30 October 1943
Camp Shanks, New York
The Army fed us our last stateside dinner then marched us
back to the tarpapered wooden temporary barracks of Camp Shanks,
located near Orangeburg, just north of Tappan in Rockland County
in a thickly wooded section of scenic suburban New York. Our
records had been checked and rechecked multiple times, including
our shot records - no one escaped the final series prior to shipping
overseas. The rain was coming down in torrents as we sat on our
duffel bags and waited for the trucks to haul us to the Brooklyn
docks to board our ship for overseas duty-destination unknown.
Loose lips sink ships and they kept us totally in the dark about
where we were headed. The rumor mill was working overtime. We
loaded in the rain into the huge canvas covered trucks while
the MPs at the gate peered out from their guard-shack as we stared
back in silence from the tailgate. There were no speeches or
brass bands to give us the final farewell; before midnight we
would be eighty-eight GI replacements about to ship-out. About
same time, trucks from nearby Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, were
enroute bringing the other half our contingent to meet us at
the same assembly point on the docks. The trucks rumbled through
highways and streets as darkness fell. Before long we arrived
at the docks in Brooklyn where our eyes searched for the expected
big ocean liner that we would be taking us on our sea voyage.
The Queen Mary had been converted to a troop ship along with
many other cruise ocean liners. The vast majority of troops being
shipped to the European Theater arrived in 5 to 10 days in the
faster ships. This wasn't to be -- with our banana boat! To our
dismay, they off loaded us at the dock and we were told to fall
in "by the number" facing the gangplank of this unusually
small vessel. I couldn't believe my eyes - I had seen bigger
ships sailing on Lake Michigan!
Flanked by armed MPs, after we unloaded from the trucks, we
carried our two duffel bags to the edge of the dock facing the
boat. They double-checked our names from rosters then herded
us like lemmings up the gangplank to the main deck. From there
to the third hatch where we were ordered to descend the "ladder"
(stairs) leading to the midship hold. After a quick glimpse around
it appeared to be a scene right out of a bad movie. Narrow stretches
of canvas were laced with rope on the steel frames stacked four
high to the ceiling with but 24 inches in between the racks.
Before long all of us, including the New Jersey late arrivals,
were in the "quarters" as the hole became filled with
the mixed pungent odors of wet wool overcoats and with sweat
from a lot of nervous armpits and bodies. In the center of the
hold, near the ladder separating the rows of the stacked canvas
racks was the area designated as the Mess Area, appropriately
so named. It contained tables to stand and eat twice a day with
a food preparation area adjacent, staffed by the civilian crew.
The first soldiers down into the hold immediately grabbed
the lowest bunks of the four. A decision they would all later
regret. Based on my brother Ed's sage advice, a Navy First Class
Gunner's Mate, I made a beeline for the top bunk, in anticipation
of those below me becoming seasick and the danger of being splattered
with their undigested food, as it was sure to happen and did,
once we hit open water. We didn't have long to wait.
Sometime before midnight, without a farewell glimpse of the
Statue of Liberty as we were confined below decks, a tug eased
us out into the harbor channel and the gentle rocking began.
My thoughts turned to this evening's planned date with a very
attractive 21-year-old Jewish gal, a strawberry blond, whom I
recently had met in New York. She would be left waiting for me
tonight at the cigar counter of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, as
she told me later, wondering what happened to me. Although she
knew I was pending overseas orders any day, neither of us had
expected my sudden departure this soon and had made a date for
We had previously met at the Roseland Ballroom during one
of my earlier passes to the city and found ourselves attracted
to each other after our first dance. I would like to claim that
I swept her off her feet, but the truth is that I didn't step
on her toes but once. I had to take the commuter bus into the
city and she worked in a mid-town office, so after work we met
at the conveniently located landmark - the Astoria cigar stand.
On what turned out to be our last date, we spent most of the
evening at a piano bar called "Number One Club on Fifth
Avenue" drinking Canadian Club whiskeys where afterwards
some anonymous civilian then picked up my tab; but not before
we both got well oiled. We had arrived early enough to get a
table before the place became packed. Being a nightspot with
entertainment, a couple harmonized to sing a duet of several
popular love songs from the hit play Oklahoma, including "People
Will Say We're In Love" which provided the romantic mood
for us. Love was most certainly in the air.
She lived with her family in the Bronx on Mosholu Parkway,
so in escorting her home we took the "A Train" to someplace
near the Grand Concourse, as I recall. Her parents were asleep
when we arrived, but her brother came home later, just as we
were in our final embrace of saying goodnight, where we were
then introduced. Naturally I got lost on the train(s) returning
to catch my bus stop for the bus back to camp.
Even with gentle rocking of the boat I found that I was unable
to sleep, so I closed my eyes to recall these pleasant moments
with her just as the ship's twin steam boilers kicked in. The
boat began the non-stop vibrations that never ceased until we
touched dry land again. I would write after we landed and explain
the cancellation of our plans that night, which she fully understood.
The ship was headed for foreign lands -- "exciting unknown
places" we had read about as high school kids, which some
of us had been studying only a year or two ago. Tonight, the
former high school kids, some not old enough to vote were men
going off to war. Many on board would not be among those making
a return trip to the USA two years later. It was out of our control
and up to a higher authority from this point forward and the
fortunes of war.
Except for a recent casual acquaintance or two, most of us
in the eighty-eight were total strangers drawn from two separate
Signal Corps training centers. I received my training at Camp
Crowder, Missouri, while others came from Fort Monmouth, New
Jersey. Most of us were Field Wire Basic (MOS 641) soldiers,
although we had a scattering of radio operators, radio repairmen
and truck drivers. It was explained to us by the five unassigned
replacement officers also on board, including one a medical officer,
that we were part of a test for the Army Transportation Corps
to determine if it were feasible to transport troops, in small
numbers, aboard primary cargo ships combined with carrying freight.
As far as the guinea pigs GIs were concerned, it was a dismal
failure. Painted a dull gray with the only port holes visible
above deck, we knew this boat was far from being a cruise ship.
By the time we arrived at our destination, we nick named it the
"Ship From Hell" - the Liberty ship the George Sharswood.
It was built in the Bethlehem-Fairchild Shipyards Baltimore,
Maryland, in 1942, on hull #0945. It measured 441 feet long and
56 feet wide with a depth of 37 feet; it could carry 9,000 tons
of cargo below decks and additional cargo on deck. Some other
Liberty ships were built specifically as army transport carried
550 troops without cargo. Its speed was a maximum 11 knots, if
the screws of the single propeller remained in the water long
enough, but they seldom did. The armament was six 20mm machine
guns on the bridge, two 37mm bow guns and a 4" cannon on
the stern. This ancient stern piece still bore the brass plaque
on its side that said it was on loan, reclaimed from a public
park in the City of Philadelphia and was manufactured in 1903.
The Navy sailors on board refused to test fire it for fear it
might burst the barrel! A US Navy armed guard crew, ranging upwards
from 12 men and one officer, manned the weapons. The ship contained
five holds, three forward and two aft. The crew of 44 civilian
Merchant Marine seamen operated the ship. On the bridge were
four 25-man lifeboats, two per side. The lifeboats were designated
for the crewmen only and "Off Limits" to all soldiers.
The Army personnel were instructed not to use the lifeboats in
the drills, but were relegated to wooden structured kapok filled
life rafts. In the event we had to abandon ship, the life expectancy
in those frigid waters in a life raft would have been but a few
short hours due to hypothermia.
Our Liberty ship rocked and rolled through the swells as we
headed north to rendezvous with a convoy of some forty odd other
cargo ships off the Banks of Newfoundland. Our submarine protection
consisted of US Navy destroyer escorts and Canadian corvettes
that constantly circled our large armada of freighters. When
they dropped depth charges, we hoped that it was a practice run
and not the real thing. The Commodore's ship would send signals,
using semaphore flags and signal lamps keeping radio traffic
to a minimum as the convoy began the 24-hour zigzag pattern for
the full voyage. The rumors were that we were headed for Sicily
in time for the Invasion of Italy; dreamers said we were headed
for the Caribbean to enjoy the palm trees and rum and colas.
The pragmatists, myself included, guessed we were headed for
England to join the BIG ONE - the Invasion of France.
Crossing the north Atlantic in November in the rough seas
even on board a cruise liner is not a pleasant experience - in
a small Liberty ship, a nightmare. Off the Iceland Coast, we
ran into gale-force storms with extremely heavy 30-40 foot seas.
The deck cargo of high-test gasoline in 55 gallon drums broke
loose becoming a danger as they slid across the decks in the
heavy rains and high waves. I thought the pitching would swamp
the ship as it plowed through the deep troughs between massive
I had lookout duty on the bridge with the US Navy gun crew
on the 20mm antiaircraft guns, but it was all I could do to hang
onto the ship's rail. As this was the first trip for the young
sailors fresh out of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center at
Waukegan, Illinois, they turned sea sick green, as did my landlubber
Army friends. I was one of the few who did not become sea sick
the whole voyage, but that didn't make me wish I had enlisted
in the Navy, as did my brother Ed, rather than the Army.
I spent as little time below decks as I possibly could by
making friends with the sailors topside. All of them, except
their mustang Ensign and one Gunner's Mate First Class, had trained
at the Great Lakes Naval Center, less than 30 miles from my hometown,
Racine, Wisconsin. I learned some had taken shore leave in Racine
after finishing boot camp before attending gunnery school.
The ship was a water-bound prison. At night after lights out,
deep in the sleeping compartment of the hold, in the semi-darkness
illuminated by only the six red exit lights near the ladder,
our rolling iron coffin gave off an eerie glow. I lay there staring
at the steel rivets in the ceiling plate twelve inches from my
face listening to men snore, passing gas, and the ship's metal
plates groaning. Some men would talk or moan in their sleep -
probably having bad nightmares. Waking from their deep sleep,
out of habit they would suddenly raise up to hit their head on
the bottom of the canvas of the man sleeping above in the extremely
close quarters. If a torpedo did strike our ship we were doomed
anyway and we knew it. So much for lifeboat mandatory drills.
Each day became more depressing as the conditions on board
worsened. For whatever reason, our fresh food rations in the
walk-in coolers became spoiled and were uneatable, requiring
the Army medical officer to order the civilian cook to throw
the perishable decaying food overboard. GIs assigned to KP and
cleaning out the cold storage lockers were forced to use their
gas masks the stench was so bad. Until the air cleared, the smells
from the rotten food added to the fetid odor of the men's unwashed
soiled clothing. It became so unbearable that it contributed
to more men with weak stomachs running for the rails. After the
first experience of being unable to get a lather from the soap
and salt water, no one was interested in any further salt-water
showers and each passing day made hygienic conditions worse.
The first week had passed by very slowly; time seemed to drag
with monotony. We had freedom of the top deck and many of us
spent time staring into space with our thoughts of home, or elsewhere,
as boredom set in. Some read their Bibles or said their Rosaries
while others gambled with the non-stop crap games and poker table
set up. A few of us wrote in our diaries, recording our mundane
observations. At times it took on the appearance of a floating
asylum being run by the inmates. When the second week rolled
by the tempers became shorter and petty quarrels burst into brief
fistfights that were quickly broken up by cooler heads. On board
I soon became friends with a likeable Irishman from the Boston
area; actually he came from Brighton, not far from my paternal
grandfather's home in Dedham. His name was Lawrence A. Hull;
we hit it off and later became foxhole buddies as fate determined
All portholes and doorways were covered with blackout material
to avoid detection by the German submarine wolf packs that roamed
the Atlantic for their prey, sending hundreds of ships and crews
to their death. We were constantly made aware of the ever-present
danger by drills and calls to General Quarters. You never knew
if it was only a drill or the real thing, so you strictly followed
orders by the number. The blackout was carefully observed by
all, crew and passengers alike for our own safety. One moonless
night off on the horizon we witnessed a scene as though it was
a mirage. A white ship totally ablaze with lights from bow to
stern was steaming westward to the USA, apparently a hospital
ship carrying wounded from the recently completed Sicily Invasion.
I was amazed that the German U-boat captains observed the international
neutrality for the Red Cross ships.
We were now beginning our nineteenth day at sea, November
17th, when the lookouts spotted land off on the horizon. The
word spread like wild fire as every man raced to the deck rail
for a better view. It was land - lots and lots of it became visible
assuring us it was not an island, but someplace. By then, anyplace
was acceptable. Soon came the word over the ship's loudspeakers
that we would be docking at the Firth of Clyde Docks, Glasgow,
Scotland. So this was the "Promised Land" - we made
it! The lush green hills came into sight, giving many of us a
touch of homesickness after almost three weeks at sea.
Then reality set in and we received the first of many surprises,
but not before the pleasant experience of being greeted by American
Red Cross lady volunteers passing out hot coffee and doughnuts.
Even the guys still nursing queasy stomachs wolfed down the warm
greasy doughnuts as though they were their mother's homemade
cake. The party was over and it was time to line up by the numbers,
check off names and load on to British Railways Systems funny
looking cars that would take us down south to the Birmingham,
England rail yards. The trip gave us a good opportunity to study
the rolling hills and British countryside as we passed through
the"quaint" small villages and towns.
Arriving at the railhead late in the evening, we were met
by the big GI trucks and headed to our next destination - the
infamous American 10th US Army Replacement Depot, APO 7245, NY,
NY, at Litchfield, England, the former home of the British North
Staffordshire Regiment, once known as the Whittington Barracks.
The ancient red brick buildings were a warm welcome after the
long sea voyage. The next week Thanksgiving Day arrived and we
were treated to the usual turkey dinner with all the trimmings
in the traditional Army fare. Those who asked were given passes
to visit the nearby towns, but much like Cinderella, the six
hour pass ended at midnight.
Our small contingent of men was assigned to Company "C",
438 Battalion, 10th Replacement Depot. While waiting to draw
assignments, we were once again subjected to routine gas mask
drill, close order drill and a formal retreat ceremony required
every night - seven days a week - performed for the personal
pleasure of the Post Commander, Colonel Frances Killian, as we
passed in review before him.
December arrived along with our marching orders. Our shipmates
were split up at this time. Some of the men -- Leo Walls, Johnny
Rossi and Jim Magruder, among others, were sent to join the 101st
Airborne Division and would become "legs" - non-jumpers.
But most of our 88 were assigned to the 143rd Armored Signal
Company of the Third Armored Division, located on a remote former
mushroom farm near the village of Cucklington, outside Warminster
in Somerset County west of London.
The Spearhead Division bound included Privates Norman W. Steele
(KIA); William Emerson (WIA); Gerald P. Morey; Edward J. Robitaille;
Frances B. Grow; William T. Hatry (POW) Robert Rosenberg (KIA);
Kenneth C. Speers (WIA); Harry I. Tuttle; Lowell P. Dillard (KIA);
James D, Matthews (WIA); Stanley R. Presgrave; Lawrence A. Hull;
Frank Ruffalo; Gerald Fein; Don R. Marsh and Sergeant Herman
KIA = Killed In Action
WIA = Wounded In Action
POW = Prisoner of War
The saga of the long sea voyage had terminated and a whole
new chapter in our lives was about to open in the next few months
as the oncoming Second Front with the Invasion of France was
building to a crescendo. The winds of war were gathering among
the rising storm clouds. We would not have long to wait to meet
our fait accompli.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole,
is prohibited without written permission from the author, Don
R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family