Dec 5, 2009

Chief Wilson...

In June of 1964, I was serving aboard the USS Maloy (DE-791), a destroyer escort home ported in Groton, CT. We sometimes were asked to participate in public relations exercises. Such was the visit to Block Island to support a civic celebration when Block Island was changing jurisdiction from one county to another.

We were directed to go to Quonset Point, Rhode Island to spend a night alongside a pier. At some ungodly hour, a number of civilians would begin showing up to be transported about 30 miles south to Block Island for a parade and all-day celebration. There were war heroes, an Indian Princess, lots of politicians, and other prominent citizens of the fair state of Rhode Island, about thirty people in all, as I recall. There were a couple Coast Guard cutters doing the same thing and we planned to steam to Block Island together in the early morning. We were to anchor off the beach at Block Island and use our motor whale boat to ferry the guests to and from the pier at New Shoreham. Late in the afternoon when the festivities had concluded, we would round up our guests and deliver them back to Quonset Point. It sounded like a simple assignment.

My engineering department included the R (for "repair") division. It included the ship fitters, pipe fitters, and damage controlmen. They were under the leadership of my assistant, Lieutenant (junior grade) Ron Gray and Chief Petty Officer Robert Wilson, a very salty career navy man with roots in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had not lost his New Joisey accent. Chief Wilson was a loyal, hard-working, dedicated leader. His men were fiercely loyal to him. His one shortcoming (some would say his greatest asset) was his propensity for taking things that weren't necessarily his. He would undoubtedly have pointed out that it was never for personal gain -- always for the good of the Navy.

Coincidentally, as we were moored that night at Quonset Point, we were directly across the pier from the USS Wasp (CV-18), a World War II era aircraft carrier home ported there. They were scheduled to conduct a change of command ceremony the next day, so, as we arrived alongside the pier, crews were setting up bleachers for the invited guests. There was a small stage and loudspeakers and lots of banners and bunting for the planned festivities.

Our guests started to arrive around 05:30 AM, we served them breakfast in the Wardroom (the officers' mess), and we embarked for Block Island promptly at 07:00. I was the Officer of the Deck. The Captain, LCDR James E. Fernandes, was in his chair on the bridge. All was routine until we were about 10 miles south. We received a radio message from the USS Wasp. This was most out of the ordinary. We were a very small ship in a very unrelated squadron on a totally innocuous mission. What could the Wasp possibly want with us? As I read the message, it became clear. During the night, someone had stolen several of the boards that made up the seats of the bleachers on the pier. The C.O. of the Wasp suspected that it might have been a crew member of the Maloy who did it. He was very distressed. Our Captain read the message. We looked at each other and said in unison, "Chief Wilson!"

Within a few minutes, Chief Wilson was on the bridge. He denied, in his best Hoboken drawl, any knowledge of this horrible crime. "I don't know nuttin' about no lumbah!" he protested. Neither the skipper nor I had any doubt that he or one of his troops was the culprit.

Of course we responded to the Wasp that we had no knowledge of any theft. But I made it my personal mission to find the "lumbah." For the next several months I searched. There are lots of nooks and crannies on an old destroyer escort. I searched every bilge, every storage space, even the double walls of the stack. I never found a trace.

Several months later, we were in Groton doing general maintenance when Chief Wilson knocked on my stateroom door. "Mistah Mead, as you know, I'm always concoined about the crew's morale," he began. He explained that the benches at the tables on the mess deck were badly tattered and that he wanted to replace them. He needed some funds to buy the upholstery material and padding. He said that he'd already found a source of "lumbah." There was never any doubt in my mind... I simply didn't know where it had been stored.

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