An untimely snow was falling in the bleak, cold morning of
April 6, 1944. Huddled on a cluttered pier in Brooklyn, a small
contingent of soldiers awaited embarkation. Standing among bulging
duffle bags and stooping under the weight of full field packs,
we looked with some amusement at the mysterious numbers scrawled
in chalk across the front of every steel helmet.
Above us loomed the enormous superstructure of the S.S. Sea-Train
Texas, like a huge, gray, docile behemoth, tethered quietly to
the pier, by several scant hawsers. As an eighteen year old from
a small town in Pennsylvania, this was the closest I had ever
been to a large ocean-going vessel, aside from the time in 1940,
when, while going to the New York World's Fair, my family passed
close by the burned-out hull of the French luxury liner "Normandy",
lying on its side in the Hudson River.
After a considerable wait, we finally made our way up the gangplank
to board the ship. For me, this was a rare moment of excitement,
despite all the ominous portents of the nature of the times and
our mission. I also felt an element of great relief in that since
we were leaving from New York Harbor, we were most certainly
heading for the European Theatre. For some reason, I had a strong
undefined dread of going to the Pacific Theatre.
Once on deck with our backpacks and our duffle bags, we wiggled
our way through a hatch, into a passageway and then down a stairwell
to a lower deck. Again, we squeezed our way through another hatch
and into a cavernous area with a low ceiling. This very large
room was filled to stifling fullness with triple-decker bunks.
A company of at least one hundred men would be occupying this
limited area. Finding my way up an aisle, I selected a middle
bunk. Removing our packs in the narrow area meant elbows in everyone's
faces, besides tripping over duffle bags clogging the aisle.
It was not an ideal place for the claustrophobic. After opening
our packs and fixing our bunks, each of us was able to secure
a small island of order in that sea of chaos.
Our boarding the ship must have been the last order of business
before departing. Not long after we were reasonably situated,
the ship trembled slightly as the great engines below deck came
alive with the sound that would accompany us the next twelve
days and nights.
At mealtime, we were ushered through another hatch to a large
adjoining room that would be the company mess hall. We would
not be seated at tables; instead, we would stand at narrow, waist-high
counters that would accommodate the width of one tray. In an
alcove, off to the side, was a kitchen that gleamed with stainless
steel equipment. The meals issued from that kitchen would make
us forever envious of the men who served on that vessel because
of the quality as well as the quantity of the fare.
After our first meal, we were kept in place while an officer
force-fed us with a whole litany of restrictions, prohibitions,
and limitations that would literally confine us to the sleeping
area, the mess hall/day room, and the deck on the stern of the
ship. (Since the vessel was primarily a merchant vessel and not
a troopship, the restrictions, although unpleasant, were understandable.)
We were then instructed to don our life vests and make our way
to the top deck where we were assigned lifeboat stations. Lifeboat
drills from the first day would be an integral part of our daily
It was quite obvious from the very outset of the voyage that
because of the severe limitations of movement imposed upon us;
we were facing a monumental siege of boredom. The sleeping area,
because of crowdedness, was so dark during the day, that unless
you had an upper bunk, reading was almost out of the question.
The middle and lower bunks were good for sleeping or simply lying
there, contemplating the canvas of the bunk above you. On deck,
every open area was filled with amphibious landing craft, lashed
fast with heavy chains with only a narrow area left clear by
the rail as a walkway.
The day room offered some hope, initially. There were a few
tables and chairs positioned close by a series of shelves filled
with quite a number of well-worn paperback books, which constituted
a library. A lone piano sat benignly in the corner, and several
men with playing skills went to it, but after fingering several
chords and discovering that it was painfully out of tune, with
several stuck keys, they quickly abandoned it. There was, unfortunately,
one man, undaunted by the severe disabilities of the instrument,
who literally commandeered it.
Armed with one song, that for some reason obsessed him, (whether
it was the melody or simply the timeliness of the words, we didn't
know), but "Shoo Shoo Baby, Don't Cry Baby, Your Daddy's
Off to the Seven Seas" would haunt us as relentlessly as
the sound of the ship's engines. Whatever other ditties he might
unmercifully flay, "Shoo Shoo Baby" would ultimately
end up reverberating around that steel vault with deafening sound.
Undeterred by the stuck keys and treating the loud pedal like
an accelerator, he kept the pedal pinned to the floor and raced
through the tune at maximum volume in an imperious style.
Coming on deck one morning a few days out of New York Harbor,
we were surprised to see that we were surrounded by other ships.
We found ourselves in formation in a convoy. According to the
crewmen, this was the largest convoy yet to begin its journey
across the North Atlantic. There were ships everywhere: to our
left, to our right, behind us and stretched out to the horizon
in front of us. There were ships of every size and shape: large
vessels such as ours, with cargo piled on the deck; small, stubby
steamers; and ships with the unmistakable silhouettes of oil
tankers. Out on the fringe of each flank, we could make out the
barely visible outline of the feisty little escort vessels, scudding
back and forth with their great speed, fulfilling their protective
role. The water surrounding us looked like a wintry forest of
masts and booms.
The convoy was formed in a series of columns, each column about
one-half mile apart. The ships in the column must have been spaced
at about six or seven hundred yards. At precise intervals, the
entire convoy would change direction, as it zigzagged its way
across the Atlantic, as though at the command of some master
The crewmembers were very efficient and business-like. But when
they occasionally paused at the rail, taking a break for a smoke,
they were immediately besieged by all sorts of questions. During
the course of the interrogation, we found out that the Sea-Train
Texas was a 19,000-ton vessel that had served in the prewar days
carrying rolling stock between the mainland and Cuba. However,
with great pride and possibly some exaggeration, they told us
how their vessel had a single-handedly saved the battle of North
Africa, after having delivered a shipload of tanks in time to
stop Rommel on his drive toward Alexandria, Egypt.
There were times when, with almost terminal boredom, we would
deliberately get lost in the many passageways and make our way
into the depths of the ship. On a lower deck we found trucks
jammed together, bumper to bumper, in what looked like a truck
parking lot. But below that deck was the secret of the ship's
name. There, the hold was filled with locomotives and boxcars.
The boxcars were unusually small, each with those strange-looking
cylindrical bumpers on either end of the car, and all of them
wearing their olive drab uniform, ready for the wartime European
Our reconnaissance was interrupted by the distant sound of
exploding depth charges, reminding us that those escort vessels
were dead serious in the performance of their duties. Although
the submarine threat had diminished by spring of 1944, it was
still present and active. It was a sobering interruption. As
our days at sea went by, a few men emerged very visibly: these
were the profoundly seasick. One man, an acquaintance from West
Virginia, became ill on the ferry traveling to Brooklyn. Several
others very rapidly joined the ranks of the chronically seasick,
a most pathetic group of souls. Sadly, some who had been spending
their days in their bunks to accommodate their conditions, made
some tragic timing miscalculation, and in doing so, splattered,
unforgivably, some of their bunkmates, along with their equipment.
Having thus so inexcusably transgressed, they were almost forcibly
banished from the sleeping quarters during the daylight hours.
The next logical habitat for them would be the day room. But,
alas, there was the abominable piano with its merciless assailant,
in itself enough to disquiet an unstable digestive tract, but
which, in concert with the ever present smell of food in constant
preparation, made that place anathema to the seasick.
This left that small, motley band of sufferers only one recourse-to
head for the deck, the most inhospitable place of all, where
the pitching and rolling of the vessel was accentuated by the
sight and sound of the fury of the waves, and only added to the
grief of those suffering from motion sickness. In addition, these
men, being on deck, were compelled to wear life jackets, those
unique pieces of equipment that had the ability to absorb, greedily,
every shipboard odor, especially diesel oil and salt. And then
they had to bear the knowledge that those vests had been worn
on previous voyages by men in varying stages of seasickness.
Those vests clung around the neck like the classical albatross
with its "olfactory horror."
Those men then scattered among the landing craft for shelter
from the wind and spray, carefully locating themselves within
easy commuting distance of the rail. But again, there was the
bold smell of fresh paint and the cosmoline of the tracked landing
craft, and located here and there among the landing craft were
the ship's ventilators, some of them wafting the warm, stale,
and fetid air that was exhaled from below deck, and across those
poor victims. It must have seemed to them that everything was
conspiring against them to turn the voyage into one great marathon
When the rest of us would come up on deck, we knew that although
out of sight, those poor souls were lurking somewhere. Some of
us would sit in the shelter of a landing craft to read, hoping
to catch a few rays of warm sunlight; others would stand by the
rail watching the waves, lost in their own thoughts. Inevitably,
there would be a sudden rush as one of the men would come squirting
from between the chains and the landing craft, lunge for the
rail, and, hunched over it, vent his peace offering to the gods
of the angry waves, retching and heaving in agonizing convulsions.
Without question, most of those men's stomachs must have been
purged with the horrid refrain of "Shoo Shoo Baby"
echoing around inside their tortured minds. After spending themselves
completely, they would disengage themselves from the rail and
return, teary-eyed and exhausted, to their lairs to regroup and
regain strength for their next assault.
The waters of the North Atlantic in early spring were rough,
but little did we foresee the awful potential of their force
until we entered a period of storm. As the intensity of the waves
began to mount, the ship that had ridden so proudly and comfortable
in its element, now lost some of that pride and lordly comfort
as the fierceness of the storm reduced it to a veritable toy.
It would labor to the crest of one huge wave, seem to teeter
there for a moment, and then race down into a vast trough with
angry claws of water overreaching the bow as though to pull it
under, until we were surrounded on all sides by walls of water
with but some masts of adjoining ships visible to us.
The next moment an awesome swelling force would heave the vessel
to the crest of another mountainous wave, nearly expelling the
ship from the water. From our vantage point on the wave's crest,
we could briefly see the other vessels battling their way through
the boiling cauldron. This tedious and frightening contest kept
on relentlessly, hour after hour. One could not help but admire
the indomitable courage and skill of those who performed their
duties and kept the ship in their respective columns. The inexperienced
would simply marvel at how the convoys could possibly find a
path to our destination through such a maelstrom of watery rage.
There is an awesome and mystical fascination about the ocean
that must turn every man into a philosopher. The myriad questions
that flood the mind, quickly brought me to Job's reverential
posture of awe in the face of such Divine omnipotence and sovereignty,
and caused me to echo the Psalmist's profound question: "What
is man that Thou art mindful of him?"
It was a pleasant day, the morning that we walked on deck and
discovered that we were in the congenial waters of the Irish
Sea. The mood on board began to change rapidly from a stoic forbearance
to a more cheerful attitude now that the prospect of docking
was closer at hand. Early the next morning, as we awakened, there
was an eerie stillness that took us a few moments to comprehend.
The engines had stopped-we were in port.
Rushing up on deck and into a cold, damp, penetrating fog, we
looked down on a pier with a number of men milling around, waiting.
Some of the men on deck started throwing packs of cigarettes,
candy, and other articles from our Red Cross packets, down to
the men. Someone in our group shouted down to the men, "Where
are we?" The answer we got was a puzzling "Cowdif Wiles."
We looked at each other with astonishment until the more erudite
among us announced, "He said, 'Cardiff, Wales,' you dummies!"
Seeing these grown men scamper around the dock after the items
thrown to them, we could only guess at the severe shortages they
must have experienced. Shortages, no doubt, that must also have
affected their speech.
The unreal world of shipboard life was now over. Now it was back
to our quarters to remake our backpacks, gather our duffle bags,
and then make our way down the gangplank to the pier. Standing
once again in formation beside the vessel that brought us to
Europe, a strange reality was creeping up on me in increments.
Things that I had perceived only happened to other people were
happening to me.