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The Right-Arm Bosun's Mate

Copyright © Frank O. Dodge.  All rights reserved

The rating badge on the left is worn by every Boatswain's Mate First Class in the U.S. Navy.

Since 1948 all rating badges are worn on the upper left sleeve of enlisted men's uniforms.   Prior to 1948 some rating badges were worn on the right arm.
The badge is sometimes referred to by Navy men as a "crow."

The year was 1958. I was there to decommission a Destroyer Escort I'd served on for three years.   The place was the Navy Yard at Charleston, South Carolina.  The event was unbelievable.  But I was there.



The name of the ship is unimportant because nobody's going to believe me anyway.  She was an old refrigerator ship that had been used to bring back the bodies of WWII European casualties during 1942 - 1944.  She had made dozens of trips back and forth across the Atlantic, loaded with corpses.  After the war she had been decommissioned, put in mothballs and docked with the mothball fleet at a remote pier of the Charleston Navy Yard.  There was a Roving Patrol that kept a 'sort-of ' eye on the mothballed vessels at those berths.

For you to understand what raised the first rumors that suddenly flooded the Yard, I must explain that up until 1948, Naval ratings were divided into 'right-arm' rates that denoted strictly sea-going  jobcodes, and 'left-arm' rates that denoted duties that had a comparable civilian occupation.  For example, Boatswain's Mates, Gunner's Mates, Torpedoman's Mates, Signalmen, Quartermasters and the like were 'right-arm' rates, and their rating badges were worn on that arm.  Conversely, Radiomen, Yeomen (office personnel), Ship's Cooks, engine-room personnel . . . and that sort, were 'left-arm' rates, and the crows were worn on the left arm.  In 1948 all rating badges were moved to the left arm.

You're wondering what the hell this has to do with anything, but just bear with me.  The Roving Patrol checking the mothball fleet one brisk March night observed a sailor coming down the gangway of the . . . I'll have to call her something . . . the 'USS Coming-Home' . . .

Since the area was off limits to all hands, the Patrol rounded to in their jeep and came back to question the sailor.  There was no sailor to be questioned.  The two men of the Patrol reported the incident to the Officer of the Day and were about to leave when one of them stopped suddenly and looked at his watch-mate.  "Did you notice something about that guy?"

The second man gave a start.  "Damn!  He was a right-arm Bosun's Mate."

"Yeah."

The OOD, a young Ensign just out of the Academy, looked up.  "What do you mean?"


"Sir, all right-arm rates were moved over in '48, but the guy we saw had his crow on his right arm."

The OOD raised an eyebrow.  "What are you saying?"

The two old-timers looked at one another.  "Mr. Anderson, the ship was the Coming-Home."

"So?"

"Sir . . . Nothing, Sir."

"File your report."

"Aye, aye, Sir."



You have to understand that sailors are like a bunch of old women when it comes to gossip . . . scuttlebutt, as it's called in the Navy . . . and the scuttlebutt was all over the Yard next day.  A right-arm Bosun's Mate coming ashore from the Coming-Home . . . and he disappeared.

Rumor spread.  Some old-timers at the Base mentioned that this wasn't the first time reports like this had come up.  The old Coming-Home.  The sea-going hearse.  And a right-arm Bosun's Mate who disappeared.  They said he'd been seen a dozen times or more since the old refrigerator ship had been docked.  Sea-farers are a different lot.  There are things that occur at sea that cannot be explained to a landsman's satisfaction.  Seamen and landsmen are two separate breeds.  Neither can understand the other's point of view.  There's a reason for this.  The landsman's ground stays firm beneath his feet, but the sailor's world is one of constant motion.  Even in his sleep he is doing isometrics as his body adjusts to the roll and pitch of the ship.  The vast sweep of Mother Sea holds a fascination that those who are land-locked can never grasp.  And things
. . . happen . . . . Things occur at sea that leave your mind open to  
. . . anything . . . .

The story grew.



A week later, the Yard being short of hands, a number of men were temporarily assigned from their ships to Base Security.  I was one of them.  As it happened I was paired with one of the swabbies who had reported the incident, a Gunner's Mate First.  Since I was only a Bosun's Mate Second, he was in charge.

We drew the 2300 to 0700 watch . . . eleven PM to seven AM.  The Charleston Yard is a sprawling reservation, and the mothball fleet is, as I said, pretty isolated.  It was almost 0100 by the time we reached that end of the Base.  The lighting was sparse, lamp poles few and far between.  A light mist had blown in from the sea and, I'll be honest with you, it was pretty spooky looking at those dead ships, with their shrouds of plastic, in the wisps of drifting fog.

It was only natural that Guns and I discussed the mysterious event.  "Half the Base thinks Meyers and me are nuts," he said, "But we know what we saw."  He wiped moisture from his face.  His hands clinched on the wheel.  "That guy was about half way down the brow, and there ain't supposed to be nobody down here.  We turned around and went back . . . couldn't have been more'n half a minute . . . and there wasn't nobody around . . . . There wasn't no place he could have gone . . . . And his crow was on his right arm . . . ."

Guns drove slowly along the dockside, and I ran the beam from the spotlight mounted on the windshield over the ships.  To a sailor a ship is a thing alive, and to see so many of them lying there, moving inertly to the tide, wrapped in their burial shrouds, was saddening.

Guns grunted.  "There she is, up ahead . . . the old Coming-Home . . . ."

I aimed the spotlight forward.  Two berths ahead the old refrigerator ship loomed her high sides through a rift in the mist.  From her main deck a long brow . . . gangway . . . arched to the pier.  My heart did a sudden race as I saw a dark figure sitting at the foot of the brow, and the Gunner's Mate uttered a soft curse.  "See?"  His voice was tense.  "I told you . . . ."

I can tell you that we really didn't want to, but we proceeded.  As we approached and rolled to a stop the figure stood up.  I held the spotlight on him and he shielded his eyes.  "Hey, knock it off, will you?"

Guns let out his breath.  "Who are you, and what the hell are you doing here?"

The sailor came over to the jeep.  He was a young kid.  "You aren't gonna believe me . . . ."

"Yeah?  Try us.  What ship you on, sailor?"

The guy waved a hand.  "The Wyandott."

"What the hell you doin' down here at one in the mornin'?  You know this area's off limits."

The kid hesitated.

"Come on, spit it out."

"I heard about . . . you know . . . ."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, look, I know it's crazy, but my dad was brought back on this ship in '43 . . . he was killed in an air raid in Naples.  At least he was listed on the roster . . . but he never got home . . . ."

"What you mean he never got home?"

"My mother was notified by the War Department that he was brought back and she waited for a month . . . nothing happened.  She didn't hear any more, so she got in touch with the Navy and asked where he was.  I was only eleven, but I remember how she talked to a lot of officers and had a lot of correspondence with BuPers . . . but they couldn't come up with anything.  Dad was on the roster, alright, but that's all they could tell her.  She did a lot of crying . . . ."

Guns and I looked at one another.  I cleared my throat.  "You think he's the right-arm Bosun's Mate?"

"Dad was a BM2.  Mom has pictures of him all over the house."  The kid hesitated again.  "Old Chief Herzog at Supply told me he'd seen him once in '52.  The Chief said he was patrolling here, and the guy walked down the gangway and disappeared as he stepped off."  The kid laughed nervously.  "He said he didn't tell anybody . . . wasn't bucking for a Section Eight, he said . . . ."

Guns looked at me.  "Sounds like the poor bastard's trying to go home
. . . ."

A shiver ran up my spine and goose-bumps sprouted all over my body.  "You think it's possible?"

"Hell, Mac, anything's possible."

We turned to the kid.  "Look, maybe we're all nuttier than a pecan roll, but could it be that your dad's body is still somewhere aboard?  Got overlooked in the shuffle?"

The young sailor wet his lips.  "That's what I've been thinking."

Something made me glance up and I nearly had a heart attack.  Standing at the head of the brow was a sailor in Dress Blues . . . the crossed anchors of his rating badge on his right arm.  The kid drew in a sharp breath.  "It's him," he whispered.  "That's my dad!"

The three of us watched the figure come toward us.  He stopped just short of the foot of the brow and looked at us.  The expression on his face, filled with such sadness and longing, tore at our hearts.  He spoke, but no sound reached our ears.

I said, mouthing my words carefully, "Can you read my lips?"

The figure nodded and spoke again, slowly.  I watched his mouth.  "I've been trying to get home for thirteen years, but everytime I step off the gangway I find myself back aboard."

The kid, tears running down his cheeks, stopped close.  "Dad . . . ."

The phantom turned toward him.  "Dad?"

"Yes . . . . Dad, Mom has your picture all over the house . . . . She still misses you, and so do I."

The sadness in the dead sailor's face deepened.  "I want to go home."

Guns, sixteen years in the Navy, a rough old swab who could clear a barroom with one hand tied behind him, cried.  I was doing the same.

"What can we do to help?"

The phantom's face brightened.  "Find me."



That wouldn't be easy.  Even if the ghost could lead us to his body, a ship in mothballs is tightly secured against moisture, which means that all topside access, and all below-decks doors and hatches are hermetically sealed.  It would take an order from the Mothball Fleet Commander to authorize a search, and what ranking officer in his right mind would do so on our evidence?  As it turned out, Rear Admiral . . . I have been ordered to forget his name . . . would.

When a couple of probably insane petty officers, by-passing all military protocol, showed up in the Admiral's office and requested to speak to him, his receptionist took one look at our faces, and hit a button on her intercom.  "Admiral, there's a Gunner's Mate, a Bosun's Mate and a seaman out here who want to talk to you."


Proving a theory I've held for a long time . . . that if you want something done, go to the top man . . . Admiral Soandso said, "Well hell, send 'em in."

The Admiral sat back in his chair and tapped his teeth with a pencil.

He looked at the three of us for a long time.  "Funny," he said at last, "You don't look crazy.  You sure you guys haven't spent too much time in the hot sun?"

The young tin can sailor twisted his white hat between his hands.  
"Sir . . . . Admiral . . . . It's my father . . . ."

The head honcho drummed his fingers on his desk.  "I ought to courtmartial the lot of you for skipping the chain of command, but I can imagine what the Base Commander would have said if you'd gone to him.  Hell, I must be as loony as you clowns, but I've spent too many years at sea to doubt much of anything anymore."  He grunted.  "I'm not doing anything tonight . . . let's go meet this spook of yours."

Proving another theory of mine that sailors are sailors . . . from the lowliest Seaman deuce to the highest ranking Gold-Braid.

A little after midnight we sat in the Admiral's car at the foot of the brow of the old Coming-Home . . . Guns, the kid, the Admiral, me, and the Admiral's driver.  "Johnny," the Admiral said to his driver, "if you breathe one word of this . . . one word, you hear? . . . you'll wind up doing the rest of your hitch dodging grizzly bears in Kodiak, I promise you."

The driver grinned.  "Aye, aye, Admiral."  He winked at me.  "He won't ship me out," he whispered.  "Couldn't run the Navy without me."

The kid let out a little sound and pointed.  The phantom was coming down the gangway.

Admiral Soandso swore.  "I'll be damned!"

He got out of the car and we all followed.  The driver crossed himself and whispered, "Holy Mother . . . ."

The dead sailor halted at the foot of the brow, came to attention and saluted.  You could almost, but not quite, see through him.

The Admiral straightened and returned the salute.  He cleared his throat.  "Son, I don't know how this has happened, but you can be damned sure I'll see that you get home . . . if we have to take this old bucket apart."

With a sudden smile the ghost saluted and vanished.



The rest was handled quietly but efficiently.  Can you imagine what the news media would have made of such a story?

A small search party combed the vessel, breaking seals from stem to stern before they located a dry and cracking body-bag in a small compartment, where it had been set to be sent ashore, and forgotten for thirteen years.



The young tin can sailor was detailed to accompany his father's flag-draped coffin home at long last . . .

* * * * *

You can tell a 'Fairy Tale' from a 'Sea-Story'.  A Fairy Tale begins with, "Once upon a time . . . .", and a Sea-Story begins with, "Now, no crap, Mac . . . ."   This story began with neither . . . .


* * * * *

Footnote

I was in Charleston in '58 putting a destroyer escort out of commission, and there was a rumor of a right-arm Bosun's Mate seen coming down the gangway of an old refrigerator ship used to bring back bodies.

I made the rest of it up.

* * * * *


Footnote #2

For anybody who doubts an Admiral would go so far for an enlisted man, what follows isn't fiction.  After the DE was decommissioned, I was posted to a Troop Transport out of Brooklyn to Bremerhaven, Germany.  In July of 1959, I went home for a two-week leave and found my wife in the hospital and our six children under the care of a nineteen-year-old babysitter.  I used up the ninety days leave I had on the books and couldn't get anymore.  I didn't know what to do.  I couldn't refuse to return to my ship, and I couldn't leave my kids.

I did what the characters in the story did.  I went to the office of ComEight, Commandant of the Eighth Naval District in New Orleans.  The Admiral not only saw me, he called the Bureau of Naval Personnel and got me transferred to shore duty in the area so I could care for my family.

That's only one of the reasons why, after being retired for thirty-two years, I still get like all misty about the Navy

* * * * *  

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