A 90-day wonder becomes
a Navy officer.


'God's Burning Finger
Has Been Laid on the Ship'


By William W. Whitney

During World War II, I enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to Northwestern University in Chicago to a program designed to turn out newly minted ensigns in three months. The graduates were disparagingly referred to as "90-day wonders" -- rightly so, considering the complexities of celestial navigation, ordinance, seamanship, and other topics to be assimilated in such a brief time.

Upon completion of our training at Northwestern, we were given our duty orders. I was delighted to find I was to travel to San Francisco and report to the Navy's district headquarters, where I would obtain my assignment to a ship. Scuttlebutt had filtered back to us on the eve of graduation that members of the previous class had waited weeks for their ship assignments after arriving in San Francisco. I installed myself in a hotel with the pleasant prospect of seeing friends and enjoying the pleasures of the city. I was in for a sobering surprise.

The following day at district headquarters, I learned that on the very next day I was to report to the captain of the U.S.S. Castor, a Navy supply ship berthed at a pier on the Embarcadero. The next morning I put on my dress blues and dug out the calling cards with name and rank, which all newly created ensigns had made in Chicago and were to give to the officer of the deck to present to the captain on first boarding. When I arrived at the designated pier I saw the U.S.S. Castor. The Castor and its sister ship, the Pollux, were typical cargo ships and were the prototypes for the liberty ships then being manufactured at Kaiser shipyards in Richmond.

I proceeded up the gangplank. On deck, crew members and a chief petty officer were busily engaged. I felt conspicuous and somewhat ridiculous standing there in dress blues and realized it would be absurd to have someone present an engraved calling card to the captain. Eventually I found someone who showed me to the captain's cabin.

The captain was a white-haired, portly man of about 60, very businesslike and brief. He seemed less than elated to welcome this new 90-day wonder to his crew and his responsibilities.

I was taken aback and a bit stunned to learn that the next day we were to embark on a 7,000 mile journey from San Francisco to New Caledonia in the South Pacific -- and further that I was to serve as assistant navigator. The assignment was true to Navy tradition, for I had come close to failing navigation. I was adept at learning by rote and then forgetting most of what I learned after the exam. In navigation, however, one had to solve problems involving geometry and math. Rote learning was of little help.

I never understood the rather simple geometric principles upon which celestial navigation is based and I was slow in calculating the ship's position and plotting its course. During this first voyage, however, by assisting the sextant and practicing, I did learn to navigate.

*

Following my tour of duty on the U.S.S. Castor, I was ordered again to proceed to San Francisco and to report to the captain of the U.S.S. Alamosa. My assignment: navigator.

The U.S.S. Alamosa was also a supply ship, but smaller than the Castor. It was being fitted to accommodate a very special cargo: ammunition. A major part of that cargo was a high explosive which was much more powerful than TNT, but also more unstable. It was at about this time that there occurred the explosion of an ammunition ship at Port Chicago, in San Francisco Bay, which resulted in 320 deaths and 390 injured. This event certainly did not contribute to a happy morale onboard the Alamosa.

On reporting to the captain of the Alamosa, I learned he had spent many years at sea in the merchant marine. He was of medium build and height, with graying hair and moustache. He was a handsome man, and taciturn. I never saw his weathered face animated by a smile or a laugh -- a fact that endowed him with an air of authority. He never indulged in verbal tirade; the look that accompanied an order was enough. One can imagine his dismay as he regarded the college-educated landlubbers who were to serve as his officers. He had a greater rapport with the crew who were working their way up through the ranks, as he had. My duty as navigator placed me on the bridge, so I had plenty of opportunity to experience his silent displeasure. In his presence you felt you were never getting it right.

*

On our voyage on the Alamosa, we traced very much the same route of my first voyage on the Castor. We were somewhere south of the equator in the midst of a typical tropical squall, accompanied by torrential rain. I was standing the midnight to 4 a.m. watch with two gunners mates in the forward battery at the very prow of the ship.

Suddenly there appeared before us a light. We were a thousand miles from nearest land. Were we bearing down on another vessel? I called the bridge. Nothing showed on the radar screen. At first we were unable to determine the distance of the light. Was it 100 feet in front of us? Closer? Or at great distance? Then it grew larger. It formed a perfect sphere about a foot in diameter of a neon-like glowing blue-green color, lighter toward the center. Suddenly we realized it was very close to us, only about five feet away, floating on the very tip of the prow and gently pulsating as if breathing. It was ghostly, and it definitely turned one's thoughts to the supernatural.

The two men standing watch with me were rugged young gunners mates who had the somewhat blase attitude of seasoned seamen. But there was nothing blase in their response to the glowing orb. There was awe and wonder, not without a touch of fear. I shared their reaction, but it was mixed with a genuine curiosity.

Then I remembered my Bowditch, the bible of celestial navigation. It provided the answer: St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, had favored us with an appearance. We had seen St. Elmo's Fire. Bowditch described it as a brush discharge of static electricity. Subsequent reading revealed that in days of sail during or after storms, it formed on the tip of the mast and spars, often glowing for several minutes. The reverential awe with which the two gunners mates regarded the blue light is echoed in a line in Moby Dick: "In all my voyagings seldom have I heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship." In spite of contemporary science, one can understand the element of superstition that can be characteristic of men who have spent many years at sea.

The next day, the captain seemed to regard me in a new light. Is it possible that he, a man who spent his working life at sea, was unconsciously imbued with that respect for the elements such a life engenders? Whatever the reason, from that time on, gone was his attitude toward me of barely concealed irritated forbearance. Henceforward there was on his part a quiet, unexpressed acceptance, even respect, as for one with a special gift. Perhaps he himself at some time had been touched by a visitation of St. Elmo.


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