Crossing the Equator with King Neptune – A Wartime Blog

There was a saloon in San Francisco, our home port, frequented by sailors.  the ladies there were charming and knowledgeable.  They liked us and we liked them.

On one occasion as we were slated soon to depart, the men in my division reported to me that they had, from their lady friends at the hangout, some requests for Philippine souvenir trinkets.  As if to say the ladies already knew something about our strictly sealed secret orders.

After we got underway, the Captain unsealed his orders and then called me to his cabin .  A Marine guard was stationed at his door, and the Captain shut the door and told me that he wanted a hatch cover converted into a temporary pond, perhaps two feet deep and about 18 feet by 20 feet in dimension.  Did I have enough wood and waterproof canvas liner for such a job?  I assured him that I did and he then said, “Make it so.”

An on-deck shallow pond?  Recreation? Communal bathing? A ceremony?  Were we about to cross the Equator?  For this there is a Naval Traditional Ceremony.  King Neptune would reign.

However we also had that hint from the bar ladies that they hoped for some trinkets from the Philippines. Please take note, all of those islands are north of the Equator and the Captain plans to have us meet King Neptune somewhere south of the Equator.  Should I say something?  I decided to be prudent.  Let it come from someone else.

Now in the course of the war in the Pacific there were two islands, both prominent in the news.  One, in the Philippine Archipelago, is Samar – somewhat north of the Equator.  Another, this one south of the Equator, but equally well-known, is Samoa.

I got a campaign ribbon with combat star on my uniform for service in the Philippines, but I never did cross the Equator during that war, and the barmaids did get their trinkets.

Battle Stations – A Wartime Blog

Of the four years I spent in the U.S. Navy, only a few hours were actually spent in situations where I was involved directly with killing people or in avoiding being killed.  The remainder of all that time was spent eating, sleeping, dreaming, training sailors, taking liberty, being trained, standing watch, reading, writing, sailoring, romancing, visiting exotic places or watching the same movies over and over again until we could trade them with another ship.

The incidents I recount in my wartime blog entries are but the punctuation marks in about 1500 days of relative inactivity seventy or so years ago.

Now as I write this in my 93rd year, now and then I’m beset by doubts about the accuracy of my reporting.  So, I applied a test by comparing my account with the official records of the Navy Department.  I reviewed for example; official U.S. Marine Corps account of activities in China on the Shantung Peninsula with what I wrote and they are in accord.  Also, the U.S. Army officers on my ship wrote in April 1945 about the Kamikaze attacks at Okinawa.  Again, they agreed with mine.  Thus I feel confident that I am still telling it “like it was”.

After that long preamble I’ll here and now recount what stuck with me since one day in April 1945.  I was in charge of the midships starboard twin Bofors 40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun.  The diameter of a projectile from this weapon is about an one and one-half inches.  This gun was served by a crew of about a dozen sailors. Some from the deck divisions, and some were stewards who rarely came on deck except to train on the gun or to reach the ladder for liberty.

Radio and radar confirmed an imminent air attack.  “General Quarters” was sounded and all guns were manned.  Nearby, destroyers began a barrage of anti-aircraft fire.  Soon we could see Japanese planes evading that gunfire and coming at us.  Most sailors who have experienced this have remarked, “That plane was flying directly at me.”  I’m sure it was.

My gun was firing; actually it was a twin gun – two barrels firing alternately.  We were shooting clips of H.E.I.T. from one barrel.  Those letters stood for High Explosive Incendiary Tracer.  From the other barrel the projectiles were armor-piercing.  The tracer shells permitted us to confirm that we were on target.

On this occasion, an ammunition passer, a big man in that crowded iron tub surrounding the gun moat, saw the oncoming plane, aimed, I’m sure, at him and he froze, immobile at his station.  Not only was he not passing the clips of ammunition, but in the crowded tub no one else could get around him to do his job.

As the officer in charge, I reached over the edge of the tub, it was about three or four feet high, and with the flat of my hand I slapped the side of his head hard.  He came out of his trance immediately and resumed the passing of ammunition.

The action was concluded when our shells hit the Japanese plane and it crashed into the sea only a few hundred feet from where we were standing.

A few Japanese airmen were dead, a shipboard of American seamen were elated, and I reported immediately to the Captain.  “Sir, I struck an enlisted man.”  I said nothing about us shooting down a plane, nothing.  What I was telling him was that I had committed a court martial offense which could be punishable by a term in a Naval prison.  The Captain promptly responded “Did the sailor say anything?”  I said, “No.”  He then said, “Forget it.”  But I didn’t.


Wartime Plumbing – A Wartime Blog

I began my career in the Navy as an eager young officer ready to serve my nation and the stars and stripes with competence, and fervor, and loyalty.  Soon the bloom faded from the rose and a full blown hatred evolved.

First to go was the Captain of our ship.  Apparently he suffered from bleeding piles and he persisted in flushing large bloodied cotton wads into his toilet.  I should mention that my duties were as an assistant to the First Lieutenant.  I was the Construction and Repair Division Officer.  As such, I commanded the deck forces not involved with gunnery or navigation.  We were the electricians, mechanics, carpenters, welders, masters-of-arms, and the plumbers. Ah yes, the plumbers.

There were frequent calls from the navigation bridge with the boatswain blowing loudly in his pipe over the Public Address System.  He would announce to the entire crew that “The presence of Mr. Roberts was requested in the Captain’s head.”  For those readers who don’t know, a head is a room with a toilet.

Of course I would show up with a plumber and his paraphernalia to clear the mess.  A discreet telephone call would have gotten the same response, but no, it had to be heard shipboard over the P.A. complete with the  shrill boatswain’s piping whistle – almost like “all hands to general quarters” or “battle stations”.

Eventually,  by the proverbial light of the moon, I modified the ship without notifying the Bureau of Ships in Washington.  I enlarged the discharge overboard from the Captain’s head.  A court martial offense if I was found out. Fortunate for me, the ship was scrapped some twenty years later with its violation intact.

Ichthyology – A Wartime Blog

The war had barely ended when my ship was ordered to the Port of Hakodate on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  I guess we went there mostly to convince the Japanese that their war was over and that they had lost.  Apparently the populace had already gotten the word, and we had no trouble coming ashore.  So we did.

My first visit was, naturally, to the local museum.  It was open, but there was no one about – not a soul.  So I wandered through the corridor and halls. I came upon their collection of preserved local fishes.  Sealed bottles and jars contained sea creatures preserved in alcohol along with labels written in Japanese, except for their Latin names.  I was intrigued because I already knew that their revered God-Emperor Hirohito was an amateur Ichthyologist.  Sure enough, I soon found a shelf of small, pocket-size bottles and no one was in the museum.  I left all of them on the shelf.  I’m still kicking myself, still, seventy years later.

How I Learned to Drive – A Wartime Blog

My ship was off Okinawa with troops to put ashore.  We were on high alert.  There was a real war going on about a mile or two inland from those very beaches.

My little flotilla of a half dozen LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) were busy doing what we did best.  We were putting troops on the beach.  A boat would sidle up alongside the ship and soldiers would climb down the landing nets from the ship and into our boats.  The army company commander was assigned to my boat along with his staff and his jeep.  This was a dicey business.  On one hand we wanted the boat to be close to the boarding net.  On the other hand, with the boat and the ship both rocking, we didn’t want to crush a soldier between boat and ship.

Millions of men managed.  Rarely was one killed or even hurt.  So it was on this occasion.   Then the Army officer said to me on his arrival in my boat, “I’ve shot myself in the foot while climbing down off the ship, take me back on shipboard.”  I said, “No, the Army will care for you ashore.”

Since I was in command, I had my way and off we went to Okinawa.  Having got there, all his soldiers scrambled ashore. He limped but made it.  I suddenly realized that I was stuck with his jeep in my boat.  My crew were all busy and there was no one but me available to get the jeep off the boat.  I forgot to mention earlier – I didn’t know how to drive. I could drive a horse and buggy.  I could navigate a ship across a vast ocean, but I never learned to drive a car.  My crew members instructed me, and so on a beach at Okinawa I first learned to drive.  It was easy!

Beginnings – A Wartime Blog

My adult life started when I enlisted in the Navy.  This start took place in early 1942, long before I was required to register for the draft, so of course, selective service had no record of me on file.

The Navy soon put me in bell bottom trousers and a coat of navy blue and paid me the lordly sum of $18 per month from which a little was deducted for life insurance.  Later my wage was raised to $21 per month.

I soon learned that a Springfield Rifle with bayonet weighed about twice as much a a pair of cymbals.   So I became a cymbalist in a Navy band, and eventually a Midshipman, and finally a Commission was awarded me, and I wore the gold of a newly minted Ensign.  Assigned to a ship, just built by the Kaiser Yards in Marin County California, I went to sea.  The vast, so vast, Pacific was to be my haunt for up to four years, or the duration, according to the terms of my enlistment.  My future was cut out for me, but my past left something to be desired.  I had never registered for the draft.

Back home my proud parents displayed my photo on their living room mantle with the gold star and that half-inch of gold around each sleeve.  My father had been a Lieutenant in the Army in the first World War ,and he was glad I could continue in his tradition.

Eventually, my dad wrote to me that the long arm of the FBI and / or the Selective Service caught up and several men visited my parents home to inquire in two parts why had I not registered for the draft and where was I?  My father answered that he truly didn’t know why to the first part or where to the second part.  The government people had the bit between their teeth and handcuffs at the ready, but somehow I wasn’t there.  Perhaps my parents had hidden me in the basement, or in a closet, or with relatives in Canada, except I didn’t have any relatives in Canada, and our beach cottage didn’t have a basement.

The people from the government were determined to have someone, those handcuffs were dangling unfilled when one of the officials finally asked my father when he last saw me, and Dad said, “When he departed for his ship, the USS Mountrail, now on the high seas, I know not where, and if I knew,I wouldn’t tell you because “loose lips sink ships.”  Then he pointed to that photo on the mantle, the one with the gold on my sleeves.  The visitors went away and they never came back.

Tables of Organization

Let’s start with Independent Man whose image stands atop the Rhode Island State House.  He stands alone, but in more practical realistic terms, he doesn’t quite stand alone; but he tries.

That statue represents a person who rarely lives even one hundred years.  He, with one or more spouses, produces a number of offspring.  Eventually Independent Man and his spouse are gone.  Maybe some offspring survive and the circle repeats itself.

So then what remains of Independent Man?  Perhaps a soul, perhaps just a concept, kept alive from generation to generation through written records, memories and culture.  This culture is passed down to us with statuary, architecture, pictures, sermons, songs, poetry, literature, Memorial Day oratory, and cemetery gravestone inscriptions.  These are all parts of our patrimony and we revel in it. Daughters are sometimes named after their mothers and sons after their fathers. This cultural material is the basic building block of mankind’s Table of Organization.

Now we should consider the hypothetical brothers and sisters of that original hypothetical Independent Man and his spouse. They too are hypothetical Independent Men and Women – but they are not all like their parents.  In fact, none are alike.  They are not clones.  Darwin tells us that we mutate in every generation and certainly you know you don’t think exactly like your parents thought.  So now we have not one, but many Independent Men who don’t necessarily think alike on every subject or act alike in every situation.

So, we humans, we cleave to like-minded people, we join into family groups, clubs, tribes, clans, language, cultural, political religious groups that might emphasize our similarities, but sometimes as the numbers of members increase, differences become more and more apparent.  Sometimes these differences become, or seem to become, so great that the groups split up.  They even go to war to convert, or sublimate, or decimate, or exterminate those who differ.  History is full of these conflicts.

To successfully wage these conflicts, cultural groups form into nations to consolidate their resources for such or bigger wars.  Waging war is one reason for forming a nation.  A nation establishes  and defends its borders, raises armies, collects taxes and grows.  So that’s still another level in the Table of Organization.

As we consolidate, however, we need to compromise some of our dogmatic cultures, language, religion or whatever.  This is difficult.  Do you know anyone today who speaks Esperanto?  Who then gives up his independence in order to cooperate with other independent people.  People who, like us, are far from being clones.

So now we experiment with a still higher level of organization like an empire or a league.  One such league (The League of Nations) which was created in 1919 lasted 27 years and was then replaced by a facsimile with a new name.  This is the United Nations and when push comes to shove, it seems to also be less than united.

To maintain membership all must compromise.  If and when they compromise, they grind away on that cornerstone, Independent Man.  So there goes The Table of Organization.  Even the great religions of the world have this problem.  They have become segmented to accommodate differences.  For example, there are Catholic Bishops who answer to the Pope in Rome, but who may, if they wish, marry and raise families.

Among Jews there are Ultra Orthodox, and Orthodox, and Conservative, and Reformed.  Catholics follow several rites, some of whom hardly know or recognize each other.  Muslims of the Shia sect and the Sunni sect have lately been killing each other, sometimes with suicide bombers.  Surely, these people are sincere.  Protestant denominations abound. Some employ poisonous snakes in their rituals – REALLY!

Whole libraries are devoted to the storage of the records of oriental religions.

The same diversity found in religion, also obtains in how we govern ourselves.  Through it all, I retain my guarded optimism for humanity, but I’m still prepared to risk my life to defend my status as an Independent Man.  Boiled down, I would rather be dead than different.



Mervin Roberts – Basics

This blog entry is in response to The American Baptist Churches of Connecticut Policy Statement on Gun Violence.
Approved in February 2013. 

Altruism governs in my relation to others.  This is a given.

Liberty governs in how I want to treat and be treated by others.  This is also a given.  My guide posts in life are independent man and the Priesthood of the Believer.  Here I take my stand.  There can be no compromise.

I strive to conduct my life to achieve works.  I neither reject or endorse the questions of faith or belief in the hereafter.  I am also not interested in whether or not Mary got to heaven corruptible or incorruptible.

Forces that conflict with my liberty should be met by force.  Any peace achieved by loss and liberty will not last and further, has no value.

War to achieve or preserve liberty is not murder.

When I apply this guide of mine to the American Baptists in 2014, I find that their declaration concerning registration of firearms conflicts with my opinions for several reasons.

I did not ever elect or otherwise vote for the people who wrote that this declaration.   I never authorized them to speak or write on my behalf.  I never intended that anyone should claim to represent me, or to spend money that I contributed to my church, for a purpose that might infringe on my liberty.

Thoughts About God

God is, to me, an intangible concept created by humans to represent the highest levels of love and altruism we might attain.  Christian life has devloped to help people achieve this.

Immortality, heaven and hell are accretions to this concept that, for many, strengthens faith in things unproven.  I believe my life is finite.  I strive to love my fellow humans while I live with no thoughts of a hereafter. I don’t know if there is a hereafter, nor do I care.

God is not finite in my theology.  God does nothing tangible.  What God does for people is to insprie them to do something.  Prayer then helps people to do what we pray for God to do.

A Letter to Fisheries Magazine

18 April 2012

Fisheries Magazine
American Fisheries Society
5410 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 110
Bethesda, MD 20814-2199

Dear Editors,

I am a member of AFS. I’ve fished commercially, I’ve worked with tilapia in Kerala, India, and Atlantic salmon in Maine and New Brunswick, I’ve written books and booklets about fishes. I’ve been around the world a dozen or so times, on projects involving aquaculture. I’m in my ninetieth year. I tell you all this because I think I now have a perspective that I could not have achieved fifty years previous.

Simply put, the feature article in Fisheries, April, 2012, by some very articulate people regarding anti-angling are, I opine, opening a floodgate leading down a very slippery slope. Some of the authors quoted in the article offer a warped agenda that would eventually have all the world eat nothing but tofu, tree bark and perhaps some creatures that die of old age. Then we humans will be politically correct and morally beyond reproach. We will also be dead from a thousand cuts.

Where does one draw the line?

Have any readers of Fisheries ever seen a mimosa plant? Surely it is very sensitive, the dictionary tells us so. This same dictionary tells us that tofu (mentioned above) is the product of the soy bean, a legume related to the mimosa – that very sensitive plant. Of course everyone is entitled to free speech but somehow I wonder whether the rest of us members of AFS should foot the bill for all that paper and all that postage and all that ink; ink that was perhaps made with inhumanely harvested fish oil or soy bean oil, made from the living seeds of a plant that may be very, very sensitive.


Mervin F. Roberts