Oldest Midwatch Poem [to date]
This post is an example of what we do with the ships and deck logs in each chapter of Midwatch in Verse. Each chapter of the book is divided into three parts—a history of the ship, a brief discussion of the poem, and a short biography of the poet. The book is limited to poems written during World War II, but in this blog we will look at material from other times also. The poem offered below is especially important for us at this point because it is the earliest example of the midwatch in verse tradition we have identified.
USS Idaho (BB 42) was a New Mexico-class dreadnaught battleship commissioned March 24, 1919. While returning from exercises in the western Pacific in late 1925, Idaho carried the famous Naval airman Commander John Rodgers back to San Francisco from Hawaii after his failed attempt in a PN-9 flying boat to fly non-stop from California to Hawaii. Commander Rodgers’ story is the stuff of legend. His PN-9 was forced to land in the ocean when it ran out of fuel on September 1. The plane and crew were not found by the Navy in an extended and expansive search, so the next day the crew used fabric from a wing to make a sail and sailed the float plane toward Hawaii. After sailing the plane for nine days and 450 miles, they were spotted by a US submarine and rescued just fifteen miles from one of the main Hawaiian Islands, Kauai. Rodgers and the crew were picked up in Hawaii by Idaho and returned to San Francisco on September 24. Unfortunately, Rodgers did not have much time to enjoy his hard-won fame. He was killed in the crash of a plane he piloted less than a year later.
From September of 1931 until October of 1934, Idaho underwent an extensive overhaul and modernization at Norfolk Navy Yard. In June of 1941, as the Battle of the Atlantic raged between Germany and the European allies, she was sent to Hampton Roads in Virginia to patrol the East Coast in support of the Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, protecting Allied shipping from German U-Boats. In September, she was sent to Iceland to protect forward bases and was still there on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. From 1943 through the remainder of the war, Idaho was active in the Pacific campaigns, including the Aleutians, the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, Saipan in the Marianna Islands, Peleliu, Guam, and the Philippines.
From February 19 to March 7, 1945, Idaho provided artillery support for the invasion of Iwo Jima, contributing to one of the heaviest pre-invasion bombardments in history. Two weeks later, she served as flagship of Bombardment Unit 4 in the invasion of Okinawa. When the land assault of Okinawa began April 1, Japanese air forces initiated furious suicide attacks. According to battle reports, Idaho was attacked by two Japanese dive bombers early that morning, but she destroyed both planes. The attacks continued relentlessly, and on April 12, Idaho performed heroically, downing five Japanese planes before receiving damage herself. A “Kate,” the American code name for the Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber, landed a bomb close enough to the ship to blow an eighteen-inch hole at the waterline, flooding several compartments, causing a steam leak in one of the engines, and rendering one radar inoperative and limiting the rotation of another. In addition to other minor damage, ten crewmen were wounded.
Idaho returned to Guam for repairs, but hostilities with Japan ceased August 15, before Idaho saw further action. She transported occupation troops to Tokyo and was present for the signing of the surrender on USS Missouri September 2. She was decommissioned on July 3, 1946, and she remained in the Reserve Fleet until being sold for scrap November 24, 1947.
She received seven battle stars for her service in WWII.
Three months after Idaho carried Commander John Rodgers and his crew home from Hawaii, a young Ensign, E. V. Dockweiler, stood the midwatch on January 1, 1926, and wrote the poem below. The opening line claims, “I stand on the deck at midnight.” Idaho would be operating out of San Pedro for six years, and she is anchored there as Dockweiler writes his poem.
The ship rests in berth A-Seven (“our hook is in hole A seven”) on forty-five fathoms of anchor chain in eight-and-a-half fathoms of water. She strains gently on the chain. Steam is supplied by boiler (can) number seven. Dockweiler refers to other battleships in the harbor with Idaho, noting that the Senior Officer Present is asleep on California. At 1:15 the pharmacist’s mate, Roskelly, returns from leave.
The poem consists of 36 lines divided into quatrains, using one of the standard ballad stanza variants. There are no stanza breaks. The tone of the poem is tongue-in-cheek throughout, and Dockweiler’s humor is most apparent in the early lines, where he jokes about San Pedro Harbor not being much of a harbor, and in the final quatrain, where he offers a typically droll quip about the deck log he has just written. The closing lines exclaim, “If the Captain ever sees this log / My gawd what will he do?” In fact, the Captain did see the log and approved it, adding the following note: “The Captain is glad to see that the old Navy custom of writing up the first watch of the year in rhyme is known to the younger members of the Service. The watch stands as written.”
Here’s the poem.
I stand on the deck at midnight
As the clocks are striking the hour
And I’ll keep the watch until morning
To the best of my humble power.
We are anchored in Pedro harbor
Tho there isn’t much of a lee
And why they call it a harbor
Is something I never could see
But our hook is in hole A seven
And our center anchor chain
Has forty-five in the hawse pipe [hawse pipe—steel channel in hull for chain egress]
And a very gentle strain.
When we anchored our trusty leadsman [a leadsman takes depth soundings with a hand line]
Made a very careful cast
Finding eight and a half good fathoms
As the bugler blew the blast.
And down below in the fire rooms
Which the black gang ought to man [black gang—from soot in early coal-fired ships]
The steam is blowing bubbles
In number seven can. [can—boiler]
All the battleship divisions
Swing nearby on the blue
Except the West Virginia
And the Mississippi too.
The Senior Officer Present
Floats peacefully in his sleep
On the good ship California
The guardian of the deep.
At one fifteen Roskelly
A pill rolling pharmacist’s mate
Returned from his leave on schedule
He’s lucky he wasn’t late.
That’s all the dope this morning
Except, just between us two
If the Captain ever sees this log
My gawd what will he do?
Ensign, U. S. Navy
Edward Vincent Dockweiler was born on April 29, 1901, to Isidore Bernard Dockweiler and Gertrude Caroline Reeve Dockweiler in Los Angeles, California. Edward was the seventh of eleven children in the Dockweiler family. Considered a pioneer family of the area, the Dockweiler legacy began with the arrival of Henry (Edward’s grandfather) in 1852 after unsuccessfully searching for gold in the California hills. The owner of many prominent businesses, he delved into politics which set the stage for Isidore to follow in his footsteps. Isidore became a well-known attorney, political operative, and philanthropist. Isidore and Gertrude’s children continued that tradition. Devout Roman Catholics, the Dockweilers were sometimes compared to the Kennedys of Massachusetts.
Edward graduated from Loyola High School and received an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis where he graduated 11th in his class of 531. His first assignment as a newly minted ensign was typical of Academy graduates of the day: duty on a battleship, in this case USS Idaho.
On November 16, 1930, Edward married Jeanne Berardini Gale Franzi at St. Vincent’s Church in Los Angeles. The San Francisco Examiner christened the event as “A marriage of international interest” attended “en masse by Los Angeles’ society elite.”
After earning a master’s degree in naval construction from MIT, Edward held several positions either on board a ship or at Naval Construction facilities. In 1941, he served as the supervisor of over 5,000 workers at the Cavite Naval Yard, Philippine Islands. He was in this position when the Japanese invaded the islands shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941.
For some time after the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Dockweiler led a group of guerillas who opposed the occupiers until they threatened to harm Allied POWs unless the guerillas surrendered. After surrendering, he began a journey that involved traveling to Japan on one of the infamous Hell Ships and being held in several POW camps on the Japanese mainland. In 1943, Radio Tokyo broadcast a short interview with Edward that was the first word the family had from him in a considerable period of time. As a senior officer among POWs, he became known for his relentless advocacy for the welfare of his men. At one point, while being held prisoner at the Nippon‐Koken shipyard in the Yokohama‐Tokyo area, Edward was ordered to work as a naval engineer but refused to do any work that would further the cause of the Imperial Japanese Navy, even under threat of punishment such as receiving half rations. Instead, he agreed to do more “domestic” work around the camp that helped to improve the captive lives of his men.
It was during this time (1944) that Edward teamed up with Canadian Staff Sergeant Charles Albert Clark to sabotage the shipyard. Clark, along with fellow Canadian Corporal K.S. Cameron, planted a timed fuse (a burning candle) in a specific area of the shipyard based on Edward’s knowledge of its layout. The resulting fire reduced the output of the yard by at least 50%. The Japanese investigation never discovered the origin of the fire.
In August of 1945, Dockweiler and his fellow captives heard about the Japanese surrender via a clandestine radio in the barracks. As senior officer of the camp, in his own words, “I walked up the the Jap commandant’s office, shoved the guard to one side with my 117 pounds and entered. I told the commandant that I knew Japan had surrendered and that I was taking over the camp. He stared at me then admitted it was true. Within an hour he had turned over the weapons to the American prisoners. By the next morning we had all the rice and meat we could eat, and the secret police and civilian police of the valley had surrendered.” [from Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona) · 18 Sep 1949, Sun · Page 4]
Dockweiler was liberated from captivity in September of 1945 after the Japanese surrender. In his testimony about conditions during his captivity he spoke of harsh treatment and poor conditions, however, he related in relatively positive terms his experience with one commandant of a camp where he spent considerable time. He talked of a Lieutenant Unamori, who truly seemed to want to treat his captives in a humane fashion in contrast to the more punitive, inhumane treatment experienced by many POWs held by the Japanese. For his service during the war, among other awards, he received the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star (both Navy and Army), the Distinguished Service Medal (see the citation here), and the Army Distinguished Unit Citation with oak leaf cluster.
Edward eventually retired from the Navy at the rank of Rear Admiral and became Chief Engineer of the Port of Los Angeles in 1955, where he remained until his death on March 30, 1961. He is buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
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