Everything has to have a beginning and my Navy experience started as an enlistee at the Custom House Philadelphia, PA along with a group of other enlistees.  We began our friendship that continued into "Boot Camp".  Our Boot training occurred at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The Navy decided that because so many ships were built at that facility or nearby shipyards, it would be prudent to train "boots" right there and place them aboard ships as they became operational.    It also gave them a large group of men to act as security and fire watchers and as gate escorts.  I believe the Navy Department deemed this idea of a boot camp to be a mistake, for we were the first and last "boot camp" to be held at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.


The time period was September 1942, with many of us being sworn in on 9/15/42.  We were housed in several temporary wooden barracks contiguous to the more permanent brick Philadelphia Receiving Station and they were just behind the "brig" at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Revelry was at 0500 as we would fall out for physical calisthenics within sight of the incarcerated men in the brig.  We became the brunt of many taunts from the inmates.  It was also a very good example to see what could befall a sailor that fouled up and was court martial to spend time in the brig, something I'm sure many of us thought about anytime we were tempted to stray a field.


During our 6 or 7 weeks of training we formulated many strong friendships, which as it turned out lasted for many years.  As we  "graduated from boot camp", we were pronounced second class seamen.  Approximately one half of our group was assigned to the USS Independence CVL 22 which had been built at the New York shipyard in Camden, NJ, and then readied as a fighting ship of the fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Most of our group assisted in her Commissioning on 14 of January and went aboard her on 15 January 1943.  Many of the other half of our "boot company" were assigned to the USS New Jersey BB 62 which was being built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.


As a group we were all excited about being assigned to the same ship.  As we boarded some were relegated to the gunnery division and others to the deck division.  I wanted to go to the machine ship but the petty officer in charge took 10 of us to the galley and P. O.  said to me "here is your machine shop and you are now a cook striker".  My world fell apart and I was heart broken to say the least.


A second class cook on the same watch saw my plight and wasted no time in taking me under his wing.  He explained that being a cook was not all that bad.  He assigned me small chores to do and began to show me how chow was prepared and how we had to look forward to preparing for the next meal.  Think about what had to be done for the next meal, and at the same time preparing to serve the present meal.  It was all so new to me but the watch captain made sure you were always doing something and doing it the "navy way".


Our working hours were 24 hour on and 24 hours off. In other words you cooked for 24 hours but then had the next 24 hours to do as you pleased.  I still didn't think too much of the galley as my cup of tea.


Now began a chain of events that is hard to believe.  First of all I had mentioned to a cook that I wanted a transfer to some other duty.  He said, Frenchy, forget about any transfers.  The Navy needs more cooks than they do machinists".  so I made up my mind to become a cook striker.  Now all my buddies began to heckle me with such taunts as "hey Frenchy, how many pots did you wash today?  Hey Frenchy, you got a raw deal, or you really look cute in an apron".  They would taunt me for weeks about a meal that didn't suite them, but I noticed that most of them were hungry enough and ate the chow anyway.


When I learned that many of my buddies had duties and watches of four hours on and four hours off, I began to think that my positions seemed a little more acceptable.  Besides the watch status, cooks and bakers had "watch-standers liberty", which meant that we could go ashore at 1300 on one day and return the next at 1100 hours.  Most of the rest of the crew would have liberty from 1600 to 0800.  So there were some advantages that looked pretty good to me at the time and those guys that were teasing me started to ease off when they saw how much free time I had.


I began to put my nose to the grind-stone in earnest and began to learn to cook," Navy style".  Besides actual on the job work, I began to study manuals that gave all the commissary methods pertaining to cooking, cost of daily rations, menu preparation and learning to heed the watch captain.


Finally, after only eight months, I made third class cook while many of my buddies were still scraping paint and swabbing decks.  Now a little awe began to take place and by the end of another eight months, I was made second class cook.  My buddies became envious and the taunting stopped.  For icing on the cake, in another eleven months, I became first class cook.


As I progressed through these ranks, I was learning my trade all the while.  I soon became ships cook in charge of the galley, in charge of both watches, and in charge of the provisions issue room where all the food to be used each day was stored.


Each evening one of my duties was to make up and post a list of those cooks and bakers on the next days watch and then the list had to be taken to the quartermaster on the bridge to be logged in the deck log.  Those on the cooks and bakers watch list had to be roused out of their sacks at least three hours prior to normal reveille so that they could begin preparing breakfast chow.  One morning when I was due to be the watch captain for the day, reveille blew and I was still in my sack, meaning I was not called.  I jumped out of my sack and only half dressed, I hurried to the galley.  It was pitch black and no one was there.  That indicated to me that none of the watch had been called.  I said to myself as watch captain, "I'm in deep trouble!"  I had to call the officer of the deck and started to explain what had happened for none of the watch had received their wake up calls.  The O. D. ordered me to get my butt to the bridge on the double.  When I reached the bridge, I reported, "Sir, Francia, ships cook in charge reporting as ordered."  The O. D. said, "cookie, what happened?  the captain is waiting to hear from you. "  I answered that last evening I delivered the list as is the normal routine to the quartermaster.


The O. D. opened the deck log and saw no cooks and bakers list.  But then he turned a few pages and lo and behold there was the list, all properly dated and signed.  Now the O. D. was fuming and mad as h--- because someone had failed to do their job properly.  By this time Captain Johnson appeared on the bridge and we all snapped to attention.  The O. D. explained the situation and Captain Johnson turned to me and inquired, "cookie how long will it take for you and your crew to get breakfast together?"  I reported, Sir my cooks will do their very best to expedite chow but we may have to deviate a little from the normal menus for the day, for we are already three hours behind.  Captain Johnson said, "Very well cookie, I will leave it up to you to carry on as best as you can."  I turned to the O. D. and said "sir, I will notify you when to sound chow call."  They both looked at me and I believe they both realized at the same time that I was in command for the balance of the day as to how and when chow would be served.  Of course this screwed up the whole plan for the day.  With that Captain Johnson dismissed me.  As I left the bridge I could still hear the Captains voice asking the O. D. which of his officers was responsible for the dereliction of duty.  I have never heard, nor do I want to know who had to take the blame.


Duty in that small, cramped galley was always hurried and heavy, for we were always working against the clock.  One thing I do know is that we never missed one chow time.  Even the day after we were torpedoed, we managed to feed the crew.  Sure, it was sandwiches and oranges, and the bread tasted funny from the fuel oil fumes, but all hands had gone through one h--- of a night and we kept them well supplied with coffee and they were grateful for anything they got.


I have always been very proud of the cooks and bakers crew that we had on the Mighty I. and am happy and proud to have been a member of that fine crew.  I recall on old Navy saying, there are three people in the Navy who can make life uncomfortable for anyone in the Navy.  They are the payroll clerk for he keeps the records of your earnings; the yeoman, for he has your records, especially your leave allotments; and the cook , for he has your chow and can make it taste good or not so good.


" This is your old shipmate "Frenchy the Cook" telling you, "that they really were raisins in the rice pudding, no matter what they looked like".  And now it's time to chow down".  May you have smooth sailing until we meet again"...


Leon Francia died July 6, 2005