Submarine Painting, Made Easy

by Ron Gorence

The Razorback (SS-394) had been on Northern Patrol for 36 days, and finally, the Quartermaster's log read: '0830 - Moored starboard-side-to Berth 1, Yokosuka Naval Facility, Yokosuka, Japan. Present are various units of U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.'

Liberty was down upon arrival for all hands at the discretion of department heads, except for a third of the crew which was in the duty section. The Quartermasters had departed about five minutes after the Old Man and their boss, the Navigator, had gone ashore, along with the Yeoman and most of the Torpedomen. Snipes would work 'til about noon, to line up for shore power and get their preordered repair parts aboard, and then they too would hustle into Yokusuka for, as they put it, a little R & R before the pending ship's move to a dry dock and some major overhaul work.

An hour after Razorback had tied up and a few necessary stores had been loaded by all hands, most of the compartments below decks looked deserted. Topside, the deck gang was bustling, having been told that all areas with barnacles, sea-scum, rust and damaged paint would be scraped, wire brushed, and primed-ready for painting-before liberty call. There were three of us: Hal, Indian and I; we had over a month's back-pay in our pockets from having been on patrol, and a comparable abundance of testosterone, so we worked like there was no tomorrow. The most exotic ports we'd visited so far were Honolulu, where all the women hated sailors, and Adak, Alaska, where there were no women - but we'd been assured that Yoko would be different. Since none of us had been aboard long enough to be qualified, we had Cinderella Liberty, which meant that whatever time we got off, we'd have to be back aboard by midnight; we were unanimously prepared to remove barnacles with our front teeth if necessary.

Even Gunner Meecham, the WW II First Class Gunner's Mate in charge of the deck gang, had been chipping and scraping, and by ten-thirty, we'd already rolled the ship to port and then to starboard by carefully opening the Main Ballast tank vents on one side to expose the other side for scraping, then blowing the water out with the Low Pressure Blower, and repeating the whole procedure to expose the opposite tank-tops. Most of the moss and sea-growth had been replaced with zinc-chromate primer and a hand-painted coat of black. The tank-tops were looking great.

I had outlined the numbers 3, 9, and 4 with masking tape on both sides of the sail for painting in the ship's ID number with white paint and black shading, and had moved on to chipping rust around number four cleat. We weren't naturally meticulous in our work, but Gunner had already taught us a couple of times that doing something right was always faster than doing it twice, so the ship's exterior was looking better by the moment.

"Let's get all those white spots wire-brushed and primed," shouted Gunner up to Hal who was hanging above me on the side of the sail on a bosun's chair. "An' make sure you get all that dried salt off, and rinse it with fresh water before you prime it. It'll show through as soon as the paint dries if you don't."

He stopped by the Forward Torpedo Room escape-trunk door, where Indian was working, and pointed out some rust in the trough where the tanks meet the pressure hull, "Make sure you dry out that before you prime those spots," he mumbled to Indian, "I'm going below for a minute."

It must have been about 1100 when Gunner finally came back topside in full dress whites, top-heavy with dozens of war ribbons and a submarine patrol pin.

"Okay Gorence, looks like you got things under control; I gotta go check up on some supplies - I may not make it back. Tell the men that if they get everything done by 1230-1300, they can take off-and I mean not a bit of rust or salt showing anywhere topside."

"What supplies?" I asked cutely, "We've already got all our stuff."

"Gotta sign some paperwork!" he snarled back impatintly.

"And make sure those knuckleheads stow all the gear properly, or I'll make you do it when I get back."

"Does this mean I'm the Leading Seaman now?" I asked.

"No. It means I think you might be smart enough to tell the other two that nobody goes anywhere 'til topside looks decent! Okay?"

"Nobody goes anywhere . . . but you," I mumbled - fortunately he was already out of earshot across the bow, hailing a taxi.

After I'd delivered the message, we all worked just a little harder, and shortly after noon, we had used red-lead or zinc chromate primer to hide every minute blemish visible above Razorback's waterline. I was taking one last look around, as I started gathering up scrapers, wire brushes and the tools and Indian and Hal cleaned paintbrushes, when the 1MC announced, "Gorence . . . lay to the Wardroom. Gorence . . . lay to the Wardroom, on the double."

Lt. Speer was the Duty Officer, and he informed me that the XO had just called, and said the CO had been pleased with the look of the ship so far, as he'd gone by on the way to Squadron, and wanted to make sure it would be finished today.

"Yessir," I proudly responded, "We're just cleaning up now."

"No, not primed, PAINTED," Lt. Speer calmly corrected.

"But the Weapons Officer, Mr. Montross told Gunner Meecham that we only had to get her ready for painting later in drydock . . . we're gonna . . ."

"PAINTED, Gorence," and he stared at me to see if I finally understood.

My mouth was still trying to form a protest, so he continued, "Skipper even told me last time you guys had done a great job feathering the paint between the black horizontal surfaces and the grey vertical ones. He said if you couldn't finish that part today, tomorrow would do; except for that, he wants topside painted today."

The news up on deck didn't go over too well. "How we gonna paint 300 feet of submarine in five hours? Sun goes down about six," complained Hal.

"Eighteen-hundred," corrected Indian. Nobody could ever remember Indian's name, so he wanted to be called Indian.

"Yeah, I know," I responded, "Mr. Speer said he'd authorize the yardbirds to rig some floodlights if we needed them; I gotta let him know in a couple of hours."

Indian went down to the After Torpedo room and brought up the paint pot and all the hoses while Hal and I hauled five-gallon buckets of paint from pallets on the pier onto the deck just aft of the sail. I covered up the newly-painted hull numbers and the bridge Plexiglas bubble and windows with newspaper and masking tape while my coworkers began spraying the top of the sail. By the time we'd finished painting the sail grey, with the top of the sail and the horizontal bridge areas dull black with all edges blended into each other, my Timex said it was 1535; sunset was just over two hours away, and we hadn't even started the bulk of the painting, which was the main deck.

"Better go tell Speer we're gonna need lights," said Indian.

"Yeah, I guess… if we could just get a new spray gun. We've spent more time cleaning the gun out than actually spraying," I responded.

We had two guns, and had cleaned one while the other was in use, but we'd seldom managed over a few feet of coverage before we had to switch again.

"What in the devil is Hal doing?" I motioned to the turtleback back aft where our third member was swinging a mop over the after bullnose, "Swabbing paint?"

We both made a beeline to Hal who was sticking the business end of the mop into and around the large guide for mooring-lines. Hal looked up at us both and said, "Let's get busy. I've painted this thing in ten seconds; a brush would have taken ten minutes."

Mr. Speer was walking a non-qual officer through the battery-charge line-up, so he seemed relieved when I interrupted him with the XJ-A phone and informed him that we'd be able to finish the painting without lights.

Then, Indian and I shifted into high gear and raided the below decks compartments for every foxtail, broom and mop we could find, and found two push-brooms up on the pier. One of us dumped paint while the other two spread it in and around cracks. We soon discovered that the trick was to find a flat place to dump paint so that it wouldn't all drain immediately into the superstructure. In tight spaces, a one gallon bucket was dipped into the larger container and emptied with enough force to ensure complete coverage.

Just as the sun settled behind Honshu and the ex-Japanese Empire, we declared our job finished and disposed of paint buckets, cans, most of our tools, and all of our clothes into the Dempsey-dumpster on the pier. Razorback glistened beautifully in the reflected harbor lights as we scrubbed our bodies down with Methyl Ethyl Ketone wherever the paint showed, and with Ivory soap wherever it didn't. Finally we went ashore, smelling even worse than the other diesel-boat sailors, but with pockets full of money. We ordered large Asahi beers by the pair.

Heavy drinking and later events would render the night's liberty much less memorable than we had hoped, but the next morning dawned as one that none of us will never, ever forget:

I was awakened by the Below Decks Watch who shook me awake, "Gorence. Get up. You better get up topside and take a look!"

Twilight was just breaking through a fog over Yokosuka harbor which was thicker than any I'd ever seen. I couldn't see the top of the sail, less than 20 feet away, but the visible paint job and her hull numbers looked fine. I immediately looked around the deck near the After Battery hatch for a spot we might have accidentally left unpainted, or a patch of yellow-green primer we might have failed to cover, but except for a few spots that looked a little more like tar than black paint, nothing really looked too bad.

One of my fondest memories is of sleeping on a submarine was the sound of waves just outside the pressure-hull gently lapping against the tank-tops. On this morning, however, my eyes went to the water a few yards away under the fog, and then to the tank tops beneath where I stood. The waves were not lapping, but instead, splattering against the ship through a scum of black rubbery bubbles and congealed black paint. It clung to the ship and then oozed its slime back into the sea. I noticed that Hal and Indian were next to me, silent.

Just beyond a patch of fog, and sticking up like a periscope, were a couple of feet of broom handle, the business end of which was held beneath the surface by an invisible glob of paint. Indian took off to go get the boat-hook from the bridge to retrieve the object, but by the time he came back Hal and I were pointing to several rags and paintbrushes, also floating on the paint scum which covered the water in every direction.

Between the time of our early reveille and scheduled morning quarters, we managed to retrieve and hide several slimy brushes and swabs in the superstructure, but as the crew gathered on the pier for muster, and the sun brightened, we all looked up and saw the COB, Chief Sensney, breaking through the crowd, and peering over the edge of the pier with a scowl I will never forget as long as I live.

"Do NOT come to Quarters," he hissed, "Clean it upppp!" He waved his arm in a semicircle indicating everything in every direction away from the pier as far as the eye could see, apparently including our dungarees, which by now looked as bad as the painted clothing we'd discarded last night. As he spun back around to the assembling and grinning crew, he rolled his shoulders as though something, having thrown his posture out of whack, needed major adjustment. "Fall in," he growled at the rest of the crew, whose grins faded to smirks as they lined up.

Our eyes followed the sweep of his gesture, and we began to look beyond the small area from which we had been fishing for flotsam. The mooring lines had obviously slacked enough during the night to dip into the blackened sea, and were dripping blobs of paint. So were the pier's pilings and our fenders. The ship's anchor and both bowplanes were trimmed on the bottom with delicate black lace, dripping and reshaping itself as we watched. The limber holes were similarly draped in black.

The Academy for the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, directly across Yokosuka harbor from Berth 1, was a group of white buildings behind and upon a stone wall, which had been covered with brilliantly-white plaster. The wall emerged from the harbor's North shore, and Indian, having claimed to have the best eyes on the ship, said he could distinguish black lace at its waterline. Hal and I assumed he was lying to scare us, because the whole crew had been warned over and over about 'International Incidents.' We had never understood what might be classified as an International Incident prior to this, but Indian apparently thought that painting the Academy's wall might qualify. We all suddenly remembered, from boring lectures, that Status of Forces Agreements stipulated that criminals would be subject to arrest, trial, and conviction according to the laws of the host country. We all prayed for high tide, and that it would cover the evidence.

During the next week in Yoko while we were voluntarily restricted to the ship, Gunner did a lot of work on our vocabulary. He taught us that speed, though often critical, was always dangerous without direction. He taught us that meticulousness was important to a point, but that it could be overdone, and he convinced us that the cliché, 'doing something right was always faster than doing it twice' was not just a cliché. Unfortunately, during whatever liberty we had the following week, we managed to handle our money with almost exactly the same intelligence as we'd spread our paint, but Gunner let us learn that the hard way. The tides were favorable.

However disrespectful our treatment of a Man of War may have seemed, I am proud to report that the Razorback ultimately received the most carefully-inspected and precisely-applied external paint-job of her entire career during that period of time; having shown Gunner our disdain our for spray guns, we meticulously painted every inch, top and bottom, of her teak deck boards with a tooth brush and pipe cleaners. We slowly scraped away five, five-gallon cans of paint, and then carefully reapplied two. We painted her numbers with fine artist's brushes, and merged her blacks and grays until they faded imperceptibly one into the other. We received many compliments on the excellence of our second paint job, although never without comments on our first try.

I coincidentally served two, two-month tours of mess-cooking during Chief Sensney's tenure as COB, and another tour under his relief, Chief Mason (even though I had never asked Sensney for referrals). I was also subjected to the constant and nearly merciless harassment of my shipmates for a long time; their comments helped direct the process of growing up.

- - -

As I began to write this, nearly fifty years later, I was aware that I would probably have to hammer on the keyboard late into the night until I was finished. I know that laboring over a sea-story until it develops into a literary masterpiece is beyond my limits; but neither would I allow myself to be distracted or cut it short because of time constraints. I can count the half-assed jobs I've done since Razorback, on one hand.

I believe Gunner Meecham would say at this point that this story is, "Good enough." For him and for each of us who sailed on her, a part of our soul, a fraction of our lives, will forever lie somewhere beneath her exterior coats of paint. It was a good place to grow up. .