Life on an APL
by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong

When ships go into the yards, they ‘offload’ the contents and crew.  In the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, that meant moving the crews into floating contraptions known as auxiliary personnel lighters…  Floating steel boarding houses that could handle up to a light cruiser crew.

At the time we pulled into drydock #2, our crew along with a second boat crew had moved into ‘musty mattress heaven’, an APL located adjacent to our boat’s drydock position.

To be honest, the accommodations weren’t half-bad.  Aboard subs, you had a locker the size of a breadbox and shared a bunk.  On an APL, you could have all the broom closet-size lockers you wanted to homestead and could control a whole section of bunks.  You could ‘bunk hop’ to an area with guys who listened to country music…  Played hearts all night…  Or maintained deck silence to get some sleep.  The area where silence was maintained was known as the ‘red light district’ because we kept it in continual red light for odd-hour sleepers.

The first thing you did when you came aboard was haul musty mattresses topside, a navy enlisted evolution known as ‘airing bedding’.  APL mattresses were members of the same family as skid row flophouse mattresses.  APL bedding was never high on the navy’s priority list.

Also, we found that the below decks compartment ventilation needed some repair and maintenance before we could get proper airflow down in the bowels of the steel monster.  The names and hull numbers of hundreds of ships were written or scratched into the paint everywhere, to which ours was added in several locations…  USS REQUIN (SS-481).

Life aboard an APL, once you got into the routine, was about as good as naval service got.

You had morning muster after all the married brown baggers (khaki-sackers) turned up.  At morning quarters, the engineering officer and chief of the boat divvied up the work assignments.  Most rated petty officers took care of upgrading and part replacement on their assigned gear.  The non-rated guys stood fire watches and cleaned our floating ‘rat box’.

For men who spent a great deal of time beyond the limits of sunshine, life on an APL was a very agreeable novelty.  The galley and messdeck were monstrous compared to anything we had experienced, other than on our tender and shore-based transient galleys.

Submariners had a long established tradition called ‘open galley’.  For those of you not familiar with the term, let me attempt to explain.

Any submariner who was willing to clean up after himself could break out anything he wished to eat and cook it for himself or a group of shipmates.  Dining aboard submarines was about as informal as communal bread-breaking got.  At times, submariners partaking of daily sustenance resembled Robin Hood’s Merry Men at a Sherwood Forest feast.  The only difference being we left things shipshape afterwards…  And we had no dogs to toss scraps to.

Those who desired to, could phone for pizza and Chinese food deliveries.

Most evenings, someone would tap into the 1MC and since no one had yet invented ethnic sensitivity, would announce,

“Anyone wanting to get in on a chink chow order lay topside.  First and last call for roast rat and noodles.”

You could draw your chow and haul your steel shingle topside, watch the river traffic and duck seagull crap, out in fresh air, in either daylight or starlight.

We collected a load of discarded lawn furniture and created what we perceived to be a luxury liner promenade deck…  But it looked more like the Beverly Hillbillies.  I can’t remember any officers coming aboard our floating raghat ghetto…  We owned it.

We had practical factor lectures.  Our corpsman, the ever-faithful Walter ‘Doc’ Rohre, taught us first aid.  We learned how to field strip and clean all onboard small arms.  We learned basic code and how to read flashing light.  We learned how to read channel buoys, merchant ship colors and easily recognized stack markings.  And, we learned about the evils of indebtedness, alcoholism and various types of VD…  The kind girls all over the world were lined up to give stupid American bluejackets.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like, living on a fully loaded APL.  Somehow, I conjure up visions of overcrowded migratory labor camps or cheap hotels in Bangladesh.  But they were pretty spacious for 130 boatsailors.

Most of the animals assigned bunks on the APL were non-rated idiots or junior petty officers.  The mature enlisted leadership was either married or had a steady shack-up with some honey on the other side of the base gate.

The rambunctious wild men on the APL created their own amusement.

The most popular after hours sport was chariot racing.  They had these two-wheel carts everywhere.  When ships pulled into drydocks, they secured the sill (the opening by which a ship enters a drydock).  They would float this metal dock door into place, then flood it down until it seated, forming a seal.  Then, lines would be thrown to men on deck.  These lines were faked down in those prepositioned carts.

Some civilian engineer was situated at the head of the drydock with a surveyor’s transit and made hand signals to indicate which lines had to be taken in or slacked off on, to position the ship over large concrete blocks that the ship would rest on, as the water was pumped out and the hull settled in position.  Then, the pumping began.  After an hour or two, the ship came to rest on the concrete blocks, held in place by the network of lines.  With all the lines in use, the little two-wheel carts were all standing around empty.

In the evening, we would form up teams and hold chariot races around the drydock, ala ‘Ben Hur’ style, with most of the horses being E-3s…  Comprised of messcooks, firewatches and APL cleaning coolies.  It’s amazing what grown men could come up with to amuse themselves.

We also found that we could shoot welding rods one helluva long way out of the hoses of CO2 fire extinguishers.  There were two tin-cans,,,  Old 700 class Fletchers, in the drydock with us.  At night, we would launch welding rods at the two destroyers.  We called it ‘Admiral Yamamoto Kamikaze Drill’.  This might seem to some as ‘stupid’, but it passed time for kids who were broke and bored as hell.

The dumbest thing that was done, was pulled off by two drunks returning one night.  At one side of the drydock was a covered shed with several time clocks…  A rack of time cards…  And several hundred yellow safety helmets with big, black ‘72’s painted on them.  Shop 72 was the riggers shop.

When the two loaded returning bluejackets returned, they noticed that the stacks of the two destroyers had been removed and placed on the floor of the drydock.  Well, these two totally inebriated undersea warriors proceeded to toss all…  Repeat, ALL…  Of the yellow Shop 72 helmets at the two destroyer stacks, keeping score of those actually going into the stacks.

The next morning, all hell broke loose when men started to punch in and found the floor of the drydock literally covered with Shop 72 yellow helmets.  A four-striper showed up, snorting fire and ready to pour molten lava on the clown or clowns responsible.  We underwent a mass interrogation, during which time the little irate, fireplug-built bastard must have said, “When I get my gahdam hands on the sonuvabitches responsible for this stunt, I’m going to…”, fifty or sixty times.

We stood there along with the two now badly hung-over culprits with the look of total innocence submarine crews often adopt when the lion-tamers and alligator wrestlers show up.  Under threat of dismemberment, being boiled in oil and a complete litany of possible unpleasantness, we explained that to us, it appeared to be the kind of thing a tin can sailor would do.

After the captain left, we all shook hands and took the customary sub crew blood oath not to give up the culprits.  Straight face lying to heavyweight authority came with Silver Dolphins…  But never to commissioned members of the brotherhood, except what was required for favorable consideration at Captain’s Mast.

Many favorable memories were hand built in navy yards.  All submariners have them.