VAN STOCKUM: A land lubber at sea

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Anchors aweigh after the decks were swabbed but before the sun went over the yardarm – at least that’s how it would have been described aboard a ship. Here’s what all that means.

By Ron Van Stockum

“We joined the Navy to see the girls


And what did we see?

We saw the sea

Instead of a girl or two in a taxi

We were compelled to look at the Black Sea

Seeing the Black Sea isn't what it's cracked up to be

From “Follow the Fleet,” a 1936 Hollywood musical comedy, starring film stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.


This classic musical comedy appeared on the screens the year before I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps. My earliest memories of the Navy return me to my grade-school years in Bellingham, Wash., when occasionally a destroyer would visit for Navy Day, and the sailors could be seen passing my house on the way to Bellingham State Normal School, an all-women teaching college (later Western Washington University).

In 1938, upon completion of my training in Philadelphia, as a second lieutenant, I was ordered to report to the USS Tennessee (BB 43), a battleship, “at whatever port she might be located,” as an officer in that ship’s Marine detachment.

Little had changed since the Great White Fleet sailed around the world to show the flag during 1907-09. Ships were now larger, faster, more heavily armed and armored, and they burned oil instead of coal, but shipboard routine, customs and traditions were practically unchanged.

I should like to describe some aspects of duty afloat on the Tennessee during my year aboard, 1938-39, and to do this by means of a nautical glossary.

Tennessee, commissioned in 1920, had a displacement of 33,190 tons, a length of 624 feet, a maximum speed of 21 knots and a crew of 1,083 officers and men. For its day, it was huge; its length exceeded that of two football fields placed end to end.

However, it could not compare in size with a modern aircraft carrier, such as the Ronald Reagan, with a displacement of over 100,000 tons, a length of 1,092 feet, a maximum speed of over 30 knots, and a crew, including its air wing of 5,680.

And, unlike the coal-burning Great White Fleet and the oil-burning Tennessee, it is powered by two nuclear reactors.

I served on other ships as well, and when you spend more than four years aboard, you learn by necessity and osmosis the terminology used by those who remain long after you have deboarded.

Here’s that glossary as defined by a self-defined “land lubber:”


Anchors aweigh: A ship’s anchor has been pulled free of the bottom and the ship is free to maneuver. Also, the title of the Naval Academy fight song “Sail Navy down the field and sink the Army, sink the Army grey.” This song has suited the Navy quite well, which has sunk the Army in football each of the last 10 years.

Battenberg Cup:While I was on board, Tennessee won the prestigious “Battenberg Cup,” representing victory in the annual fleet “pulling boat” championship. This trophy was originally given to the American Navy in 1905 by Prince Louis of Battenberg, commander of a squadron of British ships visiting the United States, requesting that it be used as a challenge cup between the two navies. Battenberg changed his name to “Mountbatten” in response to anti-German sentiment during World War II. In 1947, his son Earl Louis Mountbatten, Viceroy of India, supervised the granting of independence to India.

The winning crew was not taken from the Tennessee at large, but entirely from the Marine Detachment. Capt. W. R. (Flip) Hughes, the detachment commander, had arranged through a friend who commanded the Marine Corps “Sea School,” to send him its large, physically fit graduates, whom he had molded into the best rowing crew in the fleet.           

Bell-bottom trousers: These were customary sailor’s attire, when I was aboard ship. I thought they were so tailored to allow them to be rolled up more easily while swabbing the deck. “Bell bottom trousers, coats of Navy blue, he’ll climb the rigging like his Daddy used to do.”

Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., chief of Naval Operations from 1970-74, ordered that uniform – the bell-bottom trousers, button-less jumpers, black silk four-in-hands tie and white sailors caps – be replaced with a conventional uniform. This change was made just at the time that bell-bottoms were becoming popular in civilian wear, and the discard of a traditional uniform did not sit well with all sailors.

Binnacle list:A ship's sick list. A binnacle was the stand on which the ship's compass was mounted. In the 18th century and probably before, a list was given to the officer or mate of the watch, containing the names of men unable to report for duty. The list was kept at the binnacle.

Boatswain's (bosun’s) chair: A short board secured by ropes and used as a seat by sailors when working aloft or over a ship's side.

Bulkhead: A wall, but there are only bulkheads in the Navy.

Chief master-at-arms: A chief petty officer responsible to the ship’s captain to maintain order and discipline. The one serving in Tennessee was built like a linebacker, an intimidator with a dominating presence, which added to his effectiveness.

Courts martial: While I was aboard Tennessee, the Navy had its own system of military laws, contained in a volume, “Naval Courts and Boards.” For lesser offenses, a Summary Court Martial could be convened by the ship’s commanding officer. With no attorneys aboard ships in those days, the senior Marine officer was customarily designated as legal officer.

On one occasion, when the two more senior marines were on leave, I had this responsibility, serving as a recorder (clerk and prosecutor) of a summary court. My challenge was to prosecute a young sailor for theft, which involved the stealing, taking away and converting to his own use the property of another. The property involved was a navy blanket, with the stamped name of the rightful owner blotted out. I lost the case, which prompted the salty senior officer of the court to advise me: “Lieutenant Van Stockum, you are an excellent recorder [clerk], but you lack prosecuting skills .”

Coxswain: The helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.
 “Shove off, coxswain, I’m aboard.”

Davy Jones’ Locker: Bottom of the sea; resting place for drowned mariners. It accommodates many of my old shipmates.

Deck: A floor ashore, but always a deck aboard ship. “Hit the Deck!” On your feet for a drill or watch!

Dogwatch: The period between 4 and 6 p.m., the first dogwatch, or the period between 6 and 8 p.m., the second dogwatch. Certain ship’s functions had to be performed 24 hours a day. To do this a system of watches, similar to that in other navies, was established to man the necessary stations, including gun positions. The watches aboard ships of the US Navy are:

  • Noon to 4 p.m. Afternoon watch
  • 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. First dogwatch
  • 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Second dogwatch
  • 8 p.m. to midnight 1st night watch
  • Midnight to 4 a.m. Middle watch or mid watch
  • 4 to 8 a.m. Morning watch
  • 8 a.m. to noon Forenoon watch
  • The dogwatches are only two hours each so the same Sailors aren't always on duty at the same time each afternoon.

I remember this little ditty quoted by one of my naval shipmates: “From eight a.m. ‘til the dog watch, on the deck they’re never seen, so the question that I ask you is ‘Why is a Marine?’”

Dog wrench: A section of pipe used to fit over the handle of a door or port to close it tight. A porthole cover, in the event of a nearby explosion, could wreak havoc if blown in. For this reason, shortly after my tour in Tennessee, in anticipation of combat, portholes were welded shut, and eliminated entirely in newly constructed naval vessels.

Duffle: Asailor's personal effects. It referred to his principal clothing as well as to the seabag in which he stowed it. The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp and denotes a rough woolen cloth made there.

Gedunk: Ice cream, candy, potato chips and other snack foods, as well as to the fountain, where these items are sold. Aboard Tennessee as a very junior officer, I was assigned additional duty as Ship’s Fountain Officer. There I found that the sailor in charge had purchased enough Freezo, dry ice cream mix, for several years, when a better mix was available. Could cumshawhave been involved? (Seagoing term for petty graft or secret commissions.)

Gob: Somewhat diminishing term for a sailor, as in: “Ten thousand gobs laid down their swabs[mops] to lick one sick Marine.”

Gunnery: “E’s”: The U. S. Navy placed great emphasis upon the excellence of its gunnery. During my year on board, Tennessee put on the best performance in the Battle Fleet in its annual “Short Range Battle Practice.” This involved firing at a canvas target being towed on a parallel course, 2,000 yards distant, by a navy tug boat. Shells were painted so that shots of individual guns could be identified by the color left on the target. After this practice, the Tennessee proudly painted “E’s,” for efficiency, on 16 of its turrets and guns, including two of the four Marine five-inch broadside guns, which I had controlled.

Head: Ship’stoilet, originally located in the forward part of a ship, close to the bow, where splashing water could clean the area.Sailors or Marines, afloat or ashore, never ask about the bathroom; they only ask, “Where is the head”?

 Soft sandstone, often used to scrub the decks of ships. Sailors had to kneel as if in prayer when scrubbing the decks. Holystone was often called so because it was full of holes.

Iron Man Trophy: 
Even I made a small contribution to Tennessee’s winning of the “Iron Man Trophy,” awarded to the ship exceeding all others in the fleet in athletic accomplishment. I was boat officer of the Marine sailing boat crew that won the Fleet Marine championship. Knowing nothing about sailing, I was sensible enough to allow experienced Corp. Pyle to take the tiller and to direct the tacks. Tiller: A lever attached to a rudder post of a boat that provides leverage for the helmsman to turn the rudder.

Ladder: There are no stairways aboard ship, only ladders. An accommodation ladder is normally used for boarding a ship in port. At sea a flexible Jacob’s Ladder may be thrown over the side.

Land lubber: A person unfamiliar with the sea or seamanship. I still consider myself in this category, despite my several tours of sea duty. While I have stood junior officer of the deck watches in port, I have never experienced that responsibility while under way at sea.

Painting ship. An “all hands evolution” in which each of the deck divisions was responsible for painting a section of the ship’s hull. Paint sometimes reached inches in thickness, adding unnecessary weight to the ship. On such occasions, sailors where lowered over the side in platforms to chip and scrape away the lead-based paint used in those days and replace it with more toxic paint.

Officer of the deck: The officer in charge of a naval vessel, representing the commanding officer, for an assigned period (as a 4-hour watch). He is stationed on the bridge while at sea or on the quarterdeck while in port.

Overhead: There are no ceilings aboard ship.

Passage way: No halls aboard ship, either.

Pay: On board ship, the detachment commander would sit at a desk on payday with a stack of greenbacks and a payroll. Marines would approach one by one, salute, and receive their month’s pay, $21 for a private, with 20 cents deducted for hospital care. We second lieutenants received $125 a month less 20 cents. A year’s salary would barely defray the cost of our elaborate array of uniforms from khaki to evening dress, including Sam Browne belt and sword.

Boatswains have been in charge of the deck force since the days of sail. Setting sails, heaving lines, and hoisting anchors required team effort and boatswains used whistle signals to order the coordinated actions. “Piping” was also a naval honor for a dignitary coming aboard, who was “piped over the side.”

Port and Starboard:
 Shipboard terms for left and right, respectively. In Old England, the starboard was the steering paddle or rudder, and ships were always steered from the right side on the back of the vessel.

Port hole:Circular opening in the ship’s hull to allow limited ventilation and a view of the sea. Closed tightly for combat with a dog wrench. Later, as participation in World War II became closer, the ports were welded shut, thus eliminating weak spots that could be blown in by a nearby explosion.

Quarters: Each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. This practice served as a daily muster of those aboard, to determine their presence and availability for duty and to assure that no man had been lost overboard.

Quarterdeck: That part of a warship designated by the commanding officer for official and ceremonial functions. In port, the quarterdeck is the most important place on the ship, and is the central control point for all its major activities. It is normally located on the main deck.

 The cask of drinking water on ships was called a scuttlebutt and since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered there, the term became U.S. Navy slang for gossip or rumors.

Ship: Any large buoyant marine vessel. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on size and cargo or passenger capacity. Ships carry boats.

Ship’s employment schedule: Posted on the bulkhead during peacetime, this document indicated the sailing schedule for the coming year. I was pleased to note in 1938 that Tennessee was scheduled to anchor off Manhattan for the World’s Fair opening May 1, 1939. (In naval parlance, this would be “1 May 1939,” but the newspaper’s protocol does not favor this use.)

Side boys: 
Members of the crew were needed in the days of sail, especially in rough water, to hoist visiting officers aboard in boatswain's chairs. This procedure evolved into the ceremonial practice of assigning a number of men (side boys) to honor a visitor, the number depending upon the visitor’s rank.

Smoking lamp:
 Originally, this lamp, located in a safe place, was a safety measure to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder. Now, the smoking lamp is only a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck announces "the smoking lamp is out" before drills, refueling or taking on ammunition, which means "cease smoking."

Soldier: Pronounced “Soger,” A term, intended to be informal and friendly, occasionally used by a naval officer when addressing a Marine. Contrary to a prevailing opinion, sailors and marines, both officers and enlisted men, got along very well at sea. There was bantering, but, on the whole, mutual respect prevailed

Splice the Main Brace: Fixing the broken main brace on a sailing vessel. Braces are the lines that control the angle of the yards. A yard is a spar on a mast, from which sails are set. Over the years the meaning of this phrase has been changed to an order given aboard naval vessels to issue the crew a drink, usually a ration of rum. This interpretation does not apply to the U. S. Navy, which has not allowed consumption of alcoholic beverages aboard ship, even in officers’ messes – since 1914.

Teakwood decks: Teak, native to South East Asia, is one of the hardiest types of wood, dense and durable, with natural oils that fend off rust and cracks. Planks of teak, about two inches thick, covered the decks of the Tennessee. They were bolted to the steel plate underneath so that they could be removed in preparation for war, to reduce damage from flying splinters and debris from exploding shells or bombs.

Spuds: Potatoes were consumed, practically by the ton, aboard ship. The dynamic captain of Marines insisted that his men not participate in some purely naval functions, such as painting ship, and in exchange agreed that they would load all potatoes on board, not a small undertaking. Spuds were loaded aboard by the ton, not by the pound.

Sun goes over the Yardarm: The yardarms on a sailing ship are the horizontal timbers or spars mounted on the masts, from which the square sails are hung.Yards on modern ships used for the display of signal flags, used for messages between ships before radio communication became more dependable. In modern nautical parlance, this term also inferred that it was time to go ashore for a drink.

The sun went over the yardarm too often for my superior, the Marine Detachment Commander, a dynamic and inspirational leader, ending both his career and his life.


*Note: The Internet continues to amaze. It is possible to download and play the entire dance and song routine, as originally performed by Astaire and Rogers.