Several weeks into our patrol, Midshipman #2 came up to me and says, “The Captain says you are to teach me this stuff,” and with that hands me his syllabus, opened to torpedo-related ordinance.
During the next week I saw this middy a lot. Our friendship began to cement as I learned what he had to go through during his time aboard. I learned that he was an intelligent young man and a fast learner. He asked good questions and listened well.
I rehearsed with him the information he needed to know about the torpedoes we carried, the torpedo tubes, torpedo fire control, the handling gear, and whatever else was on his list.
One of the items he was to be knowledgeable about was the pyrotechnic devices we carried. I took him into the Hanging Gardens and showed him how to load and fire the pyrotechnics we had in the Torpedo Room. This particular gun was manually operated, with the pyrotechnic being pushed out with a hand-operated ram.
Several days later I took him back to the Engine Room to go over the pyrotechnic launcher installed there. The Torpedo Division had several responsibilities in the Engine Room. We “owned” and were responsible for the after escape trunk and its associated equipment, the pyrotechnics locker and its contents, and the signal gun with its associated operating gear.
As long as I had been on the Robert E. Lee the Grove Air Reducer supplying the after signal gun had been inoperable. To pressurize the signal gun we would have to hammer on the bypass valve, which opened with great difficulty and reluctance. The one thing we did not want to do was to overpressurize the system and blow things apart. I explained all this to my friend.
The Captain had already agreed to my demonstrating the workings of the gun to the midshipman so I just needed to inform the nukes standing watch in the Maneuvering Room what I would be doing and get their concurring permission. The Maneuvering Room was where the reactor and turbines were controlled. The Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW), the Reactor Operator, and at least one other man, an electrician (if my memory is correct) were always there. My signal gun was on the other side of the aft bulkhead of their little room.
I reviewed once again with the midshipman the pyrotechnics we carried back there. I reminded him that we used the smokes during daylight hours and the flares at night. We again went over the colors and purpose of each: I told him we carried red flares and red smokes, yellow flares and yellow smokes, green flares and green smokes, black flares and black smokes. He dutifully wrote all this down.
Next, I had him stand next to me as I lined up the air system to fire the signal gun. I pointed out the relief valve on the other side of the compartment, told him it did not work, and had him observe me and the pressure gage as I opened the bypass valve. The bypass valve, always a bear to open, would not give. I hammered it with the heal of my hand. Nothing. I got a wrench and tried to tap it open. Nothing. Finally, despairing of any other solution, I told him to step back and I would hit the valve handle as hard as I could. And that is what I did.
Three times, in rapid succession, the relief valve, located on the Maneuvering Room bulkhead, lifted. Dust, turned into near-microscopic particles was everywhere, clouding the air. I turned around. The Middy was nowhere to be seen. He high-tailed it to who knows where. I looked in the Maneuvering Room, which was suddenly quiet. No one was there. I think they went to change their clothes.
I did not see the midshipman at all the rest of that day. I did not see him the next day. I did not see him until Friday when I passed the wardroom as he was being grilled by the Captain. I happened to be there at just the moment the Captain said, “Black flares? Tell me about them.” It was my turn to disappear.