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1963-65 Cleaning Boilers ~ Tom Lutz

Cleaning boilers on Rosie; 1963-65

I always thought that water boiled at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level; end of story. Well, I thought that way until I sat through 16 weeks of Shipboard Engineering at OCS and learned that applying lots of pressure in a Naval boiler is exactly how that temperature is raised another 300 degrees or so. But then I also learned that once water flashes into steam, even at much higher temperatures, it can be heated even hotter…super-heated, if you will…to increase the energy that the steam produces. Superheated steam sounded like science fiction, but on Roosevelt it was how our engineering plant operated.

FDR had 12 Babcock & Wilcox “M” type Naval boilers, each operating at 600 psi and capable of temperatures up to 750 degrees super-heat. That is what made it possible for her to do 32 knots at full power (12 boilers on line) or sustain 30 knots, if needed, to fly airplanes with no wind (8-10 boiler operations.)

An M-type boiler has a system of tubes connected to two drums…a big water drum at the top and a smaller “mud” drum at the bottom of the boiler. This system of tubes is roughly in the shape of the capital letter M. This is a carryover from the Battleship design of WWII…since Midway class carriers (Midway, Roosevelt, and Coral Sea) were based on BB Montana design. The boiler design was an intermediate step to the black oil burning ships that came out in the 1950s and 60s, which operate at 1200 psi and much higher superheat; but back to my story about Rosie.

With all the pressure and all the heat generated in these “tea kettles”, a lot of stress and strain is put on the boiler’s parts. On the outside, the tubes would become covered with caked-on deposits from burning the sticky black oil. The more “soot” that forms the more difficult it becomes to transfer heat into the water and steam cursing through the tubes. The outside of the tube, known as the “fireside,” and the inside of the tubes, the “waterside,” must be reasonably clean to be efficient. Both sides of the tubes had to be scraped from time to time and there was no easy way to get it done. The boiler had to be taken down, allowed to cool and then physically scraped inside and out. It became the job of the junior Firemen in each space and it was dirty, filthy work.

Cleaning Firesides was dirty work for sure, but it was easier to accomplish than cleaning watersides and had to be done more frequently. Firesides required getting inside the brick furnace and scraping the outside of the tubes with anything from a paint scraper to a wire brush. This was a big space…about two decks high, so you could move around freely. Care had to be taken, however, so that the metal was not weakened during cleaning because that could lead to a ruptured tube casualty once the boiler was brought up to pressure again. Sometimes a defective tube would be found that required the tube either to be replaced or plugged. Plugging a tube would allow it to be inactivated without the added work of “rolling” a new tube into the system.

Sailors would scrape and brush and inspect each tube to be sure that they could withstand the load placed on them when they were lit-off and put back on line again.

Cleaning watersides required draining the boiler, isolating it from the rest of the steam plant (with two valve security, chained and locked) and then climbing into the big water drum and “punching tubes.” It is not for the claustrophobic or even the faint of heart.

“Punching tubes” means putting a circular wire brush driven by an air rotor down each tube as far as the apparatus would reach. It was dusty, dirty work and the sound was reminiscent of a visit to the dentist.

Boiler feed water is specially treated to keep deposits off the inside of the tubes, but regardless of how careful and precise the water treatment is, scale is formed over time due to the high pressure and heat. Periodically, you just had to punch tubes. The work had to be done and sailors did the job with care and precision.

They worked round the clock to get the boiler available to return on line, if and when it was needed. The scheduling of watersides and firesides was a ballet between the operational demands of the ship, the anticipated need for speed due to wind, or the lack of it, and the mechanical condition of the equipment. When everything clicked it was teamwork at its best.

My job, as division officer, was to be sure the work was completed safely and correctly. It was an exercise in leadership. The least I could do was to see that those working round the clock were adequately fed and rested, so we routinely authorized Mid-Rats for the fire-room cleaning crew. Generally they worked in 12 hour shifts, so it was essential that those sleeping in the daytime could be as undisturbed as possible…which required being sure that berthing compartments were cleaned at the right time and ventilated properly during the hot summer months and kept as quiet as possible.

We would pick up a bag of sandwiches from the mess decks about 2330 and head for the boiler that was undergoing repair. By the time the mid-watch was on duty, I would be in the fire room making sure the men were at least aware that their good work was appreciated. Frequently, those inside the water drum would try to lure me into the big iron structure. The access was a “manhole” about a foot in diameter, which required you to suck in your gut after you wiggled enough to get your shoulders through. Once inside, it was another matter to move around since the drum was lined with baffle plates and other piping. The process of punching tubes was done, pretty much, on your stomach. The sailors always enjoyed watching me maneuver my 6’4″ frame inside the water drum. I recall the most difficult thing for me was to figure out what to do with my size 13 shoes once I got inside. Once inside we would sit long enough to munch a sandwich of white bread, meat, cheese, mustard and mayonnaise and tell stories about our lives outside the Navy.

There were 180 men assigned to B-Division; seldom were the billets all filled, which meant that most of the time we were short-handed. The men of the FDR worked hard on the flight deck, the engineering spaces and throughout the ship to be sure we were always ready to launch our planes. Most people don’t think about how important it was to keep the dirty, nasty boilers clean inside and out. But it was important…just as important as how to fire those big “tea kettles” to keep us going fast enough to fly our aircraft. Years after my tour on board was over, I looked back on the work we did and was always proud to be a part of the USS Roosevelt team.