Saturday, June 7, 2008


You may have heard that Navy ships are dry, as in "no booze." That once was not the case. In 1914, during the height of the temperance movement, Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration, issued a directive banning the consumption of wine, beer and hard liquor on Navy ships. (Back then, there was no Defense Department, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy were full cabinet-level departments.)

That order stood for a very long time. Wine was transported from time to time; you could buy cases of wine overseas and bring them back on the ship to be taken off when you got back (you could also do the same for some firearms), but on board, the wine was locked up as though it was plutonium. When ships from several NATO navies would have a pre-sail conference for an exercise, the conferences were never held on US ships, but always ashore on on another ship, so suitable libations could be served.

That started to break down in the late 1970s, as ships began to spend a lot of time in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with no great port visits. Ships that had not had a recreational port visit for more than thirty or sixty days were permitted to give everyone on board two cans of beer. The beer could not be consumed on the ship; if the ship pulled into a shithole like Djibouti, then beer was served on the pier. If not, sailors were loaded into the ship's boats, which motored around the ship while the sailors had their beers.

The beer was awful tasting swill. The rumor was that it was a special formulation of Budweiser that had formaldehyde added to keep it from going bad in hot conditions. It was, quite possibly, the worst tasting beer ever canned and if you have ever had Narragansett beer (a/k/a "Nasty Garrett"), you know that is saying something.

A second problem arose with the one of the collateral jobs of Navy warships. Navy warships visit foreign ports not just to give the sailors a place to get drunk and get laid, but to "show the flag." It is common for Navy ships to host receptions for local dignitaries. The problem was that the turnout for those receptions was not as good as the Navy would have liked, since everyone knew that there was no liquor served.

The Navy kept asking for an exemption from the ban for diplomatic purposes. By the mid 1980s, John Lehman was SecNav and he was sympathetic to the need to modify the ban.

So they did. Wine and port could be served at diplomatic functions, the ship's officers were allowed to drink during those functions, but only if they were not in the duty section.

One of the first functions where wine and port were served aboard a Navy ship was in Haifa, Israel. By a funny twist of fate, the ship that hosted the cocktail party was a guided missile cruiser, the USS Josephus Daniels. The function was indeed well attended.

After the function ended, the ship's officers assembled in the Wardroom, stood before the portrait of Josephus Daniels, and drank a toast to him.


physioprof said...

If not, sailors were loaded into the ship's boats, which motored around the ship while the sailors had their beers.

Drinking shitty beer in a little boat? Sounds like a recipe for barfing!

Should Fish More said...

I was in the Navy from '65 to '69, a Corpsman. I was with the Marines most of that time, but served on the USS Dixie for 4 months, just before getting out. I was a HM2, and the sickbay had just lost their pharmacist, so they put me in the 1-man pharmacy for my short time. I found a note from the previous occupant. "Under the sink is 4 gallons of off the book ETOH".

Indeed there was. Four gallons of grain alcohol. We made a WestPac cruise in my short time, and the summer crossing was marked by evenings on the fantail, watching the sun go down with a glass of 'Orange Juice'. The detachment of Marine security on board, having once seen my ribbons, made sure to join me for the evening's refreshments.

Oh, also. I had medicinal brandy in the pharmacy. The ship's divers were allowed one drink each after a dive.

So the ships were not completely dry.

The Bad Yogi said...

Summer of '71, I was hanging out on a beach on Mykonos, when the Josephus Daniels and the rest of the 7th(?) fleet made a pass by the island, stopping to have a "love us" BBQ on the beach. They gave any American a tour of the ship, and a ride around to look at the rest of the fleet. Going under the bow of the carrier (I really don't remember which one, Enterprise?) was an experience to be remembered. The other key memory was that they had CASES of real Coke, not the swill that passed for coke in Europe at the time.
I think it quite the irony that the JD was the site of cocktail party, given his background.

The Bad Yogi said...

OK, just did the research: 6th Fleet, and the JFK.