How the 5"/38 crews operated

By Dick Baker
Updated 24 September 2002

The 5"/38 gun mounted in Destroyers was carried in single and twin mounts.

The Trainer sat on the right side of the gun, with a vision port/sight and the Pointer on the left, also with a vision port/sight.  The Trainer moved the mount in bearing (azimuth) while the Pointer moved it in elevation.  Both stations had 'follow the dial' instruments for Director control or by Main Battery Plot, and the means for local control, which meant the Pointer and trainer, actually aimed the guns.  This was true of both single and twin mounts.  The seats were those perforated steel tractor type which got pretty uncomfortable after a while.

The Director, of course, was located above the Bridge and had the rangefinder and radar gear.  Four men, including an officer, manned it.  Main Battery Plot was located below, right aft of the Mess decks, in the IC Room, with the main gyro.  Guns could be fired from the Director, Plot or locally.  It was the practice in most ships for all firing keys to be closed at the command "Fire" so that the circuit would be completed, no matter what.

On twin mounts, projectile hoists were located between the guns, serviced by the upper handling room, immediately below the mount.  Projectiles were carried nose down, the fuse being set automatically by the mechanism in the hoist.  Projectile men were trained to wait until the last possible instant to remove the round from the hoist, as the fuse setting was constantly being adjusted.  The projectile weighed around 55 pounds and was painted and stenciled according to its purpose.  They had a brass rotating band toward the base, which was sharp and occasionally cut one's palm as the round was handled.

It was the drill to grasp the projectile firmly at the base with the right hand (for the right hand gun) pulling it into the left hand about midway along the ogive.  It was raised to a 'Port Arms' position across the chest, then laid in the tray ahead of the powder case.  The Projectileman had, of course, to wait for the Powder man.  Once all was set, the Projectile man hit the rammer lever with his right hand, in passing en route to the hoist to grab another round.

The hydraulic rammer stuffed the packet up the spout and tripped the breech stop, allowing the vertical breech to slide up and close.  The breech slid in bronze rails and there was a fair amount of polished brass and gleaming steel, necessary for the mechanical functions.  Paint could foul or otherwise gum up the works, so nothing important was painted.

The Powder man stood immediately to the rear of the Projectileman, and received his goods through a scuttle in the deck plate, shoved up from the handling room below.  The cartridge case came with a protective steel fitting over the primer, called a 'butterfly', which the Powderman had to knock off as he pulled the case up from the scuttle.  This required a certain dexterity of the wrist, as the butterfly had a small ring handle on it, to help the loader lift the 35-pound charge.  One didn't want to flip the butterfly off before having solid control of the cartridge, you understand.  Having done his gymnastics, it remained to throw the case onto the tray, steadying it with the left hand, while the first loader manipulated his projectile.  This also required some athletic ability, as the gun was wildly training and elevating, trying to track a 'fast mover.  Immediately to the Powder man's right rear, the Hot Shell man stood, armed with a huge Asbestos mitt, to catch the fired casing and discharge it through the port provided in the rear of the gun house.  These, being propelled from the breech at really healthy rate, could be a serious embarrassment to a gun crew, should this worthy fail, and allow them to ricochet around the interior of the mount.  He had to be very fast and very accurate.  He only got the one chance, you see.  Normally the gun fired and ejected instantly.

The Gun Captain stood to the right rear of the gun, on a little elevated stand, supervising this orchestrated chaos.  His was the responsibility for manually operating the breech in the event of power or hydraulic failure and commanding the crew in local control.

The Mount Captain commanded the mount, and operated the sound powered phones, passing orders and giving firing data as needed, and controlling the mount in local control.  He perched on an elevated throne at the rear of the gun house between the guns in a twin mount, with a hatch he could stand in, the better to see his targets, etc.

In a twin mount, firing against aircraft, in a lively ship coursing through any sort of sea at all, life in the gun house was intense at times.  It was invariably hot, an acrid odor of powder fumes permeated the place, a thin veil of smoke filled the air, and, for some reason, the unfired powder cases and projectiles had this peculiar sour smell, which burnt the throat and eyes.  Imagine trying to maintain footing on heaving deck plates slick with hydraulic oil mist; hustle 55-pound high explosive shells into a gun now vertical, now at forty five degrees and now vertical again, all in a third of a second, for the accepted standard was twenty rounds a minute, bar nothing.

As the gun elevated, the breech end descended smartly into a well in the deck plates.  It was not unknown for gunners to lose legs and feet as the heavy breech dropped down at an unfortunate moment.  It has been known that gunners were mashed into chili by the breech, as a result of an untimely lurch.  There was no warning or time for one, really, one had to keep his wits about him.

The hoist hung under the gun, into the upper handling room.  That space did not move with the mount, as does a turret, but merely with the ship.  The compartment is circular, and holds all the ready service ammunition in racks along the bulkhead.  The Shell man handles the projectiles and the Powder man the cases.  In his case, he simply grabs one and shoves up through the scuttle to the Powder man above.  All charges are the same.

The Shell man, however, has to grab the selected round from an assortment around the compartment and hustle it to the hoist, set it in the cup properly, lest he jam the hoist, and see it on its way.  Both are working in a stifling hot, heaving space filled with the noxious odors and, I might add, no hope of surviving if something goes amiss.

Below them, in the Magazine, a crew keeps the handling room supplied with the necessaries, manually humping the projectiles and powders in conditions even worse than those above them.

I know of one ship where Mount 52 fired just as Mount 51 opened the breech of the right hand gun, the mounts were so trained and pointed, that a flashback occurred from the muzzles of Mount 52 into Mt 51.  Powder was ignited and all 17 men were killed instantly.  Had a projectile gone off, the ship could have been lost.  The Navy subsequently built some sort of stops into the firing circuits to prevent a recurrence.

The guns' crews are made up of Seaman branch sailors, mostly from the deck force.  Bosun's Mates make up the gun crew's petty officers, in the main.  Gunner's Mates are the 'tech's but also serve as Mount Captains and sometimes, Gun Captains.  The Director is manned by Fire Controlmen, as is Plot.  The Gunnery Officer may be in the Director or in Plot.