Old salt preserves memories of destroyers

Posted: Friday, October 25, 2002

Basil Nickerson, a yeoman sailor on a destroyer in the Atlantic in World War II, fired only once against the enemy. But his memories of dangers and comradeship at sea led him to form an association for those who served on "four-piper" destroyers.

"We look back on it now, we left our soul on board ship," said Nickerson, 79, who a few years ago began the Web site and organization he now calls Four-Pipers Sailor WWII.

"We had the near-death experiences over the bounding main. We'd move over the crest of a 50-foot wave, the weight of the ship would shift, and we would travel to the bottom of a 50-foot trough," he said.

"And the ship just shook. It was like a depth charge went off next to your ship. We'd do that for days on end."

Nickerson served from 1940 to 1944 on the USS Broome, a destroyer commissioned in 1919, one of 273 such ships built between 1917 and 1921. Not many were built in time for America's participation in World War I, but some were used in World War II by the United States and Great Britain. Long since recycled into razor blades and car fenders, none still exists.

The destroyers were called four-pipers or four-stackers for their smoke funnels, each connected to a oil-fired boiler to power the ship. The destroyers were about 315 feet long and up to 32 feet wide - the greyhounds of the sea - and the joke was they could roll in dry dock. They carried 100 to 150 men, and sailed at 32 to 35 knots, or about 40 mph, according to retired Lt. Cmdr. John Dickey II, whose book "A Family Saga" is about four-piper destroyers.

"By the time the second (world) war came along, they were pretty old," Dickey said from his home in Waldoboro, Maine. "That's when they began to realize they were not very much good as destroyers, so they were converted to other purposes."

Dickey served on one for nine months in the Pacific that was used as a seaplane tender. Others were used to lay or detect mines, or as troop transports. Nickerson's ship, the Broome, protected supply ships in convoys in the Atlantic.

The destroyers were armed with torpedoes, which Dickey said rarely were used successfully, depth charges to combat submarines, and anti-aircraft guns.

Nickerson, a poor boy from Chelsea, Mass., came to the Navy from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a jobs and forestry program put forth by President Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression in 1933. Under supervision of the Army, men lived in remote camps and cleared trails, streams and fire breaks, and built bridges, dams and fire lookout towers.

Chelsea was a small but densely populated town of about 45,000 in the 1930s and was home to some small manufacturers. Nickerson, who said his family of five was on welfare, helped deliver milk for 25 cents an hour. After contributing to the family finances, he still had a dime for a movie.

"I loved to go to the movies," Nickerson said. "I always wanted to know what was going on in the world. ... We had nowhere to go. We had no jobs, no credit, no nothing. We lived in a cold-water flat."

At age 17 in 1940, he spent six months in the CCC clearing blown-down trees in southern New Hampshire and learning how to type, for $30 a month, $22 of which went home. Late in the year he joined the Navy, figuring it was better than living in an Army foxhole. It was like joining the middle class, Nickerson said, although living conditions on the cramped four-piper destroyers were primitive.

"You ate in the same space you lived," historian Dickey said, and took cold seawater showers.

The ships were sometimes called the dungaree Navy because sailors could wear jeans instead on the usual "undress" blue uniforms that were too hard to keep clean.

"In 1941 who knew the difference?" Dickey said. "A lot (of men) came to ships from places that didn't have running water at home."

On board ship, sailors were on duty four hours on and eight hours off, seven days a week, Nickerson said. Because he could type, he took a Navy course in record-keeping and became a yeoman, a sailor who maintained the ship's records. He also manned a 3-inch-diameter gun.

He said he fired it once against the enemy, aiming at the periscope of a German submarine off the South Carolina coast in 1942.

"He was a smart operator. We chased it for four hours. We dropped 60 depth charges, all the depth charges we had," Nickerson said.

The Broome escorted convoys of supply ships to destinations such as Iceland, South America or Northern Ireland, where British escort ships would pick up the convey. The Broome - "We sweep the oceans" - once cruised amid ice floes and murky fog off the Iceland coast, looking for the large German battleship the Bismarck, he said.

"I got a million-dollar education," Nickerson said. "Got to be in my own peer group. Bunch of brothers. It was like a family on board ship."

After the war Nickerson worked in a hotel in Boston, for an aircraft manufacturer in Burbank, Calif., in office jobs in Arizona, and owned a leather goods shop in California until he retired in 1988, he said.

Nickerson moved to Juneau in 1990, and renewed his interest in the four-piper destroyers after going to the Broome's first reunion, in 1995 in Virginia. A few years later he began an organization and Web site dedicated to the ships. Its address is home.gci.net/~fourpiperdestroyer/. The site includes books and memorabilia for sale.

Dickey said such Web sites serve a good purpose.

"For one thing, there's a lot of old-timers who have very little left in life except those memories. 'Nick' keeps the memories alive."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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