Singing Swabbies

Choir Prayer—

Most Holy God, Ruler of the sea,

and of all who go down to the sea in ships;

Give us repentant hearts

that we may be fit to sing to Thee.

Accept our songs

as thanks for all Thy good gifts to us.

Help us who praise Thee with our lips

lest we betray Thee with our lives.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.


We left Company 675 and arrived at the barrack of Special Company 4007 Friday, November 1. The Choir's barrack adjoined that of Special Company 4006, the Drum and Bugle Corps, in one of boot camp's typical H-shaped buildings. Standing at the canal side of the barracks, our wing was to the right, the Drum and Bugle Corps had the one to the left, and the connecting "-" was a no-man's land. Today, both barracks were in an uproar.

We made our entrance toting all our worldly possessions, including sea bags, sheets, blankets, pillows, toiletry items, etc. All weighed heavier by the minute. Then we stood around outside the Choir barrack marveling at the chaos churning before our eyes. Word had preceded Commander Ferrante, Executive Officer for RTC, that he would be carrying out a "surprise" inspection. Besides preparing for this, the two special companies were readying to march in that day's Preble. We stood wondering how best to enter this cauldron when a small reception party saw and escorted us to our new bunks and lockers. Although the barracks' inspection was disastrous, the Choir's performance at Preble rated a 4-0, spoken of as "four oh" (on a scale of 1-0 being the worst and 4-0 the best), from RTC's commander, Captain Fisher.

The Choir and its brother company, the Drum and Bugle Corps, were each made up of eight sections. The Friday we arrived was both the graduating day for Section One and the forming day for the new Section One. Thus it rotated week after week, section after section. By Sunday, November 3, the new Section One had already received its second issue. This included dress whites and dress blues (which had to be tailored, a process that took a week), two pair of dress shoes, peacoat, black gloves, etc. Members of Section One would not be eligible to sing at North Chapel or march in Preble graduations until our dress uniforms had been tailored, though we drill-marched and practiced singing in preparation with the older sections.

Signalman First Class R. C.  Donahoe was our Company Commander during much of my stay in the Choir. He mostly left us to our own resources and policing, remaining in the background except when leading us in drill marching or coordinating our training schedules. This tendency toward non interference provided much fertile soil for growth of the Choir Fraternity. Dr. John A.  Williams, the civilian Choir Director since 1965, worked for Choir Officer Lieutenant Commander G. N.  Reiff. The organist since 1967 was James Hansen.

We only saw Dr. Williams and Mr. Hansen at rehearsals in building 214 or at non-Preble singing events. Otherwise, choral direction was conducted by a Musical RCPO (Recruit Company Petty Officer) chosen from our ranks. In other words, we had both a regular Military RCPO and a Musical RCPO.

Whenever possible the Musical RCPO would have an extensive background in music basics. Section One was especially rich in such musical talent. Later, two from our midst, Vought and Moore, competed as candidates for the Musical RCPO position. It was a tough choice because both were nearly equal in musical background. But when it came down to the wire Vought deferred to Moore because of shyness. Moore was a tall and slim black man of immense intelligence, wit, charisma and musical ability. His looks and temperament were very reminiscent of a masculine version of the black writer Maya Angelou. Moore would prove himself worthy of the task.

We in Section One were junior-junior-junior-junior-junior-juniors and would remain so until Section Two graduated and a new Section Two was formed, then each week one of the "junior"s would drop off and we would rise a notch in seniority. For now we would have to content ourselves with being the Choir slaves. We stood watches and did most of the dirty work for the upper sections, especially the juniors, seniors and grads (grads being those who had already marched and sung in their senior and final Preble and were just waiting until Monday to go on leave). Fridays we were ever vigilant in helping with the preparation of marchers for Preble.

Monday, November 4, I received my first phone chit and called Mom from a phone at the R-4 building. That evening the men of Section One were formally introduced to the Choir Fraternity through the occasion known as (a borrowed military term) the "night bunk check." Militarily speaking, a night bunk check was when the person on watch checked to ensure that everybody under his jurisdiction was in their bunk or otherwise accounted for after Lights Out. Yet, the Choir's alternative version was that occasion, Mondays through Thursdays (and sometimes Fridays), during late evening when military bearing was temporarily laid aside, or altered, and the Choir Fraternity took over. Understandably, such goings on would never be tolerated by the military establishment. Consequently, the men on watch had to be especially vigilant in guarding against, and warning of, the approach of possible "belligerents."

Night bunk checks were held on the second deck, put on by the grads for that week and policed by upcoming seniors. Vaudeville was reincarnated in these evenings of pranks, inspirational words and lots of burlesque (no striptease, thank you, though we would all be in our boxer shorts and regulation T-shirts as Uniform of the Day). Of the weekly bunk checks, Thursday nights were special. Amidst the soft roar of "Ho Hut"s, with all thumbs up, the grads-to-be on the morrow would pass down their various Fraternity and military posts to men in lower sections, posts like Musical RCPO-ship, Choir Admiral (a venerable post going to the most amiable and charismatic person in the lower sections), Choir MAA (Master at Arms), Choir Chaplain plus an assortment of other posts including Choir Harmonica Player. I inherited the latter post from Waters, a fellow one week ahead of me in Section Eight. Later, when it came time for me to graduate, there were no harmonica players to whom I could leave the post. Such a loss!

The first weeks after arriving in the Choir junior sections berthed on the first floor. Upstairs dwelled the grads, plus senior and junior sections closest to graduating, who were the passers-down of Choir traditions. They prepared for and held the nightly bunk checks. It was a major honor when a section made the move to that deck. When this move occurred, besides all such men going through an initiation of mild hazing, many section members became "little brothers" of senior choirmen. I became the little brother of Waters, and my little brother would be Teeters.

In the beginning I had mixed feelings about belonging to a fraternal order. One aspect I definitely liked was that each member of the Choir looked out for each other member as a brother. Weak links were strengthened, not segregated and victimized. Also, I was not aware of any racism. Such pull-together contributed to one group of men furthering the common goals of 4-0 Prebles and Choir Spirit.

Through its honor system enforced discipline was slack, while understood discipline was like forged steel. Still, one weakness in this otherwise strong system was that the lower sections were expected, if necessary, required, to look upon the seniors and grads with something akin to reverence. This was all right when seniors and grads deserved such treatment through merit, but it was a bitter pill to swallow when they didn't.

Tuesday, November 5, was Section One's 5-1 day, meaning we were out of forming and were officially part of the Choir. By the end of the week we had received our tailored dress uniforms. Sunday the 10th I sang in the choir loft with several other Bluejackets at North Chapel, my debut as a Choir man. North Chapel, the church attended by Captain Fisher and Rear Admiral Bergner, was off limits to recruits. Bluejacket Choir members could attend any of the services we wished as long as we stayed in the loft and sang. There were three services each Sunday, two were Protestant and one Catholic. Some choirmen, like the Musical RCPO, attended all three, some only one or two, while others attended none. I was a one service guy. During services we also provided men for the Honor Guard that stood, in full dress uniform, at the entrance to North Chapel.

The choir loft was above the entrance to the church facing the pulpit. Members of the congregation would have to twist around and crane their necks to see us. Many of them did just that when we arrived and climbed to the loft during the Choral Introit, or sang the Anthem, Choral Response, or Choral Amen. While marching to and from these services, or anywhere else we ventured either in smaller groups or en masse, it was customary to practice our art. We would sing tunes like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In," and a medley of Armed Forces' anthems honoring the Army, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Navy. We also sang "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor," understandably never while marching to or from church.

In each instance we would receive our starting note from the Musical RCPO's round pitch pipe. These songs prepared us spiritually and helped us to practice our singing skills while providing a little entertainment to nearby companies. As could be expected, members of other companies sometimes derided and mocked us.

Singing at North Chapel was just a side course, with the main entree being each Friday's Preble. As of Friday, November 15, I was still only part of the supporting cast in these important events. Those of us not going had to help prepare and motivate the marchers, stand the watches, carry out the barrack field day, and wait in anticipation of the Choir's return. Suddenly, that moment arrived when the returning marchers rounded the corner of the alley leading to the Choir barrack. We who waited, watched with high expectations of seeing the coveted thumbs-up, again meaning 4-0. Amazingly, this day the thumbs were up for the thirteenth time in a row. The prior record was six consecutive 4-0 Prebles.

November 15 was also the day we in Section One received our first real pay, if one could call $30 real pay. It was enough, however, to buy a blues harp harmonica at the PX like my friend Waters had done the prior week. Waters and I would play tunes together evenings after doing our laundry and even entertain at night bunk checks. While Moore was Musical RCPO, and after our section had moved to the second deck, Moore and I would go down to the lower deck after Lights Out to say good-night to the newer Choir members. He'd stand in the dark giving words of encouragement and was appropriately dubbed The Dark Shadow. After he was through I'd play a tune or two on the blues harp.

The longer I was in boot camp the less Spartan became the restrictions on what could or couldn't be in my locker. At first the locker could contain nothing except things issued by the Navy or required for hygienic purposes or looking ship-shape. Several surprise inspections by Executive Officer Ferrante kept us on our toes. Yet, by November 18 I felt safe in asking Mom to send my camera. Having the camera would be okay if it was kept locked up in the locker's drawer and sealed with the Navy issue padlock when not in use.

Members of Bluejacket Choir were still members of the Navy, and we received the same training as the rest of the boots, except drilling with pieces. We also didn't have to go through the "gas chamber." The chamber was a sadistic part of boot training where all the men from each company had to enter a chamber filled with tear gas while wearing gas masks. Then they would be ordered to take off their masks before leaving. Apparently, there was concern that being gassed might affect our singing voices. Tuesday, November 19, Section One went to "A Range," where we learned of the different types of guns and rifles used by the Navy and how to use them. Included in the list were a .45 caliber pistol, a Thompson semi-automatic rifle, and a Browning automatic (machine gun). Then we went out to the rifle range, where we got to try our hand firing at targets with M-1 rifles. My score was 150 points out of a possible 180, though I came in second to all participating when another fellow accrued 153 points.

Another day we attended a two-day fire fighting school to prepare us for fires on board ship, what to expect in the line of hazards and obstacles, and how to extinguish the different types of fires. In other classes we were exposed to the marlinespike skills of the boatswain's mate and shipboard damage control techniques of Damage Control Technicians. We learned military bearing and etiquette, military aspects of citizenship, and how to recognize a wide assortment of ships, boats and planes. Also, there were more esoteric topics like "the mission of the Navy," and mundane aspects like how to maintain our clothing and other gear. While much of what we learned was hands-on, nearly all training consisted of attending classes in several buildings scattered about the Naval Training Center, with lots of note-taking and memorizing required.

The Choir's size was shrinking, and this was causing us some alarm. When I had first arrived in the Choir (also known as U.S.S. Pride and Good Ship Pride), there had been 129 men. As of Friday, November 22, the number was only seventy-one. The problem was that there had to be at least sixty-five marchers at Preble each Friday. With a total of only seventy-one men, this left a mere six men not marching to stand all watches, clean the barrack, and be standby marchers in case a regular couldn't go for some reason. It also meant that some of the marching sixty-five would be men new to the Choir who were not yet fully seasoned, some even totally inexperienced. Continuing the string of 4-0 Prebles could be in jeopardy.

We also lost Overby, a Section One man, who was ambulanced to Balboa Naval Hospital one night due to the flare up of an old, congenital back problem. Some of us visited him in the hospital during liberty days, and he would play tunes for us on his guitar. Overby later returned to the Choir, but not until after Section One had graduated.

The day finally arrived for my debut as member of the Choir at Preble. My heart was in my throat as I prepared to march and perform Friday, November 22. Uniform of the Day for Choir was dress blues. Visualize: sparkling white T-shirt showing beneath standardly rolled and tied neckerchief at neck of navy blue jersey with new white piping up the neck's V and around the edge of the jersey's rectangular flap behind. South of jersey, the navy blue trousers' flap in front was fastened by thirteen anchor-engraved, blue-black buttons. I stood on the centerboard with right arm looped over a metal bar connecting two stanchions. Below, a fellow Choir member standing on the deck tugged at the amazingly white strings down the back of the twelve-inch high, perfectly white leggings. The leggings had to be laced skin-tight to enclose and aesthetically contain the otherwise flaring bell bottoms. Finally, the leggings were connected, through use of straps and buckles, to laboriously spit-polished black shoes. Then I climbed back down so the Choir's green aiguillette could be affixed to the jersey's top left shoulder under the edge of the flap, which started at the top of the V, in a way that allowed the aiguillette strings to loop down six inches both over and under the left arm, while the loose end of the aiguillette ended in a narrow, three inch brass pendant dangling about six inches down the front of the jersey. Now the scrubbed white belt, three inches in width, with its polished brass fittings, was adjusted to the proper circumference for my waist before its ends were latched together. Glowing white cotton gloves were slid up and over my hands, after which the piped cuffs of my jersey were buttoned over the top of the gloves and around my wrists. Finally, above it all a sparkling white hat was set upon a manicured head with regulation exactness. Multiply the above times sixty-five men and it becomes obvious what a to-do was preparation. The value of the all-hands effort was illustrated by our unending string of 4-0 Prebles.

Plenty of time was allotted for getting ready. As each man finished, he had to be careful of what he touched, ever mindful that it would not take much to put a smudge on some of all that white. Then we formed up in columns and began marching toward the day's proceedings. The first stop was at the R-4 building, where congregated visitors not attending the actual Preble graduation. There, while standing in marching formation, we sang "Impossible Dream" (from Don Quixote); "Somewhere, My Love" (Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago); "This is My Country" and "Stout-Hearted Men" (from nautical operetta The New Moon). On other Fridays, alternative songs to those listed above might be the beautiful "Today" (while the blossoms still cling to the vine . . .); "If I Ruled the World;" and "More" (than the greatest love the world has known . . .).

Next it was on to Preble Field. The graduating companies and Drum and Bugle Corps had already arrived and taken their positions. Upon arriving we marched past the Corps, its members sporting yellow aiguillettes on their left shoulders, to a designated area directly in front of the reviewing stand. Then we came to a halt, in unison made a half turn to the left, and before God, Captain Fisher, visiting officials, dignitaries and other guests we sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the Navy Hymn "Eternal Father" (strong to save). Our Musical RCPO later said we couldn't have sounded better, cinching another 4-0 and ensuring that, this weekend, members of Section One would have their first liberty day. As we marched off the field immediately after singing, Captain Fisher, who (rumor had it) had once been in the Choir, turned to us from his seat on the reviewing stand and gave us a smiling thumbs-up.

We were exuberant as we marched back to the barrack, singing a couple of tunes to let some of it out. Then it was Columns Left as we made the turn down the alley to the barrack, everybody's thumb pointing up, then Columns Right before coming to rest in front of our destination. The few men remaining at the barrack were cheering, and we joined in after breaking ranks. Later, the Corps returned via the same route after providing the martial background music for the conducting of graduation drills and exercises. This day they also had a 4-0 Preble. For the next three weeks this scenario would be repeated for the Choir, though the Corps wouldn't be so lucky with getting continuous 4-0s.

It was a privilege to associate with men like Williams, Andres, Michaelson, Sauser, Waters, Vought, Moore, Griffin, Harrison, Borgia (also from Company 675), Bebout (a southern, George Maharis-type fellow who excelled in white hat twirling), Roark, Gette, Teeters, Overbay, Speaks, O'Hara, and many others. Each week we'd lose fellows who had become part of our lives. The same week we would welcome new members for introducing into Fraternity life, who ultimately would be carrying on Choir traditions.

The closer I came to graduation the more aware I became of new companies being created. We'd see the newly shorn squirrels, scared and appearing lost, marching by with the cuffs still on their dungarees (the cuffs not yet having been trimmed off). The newest companies also lacked their guide-on (the banner, issued to a company on its 1-1 day, which proclaimed the company number and had to be carried wherever it went). In counterpoise, we in Section One were becoming knowledgeable enough in things Navy that our confidence was greatly increasing. We were no longer the lost, scared squirrels we had been in September, October, even most of November.

The Choir finally began getting a large influx of new members, though Company Commander Donahoe had left to be replaced by one fellow, then another. It seemed that each new CC was more strict and "regulation" than his predecessor. It was thus becoming more difficult to maintain the Choir Fraternity in the face of mounting adversity.

The week of December 9 was my last full week in boot camp. We had recently participated in a Christmas performance, at Luce Auditorium on base, with a local high school choir. The Choir also sang in a Christmas concert at North Chapel. The latter was a combination of formal and informal singing. Among several others present, Captain Fisher and his wife were there. We sang "Psalm 150," "Laudemus Te," "Glory to God," "Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," and other seasonal favorites. At the end, the normal barrier between seamen recruits and Chapel members came down, and we all shook hands and talked as worthy people do to other worthy people.

This week I passed all four naval training exams, including the final, and received my "dummy orders," or copy of orders not yet formally issued. The dummy orders stated that I'd be reporting to the Naval Training Center in San Diego for Basic Electricity/Electronics "P" (Preparatory) School on January 6, 1969. Classes wouldn't begin until the 20th, which would give me two weeks from the time of reporting until commencing classes. (This two-week interlude wouldn't be all fun and games, though it would bring good liberty in San Diego, a city I was growing to know and love with each boot camp liberty day.) Then, after completion of the "P" school, the orders said I would report to Radioman "A" School. It was then I learned for the first time that I would be a Radioman "striker," a striker being someone who strives to achieve something, such as a fellow striking for gold.

The night of Thursday, December 12, Section One turned over its grad-ship to Section Two, because Section Two also would be graduating the next day. This put us into the rare and honored category of super-grads. At this night bunk check we passed down our various posts to our successors amidst constant finger clicking, Ho Huts, and thumbs-up. Moore, who recently had received a Meritorious Captain's Mast for the 4-0 Prebles to which he had led us (and, as it turned out, would lead us), surrendered his Musical RCPO-ship to Michaelson from newly formed Section Seven. Choir Chaplain and all the remaining posts were given out (except mine, unfortunately, as mentioned earlier), leaving for last the Choir Admiral-ship, which passed from Griffin (Griff) to Harrison of Section Two in a special, cigarette-lighter-lit ceremony.

It was now a time of winding down and winding up my stay at the Recruit Training Command. Friday, December 13, was my fourth and graduating Preble. We pulled off our unprecedented seventeenth 4-0 on a day when twenty-three companies graduated in the largest Preble, or Brigade Review, theretofore in the history of RTC. The following Monday, December 16, I said my final good-byes to the Choir and RTC before taking a plane back to my home town in Michigan. There, the entire family, including my Army recruit brother-in-law up from camp in Georgia, would be gathering for Christmas. Just before leaving, graduates received copies of pictures taken of the whole Choir and our individual sections. We also received Certificates of Appreciation signed by our Choir Director, Dr.  Williams.

* * * * * *

I frequently attended the informal worship services held by North Chapel at 7:00 o'clock Sunday nights, while I was attending Basic Electricity/Electronics "P" School. After one of these services, while talking with one attendee, I discovered that he had been in the Bluejacket Choir in 1960. I told him a little about what Choir life had been like during my tenure, and he explained that during his time there hadn't been a separate Choir barrack. Twice a week Choir men from the different companies would meet and rehearse for the Sunday services at North Chapel, the only formal singing done. In those days there was no singing at Preble.

It might have been the very same evening that I ran across Overbay, the fellow from my Choir section who had been taken to Balboa Naval Hospital due to back trouble. He filled me in on what had happened after Section One and Two graduated. The new Company Commanders were so rough on the choirmen that the Choir Spirit almost died during the transition from 1968 to 1969. Overbay, who had been in the Choir only two weeks, had become very aware of how the Fraternity worked, and he kept the Spirit alive in his heart. Just after Christmas he returned and found morale bad and the Spirit almost nonexistent. He then successfully set about reviving the Spirit (thus morale) and reinstalling Fraternal order.

I saw Overbay only once again. It was at the San Diego Servicemen's YMCA. He was a Storekeeper third class petty officer. Another Section One man, Roark, went through "P," "A" and "C" schools with me and then was stationed at Yokosuka, Japan, as part of Commander Seventh Fleet's radio staff. A Louisiana resident and former roughneck on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, Roark joined me on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway during my second Westpac cruise.

Gette, still another Section One man, sent an invitation to attend Choir Section One's fifth year reunion at his home in Fairmont, Minnesota, which I received mid-1973. I had just returned to Michigan from California in penniless condition, so I had to decline attending, though I sent my best wishes that it turn out well. On August 8, 1973, I wrote the following poem:

-Choir of Strangers-

From across the nation

Came men of many Races;

Never knowing where the Fates would lead

We relinquished our Sovereignty;

Like rain from misty clouds

We came from the sky;

We left everything—our families

And some, our schools;

We left all but our talent to sing

And were ambitious;

Then we met one day

As strangers meet by Chance;

We were boys in blue jackets

Destined one day to sail the seas;

But for a moment . . . so short . . .

We were joined in Choral Arrangement.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige

Here is an account of some interesting Bluejacket Choir experiences by Malcolm Johnson, the choir's Musical RCPO or MuRCPO in early 1970.

Here is an account of some interesting Drum & Bugle Corps experiences, etc., by Don Wallace, the Music Coordinator in latter 1968.

Continue on to Airport 1969 or Go back to Into the Pressure Cooker

Last modified: Friday May 6, 2011

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