A Bosun’s Life

Barry Probst’s seagoing memories from France to Vietnam.

USS Springfield (CLG-7) was going to be seventeen-year-old Barry Probst‘s first ship. The guided-missile cruiser was 610 feet long with a sixty-six-foot beam, and 10,000 tons in displacement. It was essentially a small floating city, but that wasn’t what bothered him. “I think the bigger intimidation was I had never been out of the Midwest in my life,” he recalled.

Fresh out of basic training, the US Navy put him on a DC-9 for an eleven-hour trip to Rota, Spain. He arrived at the foreign base at 0100—one in the morning—and was driven to his ship which was scheduled to get underway. Coming aboard in the dark, someone “told me where to go to sleep, and I did, and I woke up in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France.”

Springfield had some mileage under its armored belt, having been to Trinidad, Panama, Pearl Harbor, and Ulithi between 1944 and 1945. For two and a half months in the Pacific war, the cruiser joined Task Force 58 to raid the Japanese islands. Charged with protecting the Navy’s aircraft carriers, Springfield‘s antiaircraft guns were repeatedly called upon to swat kamikazes out of the sky. In July 1960, Springfield received a breath of new life as a guided-missile cruiser with a pair of Terrier surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers. In the late 1960s, CLG-7 was a familiar visitor to the Mediterranean as flagship of the US Sixth Fleet.

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A young Barry Probst poses for the camera. (Photo courtesy Barry Probst)

Barry was trained to be a boatswain’s mate (abbreviated as BM, also known as a bosun), which was a sort of jack-of-all-trades on a busy vessel. A boatswain’s mate was responsible for ship’s equipment, small boats, deck equipment, rigging, and painting. They served as gun captains, took charge of work parties, trained other sailors in boat handling, and even took up the helm.

The bosun also played the bosun’s pipe, a tiny metal instrument no larger than a twig that hailed from naval antiquity. Similar in practice to an army bugle, the little whistle emitted shrill notes to set the watch, announce meal calls, or make announcements through the ship’s Master Call system, or 1MC. A sailor summoned to clean the deck could not miss the high-pitched call of the bosun’s pipe, followed by a booming voice for “Sweepers, man your brooms!” Some bosuns dented their whistles or stuffed them with beeswax and peas to get the perfect pitch.

Barry learned to play from a boatswain’s mate first class (BM1). The old salt was heavily tattooed all over his body, with twin screws on his posterior, and even a peculiar neck decal with the words, CUT ON DOTTED LINE. “I’ll never forget him for as long as I live,” said Barry, “and although he was a pain in the ass, he taught me a lot.” A bosun of the watch was usually on hand to “pipe aboard” flag officers and visiting dignitaries. Barry even remembered one of Springfield‘s bosuns piping aboard the Prince of Monaco. In later years, the ancient instrument and its associated tradition were replaced by a recording that passed through the ship’s speaker system.

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The picturesque Villefranche-sur-Mer in France was a second home to many American sailors stationed abroad. (Photo courtesy Barry Probst)

Villefranche-sur-Mer was Springfield‘s home port and a beloved port of call for the American Navy. The matron of a particular restaurant in the Riviera village was even referred to as “Mother of the Sixth Fleet”. Barry loved the place. “It was gorgeous. Today it looks the same. I go back every year.” While there, a boatswain responsible for driving the admiral’s forty-foot barge around port was called away on family leave, so Barry took up the job for a couple of months. “It was good duty,” he remarked.

On 20 January 1967, Springfield‘s home port changed to Boston, Massachusetts, and the cruiser was relieved as Sixth Fleet flagship shortly thereafter by USS Little Rock (CLG-4). In November 1967, Barry was transferred to another guided-missile cruiser, USS Boston (CAG-1), which in 1968 would take him on his first tour to Vietnam.

Like Springfield, the Boston carried modern Terrier missiles, but naval gunfire was needed to bombard enemy positions on the Vietnam coast. Boston steamed through the war zone at a Condition Two status, opening up its eight-inch and five-inch armored turrets. Only the gunnery crews stood at general quarters during those missions. For the rest of the crew, it was business as usual. Barry once worked in one of the handling rooms that shifted the ammunition to the turrets. The eight-inch projectiles weighed 250 pounds apiece. Bullets only needed a spoonful of gunpowder, but each of Boston‘s big shells needed four heavy powder bags to launch them.

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USS Boston (CAG-1) fires its eight-inch rifles at a North Vietnamese craft on 9 September 1968. (Photo L45-33.02.03 courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.)

“We fired daily,” Barry remarked of those days and nights in enemy waters. “It seemed like forever.” He eventually acclimated to the frequent, thundering percussion of the guns. “Initially, it’s pretty bad. After a couple weeks or a month, it’s like second nature. I’m sure there were some people that were still having issues with it.” Servicemen dealt with Vietnam in their own ways. One sailor, a fellow who occupied the bunk over Barry, played “It’s A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals every day. Barry got along with his shipmates, but simply hated that guy.

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In this June 1967 photo, USS Boston (CAG-1) receives ammunition from the fast support ship USS Sacramento (AOE-1), which can be seen on the cruiser’s starboard side. (Photo NH 98298 courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Years later, a US Army captain who served as an artillery spotter claimed that CAG-1 “had to be the most accurate ship out there. . . we could hit a target within thirty yards from thirty miles away.” Between bombardments, Boston would be relieved on station by another warship and rearm, refuel, and replenish from one of the Navy’s big support ships. No warship could stay on station for very long without good logistical support.

Boston fired so many rounds in Vietnam that the bores of its guns, also called rifles, wore out and needed replacement. Depending on the work, the cruiser would spend up to two weeks at Subic Bay, a shipyard in the Philippines, to swap out the barrels. Since he wasn’t a gunner’s mate, Barry didn’t have to stick around for the work and took leave to visit the area. Subic Bay, however, wasn’t exactly picturesque. The bridge that took sailors from the yard to a small city spanned “a river of human waste,” and to Barry’s horror, children were swimming there. “Sailor, throw me coins!” they cried from below. Money was tossed into the disgusting water by some of his shipmates and the children dove down to find it. Meanwhile, an urban jungle of bars awaited the Americans on the other side, including vendors selling “monkey meat” that could not be linked to any particular animal.

Boston also visited Hong Kong for some cosmetic work. Local workers offered the crew a pretty good deal: in exchange for all of its brass shell casings, CAG-1 would get a complete paint job from the waterline to the main deck, plus a fresh coat on the giant hull numbers on the bow. The workers came alongside with a couple of barges while Boston stood moored to a buoy, and as Barry noted, “they did it in less than a day. It was incredible.” Painting was a constant activity to the sailor. For some, half their tour was spent chipping or slapping a fresh coat on something. Barry could work with a brush and a bucket over the side, safely hitched to a lifeline, while his cruiser steamed along at twenty knots.

The ship encountered downright hazardous situations on its tour. Boston was hit by a typhoon in the South China Sea and lurched into a nearly disastrous 51-degree roll. Bow damage was serious enough to warrant a subsequent visit to dry dock. Twenty-eight life rafts were ripped away and the crew almost lost one of their life boats. Of course, a boatswain’s job was to get outside and fix those problems, but “in sixty foot waves, you just don’t want to go out there.” Barry, however, grew up on Lake Erie and didn’t mind that sort of stuff. “Watch this man, this is cool!” he exclaimed as big waves crashed over the bridge. “Other people, they had issues with it.”

The kid from Michigan came home a seasoned sailor and veteran bosun. Barry Probst had done two tours on the Boston from 1968 through 1969. He later served on two other warships, Harry E. Yarnell (DLG-17) and Brownson (DD-868), and later took up some shore duty in Massachusetts.

Today, he volunteers as president of the USS Boston Association (ussboston.org), a non-profit group of veterans who served on the last three ships to bear the name—one heavy cruiser (CA-69), the Navy’s first guided-missile cruiser (CAG-1), and one nuclear attack submarine (SSN-703). Counting shipmates and their relatives, membership includes 232 sailors from World War Two, 1,890 from the CAG-1 years, and 923 from SSN-703. Over the last Fourth of July weekend, members gathered for a reunion in Burlington, Vermont to enjoy themselves and renew old friendships.

Sources

Bearded, Bill and Wedertz, Bill. The Bluejackets’ Manual. (Twentieth edition) United States Naval Institute, 1978.

Springfield III (CLG-7)“. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Featured image courtesy Barry Probst.

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