Cisco Houston Web Site

Cisco in Print

Excerpts from "Woody, Cisco and Me:
Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine"

Jim Longhi

From Page 50

First day on the ship.

Ordinarily we'd have had time off, nine to eleven thirty, but on our first morning we had to report to our assigned gun stations. There were three gun turrets on the stern --- one for the big five-inch cannon and two twenty-millimeter machine-gun turrets on each side --- at the bow there was a three-inch cannon with two machine-gun turrets, and there were four more machine-gun turrets on the boat deck.

Cisco explained that the machine guns were obviously of little use against submarines; they were supposed to defend us from dive-bombers. Dive-bombers, he explained, would attack us when we were near enemy land bases. However, he said, our machine guns weren't very effective against planes, because they weren't proper antiaircraft guns; furthermore, he assured us, the Nazi dive-bombers would swoop down on us with terrific speed, usually with the sun behind them to prevent us from seeing them. But, he went on, our guns did fire very pretty red tracer bullets. The only trouble with the tracer bullets, he said, was that they showed you how badly you missed your target. He did say that the machine guns might come in handy if pirates tried to board our ship. He was less encouraging about the cannons. Cannons might be effective as antisubmarine weapons, Cisco said, if the submarine surfaced, turned belly-up, and said, "Fire."

Despite the guns' limited efficacy, twenty-four U.S. Navy gunners with their lieutenant commander and an ensign were being paid to man those guns, and we civilian merchant seamen had to help. Because of Cisco's eye problem, we maneuvered so that he and I were put on the five-inch cannon as loaders. I would pick up a heavy shell, slam it into Cisco's arms, and he would pass it to a gunner, who would shove it into the cannon. There was no actual firing practice that morning, but that didn't stop Woody; he was made a machine gunner's assistant in the turret next to us. In no time he talked the gunner off the firing seat, happy as a kid with a new bicycle. He aimed his machine gun all over the sky, making bullet sounds with his mouth.

"Need a lot more practice," he said to the navy kid. "I missed at least three of them Nazi dive-bombers."

In the hour left before lunch, Cisco showed us around the ship. From the bridge we saw the huge convoy beginning to change direction --- ninety degrees to starboard --- wheeling around with the precision of a military parade. The mate let us watch while he studied something through his binoculars and issued orders to the helmsman. Another man on the bridge, the radioman, was working the blinker semaphore, receiving and sending messages to the commodore's ship leading the convoy. There would be radio silence for the entire trip.

"Sir?" I addressed the mate. (I used the "sir" not because I required to -- only with the captain and the chief engineer was it mandatory --- but because it might help me get an answer.) "Sir, do we know our general destination?"


"The Mediterranean?"


"How long will it take to cross the ocean?" I asked Cisco.

"As long as the slowest ship in the convoy --- about ten knots -- fourteen, fifteen days to Gibraltar."

"Jesus --- but once we get to Gibraltar, the worst is over --- right?"

"Wrong. The Mediterranean is much smaller than the Atlantic, but like a lot of small guys, it can be a hell of a lot tougher than the big ones. But don't worry about it. Come on, I'll show you the engine room." He led the way for Woody and me.

Next Excerpt

We welcome any suggestions, contributions, or questions. You send it, we'll consider using it. Help us spread the word. And the music. And thanks for visiting.