USS BENNINGTON

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GABBYíS OWN STORY
Raymond (Gabby) Hays (1954-56)




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GABBYíS OWN STORY

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This work is dedicated to the memory of

Lt.JG Terry Bryan, a casualty of the

catapult explosion aboard the

USS Bennington on 26 May, 1954,

and all those shipmates

lost or injured in that accident.

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AUTHORíS NOTE

The reader must keep in mind that these accounts are recollections some forty-five years after the events. Some of the memories may be out of sequence, dates (or indications of time periods) may be quite different from the actual occurrences, for which I apologize in advance. The same goes for the names of shipmates, where in some instances (thanks to an aging brain), I have resorted to names which most likely never belonged to those who inhabited the Bennington during my tour of duty. (For example, was it "Deland" or "Delany"?) In other instances, I have deliberately used names which I have invented, in the interest of protecting an identity (the "White Sheets and Varmits" victim, for example).

Regarding my proficiency in Spanish during this period of time, I offer the following: While in the Med, I could understand Italian and Portuguese as readily as I could understand Spanish. Pretty swift, what? Well, my wife and I live in Spain, and I am now quite fluent in the language.

The name "Gabby" was given to me by one of my shipmates quite some time before I joined the Bennington in La Spizia, Italy. My footlocker with the name "HAYS" stenciled on it arrived some months before I did, and one of my future shipmates, prone to making jokes, came up with the name, and it stuck!

Hey, fellows, thanks for the memories!!

Raymond "Gabby" Hays

Tenerife, Canary Islands

October, 2000

(For those so inclined, you may contact me by e-mail at
mailto:gabbyoediv@yahoo.com . )



A NEW ASSIGNMENT

TOO BIG BY SIX INCHES!

In about August of 1955, the Bennington was proven seaworthy following sea trials after the best part of a year in the Brooklyn Navy Shipyard, and was finally assigned to the Pacific Fleet. The intention had been that the ship was to pass through the Panama Canal, then to take on two squadrons of aircraft in San Diego and head for the Far East.

Well, it didn't happen quite the way it was planned. (So what else is new?)

When the Bennington was well on the way to the Caribbean, a message was received with a change of orders. It seems that the addition of a canted flight deck had widened the ship considerably. The additional width of the flight deck was such that the ship was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. It was six inches wider than the maximum width allowable in the Canal. The entire journey had to be planned all over. There wasn't enough fuel, food or provisions on board to get us to our destination without a stop, and no tankers were available for refueling or resupplying en route.

With all the aircraft waiting in San Diego, the only course possible was to round Cape Horn, and do some public relations on the way. Stops were planned in Montevideo, Uruguay and Valparaiso, Chile. Of course, we had to cross the Equator to get around South America.



POLLYWOGS INTO SHELLBACKS


When the ceremony of Crossing the Equator happened, all on board who had not crossed the equator before (the "Pollywogs") were commanded to appear before the Court of Neptune for initiation as "Shellbacks." This would have been about 17 September, 1955. The ceremony lasted about two hours, and all the new shellbacks were presented with certificates when the initiation was completed.

The old hands who had "been there before" worked diligently planning the ceremony, preparing the "Court" and making a wide variety of costumes for the "Court Dignitaries." Quite imaginative souls, they were. Installed on the flight deck was a dunking pool, a dais upon which sat the principals of Neptune's "Court," and an obstacle course the pollywogs were to traverse. Most of the enlisted and some officers were among those to be initiated, the highest rank being (I believe) a Captain, and all were treated with the same discourtesy. Neptune, himself, was an old petty officer who had the honor to have been at more crossings than anyone else on board.

There were about fifteen shellback officers who took it upon themselves to not be part of the ceremony, but to monitor the goings-on and put a stop to incidents of abuse which were bound to occur. One of them was our very own Warrant Officer, Mr Buckley. Later he reported to us that his group of watchdogs encountered only two cases needing their intervention, and that he was quite proud of the crew as a whole.



MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY


The first stop after the equator was Montevideo, Uruguay. We anchored about five miles offshore in the mouth of the RŪo Plata. Years later I discovered that we were anchored about the same place the Graff Spee had been sunk by the British in W.W. II.

Of the thousand or so Ship's Company, it turned out that I was the only one who's personnel file indicated any familiarity with Spanish. I had learned to read the language somewhat in two years of High School Spanish, but had not developed any skill in the spoken language. Therefore, the Executive Officer appointed me "Official Ship's Translator." What a joke! The first ship-to-shore voice communication was evidently quite important, and the Captain had me paged over the loudspeaker system: "Will Electronics Technician Second Class Hays please report to the Captain's bridge immediately!"

Well, of course, the whole ship started to flap about what the hell that Second Class had done to be called to the Bridge. And the Captain was in a stir because neither he, nor anyone on the bridge, could understand a word of what the Uruguayan officials were trying to convey.

This very important message came to us in colloquial Uruguayan Spanish, and, as far as I was concerned, they had might as well have been speaking Greek.

At long last, I conveyed to the person on the other end to send us a message in Morse code. Our radiomen would transcribe it, and I would translate the results.

AHA! The radiomen got most of the characters, and I stumbled through the mixed up Spanish, and with the help of the Captainís Spanish phrase book, got some sense out of the message. It went something like this: "The City of Montevideo and the Nation of Uruguay welcome the arrival of the USNavy and your ship, the USS Bennington, to our waters. Your arrival has been anticipated for some weeks, and we wish to invite your entire crew to visit our fine city for a Celebration of our Unity with the great nation of Los Estados Unidos de America del Norte. We also take this opportunity to invite all those among your crew to attend Services at our Church, The Evangelical Church of The Pentecost, a Member in Good Standing of the World Pentecostal Movement. We expect all crew members who are of our Faith to attend our Worship Meeting at 1700 hours tomorrow. "

Well, the Captain really didn't take too much to the idea of having his crew ordered to report to a Worship Meeting, but finally let it be known that those of the indicated Faith would be given liberty for that purpose, should they care to attend.

In reply to the message, which I was to translate, I managed to convey the Captainís concurrence and his thanks and appreciation for the invitation.



SHORE PATROL AND EISENHOWER


Whaddaya know? I had the honor to be among the first group of petty officers selected to be on Shore Patrol in Montevideo, along with another two fellows from our division, Simpson and Kiene. We went ashore in a whaleboat, along with forty or fifty others on liberty. The five mile trip in an open boat in rather chilly weather on choppy water was not a pleasant voyage. We were met on the wharf by a shipís officer and a uniformed Uruguayan who could speak English--sort of. All the Shore Patrol members were told that they would be put up in a local hotel for the night, as all were to be on duty both the remainder of the day and the following day as well.

We were given our assignments. Kiene and I had the shift from 1600 to 2400, and Simpson had duty from 1200 to 2000. We were told where to find our hotel, and the room number, as the three of us were to share the same room. The hotel was to provide us with meals upon demand.

After much searching, we found the hotel, and were shown to our room. It was about eight feet wide and twenty feet long with a twelve foot ceiling. The only furniture in the room was the three beds and a bureau with a wash basin and pitcher. Though the beds were crude affairs of heavy wood, they seemed to have comfortable mattresses and pillows, and were covered with nice, white sheets, but each had a rather dingy blanket neatly folded at the foot. Two of the beds were along the wall on the right, and the third was at the far end of the room against the wall on the left. There were no windows in the room, but there was a transom above the door for ventilation and to let light in from the hall. The only lighting in the room was a bare light bulb suspended on a five foot twisted electrical cord, from which were draped cobwebs which must have had an average age of ten years. The switch was by the door, but there was also another switch mounted on the far wall, so the person in the far bed might be able to turn the light off upon retiring. The switches were wired in series, so that both switches had to be in the ON position for the light to work. In addition, the door had no lock of any kind installed. You simply opened the door and walked in. Kiene commented upon the total lack of security and questioned whether he should leave even his shaving kit in the room.

Simpson had duty coming up shortly, so Kiene and I decided to hire a taxi and take a tour of the city. In the 50's, Montevideo was quite modern, with wide boulevards with statues and monuments, parks, plazas, high-rise apartments, and stores along the lines of those in America. We both enjoyed the tour, had a nice meal at a restaurant, and returned to the hotel.

When we got back to the hotel, Simpson was still on duty and we just had time to get freshened up a bit before we went on duty. Knowing that the light switches worked as they did, we made certain that the remote switch was in the ON position so that Simpson would be able to turn the light on at the switch near the door when he came in.

As evening came upon us, the people of the city began to invade the streets. The downtown part of the city looked like Times Square, with many bright lights and people milling about. A few of hours after sundown, groups of pedestrians began to approach the uniformed sailors. They were obviously excited and wanted to communicate something to the Americans. Before long, several people surrounded Kiene and me. They were chattering and gesticulating. Some appeared to be crying. It was impossible for me, or any of the uniformed Americans, to make out their intention. Suddenly, one of the men in the group indicated by hand signs that he wanted me to stay here; he would be back. I saw that he went to a nearby kiosk and bought a newspaper. He brought the paper back and showed me the headlines.

"PRESIDENTE EISENHOWER TIENE UN ATAQUE DEL CORRAZON" read the bold headlines. Now that I was able to understand!

I borrowed the newspaper from the kind man and took it to an officer who was nearby. I showed him the newspaper headlines. He studied it, and shrugged his shoulders. "So our president is in the headlines in Uruguay. So what?"

I explained that the headlines stated that Eisenhower had fallen victim to a heart attack. The officer stared at me for a few seconds then began to blanch. He asked me if he could have the newspaper to take to the Captain. The owner of the newspaper indicated that I could give it to the officer.

In view of the fact that we were so far south, the ship had lost radio contact with the States, and knew nothing of the disaster which had befallen the country.

The date was September 24,1955.



WHITE SHEETS AND VARMITS


At midnight, the end of our duty shift, Kiene and I found our way back to the hotel. We were both quite tired and were anxious to hit the sack.

I was the first one in the door. The light switch would not turn the light on. Evidently Simpson had turned it off at the switch near his bed. Light from the hallway did nothing to aid vision in the room. I felt my way between the beds by gingerly advancing one foot at a time. As I approached the far wall, I stumbled upon something on the floor. -A pillow?- I asked myself. I pushed it harder with my foot, but it didnít budge. I bent over to pick it up and touched something warm. Something fleshy. A body! Somebody lying on the floor!

In my rush to get to the switch on the far wall, I stepped on the body and almost fell. I turned the switch ON, but nothing happened. (Of course not. The switch by the door was now in the OFF position.) In my confusion, I turned the switch again. Then I shouted to Kiene to turn the light switch on. No good. By now the switch I was operating was also OFF. After what seemed to be an eternity, Kiene and I got coordinated and the light came on.

On the floor lay Simpson, wrapped up in a dingy blanket. He didnít move. Bed sheets were scattered on the bed in remarkable disarray.

Kiene and I both examined the body. -Was he dead?- -Did someone mug him right here in the room?- -What has happened?- Kiene and I discussed the possibilities while examining Simpsonís inert form. Finally I decided Simpson was breathing. We carefully rolled the body over, looking for blood. There was no sign of a puncture wound. We rolled the body over again and I lightly slapped Simpsonís cheeks. With this his eyes fluttered open.

"Whatís going on?" asked Simpson. Both Kiene and I were relieved to see Simpson reviving from being mugged.

Of course, our first questions were regarding Simpsonís well being. He was a bit groggy and couldnít think clearly. Finally, the story came out. A bit confusing at first, then more meaningfully as the cobwebs in his mind cleared:

"Shit! You guys come in and wake me from a sound sleep!

"I wasnít mugged. At least not by any people."

He pulled his tee shirt up and showed us his back.

"Look at my back. See the welts? Just as I was beginning to fall asleep I felt something chewing on my back. Bedbugs! The sheet was covered with little black varmits and I am allergic to them. So I pulled the sheets off the bed and found bedbugs on the mattress as well. I took the blanket from the foot of the bed and rolled up in it and lay down on the floor."

He was so right! Bedbugs were all over the sheets on the other beds as well. Simpsonís theory was that the nasty little things would crawl up the walls during the day and hide out in the peeling paint on the ceiling. As darkness fell, they would move around and release their hold on the ceiling when they were directly over the white sheets.

That night none of the three of us used the nice, white sheets on the beds!



A GRAY HORN AND GREEN WATER


The crew had great expectations to see the end of South America. When we finally arrived, the weather was rather poor. There were high winds out of the west, and the low clouds and a misty rain made for poor visibility. Besides that, it was a bit cool.

Actually, a day or so before we reached the Cape Horn, the ship was fighting very cold weather and high seas. From the upper reaches of the island, the view was daunting! I recall waves so high that the crests of the waves were at least fifty feet above the bow end of the flight deck, with the ship plowing into green water. This kept up until we made our turn to the north after passing the Cape, and because of the bad weather, no one was permitted on a weather deck or catwalk. Nonetheless, at some point, the word was passed that the most southern land mass of the Americas could be seen off the starboard side of the ship. Well, you could make out a grayish mountain a few miles distant, but you could see very close at hand, icicles of sea water firmly attached to the lifelines and overhanging structural members of the ship. Now that is COLD!



OPEN HOUSE


The Bennington arrived in Valparaiso, Chile, and anchored just offshore. The occasion of our arrival was something of a celebration, both for the crew and the natives of that city. The captain was to honor the dignitaries of Valparaiso, and itís populace with an open house aboard. There was no need for a translator (me!) Because most of the educated Chileans spoke quite good english.

The visitors were transported from the wharf to the Bennington by a fleet of motor whale boats and the Captainís gig. The boat crews were kept busy all day moving people from shore to ship and back again. One visitor attached himself to me, and I gave him a special tour of the ship. His amazement increased at every turn. Finally, from the port side of the flight deck, he said something like, "Only the Americans could build an amazing ship like this!" He pointed to a gleaming white sailing vessel with several masts. "That is our ship. It was built before your Civil War and is the best we have to offer as an excuse for a navy." Not wanting to disappoint the visitor, I decided not to mention the mighty ships built by both the Japanese and the Germans for their war effort.

The Bennington was in Valparaiso for several days, giving the crew the opportunity to see the city and its surroundings. There was one tour up into the Andes to the capital of Chile, Santiago.

The trip north carried us across the equator, but that instance passed rather quietly. We arrived in San Diego in late October of 1955. That was the beginning of another set of very vivid memories for Gabby....






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