Launches We All Knew
by Bob 'Dex' Armstrong
Remember anchoring out? 'Swinging the hook'? I have no idea how they decided who laid alongside the pier and who anchored out. I know that when ships came into port, the order of entering had something to do with your skipper's rank, date of promotion or shoe size. Something like that. Hell, the old man never explained it to the After Battery Rats.
Well, however it was determined, we ended up dropping our hook off our liberty ports a lot. Personally, I preferred it. When you nested alongside the pier you had pier responsibilities. Passing drunks. Curious visiting surface craft and shore duty clowns. Swinging the hook gave you a unique location all your own. You got visited by bumboats. Girls. Skimpy-clad girls and regular visits by touring liberty launches.
There were two ways you could get to and from the beach... Water taxi and liberty launch. Water taxi transport was damned expensive... I only rode them twice. Both times, the only choices I had was one helluva swim, missing movement or forking over an obscene amount of wampum to the Jesse James Raghead-hauling Water Taxi. Crooks.
Missing movement in the old days was a damn serious thing. When you finally caught up with your boat, I think they just soaked you with gasoline and lit you off. I don't know because we always made it back to turn up for the morning quarters drunk parade.
If you don't remember good times in liberty launches you're brain dead. The rides in motor launches with great shipmates were some of the most wonderful times in my life. Jumping into a motor launch heading into an exotic port was catnip to a red-blooded American 19-year old lad. At 19, any place beyond 25 miles of your hometown is foreign and exotic.
Returning in a load of happy, rollicking 'three sheets to the wind' bluejackets. Singing songs your mother would have slapped you for singing, telling about female companionship you rustled up. And laughing like deranged lunatics. Damn, it was fun.
For anyone reading this who may have no idea what in the hell a 'Liberty Launch' was or still is. I will attempt to describe it as we knew it. You must remember that today's Navy has, for reasons known only to itself, taken a helluva lot that meant a great deal to her sailors and done away with it in the interest of proper decorum. I have difficulty understanding what laughing, singing and acting like a fool while plowing saltwater back and forth between ships and the shore has to do with anything but forming men into crews. Teams of hardworking, fun-loving sailors.
Liberty launches were large motor driven launches (boats) that were carried on the upper 'boat deck' of large surface ships or utilized by Naval shore installations to haul supplies and personnel. They came with a crew of two. A coxswain (pronounced 'cox'un') and a clown called a 'boathook'. When the Navy found that an idiot with the brain of Dorothy's scarecrow had made it through Great Lakes, they made the bastard a 'boathook'.
The cox'un operated the boat, while the 'boathook' acted like a safety patrol on a rowdy school bus. The Navy provided the knuckleheads with an eight foot pole with a brass skull buster on one end. One tap with that little fairy wand and it was lights our for the rest of the ride. I never saw that happen, but there were many nights I deserved it. Giving the boathook a hard time about the professional knowledge required by his naval career choice was great late night entertainment.
Officers had their own peanut gallery aft in what was known as the 'stern sheets'. It kept them separated from the livestock load of unruly blue jackets in the midships well. It was like having a fifty-yard line seat at the world lunatic championships.
Saw some great shows in liberty launches.
One night the boathook yelled at some jaybird, "Hey kid. Yeah, YOU with the inside-out raghat. Deep-six the bottle. Don't give me any crap. Just toss it over the side." The kid stood up. Took off his neckerchief and did a neat magic trick where he made the jug disappear. Everyone aft of the kid saw him shove it up the back of the jumper of some lad sitting next to him. I was impressed.
When we dropped the kid off at his boat, we saw him pass it to a couple of guys topside who drained the remaining contents and spiral-passed it into the darkness.
Saw a kid stand up and say, "I forgot to buy something for my mother!"
And promptly hop over the side. And then he started dog paddling in the direction of the lights of Hamilton Bermuda. It took thirty minutes to fish Catfish Man out of the bay and haul his dripping, sopping wet ass back aboard.
The Navy in its infinite wisdom, created a little blue crescent-shaped patch with your ship's name embroidered on it. It served as the zip code for inert drunks. The shore patrol would haul the terminal revelers down to the fleet landing and sort them by ship and stack them for the last 'boat round'. No officers ever took the last launch. The 'zoo barge'. Boy, was that one helluva ride!
Somewhere in the vicinity of midnight, the sober guys loaded the 'stove wood drunks' and the officer at the landing yelled, "Cox'un, shove off and make your rounds." .And the cox'un yelled, "Aye sir!" Fired up his engine and headed out to the boats.
And we sang. The Navy sang long ago. We sang old bluejacket songs into the darkness of empty night watching a phosphorescent wake trail off into vacant blackness. In the glow of a stern light.
"In Guantanamo Bay, Call her Gitmo for short Not much of a base, Much less of a port One look at this hole And you know that you're seein' The gahdamdest place In the whole Carribean."
"So hoorah for old Gitmo On Cuba's fair shore The land of the cockroach, The flea and the whore We'll sing of her praises And pray for the day We get the hell out of Guantanamo Bay."
It went on and on. Some of you will remember it. We called it, The Gitmo Song.
And there was:
"Charlotte the Harlot, The girl I adore The pride of the prairie, The cowpunchers' whore."
"I can help you pretty wavey If you'd like to leave the Navy, Have a baby on me!"
"My first trip up the Chippewa River My first trip to Canadian shore There I met a Mrs. O'Flannagan Commonly known as the Winnipeg whore."
And there were many others; 'She wore red feathers and a hooley-hooley skirt' was a Brit favorite.
There must be millions of the damn things.
Liberty launches were where we came together. Tossed alcohol-saturated, regurgitated foreign food cookies over gunnels... Hooted. Hollered, pounded each other on the back. Sang stupid songs. Yelled, "Sit down, you dumb bastard!"
.And formed the lifetime bonds that connect old smokeboat crews.
It all started in those small boats.