Ship's Company and Fitting Out
My first and main interest was naturally the radar office, which was my domain, fitted out with the latest American console plan position radar set, like a super radiogram, with a desk, revolving stools, lockers, cupboards full of spares, etc. There were no portholes, a watertight door, and the set could be operated in complete darkness. I then met my three operators, very important factors, who were to be in my charge for some considerable time.
The three Able Seaman trained operators were Alf Devereux, a Cockney and boxer, Frank Jelley, another Londoner, who was a very clever artist, and thirdly, Keith Grainger, a Yank living in UK who volunteered for our Navy, an enigma if ever there was one. He knew everything about everything, typical young Yank, and was ragged unmercifully by his messmates, but it was water off a duck's back. But he was a good radar operator and that was my main concern.
We were of course in direct link by phone to the bridge which was about 30 feet forward of us. Adjoining the radar office was the flag office occupied by Yeoman of Signals from the Isle of Wight, Andrew Artha. A smashing regular Navy man, with his three signalmen.
The Yeoman and I had several long chats, especially at sea, and he told me that he joined the Navy at the age of 12 as a boy seaman to escape the Grammar School exams which he thought he wouldn't pass, but his parents expected him to, so he ran away to sea. Apparently training as a boy seaman was very spartan indeed he told me, with one evening off a week, only one shilling (5p) per week to spend, and one night to go to the cinema. His overcoat was missing off his peg, so he took the next one. When he returned he was accused of stealing the coat, and some bits of tobacco (forbidden) were found in the pockets. For punishment he had to put on a wet duck suit, stretch over a vaulting horse in the gym and receive 20 lashes of the cane from two Petty Officers!
John Coan, Shipwright HMS Eastway
After a week spent in the thriving town of Newport News, and the fine Navy canteen, where everyone spoke a lazy Southern drawl, proper Virginian, a big skirted black restaurant waitress said to me "where's you from honey chile?" I told her "England", and received a silver dollar in my change, which my daughter has kept to this day.
Our Captain, Lieutenant Commander Fletcher RFR, not a very pleasant man, more like Captain Bligh of The Bounty, and his officers joined the ship, to complete the Eastway's full complement. The Captain told me that he wouldn't be using the radar set (not very modern in his ideas, but who was I to differ?) and he added that he had 26 years at sea in the Merchant Navy! He also told me that in future I would take my instructions from the Electrical Officer, Lieutenant Finlay, but at the same time maintain the radar set. This was a smack in the eye for me and my lovely plan positional indicator console, not to be used. My new boss, Bill Finlay was a very pleasant Irishman, and we got along well together, especially as he was fanatical about sport like me! He suggested that in the large un-laden dry dock at sea we could play football, cricket and hockey matches, and even have swimming sports. He added that we would have a better chance of getting all the equipment we required in the USA and we would need plenty of footballs and cricket balls, because once over the side they would be lost forever in the sea.
The next day he gave me my first job. I was to collect all the ship's chronometers, clocks, watches, and other fittings, also wrist watches etc. belonging to the ship's personnel to prevent them being damaged whilst the Eastway was being degaussed. The polarity of the ship was to be reversed, making an attack by magnetic mines useless. My aide in this operation was none other than Keith Grainger the Yankee radar operator. We were to take the aforesaid collection in the ship's motorboat, down the river Potomac as far away from the ship as possible. We had drinks and eats with us because we were to be away the whole day. Cruising down the river looking for a shady spot to picnic was very pleasant indeed, but unfortunately it rained and we had to seek shelter under a bridge for a long time before we could return to the ship, and redistribute our timekeepers safely.
Most of the ship's company were Merchant Navy men transferred to do Royal Navy service under a 'T124X' agreement. All the engine room men, stokers, greasers, donkey men, engineers, electrical officers, artisans in our mess, the baker, cook, butcher, and storekeeper, all on full Merchant Navy rates of pay. It was a bit irksome for us on the low services call up pay, but that was it and all the chaps were a grand bunch to be with. We had 'solo' card schools every night until the early hours, with all denominations of currency depending where we happened to be. Once with thousands of Italian Lire to be won, I was dealt the set of 13 clubs (a million to one chance!) of course the Lire weren't worth much, but the other three were amazed at my luck.
Ted Ingleton, Plumber HMS Eastway
My pal the plumber spent quite a lot of time with me in his well-equipped workshop, making models etc. to pass away the long hours at sea, and with his help I made a smashing model of a Spitfire, that wonderful fighter aircraft. He, Ted Ingleton, and the Shipwright John Coan, a tearaway, the Joiner, Frank Rumney, a regular peacetime sailor, and senior crewmember nearly always spent our shore leave together and became very firm pals.
Lieutenant Finlay got the sports gear and most of the time our large dock was dry, and with the rest of the lads we played football and cricket, the only Royal Navy ship afloat that could do this! But there was a snag, we lost so many balls, irretrievable from the ocean, that we finished up with no balls!
During this enjoyable stay in Virginia, we underwent trials, engines, guns etc. But most interesting was the flooding. The ship was sunk to a controlled depth and the stern gate opened to allow landing craft to sail in. We watched all this from the catwalk round the top of the dock thinking of what was to come in real action. All this completed satisfactorily, we sailed away from Newport News and Chesapeake Bay reluctantly, and up the Eastern American Coast to the now familiar New York and docked near to Pier 80, which was the berth of the two famous 'Queens'. This was also very handy to the best parts of New York City, which we all got to know quite well. We stayed two weeks awaiting a transatlantic convoy back to England for the impending inevitable invasion of Europe.
So having done the sights once again, Broadway, Times Square, The Stage Door Canteen, and a lot of top shows for free, I decided to pay a visit to my MEB colleague Walter Service's brother whose address he had given me in New York's Bronx. I had no idea where the place was, but after enquiries I left Pennsylvania Station by overhead railway. On the half hour journey we passed the 'Yankees' Baseball stadium and several well-known film sets. A girl in uniform sitting opposite me in the carriage (she was a 'Wave', the American equivalent to our Wrens) asked me where I was from. I replied, "A long way, 3,000 miles from home in England." She astounded my by saying that although she was in her own country, as a South American, she was even further away than me, 4,000 miles! Shut up Sid, the Yanks will always outdo you!
Well I got off the train a station too soon by mistake, so I asked a 'Cop' in the street which way and how far to the Bronx? He told me that I would have to walk through Harlem and it wasn't very safe as there had been black riots the previous night. Anyway I walked on, looking over my shoulder expecting to be mugged, but all went well and I found the Service's apartment and his family made me extremely welcome. One of their sons was getting married the next day, and they implored me to stay for the wedding, it was going to be a real big 'do', but I had to be on duty at 8am the next day. Still the experience and hospitality in another American home was great while it lasted.