Ship Launch, Bethlehem Steel Yard, and “Don’t Hit the Bridge!”

Bethlehem Steel Company operated a large shipyard just north of Wilmington, Delaware, on the Delaware River. Their facility was one which had previously been operated by Harlan and Hollingsworth from 1837 until 1904. During that time, Harlan and Hollingsworth had built over 300 ships. The yard was bought by Bethlehem Steel in 1904 and then closed in 1926. Bethlehem reopened it at the outset of World War II to build landing craft. Bethlehem Steel Company was by then #1 of the Big #3 United States shipbuilders who could build any ship. At one time or another those locally-constructed ships would be seen working their way down or up the Delaware River, or transiting the C&D Canal between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Even though there was a war on, many Philadelphians still sought out the beaches of New Jersey. Riding the hundred miles or so by train to the shore, they flocked to the beaches of Stone Harbor, Wildwood and Cape May. Both commercial and recreational fishing boats plied the waters of the Delaware River and along the coast. The vigilant crew aboard the Coast Guard vessel skippered by “Pete” Bauer, maintained watch for U-boats and suspicious activities in the Delaware Bay and along the coastline .
They would inventory each outgoing fishing boat so that a reasonable amount of provisions consumed could be documented on return. Fuel was measured. It was important to be familiar with the fishing boats and their crews and the types and amounts of the provisions they carried and consumed. The Coast Guard (Reserve) crews were on the lookout for fishermen who might be supplying the German U-boats with food and/or fuel. Early on in the war, commercial fishermen were not pleased that the federal government strictly regulated their operations. Arrests were made of persons caught selling fuel to U-boats!
The waterborne drama was lightened by some funny, odd, and ludicrous events though. Bauer, who knew the Delaware River well, piloted “by the seat of his pants,”. That method of navigation didn’t work out too well when less knowledgeable crew were at the helm. On one occasion, Bauer gave a heading to the helmsman of the day, only to emerge just in time to blurt out, “but don’t hit the bridge.” Then there was the day the signalman was having an awful time figuring out a Morse code message being blipped from a ship docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Signalman and skipper were totally unable to divine the “disjunct” garble, When they pulled alongside, they saw what they had taken for a Morse code signal was sparks being emitted by two welders. The cook on board the vessel that Bauer was skippering possessed less than world-class culinary skills, particularly as concerned the morning bacon. The cook worked very hard and delivered meals promptly, but the skipper finally had to demonstrate that the large square of meat the cook was regularly putting on the breakfast table must first be made into strips in order to actually fry them. He had been charring the entire slab.


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