Saturday, November 27, 2004

Chapter 1: Bon Voyage? What do you mean, 'bon'?

Our official overseas time began on May 26, 1942. Like many things related to troop movement, the question of overseas time was volubly discussed on the strength of rumors. Some men insisted that it began on our first day at sea; some asserted (correctly, as it turned out) that it began as soon as we boarded the "boat," as the un-nautical referred to practically every sea-going vessel. The more conservative or pessimistic were sure that our overseas time did not begin until we reached our first overseas destination -- if we reached it. The question of overseas time was important to us because it had a direct bearing on when our overseas pay started.

Some kinds of rumors can go on indefinitely, being elaborated on and expanded. Other kinds reach their peak fairly early, level off, and produce an atmosphere of futile muddledness. Ours were this latter type. We hit bottom on the rumor well long before we left Crocker-Amazon Park in San Francisco and headed for our ship, the U.S.S. President Monroe. Thus, it was with relief that we learned from unassailable authority that our overseas time started as soon as we set foot on that remarkable ship. We contemplated our new status with pride if not with satisfaction. Our Division, the 37th Infantry, was about the third such outfit to be sent into the Southwest Pacific. So, while we were not unique in our trans-ocean assignment, we were leaving behind us the bulk of the American Army. Whether that was good or bad, we would have ample time to decide for ourselves.

I recall our "first day out" very clearly; there is really no good reason why I should not. It seems reasonable to expect that every man still living who made that trip with me would remember the beginning of it as well as I do. The water was very rough, and the pitching and rolling of the ship brought the inevitable seasickness to many. Of course, I have suspected for a long time that many individuals afflict themselves with this mal-de-mer by the supposition that one gets it merely by being on a ship, even if that ship is in calm waters. There were good grounds for my suspicions, apparently, for a couple of poor souls got dreadfully sick even before the ship had weighed anchor. I had no sympathy for these. When the ship got moving, that was another matter, and I could see, or rather, feel, how some might get seasick. I experienced an unreasonable degree of giddiness in the head myself, although never any nausea at any time during any ocean voyage. Naturally, when the ship began heaving so much, many of the men made the most of it, and got sick with grim abandon all over the place and at any hour of the day or night.

This was a bit of a trial for me when I was on guard duty in the hold. I went on duty at noon and was to be relieved at 2 p.m. At about that time, however, the corporal of the guard (I think it was Byron Harrison) came to me and asked if I could stay on until 4 oclock. My relief, it seemed, was afflicted with the current popular malady. I said that of course I could. Four oclock came and found me thinking what a dull way it was to begin my first trip out of the States, and wishing I could have gone topside to see the Golden Gate Bridge. I was glad, therefore, to hear a voice behind me saying, "Okay, you cna go now. You're relieved." I turned around and, to my dismay, saw my relief bending over and bringing up his dinner and depositing it in a pail near by. He looked exceedingly ill and unhappy, so I told him that he was in no shape to stand guard and that I'd stand it for him. I added hopefully that he could come down and relieve me when he felt better. Without another word he disappeared, and, needless to say, he did not show up for guard while I was there.

I pondered the utility of those ubiquitous pails which were placed so strategically all about the hold in which we were quartered. I wondered if they did not - well, I was going to say, defeat their own purpose, but what I mean is - encourage the justification for their presence. One had to admit that those pails looked awfully suggestive. A man was less likely to be sick, I thought, if they were kept out of sight. It took a person with a strong stomach to look at one of those pails, let alone imagine its contents, without feeling a reaction in said stomach. If that was the case, my stomach must have been constructed like the Golden Gate Bridge I didn't see. The only sensation I began to have in my stomach as time dragged on was hunger. Men - the hardier ones - passed me on their way to and from the galley while I was stolidly stuck to my post. Then, some time between 6:30 and 7 oclock, Harrison came around and asked if I had eaten. I told him that I hadn't but thought it was a nice idea. So he lset me go down to eat while he stood my guard. I resumed my post a short time before 8 p.m., at which hour I was, in the words of the Soldier's Handbook, "properly relieved." Promptly there upon I went to bed, hoping that Harrison would not remember that my hours of guard duty were 12 to 2 and 6 to 8. He did remember, however, and woke me at midnight, asking timidly if I felt like standing guard. "Frankly, no," I told him. "I already put in eight hours, which is all anybody is supposed to put in." That was all there was to it. I slept fairly well the rest of the night. The reasons for the guard duty, by the way, were to enforce smoking prohibitions in the troop quarters, keep passage ways clear, and generally to aid the carrying out of safety measures.

I have always had an intense aversion to depending on primitive or makeshift devices for my comfort of cleanliness. (For instance, I would never be content living on a farm of the well-and-outhouse variety.) Naturally, I adjusted myself to the very primitive set-ups of field conditions during the three and a half years I had to put up with them. Nevertheless, the bleak and quite public toilets and showers of the barracks in the camps in this country failed to steel me against the conditions I found on the President Monroe. What I found on that singular ship did, however, give me an inkling of just how lacking in refinement were the sanitary systems which we in the Armed Forces might expect to encounter. On the port side of the deck was located a shed, called in the abstruse terminology of the Navy, the "head," and called by Army personnel, the latrine. This establishment consisted of an uncovered toilet, impossible to describe, and alwyas, it seemed, in a state of flush. There was also a long wash stand with several pairs of faucets, where one could wash, shave, and do his laundry with cold salt water or cold salt water, depending on which faucet he used. To preserve the symmetry of the ship's beautiful design, a similar shed had been erected directly opposite the latrine, on the starboard side. This housed the showers (cold salt water.) For the first few days of the trip the showers were visited never and the latrine only when necessity ordered it, for we were still in the North Temperate Zone where the weather seemed intemperately cold at times.

We passed the days (there were nineteen of them) on the ship by doing K.P., cleaning up our compartments and decks, having lifeboat drills and G.Q. (General Quarters) drills, dodging other details, and doing calisthenics on top of a hatch with about 2 1/2 square feet per man. When we could, we sat on deck and read, looking up uneasily every once in a while to make sure there was no officer coming to rout us out or to give us another work detail or both.

Fore some time it had been a foregone conclusion that our destination was Australia, and most of us accepted that as fact. A few individuals either by guesswork or by sheer occultism (or maybe by eavesdropping) were sure we were going to New Zealand. To discourage this line of reasoning and assumption, our officers told us, "Now, just because there are New Zealand Air Force officers on board, that doesn't mean that we are definitely going to New Zealand." But the secret was out, literally in a twinkling, one night when we had got into the tropics. A radio man in Headquarters Battery was watching the code which was being blinked onto our ship from the President Coolidge. Soon he realized that he could decode it, and proceeded to do so. The message was to the effect that the part of the Division that was on the President Monroe (and on another ship, too; I think it was the Uruguay) would proceed to Auckland, New Zealand, while the rest of the Division would go to Suva, Fiji. Naturally, by the next day, virtually everyone in the 136th F.A. knew where we were going, and no one was surprised, therefore, when the Battalion Commander, Lt.-Col. Henry Shafer, made the announcement himself a day or so later.

It has been said by others more imaginative than I and more gifted with a knack for pungent phrases, that on the Monroe the enlisted men ate the tongue and tail of the cow, while the crew and the officers ate all the meat in between. After several meals of boiled tongue and ox-tail soup, I was more than ready to subscribe to such a theory. But then, I guess we all built up a sales resistance to the chow. It wasn't entirely the fault of the chow, for sometimes we had good meals; nor was it entirely the fault of the men who prepared it, nor of the ship which had a poorly equipped troops galley. An important reason for the dim view of the food situation was, I think, the general spirit and physical condition of most of us. Seasickness never released its hold on some men until we were only a few days from Auckland.

Some men hardly went ot the mess hall at all during the entiere trip; others attended irregularly and often left before finishing their meals. That was not hard to understand. At a table vacant except for myself and a fellow sitting opposite me, I was eating dinner one day and so was he. Suddenly he looked up from his eating and emitted a groan of disgust or pain or something. I asked him what was the matter. "I just saw a man get sick in his tray."

"Well, don't tell me about that. I've just been watching the same thing happen to another fellow. Just keep on eating like I am." (I was not in very good shape myself, you see, saying "like" instead of "as".)

The troops' mess was a melancholy affair. When the ship rolled, which it did about every eight or ten seconds, any semi-liquid food in the serving kettles, such as stewed tomatoes, would splash over and drift around on the floor. Likewise, trays, like boats broken loose from their moorings, would slide about on the long tables until reaching the end. Then, usually with half-eaten dinners, they would crash to the floor. I really sympathized with the harrassed K.P.'s on that trip. They could not keep the floor clean so long as chow was being served, and the floor was strewn with food, som that had not been eaten, some that already had. Movement over this floor in the conventional way, i.e., erectly and with sure steps, was dismally difficult. The place was in that desperate sort of confusion you might see in a Laurel and Hardy picture or hear depicted in Dukas's "The Sourcerer's Apprentice."

For me, there was always fascination in watching the ocean. I think it was not so much in the varying waves and hues as in the expectation of seeing something different, some abrupt change in the seascape - an unscheduled appearance of land, for instance. I enjoyed the Pacific most when it was the rich, wonderful, almost unbelievable blue which it was so often when I saw it. There seemed to be a total absence of greenness in it - just pure blue.

When we got into warmer waters we began seeing flying fish. They are pretty little things which shoot up out of the water and glide for a remarkable distance. They are an iridescent greenish-blue, and remind one of swallows as they skim over the water. I got a sort of poetical feeling, and thought I ought to do something about it, but after remembering that Kipling had written some rather famous lines about flying fish, I decided that anything I wrote about them might seem trite or superfluous, even if I was nowhere near Mandalay at the time. So I stifled the impulse. The next occasion I had to write verse on a ship was one night on the President Coolidge on the way from Auckland to Suva. On that occasion, the subject happened to be phosphorescence in the water. I shall leave it to someone else to decide whether phosphorescence is as worthy a subject of a poem as are flying fishes, as Kipling calls them.

With the crossing of the Equator came the inevitable ceremony of dunking and all such horseplay. There were about a thousand men on the President Monroe. This number included not only the 136th F.A. which accounted for about half, but Division Artillery Special Troops, an AAA outfit, and some infantry as well. Naturally the ceremony could not be given to all the men, so representatives from each outfit were chosen. A fair enough way of doing it, I thought. Some of the ceremonies were a bit rowdyish, as might be expected. About the mildest was clipping a broad "V" in the victim's hair, right down to the skull. Anyway, the representative from Headquarters Battery was Corporal Randolph Ellis. I had no idea how he took all the kidding and nonsense until I heard him talking about it to someone one afternoon. Ellis was indignant, simply outraged and indignant, that such undignified and insulting capers should be permitted. After hearing that, I decided that the most accurate description I could think of as applying to him was, "a perfect pill," an appraisal which was altered only slightly after I got to know him better.

I have covered the highlights of the first ocean trip. There is not much else to add, for not a great deal happened up to the time we arrived at Auckland at about four oclock in the afternoon of June 13. There were no movies on the ship as there were on other ships we traveled on later. During the Equatorial leg of our journey to the southwest Pacific we were able to enjoy the swimming pool (cold salt water) on the after deck. It was there, incedentally, that the King Neptune Equator-crossing ceremonies took place.

I recall a couple of long and entertaining bull sessions with Ed Bundenthal, our baker and sometime cook. Ed was one of th few men we ever had in our kitchen who had had actual experience with the culinary arts at all. Most of our cooks had been machine-gunners, truck drivers and I don't know what else in the battery before coming to the kitchen, and what they had been in civilian life, heaven only knew. But Ed had actually worked in a bakery in Dayton, Ohio, and he actually knew how to bake. As a cook he was good too, but he did not like that as well as baking, consequently I don't think he tried too hard at cooking. And he stoutly refused to do both at once. Either he would bake or he would cook , but not both.

Ed had a slight stutter which he did not seem at all embarassed or sensitive about. He frankly admitted that when he found there was a word he couldn't say, he took care not to try to day it, but to reword his sentences so that he could still convey the intended thought or idea. Therefore, he was not necessarily uncommunicative. Quite to the contrary, in fact. Most of what we talked about I have forgotten now, it was so long ago, but it is not important; it was just small talk, something to pass the time, and - for all I know - to help drive away loneliness from me as well as from himself. Ed was essentially more than amiable; he was genuinely and warmly friendly, and he had a good sense of humor. He was moderate in his talk and in his behavior, and I'm glad I got to know him early. He did have one upsetting vice, however. On the rare occasions we could get ice cream, Ed always saw to it that he would be the one to serve it. As each man came through the mess line for his helping of ice cream, Ed would push the cream off the spoon with his finger, lick his finger, then do the same thing to the next man in line, and so on down, licking his finger each time. I suspect that the ensuing protests were not motivated entirely by the thought that this procedure was unsanitary. I think the men protested because this way Ed got more ice cream than anybody else. But Ed would laugh gaily and say, "Well, if you don't like it, you don't have to eat any!" He had them there.

Although we had no movies aboard, the Division Artillery Band was along and it played until sundown every night, so we had some good popular music to listen to, and the Band kept in practice at the same time. It was playing on our last night on the ship, until a good, lively New Zealand band, waiting on Queen's Wharf to greet us, struck up a lively march. The Div Arty Band, oblivious to any competition, kept right on playing until loudly shushed by several of us standing near by. Then the New Zealanders played the original tune from which our National Anthem is taken and which is a little different form the tune we know as "The Star Spangled Banner." After it was finished, someone standing next to me said, "Say, they played that all wrong, didn't they?" So I explained to him that what the New Zealanders played was probably the original version of the tune, known to them as "Anacreon In Heaven," an old English drinking song, and that they would probably be thrown equally for a loss on hearing our version for the first time.

By this time it was nearly dark and for the first time since we left the States we had a lighted deck. It made all the difference to us. It was similar, I think, to the lighting of the houselights in a theater after a suspenseful melodrama, although even that is not a good analogy. The feeling of relief is impossible to describe. The deck lightswere lighted all over the place; men were smoking freely all about the deck, a practice denied them throughout the trip; the talking was louder, the laughter was more boisterous; life jackets were lefte below on the bunks. It all added up to this: "All is well; port safely reached. You are out of danger. This will be your new home." Everyone was imbued with a profound feeling of relief and relaxation, and we all turned into our bunks very, very grateful.
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