mcwhorter navy 1917
  McWhorter Lives and Times  

The Courier-Journal
Sunday Magazine
June 23, 1940

Louisville Gob’s Dice Kept Pals Fed in 1917

The Navy was rough on rookies but the main damage done during the war was to their vocabularies

Note: J. R. McWhorter, who wrote this, is a native Kentuckian who joined the Navy in 1917, when he was 21. He was a signal quartermaster and later was on the staff of "Navy Life Magazine." Today he is a Louisville realtor, living with his wife and their two sons at 4516 S. 2d. An indefatigable opponent of additional subsidized housing he has written articles for The Courier-Journal on the subject under his own name and as "Fee Simple."

THE war was on and we were off to the Navy. About fifty of us were leaving Louisville bound for the training station at Newport, R. I., under the charge of a Chief Petty Officer named Smith. Smith may have been a good officer but he proved to be a poor crap shooter. Those California recruits in the last coach took him for all of our ration money, along with his own roll--if any. We still had a couple of days to go when Smith let down his hair and confessed his shameful predicament. We were gullible thus early in the service and decided to protect the honor of our C.P.O., but we had no intention of spending our own money for food. We did cooperatively finance a party to attempt a recovery. but failed. Those Western boys were good and they were big, too.

One of our crew, called Bumpy, had slept through most of the confusion, but he awoke and listened attentively when the question of loaded dice was discussed. Bumpy left us and returned in an hour with our food money along with quite a little of his own. We accepted the bribe and formed a military guard for him in anticipation of an invasion from the West. They, too, might resort to retaliation and in a different and less polite fashion. Had they done so they might have learned as we did that Bumpy was an expert--he simply bulged with galloping dominoes. There were odd numerals, leaded ones, oil-filled transparencies and his hand was truly quicker than the eye. We never inquired about the food needs of the Californians. Perhaps their C.P.O. was not a devotee of the sport.

Pillow of pants
When we arrived at the naval station, we probably looked as shabby as we felt. The salty ones looked us over disdainfully, but fed us nevertheless. The ship's store issued outfits on the basis of size--too big, or little. We swapped around until only a few had grounds for complaint. Only the middie and trousers presented problems, although some of the fellows did paint their names on the outside of their leggings, which gave them the appearance of bundles in transit.

Those pants might have looked bell-bottomed, but they really were straight and quite efficient for intended purposes. The big flap on the front had thirteen buttons which had to be resewed to fit the corpus as belts were unknown in the Navy except as places to stay out of in the big seaports. At night the pants were turned inside out and rolled up for a pillow; in fact all of our clothes were rolled up and tied with a string, even the overcoat.

The middies were wide open in the neck with a flowing collar in the back. We got the idea from the Limeys of Lord Nelson's day and they got it from the Chinese. They used detachable ones to keep the grease from pigtails from spoiling, a shipshape appearance. Sort of snood, as It were.

Beans, bananas, bread
The neckerchiefs were English, too. Formerly they were white, but changed to black when Nelson died. It looked like tradition still had a half-nelson on our Navy, didn't it? Those scarfs had many uses beside decoration; they became sweat turbans in battle, supported broken limbs and hog-tied unruly captives. They could also be sent home as souvenirs; being very good silk they made excellent table scarfs and wiping cloths. They might have even become dress ghandis for a veteran's offspring.

Breakfast came at 7 a.m. after a full day's job of swabbing decks, scrubbing clothes, needle work and other general household duties. Beans and Navy were synonymous if for no other reason than that they were both very effective when they were needed. Beans cooked Navy style made a real breakfast. We washed them down with hot java and topped them off with bananas and hunks of bread.

Galley duty was the same as kitchen police, but there were times when it was not really not a punishment, like the time we had vienna sausage and swiped and ate a gross or so of them. Look at what I've saved by not eating any since then. In the galley a fellow could get sugar, too.


Alcohol didn't bother us much in those days, but some fellows went after it at times. A bunch of ship electricians blueprinted the location of a five-gallon can of it in the medical department and spent three days and used an armload of drills getting through a four-inch protective deck. They got drunk enough to steal a side of beef and a sack of sugar being loaded aboard. Somehow or other I got mixed up in the banquet and read my letters through iron bars and at a distance of several feet for a few weeks.

While at the station we had to learn the manual of arms and drill like soldiers, so we did considerable squads righting in six-inch slush over New England seashell land. It wasn't to be regarded as a picnic so we tried to duck drilling when possible. Often we would be trapped by such schemes as the Studebaker trick. They asked for volunteers who could drive Studebakers, then introduced us to wheelbarrows with South Bend on the sides.

At the time and for many previous years the Navy had been building a huge pile of dirt and shells called a "Target Butt." This was on the firing range and stopped the bullets. Like the building of the pyramids the amount of labor and time involved was not important. There seems to have been plenty of both available in both cases. The labor at Newport was mainly for exercise and did not interfere with the regular training, but it was like viewing a super slow-motion film to see us ambling over the top of the hill and dropping the few pounds of dirt from our carryalls. A lazy pal and I contrived a false bottom arrangement, but it didn't really help much. We still had to cover the boards to get by the guards.

Saved by sentry
It was cold up there on Narragansett Bay and we had an early morning shower to take according to direction which didn't have to add "Shake well while taking." There was a steam pipe and one from the bay. The mixture of steam and icy water was made at the body. It was a peculiar sensation to freeze and burn in a contiguous area at the same time. It sure felt good when it was over. One morning a fellow from Pennsylvania, who had not rested well because of numerous ups and downs from his hammock, got settled just as the shower time appeared. He was reluctant to respond to the gentle request of the sentry, and expressed ready willingness to be shot for insubordination. Of course the sentry prevented this needless loss of a good man.

It’s the first 100 years that are the hardest, they claim, but a few weeks of rough and ready treatment put twenty-five or thirty pounds on us and paid us $1 a day besides. It made us fist fight our grudges under traditional rules and proved the real fitness of superiors, but it sabotaged our language. Floors were decks, doors were bulkheads, left was port, coffee was java and tea was--quite strong at times. I wonder if it's still the same. Maybe I'll get a chance to find out.


Last updated 1/31/2004      Copyright© 2004 by Karen McWhorter Wilhelm