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   Chapter 1 IN WHICH THE YANKEE GOES INTO COMMISSION.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 14392

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


U.S.S. "NEW HAMPSHIRE,"

April 26, 1898.

Report at "New Hampshire" immediately, ready to go on board auxiliary cruiser "Yankee."

(Signed)

JOHN H. BARNARD,

Lieut, commanding 3d Division,

N.Y. State Naval Militia.

It was this telegram, brief but extremely comprehensive, received early on the morning of the twenty-sixth of April, which sent me post-haste to the old receiving-ship "New Hampshire," moored at the end of an East River dock. The telegram had been anxiously expected for several days by the members of the First Battalion, and when I reached the ship I found the decks thronged with excited groups.

"War was a certainty, and the very air was filled with rumors. The prevailing topic was discussed from every point of view, and within sixty seconds as many destinations had been picked out for the 'Yankee.' It was variously reported that she was to go to Havana, to Manila, to Porto Rico, and even to Spain. This last rumor brought shouts of laughter, and 'Stump,' as we termed him, a well-known young insurance broker of New York, remarked, in his characteristic way:

"It probably won't be this particular 'Yankee,' boys, that will go there, but there'll be others."

There was much cleaning of kits and furbishing of cutlasses. We knew that we would not take the latter with us, but then it was practice, and we felt anxious to do something martial as a relief to our excitement. There was a diversion shortly before noon, when the "old man" (the captain) appeared with a number of official-looking papers in his hands.

"He's got the orders," whispered little Potter, our latest recruit. "Whoop! we'll get away this morning, sure."

The whistle of the bosun's mate on watch echoed shrilly about the decks a few moments later.

"Now, d'ye hear there," he shouted, hoarsely, "you will break out mess gear and get yourselves ready for messing aboard ship."

That did not sound as if we were destined to see our new vessel put into commission very soon, and there was some grumbling, but the boys fell to work with good grace, and we were soon preparing for our stay aboard the old frigate. The officer of the deck was lenient, however, and the majority of the crew secured permission to sleep at home that night.

The following Monday, on reporting on board the "New Hampshire," we learned that the entire detail selected to man the "Yankee" would proceed to that ship shortly after eight bells. Word was passed that our enlistment papers-for we were to regularly enter Uncle Sam's naval service-would be made out, and that our freedom and liberty, as some of the boys put it, would cease from that hour. The latter statement made little impression. We had entered the Naval Reserves for business, if business was required, and we expected hardships as well as fun.

A navy-yard tug, sent by the Commandant, steamed alongside at two o'clock, and the company was marched on board without delay. The boys were eager to enter on this, their first real detail, and, in the rush to gain the deck of the tug, young Potter slipped from the rail and fell with a mighty splash into the water. "Man overboard!" bawled his nearest mate, and "Man overboard!" echoed one hundred and fifty voices. There was a scramble for the side, and the tug's deck hand, assisted by several of our fellows, fished Potter from the river with a boat hook.

"Hereafter, please ask permission before you leave the ship," facetiously remarked the officer in charge.

"Humph! as if I meant to do it," grunted Potter, wringing the East River from his duck shirt.

We caught our first view of the "Yankee" as we steamed past the cob dock at the yard. We were favorably impressed at once. She is a fine-looking ship, large, roomy, and comfortable, with lines which show that she is built for speed. As her record is twenty knots an hour, the latter promise is carried out. The "Yankee" was formerly the "El Norte," one of the Morgan Line's crack ships, and, when it was found necessary to increase the navy, she was purchased, together with other vessels of the same company, and ordered converted into an auxiliary cruiser. Gun mounts were placed in the cargo ports, beams strengthened, magazines inserted, and interior arrangements made to accommodate a large crew. The "Yankee's" tonnage is 4,695 tons; length, 408 feet; beam, 48 feet. The battery carried consists of ten five-inch quick-firing breechloaders, six six-pounders, and two Colt automatic guns. After events proved conclusively the efficiency of the "Yankee's" armament.

The detail was taken alongside the "Yankee" by the tug. We had our first meeting with our new captain, Commander W.H. Brownson, of the regular navy. His appearance and his kindly greeting bore out the reputation he holds in the service as a gentleman and a capable officer. It is well to say right here that Commander Brownson, although a strict disciplinarian, was ever fair and just in his treatment of the crew. Our pedigrees were taken for the enlistment papers, and the questions asked us in regard to our ages, occupations, etc., proved that the Government requires the family history of its fighters. The following day each man was subjected to a rigid physical examination. The latter ceremony is so thorough that a man needs to be perfect to have the honor of wearing the blue shirt. Personally, when I finally emerged from the examining room, I felt that my teeth were all wrong, my eyes crossed, my heart a wreck, and that I was not only a physical ruin, but a gibbering idiot as well. That I really passed the examination successfully was no fault of the naval surgeon and his assistants.

After the medical department had finished with us, the enlistment papers were completed, and we became full-fledged "Jackies," as "Stump" termed it. The members of the battalion were rated as landsmen, ordinary seamen, and able-bodied seamen, according to their skill, and a number of men, hastily enlisted for the purpose, were made machinists, firemen, coal-passers, painters, and carpenters. Some of these had seen service in the regular navy, and they were visibly horny-handed sons of toil. One Irishman, whose brogue was painful, looked with something very like contempt on the Naval Reserve sailors.

"Uncle Sam is a queer bird," several of us overheard him remark to a mate. "He do be making a picnic av this war wid his pleasure boats an' his crew av pretty b'yes. If we iver tackle the Spaniards, there'll be many a mama's baby on board this hooker cryin' for home, swate home."

"Hod," a six-footer, who played quarter-back on a famous team not long ago, took out his notebook and made an entry.

"I'll spot that fellow and make him eat his words before we get into deep water," he said, quietly. He was not the only one to make that vow, and it was plain that Burke, the Irishman, had trouble in store for him.

On our return to the "New Hampshire," the battalion was placed under the regular ship's routine. All the men were divided into two watches, starboard and port. The port watch, for instance, goes on duty at eight bells in the morning, stands four hours, and is then relieved by the starboard watch; t

his routine continues day and night, except from four until eight in the afternoon, when occur the dog watches, two of them, two hours long each, stood by the port and starboard men respectively. The dog watches are necessary to secure a change in the hours of duty for each watch.

From now on we were given a taste of the actual work of the service. Details were made up each morning and sent to the "Yankee" to assist in getting her in readiness for service. One of the first duties was to carry on board and stow away in the hold one hundred kegs of mess pork. As each keg contained one hundred pounds, the task was not easy for men unaccustomed to manual labor. Still there was no complaint. In fact, the only growling heard so far had come from some of the men who had seen service in the regular navy. Burke, the fireman, declaimed loudly against the "shoe leather an' de terrer-cotter hard-tack which they do be tryin' to feed to honest workers. As for the slops they call coffee, Oi wouldn't give it to an Orangeman's pig!"

The food served out on board the "New Hampshire"-being the usual Government ration of salt-horse, coffee, and hard-tack-was vastly different from that to which the majority of the boys were accustomed, but it was accepted with the good grace displayed by the members of the Reserve on every occasion. All these little discomforts are, as the Navigator (a commissioned officer of the regular navy) remarked, "merely incidental to the service."

As the time approached when we were to board the "Yankee" for good, the ordinary watches were abandoned, and only anchor watches kept. An anchor watch is a detail of five or six men, selected from the different parts of the ship, who do duty, really, as watchmen, during the night. Two days before the order arrived to leave the "New Hampshire," it was found necessary to station several men, armed with guns and fixed bayonets, on the dock near the ship, to stop men from taking the "hawser route" ashore. The firemen and coal-passers had been refused shore leave, or liberty, as it is called, because of their habit of getting intoxicated, pawning their uniforms, and loitering ashore. Truth to tell, the guns and bayonets had little effect, as the offenders were old in the business.

The second night after the order was put in force it happened that "Hod," who was rated as an able seaman, was on duty with gun and bayonet on that end of the dock opposite the forecastle. He had just relieved the man whose watch ended at midnight, and he stood thoughtfully watching the twinkling lights on the opposite side of the mighty East River. There was so much to occupy his mind in a situation which was both charming and fascinating that he remained motionless for several minutes. Presently there came a slight, scraping sound, and the end of a rope struck the dock almost at his feet.

Glancing up, "Hod" saw a man's figure, dimly outlined in the gloom, slip from the topgallant forecastle and quickly descend the rope. It was evidently one of the men taking "French" leave, and it was the sentry's duty to give the alarm at once. But "Hod" had other views in this particular case. Hastily stepping back into the shadows, he laid his gun upon the floor of the dock, and rolled up his sleeves with an air that meant business. The next moment the absconder dropped from the rope.

As he prepared to slip past the ship a sinewy hand was placed upon his shoulder, and another equally sinewy caught him by the collar.

"Burke, suppose you return aboard ship," said "Hod," quietly. "You are not going to hit the Bowery this time."

The Irish fireman attempted to wrench himself free, then he struck out at "Hod" with all the force of his right arm. The quarter-back's practice on the field came into play, and the college graduate tackled his opponent in the latest approved style. The struggle was short and decisive, and it resulted in Burke declaring his willingness to return to the ship.

"The next time you try to size up a new shipmate be sure you are on to his curves," remarked "Hod," as he escorted his prisoner over the gangway. "You will find some of 'mama's pretty boys' rather tough nuts to crack."

The day following this little episode found the members of the State Naval Militia detailed to form the crew of the "Yankee" in full possession of the cruiser which they were to sail to glory or defeat in defense of their country. The ship's company, two hundred and twenty-five in all, boarded the auxiliary warship without ceremony, and were speedily set to work hoisting in provisions, removing to the yard all unnecessary stuff with which the ship was littered, and getting her generally in condition for sailing. The work was extremely hard, but it was done without demur.

A naval officer attached to the yard stood near me at one time during the afternoon, and I heard him remark to a visitor who had accompanied him on board: "You will find an object lesson in this scene. These young men working here at the hardest kind of manual labor, buckling down cheerfully to dirty jobs, were, a few days ago, living in luxury in the best homes in New York City. The older men were clerks, or lawyers, or physicians, and not one of them had ever stained his hands with toil. Look at them now."

Unconsciously I glanced across the deck to where three men were hauling upon a whip, or block-and-tackle, which was being used to hoist huge boxes and casks of provisions on board. The three men were working sturdily, and it would have been difficult to recognize in them, with their grimy faces and soiled duck uniforms, a doctor, a bank cashier, and a man-about-town well known in New York City. Near the forward hatch, industriously swabbing the deck, was a black-haired youth whose father helps to control some of the largest moves on 'Change. Scattered about the gangway were others, some painting, some rolling barrels, and a number engaged in whipping in heavy boxes of ammunition. They were all cheerful, and the decks resounded with merry chatter and whistling and song.

I turned to myself. My hands were brown and smeared and bruised. My uniform, once white, was streaked and stained with tar. I wore shoes innocent of blacking and made after a pattern much admired among navvies. I had an individual ache in every bone of my body, and I was hungry and was compelled to look forward to a dinner of odorous salt-horse, hard bread, and "ennuied" coffee, but I was happy-I had to admit that. Perhaps it was the novelty of the situation, perhaps it was something else, but the fact remained that I would not have left the ship or given up the idea of going on the cruise for a good deal.

We worked hard all day, and, when mess gear was piped for supper, we could hardly repress a sigh of heartfelt relief. The food, bad as it was, was welcome, and when I reluctantly swung away from the mess table I felt much better. At six bells, shortly before hammocks were piped down, the "striker," or helper, for our mess cook, said mysteriously:

"Don't turn in early, Russ, there's going to be a little fun. 'Bill' and 'Stump' have young Potter on a string. It will be great."

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