Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Ship History: "Torpedo Juice"

If you have not had the opportunity of reading the books written by Ferrol Sams, you have missed one of life's little pleasures. The final book of the triology that began with Run with the Horsemen is When All the World Was Young. The book, set in the days before and during WWII, is a coming of age tale featuring a former medical student's adventures in the Army as he learns about himself and his place in the world.

One of the things he learns is that the military has the same proportion of geniuses and fools as does the civilian world and that the distribution is evenly spaced through the ranks. Which he also learns, thus making it all the more fun for him to outwit some of the gaggle of fools who happen to rank above him and who further assume their exalted status is due to some sort of divine right.

Making the occasional jerk you work for suffer from his or her own foolishness is, after all, is one of the secrets of a good soldier or sailor. Not that I am admitting that I know that from practical experience, you understand...

But it might help, to explain the fascination in some circles with the legendary substance known as "torpedo juice." After all, "torpedo juice" is really about "sticking it to the man" - maybe even one man.

Before we get to that man, we need to remember some facts about the United States Navy. First, taking traditions from our English brethren, the American Navy used to provide its sailors with grog, first in the form of rum and then as whiskey or "Bob Smith." See here for that story.

Starting in about
1862, during the American Civil War, orders were given to limit the presence of distilled spirits on Navy ships:
1862 Spirit ration was discontinued by act of Congress on 14 July. "Distilled spirituous liquors" were also banned from all naval vessels "except as medical stores and upon the order and under the control of the medical officers of such vessels." Those who are entitled to the spirit ration will receive a commutation payment of 5 cents per day (in addition to their regular pay) beginning 1 September.

1862 General Order issued by Gideon Welles on 16 September, required captains of naval vessels to remove all distilled liquors from their ships except those that serve as medical stores. "Ale, beer, wine, and other liquors not distilled" were exempted from the provisions of the act of 14 July 1862.

1864 Welles' General Order 29 of 1 February, stated that beer, ale, wine, "and other liquors not prohibited by law on board vessels of the Navy" were to "be regarded as private stores" and were "not [to] be brought on board without the sanction of the commanding officer."
In 1893, the officer corps worked to be allowed to establish their own private wine messes.

In 1914, along comes Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who, among his many other flaws, decided it was in the best interest of the U.S. Navy to ban alcohol of any form under General Order 99:
"The use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station, is strictly prohibited, and commanding officers will be held directly responsible for the enforcement of this order."
It should be noted that Daniels seemed to have a thing about anyone having any fun near the Navy. He also attempted a ban on prostitution:
In 1917, Secretary Daniels determined that no prostitution would be permitted within a five-mile radius of naval installations.
As you might gather, the shore side bans never really worked. Sailors on the beach had to travel further for drink and frolic, but the bar and brothel business never slowed.

Even during Prohibition, Americans who wanted a drink managed to find one when needed. American sailors were no different.

After Prohibition ended, officers clubs were allowed to serve alcohol. However, the restriction on alcohol on ships continued.

In the early days of American torpedoes, the torpedoes were powered by steam, generated by burning a combination of fuel and air. The fuel consisted of alcohol.

It's a short step from knowing that to being willing and able to divert some of the fuel to - personal use. Except of course, that the Navy was not stupid. It modified the alcohol with an additive - some suggest it was something called "pink lady" and other say it was croton oil. Croton oil is not nice.

The sailor in need of a drink, however, is not easily denied. According to this site, reports that the additive could be filtered out of the fuel by straining it through a compressed loaf of bread is a myth. In the book, Find 'em, chase 'em, sink 'em by Mike Ostlund, the removal technique involves setting up a still, boiling off the alcohol and re-condensing it without the additive. Nearly everyone agrees the alcohol was mixed with fruit juice to render it palatable.

In some cases, it appears that some crews over indulged:
On 5 December 1943, an intrepid group of THORN shipmates decided to hold an early Christmas celebration in the after crews quarters. As a result of these "hi-jinks", HIRAM W. JONES, JR., JOSEPH W. KISER, ERVIN MABRY, JAMES M. NEALE and JOSE A. PENALVER were charged with "under the influence of intoxicating liquor", and other offenses.
They were punished.

Marines on the beach in Guadalcanal partook:
The torpedoes ran on alcohol and they used to put what they called pink lady in it, to make you sick if you drank it. If the planes didn't use the torpedoes, we were supposed to dump the liquid out. We dumped it out, but not back in the barrel. We made torpedo juice instead. We had copper tubing and guys from Tennessee. They knew what to do. At night in the foxholes, we'd run the stuff through a still and get the pink lady out of it.
On at least one occasion, the "torpedo juice" came in handy - when a submarine pharmacist mate had to perform a emergency appendectomy on a submerged submarine:
Rubber gloves dipped in torpedo alcohol were drawn upon the youthful "Doc's" hands.
So, where did the croton free alcohol come from?

American sailor ingenuity, you can be sure.

I never sampled "torpedo juice" - but I do recall the days when we worked in the cold rain and the skipper would tell the doc to provide the crew with some medicinal alcohol (0ddly enough it was in the form of those airline mini bottles) and "splice the main brace."

I hear sailors now sometimes get beer on special occasions.

Somewhere Josephus Daniels rolls over in his grave.

Torpedo cutaway from here

UPDATE: The torpedo cutaway, as you will find by following the above link, leads to one page of a remarkable collection of information concerning the U.S. Navy at the site of Gene Slover GENE SLOVER'S US NAVY PAGES which is well worth a tour.

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