Moving from our home station to the Port of Embarkation is much like other trips we've made by troop train, changing station or moving to and from the maneuver areas. True, there is much secrecy; our clothing and equipment are new and complete (countless inspections having insured its marking being correct) and we have been told of course, that we are on our way to the war. The married men are silent and thoughtful, but most of us are full of fun. We laugh, we crack the old corny jokes and each car has its crap game, blackjack game, stud-poker game, and its singers. Perhaps the voices are just a trifle loud, the laughter too spontaneous and prolonged for the quality of the jokes, and the play of the gamblers just a trifle feverish. Perhaps. But you must have lived with this battery for a couple of years to notice it.
The train passes through a tunnel and for a time glides close by the sea as we pull into the outskirts of the great city whose harbor is our Port of Embarkation. And there, lying close offshore, is a cruiser in her gray war-paint; two sleek new destroyers cross the cruiser's bow, their wakes long Vs of white and swirling green as they head for the open sea. The coach singer stops on a doubtful high note; the battery liar spares us the remainder of a yarn we and our fathers before us have heard many times before; the dice and greasy decks of cards are forgotten as everyone crowds over to the right side of the coach so that we can see out the windows. Someone yells: "Hey, look at the troop ships!"
'No Dry Run' And there they are, three of them, huge and gray and very businesslike with their five inch guns aft, lean three-inchers forward, the many antiaircraft guns in turrets on the sun decks, and-long rows of lifeboats and rafts slung on sides and boat decks. Being artillerymen, we are interested in the ship's guns. Those of a morbid turn of mind speculate on the capacity of the lifeboats and rafts. A gunner corporal turns away from the window, grins wryly and puts into words what everyone is thinking, "Well, guys, this ain't no dry run after all."
A few nervous and overeager individuals begin to put on their packs and steel helmets and to look for their carbines; two of us, who have been overseas before, restrain them, pointing out that in all probability we will not load onto transports that very afternoon, nor for several days, and that we may be on this same train for a few more hours.
We pass through freight yards, and as the train swings around to the left of the city toward the staging area we pass neat suburban homes; aproned housewives stare at us, children yell shrilly, and shirtsleeved men working in gardens pause a moment and look at us; last but not least are the tanned girls in shorts who wave and smile at every car. There are perhaps two thousand soldiers on each train, and each man is positive in his own mind that the gals waved at him. There is a great whistling and waving from the coaches and newly made corporals shift in their seats so that their stripes will be visible to the world outside. The battery wolves speculate on the possibility of passes from the P.O.E.
After many short halts, switchings from track to track, and much backing up, the troop train finally stops, and the officer in charge of the coach announces that this is our destination. A sergeant and four disgusted men are detailed to clean up the coach; the rest of us sling our packs and carbines, put on our steel helmets, and wait more or less patiently until we get the order to detrain. We form up beside the train in three ranks. Across the tracks is a line of trucks and on the far side of the highway is an M.P. booth where two bored and cynical M.P.'s lounge against the wall in the shade. The sun beats down on our new steel helmets; our packs drag heavily back and down and we shift our feet impatiently in the gravel. Some optimistic soul ventures the opinion that the line of trucks is for us; they will haul us wherever we are going.
Sergeant Calls Roll
The first sergeant has out a roster from his pocket and calls the roll. All are present and accounted for. The battery commanders assemble with the two majors and the colonel and a strange officer from the Transportation Corps, and after a conference which seems to us interminable, we move out in a column of batteries from the right. The head of the column crosses the tracks, passes by the first of the long line of trucks, and-continues across the highway past the M.P. booth and takes a narrow asphalt road up the steep slope of the hill. We curse under our breaths. Why the hell did they park those trucks there in the first place if they were not going to let us ride in them?
The hill seems miles long, the sun beats hot on the asphalt, our new packs with double blanket rolls grow heavier every minute, our new shoes and the hot asphalt collaborate against our feet, our new khaki uniforms are sodden with sweat. When after three miles the column finally turns off the asphalt road and up over another hill onto a street between twin rows of gray tarpaper barracks, we are more tired than we have been after 25 mile forced marches.
Inside the tarpaper barracks are twin rows of double bunks, much dust, stoves full of cigarette butts and other debris, and a few bedraggled mops and worn out brooms. By the time we have cleaned out the stoves, swept and mopped and made up our bunks, foragers have returned with the report that the nearest P.X. is two blocks away, that beer is available, also hot dogs. The first sergeant arrives, however, in time to prevent a general exodus, and informs us that there will be an inspection of clothing and equipment in 20 minutes. Immediately he is assailed by a chorus who wish to know how in hell they are to stand a full field inspection when half their equipment is in their duffle bags. "Your duffle bags are on the truck out front. Git 'em," answers that hard man, and he stalks out to bring grief and constarnation to the thirsty men in the next barracks.
The next dour days bring to us more sorrow, harassment, and misery than came to Job during his entire lifetime. We are herded here and there by strange officers and noncoms to listen to lectures, to see training films; we are jabbed by many needles by medicos stony of heart and heavy of hand; we receive new gas masks which are infinitely more troublesome than our old ones; we scramble down the sides of a dummy ship on cargo nets; we and all our effects are inspected frequently both by night and by day. Our mail is censored. The beer at the P.X. is sold in small paper cups, and it is necessary to stand in line for some time in order to get to the counter. Also, there are numerous British soldiers in the camp. They are Prisoner of War guards who ride prison ships to and from France. They are very pleasant fellows, but they have a way of looking at our Good Conduct and Pre-Pearl Harbor ribbons and shooting medals which makes us uncomfortable.
One morning we have a last inspection, we pack our duffle bags for the last and twentieth time and load them on trucks. We scrub barracks-and there are the usual bitter comments on how everywhere we go the barracks are always dirty, yet we must leave them spotless when we go-we close the windows and lock them, place the mops and brooms neatly in the racks behind the barracks. After dinner we sling packs, carbines and gas masks, line up according to our assigned shipping numbers and march back down the hill to the narrow asphalt road, then down the long hill to the railroad. Halfway down the hill we meet another column of troops going the other way. Our experience having been enriched by five days in the staging area, we regard these newcomers with condescension and some pity. "Hey, Joe," we call, "you ain't going to like it here!" They grin back nervously and toil on up the hill.
The same two M.P.'s still bored and cynical lounge in the shade of the M.P. booth. A column of trucks is lined up on the road. And a train, possibly the same one which brought us here, waits on the tracks. Still according to shipping number we load onto the train, being cautioned at the steps to remove none of our equipment. Inside the car, we find that our duffle bags have been stowed under and between the seats and since three of us must sit in each pair of seats, we are quite crowded. We sit sweating and impatient for half an hour, the train moves out then with a jerk and we are on our way.
After an hour ride, which seems to us interminable, the train stops underneath a shed. We grab our duffle bags and struggle out onto a platform where we line up by shipment number, and after a time move out in single file, our duffle bags on our shoulders. We go through the shed and along endless corridors past civilians who gape, civilians who smile, and civilians who weep, and at last we walk up a gangplank onto a very ancient and odoriferous ferryboat.
We drop our duffle bags with a sigh, and sit down on them. A few of us light cigarettes and are immediately pounced upon by M.P.s, chastened, we sit and look out at the black dirty water of the harbor.
After some preliminary blasts on the whistle, a great trembling of the deck and threshing of water, and short burst of profanity from a hairy individual in dungarees, singlet, and a greasy white cap, the ferryboat gets underway. We glide past piers, garbage scows and ferryboats possibly as ancient and smelly as ours. Once we pass a corvette at anchor and a man from Oklahoma yells: "Hey, Look at the battleship!" He is instantly corrected by a man from Boston who, in several thousand well chosen words, explains why it is a corvette and not a battleship. The Oklahoman is vanquished. But a man from North Carolina, very soft of voice and serious of face, inquires of the Bostonian: "Whereabouts you from, Jack?"
"Bahston," is the proud reply.
The NorthCarolinan grins, "How far is that from town?" The man from Boston opens his mouth to say a dirty, undignified word, but just in time remembers who he is and where he is from. He looks out upon the river in stony, superior silence.
The ferryboat makes a wide churning turn in the middle of the river and we can see long piers with great gray troopships laid alongside. Our ferry boat noses into the pier; after considerable backing and threshing about, more profanity from the hairy man in the greasy cap, and a final hoarse whoop from the whistle, the ferry is tied up and the gangplank run out to the pier. Again we shoulder our duffle bags and file up the gangplank. As we enter the pier shed I notice something vaguely familiar about this pier; I look about me for the pier number, and see a "No Smoking" sign hanging crooked and with the S and M run together. Then I remember: This is the same pier from which I shoved for Iceland in the late summer of 1941, one of a handful of doughboys from a Regular Army division. The United States had been at peace then, and Pearl Harbor only the name of a naval base on the other side of the world.
Now three years later, the scene on the pier had changed. I am an artilleryman, going overseas again with an armored division. At the far end of the shed a band is playing "Over There," and as the long line of men pass through the shed and up the gangplank of the transport, Red Cross girls pass out coffee, doughnuts, chocolate bars and magazines. There were no Red Cross girls, no band in '41. I reach the end of the gangplank, and an officer barks out my last name and I sound off with my first name and middle initial, and-in the words of an instructor at the P.O.E.-"even though heavily burdened … I move rapidly up the gangplank."
As we move in single file according to shipping number along the decks, down companionways, through interminable dark corridors, panting under the weight of our packs and duffle bags, we can still hear the band playing "Over There."
* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.