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Writing short stories beats chasing after altar boys!

SEAMAN HUGHES

 

SEAMAN HUGHES

Seaman Hughes was a skinny kid from somewhere in the South. I don't recall his first name, but then officers weren't allowed to call enlisted men by their first names anyhow. We just called them by their last names. "Hey, Jones, how're the kids doing?" "Dubowski, did you fix that receiver yet?" Yes, I was an officer. A mere Ensign --- but an officer nevertheless.

Our ship was the USS Howard D. Crow, a destroyer escort. A destroyer escort is a little smaller than a destroyer, but it is still longer than a football field. It generally carries a compliment of about 12 officers and 170 enlisted men. I was the Communications Officer. Seaman Hughes was not one of "my" men. He might have been in the Engineering Department, but I really don't remember. What I do recall about Seaman Hughes was that other men made fun of him. Hughes was a big talker. But he never really had much to say of importance. I heard rumors that some guys thought he was "queer". The term "gay" had not yet come into usage. "Gay" still meant "happy" back then. But Hughes was definitely not one of the more popular guys on the Crow.

I had been aboard the Crow for over a year and I was now a qualified OOD underway. That meant that I was a qualified Officer of the Deck who could take control of the ship while we were steaming at sea. I could get the ship "underway" (get it out of port), "steer" the ship at sea by yelling orders down the voice tube to the helmsman and dock the ship next to a pier when we arrived somewhere

. I remember that it was a sunny afternoon the day it happened. Yes, I was the Officer of the Deck and we were steaming somewhere in the Caribbean. Sometimes we steamed with one or more other destroyers, but that day we were alone. I recall I was sipping a soda and chatting with a reserve officer who was aboard to fulfill his requirement of two weeks of active duty per year. We called them "Weekend Warriors". And then it happened. "Man overboard --- man overboard!", came the shouts from the lookout on the port side. I jumped out of the Captain's chair and took two steps over to the metal voice tube. "Right full rudder --- right full rudder!" I commanded.

Now it takes about ten minutes for a destroyer escort to make a full circle. A non-swimmer would drown in that period of time. But all sailors and naval officers know how to swim. And the entire crew had often held "man overboard" drills. On those occasions we would throw a dummy into the sea and then commence the drill. The idea was to bring the ship around in a circle as quickly as possible and then slow it at just the right time so it would be just about stopped as it glided next to the dummy. It was also necessary to steer the ship correctly so we didn't run over the dummy. In short, you had to get close enough to the dummy --- but not too close.

Now we had a real person in the water, despite the fact that a lot of the crew thought that Seaman Hughes was quite the dummy. Yes, it turned out that Seaman Hughes was the guy who was overboard. The Crow was making its' turn.

"It's Hughes", someone shouted from below, "It's Hughes!"

 

Yes, Seaman Hughes had decided to commit suicide and had jumped into the sea. Luckily, a couple sailors on the fantail had thrown two life rings into the water shortly after Hughes had gone overboard. As the ship came around we could all see Seaman Hughes swimming like crazy towards the nearest life ring. Fortunately, the sea was relatively calm that day. Maybe there were three to four foot swells. But Hughes was apparently a fairly decent swimmer and he was making good progress towards reaching that nearest life ring.

The Captain was on the bridge now and had arrived within sixty seconds after the first "Man overboard" call had sounded over the speaker system. He had taken over the conn (the voice tube and the responsibility for control of the ship) and he had ordered all engines stopped as we were half way around and had ordered engines "back one-third" as we approached the area where Hughes was now clinging to a life ring. As the ship pulled alongside of Hughes, the engines were stopped again and a rope was thrown out to the beleaguered Seaman Hughes. A rope ladder was then thrown over the side and a couple sailors jumped into the sea to assist Hughes. Within a few minutes all three were safely back onboard.

We were never sure exactly what prompted Hughes to consider suicide. But he clearly changed his mind when he hit the water. I mean he was really swimming like he was possessed towards that life ring. He hadn't been drinking because alcoholic beverages weren't allowed on Navy vessels. And nobody was using drugs back in those days. No, Hughes was upset about something. But we never got to know what it was. Hughes spent the remainder of that cruise in our ship's small brig. And when we arrived back in our home port, Hughes was taken to a Naval psychiatric hospital. After that, we never saw him again.  We assume he was discharged.

 

 Maybe that's what he wanted all along.


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