‘The waters of the North Atlantic are deceptive’

Norman Jessen

Norman Jessen of the USS Sheboygan

My mom said Dad used to write to a guy in California he had served with on a Coast Guard patrol frigate during World War II. But I’ve never had any contact with anyone who was a shipmate of my dad’s on either the USS Sheboygan or the USS Abilene.

Until now, eight years after my dad died.

I’d blogged about his work as a radio operator in the North Atlantic. Here’s the link: https://warstoriesandveteranshistories.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/752/ One day a few weeks ago I got an email from Neil Jessen, who’d read my posting and said his dad had been on the Sheboygan and would I like to be in touch with him. Absolutely yes!

Soon afterward I got an email from Norman Jessen, who’s 85 and lives in Anaheim, Calif. He wasn’t my dad’s West Coast pen pal because they didn’t know each other. Still, he paints more of a picture than I ever got, because I’d never asked Dad about his experiences.

Norman was kind enough to offer information, and answer my questions, in a series of emails that I’ve spliced together. Here goes:

“My name is Norman Jessen, born and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a senior in high school, when, at age 17, with parental permission, on May 14, 1945, I joined the USCG at their Omaha station, I took my boot camp at Curtis Bay, New York City and engineering studies at Baltimore.  We were in training for the invasion of Japan when the war ended.

“I was then assigned to USS Sheboygan, Patrol Frigate 57, at its home port in Boston to perform basic functions of air-sea rescue and as a North Atlantic weather station.

“I presume that Carmine Venditta and I served on the Sheboygan at the same time during 1945-46.  I am sure we would have had a nodding, “Hiya”-type acquaintance, but I don’t recognize your father’s name or face. We had no work relationship as he was a Radioman 2/C and I was a Fireman 1/C so he worked topside and I below decks in the engine rooms. Our home base was Boston, not Argentia, Newfoundland, although our ship stopped at Argentia on frequent trips to/from our patrol assignments near Greenland.  We did once serve a station near Bermuda. Our patrol assignment was usually 3-4 weeks at sea on duty station, return to Boston several weeks and then go again to our North Atlantic station.  We were often in area of icebergs, floating ice, iced decks, and storm weather.

“Firemen in the Engineering Department aboard ship were given training in both engine room operations and boiler room operations. Later, assignments were made to one or the other according to skill. I had prior civilian experience with boilers, so I was assigned to operate one of several boilers. The boilers were oil-fired and produced super-heated steam via steam lines to the engine. Our job was to regulate the amount of oil required to produce steam according to need. We watched dials, received signals and made manual changes to the amount of oil injected into the boiler furnace. The injector was like a 2 ft. hollow steel pipe with a spray head. With a ‘Full Speed’ signal, we removed a slow-speed injector and installed a full-speed injector into the boiler. The installation had to be completed in seconds to provide speed and avoid smoke discharge out the stack. Steam was also used to operate other machinery. At sea, two firemen were assigned to each boiler 24/7. Watch assignments were 4 hours on and 4 hours off. No days off at sea.

“The waters of the North Atlantic are deceptive; as smooth as glass one day, with dolphins leaping and racing alongside the bow of the ship, the next day massive waves towering above the ship structure.  The ship would rise to the crest of a massive wave, teeter there, and dive into the following wave where the bow would plow its way in, stagger, shudder, and break through in time to repeat the effort.  In the mess hall, your dish, food, pots, salt & pepper on the table would slide back and forth. To sleep, you spread out in your sack, on your stomach, and try your best to grip the iron structure while sleeping. We hoped not to roll out.

“Your dad must have agonized with his motion sickness because in leaving port, there was no turning back for about a month. We had one new seaman assigned for his first sea duty who was seasick, confined to his sack, and attended by our ship’s MD for a solid month before we returned to home base. Luckily, I only felt queasy on leaving the Bay, when the ship started its first rock & roll, but the feeling for me would soon pass.

“The Sheboygan was armed with a 3” cannon & Hedgehog mortar launchers forward, several twin 40s AA  amidships, and for submarines, 2 rolling tracks & several depth charge Y shape projectors at the stern. I had the misfortune, at a practice GQ, to be standing directly above, almost looking down the barrel when they fired a Y depth charge projector and its dummy load.  My ears rang tunes for a week.

“Our civilian weathermen would daily set free a huge balloon from our ship deck, with attached electronic weather devices to record wind, temperature, etc. The balloon transmitted weather data to our ship and we transmitted it back to Boston.

“I think the crew all enjoyed our patrol assignment to Bermuda waters because of the balmy, warm weather.  The crew was permitted to swim from the ship while an officer, operating a motorboat, acted as lifeguard. Daredevils would swan-dive from the upper structures. On other days, we fished for sharks.  I formed a big steel hook in our machine shop, attached a chunk of meat waste, chain, heavy rope, and with it tied to the ships railing, permitted it to troll behind the ship. When I returned from watch, all was gone but a length of rope floating atop the water. That was a big shark.

“Unfortunately, I did not find your dad’s name in my company roster, but I would wager he was standing at attention with his company of men, in formation in the street fronting his barracks, (as I was in my company – the whole base was assembled) when the company commander broadcast over the loudspeakers that the USA dropped an ATOMIC BOMB on Japan. When dismissed from ranks, we asked one another, “What the hell is an atomic bomb?”  Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate to join the thousands celebrating VJ Day in Times Square; a kissing, dancing, singing, mass of people in profound joy.

“I am sure your dad and I shared relief that WWII ended, that we never fired a shot in anger. The majority of landing craft were operated by USCG and if our craft was disabled or inoperable, orders were to attach ourselves with the Marine troops in the battle. During training, we were told officially that few of us would survive the invasion of Japan.

“After my honorable discharge, I returned to graduate from high school, attended Drake University in Des Moines and Omaha University, worked as an insurance investigator, a tire salesman for Firestone,  an insurance adjuster for several firms, and claim manager for several other California insurance carriers until retirement from Allstate Insurance Co. I am still married 62 years, and father of three sons — also a grandfather and great-grandfather to a bunch of young people.”

4 responses to “‘The waters of the North Atlantic are deceptive’

  1. My dad, John W (Jack) Morris, was executive officer on Sheboygan in 1944 to 1946.

  2. David – I am glad that you were able to speak to my dad (Norm Jessen) and fill in some of the blanks regarding your dad’s time aboard the Sheboygan. My dad loved to tell anyone that would listen, the stories about his time in the Coast Guard. He also loved to brag about his two older brothers who were officers (pilots) in the Army Air Force during WWII. My dad passed away a few years ago at 92 years of age. So the stories have stopped for us. But coming across this piece you wrote brought back the memories of his tales. Enjoyed reading this and glad I was able to put you two in touch. Take care!

    • Hi Neil, thank you for writing and letting me know that your dad is gone. I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll always be grateful to you for putting me in contact with him. It was a thrill to hear from someone who served on the same ship as my dad, even though they didn’t know each other beyond maybe a “Hiya” on board, as your dad put it. I count you as fortunate. My dad didn’t talk about his days in the Coast Guard, and I didn’t ask him about it. When I finally was interested, it was too late.

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