Wednesday, July 10, 2013

WWII 2

For the present generation wwii is after the Civil War; isn't it?
Some of us old heads had better do something to make it remembered. That's our purpose here today:

Back then: For a teenager the war in Europe was an interest second only to the baseball scores and ratings. In those days the radio was our chief source of information. We listened eagerly to dispatches from Europe-- a miracle by gosh.

But it wasn't until Dec. 7, 1941 when a 15 year old kid was coming home from Golden Meadow LA with his Dad and listening on the miraculous car radio that we heard the dire news. Father and son both knew that things would now be different.
Back home in New Orleans we continued listening; FDR's fireside talk was played over and over. Strangely enough the program he set out was to focus our resources on Europe, although we had just been cruelly and treacherously betrayed by the little yellow men (as they were called in those days) or the Japs.

Some years later we heard about Casablanca (which I was to visit in 1944), Rommel, the Desert Fox, and Stalingrad: things were looking up for the Allies.

They were looking up for the teenager, too; my 18th birthday was looming large. I was scheduled to become a doughboy, but I found a better way. I dropped out of LA Tech, took a crash course in radio, and qualified as a radio operator for the War Shipping Administration. We were deferred from the Army; merchant ships were a critical element in the Allied Victory.

(In 1990 Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided that we were veterans, and I received a discharge from the USCG ('Coast Guard'); unfortunately no back pay accrued.
I had become a veteran in the USNR during the Korean Police Action.)

About twenty blocks along Esplanade from Rampart St. was a McDonough 'something' school, where my draft board had its location. Here on my birthday I duly registered and informed them of my status with the WSA. It happened that the first merchant seaman 2B deferment had emanated from this very board, and I immediately became another. The draft board had no further interest in me until 8 years later when I began to approach my 26th birthday. About that, more later.

I was on standbye status at WSA; we had to report once a day, for which we received good money. 

Some time in March I got word to report to the Wood Lake, a new T2 tanker being commissioned at the shipyard in Mobile. (Here's material about the Wood Lake including a beautiful picture.) I went over and got aboard in time for the shakedown trip, which lasted a few days and happened largely in the gulf in the immediate environs of Mobile. I was just a passenger on that trip because a special crew used the radio equipment. Later two other radio operators came aboard. Since I was so young and inexperienced the Captain decided I should be the 3rd officer; it still seemed pretty impressive to me. I had a commission and uniform as an ensign in the Maritime service, very similar to that of a naval ensign.

Capt. Barton chose as the chief radio officer Drummond, a man in his 30's who seemed much older. Drummond was slightly limited intellectually and especially in terms of vision. He would not go out at night because he had no peripheral vision and was afraid of getting disoriented. The second officer, Fitzpatrick, was 26, married, and considerably more agile than Drummond. We made three trips on the Wood Lake over a period of about 4 months. The first time we went to Liverpool. We carried 100,000 gallons of aviation gasolene and 12 Lightning pursuit planes on deck. (Jimmy Thomas, my brother in law, flew that plane in the Pacific.)

We stayed only 2 or 3 nights in Liverpool. Tanks never stayed long. In fact I came close to missing the ship because I had taken a train down to London to see the place, thinking (correctly) that it might be my only opportunity. I stayed in London one night and considered staying another, but decided to go on back to Liverpool. It happened that I made just about the last liberty launch back to the ship before she sailed. I've often reflected that my life would have been vastly different had I missed that ship. (About missing ships, more shortly.)

Combat

 We traveled back and forth across the Atlantic in large convoys--of 50 or 100 ships at about 14 knots. Slower convoys made up of Liberty Ships and other slower craft traveled in other convoys. We left Liverpool just in time to escape a German air raid. This was the first of two occasions when I was near combat, but never in combat. I suppose we were near combat a few times during the voyages without necessarily knowing it.

The Merchant Marine suffered higher casualities during the war than any of the military services, one reason that draft deferment was virtually automatic. The German submarines had inflicted heavy losses on Allied shipping in the Atlantic in 1943 , but by the time I got out there the submarine menace had been brought pretty well under control.

On our trips back and forth across the Atlantic we often got submarine alarms or rather possible submarine alarms. Sonar signals had suggested the possibility, perhaps set off by whales or whatnot, perhaps by submarines. The British corvettes and American destroyer escorts constantly scurried around the convoy checking out these alarms.

We had large insulated wet suits to use in case of being sunk. Drummon slept in one of these as I recall. But generally we became quite accustomed to the alarms and paid little attention to them. However when I got home, I was napping on the living room sofa when someone rang the doorbell, and I jumped about two feet. Strange. I had grown accustomed to the alarms, so they didn't bother me. But apparently at home I had let down my guard and released the genie out of the bottle, the residue of fear of which I was unconscious.

Radio Silence

Allied merchant ships preserved radio silence throughout the war, so I never sent a signal until after VE day. Our work consisted of spending four hours sitting beside the radio and monitoring incoming traffic, then 8 hours off, then 4 on and 8 off as long as the ship remained at sea. The radio watch was secured in port, making us especially privileged characters since we had nothing to do unless we were at sea. Another facet of the privilege about the position was that no one knew anything about our job. We had no supervision to speak of and lived more or less in a world of our own. The only person we reported to was the Captain, and he rarely had time to pay any attention to us.

During these watches I took up smoking to while away the time. I remember I would allow myself one cigarette an hour and it would last about ten minutes. Three cigarettes would get me through a watch. I didn't stop smoking until some 13 years later.

   Missing Ships

Our third trip took us to Bristol. Once again we stayed only a night or two. Fitzpatrick, the second radio officer, was something of a lady's man. we had just cast off our lines and were heading for the sea when he came running up to the dock. We waved at him, but he had missed the ship. Later we learned that he had managed to get aboard another tanker belonging to our company. Of course his pay stopped the minute he missed the ship. He worked in the galley of the other ship. The convoy got almost to New York when the other ship got orders to proceed to North Africa. I met him in New Orleans some years later. It had taken him over a year to get back to the states. It seemed to me that his whole personality had changed, perhaps as a result of that sobering experience. He was learning to be a printer, and now seemed a very serious sort.

Good Pay

We were paid well in the war zone. Base salary was about $150 a month for me, but there was a hundred percent bonus plus $5 per day in the war zone, all of which came to about $450 per month. In those days that was a princely sum, or so it seemed to me at the time. With no living expenses I saved a considerable sum of money--about $5000 over the course of the years I went to sea. 

 for the next overseas trip. I had been on the Wood Lake for about four months. We signed on a voyage at a time. I started to sign over, as we said, but decided I would go home for a visit. A lucky decision since the ship went from New York to the South Pacific and was out there for the next two years.

 Going home from New York on the train I met a young woman who lived in Pensacola. Up to that time I had had very little experience with the opposite sex, but I suppose in my uniform I was a handsome devil. We were taken with each other and agreed to write. After a couple of letters in fact I went to Pensacola to see her, but nothing came of it.

 I was a member of the Radio Officers' Union of the AF of L. When I got ready to ship out again, I went down to the union office and met the union rep. An old sailor, but a man of some culture; I don't remember his name. He got me a berth on the Pan York. This was an old tub built about 1900. We had given it to the Panamians, but due to the war we took it back. It ran between New Orleans and ports in Panama and Columbia. It's speed was about the same as the tankers; it had once been a pretty good ship.

 We almost always went first to Panama (the Atlantic side). There were two towns on the coast there: Christobal, where we usually docked and where the U.S.military reservation was located. We sometimes visited the army installations and enjoyed their good and cheap ice cream. The other town was Colon, the native place. About all we knew of it was the bars and brothels. In Panama I took up drinking. I was still 18, and I found that in port I was on the ship by myself; everyone else was over in Colon drinking. So I went over and joined them.

The most common drink was rum and coke (20 cents). I consumed many a rum and coke over the next six months; I did most of my drinking when we were in Panama. I remember a couple of drinking friends. One was a seaman who had absolutely nothing to say aboard ship. But when he went ashore he usually lasted a couple of hours, and his shipmates would bring him back all banged up (from a fight) and just about out of his mind. This man was a great checker player. I had him up in the radio shack a time or two for a game. As I say, he never had anything to say, but he knew how to talk with checkers.

Another hard drinker was the purser. He was a fairly high class man, but he was bad to drink.

One day in the saloon (that's what we called the officers' dining room) in a half sober state he turned to me and said "Sparks, you're a nice kid, but you sure are getting to be a terrible wino." Me, I thought, my Lord; I don't drink half as much as you do. But he made me do some thinking about it as a consequence of which I got off the Pan York at the end of that trip.

Danger


 That trip had an eventful end. We passed through a hurricane in the gulf. The double bottom was flooded; a gigantic wave took off the lifeboat just outside of the radio shack. The Captain decided we had better break radio silence and contact the Coast Guard. So the Armed Guard Officer, who had custody of the code books, encoded a message telling them our position, course, speed, and predicament.

 I had been up all day of course, and I didn't intend to keep working without lawful compensation. So I asked the Captain if he wanted me to work overtime. He said no, so I went to bed. I actually slept longer than I should have and missed the 3 A.M. BAMS (Broadcasts to Allied Merchant Ships).

 At 6 I got a coded message asking for further particulars, but by that time we were in the river. At New Orleans some Coast Guard brass came aboard for an inquiry. In the course of the inquiry they called me in and wanted to know where I had been between midnight and 8 A.M. "In my sack" I said. No response. Lucky I was not some kind of poor devil of an armed forces person.

The Sea Dolphin

 After a brief vacation from the Pan York I was assigned to another brand new ship; this was the Sea Dolphin, a C II that had just been built in Pascagoula. These were superior types of cargo ships; they went about the same speed as the tankers. I'm not sure which trip it was that I visited Rouen and LeHavre. Seems like it must have been the first trip of the Sea Dolphin.

 I was the chief operator on this ship, and I have very little recollection of the boys who worked with me. Going across the Atlantic in a large convoy we were apparently rerouted with a radio message to the south of France, but for some reason we didn't get the message and showed up in Rouen. I don't suppose it made a great difference since hundreds of ships were going to all those ports at that time. I had gone to London from Liverpool, and now I 

it made a great difference since hundreds of ships were going to all those ports at that time. I had gone to London from Liverpool, and now I figured I had better see Paris while I was in France, so I took a train up the Seine. It was beautiful, but I was completely out of it there. No one spoke English, and no one seemed in the least interested in being of help. That is, until I found a USO. I walked in and met a GI on leave. He showed me Paris, but I don't remember much of what transpired. The next day I went back to Rouen.

Calcutta

 On our next trip we went from New York to Calcutta, through the straits of Gibraltar (without stopping), Port Said, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. We stopped at Aden, a British Crown Colony for routing instructions (It now goes by the name of Yemen.) The Captain, the armed guard officer, and I went ashore about 8 A.M. It took about half an hour to finish our business. The Captain asked the Limeys where we could get a beer. They said no alcohol was served there before noon. The skipper said, "Humph, I wouldn't stay here until noon for Cleopatra herself." It was about 125 in the shade, but soon we were in the Arabian Sea with cool breezes.

 We got to Calcutta 28 days out of New York. We had set a record for a freight vessel. I remember the excitement of going up the river to Calcutta. From the deck you could see villages scattered around in all directions with cultivated fields between them. Teeming with people, tremendously exotic. At Calcutta we saw people whose only home was the street, people dying of cholera, etc.

 A rich man had opened his home to the Allies; it was like a museum, certainly not the kind of place you would want to live, but with European masterworks of art on the walls, big overstuffed sofas, everything associated with western affluence. We heard that he fed 150 beggars every day.

 We visited a temple with carvings of sexual intercourse in 50 different positions. We visited the burning ghats (?) where the dead were brought. We saw one corpse being burned; the heat caused the tendons to contract and the poor body started to rise up. The attendant grabbed a stick and beat it back down. The sacred river was right there with all sorts of dead things in it and people bathing.

 Dozens of children followed us around begging. I bought a leather suitcase from a merchant on the sidewalk. He asked $100 for it, but sold it for $10. I could probably have gotten it for less, but I had gotten tired of dickering with him.

 Calcutta made a powerful impression on me. I felt the powerful need of help that so many had there. I felt that I had a choice, to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to help them, or to harden my heart. It's obvious which choice I took, since I left a few days later and never went back.

 We went back around the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at several ports of call in East and South Africa. During that trip and the next one we visited Zanzibar, Mombasa, Beira, Port London, Elizabeth-town, Capetown. and perhaps some others I have forgotten. I was deeply impressed with the animal grace of some of the blacks; they moved like gazelles. And they were so black. (We don't have many blacks in our country. We have a mixed race which contains some black blood. Black in America is really an ethnic rather than a racial term, although few people realize that.) I rented a sailboat in the bay at Beira.

Mozambique was a province of Portugal. Of course it became independent like all the rest of the European colonies. Kenya and Tanyanika each became something else, and some of those graceful blacks became bloodthirsty maus-maus. Zanzibar was a bazaar, a meeting place of Asia and Africa; we westerners a microscopic minority.

The ports in South Africa were middle class, clean, more like us than anywhere else I visited in my travels. Gen Jan Smuts was in charge, a liberal. Apartheid settled upon the country suddenly and drastically a few years later. The South African girls were very receptive. I remember one party with about 4 couples that lasted most of the night. Everyone had a lot of brandy. We all expected to go home with the girls, but by the time that time came we were too inebriated to pursue them any further.

Such is  life. I was young and innocent. 

VJ Day

On that or the next trip, which also involved east and south Africa, VJ day occured--the end of the war. A wild celebration that I had little to do with. As usual I lived in my own little kingdom--the chief radio operator now, with a nice two room apartment on the boat deck, far from any other quarters.

Danger

 It must have been the next trip that the fog incident occured. With the war over convoys no longer sailed, it was every ship for itself. And the Atlantic was about as clogged with shipping as it has ever been, before or since. A mad rush to bring home the GI's and all their paraphernalia. Hordes of ships in the main shipping lane between the United States and the United Kingdom. We encountered a pea soup fog. And we knew the sea was crowded with monstrous steamers going back and forth. With the cessation of hostilities it became appropriate to use radio communications.

Every four hours I would send out our position, course, speed. And we were copying all the similar messages we heard. I would gauge their position with my limited navigational ability. The ones that seemed closest I would take up to the bridge. The Captain always thanked me, but didn't seem too concerned. Then I got one that really looked close: dead ahead and heading straight toward us. I took it up there, and he was interested. He gave me a message to send back to the other ship. I called it, readily made contact and sent my message; we were changing course in order to avoid them. He acknowledged. We soon heard the ship's fog horn in the distance over on the port side. Exciting. I must have been 20 at that time.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

wwii 1

For the present generation wwii is after the Civil War; isn't it?
Some of us old heads had better do something to make it remembered. That's our purpose here today:

Back then: For a teenager the war in Europe was an interest second only to the baseball scores and ratings. In those days the radio was our chief source of information. We listened eagerly to dispatches from Europe-- a miracle by gosh.

But it wasn't until Dec. 7, 1941 when a 15 year old kid was coming home from Golden Meadow LA with his Dad and listening on the miraculous car radio that we heard the dire news. Father and son both knew that things would now be different.
Back home in New Orleans we continued listening; FDR's fireside talk was played over and over. Strangely enough the program he set out was to focus our resources on Europe, although we had just been cruelly and treacherously betrayed by the little yellow men (as they were called in those days) or the Japs.

A year later we heard about Casablanca (which I was to visit in 1944), Rommel, the Desert Fox, and Stalingrad: things were looking up for the Allies.

They were looking up for the teenager, too; my 18th birthday was looming large. I was scheduled to become a doughboy, but I found a better way. I dropped out of LA
LA Tech, took a crash course in radio, and qualified as a radio operator for the War Shipping Administration. We were deferred from the Army; merchant ships were a critical element in the Allied Victory.

(In 1990 Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided that we were veterans, and I received a discharge from the USCG ('Coast Guard'); unfortunately no back pay accrued.
I had become a veteran in the USNR during the Korean Police Action.)

On my 18th birthday I was on my way to sea; I had notified my draft board; they promptly gave me the deferment. A week later I boarded the brand new tanker) (Bring up this URL for a great picture of this beautiful ship, together with its amazing career;

My 'amazing careers' began in a shakedown cruise a few miles out in the Gulf; all went well, but we heard that the one that immediately preceded our 'tub' had a shakedown cruise, cut short by a German submarine, and sunk, a few miles out of Mobile. The Germans were like that in those days.

The Wood Lake and I made our way to Halifax (Nova Scotia) where we joined a convoy of some 50 ships, all capable of 14 knots speed for a trip to Liverpool. .

About twenty blocks along Esplanade from Rampart St. was a McDonough 'something' school, where my draft board had its location. Here on my birthday I duly registered and informed them of my status with the WSA. It happened that the first merchant seaman 2B deferment had emanated from this very board, and I immediately became another. The draft board had no further interest in me until 8 years later when I began to approach my 26th birthday. About that, more later.

 Some time in March I got word to report to the Wood Lake, a new T2 tanker being commissioned at the shipyard in Mobile. I went over and got aboard in time for the shakedown trip, which lasted a few days and happened largely in the gulf in the immediate environs of Mobile. I was just a passenger on that trip because a special crew used the radio equipment. Later two other radio operators came aboard. Since I was so young and inexperienced the Captain decided I should be the 3rd officer; it still seemed pretty impressive to me. I had a commission and uniform as an ensign in the Maritime service, very similar to that of a naval ensign.

 Capt. Barton chose as the chief radio officer Drummond, a man in his 30's who seemed much older. Drummond was slightly limited intellectually and especially in terms of vision. He would not go out at night because he had no peripheral vision and was afraid of getting disoriented. The second officer, Fitzpatrick, was 26, married, and considerably more agile than Drummond. We made three trips on the Wood Lake over a period of about 4 months. The first time we went to Liverpool. We carried 100,000 gallons of aviation gasolene and 12 Lightning pursuit planes on deck. (Jimmy Thomas, my brother in law, flew that plane in the Pacific.)

 We stayed only 2 or 3 nights in Liverpool. Tanks never stayed long. In fact I came close to missing the ship because I had taken a train down to London to see the place, thinking (correctly) that it might be my only opportunity. I stayed in London one night and considered staying another, but decided to go on back to Liverpool. It happened that I made just about the last liberty launch back to the ship before she sailed. I've often reflected that my life would have been vastly different had I missed that ship. (About missing ships, more shortly.)

 We traveled back and forth across the Atlantic in large convoys--of 50 or 100 ships at about 14 knots. Slower convoys made up of Liberty Ships and other slower craft traveled in other convoys. We left Liverpool just in time to escape a German air raid. This was the first of two occasions when I was near combat, but never in combat. I suppose we were near combat a few times during the voyages without necessarily knowing it.

 The Merchant Marine suffered higher casualities during the war than any of the military services, one reason that draft deferment was virtually automatic. The German submarines had inflicted heavy losses on Allied shipping in the Atlantic in 1943 , but by the time I got out there the submarine menace had been brought pretty well under control.

 On our trips back and forth across the Atlantic we often got submarine alarms or rather possible submarine alarms. Sonar signals had suggested the possibility, perhaps set off by whales or whatnot, perhaps by submarines. The British corvettes and American destroyer escorts constantly scurried around the convoy checking out these alarms.

 We had large insulated wet suits to use in case of being sunk. Drummon slept in one of these as I recall. But generally we became quite accustomed to the alarms and paid little attention to them. Still when I got home, I was napping on the living room sofa when someone rang the doorbell, and I jumped about two feet. Strange. I had grown accustomed to the alarms, so they didn't bother me. But apparently at home I had let down my guard and released the genie out of the bottle, the residue of fear of which I was unconscious.

 Allied merchant ships preserved radio silence throughout the war, so I never sent a signal until after VE day. Our work consisted of spending four hours sitting beside the radio and monitoring incoming traffic, then 8 hours off, then 4 on and 8 off as long as the ship remained at sea. The radio watch was secured in port, making us especially privileged characters since we had nothing to do unless we were at sea. Another facet of the privilege about the position was that no one knew anything about our job. We had no supervision to speak of and lived more or less in a world of our own. The only person we reported to was the Captain, and he rarely had time to pay any attention to us.

 During these watches I took up smoking to while away the time. I remember I would allow myself one cigarette an hour and it would last about ten minutes. Three cigarettes would get me through a watch. I didn't stop smoking until some 13 years later.

 Our third trip took us to Bristol. Once again we stayed only a night or two. Fitzpatrick, the second radio officer, was something of a lady's man. we had just cast off our lines and were heading for the sea when he came running up to the dock. We waved at him, but he had missed the ship. Later we learned that he had managed to get aboard another tanker belonging to our company. Of course his pay stopped the minute he missed the ship. He worked in the galley of the other ship. The convoy got almost to New York when the other ship got orders to proceed to North Africa. I met him in New Orleans some years later. It had taken him over a year to get back to the states. It seemed to me that his whole personality had changed, perhaps as a result of that sobering experience. He was learning to be a printer, and now seemed a very serious sort.

 We were paid well in the war zone. Base salary was about $150 a month for me, but there was a hundred percent bonus plus $5 per day in the war zone, all of which came to about $450 per month. In those days that was a princely sum, or so it seemed to me at the time. With no living expenses I saved a considerable sum of money--about $5000 over the course of the years I went to sea. 

We were again in Bristol about two weeks before D-day, but on D-day we were in Houston. I remember being on the main street there on the fateful day and turning into a big church. Everyone went to church that day, no special services, just go in, sit down and lift up the troops.

 We went from Houston back to New York. It was time to sign on for the next overseas trip. I had been on the Wood Lake for about four months. We signed on a voyage at a time. I started to sign over, as we said,, but decided I would go home for a visit. A lucky decision since the ship went from New York to the South Pacific and was out there for the next two years.

 Going home from New York on the train I met a young woman who lived in Pensacola. Up to that time I had had very little experience with the opposite sex, but I suppose in my uniform I was a handsome devil. We were taken with each other and agreed to write. After a couple of letters in fact I went to Pensacola to see her, but nothing came of it.

 I was a member of the Radio Officers' Union of the AF of L. When I got ready to ship out again, I went down to the union officer and met the union rep. An old sailor, but a man of some culture, I don't remember his name. He got me a berth on the Pan York. This was an old tub built about 1900. We had given it to the Panamians, but due to the war we took it back. It ran between New Orleans and ports in Panama and Columbia. It's speed was about the same as the tankers; it had once been a pretty good ship.

 We almost always went first to Panama (the Atlantic side). There were two towns on the coast there: Christobal, where we usually docked and where the U.S.military reservation was located. We sometimes visited the army installations and enjoyed their good and cheap ice cream. The other town was Colon, the native place. About all we knew of it was the bars and brothels. In Panama I took up drinking. I was still 18, and I found that in port I was on the ship by myself; everyone else was over in Colon drinking. So I went over and joined them.

 The most common drink was rum and coke (20 cents). I consumed many a rum and coke over the next six months; I did most of my drinking when we were in Panama. I remember a couple of drinking friends. One was a seaman who had absolutely nothing to say aboard ship. But when he went ashore he usually lasted a couple of hours, and his shipmates would bring him back all banged up (from a fight) and just about out of his mind. This man was a great checker player. I had him up in the radio shack a time or two for a game. As I say, he never had anything to say, but he knew how to talk with checkers.

 Another hard drinker was the purser. He was a fairly high class man, but he was bad to drink. One day in the saloon (that's what we called the officers' dining room) in a half sober state he turned to me and said "Sparks, you're a nice kid, but you sure are getting to be a terrible wino." Me, I thought, my Lord; I don't drink half as much as you do. But he made me do some thinking about it as a consequence of which I got off the Pan York at the end of that trip.

 That trip had an eventful end. We passed through a hurricane in the gulf. The double bottom was flooded; a gigantic wave took off the lifeboat just outside of the radio shack. The Captain decided we had better break radio silence and contact the Coast Guard. So the Armed Guard Officer, who had custody of the code books, encoded a message telling them our position, course, speed, and predicament.

 I had been up all day of course, and I didn't intend to keep working without lawful compensation. So I asked the Captain if he wanted me to work overtime. He said no, so I went to bed. I actually slept longer than I should have and missed the 3 A.M. BAMS (Broadcasts to Allied Merchant Ships).

 At 6 I got a coded message asking for further particulars, but by that time we were in the river. At New Orleans some Coast Guard brass came aboard for an inquiry. In the course of the inquiry they called me in and wanted to know where I had been between midnight and 8 A.M. "In my sack" I said. No response. Lucky I was not some kind of poor devil of an armed forces personnel.

 After a brief vacation from the Pan York I was assigned to another brand new ship; this was the Sea Dolphin, a C III that had just been built in Pascagoula. These were superior types of cargo ships; they went about the same speed as the tankers. I'm not sure which trip it was that I visited Rouen and LeHavre. Seems like it must have been the first trip of the Sea Dolphin.

 I was the chief operator on this ship, and I have very little recollection of the boys who worked with me. Going across the Atlantic in a large convoy we were apparently rerouted with a radio message to the south of France, but for some reason we didn't get the message and showed up in Rouen. I don't suppose it made a great difference since hundreds of ships were going to all those ports at that time. I had gone to London from Liverpool, and now I figured I had better see Paris while I was in France, so I took a train up the Seine. It was beautiful, but I was completely out of it there. No one spoke English, and no one seemed in the least interested in being of help. That is, until I found a USO. I walked in and met a GI on leave. He showed me Paris, but I don't remember much of what transpired. The next day I went back to Rouen.

 On our next trip we went from New York to Calcutta, through the straits of Gibraltar (without stopping), Port Said, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. We stopped at Aden, a British Crown Colony for routing instructions (It now goes by the name of Yemen.) The Captain, the armed guard officer, and I went ashore about 8 A.M. It took about half an hour to finish our business. The Captain asked the Limeys where we could get a beer. They said no alcohol was served there before noon. The skipper said, "Humph, I wouldn't stay here until noon for Cleopatra herself." It was about 125 in the shade, but soon we were in the Arabian Sea with cool breezes.

 We got to Calcutta 28 days out of New York. We had set a record for a freight vessel. I remember the excitement of going up the river to Calcutta. From the deck you could see villages scattered around in all directions with cultivated fields between them. Teeming with people, tremendously exotic. At Calcutta we saw people whose only home was the street, people dying of cholera, etc.

 A rich man had opened his home to the Allies; it was like a museum, certainly not the kind of place you would want to live, but with European masterworks of art on the walls, big overstuffed sofas, everything associated with western affluence. We heard that he fed 150 beggars every day.

 We visited a temple with carvings of sexual intercourse in 50 different positions. We visited the burning ghats (?) where the dead were brought. We saw one corpse being burned; the heat caused the tendons to contract and the poor body started to rise up. The attendant grabbed a stick and beat it back down. The sacred river was right there with all sorts of dead things in it and people bathing.

 Dozens of children followed us around begging. I bought a leather suitcase from a merchant on the sidewalk. He asked $100 for it, but sold it for $10. I could probably have gotten it for less, but I had gotten tired of dickering with him.

 Calcutta made a powerful impression on me. I felt the powerful need of help that so many had there. I felt that I had a choice, to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to help them, or to harden my heart. It's obvious which choice I took, since I left a few days later and never went back.

 We went back around the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at several ports of call in East and South Africa. During that trip and the next one we visited Zanzibar, Mombasa, Beira, Port London, Elizabeth-town, Capetown. and perhaps some others I have forgotten. I was deeply impressed with the animal grace of some of the blacks; they moved like gazelles. And they were so black. (We don't have many blacks in our country. We have a mixed race which contains some black blood. Black in America is really an ethnic rather than a racial term, although few people realize that.) I rented a sailboat in the bay at Beira.

Mozambique was a province of Portugal. Of course it became independent like all the rest of the European colonies. Kenya and Tanyanika each became something else, and some of those graceful blacks became bloodthirsty maus-maus. Zanzibar was a bazaar, a meeting place of Asia and Africa; we westerners a microscopic minority.

 The ports in South Africa were middle class, clean, more like us than anywhere else I visited in my travels. Gen Jan Smuts was in charge, a liberal. Apartheid settled upon the country suddenly and drastically a few years later. The South African girls were very receptive. I remember one party with about 4 couples that lasted most of the night. Everyone had a lot of brandy. We all expected to go home with the girls, but by the time that time came we were too inebriated to pursue them any further.

 Such is life. I was young and innocent and my time..not yet. On that or the next trip, which also involved east and south Africa, VJ day occured--the end of the war. A wild celebration that I had little to do with. As usual I lived in my own little kingdom--the chief radio operator now, with a nice two room apartment on the boat deck, far from any other quarters.

 It must have been the next trip that the fog incident occured. With the war over convoys no longer sailed, it was every ship for itself. And the Atlantic was about as clogged with shipping as it has ever been, before or since. A mad rush to bring home the GI's and all their paraphernalia. Hordes of ships in the main shipping lane between the United States and the United Kingdom. We encountered a pea soup fog. And we knew the sea was crowded with monstrous steamers going back and forth. With the cessation of hostilities it became appropriate to use radio communications.

Every four hours I would send out our position, course, speed. And we were copying all the similar messages we heard. I would gauge their position with my limited navigational ability. The ones that seemed closest I would take up to the bridge. The Captain always thanked me, but didn't seem too concerned. Then I got one that really looked close: dead ahead and heading straight toward us. I took it up there, and he was interested. He gave me a one to send back to the other ship. I called it, readily made contact and sent my message; we were changing course in order to avoid them. He acknowledged. We soon heard the ship's fog horn in the distance over on the port side. Exciting. I must have been 20 at that time.






Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Cuba Victory

During my first war I had the good fortune to sail on mostly new and quality ships.  Here's a list with approximate sailing dates:

T2 Tankers:   Woodlake  (1944)
              Draper's Meadow  (1945)

C2 The Sea Dolphin 1944


Victory Ships  the Cuba Victory 1945 was the last merchant ship I sailed on before returning to school.

Ships for radio operators were assigned by the communication union (Communication Workers of America).

In 1946 I went home again for a visit. This time the union rep offered me a berth on a Mississippi Shipping Co. freighter. They had a premium route, down the coast of South America. I probably would have left the sea sooner if I had not got on the Cuba Victory. As it was, I made four trips to Buenos Aires and points between. I think those trips must have been as interesting as all the rest of the trips I made.

I realized that the job I had was a lazy man's paradise. There was so little to do, I answered to no one but the skipper and he couldn't care less about my activities. While we were in port I lived ashore, if I cared to. The only expenses I had were discretionary; in fact I could have saved every cent above the income tax, had I wanted to. As it was, I saved about $5000 during a 3 1/2 year period and used the money for three years of school.

The Cuba Victory was one of a large class of ships built for the war. The largest class, the Liberty ships were slow, jerry built, awkward, and barely worthy of the name of ship. The Victory ships were some improvement; they generally ran about 14 knots. As always I had nice quarters more or less to myself and could spend as much or as little time with other people as I cared to.

I struck up an acquaintance with Bill Wolfe, the second mate. His stateroom was up the hall from mine. We spent some time together. He was about 18 months older than me, but he could easily have passed as my father. A great big belly and dissipated face; Bill said he had had "clap" 8 times. Nevertheless he was basically a fairly decent sort. On the third trip the first mate got sick or left the ship or something, and Bill had to work in that capacity. It was really too much for him; he came down with an advanced case of hives.

During those three trips we stopped at a lot of ports on the east coast of South America. First we stopped at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for refueling or at Trinidad. I don't remember ever getting ashore at Trinidad, but I did go ashore at St. Thomas once. Both of these places were free ports, a good place to get duty free liquor or whatever other consumer goods you might want.
The South American ports of call were Para (or Belem) near the mouth of the Amazon (of that more later), Recife, Bahia, Rio, Santos, Rio Grande do Sul, Montevideo and B.A. and one or two others that don't immediately come of mind. We didn't go to all these ports each trip, but to all of them at least once during the year or so that I sailed on the Cuba Victory.

My three favorite ports were Santos, B.A., and Montevideo in that order. The easiest way to recall my experience is in terms of each port rather than each trip. I guess the most exciting experiences of my twenties took place during the couple of weeks that I visited Santos. Santos was probably the primary coffee port in Brazil, and we customarily put in there going and coming from B.A. The fun part of Santos (for me) was the beach area, several miles from the port area. It was a sort of resort; I suppose many people came down from Sao Paulo, the industrial capital of Brazil, for vacations on the Santos beach. It was lined with hotels and pensaos, these last being more modest establishments in the business of entertaining vacationers.

My adventures on the beach at Santos began when I mysteriously got a phone call on the ship. It was actually for someone else, but anyway I was called to the phone. A girl named Maria Teresa was on the other end, very friendly. She had apparently met one of the other ship's officers, and she wanted to continue the acquaintance. She encouraged me to come down to the beach at 3 P.M. or some such, which I duly did and met her.

Maria Teresa provided for me a tremendously stimulating experience. Fairly attractive, very bright and outgoing, she had a large group of friends, many of whom I met. We would spend the evenings together on the beach. They were very well educated young people; they all spoke English fairly well, and most of them were fluent in Spanish and French as well as their native Portugese. Their level of culture surpassed that of any group of people I had known; in addition they were the first group of young people I had been intimate and comfortable with. I suppose they met some of the Cuba Victory officers through me, and we had many enjoyable evenings.

We used to take part in the paseo every night, a very economical way to spend the evening. It was simply a two block area that people walked up and down, greeting friends, stopping to chat, moving on, etc., an informal social hour. When you got tired of walking you could sit down on the terrace of a large hotel in the midst, enjoy a drink and watch the festivities. I thought the Brazilians were wonderfully civilized people.

Most of these girls were going to a "normal" school. My mother would know what a normal is, although my children probably wouldn't. A normal school was for the preparation of teachers. These girls expected to teach school for a year of two before they married. Maria Teresa was one of twelve children; her father was said to own 18 coffee plantations. I never knew how true that was, but simply had no reason to doubt it. She was obviously upper crust, as were most of her friends. Maria had a cousin named Lais, really a more attractive girl than Maria, although Maria was my sweetheart. Lais' father had lost everything in the 1930's crash, as had so many other people in Brazil and in our country as well. Maria was spoiled, self indulgent, but Lais was much less self centered.

Maria also had a close friend named Leda. What I remember about Leda was that everything was hyperbolic to Leda. She exaggerated everything. Life was a series of peak experiences. Leda's little sister, Wanda, was really a favorite, and after I became disenchanted with Maria, I got a crush on Wanda, probably mainly because she obviously admired me. She was as smart as the others, talked about studying philosophy in school, but later went into medicine. It was because of Wanda that I took pre-med and went to medical school---not really a good enough reason to go to medical school!

All of these girls were charming and friendly, and made a young American feel like a prince. I asked them once why they liked American boys so much. Wanda said "because they're not malicioso." She confirmed the low opinion I have always had of the male latins with reference to their sexual values. By and large they saw women primarily as potential conquests. Their primary fulfilment seemed to be the bragging they did in their mens' clubs.

On one of the trips we spent over a week in Santos. I got a room in a pensao on the beach. The food was terrific and lots of it. Since my eating schedule varied somewhat from that of the average Brasileiro, I often found myself the only person in the dining hall. Twice a day it was a 7 course meal. The waiter stood behind my plate and as soon as I got it half way empty, he would feel it up again--with the existing course. Finally I would say in desperation no mas, no mas. Then he would bring the next course.

Those were golden days in Santos, the most normal and enjoyable days of my youth. Unfortunately they were all too brief. It was a really sad time for me when I left Santos. Later I thought seriously of going back, on my own, but I never could figure out any reasonable way to do it.
Buenos Aires was my next favorite port of call. I'll never forget my first visit. The ship was docked not too far from the main street--Avenida Corrientes. I overtook a well dressed Argentino (they were all well dressed and well fed, all in B.A. that is. I never saw the interior.) and with great effort managed to get out a halting message, "Puedo ...Ud....decirme....donde..esta. Avenida.....Corrientes?" He gave me a funny look and then replied. "Oh, Corrientes St., it's two blocks over that way."

The argentinos were proud, anxious for us to know how great they were. They were quite friendly. I was getting a hair cut, and the barber was bragging about the people there. He said, "In B.A. everybody dresses like a millionario." I replied, "In my country the millionaries try their best to dress like ordinary people." So it went, the culture shock. It's tremendously stimulating to get acquainted with the people in another culture, and Brazil and Argentina are among the few places where I experienced that with some intensity. In general I was too young and naive to get much out of foreign visits.

We got acquainted with some naval cadets, probably by visiting the ship nearby. They were much like the Santistos, cultured, friendly. I don't remember much in the way of details, just that I felt their warmth.

Montevideo is a beautiful place. In the harbor were the remains of the Graf Spee, a German pocket battleship. Finding itself hardpressed down in that area, it gained refuge in Montevideo harbor and was scuttled. I met one girl who seems very cultured. The thing I remember most about Montevideo was going into a bar and finding the entertainment was a string quartet.

All this was a pleasant experience--at least pleasant days surrounded by weeks of tedium. It made in fact for a pretty irregular life. I had weeks of boredom and frustration punctuated by intense peak experiences. I came to realize a dispositional proclivity toward a manic-depressive cycle. Mother suffered from this although it did not become evident until later. But I knew of the danger.
I remember a conversation with Maria about this. I told her my life was made of up a series of mountain peaks and low valleys, and that I wished I could even things out a bit. She replied that I shouldn't try to do that, but simply conquer the peaks. Of course she didn't understand.

I could look ahead and see myself becoming an old sea dog, but I wanted a little more out of life. I decided my third trip down there would be my last, giving me time to enroll in the Sept semester at Duke (in 1947).

Two dramatic events punctuated our last trip to South America. First we went aground near the mouth of the Amazon with a local river pilot in control. He pled temporary insanity. We spent a month on a sand bar there. A Merritt-Chapman tug came down from Baltimore to conduct salvage operations. We had to unload a good part of our cargo before we could get afloat again. The Brazilians stole us blind; everything cost twice as much as it should have. Finally we got on into Belem for our regular call.

We got word that we might not go to Santos this trip, so I jumped on a plane in Rio, down to Sao Paulo and met Maria Teresa there at the home of a friend. It wasn't a very pleasant event; I was not very much at ease there. I went back after a day or two, not knowing when the ship would depart. 

Flying down to Rio was quite a sensation. It was socked in with clouds; radar was fairly primitive in those days, but they must have had a good system there. The first land I saw was above us, the peak of Sugar Loaf. We landed right where we were supposed to. My ears hurt badly from the descent.
The Captain was quite upset that I had been unaccounted for for a couple of days. There may have been some question of sailing, and of course they couldn't sail without the radio operator. He gave me some hard words, but nothing came of it.

The most dramatic event occured near the end of the trip. We were steaming north with New Orleans our next port of call, some 5,000 miles away. Some messboys got in a fight, a plate was thrown, and one of them began to bleed from the head. The purser was unable to do anything. No help for it, but we had to put in, at Fortaleza, a port I had never seen before, so a doctor could come aboard and fix up his head. I doubt that the company made much money on that trip.

This was the summer of 1947; I was 21. I left the sea and re-enrolled at Duke.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Civilian at Last

In 1952 the cutoff age to be called into active duty was 26.  I had been called a few months before I reached it. Now, after about two years I was able to get out.

As the mustering procedure unfolded, we had a 'dream of a recruiter' trying to induce us to sign up again.  If we wanted station keeper in Kopeka  (or anywhere we named) he could do it for us.  Most of us (many vets of the two wars) just laughed; we had had enough of that kind of malarkey.

The magic day came; I became my own person. It was in December 1953.  I had been spending much of my liberty time in Tiajuana, and I like the Mexicans.  I decided to spend my mustering out pay on a trip to Mexico.

I stayed with a family in Guadalajara; we went to Mexico City, and a few other places.  I had already resolved to live the civilian life in San Diego; it was obviously more civil to civilians than to the military.

But with Christmas rapidly approaching I decided to spend it at home (N.O.) I went home and somehow never back to the West Coast (until long afterward).