“Never ever trust what your government tells you.”
- Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. tour,
As a scientist and historian it's sometimes hard to reconcile the
concept of fate. To be objective and thus well rounded you try to see history
as a simultaneously occurring series of separate events, on countless different
planes, all unfolding in different places at various tempos. But when you come
across a single event which took minutes to initiate but would inextricably
bind the U. S. Navy, the FBI and the Mafia and eventually tens of thousands of
lives for the duration of WWII and then some years after, it's hard not to lay
down the pen, close the texts, pour a drink and go down to the beach to watch
Even more captivating is that the plethora of historical ironies
peppering this story were brought together by Albert Anastasia, a man who
didn't finish primary school, possessed barely a modicum of intelligence and
who's claim to fame was he murdered over 500 people as C.E.O. of Murder
How did the most critical arm of the U. S.
government in 1942, Naval Intelligence, (whose New York branch curiously seemed
to be comprised largely of lawyers), give the highest priority to hiring the
man who established organized crime in America? A man who the left hand of the
government, politics, enthusiastically touted as their #1 poster child for
For a start and by way of setting the stage for
the story, it should be understood that the period between the two world wars
saw the birth and growth of several organizations
in America the developments of which initiated a dynamic that would spawn a
plethora of major historical events any one of which would not only supply
material for a dozen novels and several films, but are still revealing stories
of the most significant of these were the establishment of Organized Crime, the
FBI and Naval Intelligence. They all grew up, went to school and came of age in
the late 1920's as separate entities however, like predators prowling an ever shrinking savanna,
their collisions were inevitable.
As is the case with most great stories the story
of how and why the U. S. Navy came to hire Lucky Luciano and the Unione Siciliano in what was known as Operation
Underworld unfolds in a great place, New York City, and involves several
central figures aspiring to to greatness but only one
of which sought notoriety, J. Edgar Hoover.
As an added attraction the New York City District Attorney's office,
headed by the infamous Thomas E. Dewey, unwittingly acted as catalyst.
In February of 1942 one of the key players was in
his sixth year of what was essentially two and a half life sentences convicted
of a crime for which the law allowed ten. To exacerbate
the situation Salvatore Lucania, “Lucky” Luciano had, by technical legal
guidelines, been framed by the testimony of others obtained under, in some
cases, the threat of violence and rather thin circumstantial evidence.
The real life, dramatic irony extends even further when one considers that
the man who engineered his trial, had him convicted and imprisoned was the very
man whose life Luciano had saved less than a year before, New York District
Attorney Thomas Dewey.
There's little doubt Luciano was guilty of multiple violations under the
White Slavery Act, (a dramatic term for prostitution), but the entire United
States legal machine were not enough to actually catch him with his hand in the
till and so, in order to not look too stupid, they had to “bend” their own
Lucky, was a classic American rags-to-riches success story. He was not
only co-founder of the Unione Siciliano or National
Crime Syndicate or the Commission, as it was known by its members, but
organized and established what became the International Drug Cartel, built a casino
based empire in Havana and Las Vegas and then, at a council in Cuba, gave the
nod to kill the man who built it for him, Ben 'Bugsy' Siegal. All of which,
with the exception of organizing the Unione, he did
well in prison or in exile. Not bad for a
kid from the slums of a fourth rate town in a third world country.
As if to show he had a sense of humor Dewey made sure Luciano's
indictment came at a time when he truly believed himself sufficiently insulated from the law to have any worries. The multiple count
indictment was handed down on April Fool's Day.
It also came at a time when the position of New York City District
Attorney bore no small legacy. The next step up was governor after which, if
you had A, an adequate popularity quotation and B, adequate financial backing,
(which was virtually guaranteed if you had A), the salutations on your mail
thereafter would read: “Dear Mr. President”. All compliments of the New York
City based Tammany Hall leadership. Such was the Yellow Brick Road of the times.
There can be little doubt about Thomas Dewey's
politically driven actions against the likes of Waxey
Gordon, Louie Lepke and Dutch Schultz. After all if a
man wants to be President of the United States, essentially the head lawyer of
the country, starting out as a prosecutor is a good place to be. Starting out
in New York in the 1930's is a better place and getting the big name gangsters,
whatever it takes, is a shoe in. Almost. Dewey's political ambitions were
assured if he could convict Schultz and just as he was about to pounce the
Dutchman decided enough was enough and set up a hit on D. A. Dewey the “Gang
Unfortunately for Shultz Lucky Luciano and Meyer
Lansky, founders of the Siciliano Unione, were
adamant about the 'keeping a low profile' clause in their corporate agreement.
So, a day before Dutch gave the okay to kill
Dewey, Lucky gave the okay to kill Dutch. Schultz was hit in a New York chop
house, eating a steak, and it is widely held that this is where the myth of a
condemned man's last meal, commonly steak, originated.
So, in 1936 New York City D. A. Dewey decided
Luciano, despite having been arrested about twenty-five times and only jailed
twice for short periods, was going down regardless of what was required to do
it. Bear in mind that Luciano was a hoodlum, but also bear in mind that his
statement, “We never killed no one that didn't deserve it.” is, so far as
anyone can determine, true. This includes not only ordering the death of Dutch
Schultz but sanctioning the assassination of one of his most ardently loyal
followers and supporters, Albert Anastasia after he needlessly ordered the
death of a an innocent bakery apprentice for insulting
Like the Unione, Naval
Intelligence had recently been dealt its' worse blow since its' inception,
namely Pearl Harbor. It had been only two months since the bombing and, in a
long laundry list of parallels with the Twin Towers attack, politicians were
asking, “How did we not know this was coming?”, and flinging such helpful
suggestions as, “Somebody has to swing!”
Interestingly, in 2004 documents were released to the news agencies by
some historians in Britain showing that as a result of efforts by the British
intelligence agencies, code breakers who had cracked the JN code were able to
inform Churchill about plans for the attack as early as November of '41, over a
month before it happened. In turn, it was reported Churchill
waited two weeks before informing FDR who, American
historical documents adequately testify to,
never informed the two commanders of the full extent of the probability of the
attack. In all likelihood, some speculate, motivated by America's failed
economy being mired down for over a decade in the Great Depression.
The second central player, Lt. Cmdr Haffenden, (coincidentally carrying the same first name as
Luciano), appears to have fallen into the Operation Underworld scenario
by being in the right place at the right time. As the officer in charge of the
ports of New York he wasn't really privy to D.C.'s decisions but by all
accounts was certainly the right man for the job. With an outstanding record of
past intelligence exploits, a good sense of command and a “Can Do” attitude he
threw himself into an operation which had little chance of any real success
from the start, that is catching German spies. To his credit, he so impressed
and maintained the respect of Meyer Lansky, that Lansky not only kept his son
away from racketeering but sent him to West Point. Although we are not sure of
the extent of Haffenden's influence, Lansky himself
went straight not long after the war.
Rather than the serious game of spy counter spy originally envisioned
with the inception of Operation Underworld, it turned into more of an
expensive game of cops and robbers, mostly without the robbers.
German war records clearly indicate that generals had no intention of
launching any serious attempts at espionage or sabotage in the Continental U.
S. and pretty much viewed it as a waste of resources. Records also indicate
that the group of twelve German operatives sent over and landed by submarine on
the shores of Long Island, were a write off and seen to be an experiment,
forgive the pun, to test the waters.
In contrast, it wasn't as bad a time for J. Edgar
Hoover's FBI. Finally they would be given a chance to show what they could do,
as long as it wasn't going toe to toe with the Commission, which according to
them didn't exist. Their resource allocation was drastically increased, as was
their jurisdictional guidelines, and they were going to be allowed to catch
spies. Problem was they had a lot of catching up to do themselves and Hoover
fantasized that it fell to him alone to see it done.
Much like Luciano, Hoover was able to exploit the
emergency situation the war created to his advantage, however he did it by
greatly increasing his public persona while Lucky did it by further receding
into the shadows of secrecy. Commander Haffenden saw
it strictly as a matter of duty. Interestingly, all three utilized government
agencies, large amounts of cash and lots and lots of unwitting civilians.
Keep in mind this is only one small part of the
historical picture of the time, but it's a damn interesting one by any
standard. There were other organizations with other spheres of influence, and
Luciano’s direct influence in America was only from 1931 to 1946. Although he
was imprisoned in 1936 this merely caused him to restructure the way he did
business. Lt. Cmdr Haffenden
was directly involved less than year and Hoover was never really allowed to be
These are but a few of the primary elements
contributing to the atmosphere in early February of 1942 and after the 1945
Armistice, each player left the table, cashed in his chips and went looking for
the next game. It's another story as to who won, who lost or who drew, but for
that brief period in the Spring of '42, the path's of
all concerned were unexpectedly and inextricably interwoven to form Operation
‘When we are dealing with the
Caucasian race, we have methods that will determine loyalty. But when we deal
with the Japanese, we are in an entirely different field.’
California State Attorney General, Earl Warren in 1942,
commenting on the imprisonment of 150,000 Japanese-American citizens.
‘Now they have created a
Frank-in-steen monster and the chickens have come
home to roost all over the country!’
Presidential candidate Governor
George Wallace, 1968, commenting on the opposition.
‘Doodle Doodle Dee, Wubba Wubba Wubba.’
MTV’s Downtown Julie Brown, commenting on the current state
of politics in America.
New York City waterfront is an interesting place. Anything can happen at most
any time and in late January of 1942, despite its two and a half centuries of
violent history, relative peace and calm prevailed, while half a world away
free China was lost, the Battle of Britain had been fought, and Hitler was
dining in Paris.
majority of men have always and will always allow themselves to be caught up in
world events larger than themselves, and hopelessly swim against the tide while
praying to their respective gods for a favorable
outcome. However, a select few have the where-with-fore to keep their heads and
turn such events to their advantage.
such man was in his sixth year of a fifty year sentence, without parole,
convicted on contrived evidence and told he would eventually be deported to a
nation whose leader had already issued a death warrant against him.
State Penitentiary, Dannemora, New York. Groundhog
weathered, olive complexion of the visitor's face made him look older than his
mid-forties. Other than the guard, who now stood sentry against the wall in
front of him, he was alone in the under lit, painted brick room.
patiently at the far end of the long wooden table, hands on top in full view as
the large, baked-enamel sign on the wall dictated, he was fitted in a dark
blue, handmade suit complete with silk tie. He glanced at the stone-faced guard
who stared back with his best tough guy face. After a fifteen minute wait, the
rattling of locks on the dark green, steel doors progressively echoed louder
and louder throughout the adjoining chambers, until the door leading into the
visitors room creaked open, and two more men entered.
pock-marked faced prisoner with dark hair and drooping right eyelid were the
first to enter and the prisoner was escorted to a seat on the opposite side of
the table by a second, older guard. The visitor reached over the twelve inch
high partition which bisected the thick oak top to shake hands with the
dungaree clad man on the opposite side.
your hands away from the prisoner!” Tough Guy guard yelled. The visitor was
unfazed and proceeded with his inquiry in a tone of genuine concern.
ya doin’, Charlie?”
. . .” Charlie shrugged. “It’s Dannemora, you know.
“Ya need anything?” Both men were visibly relaxed.
Get me down state!”
workin’ on it, Charlie. Anything else?”
it goin’ down town?” He changed to a near whisper,
and immediately both guards drifted closer to the table. The men looked up from
their seated positions, and then at each other. With feigned disregard they
resumed their conversation, only now in Italian. The guards didn’t back away.
ain’t lookin’ so good.
Especially with these two assholes standin’ here.”
“Ya think maybe they’re queer for each other?” Neither of
the men laughed at the comment, but the younger of the two guards became
visibly annoyed, and started towards Lucky. The elder guard raised an arm to
stop him and the men once again resumed their conversation, however this time
in an obscure dialect of Sicilian.
What’s goin’ on?” The guards drifted back towards the
wall as Tough Guy grew increasingly irritated.
Camardos are gettin’ more
independent, we’re losin’ more of Jersey. Siegel says
if they don’t let him send somebody over there to put a hit on Goering and Goebbles, he’s gonna do it
crazy Jew bastard! Always with the gun! What’s the story on working with the
Navy people?” A downward glance introduced his reply.
Why?! What’s our guys in D. C. say?” Charlie was surprised.
politically risky. They don’t want no part of it.”
Did you remind them . . . ?”
was countin’ on that deal ta
solidify our operations fer after the war.”
get you down state while we’re at it.”
Luciano looked down at the table top. “Maybe they can be persuaded.” Charlie
suggested. The young guard could stand it no longer. The senior sentry nodded
at his younger colleague and both started towards the men.
up! Let’s go!” Halfway through the door, Lucky called back over his shoulder.
Albert A. up here next.”
Free China might have been lost, the Battle of Britain may have been
fought, and perhaps Hitler was dining Paris, but on the Manhattan side of the
Big Pond, relative peace and calm prevailed.
The February sunrise peacefully crept over Hudson Bay illuminating the
pristine, bluish-green water of New York Harbor. The golden sunlight sent
moonbeam-like reflections dancing playfully across the serene river and helped
chase the morning chill from the docks.
For the last forty-five minutes methods of transport of every shape and
description arrived depositing denim clad workers onto the planks of Pier 88
along Luxury Liner Row just off 49th Street. Few arrived by automobile as
parking spaces were all but non-existent and the limited few were reserved for
the most senior executives and high ranking naval officers. Besides, cars were
for the rich. Instead bicycles, buses, subways, and most often the 'shoe
leather express', were the Tradesman’s common modes of transport. The second
Monday of the month saw the slow, but purposeful activity of nearly 5000
workers about to ease into their daily routine of organized chaos.
As 6:30 approached, the change of shift whistle was about to sound and
2,500 weary bodies would be replaced by 2,500 fresh workers ready to expend
their energy into the project at hand.
the fact they all seemed to have the same look about them, this army of
welders, fitters and carpenters were not dressed in a cohesive uniform. As the
sporadic conversation and occasional joking of the scattered clusters of men
became progressively louder the serenity, which signalled the prelude to the
daily routine, was suddenly shattered by an unscheduled outburst.
outside the gate a young couple, the woman cuddling a small wailing bundle,
were heard exchanging insults. After a brief stare-off the man turned his head
and noticed the cluster of workers propped against the chain-linked fence
observing he and his wife’s public displays of affection. Knowing better than
to attempt the last word, he terminated the argument and stormed away in the
direction of the workforce. Not far behind a metal lunch pail sailed through
the air after him and although these tin, alloy containers were never designed
as missiles, in the right hands their aerodynamics were appreciable.
on the ground just behind the disillusioned young husband, the pail burst open
and spilled its contents onto the asphalt. As he stooped to rescue the only
food he would have for the next twelve hours, his co-workers seized the
opportunity to offer their support.
“Ain’t love grand?” One of them called out in a mock
romantic voice and the flood gates opened.
Doll! Yankee try-outs next week!”
must be so proud being married to one of those new, modern women." As if
to rescue him from further humiliation, the change of shift whistle blew and
the horde of laborers and tradesmen slowly
migrated towards the small gate leading to the dock. The narrowness of the gate
was not an oversight on the part of the Third Naval District engineers. It was
an intentional design to control pedestrian traffic in order to increase
security on the strategically critical pier.
night shift filed out through an adjoining gate, spilling out onto the side
walk under the West Side Highway, a glaringly evident look of fatigue on their
faces, it was obvious that these men had begun to reach the point where it was
no longer the hours or the physical output required of them which caused them
to grow older than their years. It was instead the relentlessness of the work.
Day after day, night after night with nothing to break the tedium of the
routine. All knew, without being told, that the shipbuilding would go on and
on, and on until, at some unknown point in time, in the distant future, the war
was over. One way or the other.
Shuffling through the gate with an orderly sense of
urgency, the off-going shift migrated out onto the streets and beyond. The
on-going crew, which had now swelled to over 2,300 members, displayed a
diversity not normally seen in times of peace.
Aside from civilians representing all walks of life,
there were over 1100 men in active duty Navy, Coast Guard and Reservist’s
As a means of proving who they were and foiling
potential saboteurs, everyone was required some form of I. D. The military men
carried standard issue armed forces cards with photos and serial numbers. The
civilian workers and tradesmen however, had each been issued a small brass
medallion, about the size of a silver dollar, as their means of I. D. Stamped
into each coin were a series of five numbers as well as the name of the
shipping line each worked for. Some held their medallion in their hand and
flashed it to the guard as they passed through the gate. Some pinned it to
jacket lapels and still others had them attached to baseball caps bearing the
logo of their favorite ball club, each member of the labor army attempting to express a measure of individuality
in an ocean of sameness.
After about ten minutes, when a couple of hundred men
had already passed through the checkpoint, the line suddenly stopped moving.
Heads peeked right and left of the line to observe the short, slight man standing
in the threshold of the gate, frantically frisking himself in an attempt to
locate his medallion. Arms folded across his chest the stocky Marine corporal
stood glaring at the man.
“Hey Fitzy, take your time! Nobody’s got nuthin’ ta do here!” Someone called out from down the line.
“Yeah, no rush. Hitler’ll
wait.” Sporadic laughter added to Fitzy's consternation until, finally, he was
able to locate the all important item and was waved
With the line once again flowing freely, the seemingly
endless stream of work boots paraded past the guard and fanned out across the
pier, making their way towards the behemoth-like luxury liner looming in the
berth before them.
A large, rectangular wooden sign, hung on a pair of
thick, square timbers, adjacent to the main gangplank, amidships. As an
afterthought a dirty grey tarpaulin had been lashed over the sign, but one end
flapped loosely in the breeze revealing the words, “New Troopship” and
“Lafayette”. As if to reinforce the contradictory pattern which had thus far
characterized the U. S. war effort, high above the sign, prominently embossed
across the bow of the ship, was the name, ‘NORMANDIE’.
By way of protesting her forced make-over and imposed
new identity, the magnificent vessel had stubbornly sulked in harbor for nearly three years while argument after argument
ping- ponged off commander’s desks as to what to do with her.
The Generals wanted a new troopship to ferry troops into
the European Theatre while the Admirals reasoned that after Pearl Harbor, a new carrier fit the bill.
Her official designation up till now was AP-53 and,
despite the fact that politicians of the highest level were involved, no one
could possibly guess that the events of the next few hours would result in her
remaining in harbor for the rest of her life after
which she would emerge as a symbol of poor judgement and wasted effort.
As each of the men gravitated towards their respective
work stations no one seemed to notice the lone figure who carried no lunch
pail. His unscuffed boots peaking
out from long hemmed, crisp Levi denims shuffling across the creosote soaked
timbers. He carried a small, grease-stained brown paper bag at his side. The
lanky individual walked directly towards the gang plank amidships.
Focused on the sheaf of papers clutched tightly in his
fist the Site Foreman was far too angry to notice the new man as they crossed
paths. Making his way to the Site Overseer who stood behind a partially
sheltered podium, the irritated foreman stared at the man hunched over his work
and was greeted with forced cordiality.
“Morning boss. How’s . . . SHIT! What now?”
“‘What now?’ As if you‘re the only schmuck in the yard
that doesn’t know! Where are they?”
“You talkin’ about the riggin’ the fire hose, fake leak in the hull thing?”
“I’M IN NO MOOD EDDIE! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?! It’s a
report! And guess what's in it? Where are they?” Eddie inadvertently glanced
over his boss’ shoulder and turning, the Foreman spotted his two victims.
“Never mind!” He anetheziesd the Overseer's agony and re-directed his fury. “YOU
TWO, BUD AND LOU! HERE, NOW!” The two workers were taken completely off guard
and hesitated before slinking over to the gallows.
“I just spent twenty minutes explaining to ten people we
really don’t have a leak in the forward hold!” By way of response the shorter
of the two was seized with a sudden urge to scratch his head.
“See this? This is our quarterly safety review which
happened to occur exactly the same day you two morons GAVE UP GOOD JUDGEMENT
“But Boss, Lent ain’t til’ . .
“Stowing it, boss.”
“Boss we have no idea what you’re talkin’
about.” The tall worker responded with near sincerity.
“I told you it was a bad idea.” Prompted the co-accused.
“The Personnel Department says I’m to sack you two jerk
offs! Friday. But I, in my infinite generosity and benevolence, I told them
there are no more fitters down the hall. DON’T MAKE ME CALL ‘EM BACK!”
“Boss, we’re sorry. It’s just . . . the freakin’ boredom!”
“It's not really so much the boredom as it is the
“Just get your shit together will ya?!”
He pleaded. “This big grey taxi has ta be ferryin’ dog-faces by mid-March and my Damage Control crew runnin’ around playin’ sophomoric
pranks, disruptin’ operations don’t exactly help
matters. Besides . . . ”
“It’s all fun n’ games till somebody gets an eye poked
out.” Tall man interjected.
“Then it’s a sport.” Shorty nodded in affirmation.
“Get the hell outta here!
The work on the vessel proceeded until, the lunch break,
when the loud cacophony normally present gave way to a relaxing silence. To
avoid the long journey back down through the labyrinth of the vessel’s
passageways and onto the pier, everyone more or less sat and began eating where
they had been working. The topics of conversation ranged from the usual war
news to the tragic death of Carol Lumbard in a plane
crash in Las Vegas. Then, shortly after work had resumed, the routine on The
49th Street Pier, as well as the American war effort, was irreversibly altered.
Insidiously a narrow but widening plume of thick, black
smoke slowly crept its way down the port side passageway leading from the
promenade deck. Ominously, the treacherous dark cloud rolled along the deck
contained only by the freshly painted bulkheads as small red-orange flames
crackled behind it, fighting to gather momentum. a minute later the plume was a blanket
covering the 50 or 60 square feet of the deck.
A welder's helper shuttling tools back and forth for the
workers rounded the corner and came out onto the promenade and a wall of flames
exploded out into the open air and over the rail 100 feet over the dock.
To the crew members working on the pier, the trouble was
not immediately apparent. However, as the yelling and the chaotic activity on
the upper weather decks grew louder, an electrical sensation crackled through
the air and was instantly recognized as something drastically out of sync. With
animal like instinct, each man of each crew, through out each successive deck
level stopped what he was doing, raised his head and listened. Then, either
smelling smoke or sensing the steadily mounting pandemonium, ran for the exits.
In less than ten minutes the port side promenade deck was completely engulfed.
The mild breeze which blew that afternoon fed the flames
enough oxygen so that by half past two all the weather decks were involved. To
add to the rapidly mounting problems, the freshly applied coat of paint allowed
the entire main deck to be consumed only minutes later. The resulting one
thousand degree temperatures were in stark contrast to the thirty-three degree
levels of the ambient air of the harbor. To appalled
observers, the involvement of the lower weather decks meant that anyone working
above those levels, if they had not yet escaped, were suffering the most
horrible death imaginable.
By now several things were occurring simultaneously. A
variety of men working at pier level began to realize what was happening, and
three of them ran for the guard shack, which housed the only land line. As they
burst through the door, they discovered that the alert young Marine had already
notified the N.Y.P.D., the fire department, and was currently in the process of dialing the Harbor Master on his emergency line.
you call for the docs?!” One of the men asked in a frantic voice. The big guard
held out his index finger while finished
The police are going to notify the hospital to prepare a triage team.” Talking
into the telephone the Marine continued. “Harbor
Master, this is Lance Corporal Deuth, Pier 88, Luxury
Row! We've got a code two emergency! Yes sir, yes sir! Already done both of
those! Thank you sir!” As he hung up the phone the Marine instructed two of the
men to return to the ship to help, and one of the men to stand by the main gate
to prevent anyone from blocking access by parking in front of it. As they ran
back to the ship one of the men turned the other,
“What the hell’s a triage?”
“I don’t know, but they better get a shit load of them
With Normandie longer than the width of Central Park,
the two thousand foot long dock, plus the additional two to three hundred feet
to the main gate, was a distance few of the men gave any thought to until that
day. Running from the guard shack towards the ship was not only complicated by
the bitter cold, but wading through the crowds of workers moving in the
opposite direction while wearing heavy work boots and heavy winter coats made
it a triple effort. Tools and gear and canvas fire hoses littered the dock,
half of them covered in ice and men tripped and stumbled regularly.
Several workers, noticing that all four gang planks were
clogged with fleeing workers, immediately set about erecting ladders against
the hull at appropriate hatchways.
Through the unending stream of panic stricken workers
the Foreman fought his way back up the starboard side, forward gang plank.
Halfway to the Quarterdeck he recognised the exhausted face of his chief
engineer. Taking the awestruck man by the shoulders, the Foreman looked
straight into his eyes.
“Mac, what’s our status?” Gasping between phrases the
out of breath engineer stared through the Foreman in response.
“Bilge to ‘C’ level is clear. But if it reaches the POL
stores, everything from Jersey City over to Broadway’s gonna
be a fuckin' airfield!”
“You’re sure there’s no one else below?”
“Only those two lunatics.”
“Which two lunatics?”
“How many lunatics you got working Damage Control?!”
As the Foreman continued to struggle his way through the
fleeing workers deeper into the ship, it occurred to him how easily a man could
vanish into one of the thousands of human sized pigeon holes the partially
stripped down ship had become. Fighting through the passageways below decks he
spotted an OBA case on the port bulkhead. The Oxygen Breathing Apparatus would
buy him at least fifteen minutes of breathable air while he searched for his
two derelict ship fitters. Grasping at the latch handle he stared in dismay as
the case opened and in lieu of the life saving devise
a large, pink inventory tag appeared.
“Fucking bean counters!”
After an eternity of choking through the ever thickening
grey smoke he reached the Paints, Oils and Lubricants cages and his attention
was immediately diverted as he detected singing in the far corner of the large
Through a shroud of grey he saw the two men he had
chewed out earlier that morning, both with sledge hammers, alternately beating
a four inch water spigot in unison to the ‘Anvil Chorus’. Over the roar of the
encroaching flames he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.
“What the hell are you two assholes doin’
“Tryin’ to rig a leak!” Both
continued to pound away at the thick brass spigot. As if on cue, the fixture
burst and the resulting torrent of water dowsed the flames just as they were
about to reach the main POL stores. Breaking into a celebratory dance both men
dowsed themselves in the water.
“Never mind that shit! Get the hell outta
here!!” Smiling angrily and following the men out of the compartment the
Foreman muttered to himself. “Assholes!”
Back on the dock area a few of the men who initially
fled were now returning to lend a hand and began to set up an area away from
the ship to gather the casualties for the docs to assess.
One of the men was the man who earlier asked what a
Staring through the over sized
binoculars the young boy felt more like a man then he ever did sitting in a
classroom. Jimmy quit school two months ago when the war broke out, and through
some friends who were connected got a job in the Harbor
Master’s shack. Next year, when he turned seventeen he would sign up.
Although the building which housed the Harbor Master and his team was still referred to by its
eighteenth century name, it was anything but a shack..
enameled two story, clapboard structure,
which sat on what was essentially two sets of steel stilts, overlooked most of
the harbor from its strategic position on the tip of Pier 62 just
off West 23rd Street and was equipped with the latest in modern advances. High
definition FM radio, lamp lit map boards and a dedicated direct telephone line
to the fire tug outposts along Manhattan island.
to the immensity of the New York Harbor, it was
impossible to view the entire area at one time from any land or sea position.
So Jimmy was unsure exactly where the smoke plum he now observed originated. In
this instance protocol dictated an emergency procedure be enacted whereby the
area of the potential trouble was approximated, and a grid mapped out. Then all
hands would man the radio and phone lines to pin-point the location of the
problem and notify the nearest tug team.
Mr. Rorro. Mr. Rorro, sir.
I think I see something way out there.” Jimmy said, now squinting through the
supposed to see something way out there Jimmy. That’s what binos
are for.” The old HM was annoyed but tolerated his work being interrupted by
the young boy’s enthusiasm.
can you have a look at this please?”
I have got to get these tug escort reports done today! So stop buggin’ me!” The old man remained at the desk and continued
it looks like something. A fire maybe.” The old man’s head came up from the
paperwork. “Out near the tunnels.”
HM walked over, and took the glasses from the boy. Even before he raise them he
knew. “That’s a fire alright! Get on the grid! I’ll notify the tugs!”
as he reached for the emergency line it rang.
HM shack, who is this?” It was Lance Corporal Deuth.
“Yes corporal! Have you notified the fire and police departments? Alright than,
keep the main gate clear of traffic and continue to man your station. Report to
the fire chief when he arrives! The tugs are on their way. Corporal Deuth, good job!”
I got Harbor Side on the line. How many units?” The
Assistant HM spoke hurriedly but remained cognizant of his professionalism.
unit 52 Able and tell him to report as soon as he’s in sight of the fire, then
tell South Park Baker to standby and get South Park Able up there for back-up.
Tell ‘em to step on it. Those creosote soaked piers
get involved there’s gonna be one helluva
a lot of freight landin’ in Jersey!”
not dispatch 52 Baker with them?” Rorro didn’t miss a
the wind shifts north we’ll need somebody up there to intercept. Ronnie, get on
channel nine notify all vessels as of . . . 14:21 hours, unless associated with
the fire, we are on radio blackout until further notice. Frank, get busy!
Divert all traffic south of the G.W.”
on it!" Frank shot back.
HM notified the harbor side fire-brigade, and then
proceeded to broadcast on the emergency band, channel nine, to divert all
traffic away from the area. For a full twenty minutes the old HM showed why he
was in charge, running back and forth across the shack directing personnel and
all the activity, Jimmy dutifully sat at the small corner table, struggling to
plot the grid as he'd been trained. As the situation in the shack gradually
came under control, the HM noticed the youngster still tucked away at the desk.
Walking over to him, the man placed a hand on the boys shoulder. Jimmy
continued to plot.
Jimmy.” He said quietly.
looking up, Jimmy responded. “I’ve almost got it sir. Just one more minute!”
can stop now. We’re there. It's 88.” Masked in a look of despair the youngster
turned towards the leathery faced man. Rorro turned
to walk away, than hesitated.
Jimmy, nice job. You done good. You’ll get credit in my official report for
spotting the fire.” A dejected Jimmy slumped in his chair. Rorro
crossed the room and without turning back added, “You may have saved a few
hoped his parents would understand when he told them he wouldn't be joining the
Navy. He was going to sign on to become a Harbor
at the Normandie events were mushrooming out of control as the number of men
streaming out of the flaming vessel and on to the narrow pier, steadily
swelled. Realizing that the entire dock may be engulfed, they began moving back
towards the gate area carrying as many of the injured as possible with them
where they met head on by fire-fighters, dragging hoses hard pressed to reach
the entire length of the berth.
one of the men rushed back to the blazing vessel, for what was his third time
in half an hour, he was forced to avert his eyes in horror. A body, its arms
and legs flailing, fell through the hot air, over 100 feet from the main deck
of the ship, and violently slammed into the hard wooden timbers of the pier.
minutes into the blaze, the burning had progressed far enough that the fire was
declared out of control. Smoke and flames were visible across the Hudson River
in New Jersey, and several fire units from that state had been mistakenly
spectacular wakes through the river as they sped northward a dozen fire tugs
were under full throttle, their sirens heard all across the west side.
arrived only seconds behind the smaller, swifter police boats, and immediately
entered into their life saving ballet from the outboard side of the vessel. In
an effort to coax the flames back into the ship, the small boats furiously
pumped icy sea water onto Normandie. The resulting black plumes of smoke
floated into the grey of the afternoon Manhattan sky and were carried by the
Winter breeze out over the island, meandering through the tall buildings. The
upper levels of most of the garment district skyscrapers were obscured and
traffic was at a stand still as the smoke filtered
down and settled at street level.
cloud had not quite reached the office of the city’s highest official as of
yet, however City Hall parking lot was full and the mayor’s office was crammed
LaGuardia sat at his desk, his large form nearly invisible from the neck down
for the forest of microphones fanned out in front of him. his flabby chin
wagging. The big man spoke to his constituency in one of his regular radio
broadcasts. Just as he was building up steam, telling everyone how good he and
his party had done so far this political season, not to mention how many of his
campaign promises he had fulfilled, an aide entered from the side lines and handed
him a message. LaGuardia read it and asked if it had been confirmed. When the
aide nodded the politician stood, and with an alarmed look on his face,
apologised to the press and excused himself.
minutes later, with a police escort screaming around them LaGuardia and two men
selected from his army of aides were in their official limo plotting strategy.
want an update on traffic problems ASAP. And prep for additional manpower in
police, fire and road works.” The Mayor ordered to the senior of the two aides.
taken care of it sir.” There was a brief pause and the two aides exchanged
Honor . . . there’s something more important we need
to consider.” LaGuardia looked back from the window.
on how this thing happened . . . sabotage, accident, we could get hurt.”
on the death toll. With an event this size, a few bodies would be acceptable. .
.” The junior aide chimed in.
on who they are.”
course. But dozens, god forbid hundreds . . . “
we know who the scene commander is?” LaGuardia inquired.
Patrick J. Walsh”
or republican?” The junior man began flipping through a note pad.
at the scene LaGuardia had to struggle through the crowd. He was escorted past
the medical triage center on the south side of the
pier which had been established by medical support personnel, and it was at
that moment the gravity of the situation hit home.
the encroaching dusk a 1000 foot wide fog of smoke rose over the ship, painting
half the grey sky black, then leaned south and floated towards the Atlantic.
gut wrenching contrast to the misleading serenity above Luxury Liner Row, over
a dozen fire tugs danced around the vacant adjoining slip deciding how to keep
the largest ship in the world from listing any further and becoming swamped.
Suddenly the chaotic cacophony of the casualties flooding in at an unmanageable
rate, snapped him back to reality as he watched the woefully outnumbered
doctors and nurse, hard pressed in their heroic efforts to keep up.
mayor dispatched an aide to seek out the fire chief, and fifteen minutes later
Chief Walsh, his face smeared in soot, was briefing LaGuardia as to the current
situation. The chief spoke in a controlled, professional tone, but was
compelled to raise his voice above the clamber of the rescue efforts.
Honor, at this point we have every fire tug on the
West Side involved as well as all of the shore based apparatus we can
effectively manoeuvre on this narrow pier.”
why is she leaning so far to the side?”
all the water we’ve pumped into her sir. There’s no way for it to drain out.”
He explained above the din.
happens if she flips over?”
that event Mayor we have a crew standing by to cut the mooring lines. But we’ve
secured permission from Admiral Andrews to cut holes in her hull to drain the
water and try and balance her out.”
not just stop pumping all that water into her? Or at least slow it down a
little?” The mayor’s inexperience in disaster management was obvious.
we have reports of over two hundred men still trapped below decks. If those men
were able to secure themselves in the various compartments and we stop pumping water
onto the flames . . . sir, they’re as good as dead.” LaGuardia folded his arms
and looked down. If two hundred lives were lost in this tragedy, and the
decision for the action causing those deaths could be traced to him in any way
. . .
understand chief. How long before it’s under control?”
Honor, we may not be able to get her under control.”
the Chief excused himself the mayor realized he had no choice but to accept the
senior fire-fighter’s expert opinion.
night fell, the ever darkening backdrop highlighted the spectacular display of
top side flames and dancing shadows. Glancing up at the burning hulk, the
mayor’s thoughts turned to the potential affects on
his political career now that German saboteurs had brought the war to America.
a small swarm of reporters appeared around him, and began the traditional
feeding frenzy of questions. Nearly surrounded, LaGuardia held his hand up,
messiah-like, and began to speak. The press listened.
I’ve just finished speaking with Fire Chief Walsh. He assures me the blaze is
under control and that the Normandie can be salvaged. They’ll be a press
conference in the morning. No more questions. Thank you.”
walking away from the mob, amidst a barrage of questions, LaGuardia nodded to
his junior aide. The well groomed young man stepped
between the press sharks and their intended chum and, paying particular
attention to detail, began to speak at length about nothing, and then pretended
to answer questions as the politician vanished through the gate and into his
with the fire nearly extinguished, and very little available light remaining,
not much else could be done for Normandie that day. Walsh’s men had cut the
mooring lines as well as several holes in her hull, but it didn’t help.
Sometime during the night, the eloquent lady nearly twice the size of Titanic
who had twice held the trans-Atlantic record, gently rolled over and came to
rest in her berth at ninety degrees port.
battle ship grey and pumpkin orange, ice encrusted hull glimmered in the
morning sunlight, and it was impossible to resist the visual images it
projected. Only a couple of hundred yards across the river, on the Jersey
shore, some high school kids had gathered on the rail road tracks which
paralleled the river. They stood and watched a lone fireboat continue to coat
the sleeping beauty with sea water.
Pete! Look how big them propellers are!” It was the younger of the three boys
who spoke first.
ain’t propellers dummy! They’re called screws!”
lay off Jerry! Just `cause your brother’s in the Navy that don’t make you in
Well it will next year! Whatta you civilians know
anyways?” He waved a hand in disgust and, the lesson in marine engineering
concluded, the three boys moved on to more mundane things such as class work
noise and confusion of the previous day on the 49th Street pier had, during the
night, subsided. However, early next morning it was resurrected into an
organized rhythm of work. The long, tedious task of clean up
small wooden building, sat on the north east end of the dock. Originally built
in the 1920’s as a ticket office, it had only last month been transformed into
a supervisor’s office for management of the Normandie refit project. This
Tuesday morning however, the tiny structure was once again transformed into
something it had not been intended for, a press room.
single sheet of paper taped to the front door, the only door, was hardly discernable through the Winter dark and read, ‘Press
Conference 0700 hours’. The interior had been made into a makeshift facility by
shifting the chairs around, classroom style, on either side of the room. At the
front stood a small podium, behind which was a large blackboard. The board bore
an outline, in chalk, of Normandie, in profile. In one corner of the board
someone had scribbled a laundry list of statistics down the right hand side,
“83,000 tons, 1,029 ft long,” etc.
throng of reporters, far outnumbering the amount of available seats, were
dressed in heavy winter clothing, sipping coffee from blue & white paper
cups and trying to keep warm in the unheated shack. As they spoke, their breath
formed puffs of steam in the air, adding to the atmosphere of drama which hung
in the room.
were verbally bombarding a junior Naval
officer trapped between the podium and blackboard. With his great coat open and
his tie undone, the beleaguered Lieutenant, Junior Grade, heroically fought off
the questions, but was hampered by his inability to control the crowd.
was sent in from the Public Relations office to buy time for the Admiral who
was now twenty minutes late. Their press deadline approaching, the reporters
wanted a statement, and they wanted it now. Particularly about certain rumors no one would comment on.
“Come on Lieutenant! Give us a break! What’s the dope on
this sabotage thing? Who actually spotted the submarine?”
“Hey, L. T.! We heard two hundred guys were burned alive
below decks! When can we get pictures of the bodies?” It was the representative
of the Enquirer.
“Now that she’s sunk, do we got a Pearl Harbor East?” In exasperation, the officer held up a hand,
but to no avail.
“Sir could this be a coordinated plan by the Germans to
sink ships up and down the Eastern Seaboard?” From behind the mob the sound of
the door closing was heard and a voice rang out.
“Where do you aspiring Walter Winchells
get these questions?” Everyone quieted down and turned to see who had entered.
A visible expression of relief came over the J. G.’s face. The Admiral, flanked
by two officers, strode up the aisle while removing his overcoat.
As he was replaced from behind the podium by the
Admiral, the J. G. sat down, and became aware of the state of his uniform. The
other two officers stood off to one side, the J. G. began to collect himself
and the Admiral waited until all of the pressmen were completely silent. He
didn’t have to wait long. Like a fourth grade class about to be given crucial
answers to their next exam, they poised, pens and pads in hands.
“Now why the hell couldn’t I do that?” The young
Lieutenant whispered to one of the officers on his flank.
“Because you’re not a god-damned admiral.”
“Gentlemen, I am Rear Admiral Adolphos
Andrews, Commandant of the Third Naval District. Apologies for being late. Let
me start by asking you to hold your questions until I finish my statement.”
“First, in response to the rumor that 200 men were
trapped below decks, everyone got out. Sorry Dave.” The Admiral looked at the
reporter from the Enquirer and the rest of the room broke into a ripple of
laughter which quickly subsided.
“There is a casualty list which will be released to you
pending notification of next of kin. I can tell you, however, that at this time
we have seventy-two hospitalized, ninety-three treated on the scene and one
known dead.” The Admiral knew what they wanted to hear. He made the decision to
skip the rest of the details of the prepared briefing, and get to the point.
“About the sabotage rumor. It
was a fire. An accidental fire. Nothing more. There was no U-Boat. There were
no spies in the yard. Just an accidental fire.”
“Sir?” One of the pressmen ignored the request to hold
“How can you definitely rule out sabotage when there’s
been no investigation?”
“Because we know where and how the fire started.” The
Admiral replied, careful not to reveal his annoyance.
“But sir . . .” The reporter pushed, knowing he had the
support of the entire press corps present. “It’s not even been eighteen hours!
She’s still smouldering out there, fer cryin’ out loud!” Andrews realized he had to be more
From the best information I have available at this time, the fire started on
the port side promenade deck. A spark from an acetylene torch ignited a life
jacket. Exactly like this one.” Holding up an orange, thick collared Mae West,
he produced a knife from his hip pocket and sliced deeply into the vest.
material . . .” He explained to his audience reaching into the hole and
producing a handful of dark, straw-like substance, “. . . is Kapok. Very good
flotation properties, but highly flammable. One of the welders got careless. A
spark from his torch set off a pile of Mae Wests, and it got out of control.”
Andrews hoped that by using a more familiar lexicon, he might get through to
them more effectively.
we understand there’s gonna be a D. A.’s investigation.
If it’s a clear cut accident why are the cops in on it?”
covering all the bases Phil. We don’t want anything coming back on us later.
You know what I mean?”
hey Sir?” There was another bout of sporadic laughter, but Andrews wasn’t off
the hook yet.
can you honestly tell us that with thousands of people milling in and out of
here all day long that a saboteur couldn't sneak in and start a fire?”
not telling you that couldn’t happen. However under the circumstances I’m
telling you that it would have been impossible due to our unbreachable
security.” Maintaining his professional attitude was becoming more difficult
however, he sought to get the briefing back on track and so asked if there were
any other topics they would like to discuss.
can she be salvaged?”
are confident that the AP-53 can be salvaged. However that’s an engineering
question, and I’m a ship driver.” Nodding to one of the other officers, he
continued as the officer stood up. “Lieutenant Commander Scott is Chief of
Naval Repairs for the Third Naval District. He’ll field all of your questions
concerning the salvage operation. And then wow you with his technical
knowledge.” Andrews explained. “I have to leave, however when the engineer is
finished he’ll give you back to our P. R. man. Be gentle with him fellas. It's
his first time. Thank you.” The Admiral stepped down and took his coat, while
the Lieutenant Commander stepped up and prepared to speak.
J. G., still in his seat, buried his face in his hands and shook his head.
the street the Admiral’s Adjutant did his job. In the Admiral’s interest he
asked the unthinkable.
what if a subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of enemy agents? Are
we prepared for that?” Andrews donned his gloves as he gazed out the hazy
sunrise colorfully tinting the vast harbor.
do you remember all the anti-war sentiment before Pearl?” Andrews spoke in a
low, but firm tone.
good part of that argument was because a hell of a lot of people in this
country were sick of war, but thought we were invulnerable. Nobody could touch
us, nobody would touch us! Nobody would touch America! So let the Europeans
fight their own war, we’re safe way over here. And then came Pearl. All of a
sudden the U. S. is not only in the war, we’re in it without a Pacific fleet.
Now how do you suppose the general population of this country would react if
they knew that we were losing upwards of fifty ships a month in the Atlantic,
let alone that there might be enemy agents in New York City?”
the Adjutant stared out across the harbor.
our delusions of invulnerability gone, Gene, all we got left right now to hold
the people together . . . is patriotism.”