U.S. Navy Signalman
U.S. Navy SIGNALMAN In Their own Words
Copy Right 2011 ©
This book is dedicated to my Dad who was a Navy Chief and Ships Cook during WWII
Chief Eugene (Ski) Stawinski It was his oral history of his service during WWII that made
me decide to join the Navy
The shutters are silent no more light to read Message pad and pen have no need
Proud flags of display that once stood us apart Now only for show not part of the art Our stories are many on the high seas For a Signalman now is legend and forever will be. Doug McGath USN Retired "Silent Shutters
Table of Contents
Forward 6 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
Signalman-A School 9 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
Our Navy in The War 10 Lawrence Perry
Signalman on D-Day 14 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
From Middle America to Okinawa 16 SM1 Ralph E (Rick) Rickords
Medal of Honor 23 Signalman Douglas A. Munro
Attack on the USS Liberty 24 Signalman Joe Meadors
UNREP! 25 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
US Navy Beach Masters 31 SM3 Jim Hamann
The Admirals Visit 32 SM3 Andrew Thorson
Rescue 38 SM2 Charlie Francis
Refugees 43 Master Chief Signalman Steve Lominac
Return to Iwo Jima 64 Signalman Sheldon Howe
Looking for Mines 68 SMSA Ryan Phillips
Uncharted Pipeline 66 Signalman Chief Greg Wood
Learning the Rate 68 SM1 Roy Keeney
Dress Ship 69 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
Man Over board 71 Signalman John Cicci
Wicked Witch of the West 72 SM2 Eugene C Stevens
About the Author 75
In the U.S. Navy, "Signalman" was a naval rate (job type) combining both visual communications, and advanced lookout skills. While there was certainly a Signalman rating before World War II (the Signalman rating is one of the oldest in the Navy), a specialized Signalman rating was established shortly after the war. Signalmen were identified by the symbol of two crossed semaphore flags on the right sleeve of the uniform integrated with their rank insignia.
Signalmen were responsible for transmitting, receiving, encoding, decoding, and distributing messages obtained via the visual transmission systems of semaphore, visual morse code (flashing light), and flaghoist signaling.
After WWII, Signalman began to utilize more advanced systems for signaling such as “Nancy Gear” (infra red) systems. These systems required the use of infra red viewing gear to monitor visual signals transmitted via infra red signaling systems. Night vision systems were used to assist with proper identification of ships at sea under night time conditions. They also used flare guns with various colored shells.
The Signalman rate played a highly significant role in both ship to ship and ship to shore communications. Visual signals were used maneuver ships in formation, to transmit emergency signals, tactical signals and routine communications.
Signalman were also recognized as “professional look-outs” and were well versed at identifying all types of surface ships, submarines when surfaced and aircraft. The first story in this book is “The Wireless that Went Wrong” It is a cautionary tale from the annals of Naval history. In which look outs became the last line of defense against an invisible enemy. The story even though it is from World War One stands as a shining example of why professional well trained look outs are essential when deployed at sea.
The Signalman's job was an outside profession. Their duty station was always posted on the highest part of the ship, generally very near or on top of the ships bridge, which gave them the best visual advantage. The very nature of the job made the Signalman a natural born witness to events. If it involved operations, rescues, weather events or anything that happened on the exterior of the ship, chances are, that a Signalman saw what happened. On more than one occasion during my career, a Signalman was called into Captains Mast (Captains non-judicial punishment
proceedings) and other courts of inquiry to provide professional testimony as an eye witness. Signalman also served in many other collateral duty roles, including shore patrol details, Master at Arms duties, Rescue Divers and Fire Fighters. The U.S. Navy disestablished the rating of Signalman in late 2003 reassigning visual communications duties to the Quartermaster rating. Signalmen were either absorbed into the Quartermaster rating, or allowed to switch to other job fields in the Navy. This book is dedicated to Signalman of the US Navy.
Signalman aboard the USS Bennington sending signals to the USS South Dakota. August 6, 1945
After completing basic training, a Sailor went to see a “Detailer” who helped them to determine a career path for their Navy rate. For the perspective Signalman Student, the school assignment could be on either east or west coast. Signalman-A Schools were located in San Diego California, Newport Rhode Island, Great Lakes in Illinois and Orlando Florida.
Later in the 1980's there was also advanced Signal Schools at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and San Diego California. These advanced schools taught Signalman additional information on Soviet Signaling and recognition and identification of other Soviet ships. A skill which was essential during the Cold War. The new Signalman also had to learn his job from the bottom up. He or She learned morse code, flashing light, semaphore and flaghoist.
Signalman (SM) Master Chief Steve Lominac was among the last SM Master Chiefs in the Navy. During the later part of his career he visited the Detailer to determine where he would go after the SM rating was disestablished. He told the Detailer that he would die a Signalman, and the Detailer told him that he would die a Signalman, but he would retire a Quartermaster. It was a sad day for Master Chief Lominac. In his own words “I went to A School in Orlando in 78. I remember the Soviet Signaling School. Soviet silhouettes well.
Camp Robert Smalls, Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois Semaphore practice at the Service School for Signalmen, 2 April 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
OUR NAVY IN THE WAR
BY LAWRENCE PERRY
“ The Wireless that Went Wrong”
(A Cautionary Tale from WWI)
And so our battleship goes on through the night. On the bridge all is quiet. Officers move to and fro with padded footfalls, and the throb of the great engines is felt rather than heard. The wind begins to change, and presently the captain glancing out the door of the chart-house clucks his chagrin. For the night has begun to reveal itself, thanks, or rather, no thanks, to the moon, which has torn away from a shrouding mass of clouds and sends its rays down upon the waters of the sea. It had been a fine night to dodge the lurking submarine, but now the silver light of the moon, falling upon the leaden side of the battleship, converts her into a fine target.
"Nature is certainly good to the Germans," chuckles an officer to a companion, taking care that the captain does not hear.
Deep down below the water there is a listening "ear"a submarine telephone device through which a submarine betrays its presence; any sound the undersea boat makes, the beating of the propellers, for instance, is heard by this ear, and in turn by the ear of the man who holds the receiver.
Presently the man who is on detector watch grows tense. He listens attentively and then stands immobile for a moment or so. Then he steps to a telephone and a bell rings in the chart-house where the captain and his navigating and watch officers are working out the courses and positions.
"I hear a submarine signaling, sir," comes the voice from the depths to the captain who stands by the desk with the receiver at his ear.
"What signal?" barks the skipper."MQ repeated several times. Sounds as if one boat was calling another." (The sailor referred to the practice which submarines have of sending subaqueous signals to one another, signals which are frequently caught by listening war-ships of the Allies.)
The captain orders the detector man to miss nothing, and then a general alarm (to quarters) is
passed through the great vessel by word of mouth. This is no time for the clanging of bells and the like. The lookouts are advised as to the situation.
"I hope we're not steaming into a nest." The captain frowns and picks up the telephone. "Anything more?" he asks.
"Still getting signals, sir; same as before; same direction and distance."
Down to the bridge through a speaking-tube, running from the top of the forward basket-mast comes a weird voice.
"Bright light, port bow, sir. Distance about 4,000 yards." (Pause.) "Light growing dim. Very dim now."
From other lookouts come confirmatory words.
"Dim light; port bow."
"The light has gone."
"It's a sub, of course," murmurs an officer. "No craft but a submarine would carry a night light on her periscope. She must be signaling." A thrill goes through the battleship. In a minute the big steel fighter may be lying on her side, stricken; or there may be the opportunity for a fair fight.
The captain sends an officer below to the detector and changes the course of the ship. Every one awaits developments, tensely.
The wireless operator enters the chart-house.
"I can't get your message to the (another battleship), sir. I can't raise her. Been trying for ten minutes."The officer who has been below at the detector comes up and hears the plight of the wireless man. He smiles. "In exactly five minutes," he says, "you signal again." The radio man goes to his room and the officer descends to the detector. In precisely five minutes he hears the signal which had bothered the man on detector watch. He hurries to the bridge with the solution of the incident. The wireless had become disconnected and its signals had come in contact with the detector. So there was no submarine. Everything serene. The battleship settles down to her night routine.
The dark wears into dawn, and the early morning, with the dusk, is the favorite hunting-time of the submarine, for the reason that then a periscope, while seeing clearly, is not itself easily to be discerned. The lookouts, straining their eyes out over the steely surge, pick up what appears to be a spar. But no. The water is rushing on either side of it like a mill race. A periscope.
There is a hurry of feet on the bridge. The navigating officer seizes the engine-room telegraph and signals full speed ahead. While the ship groans and lists under the sudden turn at high speed, the ammunition-hoists drone as they bring powder and shell up to gun and turret. From the range-finding and plotting-stations come orders to the sight-setters, and in an instant there is a stupendous roar as every gun on the port side sends forth its steel messenger.
Again and again comes the broadside, while the ocean for acres about the periscope boils with the steel rain. It is much too hot for the submarine which sinks so that the periscope is invisible. From the plotting-stations come orders for a change of range, and on the sea a mile or so away rise huge geysers which pause for a moment, glistening in the light of the new sun, and then fall in spray to the waves, whence they were lifted by the hurtling projectiles. The shells do not ricochet. "Where they hit they dig," to quote a navy man. This is one of the inventions of the war, the non-ricochet shell. One may easily imagine how greatly superior are the shells that dig to those that strike the water and then glance. Then comes the cry:
From a photograph by C.R. Eagle. Atlantic Fleet steaming in line of bearing.
Signalman on D-Day
A communication post manned by Signalman somewhere in Normandy
Headed by a Beachmaster and an assistant, the platoon's four sections number three signalmen and five radiomen in communications; one doctor, two pharmacist's mates and six hospital corpsmen in medical; three boatswain's mates and 16 seamen in hydrographic and eight repair specialists in boat repair
Beach communications often have decided the turn of a battle, so the battalions were provided with a wide variety of radio and signaling gear. A two-pound "handie talkie" is used for talk between CPs, as may be a supplemental eight-pound, self-contained flashing light and battery case, also used in case of radio failure. These two, plus a two-piece frequency modulated radio set for ocean-to-shore communications, are most important during the early stages of the assault.
Largest piece of equipment is a four-piece radio-on which both voice and code can be transmitted-linking the transports and the beach. Powered by a hand generator it is used for all requests for assistance, information on location of channels through which craft may pass, and beaches on which certain equipment must be landed. Most communications officers think of another piece of signaling equipment as most important. It's an eight-inch shutter-type searchlight with an eight-mile range and powered by a one-cylinder gasoline generator. Radios may be damaged by enemy fire or salt water or rendered useless by enemy jamming. The lamp steps into the gap caused by these failures. Supplementing these devices are the arms and flags of the signalmen who can revert, if necessary, to the old reliable semaphore system.
This smoothly coordinated method of operation which takes care of every emergency as it arises did not spring full-blown from some fertile brain. Rather it is the result of long months of trial and error under blood-curdling - and spilling-combat conditions.
At the c
enter of this hazy picture, a Signalman uses semaphore from the beach
photo courtesy of Mr. Donn Cuson
USS LST-1024 beached at Leyte, 22 October 1944. Other naval units present include an unidentified LCT beached to port of USS LST-1024 and USS LSM-35 beached to port and astern of USS LST-1024. Note the beachmaster signalman on the beach directing the approach of a ship of landing craft onto the beach
From Middle America to Okinawa
SM1 Ralph (Rick) E. Rickords
When I entered the Navy at the beginning of World War Two, I was initially sent to Farragut Idaho for basic training. There was a very large Naval base there. After basic, I was sent to Chicago for signal training. There was a Signalman's school at the University of Chicago. There was other schools there including a Radioman school. We were housed in the gym there which was set up as a barracks and we slept in bunks that were three tiers high.
As we approached the end of training, the upper Classman were immediately promoted to Signalman third class (E4). We were quickly assigned to the fleet. Some of us went east and some of us went west. I was very pleased because I was sent to the west coast to San Diego California. This was very close to home. Once there, we were assigned to another small signal school which was located at Camp Pendelton, the Marine base.
We were then assigned to teams which were made up of twelve Signalman and we were trained to provide communications support while assigned to various support vessels. Some of our Officers were Academics and I had a Skipper who was a Professor from Purdue University.I was assigned to Team#3 which was a very early Signalman's Team, additionally we learned crypto (cryptography) and trained with Marine units and practiced beach landings, which was specialized training.
After training, I was assigned to an Amphibious ship, the USS Doyen. We were then set to the Aleutian Islands in the Northern Pacific. This was because the Japanese had invaded the Islands. Though were never saw them and some of the operations resulted in us mistakenly shooting at each other, thinking the other guys were the Japs.
USS Doyen APA-1 Amphibious Assault vessel
The assault in the Aleutians was on Kiska Island. It was a pretty typical assault, as the Island was first bombarded by naval guns and then an amphibious landing was conducted.
After the Aleutian operation we were sent to the Destroyer USS Bronson. The berthing was tight so we had to hot bunk it with the Ships Cooks. I swapped sleep time with a Baker because he worked nights and I worked days. We then returned to Pearl Harbor to regroup and to do more training. Once there they had us out in the boondocks outside of Pearl training for the assault on the Gilberts Islands. Which consisted of the Gilberts Atoll, Makin and Tarawa.
Due to logistical (supply) concerns, the command decided to utilize civilian transports to move men and material into theater. I was assigned to two ships one being the SS Young America and the SS Dashing Wave. One of the Admirals in charge of Operations was Admiral Turner, who they called “Terrible Turner”. Turner was placed in charge of the Makin Operation and I took part in the Makin Operation.
Admiral Richmond K (Terrible) Turner
Map Makin Atoll
The Task Force was periodically split up to provide communications support. We then ended up in the Marshall Islands and then in the Mariana's. We then were sent back to Peal Harbor. It was there that we witnessed a bad accident where a welding accident had occurred on an LST which resulted in a huge explosion, apparently from ammunition and all we could do is flee. I was then assigned to a Liberty Ship, the El Salvador, which was a brand new ship. It was combat loaded with ammunition for the Saipan Operation. We rode this ship to the Mariana's and eventually headed back to Pearl Harbor. Once there we were assigned to the USS Matar which was a Crater Class Ship.
USS Matar AK-119 “Crater Class Cargo Ship”
We had many administrative duties that we performed for the Admiral, and we were eventually administratively transferred from the 5th Amphibious Task force to the 7th Amphibious Task Force. This was part of the upcoming Tarawa Operations. In hind site, the only reason that Tarawa happened was because General MacArthur and promised to return to the Philippines and this was his objective. The campaign also included operations on Peleliu. MacArthur was concerned that the Japanese would use the Islands to escape. By this time the Japanese had also changed their tactics, early in the war, the Japanese realized that we were too tough to stop while coming ashore, so they moved their defenses more inland and allowed our troops to move off the beaches before attacking them and this resulted in heavy casualties.
At this point we never returned to Pearl Harbor, we anchored in an Island Atoll and eventually left the USS Matar and transferred to the SS Dashing Wave. While on board the Dashing Wave we became SOPA (Senior Officer Present Afloat), which meant that our ship was in a command position and we regularly routed signals to other ships that were of command concern.
At time the messages could be very depressing because they contained information about servicemen killed in action and burials. We eventually participated in the assault on Iwo Jima, which was a mess. By the time we reached Okinawa, Team #3 was pretty burned out and we started to show signs of fatigue, some of us would not shower.
We were then routed back to Pearl, where we were split up and then eventually state side. I wanted to be on a Destroyer, so I sailed on a repair ship to the Island of Guam and once we got there, we were addressed by the Chaplain, who had told us that an “unusual bomb” had been dropped on Japan. I ended up back in the states. The team stayed in touch and I found out that we had received a commendation for our service during the Gilbert's Campaign. After the war, I joined the Naval Reserve and I also served in the Korean War, but during this service I was an Officer and reached the Rank of Commander.
Commendation awarded to SM1 Rickords, Signed by Admiral RK “Terrible” Turner
SM1 Ralph E (Rick) Rickords lives in Palm Springs California
The Medal of Honor
Photo US Naval Historic Center
Medal of Honor citation of Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro (as printed in the official publication "Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy", page 229):"For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Petty Officer in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on 27 September 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, MUNRO, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns on the Island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy's fire and to protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, MUNRO was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country."
The Attack of The USS Liberty
In the Words of
Signalman Joe Meadors
A badly damaged USS Liberty photo from USSLiberty.org
After maintaining surveillance USS Liberty for more than nine hours with almost hourly aircraft overflights and radar tracking, the air and naval forces of Israel attacked our ship in international waters without warning. USS Liberty was identified as a US naval ship by Israeli reconnaissance aircraft nine hours before the attack and continuously tracked by Israeli radar and aircraft thereafter. Sailing in international waters at less than five knots, with no offensive armament, our ship was not a military threat to anyone. The Israeli forces attacked without warning and without attempting to contact us. Thirty four Americans were killed in the attack and another 174 were wounded. The ship, a $40-million dollar state-of-the-art signals intelligence platform, was later declared unsalvageable and sold for scrap. Signalman Joe Meadors was on board the USS Liberty when it was attacked, and tells us in his own words what part of what had happened;
“Just after the lull, in between in the air attack and the torpedo attack. I guess it lasted 15 or 20 minutes. Since my job was Signalman, in between the straffing and the like, I used to stick my head out the port wing of the bridge and look up at the mast to make sure that the steaming ensign was still flying from the gaff. And I noticed that it had been shot down, so one time there was just a little too long between the straffing aatacks, so I thought tha,t Russel David and myself, Russell David was the other Signalman and the leading Signalman, thought that it would be an opportune idea, although it might be dangerous, to make sure we put up another flag. And so we opened up the flag bag (the locker where we kept the ensigns) and we grabbed the largest one we could find,” the holiday colors”. Normally a steaming ensign is 5x7 feet, the holiday colors, as we called it, is the largest flag and is 9x13 feet. So we grabbed it took it up too the signal bridge, and of course the steaming ensign had been shot down, so there wasn't any halyard to put it on the gaff. So we took number four halyard from port side and ran it up on that as quickly as we could, for obvious reasons.”
SM2 Gene Stevens
I joined the Navy and left the streets of Chicago in the winter of 1978. It was a typical cold and snowy winter, and I was glad to be getting away from the old neighborhood which was part of Lakeview on the north side of the city. I was immediately sent to Great Lakes naval Training center for basic training.
Basic training at that point in my life was probably the biggest challenge that I had ever taken on. I never finished high school because of my family situation, so I was very fortunate that the Navy took me with a high school diploma. This was pretty common during this time.My experience in basic was a very good one, I was assigned to Company #047 and my Company
Commander were two salty Navy Chiefs, Chief Edgar and Chief Suficool. They were both older very experienced Chiefs, so they ran the company very well. I saw a lot of guys get sent back weeks for more training and other guys just wash out completely and I stuck it out and made to graduation with the first string, In fact we graduated from basic as a color company. I was very proud to part of 047!
As we approached the end of basic we were sent to detailers to determine what out rates (Navy occupation) would be. I wanted to be a Radioman, and my ASVAB (vocational scores) were pretty good, so I qualified. Though the Chief I was dealing with told me that Radioman School was closed due to the number of sailors that were being sent. So he suggested signal school. It sounded interesting, so rather than go to deck until a school slot opened, I took the signal school offer.
I took ten days leave and then headed off to San Diego for A-School. Once there I began training and within a few days, what seemed like a good idea at the time, now seemed like a mistake. And I began to think more about Radioman School, so I started try to bomb out of A-school with the hope of striking for Radioman at a later time.
I was then called into a meeting with the head Instructor, who was a very salty Signalman Chief, by the Name Chief Warsharski. He gruffly asked what my problem was and I commenced to telling him about my intentions and how I wanted to be a Radioman. He was very direct and told me that he would not accept this and that he would not send me to deck and that I would in fact finish Signalman School. Until this very day, I'm glad that Chief Warsharski pushed me when I needed it. In hind sight, I know that his wisdom was greater than mine. So following his absolute direction, I finished Signalman-A School.
When I finished A-school, I received my orders and was assigned to an AOR (Auxillary Oiler) and I was told by the Instructors that my assignment was specific, because AOR Signalman got worked hard and that I would learn my job there faster and better than if I was on another type of ship. My orders were for the U.S.S. Wichita AOR-1. She was the first ship of her class. The Wicked Witch was a deep draft boat. She was approx 650 feet in length with a 92 foot beam. She transported diesal fuel, JP-5 jet plane fuel, ammunition, food and many other types of supplies. The AOR class of ships was a virtual floating gas station and market.
USS Wichita AOR-1
When I became part of the signal gang on the Witch, one of the first words I learned was “UNREP” which was of course followed by a question from me, which was “what is UNREP? At which time the LPO (Leading Petty Officer) said “Thats when we sweat the load”.
In short, UNREP is the acronym for “Underway Replenishment”. The process or procedure for UNREP is in my opinion the most dangerous job that a Sailor can do, second only to those Navy personnel who work on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
In addition to UNREP, the AOR (along with several other classes of ships) were designed with helicopter flight decks. When the Witch was underway, we generally had two CH-46 helicopters deployed with us. Their mission was VERTREP (vertical replenishment).
The combination of equipment on the deck of the Witch ranged from fuel rigs to cargo transfer rigs. This equipment made it possible for an AOR to bring ships alongside (at both port and starboard) at which time they could very quickly receive stores while being refueled at our top speed which was approximately twenty knots. During this procedure, the two CH-46 helicopters could fly additional stores to other ships in the battle group. It was possible for a supply ship with this type of configuration to go into a large battle group and to have that group refueled and resupplied in as little as three to four hours.
A CH-46 conducts VERTREP
The signal bridge on the Wichita in the most prominent spot on the ship and was a very busy place during UNREP. Signalman on any ship played an important role during the process of replenishment. The other part of replenishment was that it was conducted in almost all weather conditions and at night time. The night UNREP was a sight to behold, as ships were illuminated red light to ensure good night vision, rigs were illuminated with chem-lights and the signal bridge communicated via semaphore with lighted wands. UNREP was by its nature a very dangerous job. From our perch on the signal bridge, the signal gang witnessed a lot of sailors hurt and killed while in the process of resupplying other ships with the material of war.
Sometime in 1981, we were off the coast of California, more that likely near San Diego. I was on the signal bridge alone because I had sent my partner down for dinner. It was a pitch black night out with absolutely no horizon visible.
The flight deck was busy with activity as flight crews were flying a CH-46, I believe they were trying to get in night flying hours, as we were steaming independently and there was no other reason for them to be airborne.
I had heard (it was very dark) the helicopter land, then a few seconds later I saw the nose of the helicopter leave the flight deck because I could see a rotating amber light on the aircraft. It flew what seemed like a few yards and then I heard a huge crash.
I immediately went to the intercom and yelled to the bridge that there was a helicopter in the water and then I ripped the red night filter off of one of the search lights and tried to illuminate the area with white light. But all I saw was ocean, the helicopter had gone under very rapidly and the flight crew was gone.
We went into SAR (search and rescue) mode, and the ocean around us then became very hectic as other ships moved into the area to assist in the search. In addition to surface ships, a P3 Orion made repeated fly overs with spot lights trying to increase the illumination. We searched the area for many hours, but none of the flight crew was ever found. This CH-46 crash was the second in about nine months, the first crash resulted in the loss of four Naval Aviators.
Another interesting aspect of UNREP, was the fact that what the US Navy did in the way of logistics, other countries such as the former Soviet Union wished to possess. For many years (and many times during my own career as a Signalman), Soviet ships, particularly AGI (Intelligence gather ships) would follow us and observe us conducting UNREP. One time a Russian Trawler (fishing vessel outfitted for intelligence work) cut us off in the middle of an UNREP and forced us to conduct an emergency break-away, for the obvious reason of seeing how this procedure was done.
On another occasion, we were buzzed (flown over) by two Soviet bombers. I could see the crew taking pictures of us as they flew over, And the Captain (Captain Anthony Less, a former Blue Angels Pilot), instructed me to put something welcoming up in flaghoist for the Russians to read, so I hoisted the words “Screw you and Drop Dead”. I'm sure that the KGB enjoyed my message. Some time after that, we were shadowed by another Russian spy ship and the Officer of The Deck asked me to create an international signal which would confuse their crew, so I put up a signal indicating that we would be submerging for some type of maintenance.
The Russian Intelligence Trawler AGI Vertikal. Photographed by PH1 Fred Martin from USNS Duttton, 1965
An aircraft carrier received supplies during UNREP
US Navy Beach Masters
Signalman Jim Hamann
A Beach Masters unit is a naval combat unit that had 320 men broken up into ten, thirty two men teams that landed on the beach in the second wave along with the marines, setting up the beachhead for all the following waves of troops. they set up communications, both visual and radio. They also defended the beachhead along with the marine shore party and the Seabees.
Each team had 2 Officers, 4 Signalmen, 4 Radiomen,(RM) 1 corpsman, 1 cook, 1 Electronics Techs, 2 Electricians Mates, 1 yeoman, the rest were Boatswains Mates's or undesignated Seaman.
Everyone was issued a weapon either a carbine, M1 Garand or 45 pistol. us Signalmen (SM) had a 12 inch signal light, a battery operated signal light semaphore flags. but no flags for flag hoist as we had no mast to display them on. The team also had a generator that some times worked so we could use the 12 inch signal light. The SM's worked with the RM's when visual signals were not available. While we were aboard ship for transporting, we usally worked with the sm's on the ships. Can you imange howthey felt when all of a sudden they had 4 more signalmen, usually 2 Petty Officers and 2 strikers. same with the radio men. the Bm's usally tended to our equipment. We had 1 dukw, 1 radio jeep, 1 command jeep, 1 duce and half, (2 ½ Truck) and 1 water trailer, along with 2 large tents,( 16 x 32 ) 2 command tents, 1 for the officers and the leading po, 1 tent for the communications if needed.
SM3 Andrew Thorson SM3 USS Roanoke AOR-7
I was on a westpac (Western Pacific Cruise) in 1988 as part of the USS Carl Vinsion carrier group. On board AOR-7. USS Roanoke. While underway I was standing watch on signal bridge. In the early evening and the carrier group Commander who was an Admiral was on board having dinner with our C.O. We knew all of this "going on a visit stuff" due to the fact that we had sent the message from our C.O. inviting the admiral to dinner.
The signal bridge sent a lot of personal communications for our C.O. which was OK, it kept us in the know. It was after dinner and I was spouting off to another Signalman about some good ole drinking stories. I got to one part where I said " I was just too f**king drunk" when I heard a voice behind me"there's no such thing son, there's no such thing" it caught me off guard. I spun around and it was the Admiral. I about spit my coffee and pissed my pants trying to get "attention on deck" out. I don't really remember what else was said after that, I just wanted him off the signal bridge. That was our piece of the world and didn't like intruders even if it was an Admiral.
USS Roanoke AOR-7
A Signalman on board the USS Bonhomme Richard LHD-6
The Navy disestablished the Signalman Rate
The signal gang on board the USS Saratoga CV-60 photo courtesy of Doug McGath
Deck painting “ComNavSkivvyLant” U.S.S. Nimitz 1986 photo courtesy of Charlie Francis
A graduating class from Signalman-A School in Orlando Florida
photo courtesy of Charlie Francis
On the evening of Jan 10, 1987 I was standing watch on the Signal Bridge on board USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71. I was a Seaman Apprentice and did not have very much experience underway. It was dark with just some moonlight on the ocean. I saw something several miles away in the water that looked like it was blinking. The lookout was new also and had no idea what it was. I went in our “signal shack” and asked my watch supervisor what that was in the water. By then the light was starting to drift near the horizon. He was looking at it through the big eyes and started yelling to the lookout to make the bridge turn the ship around because the blinking that I had seen was SOS in Morse code. We continued forward and my SM2 went in the shack and called down to the bridge again. After talking with the OOD the ship turned and we went back. As we got closer to the light we could see two men on a sailboat that had overturned after a storm. Within seconds of seeing them I heard them call the lifeboat crew to the starboard lifeboat. My SM2 looked at me and told me to get the gear and go!
We dropped the lifeboat in large waves created by ship when we stopped. We would loose site of the the boat because of not being able to see over the waves. Once we got to them it took several of us to get them in the boat because they were so weak they couldnt get in the boat by themselves. That had overturned 4 days earlier. The light that they had used was a normal flashlight that they had with them. We took them to the fantail of the ship and received help getting them on board the ship and they were taken to medical. It took us a long time after that to be able to get the lifeboat back to the ship because the waves kept slamming against the side of the ship. So we had to wait until the waves slowed down and then we made it back aboard safely. After Gitmo was over I received my first medal. I was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal along with the other crew members of the lifeboat.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt CVN-71
The boat crew from the USS Theodore Roosevelt assembles for the rescue,
photo courtesy of Signalman Charles Francis
A Signalman communicates via flashing light from the CVN-71 Cruise book
photo courtesy of Charles Francis
Communicating via semaphore from the CVN-71 Cruise book photo courtesy of Charles Francis
Navy Signalman assemble a flaghoist signal, from the CVN-71 Cruise book
photo courtesy of Charles Francis
Master Chief Signalman
I was an 18 year old SMSA on the USS Robert E Peary (FF-1073) and doing my 90 day mess attendant (cranking) duty but also going up to the signal bridge when I got the chance. In May of 1979, we sighted a junker in the South China Sea. The ...S. Vietnamese were loading up their kids and their possessions and floating away on junkers to flee the murderous communists Khmer Rouge.
We came alongside the junk and the stench was horrendous. They had been plundered by Thai pirates, engine was dead and had been afloat for awhile. They had a staggering 448 people on a tiered, 55 foot boat. No water, food and a brand new baby born on their trip. We took them aboard, the crew donated their blankets and we made a makeshift roof, incubator and showers for them on the flight deck. As a mess attendant I still remember to this day the many trips to the flight deck with the large pots of rice. They tripled the size of our crew for 3 days but it was great to be able to help them until we transferred them to the USS Tarawa (LHA-1). Sometimes I wonder where they are today...
USS Robert E Peary FF-1073
Refugees were found regularly in the South China Sea after the close of the Viet Nam War. This photo was taken on board the USS Wichita AOR-1 in 1980, from the USS Wichita Cruise book.
An unknown Navy Signalman uses a 12” Searchlight
Working the flag-bag, photo courtesy of Charles Francis
US Navy 12” Search Light
The ships binoculars were used by Signalman to identify signals and other vessels
You were born with the finest optical equipment you will ever useyour eyes. But even if you have 20-20 vision, it often is impossible to read flaghoist and other signals accurately with the naked eye. To magnify distant signals, some of the following aids to vision are carried aboard Navy ships. SHIP'S BINOCULARS Ship's binoculars (known as big eyes) have a magnification of 20-power, with an apparent field of view of approximately 70 degrees. The binoculars are mounted on a height-adjustable carriage assembly that is adjustable through 70 degrees elevation ranging from 10 degrees depression to 60 degrees elevation with reference to the horizon, and that can rotate through 360 degrees in azimuth. Ship's binoculars consist of the binocular assembly, carriage assembly, and the pedestal
US Navy Semaphore Signals
The International Code of Signals (INTERCO) is a signal code used by merchant and naval vessels to communicate important messages about the state of a vessel and the intent of its master or commander when there are language barriers. INTERCO signals can be sent by signal flag, blinker light, flag semaphore, Morse code, or by radio. The First International Code was drafted in 1855 by the British Board of Trade, revised in 1887, and modified at the International Conference of 1889 in Washington, DC. After World War I the Code was prepared in seven languages: English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish and in Norwegian. The new version introduced vocabulary for aviation and a complete medical section. The Code was revised in 1964 and was adopted in 1965.Every signal in the INTERCO has a complete meaning. A recipient does not need to receive two or more signals to complete a message.
"A night signal gun"A Signalman practices with a portable flashing light signaling device, atop a battleship's conning tower, circa the mid-1910s.The original image, copyrighted by N. Moser, New York, is printed on post card ("AZO") stock.Donation of Charles R. Haberlein Jr., 2008.
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
USS Maryland (Armored Cruiser # 8) Signalmen at work, circa 1908.Among the activities seen are reading and recording signals (left), semaphore signaling (left center) and hoisting signal flags.U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
An unknown Signalman hoists the Admiral's flagon board USS Little Rock CLG4.Photo by Bob Stangle PH2 1960-1961
D.A. Green, SM3 examines the Aldis signaling lamp as Little Rock prepares to enter Istanbul, Turkey in April 1965.
Morse Code “The Signalmans Language
Photo USS Little Rock Cruise book 1960-1961
Photo USS Little Rock Cruise Book 1960-1961
Photo USS Little Rock Cruise Book 1960-1960
US Navy Signalman Tim Hawks and his Dad from WWII
The signal bridge on the USS Fulton AS-11, photo courtesy Tim Hawks
A winter view from the signal bridge of the USS Fulton photo courtesy Tim Hawks
A signal in the air on board the USS Fulton photo courtesy Tim Hawks
The USS Fulton at Full Dress, photo courtesy of Tim Hawks
Return to Iwo Jima
Signalman Sheldon Howell
One of my best memories was when i was stationed on the tank landing ship San Bernardino (LST-1189), we picked up world war 2 veterans and took them to the island of Iwo Jima to commemorate the 50th anniversary of when these same veterans landed on this same beach confronted by heavy machine gun fire, seeing these guys walk off the ship was an awesome sight to see
USS San Bernardino (LST-1189)
Looking For Mines
SMSA Ryan Phillips
USS Vandergrift FFG-48
It was Sept/Oct. 1996. we were going after a Contraband ship coming out of Iraq and following it through MDA6 at night (and area that hadn't been cleared by the Mine Sweepers yet) and I had to shine the Searchlight on the water looking for Mines. My feelings were basically..."we could die and there is nothing I can do about it." I was just looking through the water with the Searchlight hoping to see 30-40 feet below the surface where they were known to anchor those mines to the sea ...floor and then link a chain between mines so that they would collapse along side the ship and cause massive devastation. We were in the N.A.G. cutting circles around the M.P.S. ships just in case President Clinton wanted to invade Iraq.
USS Vandergrift FFG 48
Signalman Chief Greg Wood
Sometime in 1998, I was OOD (Officer of The Deck) U/W as a SMC on the USS GETTYSBURG CG-64, in the Northern Persian Gulf conducting MIO (Maritime Interdiction Operations) OPS and it was around noon. Moving along maybe 12 - 15 knots or so and all of a sudden at approximately 355 relative bearing about 1000 yards out, I see a submerged uncharted pipeline shadow! It stretched across the bow port and starboard for as long as I could see. My first thought was that the ship will hit it because it was too shallow. I ordered the CONN "HARD RIGHT RUDDER" Nevertheless, it was noon, chow time, and lots of upset crew members, not to mentioned the Captain was on the bridge within a few seconds. We missed the pipeline though and an Immediate Notice to Mariners was sent. "Haze Gray and Underway"
USS Gettysburg CG - 64
n on board the USS Fulton AS-11 assembles a flag signal using a flag-bag and halyard
Photo Courtesy Tim Hawks
Learning The Rate
SM1 Roy Keeney
USS Samuel Gompers
My best moment was in 1981 when I was on the USS Samuel Gompers (AD-37). We were at Diego Garcia, which is a very small Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I had volunteered to go TAD (temporary duty assignment) to the USS Wabash which is an Auxilliary Oiler. We were steaming off the coast of Iran. I was TAD for about two weeks and I was an SMSN (Signalman Seaman) with limited experience. After 2 weeks of constant UNREPS (underway replenishment ops) I was able to literally snow my SM1 when I got back to the Gompers. And my SM1 came from GITMO!!!! Fond memory!!! Needless to say I rocked the SM3 test that September!!!! SM1 (SW) USN Retired!!!
USS Samuel Gompers AD-37
good example of a ship at “full dress” This was generally done for certain holidays and special occasions
“Dressing Ship” was a labor of love, and a process which was very tedious. Dressing ship is to rig out a vessel with flags and pennants by running a line of bunting from the bow, over the Mast(s) to the stern. A single vertical line of International Code flags is typically used on naval vessels. Flags and pennants are arranged (bent on) alternately. In that there are twice as many letter flags as numeral pennants, it is usual to follow a sequence of two letter flags, one numeral pennant, two letter flags, one numeral pennant, etc. The sequence of flags and pennants can be any order. However the following sequence is recommended both for an attractive color pattern and to eliminate the chance of “spelling” something inadvertently. Starting at the bow: A, B, 2, U, J, 1, K, E, 3, G, H, 6, I, V, 5, F, L, 4, D, M, 7, P, O, Third Repeater, R, N, First Repeater, S, T, Zero, C, X, 9, W, Q, 8, Z, Y, Second Repeater. If, because of the length of the vessel, additional flags are required, the sequence is repeated.
A signalman goes “aloft” to rig the USS Fulton for full dress
Photo Courtesy of Tim Hawks
Man Over Board
Signalman John Cicci
"Man Overboard" in the North Atlantic. Our weather decks were secured, but two snipes (Engineers) thought they could slip out, dump trash, and get below. Both were washed over the side, one was dumped back on the fantail, the other was in the cold water 21 minutes. We thought we were going to roll over, the QM on the bridge said he saw the clinometer come back past 45 degrees. Up on the signal bridge it was all we could do to hang on to the rails. The snipe in the water survived and NEVER went on the main deck for the rest of the cruise.
The Oscar Flag is hoisted to signal a “man overboard”
The Wicked Witch of the West
SM2 Eugene C Stevens
The Wicked Witch of the west adorns the top of the signal shack on board the
USS Wichita AOR1 1980-81, photo from the 1980 WESTPAC cruise book
Some time in 1980 a construction project was begun on the top of the USS Wichita AOR1 signal shack. At first we though it was going to be some kind of new electronic gear. But the SMC (Signalman Chief) Bethel came up to the shack, and said well boys, I have a new duty for you. The new container on the top of the shack will contain the “wicked witch” herself.
The next thing we knew, some snipes came up to the signal bridge and welded a mannikin to the tope of the shack. The mannikin was dressed in a black witches costume and had a witches broom and it became our duty to remove and replace the aluminum hosing which protected the witch. This collateral duty soon earned the mannikin the new name of “Wicked Bitch of the West”.
The sun setting in the twelve inch searchlight, is symbolic of the sun setting on the Signalman rate.
I would like to thank the U.S. Navy Signalman who contributed to this publication. It was made possible by modern technology and social media, namely Facebook. In early 2010 I created the US Navy Signalman Facebook page. It was through this medium that I was able to tap into the minds of many Signalman. I would also like to thank the USS Little Rock Rock Association for providing many photos and additional information about Signalman duties and training.
I would like to pay a special tribute to Signalman Joe Meadors, who was on board the USS Liberty, a Navy ship that was attacked by the Israeli military. The attack resulted in the deaths of many of the Liberty's crewmen. . Joe's testimony helped to prove that the USS Liberty had identified itself as a ship of the United States Navy and was wrongly attacked.
My biggest thank you goes to Signalman First Class Rick Rickords. Rick served in the Navy during WWII. He saw the worst of what the Pacific war could be, and saw the war through to Okinawa. He shared his experiences freely with me. Speaking with Rick and telling his story to the world is a great honor. Our American WWII Veterans were members of the greatest fighting force that world has ever seen. They freed the world from aggression and tyranny so that future generations could live in genuine safety and security.
About the Author
Gene Stevens was from Chicago Illinois and entered the US Navy in 1978, he went to Signalman school in San Diego California and was stationed on board the USS Wichita AOR-1 from 1978-1982 He was in the in the Persian Gulf in 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. From 1983-1984 he was in the US Naval Reserve and attached to a Naval Control of Shipping Unit NCSO-413.
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