes, and any color you want," the captain said, "So long as it's gray".

I noticed the ships coming into port were brighter than those in our fleet were. Each man was allotted two cartons of beer per month and since I didn't drink, I was always looking for something to barter in exchange for my beer. After nosing around the harbor, I managed to trade one of my cartons of beer for 35 gallons of bright blue paint.

We put the paint to good use, mixing it with just enough of our flat gray to give the ship a nice two-tone look. The FS‑261 was the only ship in the harbor with a custom paint job. The crew loved it but our superiors failed to appreciate our decorative flare. This resulted in a considerable amount of browbeating for me but since the ship was going to the Chinese, I suffered no official repercussions.

The harbor was a microcosm of most any bustling city ashore with thriving enterprise, except ours was a city-afloat. Seamen worked, traded, helped one another, stole from one another, fought together, and prayed together, and being seamen, they definitely drank together.

I may have been able to drink the Captain under the table with tomato juice but when it came to real hooch, he was unbeatable. Captain Eriksen loved to hustle the other Captains in the harbor, instigating drinking contests where he would inevitably come out the victor. Not only was he engaging in his favorite pastime, he would also garner as winnings such things as fresh meat, milk and almost anything imaginable for the ship.

We were able to travel freely to shore and among other ships in the harbor and we kept a motor launch tied along side the ship just for that purpose. One afternoon I decided to visit some friends on a ship anchored nearby. I jumped into the launch and cast off without bothering to first start the engine.

It wasn't long before I discover my misplaced faith in the launch's unpredictable engine. Adrift in the swift harbor current without power, I was soon on my way out to sea. All I could do was stare helplessly at the shrinking image of the Captain and 2nd Mate on deck waving me goodbye and laughing hysterically. With hundreds of ships anchored in the harbor, I was in no real danger but it was still a humbling experience being adrift, and my only available action being to wave frantically for help.

I invested much of my off duty time in riding my motorcycle around Manila. As much as I enjoyed exploring the vagaries of the beleaguered city, it proved to be of some therapeutic value riding into the countryside on weekends. Peterson enjoyed borrowing the Crocker so much that I sold him half interest and we then used it, alternating weekends.

One day Pete and I were speeding down Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) on the Crocker when I caught the attention of two Army MP's. They were after another motorist also, so when the MP's motioned for us both to pull over, the other driver stopped and I sped away. One of the MP's jumped out to ticket the other party, and the driver continued on to chase us.

Albert Crocker was an engineer with a passion for racing. He built custom racing motorcycles before going into production of road bikes. Even though our Crocker was a street model, it was still a high performance machine allowing me to cruise effortlessly away from the pursuing military Jeep.

Perhaps being a little over confident in my cycling skills, I ended up in a skid while rounding a corner. We went down and the Crocker stalled. Pete and I were unharmed, other than slightly dented pride, and the Crocker seemed no worse for the wear. My unblemished driving record was preserved only by the fact we had gained enough distance from the pursuing MP that he didn't see us turn off.

A few days before we were scheduled to leave Manila, the FS‑261 developed engine trouble. The Chief Engineer of an Australian freighter anchored in Manila Bay had become acquainted with Peterson. The Aussie fancied himself more knowledgeable about diesel engines than the inventor himself, and since Pete was only twenty years old at the time, he had assumed a paternal attitude toward Pete.

When the man learned we were having engine trouble, the know-it-all rowed over in his dinghy to offer his superior knowledge to Pete. After a brief conference on deck, Pete, the Australian and two assistants filed down into the engine room. About that time, I left the ship to row over to a nearby wharf where I was expecting delivery of some cargo.

As I was tying the boat to the wharf piling, I heard a series of muffled explosions emitting from the bowels of the FS‑26l. Wisps of smoke appeared around the porthole and within seconds billowing plumes of black smoke developed. I jumped back into the ships dingy and frantically rowed the hundred yards back to ship.

As I rowed within earshot, black smoke was still billowing out of the hold but the air nonetheless was blue with a creative assortment of seamen's epithets coming from Pete. As he raced toward a storeroom under the bridge, the Australian Engineer made good his escape, scrambling down the Jacob's ladder and furiously rowing back to his own ship resembling an end man in a minstrel show.

Pete emerged from the storage area wearing a gas mask and raced back to the engine room with blankets and a fire extinguisher under his arm. Several fuel injectors had leaked diesel fuel into the cylinders and the surplus fuel ignited upon starting the engine. In addition to the fire, the engine was running away, revving up faster and faster.

There was a particular risk of this happening with ships that had been mothballed. Diesel engines fire on compression so when the fuel is shut of, a worn engine can begin to run on lube oil sucked out of the crankcase or in some cases on vapors from residual rust preventive compounds used in the mothballing process.

A runaway engine can stop on its own but usually won't until it has thrown a rod or exhausted its fuel source. If the fuel source happens to be its lube oil, when that is gone, the main bearings will heat up from friction and seize. The risk for anyone near a runaway engine is, they can wind so tight they virtually detonate, turning engine parts into deadly projectiles.

Pete brought the blankets back from the storage area to stop the engine by starving it of air. Standing inline with the crank would have been fairly safe, but to starve off the air supply, Pete had to put himself at the side of the engine where any parts that might go flying would exit the engine assembly with lethal force.

I later asked Pete why the Australian left in such a hurry. "He didn't bother to share what he was thinking," Pete said, "But if I had to guess I'd probably say, it scared hell out of him." Regardless the reason for the hasty retreat, that was our last visit from the helpful Australian Engineer.

Early in March, all five ships were finally ready. Living in the floating city had been fun but it was time to bid adieu. The last couple of days, everyone made the rounds bidding farewell to friends, and then unceremoniously our small fleet pulled out of Manila harbor, bound for Shanghai.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009