World War II Memoirs of a U.S. Navy Seabee
as told to Marlene Morris by William V. Torner in
In civilian life in 1931, I was ferrying the U. S. mail across the Ohio River from the U. S. Post Office at Newport, Ohio, to the mail stop on the B&O Railroad at what had been Vaucluse, Virginia, and later West Virginia, five round trips a day six days a week. True to the postal tradition that the mail must go through, I was rowing a sixteen foot skiff in all weather and river conditions day and night. My
grandfather, William V. Torner, and my uncle Norris G. Torner had the contract for the mail ferry service and gladly let me furnish the muscle power. And so began my river life from the same landing where Captain Gordon C. Greene founded Greeneline Steamers in 1890.
June 1934, my first steamboat job was when I shipped on the side-wheel J. S., of the Streckfus Steamers Line of St. Louis, Missouri. The J. S. was built at Dubuque, Iowa, in 1896, as the
QUINCY, a wooden hull side-wheel packet for the Diamond Jo Line operating on the Upper Mississippi River between
St. Louis and Saint Paul. Streckfus Steamers bought the Diamond Jo Line and converted the QUINCY to a deluxe excursion boat catering to the St. Louis carriage trade and named the boat J.S., for John Streckfus. I am now one of the very few living persons who has worked on a steamboat of the 1800s. I have heard through “the stern line telegraph” that a woman who was a purser on the J.S., when I was on the boat, lives in Quincy, Illinois, and remembers me; but we have not tried to contact each other directly.
From passenger vessel to towboat when I went to work as a deckhand on the wooden hull steam stern wheel RELIANCE of the Union Barge Line out of Pittsburgh, towing gasoline tank barges on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. The RELIANCE was built in 1916
at Elizabeth, Penn., and sank in the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh in
1947. What I learned on the RELIANCE paid off well for me later.
I left the RELIANCE and went to work for the E. I. Du Pont de Nemours Co., at the Morgantown (W. Va.) Ordnance Plant
in February, 1941, first in the blacksmith shop, then when the plant went into
operation I was transferred to production and trained to assemble and operate high and low pressure compressors, pumps of many sizes and capacities and large air handling ventilation blowers, becoming a stationary engineer.
Desiring to get back on the water I declined war time deferment and volunteered for enlistment in the U. S. Navy.
At 5:00 PM civilian time, 1700 hours military time or two bells ships time, at Clarksburg, W. Va., I was sworn into
the U.S. Navy Seabees with a Petty Officer rating of Water Tender 2C, on September 15, 1943,
and ordered to Camp Perry just outside historic Williamsburg, Virginia.
My stationary engineer experience at the Morgantown Ordnance Plant qualified me for the WT2C rating, bypassing enlistment as an apprentice seaman.
While at Camp Perry, I learned how to assemble pontoons into floating docks, barges, bridges and other structures. I
also operated a pontoon flat deck barge equipped with a multi-fuel diesel engine on the York River. As in all
boot camps, there were hours of military history and discipline. Drawing from all ranks and ratings, the 19th C. B. Special Battalion, a stevedoring battalion, was put together and shipped to Davisville, Rhode
Island. All personnel were confined on a troop train that spent all day Christmas Day side-tracked in a Washington, D. C. railroad
yard. The next day the train proceeded to Davisville and all personnel were assigned to barracks and Quonset huts.
No Liberty or off-base requests were granted. On New Year’s Day, I ice skated in the recreational area of the base and have never been on ice skates since.
Davisville, Rhode Island, was and is the U. S. Navy Construction Battalion Equipment and Deployment Center. The name Seabees
comes from the initials C B for Construction Battalion. Special
denotes that battalion was or is for purposes other than construction.
Being a stevedoring battalion we loaded our equipment and supplies to set up camp and provide stevedoring service on any beach or in any harbor we might be assigned to onboard the SS CAPE BON, a new C-1 merchant ship of the Grace Line on charter to the U. S. Navy. With
the cargo hatches battened down and all personnel below decks except battalion officers who were privileged to live.