Guard Duty was not My Favorite Pastime
By Steve Karoly
Mess cooking, guard duty and head cleaning were three realities of life for World War II Sailors (remember Seabees were land-locked Sailors). Working parties, barracks cleaning details and work, work and more work rounded out the list.
The Seabees went to war to work, not fight. Although guided by their motto, "We Build, We Fight," building came first. Seabees who were fighting were not contributing to their primary mission: To build for the fleet. Seabees only fought to defend their camps and construction projects.
During his tour in the Seabees, George Schmitt was a dishwasher, clerk, carpenter, rigger, welder, signalman and diver.
Other than standing guard duty, running to the air raid shelter or firing carbines at the rifle range, Seabees spent little time overseas on military duties.
"Welding was my favorite job. A ship mate by the name of John "Whitie" Werner taught me. The thing I liked about it was that I was responsible for my own work. I think that was where I learned what it meant to take responsibility. [This was] a big lesson for a kid not completely dry behind the ears."
Seabee occupations were divided into two broad categories: Those who built and those who supported those who built. The cooks, bakers, janitors (called head cleaners and barracks cleaners in Navy jargon), clerks, kitchen police (mess cooks), drivers and storekeepers fell into this latter category. Seabee timekeepers called this "overhead."
But somebody had to perform these jobs. And in the 1940s Navy, they fell to the Seamen, men who had not yet advanced into the Petty Officer rates.
"K. P. was not my favorite pastime. I got it twice during my entire service time. The first was at Camp Peary. I did just about every rotten job in the galley."
George was later assigned to the galley while the 69th NCB was in training at Camp Endicott.
Even mess cooking had its moments: While assigned to galley duty at Camp Endicott in the Spring of 1943, George remembered one day where he could rightly say "I told you so" to the Chief. (However, I'm sure that he showed the respect due to the Chief and kept his thoughts to himself.)
"We were all set to go back to our barracks when the Chief ordered us to dry the dinner trays. We had just finished the last one when the Medical Officer walked in and asked us what we were doing. We told him that the Chief had ordered us to dry the trays. The Medico told us to start over, washing the trays but not to dry them. The Chief got a quick course on not contaminating the plates."
"Even today, I have no skills or talents for cooking. I'm the type that burns water trying to make tea."
This brings us to our next topic: Food. Seabees love food. They want it hot, they want plenty of it and they want it often. Many World War II Seabee writers paid tribute to the cooks and bakers.
William Bradford Huie, a Seabee officer and war correspondent, wrote during the war: "Seabee chow is famous on every front. Because Seabees stick to the beaches and because their cooks are experienced and have the finest equipment, the Seabees almost always have hot food. The Army, of course, moving into the hills, must use canned rations, so Army personnel are always welcomed to Seabee chow lines. The Navy has a policy of feeding everybody in the line as long as the food lasts."
George echoes this sentiment: "We had the best cooks. They did wonders with what they had. Of course, our favorite meals were at Thanksgiving and Christmas when we got turkey."
Many World War II battalions, including the 69th NCB, have a dead cow story. Ever since the cooks of the 6th NCB killed the first cow on Guadalcanal in 1942, no cow was safe around Seabee cooks. The story's always the same: Someone kills a cow (in self defense, by mistake, etc.), the cooks butcher it and the battalion eats like kings for a day.
"While in Bremen, Germany someone managed [to kill] a couple of cows. I think they were used for target practice. Our cook, Portorican Pete, had a field day. He procured some red wine for the gravy and made some of the best steaks. If you didn't like them rare, you didn't eat."
Now on to guard duty: The Navy posts sentries everywhere. From the moment a boot Sailor learns the 11 General Orders of a Sentry ("I will take charge of this post. . ."), he is subjected to guard duty.
George has some interesting observations:
"Guard duty was not my favorite pastime in the states. But in England it wasn't bad because the local girls would always come around and talk to us." (By the way, George, you violated order number 6: "To hold conversation with no one, except in the proper discharge of my duties.")
George continues: "In Germany, it was more stressful, but not all that dangerous. I couldn't help feeling for those poor souls who would walk from morning until night looking for a place to settle every night or get some sort of food for the day. These were the displaced persons [called DPs by service men in Germany]. Most of them had been moved from their homes to work where required by the German Government. After the war, there was no way to get back home except by walking."
If there was one common thread among all Seabees, it was work. Seabees worked, worked some more and when they were done, they continued to work. Work was the life of a Seabee overseas. Seabees have a reputation for working hard and playing hard.
There was time for recreation. When the project load slacked in England in August 1944, the 69th organized liberty parties to cities throughout Southern England.
And of course, they also used what precious time they had to train for their upcoming tour on Omaha Beach.
1. William Bradford Huie. Can Do! The Story of the Seabees. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1945. p. 161.
2. United States Naval Institute. The Bluejacket's Manual, 11th ed. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1943. pp. 471-2.