The Phantom of the Barge
It was around this time of year back in 1999, a somewhat cool autumn day. I was serving in the Navy at Naval Station Norfolk. I served aboard the USS Nassau (LHA-4), an amphibious landing helicopter assault ship or “Gator Freighter,” as it was also known. The ship was undergoing repairs in the shipyard in nearby Portsmouth, and those of us that didn’t live out in town had to stay in a barge, since it was not possible to live onboard the ship in the berthing compartments while repairs were going on. I was new to the Nassau and the Navy in general, and was doing my 90-day tour of “cranking,” or serving on the mess decks, mostly doling out good ‘ol Navy chow or scrubbing pots and pans. Anyways, I had made a good friend in another “boot,” as those of us new to the fleet were called. Josh Jacobs was a Jewish-American city kid from Philly, a good-natured, loud-mouthed funny guy that I liked immediately. We had one of those classic American friendships you see in old war films. To mess with one another, we took shots at each other’s background, and I often called him “Heeb,” or “Jew boy,” and he called me “Wop,” or “Dago.” It wasn’t disrespect for one another’s heritage that led us to do so. It was shared camaraderie, an acknowledgement of the things we had in common, such as the fact that we were both a bit older than most of the crew, and probably a bit more well-educated (both of us having some college under our belts), but stupid enough to voluntarily join the military. Jacobs and I had the same taste in music, movies, and both liked hockey (he being a Flyers fan, and I being a Red Wings fan) and history, especially anything about World War II. It was our shared interest of history that forms the basis of this story.
Living aboard a barge can be lonely and boring. Those of us that read books read a lot. Josh was telling me about a book he was reading called The Spear of Destiny, and asked if I wanted to take a look at it. Not having anything else at the time to read, I said I’d check it out. The book was about Hitler and the Nazis and their quest for finding occultist and religious-type artifacts to help in their bid for power over the rest of the world. For those not overly-religious, the “Spear of Destiny,” was the spear used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce the side of Christ during the crucifixion. The myth went that anyone that possessed Longinus’ spear would hold God-like powers. The Nazis were crazy enough to believe in that stuff. Well, I had always been interested in history, especially anything concerning World War II and those wacky Nazis, and had had a slight interest in Occult topics and the macabre, so I took it from him and put it under the pillow on my rack to do some late night reading after lights out.
Most weeknights I would get to bed around 10 or so, having to be up at 4 in the morning to get breakfast for the crew ready. I slept in the bottom rack in our berthing compartment on the barge. The racks were stacked three-high and were known as “coffin lockers,” due to the fact that they were not very large or comfortable, looking and probably feeling like an actual coffin. If you were unfortunate enough to have a middle or bottom rack and were a tall or big guy, turning over in your sleep was near impossible. Sleeping on your side was likewise difficult. The locker part was just under the “mattress” part of the bed that you would lift up, and where we would keep our socks, underwear, and other clothes. While lying in your rack, just over your head, there would be a small light that could be turned on for reading. I began reading the book Josh loaned me that night, and the next couple of nights after, really getting into the story of the Nazi search for a 2,000 year-old spear. When I would start to fall asleep, I would put the book back under my pillow and check to make sure my alarm was set for four in the morning.
Another note about the racks and the berthing area: My rack was the bottom one and closest to the door of the head (bathroom to you landlubbers). I would sometimes awaken to the sound of the creaky door being opened and closed, as a fellow sailor would go in to take a shower or brush their teeth at any and all times of the night. These guys sometimes made a racket moving around, and it took me a long while to be able to sleep through the noise they made, something I never could really get used too. Privacy while sleeping in your rack was essentially achieved by pulling two blue curtains shut. I don’t recall anyone that would leave them open, and I always kept mine shut while I was in my rack.
One night I was lying in my coffin reading, possibly the only member of my division actually on the barge that night. Being the new guy, I didn’t really know anyone, and the first couple of months pretty much stayed to myself, only occasionally going out to a bar with someone that had a car. Most of the guys had been on the ship awhile and so they would head out to the bars in Norfolk or Portsmouth, drink like sailors do, and then head back before having to get up for another workday. I read a chapter or so of the book, describing the archeological arm of the SS under Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, and quickly found myself getting sleepy, put the book under my pillow, turned the light out and promptly conked out.
I awoke to the sound of a door opening from the other side of berthing. It was pitch black in the compartment, and I just figured some half-drunk sailor was trying to find his rack. Occasionally a drunken swabbie would turn the lights on, pissing those asleep off, but there had been no light flipped on at all. The door shut and heavy footsteps began walking towards the back of the compartment, closer to my rack. What I found strange at the time was that this person was able to maneuver around the racks in absolute darkness, with no light on at all, something that would have been difficult for any sober person. Also, there was no sound at all except for those loud footsteps. No sound of breathing, no exclamation by a sailor about how damned dark it was in there, nothing. And the sounds of the footsteps themselves were almost methodically slow, as if each one should have been accompanied by an exclamation point. It seemed to take forever, and I remember my heart suddenly starting to beat like crazy, as that solid, deliberate sound stole right past my rack. I then heard the door to the head open with a smooth creak, not as violent as I had remembered it in the past, but again, slow and deliberate, and it seemed as if every footfall became even more pronounced alongside that of my pounding heart. Then, all of the sudden, the curtains to my rack began to blow in towards me, and I can’t even describe the cold that accompanied it. It was as if a freezing wind was howling in upon me, and I could feel my jaw lock tight, my teeth instantly becoming a solid block of ice that froze and fused together. I grew up in Michigan and had never known such a cold in all my life. I tried to cry out as the cold pierced me deeply to the core, like ten million frozen needles stabbing me all at once. It was truly indescribable. It was as if I was high up in the Himalayas, suffering from frostbite and barely clinging to the side of a mountain, scrambling before an avalanche of falling snow and ice, but I was conscious the whole time of where I was, my mouth frozen and unable to cry out. Again, whatever had entered the head did not turn on a light, and there still was no sound from it; no turning on of the water faucet, no flushing a toilet or urinal (all of which was normally highly audible from my bottom rack vantage point).
I just couldn’t move to save my life, although I recall I was on my left side facing the privacy curtains, watching in a stupefying horror as they continued to blow in violently, accompanied by a loud wind-like noise that had been piercing my ears. It seemed as if all my senses were being assaulted at once, and it also seemed to last for minutes (when in actuality it was probably only seconds). I then heard the door to the head open, and the heavy footsteps returned, walking right by my rack again. They moved just as slow and purposeful as before, and the bone-chilling cold continued to grip me the entire time. Not a word was said, not a whisper from the unseen phantom reached my ears. I heard the door to the front of the berthing compartment open and close, and the room suddenly returned to normal as before, as if nothing had happened. I was no longer freezing, the curtains had stopped blowing in, and there wasn’t a sound in the berthing compartment at all, aside from the beating of my horrified heart. I admit, I was scared out of my mind, and took many long minutes before working up the courage to get out of the rack to investigate for any sign of prank or phantom. It took awhile to calm down, and most of the rest of the night was spent awake and trying to reason with myself that I had just dreamt the whole thing. I still believe I was the only one in berthing when that supernatural occurrence took place, my brain trying to reason with my being that I had just suffered through some weird sort of sleep paralysis. But I was so sure I had been awake throughout the entire thing! I had never been a sleepwalker, suffered from sleep paralysis, or had especially terrifying dreams before. In the days that followed, I waited for one of my shipmates to laugh and tell everyone else what a great prank they had played on the new guy, but it never came. Nobody ever confessed to it or even mentioned it to me, because no one had been there. The next morning, I went down to the mess decks with the book.
I found Jacobs wiping off some tables and almost threw the book at him saying, “Here, I don’t want to ever see this damned book again!” He laughingly asked what the hell was wrong and I told him about my terrifying night with the spirit of some dead Nazi paying me a visit. As I thought he would, he laughed at me again and called me a bunch of names, “pussy” probably being the kindest. I neither said nor thought anymore about it until one morning a couple of weeks later, Jacobs and I arrived at the galley to get chow ready for the crew. I noticed he was unusually quiet and looked a bit out of sorts, somewhat pale and clammy looking. I asked him if he was sick. After a pause, he told me he had been reading the book he loaned me, the one that gave me the bad experience. He then went on to say that the EXACT thing I claimed had happened to me had happened to him. He spoke somewhat wild-eyed about the footsteps, and then the door shutting, and the curtains blowing up like a hurricane was passing through. He told me about a cold unlike anything he had ever experienced, thinking he would freeze to death right there in his rack. He then related the rest of it, the end coming only when the door to berthing leading out into the hallway closed. I looked at him closely, thinking that he might be having a little fun with me. His eyes looked somewhat red and tired, and the expression on his face was not of someone playing a joke. He looked dead serious, and although I did not know Josh all that well at that point in time, I just had a feeling he wasn’t messing with me. He was telling the truth. I could see it in his eyes. We served together aboard the Nassau for the next four years, going on two cruises (including a stop for the kickoff of the Iraq War in 2003), and are still good buds to this day, over a decade later. We speak about our strange barge experience every great once in awhile, and on one occasion even ventured who our unholy visitor may have been. Had it been the conniving former chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS, or could it have been someone even more foul and loathsome; the evil spirit of Adolf Hitler himself, exacting a little payback scare on two active duty US servicemen, the grandsons of men that had helped defeat his military machine? We both would probably tell you now, with so many years having passed, that it had all been just a dream. But the reasoning part of our brains still can’t explain it, or the fear that two grown men could experience from such a nightmare. It’s funny thinking about it now, and we have joked about acting like a couple of scared five year-olds; and how those five year-olds would have been braver than two big, bad sailors.
I asked Josh once not long after our experience what he did with the book. He told me he gave it to some other poor dumb sailor. I asked him why he didn’t just throw it out in the garbage, and I remember his look of indignation at my question. “No way,” he had said, alluding to a scene in a horror movie involving the reappearance of a Ouija board in the main characters bed, after that character had thrown the Ouija board away in the trash. “You think I want that goddamn thing showing back up underneath my pillow the next time I hit the rack?! I’d shit my pants!”