Ship Shape

By Brad Dison

It was 1945, the last year of World War II.  The USS LSM-51, a medium-sized amphibious landing ship of the Navy’s LSM class, was stationed at San Pedro Bay, Leyte.  This 203 ½ foot ship was built to haul a maximum of five medium tanks, three heavy tanks, six amphibious landing craft which used tank tracks rather than wheels, or 9 amphibious wheeled landing crafts called DUKWS.  Most of us recognize DUKWS because of their use as tourist attractions in places like Branson, Missouri, and Hot Springs, Arkansas.  LSM-51 had a complement of four officers and 54 enlisted men.

Captain Potts ran a tight ship.  One of Captain Potts’s favorite punishments on the ship was scraping and repainting. Captain Potts and his officers meted out this punishment often and for the smallest infraction because it kept the ship’s paint fresh.  You know the term “ship shape.”  Every day someone was busy scraping and repainting some part of the ship.

John Kann and Joe Sherrill seemed to be in trouble more often than not.  As a punishment for some offense long forgotten, John and Joe were given the task of scraping and repainting part of one side of the ship.  Using ropes, other enlisted men lowered John and Joe down the side of the ship and tied the ropes off.  The enlisted men raised and lowered John and Joe throughout the process.  Finally, after hours of scraping and repainting, their work was done and their punishment was completed.  John and Joe were pulled back up onto the ship and returned to their regular duties. During the same time period, other seamen received the same punishment at different locations on the ship.

Some days later, while under radio silence, the LSM-51 received a morse code message via signal lamp from another ship that carried the Task Group Commander.  The signalman decoded the morse code and wrote down the message.  The seaman looked at the message with confusion.  He must have made a mistake.  He relayed the message to Captain Potts, who was equally confused.  Captain Potts told the signalman to have the message repeated.  He flashed his morse code to the other ship and waited.  Again, he translated the morse code and wrote down the message.  It was the same message as before.  The signalman relayed the message to Captain Potts.  Captain Potts had full confidence in his signalman and told him to ask the other ship to repeat the message once again.  With full undeviating concentration, the signalman watched as the other ship blinked its signal.  This time, the message was longer, but the signalman was still confused.  He relayed the message to Captain Potts.  

Confused and irritated that the message provided no answer, the captain got into a dingy and rowed away from the ship.  He wanted to look at the ship to see if that would solve the confusing messages.  It only took a glance.  The captain returned to the ship in a state of near rage.  He demanded to know who was responsible, but no one confessed.  Determined to learn the identity of the culprit or culprits, he asked who had been painting on the side of his ship.  Since the scraping and repainting punishment had been meted out so regularly to so many of the seamen, the captain and officers were unable to determine who could be guilty.  No matter what punishment the men received, no one confessed.  Well, not until more than 50 years had passed.  Finally, in the late 1990s, John and Joe no longer feared the reprisals of the Navy and confessed.  John argued that it was he who came up with the idea.  Joe claimed that the idea was his.   

The confusing message that the other ship kept sending LSM-51 was… “How much do you want for it?”  In orange chromate rust inhibitor, in letters more than 5 feet wide and 10 feet tall, John and Joe had painted on the side of LSM-51 the words, “FOR SALE”.