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”