The Lost Art of Cumshaw

“It was probably British Navy personnel who first picked up cumshaw in Chinese ports, during the First Opium War of 1839. Cumshaw is from a word that means “grateful thanks” in the dialect of Xiamen, a port in southeast China. Apparently, sailors heard it from the beggars who hung around the ports, and mistook it as the word for a handout. Since then, U.S. sailors have given cumshaw its own unique application, for something obtained through unofficial means (whether deviously or simply ingeniously). Outside of naval circles, meanings of cumshaw range from a harmless gratuity or gift to bending the rules a little to outright bribery.”


“Tyke” Zeimet and Martin were replenishing the CIC coffee mess from the ship’s storeroom when Ensign Watkins approached.

“Make sure your division has enough coffee and sugar for the run to Guam, and if you need anything else, come directly to me. I’ll see that your men get it,” Watkins told them.

Zeimet gave the young supply officer an odd look. Ensign Watkins and Chief Hubert Sabia, the chief storekeeper for the Stroud, usually parted with divisional coffee mess supplies as if they had paid for the supplies out of their own pockets.

“Mr. Watkins, what’s going on? We catch you in a generous mood?”

“Well, no. … I mean yes. … I mean…well, there is something that maybe you can help with. That is, of course, if you’d be willing. Would you be willing to help, Tyke?”

“I don’t know. What are you and the chief up to that you need help from my people?”

The ensign was clearly uncomfortable with the situation and began to stammer. “Well…you see, Tyke. … Well, that is…I…I mean we…well, I mean to say the ship—”

Chief Sabia interrupted the young ensign. “Let me handle this one, Mr. Watkins. I’m sure you have other things to do, and you probably don’t want to hear what’s coming next.”

Watkins, obviously relieved, nodded in agreement. “Yes, Chief. Now that you mention it, there is something else that requires my attention. Thank you for reminding me.” Watkins turned and scurried off down the passageway.

Zeimet turned to Chief Sabia and said, “Okay, Chief. What you got up your sleeve?”

Sabia nodded. “Skipper’s all over my ensign’s butt about the drums for the repel-boarders party. We’ve managed to requisition about a dozen filled sandbags, but we can’t seem to find any empty oil drums.”

“The repel what?”

Sabia smiled and shook his head in disbelief. “You heard right. Skipper’s going to take on the whole North Vietnamese navy, all six of ’em, and we need about half a dozen empty fifty-five-gallon drums for target practice. We know that you have a reputation as a world-class scrounger and cumshaw artist, and we’d like you to see what you can come up with.”

“Huey, I’d be happy to, except for the fact that I’m on restriction and can’t leave the ship.”

Sabia nodded. “Done deal. Watkins spoke to the XO, and XO says you can leave the ship to scout for the oil drums but you have to leave wearing your dungaree working uniform.”

Tyke paused before responding, as if he were pondering the pros and cons of the request. “Well, Chief, I don’t know about this. If we get caught, I could lose a stripe.”

Chief Sabia sensed that Tyke was working him. “Well, Tyke, what would it take?”

There was another long pause from Tyke.

“Tell you what. Throw in extra midrats for my watch standers and we’ve got a deal.”

“Extra midrats? I can probably square that with Chief Gay in the galley, but only if you come up with the empty drums.”

Tyke nodded. “Deal. And I’ll need the stake truck you checked out from Base Transportation.”

“You got a Navy driver license?”

“Oh. No. How about you, Marty?”

“Yep. Got it while I was at AirLant.”

“Chief, you’re on. Where are the keys to the stake truck on the pier?”

“On the quarterdeck. OOD has ’em.”

“We’re on our way.”

“Happy hunting, men.”


Martin and Tyke headed toward the quarterdeck, which was located on the fantail.

“Marty, I may have bitten off more than I can chew, seeing as I’ve never been in Pearl Harbor before. You got any idea where we’re gonna find half a dozen empty fifty-five-gallon oil drums?”

“Maybe. First place to look is the salvage yard over by the repair facility. Might be something over there.”

The two radarmen arrived at the quarterdeck and approached Signalman 2c Wocjiehowicz, the petty officer of the watch.

“Hey, Eye Chart, you got the keys to the ship’s stake truck? We’re on official business here.”

The signalman didn’t look up from his watch log. “You got a nickname for everybody on the ship, don’t you, Tyke? Someday, somebody’ll call you on it.”

“Yeah, well, Wojo, it’s all in fun. Makes the day go by faster. You just have to lighten up some.”

“Uh-huh. Here’s the keys to the truck, Tyke. Beat it.”

Martin and Zeimet left the ship and headed toward the ship repair facility in the truck. Arriving at the salvage yard, they drove through the gate and began looking for some oil drums. It was not long before the two men came across a cache of some twenty-odd empty fifty-five-gallon drums, exactly the type they had been looking for.

“Jackpot. Park this sucker and we’ll load up.”

“Tyke, aren’t you going to go inside and ask someone about them?”

“Son, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get forgiveness than permission. Start loading.”

Zeimet and Martin had loaded several drums onto the truck when they heard a growl behind them. “Hey! Just what the hell do you two think you’re doing there?”

The voice they heard belonged to a chief warrant officer who looked like he had fifty years of active and arduous sea duty under his belt. Martin thought that he could well have been a leftover from the Japanese attack in ’41.

“I said, what the hell do you two think you’re doing with those oil drums?”

Zeimet touched Martin’s sleeve, indicating that he’d do the talking.

“Sir, we’re from the Isle Royale machine shop. My chief told me to take these six drums and put them over here in salvage.”

“Oh, he did, did he? What’s your chief’s name over there?”

“Chief Machinist’s Mate Toler, sir.”

“Well, here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna load those other three drums back up in the truck and take ’em back to the Isle Royale, and If I catch any more of you clowns dumping your junk over here, your chief is in for a hell of a rough ride. I’m tired of you tender clowns using my yard as a dumping ground. Now get them three back on your truck and get the hell out of here before I get pissed off!”

Zeimet saluted. “Yes, sir. Do you want to stay while we do?”

“Go on, get ’em up and get ’em out before I write you up.”

Zeimet and Martin loaded three more drums onto the truck and departed for the Stroud.

        “Mission accomplished.”

“I thought he had us dead to rights. How in the world did you think of that?”

“No hill for a high stepper. Now you know why they come to me when they need something from the back channel.”

Excerpted from Stories From The U.S. Navy:II. Friendly Fire”

“Take it Out”


“Adams, can you see our target?”

The early morning sunlight found the USS Stroud anchored 800 yards from the beach in a small cove south of the Bo De river.

“Affirmative, Mister Swangler, looks like your everyday Vietnamese village, couple of one story block buildings and some hooches with thatched roofs. There is a fire or two going in the center of the village and I can see women, children and a few old men walking to and from the fire. Don’t see any VC, though. Looks like all the men have booked up and left.”

“Take it out.”

Adams Wasn’t quite sure what Lt(jg) Swangler meant by his last communication from CIC.

“Sir, all I see there are women, children and a few old men. There are no combatants in the ville that I can see.”

“Adams, just sight the target and take it out. If you won’t do it, I’ll get someone up there that will.”

Adams acknowleged the order, placed the forward three-inch gun mount in automatic and fired one high explosive shell short of target. The shell hit the beachfront about 50 yards in front of the ville, sending the inhabitants running for cover in the jungle behind the village.

It was only a matter of seconds before Adams heard the voice of Captain Armbruster in the earphones of his sound powered phone set.

“Adams, what the hell happened with that round? You are short of the target.”

“Forgot to reset the range, Captain. I have it locked in now. Want me to send in some more high explosive rounds on the target?”

“Adams….you sent that round in short on purpose, didn’t you?”

“Captain, if we were supposed to take out the ville we can do that now, no sweat. Now we don’t have to worry about civilian casualties.”

Adams’s sound powered phones remained silent for a few moments, then the Captain replied to the young fire controlman’s last response.

“Alright, son. What’s done is done. Now I want you to fire six rounds of white phosphorous shells set on air burst at 60 feet. That will start plenty of fires, then follow with six rounds of high explosive to spread the fires around.

“You think that you can find the target this time?”

Adams smiled.

Yes sir, Captain. I’ll take this target to the ground!:”

The earsplitting sound of the gun mount firing the white phosphorous shells fuzed to explode directly over the village was deafening. Fires were beginning throughout the ville. The six rounds of high explosive shells that followed the incendiaries scattered the flames and reduced the block structures to rubble. Within minutes the entire ‘ville was ablaze, totally destroyed.

In CIC, Tyke Zeimet sent the target status to the spotter.

Bowser Two-One this is Crystal River. Target is destroyed.

  “Two-One, copy. Good morning’s work, Crystal River.

  “Roger Two-One, got anything more you need?

 Negative for now Crystal River. Let’s keep in touch even if it’s only a postcard.

Excerpted from “Stories from the U.S. Navy: II. Friendly Fire.”


The Stud Muffin Ensign

cropped-shang38.jpg© 2014, Bob Stockton

Ensign Gold was a real piece of work. Barely twenty-three with a bachelor’s degree and a few years of NROTC courses at some liberal northeastern college, Ensign Scott Gold, USNR, came aboard knowing everything that needed to be known about the United States Navy in general and aircraft carrier operations in particular—at least that’s what he thought. Gold was a legend in his own mind who had lost the loyalty of the men assigned to the surface module early on when he chewed out the division chief, Chief Radarman Roscoe Quarterman in front of the entire OI Division during an in-port training meeting. Chief Quarterman, to his credit, said nothing at the time. After the training meeting was finished Martin observed the chief going up one side of the young ensign and down the other.

It was a classic old school ass chewing!

“Ensign Gold, lets you and me get somethin’ straight right here and now. Number one, you don’t ever speak to me like that in front of my men. Number two, you don’t know shit about extended forward carrier operations. What you got out of a book in some pissant college don’t cut it out here, and you’ll be well advised to keep your mouth shut and learn from me and my petty officers just what the hell goes on in this division. You got that?”

“See here, Chief, I….”

“See here my ass, Mister Gold. I been riding carriers for seventeen years, and seven of those years I been an OI division chief. I’ve washed more salt water out of my goddam socks than you’ve ever sailed over. I would advise you to watch and learn, and if you’ve got any criticism, do it privately with me one-on-one.”

“We’ll see about this insubordinate talk, Chief. I’ll be taking this up with Commander Klinger.”

“Take it up with the chief of naval operations for all I care, but in the meantime here’s another lesson for you to absorb: if you have any complaint about me, you follow chain of command. If you don’t you’ll get your ass handed to you. If you have a complaint about any of my men that chain starts with me. Don’t you ever go over my head.”

Chief Quarterman didn’t wait for a reply. He just turned and walked away and left the shiny new ensign stuttering and sputtering to himself.

Excerpted From “Stories from the U.S. Navy: I. A Suicide in the Mediterranean.”