By Kendric W. Taylor
Nautical Term: A monkey’s fist or monkey paw is a type of knot, so named because it looks somewhat like a small bunched fist/paw. It is tied at the end of a rope to serve as a weight, making it easier to throw –Wikipedia.
For young sailors being shipped from one duty station to the next, a US Navy transit barracks is not a good place to be. The Navy does not want its low rank enlisted men sitting around with nothing to do – hence – the Master at Arms, to my recollection a nasty 20-year veteran looking for what he would consider malingerers – which to him meant everyone. These latter were to be used to make up what they called working parties, designed and designated for all the dirty jobs on the base. For a small group waiting on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in early 1954 for shipment overseas, the word “island” meant no place to hide. Located under the Oakland Bay Bridge, it had been the site of the Golden Gate International Exhibition of 1939: the World’s Fair. Taken over by the Navy in World War Two, it had served as a shipping point of men and material to the Pacific ever since.( The view of San Francisco was spectacular, better than Alcatraz even, since there were no bars on the windows).
There were six of us: we had completed Radiomen’s School in San Diego, then a top secret communications technician school in Imperial Beach, followed by an even more classified specialist school up north in the Napa Valley, where we learned to operate highly sophisticated communications equipment. Because we were a small elite within our particular branch of the armed forces, no matter where we were assigned thereafter we always found friends. There were only a few thousand of us in the entire Navy at any one time, and we were not allowed to ever discuss what we did with anyone – ever – even among ourselves when outside our work area; we were pretty much separate from the rest of the sea-going establishment. These crusty deep-water sailors not only considered us not part of the so-called “Fleet,” but not even part of the Navy. This only made them dislike us even more: especially if they had heard of someone asking questions about what we did and who then disappeared: e.g. the poor sap that came into our Quonset hut one day in the Philippines and shouted: “Hey, what are you guys up to? We just opened a crate of your typewriters by mistake, and they‘re all in Russian!”
Gone the next day.
So there we were, a year in the Navy and never even seen a ship, when the Master at Arms nabbed us for our first working party. We were taken over to the local Navy supermarket to carry groceries out to cars for the wives of officers. I spent the afternoon petrified I’d see some girl from home. (“Oh yes, I saw him, he’s a bagboy at the commissary in San Francisco! What secret mission?”) The next detail was better: we were taken down to the dock area, fitted with rubber boots, handed huge pneumatic drills, and pointed to small rafts floating along the hull of a cargo ship. The next thing I knew I was bouncing up and down on the greasy water, shirt off in the hot sun, drilling away at the rusted paint on the hull, feeling like a hero in a ‘30’s movie (James Jones wrote about how much fun a jackhammer can be in From Here to Eternity).
However, these relatively benign tasks led to the final terrible – and I suppose funny – moment, where several of us were shanghaied once again, this time to help handle mooring lines for an incoming aircraft carrier from the Seventh Fleet. I believe this was the 32,000-ton Oriskany, with a flight deck extending 60 feet above the surface. We so-called sailors stood rooted to the huge wooden pier, craning our necks back to look at that flight deck looming far above us, when the bosun’s mate in charge of us shouted, “OK, here she comes.” A monkey’s fist shot off the bow, trailed by a huge, wooly brown hawser to be looped around the pier stanchions. Although I had a general idea what was expected of us, at the sight of this giant lasso, looking as big around as a man’s waist scaling down at us, I didn’t hesitate – I joined the others running for our lives. The hawser landed with a splintering thump next to the red-faced, screaming bosun, who leaped high into the air, threatening us with court martial and death if we didn’t return. We ran back in confusion and fear, all the way the old salt cursing us vilely, asking over and over what navy we were in. I spent the next few days hiding in the base library until we departed.
A couple of years later, some of us on our way into town in a liberty launch passed close by the Oriskany swinging at anchor in Manila Bay, and, as I gazed up at that awesome flight deck, once again I hoped no one would recognize me.
By then I had learned the Naval Security Group had long served with distinction through wars hot and cold, both aboard ships, submarines, aircraft, and behind enemy lines.