Yosemite Ship Saga – Blog Article by Dick Wibom, MM2/c
This article originally appeared on our previous USS Yosemite Association website. It’s now republished for your reading pleasure on our new website.
As the Yosemite steamed south, we passed the rugged Carolina coast and the graveyard of ships. The sea really rolled, especially as we passed Cape Fear. A number of shipmates didn’t feel so well. That strange churning in the stomach brought on seasickness. I remember going on deck and seeing swells big enough to bury a house in.
Once in a while, the bow would plunge down, and the props would “dry spin”, shaking the ship. Our destroyer escort would sometimes just disappear. The days were damp and cloudy. Eventually, we heard we were on our way to Key West for refueling. The weather should be better there, and the seas should be calmer than these off the Carolinas.
Guantanamo Bay to Panama
It didn’t take long to get the refueling in Key West completed. We then steamed south into the beautiful Caribbean and onto Cuba. Arriving at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, we anchored in the harbor and had a magnificent view of the base. In the hills, they were burning sugar cane.
By now most everyone was planning on a shore leave when the ship got to the planned destination of San Pedro, California. Some of the married guys would even have their wives waiting for them after we left Panama and headed for California. As I remember, only a few of the crew expected Yosemite to join the Pacific Fleet earlier than six months from now. Many thought we needed more preparation and training to properly service the fleet. Leaving Cuba, we sailed through the windward passage with our lonely escort constantly monitoring our position. In the distance, one could see white sand beaches and the palm trees of many tropical islands. Finally, we arrived in Panama (map) where a large number of ships of various categories had gathered near the entrance to the canal. Everything in the ice machines had gone along well. We all put our best efforts into becoming seagoing sailors. We heard through scuttlebutt that a liberty for both sections would be possible while we took on some needed supplies. There were warnings posted to advise us that Panama would prosecute people who got in trouble while off limits – watch your step!
We first got the tow cables attached to the Yosemite at the Gatun locks (map). It wasn’t long before we were in Gatun Lake, one of the largest man-made bodies of water in the world. From there, we worked our way across the Isthmus through the Pedro Miguel and then the Miraflores locks on our way to the Pacific Ocean and liberty in Balboa.
When we did arrive, we dressed in our whites, we headed for downtown. A group of us had a good steak dinner and American Blue Ribbon beer. At that time the essential items to look for were nylon hose for the girls back home, ‘Evening in Paris’ perfume, and a good wristwatch. I spent a small fortune on these items, and by luck, they actually arrived home several months later. The taxi drivers (pimps) all wanted to take us to the “Code A more”, a four-story whore house. We took one look at the place and left right away, ending up in a Spanish-speaking English movie. Asking to use the restroom, we found three marked- Peon, Hombre, and Caballero. The manager said to take the last one as it was the only one with plumbing. It was still a little early, so we thought we would stop for a last-minute drink.
On the way I stopped at a book store and bought a machinery book and was advised to stay on the main street. For that last-minute drink, we went in to a nightclub called the “Coconut Grove”. A stage show was about to begin, and the club was thick with smoke and noise. We couldn’t get a seat so we ordered a highball and stood just inside the door. The show started with a scantly dressed girl sitting on a bench in the bar. A big hunk of a guy in an ape suit tried to make advances. The drumming got louder, and there was a lot of shouting. Just when the Ape was going to grab the girl, a fellow in the second row got up, pulled a gun and fired a shot into him. They screamed, “They killed the Ape!” Everybody, including us, ran down the street to get away.
The following morning at Quarters, we heard that an actor was shot and killed at a downtown nightclub, and all those who had been on liberty would have to be checked for powder burns with a “black light”. While we were still at Quarters, the Shore Patrol pulled up to deliver a few of our crew who didn’t watch the clock. One poor guy was still half drunk and crawled up the gangway with women’s underwear on. He was escorted briskly to the Brig. Soon the VD scare was apparent as a few crewmen admitted to having sex in taxi cabs and other forbidden places.