USS Whitehurst Logo by: Pat Stephens, Webmaster, DESA


by Captain Roger E. Ekman U. S. Navy Ret.

Roger Ekman


The Naval Historical Center does not have custody of crew lists or current addresses for former crewmembers.  However, this information can be compiled from several other sources.  The names of the officers usually appear on the first page of each month’s deck log.  The enlisted men assigned to a naval ship or command are listed on muster rolls, which were also submitted monthly. 

The Textual Reference Branch, National Archives, Washington, DC 20408 (202 501 5671) holds copies of the deck logs from 1801 through December 1940, as well as microfilm copies of the muster rolls though 1938.

 The Textual Reference Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001 (301 713 7250) has custody of the deck logs from 1 January 1941 through 1967 as well as microfilm copies of the muster rolls from 1939 through 1971.  After 1956, a list of the officers is usually included with the muster rolls.  The Textual Reference Branch at College Park also has custody of the Bureau of Naval Personnel Casualty Files, which has the official list of Navy casualties for each World War II action.  The Bureau of Naval personnel lists of the World War II Casualties, which have been placed on microfilm and microfiche, can be ordered from the Naval Historical Center.  By using the list of officers in the deck logs and the muster rolls one can complete a list of the crew.  Then by using the crew list and the list of Casualties the names of the survivors of World War II ship or vessel can be created.

 The deck logs from 1968 through 1978 and from 1990 to the present are at the Washington National Records Center, but access to them is controlled by the Deck Logs Section, Ships History Branch, Naval Historical Center, 901 M Street SE, Washington, DC 20374-5060 (202 433 0824).  From 1979 through 1989, the logs only exist on microfiche, which is held by the Deck Logs Section.  For specific information, contact that office.

 The muster rolls from 1972 to 1974 are in the custody of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (PERS-093), Washington, DC 20370-0920.

 The muster rolls from 1975 to the present are held by the Enlisted Personnel Management Center (Code 311), New Orleans, LA 70159-7900, ATTN: Personnel Accounting.



Ramsey, Gamble, Montgomery, Trever, Breese. Zane, Perry, Wasmuth, Monaghan, Farragut, Dale, Aylwin, Henley, Patterson, Ralph Talbot, Selfridge, Case, Tucker, Reid, Conyingham, Whitney, Phelps, Mcdonough, Worden, Dewey, Hull, Dobbin, Narwhal, Dolphin, Tautog, Thornton, Hulbert, Jarvis, Mugford, Cummings, Preble, Tracey, Pruitt, Sicard, Schley, Grebe, Ontario, Rigel, Bobolink, Vireo, Turkey, Rail, Helm, Medusa, Curtiss, Blue, Phoenix, Solace, Allen, Chew, Tangler, Utah, Raleigh, Detroit, Neveda, Arizona, Vestal, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Neosho, California, Avocet, Shaw, Downes, Cassin, Pennsylvania, Cacalot, Helena, Oglala, Tern, YO 30, Argonne, Sacramento, Rampo, New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis, Honolulu, Bagley, Castor, Sumner, Pelias 



This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry. 


In wooden ship, the “devil” was the longest seam of the ship.  It ran from the bow to the stern.  When at sea and the “devil” had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo’sun chair to do the task.  He was suspended between the “devil” and the “deep” a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.


Literally, the crew’s living quarters were in the forecastle (the section of the ship forward of the foremast).  The term is also used more generally to describe seaman as compared to officers, in phrases such as “he sailed before the mast.” 


A ship’s sick list was often referred to as “binnacle list.  A binnacle was the stand on which the ship’s compass was mounted.  In the 18th century and probably before a list was given to the officer of mate of the watch, containing the names of men unable to report for duty.  The list was kept at the binnacle. 


During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots which came to mean a Navy or Marine recruit.  These recruits were trained in boot camps. 


 Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects, and bright woodwork or wood, which was kept, scraped and scrubbed, especially topside.  Bright it should be and work it is.



A cat of nine tails is a whip with nine strands.  In the old navy it was use award punishment by flogging.  It was never used in the U. S. Navy.


Charlie Noble is an “it,” not a “he.”  A British merchant service captain, Charles Noble, is said to be responsible for the origin, about 1850, of this nickname for the galley smokestack.  It seems that Captain Noble, discovering that the stack of his ship’s galley was made of copper, ordered that it be kept bright.  The ship’s crew then started referring to the stack as the “Charlie Noble.” 


“God made the vittles but the devil made the cook,” was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was staple diet aboard ship.  This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was cheap or would keep as well (remember there were no refrigerators), required prolonged chewing to make it edible.  Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to the practice as “chewing the fat.” 


This widely used term has its origins in the document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered for no epidemic or infection at the time of departure. 


A coxswain or coxswain was at first the swain (boy servant) in charge of the small cock or cockboat that was kept aboard for the ship’s captain and which was used to row him to and from the ship.  The term has been in use in England dating back to at least 1463.  With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size 


The raven or crow was an essential part of the Vikings’ navigation equipment.  These land loving birds were carried on board to help the ship’s navigator determine where the closest land lay when weather prevented sighting the shore.  In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the navigator plotted a course corresponding to the bird’s flight path because the crow invariably head for land.  The Norsemen carried the birds in a cage secured to the top of the mast.  Later on as ships grew in size and the lookout stood his watch in a tub located high on the main mast, the same “crow’s nest” was given to this tub.  While today’s Navy still uses lookouts in addition to radars, etc., the “crow nest” is a thing of the past. 


In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Josephus Daniels Secretary of the Navy.  Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making 100 sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess.  From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as a “cup of Joe.” 


Today the expression “devil to pay” is used primarily to describe having an unpleasant result from some action that has been taken.  For example, someone has done something they shouldn’t have done and as a result, “there will be the devil to pay.”  Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship.   The “devil” was the wooden ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with “pay” of pitch (a kind of tar).  The task of “paying the devil” (caulking the seam) be squatting in the bilges was despised by every seaman. 


A dogwatch at sea is the period between 4 and 6 p.m., the first dogwatch, and the  period between 6 and 8 p.m., the second dogwatch.  The watches aboard ships are:

            Midnight to 4:00 am                  Midwatch or middle watch         0000-0400

            4:00 am to 8:00 am                   Morning watch                               0400-0800

            8:00 am to Noon                      Forenoon Watch                            0800-1200

            Noon to 4:00 pm                      Afternoon Watch                           1200-1600

            4:00 pm to 6:00 pm                  First Dog Watch                            1600-180

            6:00 pm to 8:00 pm                 Second Dog Watch                      1800-2000

            8:00 pm to midnight                Night Watch                                   2000-2400

(Note: Military time starts at one minute after midnight-0001, and continues numerically to midnight-2400.  One pm becomes 1300 and so on.)

The dogwatches are only two hours each so the  sailors aren’t always on duty at the same time.  Some experts say dogwatch is a corruption of dodges watch and other associate the dogwatch with the fitful sleep of sailors called dog sleep, because it is a stressful watch.  But no one really knows the origin of this term, which was in use at least back to 1700. 


Here’s a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch.  First used by seamen, it has only been traced back to the turn of the century (1900). 


Duffle is a name given to a sailor’s personal effects.  It referred to his principal clothing as well as to the sea bag in which he carried and stowed it.  The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp, and denotes a rough woolen cloth made there. 


Dungaree is the term for modern sailor’s work clothes.  The term is not modern, however, but dates to the 18th century and comes from the Hindi word “dungri” for a type of Indian cotton cloth. 


Aboard Navy ships, bells are struck to designate the half hour and the hours of being on watch.  Each watch is four hours in length.  One bell is struck after the first half-hour has passed, two bells after one hour has passed, three bells after an hour and a half, and so on up to eight bells are stuck at the completion of the four hours.  Completing a watch with no incidents to report was “Eight bells and all is well.”  The practice of using ship’s bells stems from the day of sailing ships.  Sailor couldn’t afford to have to own timepieces and relied on the ship’s bell to tell time.  The ship’s boy kept the time by using a half hour glass.  Each time the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate number of bells.


Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “faetm” meaning to embrace.  In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) of the foot (that is why 12 inches are so named).  A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man—about 6 feet.  Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain’s Parliament declared that distance be called a “fathom” and it be a unit of measure.  A fathom remains six feet.  The word was also used to describe taking the measure of “to fathom” something.  Today, of course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to “fathom” it. 


One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within the day.  The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there also, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stores for more than 300 years.  The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling at her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his classic “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” to name but one famous literary work.  The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660. 


The appropriate pronunciation for this word is fo’ksul.  The forecastle is the forward part of the main deck.  It derives its name from the days of Viking galleys when wooden castles were built on the forward and after parts of the main deck from which archers and other fighting men could shoot arrows and throw spears, rocks, and so forth. 


The fouled (rope or chain entwined) anchor so prevalent in our Navy’s designs and insignia is a symbol of least 500 years old and has it origins in the British traditions adopted by our naval service.  The fouled anchor was adopted as the official seal of Lord High Admiral Charles Lord Howard of Effigham during the late 1500’s.  A variation of the seal had been in use by the Lord High Admiral of Scotland about a century earlier.  The anchor (both with and without the entwined rope) is a traditional heraldic device used in ancient British coats of arms.  As a heraldic device, it is a stylized representation used merely for its decorative effect. 


The galley is the kitchen of the ship.  The best explanation as to its origin is that it is a corruption of “gallery.”   Ancient sailors cooked their meals on a brick or stone gallery laid amidships. 


Gun salutes were first fired as an act of good faith.  In the days when it took so long to reload a gun, it was a proof of friendly intentions when the ship’s cannon were discharged upon entering port. 


The “head” aboard a Navy ship is the toilet.  The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bow sprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened.  The reason for being forward is that the action of the seawater would clean the area. 


Soft sandstone often used to scrub the teak decks of ships.  Sailors had to kneel as if in prayer when scrubbing the deck.  Holystone was often called so because it is full of holes.  The last Navy ships with teak decks were the battleships. 


A naval punishment on board ships said to have originated with the Dutch but adopted by other navies during the 15th and 16th centuries.  A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the bottom of the ship, and the unfortunate delinquent secured to it. Sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs.  He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm, the punishment being repeated after he had had time to recover his breath.  While he was under water, a “great gun” was fired, “which is done as well to astonish him so much the more with the thunder of the shot, as to give warning until all others of the fleet to look out and be wary by his harm.”  (From Nathaneil Boteler, A Dialogical Discourse, 1634.)  The U. S. Navy never practiced keelhauling. 


In the early days of sailing ships, the ship’s records were written on shingles cut from logs.  These shingles were hinged and opened like a book.  The record was called the “log book.”  Later on, when paper was readily available and bound into books, the record maintained its name. 


The distress call for voice radio for vessels and people in serious trouble at sea.  The term was made official by an International Telecommunications Conference in 1948 and is an anglicizing of the French “m’aidez” which means help me. 


Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea coats but the coat’s name isn’t derived from the weather.  The heavy topcoat worn in cold and miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from pilot cloth.  Pilot cloth was a heavy, course, and stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side.  The cloth was sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of “pilot” and the garment made from it was called a p-jacket and later a pea coat.  The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth. 


Boatswains have been in charge of the deck force since the days of sail.  Setting sails, heaving lines, and hoisting anchors required coordinated team effort and boatswains used whistle signals in to order the coordinated actions.  Then visitors were hoisted aboard or over the side, the pipe was used to order, “Hoist away” or “avast heaving.”  In time, piping became a naval honor on shore as well as at sea. 


A “plank owner” is an individual who was a member of the crew of a ship when that ship was placed in commission.  In earlier years, this applied to a first commissioning; since then it has often been applied to one who was part of a re-commissioning crew as well.  “Plank owner” is not an official Navy term and has consequently been variously defined by different Navy units. 


The word “port holes” originated during the reign of Henry VI of England (1485).  King Henry insisted on mounting guns too large for his ship and traditional methods of securing these weapons on the forecastle could not be used.  A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem.  He put small doors in the side of the ship and mounted the cannon inside the ship.  These doors protected the cannon from the weather and were opened when the cannon were to be used.  The French word for “door” is “Porte” which was later Anglicized to “port” and later went on to mean any opening in the ship’s side whether for cannon or not. 


Port and starboard are shipboard terms for left and right, respectively.  Confusing those two could cause a shipwreck.  In Old England, the starboard was the steering paddle of rudder, and ships were always steered from the right side on the back of the vessel.  Larboard referred to the left side, the side on which the ship was loaded.  So how did larboard become port?  Shouted over the noise of the wind and the waves, larboard and starboard sounded too much alike.  The word port means the opening in the “left” side of the ship from which cargo was unloaded.  Sailors eventually started using he term to refer to that side of the ship.  The U. S. Navy officially adopted the term “port” on 18 February 1846. 


The term “posh” was an acronym for “port out, starboard home.”  It came into being from the British when carrying passengers from England to India.  With the sun shinning on the starboard side of the ship when sailing to India and on the port side when returning, the passenger cabins on the opposite side tended to be cooler and were desired.  Hence, the word ‘posh.” 


An acronym standing the “radio detecting and ranging.” 


An acronym standing for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus.” 


The cask of drinking water on ships was called a scuttlebutt and since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became U. S. Navy slang for gossip or rumors.  A butt was a wooden cask that held water of other liquids; to scuttle is to drill a hole as for tapping a cask. 


Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy.  The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot.  Someone who finally “shows his true colors” is acting like a man–of-war that hailed another ship flying a flag, but then hoisted their own when they got within firing range. 


Tending the side with side boys, as we know it in modern practice, originated long time ago.  It was customary in the days of sail to hold conferences on the flagships both when at sea and in open roadsteads; also officers were invited to dinner on other ships while at sea, weather permitting.  Sometimes the sea was such that visitors were hoisted aboard in boatswain’s chairs.  Members of the crew did the hoisting, and it is from the aid they rendered in tending the side that the custom originated of having a certain number of men always in attendance.  Some have reported the higher the rank, the heavier the individual; therefore, more side boys. 

S. O. S. 

Contrary to popular notion, the letters S. O. S. do not stand for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls.”  They were selected to indicate a distress because in “Morse Code” these letters and their combination create an unmistakable sound pattern. 


The exact date and origin of the smoking lamp has been lost.  However, it probably came into use during the 16th century when seaman began smoking on board vessels.  The smoking lamp was a safety measure.  It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder.  Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas.  Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicating that smoking was permitted in the area.  Even after the invention of matches in the 1830s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker.  When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message.  “The smoking lamp is lighted” or “The smoking lamp is out” were expressions indicating that smoking was permitted of forbidden.  The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech.  When the officer of the deck says, “the smoking lamp is out” before drills, refueling or taking on ammunition, that is the Navy’s way of saying, “Cease smoking.” 


Sound Navigation Ranging, is the acronym for underwater echo-ranging equipment, originally for detecting submarines by warships. 


“Square rigger” is the name given to ships where the majority of her sails were square.  When at rest, the sails were suspended perpendicular to the length of the ship.  Most sails on schooner and sloops, on the other hand were suspended parallel to the length of the ship.  By regulation, Captains of full rigged men-of-war and proud Master of merchant ships carried the adage “a place for everything and everything in its place” to considerable lengths.  When such ships entered port and anchored a boat was put in the water and the boatswain would be rowed around the ship to determine that there were no stray lines hanging over the side or trailing in the water (Irish pendants) and that each and every yardarm was set precisely horizontal or exactly perpendicular to the ship’s centerline.  Until he was satisfied, all hands remained on deck, making any required adjustments.  When the boatswain was satisfied the ship was said to be “squared away,” a phrase that is heard ashore today when a home or office has been neatened up or a complicated task is well organized and running smoothly. 


Suit is a nautical term dating from at least the early 1600s meaning the outfit of sails used by a ship.  The term was revived after World War II, when a Navy ship’s complement of electronics could be referred to as its electronics suit, and its total armament might be called its weapons suit.  The word is sometimes incorrectly spelled “suite.” 


A “sundowner” is a term used to describe a strict Captain who required officers and men to be aboard by sunset.  It is now used to identify a martinet or strict disciplinarian.  A martinet is a “cat of nine tails” in French nautical slang. 


To take the wind out of one’s sails is often used to describe getting the best of an individual in an argument.  Originally, it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships.  One ship would pass close to its adversary and on its windward side.  The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing it to lose headway.  Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the ability to carryon a fight. 


Tar or Jack Tar is a slang word for a sailor and has been in use since at least 1676.  Early sailors wore overalls and broad brimmed hats made of tar impregnated fabric call tarpaulin cloth.  The hats and the sailors that wore them were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened to tars.  In addition, sailors often tarred their pigtails of hair in order to keep the hair out of their way.  The flap collar on the back of the jumper often became tar soaked as a result.  This flap collar was originally not attached to the jumper and acted like an apron protecting the shirt or other article of clothing.   This activity may also have been the reason for the expression.  


The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with packing material called “oakum” and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar.  The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines and a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck.  Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship’s crew was ordered to fall in at quarters—that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck.  To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.  Another use for these seams was punitive.  The youngsters in a ship, be they ship’s boy or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time.  A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time.  Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather that suffer the punishment.  From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to “toe the line.” 




In the seagoing practice of flogging, the recipients were usually triced up in a spread-eagle position to receive the punishment.  Occasionally, some skippers of men-of-war preferred to have the men bent over a cannon to receive their lashes.  This position was more commonly used for the ships’ boys and young student officers when they required discipline.  A “boy’s cat” or “colt” was often used.  Unlike their more mature counterparts, the boys were expected to drop their drawers and bend over the gun, providing a clear view of that posterior target.  Assuming this position was known to men in the ships as “kissing the gunner’s mate daughter,” but it was the source of the shore phrase of “being over the barrel.”


Uniforms for Naval Officer began appearing in the 18th century.  Ordinary crewmembers had to wait about another century.  In every ship, one boat provided a captain’s personal means of transport.  It was called the gig.  Over time, captains-especially the rich ones-took to decorating their gigs to suit their personal tastes and to make them unique.  They also took to outfitting their gigs’ crews with special uniforms of their own design.  The mid-1800s saw the captain of one British warship outfit his gig crew with dark blue jackets decked out with large brass buttons and white trousers.  It is still with us today, as a garment to be worn when one wishes to be casually dressed up.  It continues to be known by the name of that British warship: HMS BLAZER. 


During the battle of Copenhagen near the end of the 18th century, Admiral Nelson was ordered to break off action and return to the fleet.  Nelson, ever alert to a dramatic moment, took a telescope from a midshipman and put it to his blind eye, said, “I see no signal telling me to break off action and return to the fleet.”  He pressed on with the attack and won the day.  His dramatic gesture quickly became folklore and inspired the phase “to turn a blind eye,” which means, “to ignore something or pretend it does not exist.” 


In the 16th and 17th centuries among the seafaring community, popular items were boots that extended about the knee to mid-thigh, topped with a very wide cuff.  In time these boots were fitted in such a way that the wearer could secret a wide variety of item within their expanse.  Individual pirates especially bent on gaining a little extra booty used the storage area for his gain.  Men who resorted to such acts, illicit in the eyes of their shipmates, were known as “bootleggers.”  Since both the greedy pirate and the later rumrunners were smugglers, it was a simple thing to give the old seafaring term a modern twist.  Today, the term remains in use for materials that are unofficially handled by referring to an unauthorized copy as a “bootleg copy.” 


The term “beating a dead horse” has a nautical origin.  It appears that the futility implicit in beating a dead horse was appropriate to the frustrations felt by sailors during the early stages of a voyage, when all their earning were being kept by the master to compensate for the advance monies they had received upon signing aboard.  When at long last debts had been paid, and they once again were accumulating funds for the next port of call, the sailors some time were known to mark the occasion by fashioning a horse effigy in straw, setting it afire, and letting it drift off into oblivion.  Even in our Navy today, any money paid in advance is know as a “dead horse,” but a sailor now has only a portion of his subsequent wages taken at each payday until the advance is repaid.  Still that payday when the check shows the full amount of one to enjoy, for one again, the sailor has “beaten the dead horse.” 


The earth’s rotation and the uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun cause the movement of the air around the world.  These two factors result in a number of rough bands being formed north and south of the equator, bands in which the movement is basically easterly or westerly.  The band that straddles the equator is different.  What basic movement there is, is westerly-but it isn’t nearly as consistent as that in the bands to the north and south.  Sometimes, the only movement is straight up.  This lack of horizontal motion resulted, in the days of yore, in sailing ships lying becalmed for days or weeks, drifting westward with the current and baking the tar right out of the seams, some people being driven to madness.  For the men of the slave trade, being caught in one of these calms could mean the total loss of their human cargo and so any profit from them.  Although, in historic times, it was the Portuguese who led the way south to the equator in the Atlantic, the name by which we know the equatorial condition of calm seems to have come from the Old English word “dol.”  Sailors for generations have called it “the doldrums.”  People ashore have picked up the phrase and with the parallel meaning of being idle for the movement without the will power to get their lives moving. 


Between 1650 and 1750, bows, sterns, and even sides were adorned with magnificent examples of the woodcarver’s craft and skill often painted in brilliant colors or blinding with huge amounts of gold leaf.  Such vessels were intended to awe other nations’ leaders with the wealth and power of such displays.  A principal element of this decoration was that place at the bow under the bowsprit.  It was usually a statue in Greco-Roman style of heroic proportions that directly or indirectly symbolized the ship’s name.  Such decoration is rarely seen today, but memory of it lingers on, especially among our nonprofit cultural organizations, which often resort to inviting a well-known personality to be titular leader of the organization even though that person lacks the skills related to the organization’s purpose.  That person, like the statue of earlier times, is said to be a “figurehead.”  


In the days of sail, ships would carry an assortment of spare spars and timbers as a hedge against losing some portion of the existing arrangement of masts and yardarms. Should storm or other causes result in the severe damage to, or loss of, one of the more these vital elements in the ship’s propulsion system, a piece of similar characteristics could be selected from the assortment and adapted to function in lieu of the original until port was reached and proper replacement found.  The act of creating this “injury rig” has come to us in the abbreviated form “jury-rig:” to use whatever is at hand to make it possible to achieve a goal despite adversity. 


The basic upper body covering of the Vikings was the “sark,” a loose-sleeved shirt.  But even this was too much for the plunder-bent Viking.  He often went into action bare-chested or “bar sark.”  From this phrase we have the words “bererk” and “berserker,” the deed and the doer of the frenzied activity.  It cannot be stated with certainly, but is it too much to believe that it was the memory of these marauding bare-chested sea raiders that gave rise to our modern-day “Keep your shirt on!” 


All of the canvas and associated sparring was either held in place or manipulated by a myriad of ropes-upwards of ten miles.  That portion of the rigging intended to hold the mast in place was termed “standing rigging.”  Lines used to adjust the sails and spars were known as “running rigging.”  Each sail had its own inventory of sheets, tacks, lifts, clews, brails, and other lines, each with a specific purpose.  Each also was attached to a specific point, run through specific blocks, and secured to designated positions about the ship’s upper deck.  A fully qualified seaman was expected to know all such details about more than 400 lines.  An so it is even for a landlubber a mark of considerable commendation to say that either he or she “knows the ropes.” 


The whip used to administer a punishment of flogging was known as the “cat of nine tails.”  It was kept in a red bag made of material called baize.  Since the “cat” appeared only when someone was about to be flogged, “letting the cat out of the bag” was not something done lightly.  Incidentally, 12 lashes was the standard punishment for a non-capital offense so the recipient was left with a back permanently scarred as a reminder of the merits of good conduct.


When wooden ships were constructed, there were seams between the wooden planks.  These must be made watertight.  This process is known as “caulking” the seams.  To fill the seams, the principal material used was oakum.  Oakum was nothing more than hemp threads, often prepared from the reduction of old lines into their basic components.  This material was stuffed into the seams using “horsing irons” which looked something like dull, broad blade chisels and used with a special mallet called “beadles.”  Critical to the process was the caulker’s skill in getting the right amount of oakum in the seam.  Too little, the seam would leak; too much and the flexing action of the sea on the ship would force the caulking out and permit leakage.  Once the caulking had been “paid” the next step was to pour hot tar neatly and carefully along the seam as a final seal.  This was done with a long handled tool with a small pouring cup at one end and was known as a “loggerhead.”  Unfortunately, the loggerhead, like the marling spike and the belaying pin sometimes became the means by which a dispute between sailors was settled.  When two men faced off, each armed with this tool and warily seeking an opening to attack, they were said to be at “loggerheads.”  The maneuvering for advantage might go one for sometime and even to the point where tempers cooled and the disputants merely agreed to disagree without coming to blows.  Thus, “at loggerheads” has come ashore meaning to be at odds and with someone without coming to a quick solution.  


The guns of the sailing navy had nowhere near the range and accuracy of today’s naval rifles.  Indeed the establishment of the “three mile limit” as the boundary of territorial waters in international law was based on the extreme range of just such guns.  The basic cannon was a model called a “long gun.”  The 24- pounders were considered accurate to a range of about 1,200 yards, although cannon balls fired from one might go three or four times that far.  Thus, it can be seen that at the longer range one fire a gun, the less chance of scoring a hit on a target.  In naval parlance, this was a “long shot.”  “Long shot” has come ashore strictly as a measure of the likelihood of something happening, and is most often heard today among bettors at a horse race track. 


In the days before the use of anchor chain, large ropes or cables were used.  These were so large that they could not be bent to fit around the capstan.  The problem was overcome in the following manner.  An endless small line of sufficient strength was turned about the capstan and run forward on one side of the deck to a sheave located in the bows and then back aft to the capstan again.  This was called a “voyol.”  The anchor cable entered the ship at the bows through a hawsehole and ran parallel to the voyol aft to the main hatch, where it was sent below to be faked down on the cable tier in the bowels of the ship.  Still small lines-nipping lines-were used to bind the voyol  and the cable together where they paralleled one another, employing a special hitch that would fall apart when tension was removed from one end of it.  Ship’s boys were used to put the nipping lines on as the voyol and cable came together at the bow and then walk aft, keeping tension on the nipping line until, in turn, reached a point near the hatch when the line could untie itself and allow the cable to drop below.  The boys then would run forward with the line and repeat the process until the weighing of the anchor was complete.  In time, the boys themselves were called “nippers” and the word was brought ashore to be applied to children in general. 


In preparing to render a captured whale, quantities of oil came from the process of cutting slabs of blubber with the “flensers.”  As the flensers worked certain amount of this natural oil flowed from the carcass into the surrounding sea.  It was noted that when the waters were choppy, the area covered by this oil was less prone to spraying wave tops (spindrift) and even smooth the waters.  In time, in order to protect the boats when launching and retrieving them in rough waters, whaling skippers took to dumping some of their lower grade oil over the down wind side.  As late as World War II, sea plane-equipped battleships and cruisers sometimes used the same procedure, pumping some of their fuel oil over the side to provide a smoother area on which their aircraft could land and be hoisted back on board.  From this activity comes the phrase, “to pour oil on troubled waters,” in order to provide a calming effect on people in a tense situation. 


For centuries the stricking of the ship’s bell was a means of keeping time for the watch.  At what would normally be eight bells of the evening watch on the last day of the year, something special happens.  As an observance of the passing of one year and the start of another, the duty officer will direct that 16 bells be struck with the order, “Quartermaster, ring out the old and ring in the new.” 


For centuries a record of the watch was kept on a slate usually hung on the binnacle near the ship’s wheel.  At the end of his watch, when he had been succeeded as “officer of the deck,” the off going officer would take the slate below, write his smooth log, and return the slate to its usual position, having first “wipe the slate clean.”  This same activity is the source of our word “scrub,” meaning “to cancel.” 


We have many ways of saying “hurry up,” including “get the lead out,” “step on it,” and “move it.”  Another is “shake a leg” and this term has a nautical origin.  In bygone years of sailing ships, some skippers would allow the men to take their “wives” with them on long journeys.  These females shared much of the work with the men, ate with them and shared their hammocks.  The area below decks set aside for sleeping usually allowed little space and less privacy.  When it was time to awaken a duty section, the responsible petty officer would come into the compartment shouting: “hit the deck.”  The “ladies” were permitted to remain in bed, but first one had to know which hammocks they were in.  So the boatswain’s mate would holler: “shake a leg” or “show a leg.”  A quick check of the size and shape of the leg extended out from the blanket and the amount of callusing on the soles of the feet quickly established the sex of its owner.  In coming ashore, the phrase’s meaning was transposed from one of identification to the related one of making haste. 


Beef and pork was provided to the crew in the days before refrigeration in barrels and packed in salt to delay decay (hence, salt horse).  When opened for use, the cook would remove the chunks of meat (about 10 pounds each) and leave the fat in the barrel.  If supplies were short the fat became part of the diet right down to the last dab.  This is where the expression scraping the bottom of the barrel came from.  Later, “Cookie” would earn himself some extra money be selling the fat to his shipmates as a spread for their ship’s biscuits (hardtack) or to the boatswain to be used in lubricating certain parts of the rigging.  Because in this latter case, the lubricant was called “slush,” the cook’s extra money by extension became known as his “slush fund.” 


The Dutch broke out of their small corner of Europe and joined the shipbuilding race by building East Indiamen at a prodigious rate.  It was a heady time for the Dutch sailors, seeing one ship after another slide down the ways.  So proud and delighted at these new hulls-these bright, shiny, and clean new possessions-that they coined a word especially to describe this pristine state: it was “spiksplinternieuw.”  As one might suspect from the word, it meant the ship was new in every spike and splinter.  Holland’s competitors across the Channel Anglicized the word to the phrase “spick and spanew.”  To the Americans, still later, it became “spic and span.” 


In the early days, the Navy guaranteed a man a regular diet, one that included meat or fish almost every day, was a major inducement to enlist.  Never mind that the pay was lower than that of the merchant service, or that one might have to face combat on a rare occasion-you got to eat.  On board ship, breakfast and supper usually consisted of bread and leftovers, perhaps some coffee and cheese.  The one hot meal of the day came at noon.  Each mess received a “kid” (pot) containing most of the food items listed by regulation for issue that day stewed together in a single concoction.  The senior members of each mess then oversaw the equal sharing of whatever there was, and the men settled down with their meals around a piece of old canvas on the berth deck, picnic fashion.  The utensils issued to each sailor included a mug, a tin plate, and a spoon.  Earlier on the plate had been nothing more that a piece of light board on which the food was piled and from which the juices ran in all directions.  Over time, this dining from a board and the fact that regular meals were a feature of service came together in references to sailors benefiting from having “square meals.”  The use of aluminum trays in the 20th century Navy is a descendant of the board, and “square meals” are still a part of this man’s service. 


One particularly fiendish punishment used in England was to bury an individual in an upright position in the shore between low and high tide with just his head showing and let the sea do the rest.  Believe it or not, it was this punishment that gave us the phrase about someone being a “stick in the mud. 


Waterfront taverns are legendary places of all sorts of nefarious doings.  The situation was no different in the taprooms of Amsterdam and other Dutch ports cities.  The local authorities attempted to limit the hours of business.  Taverns were to close down at a specific hour, signaled to all on the waterfront by a city minion blowing a signal on a bugle to “tap toe” or to turn off the spigots on all the beer barrels.  The Dutch language name for these spigots is also the source for our alternate name for a “faucet” and from the verb mean to “tap a keg.” 


Living conditions in wooden ships was notoriously crude.  They were unhealthy.  Even in those days of rudimentary medicine, it was suspected that the conditions of the crews’ berthing space caused or contributed to sickness.  Thus when a man became ill, he was moved to another location in order to improve his chances of recovery and to protect the other members of the crew.  Rudimentary medical knowledge also held that fresh air and sunlight were beneficial in moderate amounts.  As a result sick men often had their hammock slung above the main deck but beneath the overhang of one of the partial weather decks.  Somewhere along the line, this event resulted in the use of the phrase for a sick individual as “being under the weather.” 


Yarnin is a tradition of telling stories.  Ships at sea must rely on whatever the owners have put on board them.  Nothing was ever wasted.  Using old rope for new purposes generally required that it first be taken apart and its components made up in new ways.  This was a tedious task where men unwound the “threads” making up the principal parts of a line or rope.  They then even broke it down further into their several “yarns.”  Then it could be rewoven or knotted or spliced into new and useful items.  Sailors assigned the task would sit around on deck, picking apart the rope and inevitably talking among themselves.  Often it was the “old salts” that would talk about how to do various seamanship tasks or about the delights of a particular port of call or of people and events from their past.  Sometimes these tales would be pure fantasy leading a new hand down his path of gullibility until he finds himself of the object of much hilarity among his mates.  Eventually this tale telling became known as “yarn spinning.”  Later on this task was generally reserved for a midweek afternoon or Wednesdays.  This lead to the phrase “rope yarn Wednesdays.”

 WWII Era | Korea War & '50s | Viet Nam & 60s |  Reunions | All Links Page | Search & Rescue
Memorial | Poetry  | Enemy Below | Taps List | Photos/Armament | History | Crews Index | Home