Wednesday, July 10, 2013


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.)


 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.


 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.


 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.


 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.