The Last Liberty Boat

David Campbell & Joe Callahan, 1952

Joe Callahan was my best friend in the Navy. We weren’t together very long, but while we were, we were virtually inseparable. When I returned to the Wilson after my leave to get married, Joe was on board fresh out of Internal Communications Electrician school.

The gun fire control gang, my unit, and the IC electricians both worked out of the IC room, home to the main fire control computer and the ship’s main gyro compass, the heart of the internal communications network, because all navigation and fire control systems were connected to it. IC electricians maintained the compass and the circuitry connecting it to other systems, as well as the sound-powered telephone system. The fire control guys and the IC gang were joined at the hip.

Joe and I had much in common. We were the same age and both college grads. He had graduated from DePaul University in Chicago the same spring that I got my BA from Ashland. I was newly married and Joe was engaged, so we made good running mates on liberty. We went to movies and jazz concerts and stayed out of the fleshpots. But that didn’t keep us from consuming a fair amount of beer. Joe was a bigger beer drinker than I was and he came by it naturally. The Callahans were made up of a long line of Chicago cops. Joe’s dad was a captain and the spiritual leader of the clan that consisted of brothers, cousins and uncles, all of whom wore or had worn Chicago PD Blue. Add to the group Joe and his three college-aged brothers, their friends and other cops who passed by to pay their respects, and there was always a passel of beer drinkers around. As a matter of fact, the Callahan home was a wholesale stop on a beer route.

USS Robert L Wilson

In the fall of 1952, the Wilson took up a position as part of an anti-sub hunter-killer group in the Mediterranean Sea, the haunt of the American Sixth Fleet. The unit consisted of a small carrier and six destroyers with a small squadron of specially equipped planes on board the carrier. This unit went everywhere together, including liberty ports. Overseas, only one of three duty sections had liberty at a time. In theory, the ship could operate with two-thirds of its crew in case it had to get underway in an emergency. In reality, the Navy had no desire to overwhelm a small liberty port with a couple of thousand thirsty sailors. The smaller group who went ashore could get into more than enough trouble.

The Wilson rescues a pilot

When we arrived at Villefranche, a small resort city on the French Riviera between Nice and Monaco, a light cruiser already was anchored in the harbor, disgorging a third of its sizable ship’s company utilizing a variety of boats—launches, motor whale boats and an old LCVP landing barge assigned to the small Marine contingent on the cruiser. Joe and I were lucky to get an early start on our ship’s small motor whale boat, the Wilson’s sole transportation to the beach.

I don’t remember what we did in Nice or Villefranche, but I do recall we had no intention of going back to the Wilson before we had to return. Liberty ended at midnight, but if you were on the last liberty boat by the deadline, you were not considered AWOL, even if you didn’t make it on board by twelve.

Joe and I had bought a bottle of wine and had finished most of it when we walked out toward fleet landing. We sat on a pile of rocks, talked, swigged the dregs and waited for the beach master to call the last boat.

A Higgins Boat on a training run

We hadn’t noticed, but all the motor whale boats and the big ships’ launches had been hoisted aboard the ships for the night. The last liberty boat was the LCVP, sometimes called a Higgins boat, with its high sides, flat bottom and no seats. That wasn’t the worst. The sailors on the pier were the drunkest bunch of human beings I have ever encountered. I could describe their appearance, demeanor and odor, but the reader would be better served to just use the old imagination.

Joe and I climbed aboard and commented how lucky we were that the Wilson was the closest ship to the beach. Our good luck vanished when the coxswain yelled at us to talk to him. He said that we looked like the soberest sailors on board and he needed our help to get these drunks delivered. He said he was going to start with the carrier and cruiser and work his way back to the Wilson.

Fortunately, some of the sailors had their ship’s name on their sleeves, so when we got to that ship, we would help the sailors to the ladders and the ship would send down guys to help hoist them aboard. Once in a while, the officer of the deck would think he recognized someone else and we would tilt his face up so the ship could put a spotlight on him. If the watch officer said he was theirs, we would hoist him up. At each stop, if a sailor said he belonged on board that ship, we let him go.

The Wilson weathers an Atlantic storm

This process went on until Joe and I were the last ones left and the Wilson was the last ship to be serviced. We clambered aboard. The petty officer of the watch took one look at—and whiff of—us, held his nose and said, “That will teach you dumbass rookie swabs not to take the last liberty boat.”  It was a lesson well learned. But you know what? It was a useless one. I never, ever, again had the opportunity to take the last liberty boat. Damn!

David Campbell today

I doubt that Joe Callahan ever had a chance to benefit from the lesson either. Joe left the Wilson before I did. He went to Officer Candidate School at Newport, RI and then to Supply Officers School at Bayonne, NJ. He served on a carrier for a while and then went home to marry his sweetheart in Chicago. I visited him several times at his home while on business trips and we exchanged Christmas cards for years. Then we lost track of each other. I know that he had a great career as a financial executive at Sears and raised a handful of great kids. The good life couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Joe was a loyal friend, a good sailor and a class act.


David Campbell joined OLLI in 2007. He has taken numerous classes in literature, writing, history, humanities, reader’s theatre and poetry.




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