Cuba Shakedown

USS Basilone, 1955, Cuba

“A good crew can get out 20 rounds a minute.”

He was telling me about when he was stationed in Cuba, on our way to the pro shop to check out a new set of clubs. Part of a special forces fleet, the USS Basilone Destroyer, “Tough and Tenacious,” was armed to shoot down just about anything- planes, ships, subs- but in particular, Russian submarines, should they step out of line. For a week in Cuba, they blew every gun and whistle on deck- rockets launched and pierced the air, hedgehogs and mines sunk and shot water clear up 200 feet, rumbled the machines guns, turrets, shoulder launchers, torpedoes.

This was a shakedown.

As a powderman, his job was to follow the shellman who hoisted a 50 pound shell into the barrel of a gun. Once shot, the powder can would blow out the back onto the deck where a man in fireman-esque gloves retrieved the white-hot can. It took ten men and an officer to operate the one gun mount, which was enough to obliterate just about anything. The fact that there were half a dozen on one side seemed redundant. (At this point of the story, I noticed how his accent had changed. Reminiscent of a boyhood in the Bronx.)

Once everything was loaded, a man in central command would pull the trigger. One of these ten men, on this particular mount, John, had the esteemed job of steadying the barrel, which on this day he was not doing such a good job of. The trigger was pulled, but the shell and powder can jammed midway up the barrel.

“If you asked me what I did in a crisis… what I did was to put my fingers in my ears.”

They immediately called a ceasefire and the rolling thunder of ammunition yielded to silence.

He waited for the barrel to explode, to backfire, to bust open, ready with his fingers in his ears. The commanding officer stormed over to the other side of the ship like all of hell's fury, took my grandfather by the throat and lifted his 6’3’’ frame off the ground:

“Blomquist, you stupid son of a bitch, if this ship blows up, you’re going to look mighty stupid going through space with your fingers in your ears!”

The ship didn’t blow up. The can simply slipped back down into the back end of the barrel, unjamming itself.

This was a shakedown.

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