Sailors of the Balboa Navee
canby George Chevalier

     We of BHS 43 had graduated on June 3rd. and on June 7th. some eleven of us sailed out of Balboa on the USAT Col.Frederick Johnson bound for we knew not where. We were assigned to the deck force, the engine gang or the stewards dept. I went into the deck force as an Ordinary Seaman at the bottom of the pecking order. For several weeks it was day work such as chipping rust and painting and then I was given a sea watch which consisted of four on and eight off round the clock seven days a week. When in port you temporarily reverted back to day work On watch in day time the ordinary seaman was up in the crows nest sitting in a metal can with a lid and expected to see every thing for 360 degrees and from that height long before anyone else spotted anything. I dozed off once and was awakened by the watch officer asking me the name of the tanker that was passing close on our port side. Mortified I vowed to never have it happen again. At night the Ordinary stood watch in one wing of the bridge and would relieve the quartermaster at the wheel when he went on his 15 min. break for coffee And of course we committed the usual goofs such as reporting a light on the horizon that was really a rising planet or worse calling out torpedo tracks converging on us that were really the phosphorescent wake of porpoises racing to join us.

     Our destinations were Salinas Ecuador,Talara Peru, Galapagos Islands,San Jose Guatemala,Corinto Nicaragua and Punta Arenas Costa Rica. We carried men,material,food and munitions to these places to support the air patrol bases at these locations which formed the defensive ring to the Canal Approaches. Salinas and San Jose did not have a harbor with piers so we offloaded into lighters while at anchor. In port or at anchor we did not work on Sunday with off loading and we Zone boys would dive from the highest point of the boat deck and swim until one day we discovered the old salts were fishing for sharks on the other side of the ship. Returning to Balboa from the Central American locations we would as often as not have a cargo of vegetables and I recall the heady aroma of a large deck cargo of cabbage after it had been sprayed upon and sat in the sun.

     On our first trip we discovered that there is an arctic ocean current off the coast of South America that makes the wearing of winter gear vital to those of us from the Isthmus of Panama. We of course had come aboard ignorant of this and had nothing to wear but the Navy Gun Crew came to our rescue and sold us the life saving Pea Coats and Watch Caps. At a handsome profit I might add but we were in no position to argue price. In returning home we found the Gulf of Panama at that time of year to be hot,humid and visibility nearly zero from rain clouds. This made for a tense time in those final approach hours for fear of collision with outgoing war time traffic. Our home pier in Balboa was pier 7 by the dry-dock. As Zone boys when leaving port and not yet on watch we would gather up at the point of the bow to ogle and maybe wave as we passed the Yacht club and Causeway. However one Sunday our early departure was delayed for 5 or 6 hrs. and when we finally pulled away from the pier we were told the reason for our delay. A tugboat taking the garbage scow out of the harbor to dump had hit a loose drifting mine which resulted in a lot of kindling wood floating on the water and I believe all died. That ruined our day and we no longer rode the bow in leaving port.

I remember some of my fellow crewmen of those days for I shared a cubby hole stateroom with Lowell Bretner and Bill Seacrist[ Lil Abner]. Bud Kelleher was the night messman and made us working men our coffee and sandwiches at night when on watch. Paul Calvit was a waiter in the officers mess and Bill Metivier was an Ordinary on day work. There were others in the engine dept. and elsewhere but time has cost me their memories. We the ships crew were all civilian employees of the Army Transportation Corp, the radiomen and medics were soldiers and the gun crews were US Navy. Surprisingly we all got along and could be very protective of each other but by Sept. most of us signed off and went on to other pursuits. It was an exiting experience for us 18 yr. olds and as Ordinary Seamen I think we had more position on the pecking tree than I did when I joined the Army Air Force as a Private way in the rear ranks. We were learning this business of life and I know we came away the better for it.

George C.