The months a soldier spends in training camps before going overseas insure him to lack of privacy and a certain amount of restriction as to his freedom of movement. Even so, his first few days aboard a troopship gall the best disciplined soldier. For a troopship's function is to get as many troops as she can accommodate to the place where they are needed as quickly as possible. Comfort, privacy of the individual, and even the preservation of the dignity of second lieutenants are matters of secondary consideration. Provision is made for feeding the soldier, he has a place to sleep, the necessary facilities for sanitation are available, and with luck he may even see an occasional movie.
The ship to which we are assigned is big, fast, and she can handle a lot of troops. All the enlisted men of the battery are assigned to one compartment. We sleep in bunks, three deep. The bunks consist of a piece of canvas some twenty inches wide by six feet long, lashed to frames of metal pipe, which are suspended by chains from metal racks. There is sufficient room between the tiers of bunks for a man to walk, sideways. On each bunk is a life preserver, which we are required to wear at any and all times when away from that compartment. The compartment is lighted by a number of naked electric bulbs suspended from the deck above; these lights burn night and day, and God help the man who is caught unscrewing one of them so that he can sleep. Ditto anyone caught smoking or lighting a match below decks.
Our first problem is for each of us to stow himself, his duffle bag, his pack, and all his possessions in a space six feet by twenty inches by two feet. Believe it or not, it can be done.
Soldiers Freshen Up
We find the water fountain and the latrine to which we are assigned; a few of the garrison soldiers immediately decide to freshen up a bit. They unstrap musette bags, dig out towels, soap, razors, and highly advertised lather cream; they crowd around the washbowls, wet their hands and faces, and rub briskly with soap. The wet soap grinds away on beard stubble and on grimy hands, but no lather results, only a great wearing away of the soap. The garrison soldiers are puzzled, until one of them gets some of the water on his lips and tastes the salt. The man from Boston now delivers a short lecture; he is a deep fellow, this man from Boston, and he has read in a book somewhere about Salt Water Soap.
He explains the chemical action of this Salt Water Soap, and gently chides the garrison soldiers for being so lacking in foresight as to be without a bar of it. He then loosens his shirt collar and tucks it in, rolls up his sleeves daintily, and produces a virgin bar of Salt Water Soap. He wets his hands and face and, beaming triumphantly upon us, rubs on a bit of the soap. Surprisingly, no creamy white lather appears. The face of the man from Boston takes on a determined expression; he sloshes more water, and he rubs violently wit the Salt Water Soap.
A slight grating noise results, and the skin of the Bostonian becomes pink, then red. Finally. After much rubbing - and a few comments from a vulgar individual from West Virginia-a gray, greasy scum appears upon the skin of the man from Boston. He sloshes more water on himself, he rubs, and rubs, and rubs. The gray greasy scum remains, indomitable as the cosmoline on a new rifle. The man from Boston succeeds in removing a little of the scum by brisk rubbing with a towel. Collects his toilet articles, and-to the accompaniment of various rude remarks-stalks from the latrine in silent, terrible dignity.
The first sergeant and I, having lived a few weeks on board ship before, managed to wash and shave, after a fashion. The old timer who was my platoon sergeant in the infantry three years before had shown me a few simple expedients: you wet the hair on the back of your wrists very lightly, and rubbed on a little soap (not Salt Water Soap, however). There was enough oil on the hair to make a little lather, and by perseverance it was possible to get partly clean. Shaving was a painful process, but could be accomplished by using little water and much brushless shaving cream.
Fed Twice Daily
We were fed twice daily on board the transport. Each of us carries a meal ticket on which is stamped his compartment number. Before each meal the meal ticket is punched. All the men from our compartment are fed at the same time, and woe betide the man who tries to eat with another battery. The food is adequate, scientifically balanced, and nourishing; when we are exceptionally hungry it even tastes good.
We are not allowed above decks until the transport has cleared the harbor; likewise, we cannot smoke. Once we are at sea , however, we are allowed on deck, and during daylight hours we may smoke. It rains persistently for the first two days, however, and most of us keep below. There is not much to see on deck anyway: the gray troopships and freighters of our convoy around us, and on the horizon the escort vessels of the navy. A few seagulls circle overhead, the slate-gray Atlantic slides by the ship, the foaming wakes of the ships spread out in ever-widening Vs until they merge with one another, and sailors of the navy gun crews sweep the sea constantly with their binoculars.
Every morning at the same time the compartment is inspected by the commander of troops the deck must be swept, the bunks must be lashed up at an exact angle, and our equipment must be stowed in a prescribed manner. Daily we have Abandon Ship drill: at a signal on the ship's bell we move in an orderly manner, but fast, by a certain route to our assigned station on the ship. And every morning the first sergeant collects slips from the chiefs of section on which are written the articles their men desire from the ship's store; gnawing a pencil and occasionally cursing, he consolidates these lists into one, adds the columns of figures, collects the money, and goes to the ship's store. There, after waiting in line for an hour or so, he manages to purchase some few of the desired items. Then, staggering under his armload of boxes and cartons, he returns to the compartment in high good humor and hurls his purchases crashing on the deck.
With hoarse cries he summons the chiefs of section who, at this time, are generally dispersed in the farthest and most inaccessible parts of the ship. Furious, the first sergeant seizes the first 10 men in sight and dispatches them to hunt down the chiefs of section. In a few hours all the chiefs are found; the first sergeant thanks them for their promptness, and disburses to each the candy, cigarettes, soap, razor blades, matches, and like items ordered by his section, and refunds the money for items which could not be had. The chiefs of section then distribute the stores and change to their men; there arises a mighty wailing from the men who wanted nail files, lemon drops, or wrist watch bands and didn't get them. The first sergeant roars a few times, and the wailing ceases. But next day the same men order nail files, lemon drops, and wrist watch bands again.
"Shot" in Sick Bay
On the morning of the fourth day out we are lined up in payroll order and marched up to the sick bay for a "shot." We have already received "shots" for all diseases known to man, and we can see no necessity for more. But the medics, always cheerful, assure us that these "shots" are good for us. We bare our arms and file past; one medic wipes off a spot on our arms with alcohol. And makes a little brown square with iodine; using this square as a target, another medic drives the needle home. We clutch our paralyzed biceps with our free hands, and file out of the room with murder in our hearts. Before the voyage is over we receive two additional shots.
One night there is a perceptible change in the noise and the motion of the ship. The vibration of the engines and screw increases, and helmets and musette bags, which have been hung on bunks, being to swing to and fro like the pendulum of a clock. Next morning when we go topside the wind drives rain in horizontal sheets across the deck, and the ship. For all her great size, has a noticeable roll and plunge. The sea is dark gray except for white foam flung up when great masses of water heave themselves up and crash against one another or against the side of the ship. A few hundred yards to port we can make out another troopship; she bulks dimly through the driving rain. As we watch her she climbs slowly up a gray mountain of water, hangs for a moment at the top with her screws threshing half out of the water, then plunges down the other side. The rain and wind make smoking unsatisfactory, and most of us go below.
Oddly enough, several of the most notorious chow hounds in the battery do not go to breakfast that morning; they are not hungry, they explain; probably ate too much candy. They are still not hungry when the battery lines up for supper. By morning their faces have become a pale and sickly green, and between frequent dashes to the latrine they lie limp and miserable on their bunks, between moans they pray that the ship may sink quietly, that their misery may be over. It is suggested that they suck lemon drops and that they go topside to get some air. But not even the man from Boston can offer a sure cure for sea-sickness.
The first sergeant and I become involved in an argument over which is the roughest, the North Atlantic of the North Pacific. The first sergeant once served on Kodiak, and he tells a harrowing tale of his voyage back to Seattle through a March storm. I belittle this storm. The roughest water in the world, I tell him, is the Denmark straits; coming back to the States in the spring of '42 the ship I was on ran into a storm so rough we only logged 50 knots in three days; the seas were so rough the cooks couldn't work in the galley, old C.P.O.'s with 20 years service were heaving over the rail, and the colored mess-boys turned white. A Corporal Brown who hails from Rhode Island and who spent three years before the mast, sneers at my story and asks if either of us has ever been in a typhoon. We admit that we have not, and he bores us with a longwinded story about a typhoon off the China coast, and about the peculiarities of a certain Swedish skipper. A long-suffering man lens out of a top bunk and moans that it is a damned shame we all weren't drowned. We go topside and smoke.
Gambling aboard ship is strictly forbidden. That is, there must be no money visible in close proximity to a deck of cards or a pair of dice. There is, however, much playing of stud and blackjack for matches.
Every day the ship's newspaper is distributed to us; it is only a single sheet mimeograph job, but it carries a condensation of the war news, baseball scores, etc. Patton's Third Army is rampaging across France; the Seventh Army is driving up from the south; the British are pushing ahead through Belgium. Some of the more militant young men are afraid that the war may be over before we get there. But the majority, craven and lacking a spirit of adventure do not care if the war is over this very minute. They are worried, however, about the possibility of being part of the Army of Occupation. It would be a dismal thing to arrive in Europe after the war is over and face a year or so of foot drill, full field inspections, and cannoneer's hop. A man who has a friend who knows a very important person in division headquarters now divulges that-secreted somewhere in the hold of the ship-are ten thousand M. P. brassards which will be issued to us for occupational duty. The man from Boston snorts at this: who ever heard of artillerymen being used as M. P.'s? The married men support the views of the man from Boston; others, either out of inborn cussedness or because they believe in the rumor, predict that we will probably spend at least five years overseas.
A man who has a friend who is a seaman on board ship now tells us, in strict confidence, that we are bound for Marseilles; the sailor heard a mate talking to a quartermaster. This is denied indignantly by the man wit connections in division headquarters; he has reliable information that we are going to England; our tanks and half-tracks are already there waiting for us. An old salt from Maryland, who has had much experience sailing catboats in Chesapeake Bay, counters wit the opinion that we are bound for Brest; our course is too far south for England, he says, too far north for Gibraltar. He is informed by the man from Boston, in tones of well bred scorn, that Brest is still held by the Germans; moreover all the great French harbors have been so thoroughly wrecked that we will probably go ashore in landing craft.
Early on a rainy afternoon land is sighted to port; a lighthouse looms on the misty horizon, but quickly fades out of sight. The southern coast of Ireland, announces the man from Boston after a brief, expert scrutiny.
Two hours later the ship's engines stop; in a few minutes there is a great rumbling and clanking forward as the anchor chains are run out. The fog lifts for a moment and we wee steep white cliffs, green meadows, haystacks, and a battery of coast defense guns under camouflage nets. A sailor from a Navy gun crew tells us that we are in an English harbor. The man with connections in division headquarters wears a smug grin of triumph as he goes below to pack his duffle bag and make up his pack. His example is heeded by a number of eager and conscientious souls, who when they have finished packing and have made the necessary last minute adjustments on their suspender straps, sit patiently on their bunks and await the order to disembark. We others, --improvident, slothful, and lacking in ambition-continue to lie on our bunks, to sleep, to read, or to play harmless card games in which only matches are involved.
At 10 o'clock no order to disembark has come down; the slothful and improvident remove their shoes and crawl under their blankets, some of them first imploring the eager soldiers not to run off and leave them in the night. One by one the eager ones remove their pack suspenders, unroll their packs, curse the man with connections in headquarters, and turn in.
Early in the morning there is again a great clanking and rumbling as the anchors are hoisted; the ship throbs as the engines are started, and through the loudspeaker system we hear the officer of the deck order the Navy gun crews to battle stations. And something new has been added to the ship's noises; she no longer rolls and pitches as she did the day before. Instead there is a steady slap-slap of small waves against her sides. When we go on deck we see the convoy formed up in a long single column, like ducklings following their mother across a pond. Off to port we see figures; LST's loaded with Tanks and Half-tracks. We are in the English Channel, we learn, headed for the French coast.
Once, about noon, there is a sudden burst of gunfire up ahead; the ship's ack-ack guns swing a little to port, and the navy gun crews search the sky with their binoculars. But our guns do not fire, we hear that a German reconnaissance plane has been shot down up ahead.
Land is sighted to port early in the afternoon. First a dim hazy mass, which might be a cloud low on the horizon. Then the tops of hills, smokestacks, buildings, and as we approach more closely the line of a breakwater, and low, close set gray buildings of a city. The line of ships ahead of us turns to port, the ship loses way and finally stops her engines. We are now close enough to shore to see the upper works of ships sunk in the harbor, and to discover that this town has seen fighting: there are houses without roofs, houses without walls, piles of rubble which may possibly have once been houses. What is the name of this place? Is it Le Havre, Brest, Cherbourg, St. Nazaire? There is much argument. Two of us elbow our way through the crowd to the rail and study the town for a moment. We remember a newsreel seen shortly before we left the States; yes, there is the mole leading out to the great stone fort in the harbor; there is the bombed out pier shed. The newsreel showed American planes bombing the fort, and the flashes of German machine gun firing from the rubble of the pier shed Cherbourg.
This is Cherbourg. This is the War.
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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.