Battleship Sailor

When the USS Wisconsin pulled into Pearl Harbor late in 1944, Earl Foreman, an 18 year-old sailor, stood on her teak deck, close to number one turret, at parade rest. He was in his white uniform, manning the rail with the other 3000 men who made up the Wisconsin’s crew in war time. This young man had one thing on his mind. Pearl Harbor meant liberty, and liberty meant a tattoo. Every sailor had a tattoo, and Earl wasn’t just any sailor, he was a battleship sailor.

Those 3000 sailors had good reason to be proud of their ship. She was resplendent pulling into Pearl Harbor, having just joined the fleet a couple of months ago at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where she had been built. The designers of the Wisconsin had been given one constraint as they began their task – she must be able to transit the Panama Canal, whose locks measure 110 feet in width. However, there seemed to have been no constraints when it came to protecting the ship from enemy fire. The designers put enough armor, or solid steel, on the Wisconsin so that she would be protected from enemy shells fired by any gun up to 16 inches in diameter. A strategic area of the Wisconsin are her three gun turrets, each of which hold three 16-inch guns. The gun turrets have 17 inches of steel plate serving as protection from enemy fire. The propeller shafts are protected by 13.5 inches of steel plate, the conning tower sides 17.3 inches. Couple this armor with the 20 5-inch guns, 80 40-mm guns, 60 20-mm guns, and the main battery of nine 16-inch guns among the three turrets, and one begins to understand why battleships are also referred to as dreadnoughts, for a dreadnought is a person who fears nothing.

No fear. I see these words often on the back of pick up trucks driven by young men of 18 or 19 years of age. As a mother concerned about her own 19 year-old son confronting his sea, I realize, upon listening to Earl’s story about his coming of age on a ship at sea in war, that 19 year-old boys have not changed much in 50 years. Teen-age boys fear nothing: their mothers fear everything.

As Earl’s ship pulled into Pearl Harbor, Earl was not thinking about kamikaze planes making suicide dives at his ship, the ship having to change course every 7 minutes to avoid torpedoes as she steamed across the Pacific, or the desperation in the faces of ship’s crew as they fight a fire at sea. He was not thinking about war. This young American wanted some liberty and a tattoo. Earl and a couple of his buddies walked around town till they found a tattoo parlor that looked right. Earl went in, pointed to a skull and cross bones design that appealed to him, and dutifully sat down in the chair that the Hawaiian woman silently pointed to.

She stood beside him, and held his arm in her hands as she wiped the area for the tattoo with graphite. Then she placed his lower arm firmly between her thighs so that the area for the tattoo was right in front of her. She began the painful task of tattooing Earl, as the needle used in the 40′s was almost as big as a ball point pen. As the needle went in and out the flesh of his upper arm, Earl could feel the soft flesh of the woman’s inner thigh against his lower arm. This was the nearest he had been to a woman in a long time, and he was not too sure how long it would be before he would be this close to a woman again. When she finished, Earl decided he wanted another tattoo – on his other arm. This second tattoo is an anchor inscribed above with the date he entered the navy – January 4, 1943 – the date of his 17th birthday.

“But that is not the real date I joined the navy” Earl explains, as he rolls his sleeves back down to his wrists after showing me his tattoos, and rests his arms on the dining room table in front of him. Earl was one of 11 children, 6 boys and 5 girls. In 1943 two of his older brothers were already in the Army, but Earl’s mother knew that without parental permission her next son would have to be 18 to enlist. By then, perhaps this war would be over.

But Earl had a plan. A young man could enlist at 17 if he had one parent’s written consent. Earl waited for his 17th birthday, and waited again for the first Saturday after his 17th birthday. Every Saturday morning his mother walked into town to get her hair done. While she was gone, Earl talked to his father about his intentions, knowing he could convince his Dad that his enlistment was the right thing to do. This took a little longer than Earl had anticipated, but finally his father agreed, and the two set out walking to the recruiting office in town. They met his mother at the corner on her way back from the hairdressers. They told her where they were going, and she fussed. Then, she cried. Then, she went home.

Earl and his father went to the recruiting station and Earl, with his father’s written consent, joined the Navy. The recruiter gave Earl the red star he gave to all new enlistees, which was meant for his mother to put in the front window of the house. Now Mrs. Foreman had three red stars in her window, because three days later her third son reported for duty.

In Earl’s mind, he joined the United States Navy on his 17th birthday, which was January 4, 1943. His first ship was the battleship New Jersey, on which he served from May of 1943 until January of 1944. Then he was sent to Newport, Rhode Island where the Navy was putting together the crew for a new battleship, the USS Wisconsin. The Navy pulled sailors who had served on other battleships to put together the Wisconsin’s first crew. The Navy moved this crew from Rhode Island, where they did some classroom training, to Philadelphia in April of 1944. Earl was now aboard his new ship.

Earl remembers watching the shipyard workers putting in the original teak deck that covers most of the main deck of the ship. He also has vivid memories of cleaning the teak deck, a process known as holy stoning. It was so named because fragments of broken monuments from St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth, England were used at one time to scrub the decks of the ships of the British navy. In the British service, these “holystones” were also called “ecclesiastical bricks” . Sailors used bricks, or sandstones, which were attached to what resembled a broom stick through an indenture on one side of the brick. A small amount of sand would have been scattered over the deck area, and the sailor would swing the brick back and forth about twenty or thirty times area over the teak directly in front of him. Then he would take a step forward, and start the swinging motion again. The sand being run over the deck had the same effect as sandpaper. In this way, the teak deck would be scrubbed nearly white. This was done two or three times a week.

As the sailors went about this and other tasks on the Wisconsin, it was not unusual to hear remarks like “This isn’t how we did it on the New Jersey” – which would have been the battleship which that sailor had previously served on. One day, the boatswain announced to all hands ” I don’t want to hear the way we do things here compared to another ship again. This is how we are doing it here.” Earl will tell you, though, that the boatswain’s threat is not what brings on that sense of ownership to a crew. “She becomes your ship the day we set out for the war zone. Then you know – it is a question of whether we sink or we stay alive.”

Less than a year later, Earl – now 19 years of age – was right in the middle of the Pacific war zone. He stood just under number one turret, about to crawl in and man his battle station, as the entire crew had been ordered to do. But before he crawled into the turret, Earl turned to take a good look at what was happening around him.

We are being attacked by enemy aircraft. From where I am standing, she (enemy aircraft) looks like a big boxcar out there. She is right above the USS Intrepid now. Suddenly she is falling toward the Intrepid. She hit the Intrepid on her starboard side. Heavy damage is done. Suddenly another plane. Same type as the first one is coming toward our fantail (stern). We are giving her everything we have. She is burning now and seconds later she is down with many shells in her. No damage to us. Next one is coming at us in a dive. We are shooting at her. She is down also. This makes two for us today. Suddenly another plane is diving at another tincan (destroyer). We are firing at her, but she got away. Now another is diving right at us. We got her, but the pilots parachuted out.

Just one week before this, Earl had been sitting on the stern of the ship as he and the rest of the crew waited for the entertainment show entitled “Two Little Hips”. At a safe anchorage in Ulithi Atoll, which is in the Western Caroline Islands serving as a replenishment area, they were far enough away from the war zone that they could leave lights on, get some work done, as well as some hard-earned rest and relaxation. Two carriers, 4 to 6 destroyers and a hospital ship were at anchor with them. Off the port side near the stern was an aircraft carrier , the Randolph, whose crew was hard at work on the illuminated flight deck with the planes.

For three weeks prior to their arrival in Ulithi Atoll, the members of the cast of “Two Little Hips” had started to practice their roles. The last couple of days before Ulithi the ship’s carpenters had started to build the stage on the aftermost section of the stern. The stage was so high and large that it took 70 braces to hold it, and the carpenters used almost all the raw lumber that the Wisconsin kept on board for repairs. Their plan was to use the lights from the superstructure to illuminate the stage. These were large spotlights usually used for signaling other ships. On the night of show, almost the entire crew of the Wisconsin as well as a group of nurses from the hospital ship in Ulithi sat in their rows at eight o’clock in the evening waiting for the Captain and the Admiral who was riding the ship to arrive. Then the lights were to go on, and the show would begin.

At one minute before eight, Ralph Sterling was serving as the watch at Quad Mount # 9 on the starboard side when Combat Information Center (CIC) reported a bogie, which is a possible enemy aircraft. In what he describes as an instance, there was a loud blast like a thunderclap and the aft end of the Randolph blew up in a gigantic fireball. The plane, says Stirling, had come right over the Wisconsin from port to starboard, and everyone on watch with him saw the kamikaze plane as it was flying at a very low altitude.

General Quarters was immediately sounded for the crew of the Wisconsin, with the additional order to hit the deck.. Earl’s battle station was the Number One Turret, which was at the opposite end of the ship, about two football fields away. Crawling on his hands and knees down the teak deck, Earl heard explosion after explosion as the planes on the deck of the Randolph burst into fireballs. He kept crawling up the side of the ship toward his battle station. Just as he was about to crawl in to the turret, another kamikaze plane exploded. Earl saw it hit, and he saw it explode, but he could not be certain if it had hit the water or the destroyer it had been heading for. Earl waited a minute, and then saw the bow of the destroyer come through the smoke of the burning plane. Relieved, an older and wiser 19 year-old Earl crawled in to his turret. Twenty five men were killed that night aboard the Randolph, and another 106 wounded. The kamikaze pilot had flown right over the 3000 men of the Wisconsin sitting outside on the stern of their ship. The show lights had not yet been turned on. Had they, the men of the Wisconsin knew the loss of life on their ship could have been devastating.

“That got real hairy that day. That was the first time it got personal.”

Plankowner is a term used in the Navy to designate a member of the ship’s first crew. Earl is proud to be a plankowner of the USS Wisconsin. His Plankowner Certificate states that he is entitled to a plank from her deck – in the case of the Wisconsin, one of those teak planks which he watched being laid and secured, the teak which he holy stoned, the same teak planks on which he crawled on his hands and knees to reach his battle station.

The Wisconsin was taken out of the fleet in 1957, only to be called back for duty in 1988. Earl has since received a brochure from a company which tells him that when she was recommisioned, the original teak deck had to be replaced. This company, therefore, is in the position to offer him one of those original planks which he, as a plankowner, is entitled to.

But Earl isn’t buying one. In fact, he doesn’t buy the whole idea.

“I watched them put those planks on the Wisconsin in Philly. Those pieces of wood were 4″ thick. Each plank was lined with jute, hammered securely between each of the 4″ planks. Then tar was put down to set each plank. I holy stoned that deck. I know that deck. I know what I am talking about. When we were finished, that teak deck would bleach out to almost white. It was beautiful. There would be no need to replace that teak deck. These guys don’t have the original planks. The originals are still on her.”

As are originals like Earl Foreman.

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