Ship life for officers is little better than that for enlisted folks, except for one major exception. Chow in the wardroom is unlimited and eating on the mess deck is an exercise in finding the right (any) nutrition and quantity.
I was now a lofty First Lieutenant and the S-2 of the Marine Aircraft Wing, Aviation Combat Element (Forward). We were on board for an exercise that was to take some ten days. I was assigned to a four-man stateroom. Not too bad. As a Second Lieutenant a year earlier, I shared a two-man stateroom with a member of the ship’s company of the USS Blueridge – life was really good there! It was almost like home, except for the fact that the two men were in a room smaller than my current walk-in closet.
Back to the Belleau Wood. My accommodation in the four-man stateroom lasted all of a few hours. Good thing that I hadn’t gotten around to unpacking my duffel bag. Too many aircrew needing uninterrupted crew rest and too few staterooms. The non-flight officers were being moved into the overflow berthing all the way forward and down about 27 decks. When I got down there, it looked like about twenty of us fell into the category of not needing uninterrupted sleep. The berthing area was huge. It looked to be able to accommodate 150 Marines or more. We selected our private areas and used ponchos and anything else to create small man caves for ourselves. It wasn’t too bad at all, except…
The night shift! What the hell? So there I was, on the night shift and this time, just like the last, I was in charge. Now, I was quite a few ranks higher. The good news is that we had round the clock operations with the ongoing exercise, so we had plenty to do. And then there was mid rats – so much chow and so little time. And this time, I took care of all the day shift’s start up duties so that I and my team gave the morning briefings. Talk about a minor leadership tweak that made us feel worthwhile – well done to Dumps for keeping us engaged!
I always took extra food from the wardroom at the midnight meal. I was berated for doing it as all the officers contributed to the wardroom food fund, but I took my beating like a champ and kept it up. I made sure that I brought cookies, chips, even hamburgers to my team in the joint intelligence center. The last thing the Sprouster said to me on board the Iwo Jima as I was leaving to get my commission was to not forget where I had come from. I did not. Chow was a simple way to keep my Marines happier.
Unfortunately for us, the first day we were on the Belleau Wood, all the ACE Forward officers ate together in the wardroom. Why was this unfortunate? The autodog, that’s why.
The autodog is the term of affection for the soft-serve ice cream machine. One pulls up on the handle, which kind of looks like a dog’s tail, and out comes the cream in a familiar form. We’ve all seen these at McDonald’s and Dairy Queens, but probably did not make the visual leap to a dog in action. Military personnel are gifted in analogizing.
Our Operations Officer, who shall remain nameless, took the opportunity to use the autodog on our first visit to the wardroom. He pulled up hard on the handle and broke it off. Cast aluminum is not easily repaired and we had already left the dock. The cook was livid and made sure to inform everyone which unit just broke the autodog. This fairly simple device was a source of great comfort and inspiration on board naval vessels. But now we would have to do without for the duration of the cruise. Clash and those bastards from the ACE Forward broke the autodog!
We were pariahs from this point forward. At least I did not wear a flight suit with the patch, so I was not instantly recognizable as one of the purveyors of the wardroom hardships.
It’s the little things in life and as we learned there, it’s the little things on board ship – chow is the relief line we all reached for. Just until we were credited for breaking the autodog, then our refuge was no longer a place of peace and comfort.
And the forward berthing area? We won’t talk about the fact that the sewage from the head overran and filled the deck or that no one told the general that there were Marines in there who worked the night shift. They rousted us out of our racks for the first daily berthing inspection. The general asked me why I was in the rack. “Just finished a twelve-hour midwatch, General.”
He looked furious, but not at me, at the Major who was escorting him, who then looked furiously at me as if it was my fault I was on the midwatch.