By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Christmas greetings on TV and Public Radio to families back home from military people stationed on foreign soil prompted me to recall how I spent several Christmases during World War II aboard the USS Stephen Potter in the Pacific battle zone.
On Christmas eve of 1943, we were in port and I had the mid-watch as OOD (Officer of the Deck) with the obligatory .45 cal. pistol strapped around my waste. Together with a couple of enlisted men on watch with me, we helped shipmates aboard in various degrees of inebriation.
At midnight, I decided the moment called for some music or a facsimile thereof. So, over the ship’s PA system I sang and whistled “Silent Night” and wished a “Merry Christmas” to what crew members were aboard.
The officer who relieved me as OOD was Joe Meredith, a tall, scholarly lieutenant who was a little older than the rest of us. Not long after I had gone off watch, Joe was confronted with a problem: A drunken “snipe” from the engineering crew had returned from liberty and smashed virtually every gauge in the engine room.
Naturally, Joe had to place him on arrest at least until the next day. We had no regular brig on the Stephen Potter, so in lieu thereof, arrestees were to be put into the pea coat locker in the bowels of the ship. So with pistol drawn, Joe started marching the offending snipe down the ladder (steps) to his incarceration destination.
Suddenly, oops, Joe’s foot slips on the ladder and his finger fires the .45 Colt. The bullet ricochets off the steel deck and goes bouncing around the engine room. Fortunately, no one is hit by the slug. The only casualty was Joe Meredith’s dignity.
A repair crew was rushed in from one of the repair ships and by the afternoon next day, we were underway again. I always wondered what happened to the snipe after he was whisked off the ship and we had put to sea again.
Christmas of 1944 found us somewhere in the far reaches of the Pacific. Everyone on the Potter was just happy to be alive, because only six days earlier, almost 1,000 of our fellow destroyer men in Task Force 58 had been sent to the bottom of the ocean when a monster typhoon capsized and sank three other destroyers. The huge storm had caught our task force during a fueling operation 500 miles east of Luzon.
Some of the other ships had rolled as much as 70 degrees. The Stephen Potter recorded a roll of 63 degrees. Waves as high as 60 feet pounded the fleet, endangering especially us “small boys” but even the big battleships and carriers rolled like canoes on rapids.
It was some consolation that the Navy gave us the opportunity to send a 4X5 Christmas greetings card to several loved ones by what was called V-Mail. Remember, this was long before satellites, e-mail or the Internet came along. The process involved microfilming the cards. Instead of using valuable cargo space to ship whole letters overseas, microfilmed copies were sent in their stead and then blown up before being delivered.
V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.