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Noxubee Crest

The Signalman


By Darrell Middelton

Those of us who have read Melville’s “White Jacket”, or Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast” know beyond a doubt that we gained more from those classics because of our time on the Noxubee. Melville’s description of the Master-at-Arms aboard the Neversink was enough to conjure up the Noxubee’s Carheart, (sp?) although I do submit that the Noxubee’s own was an improved version? Melville’s “Neversink” was of course sail driven and before humane treatment of the crew was an issue, but re-read “White Jacket” and truthfully say you do not find similarities. Yes, the Noxubee was a lowly tanker from a different time, but as a navy ship it provided a platform to understand Melville as a civilian never could.

I liked Dick Barber's tale about a Signalman, of the Noxubee who volunteered to be the real life dummy for a man overboard drill. If that was Wright (?), I knew him as well as any other member of the bridge gang. A brief continuation is in order. The man to my knowledge, never spoke of family, personal history, or other matters. Therein may lie a really interesting story. Our man in question affected a great attachment for the guitar but I never heard him play a recognizable tune. Still, to weakly paraphrase, he may have been “marching to a different guitar picker”. Those who make music have my sincere respect. I can only enjoy it.

I do know that he had spent time aboard Merchant ships on the great lakes. Our Signalman as I recall was well along on his second hitch in the Navy. Wherever he spent the first hitch I don’t know, but he learned the skills of Signalman well. In fact so well, he was acknowledged to be the only competent practitioner of that arcane discipline aboard. True, the Radiomen could read flashing light but they weren’t comfortable with information received through their eyes instead of their ears. Our Signalman was proficient, and in that respect we were fortunate to have him aboard for the rare occasions when his skill was needed.

Normally we did not operate with the fleet while in the Mediterranean, but once, the powers-that-be sent us to an anchorage off the French Riviera, where the entire Sixth fleet held court with foreign dignitaries. Since there was no national emergency requiring the sixth fleet to be on the French Riviera, I can only assume that was their function.

As part of the naval presence it was decided (by SOP) to send a coded flashing light message via the yardarm blinkers on one of the night watches. (I believe it was my watch) It was to be graded and the results were to be passed back to the fleet. Of course the effect of ships flashing messages in the night was not to be missed, especially if someone worth impressing happened to be on shore. Our resident Signalman was detailed to be present to receive that coded message and receive it he did. Next day our ship received the welcome news that of all the men-o-war present, the disreputable little AOG, which was kept a respectable distance away from the big guys, had been the only ship that received the lengthy coded message without errors. As best I recall, it was the only occasion when AOG56 was complimented for competency.

About that same Signalman, other stories had been told. About the time someone drained one of the compasses for the alcohol, and about the time a ham disappeared from the officers mess. I believe those stories to have been apocryphal. I had worked part time for a magnetic compass manufacturer after school and even in those days, compasses were no longer filled with alcohol. Perhaps the violated compass was a very old one? Also, the missing ham may have ended up in our Signalman’s possession, but I understand it was with the complicity of one of the Stewards. Besides, where was the ham to be be cooked and devoured? No! If anyone stole that ham, it was a Snipe who could perform culinary magic in the seclusion of the engine room.

All the exploits of our hero could fade without loss into the mists of time, but unrequited love came upon the scene. The Noxubee called fairly often at Naples. Sometimes we anchored Med style, stern secured to a mole or jetty and an anchor out forward. Sometimes we anchored some distance off the beach. Our Signalman enjoyed liberty in Naples and as might be expected, sought feminine company. As might be expected he found it. A distinct change came over him and he was given to sitting idly on a flag box with a glassy look in eyes which gazed unseeing toward Naples. From such a reticent suitor only one choice bit of information was given. Her name was Bianca. I think in Italian, that means white? Anyway, on every liberty allotted to our Signalman he courted his lady love and it must have been a match made in heaven, but all things must end. We were scheduled to leave Naples with JP4 for Wheelus Air Base just outside Tripoli, Libya. After that, we were to return to the States. Liberty call came, and off went our Signalman for his last tryst with his fair one. It would be a sad parting at best. The boat was to leave on it’s last return from the beach and lo! Our Signalman was conspicuous by his absence. The boat crew stayed as long as they dared and finally had to return to the ship without him.

Now we thought well of our shipmate in spite of his bad guitar playing and we really were concerned. The thought of the problems facing him in a strange city, absent over leave, and missing his ship were sobering ones. We turned in believing we would never again see him, and his guitar playing really wasn’t all that bad. But the rest of the story I heard next morning. The Twelve to Four gangway watch in the early morning hours heard a splashing near the stern. Soon the splashing came around the stern and to the bottom of the gangway, and here came our Signalman dripping up the steps. His comment to the Watch was: “Would have been here sooner, but the tide was against me.”