Edited by FLOYD FARRAR
Ex Electricians Mate 2/c
Early February 1959 thru mid August 1962
ONLY MEMORIES REMAIN
By Floyd Farrar
Naval MSO Association
Staff Writer & Historian
I had a phone conversation the other day with my old friend Fred Scripture, a World War 2 Electrician's mate 2/c of the minesweeper USS Embattle (AM 226). He suggested I write some kind of story about the closed and now demolished navy base and closed naval shipyard in Long Beach, California. I agreed with him that at least some Navy vets at one time or another might have passed thru Long Beach, and would find an article interesting. Another friend, Mac McPherson told me he went to small boat school there during WW2. This navy base had many other schools including others that were in the shipyard complex. In late Ô57, I was a young seaman apprentice radioman striker in the Naval Reserve SubDiv 11-7, attached one weekend a month to the old WW2 fleet boat, reserve training submarine USS Sawfish while at the base. This boat had a war record that was prominently displayed on the ward room bulkhead. I would gaze at it and in awe, yes, I was impressed. At that time Hollywood TV and retired Rear-Admiral Tommy Dykers, captain of the USS Jack during WW2, would use the boat for filming a weekly half hour series called The Silent Service. I watched the series each week at home with great interest. I used to walk by an old, un-used, land-locked, damage control school ship makeup on my way to the base chow hall. I remember looking at the partially destroyed and now deteriorating ship and thinking how glad I was not to have to try to repair that kind of damage underway because it looked like a lot to patch. Therefore, I had first hand knowledge of what Mac had told me about.
I only hope this helps to convey my feelings about a place I knew well and am sorry to see succumb to progress'If we let these memories and thoughts fade and get away, who will ever know what our little ships and crews did? So now on with this yarn I hope you will enjoy'
I had lunch with my old friend Dave Bruening who works tugboats at the LA&Mac220;Long Beach harbor the other day. We dined in upper floor of the Long Beach harbor commission/port authority building across from the Queen Mary & the Russian submarine Scorpion. Both located near the mouth of the Los Angeles River outlet to the sea. Dave is also a member of the longshore union and works part time moving cargo containers, so he has very good functioning knowledge of the port and its activities. The operations I viewed from the roof of the cafeteria were nothing less than spectacular. The movement of trucks towing containers and the drivers of the large cargo Hyster forklifts are nothing short of watching a choreographed ballet. Dave says you have to pay attention to safety at all times, as the old timers tell him, YOU are the softest thing out there. This port moves ships and cargo containers with speed and efficiency second to none, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rain or shine. It has to be witnessed in person to be believed. The containers go out to all areas of the U.S. and Pacific Rim countries. The port also employs many local people and it keeps the economy moving. Therefore, I can't be very critical of a place that is financially beneficial to the area, even though I would like just a little less expansion, but I don't run the zoo' My friend Dave noted that the Long Beach&Mac220;Los Angeles complex is now the third largest container terminal in the world preceded only by #1 Amsterdam, and Singapore which is number two.
I stood there on the roof, leaned against the rail, and remembered what the area looked like when I was just a lad back in the early 1950's. I looked up and over to Ocean Blvd and could picture the old Red Pacific Electric street cars filled with white hats, and all the joints up and down the blocks. Looking 180¡ I could picture Pierpoint Landing with the harbor seal exhibit. I used to feed them if I aggravated my mother enough to pay for food. Its location was just across form the end of the Navy mole. I remember standing there waiting for the battleship USS Missouri to return form Korea in early 1952. My uncle's destroyer, USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754) was with her task group and we were down there to see him return from Korean waters. What a site it was to see them steam through the opening near the Navy mole. The sky was clear and it was a bright sunny California day with the ocean very blue and a tinge of salt smell in the air. When they had tied up to Pier Echo, we went over and saw my Uncle Johnny who was a gunner's mate. Uncle JohnÔs ship had been involved in the evacuation of the Marines from Wonson harbor in the fall of 1950 and he was eager to talk about it. He took me up to see his forward, twin 5-inch turret gun mount, then the anti-aircraft quad 40 mm's I had seen on Victory at Sea, which was very popular on TV back then. My dad was an old World War 2 Seabee Boatswains' mate who could shoot the bull with the best of them and somehow he wormed a visit aboard the Missouri, what a thrill for a twelve-year-old! Then we went over to the very busy navy base to see his old friend who commanded an oiler; the USS Cacapon (AO-52) berthed at the end of old Pier 9. We took a tour and visited him on the bridge as he announced liberty call on the ship's PA system, complete with the deck watch's boatswain's pipe. Heady stuff for a youngster of my age'
As I looked out that day from the roof of the cafeteria, all these long dormant memories came flooding back. I could just see the end of the mole of the closed base. It had two Gulf War pre-positioning ships tied up there and that was about all. I tried to depict what it used to look like to my friend, he seemed to understand, but without glossy pictures and only my mind to frame them it was tough to visualize. The scene now was cluttered with sheds covering petroleum coke and coal piles from the Arco, Shell, Mobil, Unocal, and Texaco refineries in the south bay and Wilmington. Then there were the numerous container cranes that look like red preying mantises from old si-fi movies and the covered conveyer belts for carrying the coal to the ships without fouling the air with coal dust. My, oh my have things changed since my wild-eyed trips in Ô52.
On May 30th, 1998, the Press-Telegram newspaper here in Long Beach, California announced one last opportunity to visit the closed Navy Base. They wanted people to write their comments and donate things to be put in a time capsule that will be placed near the Long Beach City aquarium. Anyway, I re&Mac220;read my piece entitled,"Reflections" I did on the old Long Beach Navy base a while back and submitted to the Long Beach historical society. [Editor's note:] Most residents of Long Beach feel as this big fish tank, financed by public funds, will become a white elephant as the one in Tampa, Florida did very soon after opening. However, we must remember these city fathers are the same ones who tore down the old Pike and brought us the, not so prosperous Queen Mary, so what official can resist spending a few more taxpayer bucks!
However, I digress from my story' I couldn't resist this final opportunity to get one last look at the old place from the inside before the wrecking balls; bulldozers and contractors flatten the base buildings. Then unceremoniously install yet more container terminals and cranes, as they have done to almost all the harbor areas in Long Beach-Los Angeles waterfronts.
I went down there with a few old friends who had worked or been stationed there at various times, including one fella I had worked with who, although he is now in his sixties, remembers the base quite well. He was born and raised here in Long Beach and his dad worked for the yard and base for over thirty-five years. We had a great time. He remembered being let out of elementary school the day Howard Hughes moved the Spruce Goose Flying boat down from his Hawthorne facility in 1947. He said they watched the wings and fuselage be towed down Santa Fe avenue and across Pacific Coast Highway towards the base. Well, as I was standing there signing stuff and rattling off my memories to anyone who would listen, I noticed a gal with a microphone and TV camera. The red light was blinking and I knew we were "on," I saddled up and related what I remember about my times at the base. This piece of video will be placed in the capsule, my friends said better there then in public as they said I "hammed it up" a little, but hey why not'
Now as I was doing this a L.A. Times reporter overheard us and went on to interview me. No, the reporters didn't look as I remember them from the old black & white movies of the thirties with press passes sticking out of their hats, including the big flash cameras. They are now quite different, believe me'Anyhow, pictures of me, and various other things were taken, my gosh the "Hollywood Ham" then came out in me. As you might have guessed I am not a "wallflower," introverted sort of guy. Alas, as usual with aspiring actors, the interview wound up on the cutting room floor of the LA Times. I was however, overheard by a documentary filmmaker who wanted to do yet another interview of me on the next Tuesday, June 2nd, afternoon at the base. Hey this was more like it' Now at this time my wife swears I probably puffed up huge as a balloon, even though she wasn't there'
I went down on Tuesday, accompanied by the wife armed with still camera in hand, and had quite a time. It appears no one else from my era (1957-1962) was around to let these young filmmakers know what it was like during my stay there. They asked all sorts of questions mainly trying to get a feel of exactly what daily life was like at the base. They used various places as backdrops for the film, actually it was videotape for a PBS documentary, but you get the idea. I happened to mention that I was in the brig once and they not only found the brig, behind the old Admin. Bldg. but wanted to do an interview from inside the damned thing! I had told them where I remembered it to be from my brief stay there. Surrounded by fanatical Marine guards who, I found out later, were so mean because if a prisoner escaped on their watch, they finished out the inmate's time locked up. My wife was along too and got pictures of this interview and had quite a laugh. Astoundingly the brig was unlocked and although it was dusty, dimly lit and the paint was peeling off, it looked just as I had remembered it so long ago. The facility clearly hadn't been occupied in a long time. We entered and even though it was murky, the show went on. It was drab, dirty and musty smelling with the afternoon sunlight just filtering in through the high windows and the cell bars. The radical, often-sadistic Marine guards were thankfully gone. When I was on my old ship a few others and I were caught in a fake ID thing just before we went on a WesPac deployment in April of 1960. The Naval Intelligence boys didn't like ID's that said you were twenty-one when you really weren't. Hey, we just wanted into the fun joints on the Pike! The skipper and exec were mustangs and didn't like the bad PR we put on the ship, so they stuck me and the others over there for a few days, on bread and water I might add. I think it was just to scare me Ôtill right before we got underway for Japan, it worked! I was a model enlisted man after that. Besides, they needed a critical rate like electrician, so the old man did not intend to sail without my young and tender ass in that engine room on watch! It was hard to get replacements in those days as nobody wanted to be any rate that required mental work. Book study and applying yourself to make higher ranks, especially in the technical rates were not in young vocabularies, chasing females and saloon entertainment appealed to us more. Those young filmmakers got quite a kick out of filming me next to the exact cell I was in, only THIRTY-EIGHT years removed. I almost thought Rod Serling was going to appear over my shoulder and say I had slipped back on time to the Twilight Zone or Scully & Mulder were investigating me on the X-Files
One gal with the film crew asked if we were involved in any warfare? I said no, but we were Pike commandos. The older guys on the crew got a good chuckle out of that one. She said we of my era sure knew where the dance halls, honkey tonks and bars and such were, I said lady, you must remember the period and the culture. It was the late Eisenhower and early Camelot era of Kennedy, drinking & carousing by sailors wasn't looked down upon. We still could buy cigarettes for a buck a carton and drinks at the EM club were around a dime. She was quite taken aback at that. I said, "Hey, don't judge things back then by the standards of today!" She got the message and understood fully, I hope. You know out here we have some Hollywood types that still live in fantasyland, hug trees, gnatcatcher birds, spotted owls, and such. They don't live much in a world of reality, not of their own making'
We did an extended interview on the seawall looking across towards Pier 9 where my ship USS INFLICT, used to be berthed. They wanted to know exactly how many ships were there at the time I was there. I faked this, as I really had no knowledge of exactly how many were there. I just knew of the ones I remember seeing they're when we left each day and returned that evening. We had PhibPac, ServPac, and MinePac all using that pier at various periods during my stay there. I saw many tankers, APA's, AKA's, AR's, towards the end of the pier while we took up the middle and the very end toward the Mole was taken by the YO's and YOG's and some yard tugs. It was a very busy pier when I was there. The mole had many mothballed ships and the end of the mole had a few squadrons of destroyers with the accompanying repair ship like the USS Isle Royal. The various docks included the hospital ship USS Haven at Pier 1. It was there because we had no Navy hospital here then, only a small dispensary and dental unit located in the upstairs of the Admin. Building I had two wisdom teeth pulled there and it wasn't painless! The hospital only came into being during late '57, so the Navy closed the small one in Corona and opened up the new one, now torn down and removed too, on Carson Street in northeast Long Beach above El Dorado Park. The Haven was decommissioned in June of 1957, and moved out to Suisun Bay up north and put in mothballs, where she remains today I guess. The other docks included light and heavy gun cruisers like the Los Angeles, Helena, Rochester, Manchester, and various Essex class carriers too. We even had at one time or another, guided missile ships, which were converted light cruisers, USS Chicago, USS Little Rock and USS Boston, So it was a very busy base & shipyard. There was activity always, twenty-four hours a day. Cars, trucks, and people were walking to and from at all hours, day or night. The sights and sounds are still vivid in my memory. I remember the boatswains' pipes, PA systems, small boat engines, shipÔs whistles, and shipÔs bells. The salt smell of the sea, the Star-Kist & Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna canneries down near Terminal Island Federal Prison. The oil refineries in Wilmington, the ship stack gases, diesel fumes, and of course the LA smog all combined to give the place a unique flavor all it's own. The film makers were interested in where I got a panther tattoo on my left forearm. I told them it was late '58, at Painless Nell's in San Diego just up from Broadway pier. As they photographed it close up, I told them it wasn't painless and Nell wasn't there at the time. Many other not so sober, sailors were there however, and they likewise wondered where the hell Nell was' Yes, the sore, burning, tender shoulders and forearms abounded the next day at the San Diego Naval Training Center from a night out on the town and the infamous Painless Nell's Tattoo Parlor'
They wanted to know what it was like on a typical workday around the base. Wow, a typical day? Hell it was always busy with ships coming and gong including the hustle and bustle of normal supply to the ships in port. I kinda just winged it and baffled em with bullshit. I do know if some of our more informed members see this thing, I will be nailed for getting some of my facts out of kilter, as not all I could remember was what they wanted to hear. Gosh, I sure could have used my old shipmate friend Jim Dudash's memories. He was my pal and liberty mate in those days. He was the only Boiler Tender we had in a diesel engine room. Yet, he did keep the boiler flat running well, with a little of our help. Jim stayed in for the twenty-two years and I left after six years. I have just tracked him down to Joplin, Missouri where he lives today. We keep in touch frequently. They did get interested in the Pike after I brought it up a few times. They were from Hollywood and didn't have any idea what used to be there. I told them, on camera too. They also wanted to know the names of the honkey tonks and bars we frequented. I told them that as best I could remember. They couldn't envision large red street cars with tracks down the center of a major streets, like Ocean Blvd., and Long Beach Blvd., or American Avenue as it was called back then. I said yes and even though we waited for them in the middle of the street, nobody ever got hit that I knew of anyway. Guess the drivers didn't suffer from road rage back then. I related to them that the sailor area of Long Beach bordered roughly an area from around Pacific & Ocean over to around Third & American avenue. It consisted of many bars, dance halls, pawn shops, barber shops, shoe shine stands, locker clubs, various cheap hotels, seven movie theaters, greasy spoon restaurants, the Greyhound bus station, and many low priced civilian clothes shops. I then told them about the places I remember up on Ocean Blvd., above the Pike such as the Cruiser, Saratoga, Midway, New Yorker, Chatterbox, Players Club, the Roi-Tan, the Circus Room, the White Hats, Trader Al's, the Bamboo Room, and the Red Mill. There were many on the Pike itself too, such as The 4-0 Club, the Checkerboard, and who can forget the old Burma Road, both of which hung on into the 70's before finally being torn down. Who can forget the famous country and western hangout "Hollywood on the Pike?" I saw Johnny Cash, Rose Maddox, and Little Jimmy Dickens there on the same bill, wow what a wild night that was! Incredibly that place is still in existence, except it is a restaurant now, in the same location under the white Jergans Trust Building. I told them of the nights spent on the old Pike along with other young sailors on liberty, including visiting the many tattoo parlors. Ironically one tattoo artist shop is still at the same exact location as when I hung out on the Pike. I remember it well because it is at the foot of Chestnut Street. That is where the Long Beach police and Shore Patrol used to congregate with the paddy wagons. When we visited the Pike at night, their presence was hard not to miss. So seeing the tattoo sign meant we were near the Shore Patrol and it was time to behave yourself!
The place is called Bert Grimm's @22 Chestnut Place under southwest corner of the old Blackstone hotel, (which is now a high rise senior citizen home). It was established in 1927, and is still in operation. I visited there yesterday returning from my stepdaughter's house in Pedro and it looks exactly as it did in 1959, with some of the same ship hats and name patches I well remember. It is presently frequented by more of a high-class clientele, as skin art is now quite in fashion. There were people in there then and as I asked questions of the older gray-bearded tattooist, the yuppies wanted to hear more about the old Pike days. Wow, another captive audience! I told them of some things and had to leave as I was parked in a red zone out front. My wife said I would talk to a stick when it comes to Long Beach & Pike history! Then I informed the filmmakers of some dives in San Pedro across from the ferry boat terminal like the one and only Shanghai Reds.' I almost got my throat cut in that place playing around with a longshoreman's daughter! Ah, another tale for another time'Then there were some other notorious joints on Beacon Street including many tattoo artists, too numerous to mention. I told them of how Jim and I would hustle shuffleboard for our beer and liberty money. They were quite interested in that aspect as they only knew of the coin operated, bar pool tables that replaced our beloved all-wood, long, waxed, and heavy shuffleboard tables along the far walls of every place you entered in those days. Of course I failed to mention the familiar jukeboxes, heavily stocked with Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, George Jones, Earnest Tubbs, Hank Williams, and all the others we remember so well' Rock and roll was just starting out then and country western had a firm grip at the places we went. One of the people in the crew said there sure was a lot of places in such a small area. Yes, there was but not any more or less than San Pedro, San Diego, San Francisco, or Honolulu. Where you had a large contingent of navy ships, you had areas the sailors would frequent, and it was acceptable to the local residents. Although I know they didn't like us all the time, they liked the money we pumped into the community. I guess zoning laws, downtown, and urban renewal hadn't become popular as long as the Navy was contributing so much to the local economy. The city didn't want to shoot the goose that laid the golden egg!
Yes, I managed to get my association's name in the video too. I called the production company and they said it will be sent to the Long Beach harbor department where a copy can be purchased today. It is entitled: "A Tale Of Two Bases." I took many pictures on that Sunday and my wife, Sherry, took some on that interview afternoon. Addendum: They did eventually send me a copy of the video and most of my stuff was left on the cutting room floor!
My wife and I visited our stepdaughter and granddaughter who live in San Pedro above the cruise ship docks near Gaffey Street off Summerland Drive. I always drive across Terminal Island to see what they are doing to the old base. It was a sad sight to see today. The entire old base is gone to the wrecking ball and the 'dozers. Most of the old base is paved over with high intensity lights in place so they can offload container ships at night. The very large capacity container grasshopper cranes are in place now. Pier 9 is gone entirely including all the pier pilings. The old Administration Bldg., the EM club, Acey-Ducey club, gym, the almost new BOQ, Marine barracks, enlisted men's quarters, and officer's club are all gone and everything else is just rubble or flattened out near piles of dirt. I am sure glad I took photos of the base as it used to be on that May Day of 1998. I don't know the present plans for the area except that a container terminal of some kind will be there soon. Before I retired in October of 1996, I watched daily the construction of a Korean container terminal for the Hanjin Shipping Company. It was complete with wharves, pier pilings, access roads; massive outdoor flood lights on tall poles so work could be done at night, plus the infamous container lift or "hammerhead" cranes you see worldwide. This was constructed just east of where the old Henry Ford Car assembly plant once stood, near the Commodore Heim Lift drawbridge on the north side of the Cerritos ship channel that borders the north side of the island. I saw the first shovel full of dirt and then the first ship to be off loaded. It was completed in record time, somewhat less than three months flat, start to finish! Does the term time is money have any meaning here? I guess so when the Pacific Rim economy is at stake'
Today all that remains of the Long Beach Navy base are a few photos and only memories'
What Price Do We Pay For Progress?