Sunday, February 13, 2005

Chapter 5: Journey to Fiji

The circumstances surrounding our departure from New Zealand have slipped from my memory. I do reecall what I was doing a few days before sailing. I have a slight scar over my left eye to remind me of it. I was on a loading detail in the hold of the U.S.S. President Coolidge. We were loading barracks bags into the starboard side of the ship from the wharf. As we became more coordinated and adept in handling the bags we also became faster, until the bags were being thrown with pretty gay abandon. Once, however, I was not quite fast enough in resuming my receiving stance after putting a bag in place. The next bag was thrown at me before I was ready to catch it. It hit me on the side of the head, knocking my head against the sharp corner of a crate. The corner met my eyebrow - one of the tenderest spots on the head - and forthwith laid it open. Stunned, I left the hold immediately and went to the first aid station near the docks. There, my eyebrow was shaved, and an adhesive tape bridge was used instead of stitches to help close the wound. This was but the first of many accidents I received while overseas.

Although I can not remember what was going on when we pulled out of Auckland, certain features of the trip to the Fiji Islands are very clear in my memory. One feature was the interior of the ship. New, the Coolidge was a nice ship. In fact, it was a luxury liner, one of our newer ships and appointed inside like a swanky hotel. But after the President Monroe, it was simply overwhelming. I might mention that the Monroe was, still is, I suppose, a cargo ship with very limited passenger accomodations. We used to get fleeting glimpses of the interior of the superstructure in which the officers were quartered. Nicely appointed, but small; definitely limited in its accomodations. The enlisted men (on the Monroe) lived underground, so to speak, in the holds one or two decks below the main deck. Down there, all they could see were bunks and ladders leading to the upper decks. When they came up on topside for sunlight and air, they could fix their fascinated gazes on such items of interest as cables, winches, masts, or lifeboats. The President Coolidge, on the other hand, had winding stairways leading from one deck to the other. One walked on carpeted floors or linoleum, not bare metal. There was ample room to move about, and enough light to lessen considerably the chances of breaking a leg. And the mess hall! No makeshift galley, this. Here were tables arranged neatly and painted gay colors. Here were chandeliers and wall bracket lights with attractive shades. Here were walls paneled and mirrored alternately. Here were real portholes which could be opened during daylight hoursthus letting in air as well as light.

And the food - the food hit an all-time low. Worse than we got on the Monroe, it was the worst we got on any ship, and worse than some of the rations we lived on during combat. Dysentery cut loose one day at sea and kept the medics in sick bay busy for hours dispensing paragoric. I fell in line for my ration of camphorated opium along with most of the rest of the battalion.

Our bunk area was on the port promenade deck, which, although enclosed as long as the ship remained a troop transport, was airy and quite comfortable. Just inside off the deck was the lounge with soft sofas, carpeted floors, and, here and there, tables and lamps. The main attraction, however, was a miniature upright piano. Altogether a very nice setup.

Several of us wandered into the lounge, revelled in the luxury of the sofas for a while, then began finding other things for diversion. Some of the men got up poker games while others read. I went over to the piano and started to play. Soon there was quite a crowd of fellows standing around, adding request to request, as fast as I could play the numbers. We were all enjoying it greatly. I was, anyway, and I'm sure the rest of them were too, for many times during the three years we were over in the Pacific, one fellow or another would recall the good time we had around the "pie-anna on the Coolidge." I felt very flattered.

We should have known it could not last. Soon, in came an officer and said, "Sorry men, but you'll have to leave. This is reserved for officers." Sorry! Like hell you're sorry, we muttered to ourselves. So out we went, mumbling and cursing. I'll never forgive the officer or officers responsible for that raw deal.

More appalling, however, was the fact that certain enlisted men with talent were requested to put on a show for the officers in that lounge. Hayden Holm, our battery clerk, was one who was asked. A tenor who had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory, his singing had long ago come to the attention of certain staff officers of the Division, notably a Major Nicholas. I think it was he who asked Hayden to sing. Hayden agreed, and picked me for his accompanist. I protested and argued. I told him that I had never accompanied anyone in my life, that I could not read music, and that I played only by ear. Moreover I hastened to point out to him that the officers had not long ago thrown us out of their precious lounge, and tha their wanting us back in there to entertain them was almost more than any man with a shred of pride could stomach. I urged Hayden to find someone else. There was another pianist on the ship, I told him. I had heard him play. Get him, I said. Hayden said he had asked the fellow, but the fellow had said that he could not play without music. Hayden had no music with him. He would sing a couple of familiar tunes. Ironically, my weak point turned out to be my asset. Hayden needed someone who could play by ear.

I liked Hayden. He was a person almost anyone could like; jovial, a good mixer, equally at ease with officers or enlisted men. We always got along well together, and I didn't want to let him down. So I consented to play his accompaniments. His songs were familiar enough that faking the accompaniments was quite easy. They were "One Alone" and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." I am not sure whether there was a third one. We had tentatively considered "I'm Falling in Love with Someone," but I'm not sure whether that was on the program or whether we cut it out. The applause from the officers and nurses who made up the audience was moderate, polite. I felt like saying, like Eeyore, "Thank you, thank you. Gratifying, if a little lacking in smack."

After it was over, I felt like crawling back to my bunk. I tried to justify my part on the entertainment by reiterating that I had done it only as a favor to Hayden. I don't know whether I convinced any of the other fellows who I was sure despised me, but I never did quite convince myself, and I never quite got over the incident.

It was on this trip that I got my inspiration, such as it was, for the little poem, "On Shipboard." I had been hanging over the rail for some time, watching the phosphorescence, when the poem came to me, or at least part of it. I wrote down the next day what I remembered, then I worked out the rest.

Generally speaking, the trip was a dull one. We had a brief spell of bad weather once, and one day, when I was in a card game on deck, I was startled out of my wits by a gun going off just above my head. The gun crews were having a little target practice. Outside of that and the incidents I have already described, there was nothing on this trip to set it apart as a particularly interesting or enjoyable one.


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