Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Miracle of the Ships Bell


The US Naval Sea Cadet Corps is a Federally Chartered Youth Program sponsored by the US Navy League and supported by the US Navy and Coast Guard. I joined the program as a cadet in the early 1960’s, shortly after it was formed. It was still in its infancy with very few regulations and very little recognition, guidance or support beyond the local level. In other words, in those early days, it fell to each individual unit to pretty much find its own facilities, support and training opportunities. It was in this slightly chaotic atmosphere that I grew into adulthood with a deep-seated love of country, Navy and, of course, the NSCC program. I earned a commission in the NSCC and was determined to try to help the program grow and pass along the many valuable lessons it had taught me in my formative years.

My unit, the Hancock Squadron, was stationed at Alameda Naval Air Station and got its primary support from the Naval Air Reserve Training Unit. The base had given us a building to use as our headquarters. It was an old World War II aviation training building. The base supplied the electricity but all other maintenance and upkeep was our responsibly.

The Ships Bell

One Sunday afternoon I was in my office writing up a training syllabus along with a unit Midshipman (whom I’ll just call Larry) when our unit Commanding Officer stopped by. He told us that a man he knew had a ships bell and was considering donating it to the unit. Having a real ships bell on our Quarterdeck to ring during ceremonies was something we all agreed would be great for the unit and the unit’s morale. Larry and I agreed to go see this man first thing Monday morning.

We met at the station and drove over to the man’s house in South San Francisco. Unfortunately in the time between when he told our Commanding Officer about the bell and the time we arrived, he had sold the bell to someone else. That did not deter Larry however. Larry asked him how he came by the bell to start with, hoping we might acquire another one. The man would not tell us how he came by the bell, but he did say that we should check with the Mothball Fleet at Mare Island. Ships being sold for scrap had usable equipment, including their ships bell, removed for separate disposal. We might be able to get one there.

When we returned to the base, Larry began working the phones trying to locate a ships bell. The following Friday evening, I was having dinner at my parents’ home when Larry called me and said if we could get 8 bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch and were in Mare Island by 8 am on Monday morning we might just have a bell for the unit. This presented a slight problem because neither of us had the money to buy the Scotch.

My mother came to the rescue by suggesting I call a close friend of hers that owned the local liquor store and see if he could help somehow. It turned out that I had an old muzzle-loading shotgun that I had bought some years before. Mom’s friend had seen it and was willing to trade the Scotch for the gun. I made the trade and Larry and I got a pickup from the base Motor Pool and were at the Supply Disposal Warehouse at Mare Island at 8 am sharp that Monday.

The next problem came up when the old Master Chief in charge asked for our requisition. It hadn’t occurred to us we’d need a requisition but Larry assured the Chief we’d be back shortly with a signed one.

We then made the long drive back to Alameda where I went to the Naval Air Reserve Unit Offices and casually asked for a small supply of pens, paper and, oh yes, some blank requisition forms. The Yeoman helping me never questioned it and handed me a ream of 500 blank requisitions. Larry typed up the requisition, checking a box marked “donation” and conned the Reserve Unit’s Duty Officer into signing it. We were then off to Mare Island again.

The Master Chief was satisfied with the requisition and had the bell loaded into the back of our pickup with a forklift. Larry and I then took off with our booty to return to Alameda. There was one more brief uncomfortable moment when we were stopped at the gate leaving the base. The guard wanted to check our paperwork for the bell. Larry showed him our copy of the requisition and a property slip the Chief had given him. The guard studied the papers and waived us through without a problem.

When we got back to the base, we took the bell to the Overhaul and Rework Facility where the father of one of our cadets made us a nice wooden stand for the bell.

The following Saturday our cadets and officers arrived for drill and were greeted by the ringing of our new ships bell. When they asked where we got it, we decided that discretion was the best policy and simply said it was a miracle, and you should never ask too many questions of a miracle.

It is now some 50 years later and it is my understanding that the Hancock Squadron still proudly displays and uses that bell. 

Live Long and Prosper....

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