Naval Language


Jim (c) and two friends early in the war.

On first reading the title of this letter from Jim my thoughts went to cussing sailors. Then I thought, “Wait a minute! Jim wasn’t much of a cusser.” What’s the deal with this letter?

Jim tells the story of what he learned in Navy boot camp in 1941, a couple of months before World War II erupted into the American consciousness. In his own indomitable (one of his favorite words) way he relates boot camp not to the normal deprivations and indignities, but to the new words he had to learn. Naval Language.

Within the first paragraph  I was ready to learn new words for all sorts of things. Not this time. He learned his lesson well. On the surface, this letter is a lengthy list of definitions and new terms he learned in boot camp. He missed one term that I clearly remember him using after my first month at NDSU. I had moved in and had lived in the dorm for a couple of weeks before he had Air Guard drill in Fargo. He told me that he was eager to see my “quarters.” I couldn’t figure that out. I didn’t have a coin collection that amounted to anything. The few coins I had were mostly pennies. Why would he want to see my quarters? Oh. Naval Language for the place you slept.

All of the other terms Jim describes were quite familiar to me. Over the years he used every one of them many times. He was only one of thousands of WWII veterans that brought new language back to the states. Until reading this letter I didn’t know how much he really learned in boot camp.

Jim writes:

Boot camp or recruit training is a profound shock to most recruits because the navy begins its job of building men by destroying the identity they brought with them. Their heads are shaved. They are assigned numbers. The drill instructor is their Mother, Father, their God!

Jim continues (the original typewritten letter is below):

He treats them with utter contempt. Not brutally, nor harshly but very sternly and demanding. On Sept 23, 1941, I, along with many hapless others, reported to the Naval Recruit Training Center at Newport, Rhode Island, for one purpose; to mold us into men.

It was a baffleing sometimes frightening experience. The Navy had its own language and boots or recruits were required to learn it just as the inhabitants of an occupied country must learn the conquerors tongue! A bar was a slopchute, a latrine was a head; swamps were boondocks, and field boots were boondockers. A rumor was scuttlebutt, because that was the name for water fountains, where rumors were spread; a deception was a snow job, gossiping was shooting the breeze, information was dope, news was the scoop, confirmed information was the word. You said “Aye, aye, sir,” not “Yes, sir.” An officer promoted from the ranks was a Mustang. Your company commander or captain was the skipper.

You were granted liberty, usually in the form of a forty-eight or a seventy-two, depending on the number of hours you could be absent. Leave was usually thirty days or less granted annually. If you didn’t return by the time and date of expiration of liberty or leave you were over the hill or AWOL (absent without leave). Coffee was Joe; a coffeepot, joepot. Battle dress was dungarees. A cleanup of living spaces or barracks, no matter how long it lasted, was a field day. Duffle bags, though indistinguishable from those used by GIs, were seabags. For officers to be under arrest was underhack. To straighten up meant to square away; underwear was skivvies; lad was a generic term of address for any subordinate, regardless of age.

Some of these terms have crept into the language since World War II, but no one outside the service knew them then. Recruits had to pick them up fast and accurately! They courted trouble if they were applied incorrectly.

It was equally unwise to call a deck a floor, a bulkhead a wall, an overhead a ceiling, a hatch a door, or a ladder stairs. Every sailor was a swabbie, every US soldier was a dogface or doggie, and every Marine was known as Mac to every other Marine.

Secure signified anchoring something in place or ending an activity … thus when the battle of Kwanjalein Atoll was won, the island was secure.

Survey was even more flexible. It could mean, not only a medical discharge from the Navy, but also retirement, disposing of worn out clothing or equipment. There was even a word for anything that defied description. It was Gizmo!

At Newport these and all other customs of the recruits new way of life were flouted at great risk! You were told that there were three ways of doing things; the right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way! The Navy way was uncompromising. Failure to salute your superiors brought swift retribution. Even today, despite the horrors which inevitably followed, I am sometimes haunted by memories of my weeks as a recruit. It was an experience which one can never completely forget or want to.

That intense, seemingly harsh training would serve me well during the four years on that battleship in the Pacific.

Jim Letter042