Letters from the Good War

A running series of World War II letters written by a Navy Seabee who served in the South Pacific theatre taking the reader through the entire war experience.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

THE CROSSING

10/15/44 Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea

Dear Mom,

Last night the all (6) girl show came off and was received with our usual demonstrative cordiality. The usual vociferous hoots and howls rent the air, in response to the mere lifting of a dress to the thigh, the same ohs and ahs; and at the sight of an embrace, the same whoops of envy. Since the girls were neither amateurs nor polished professionals, their show lacked that special flick of the artist's touch, but they were girls, and boys always like girls. Each fellow, eyeing his choice among them, argued about which one he'd like to take out. Of course, he had to be satisfied with just arguing and lustful gazing.

There was also a pretty good excuse for a band manned by army boys with an army singer who had a well-trained, melodious voice. He received the sincerest ovation on curtain call after curtain call. On the way over I had seen him on the West Point. Which reminds me that I've never actually given you a detailed version of the voyage about which I can now reminisce.

When we boarded the vessel on Monday, February 21st, we were bewildered and stupefied by its monstrous size. None of us had ever been near such a thing. Encumbered by our heavy seabags, while being scrutinized amusedly by veteran sailors, we waddled up and through a seemingly endless maze of companionways to deck A, forward section. The bunks were five high with just enough space between them to allow us to exhale comfortably so that the bunk above wouldn't rise and fall with our breathing. We weren't discouraged by our uncomfortable quarters though. We were merely curious to see how sardines - and human beings - manage to retain their identity when packed in cans. Some of us sat bewildered wondering what to expect, others went about unpacking and still others began wandering about the ship. When word got around that WACs and nurses were on board, everyone became alert and on the lookout for the freaks. We soon found out that these curiosities were living in the best of comfort, scared stiff at the approach of an enlisted man, and only available to the officers. Before the voyage was over we grew to despise them, probably because they wouldn't associate with us, probably because they were privileged, and probably because gold braid was their preferred attraction.

We gradually became acclimatized to the smoky, dingy enclosed A and Promenade decks, which were continually packed with men wandering about to satisfy their curiosity. We observed the still preserved staterooms on the upper decks, the elaborate designs, and artistic building of the foyers, and the impressively adorned main ballroom that had been converted into an infernally hot chow hall. All this made us aware of the vessel's former luxuriousness and wealthy patronage. Everyone was curious about the ship's history. Fantastic tales of her exploits at Singapore and of being under attack by enemy subs were rife. But it was true that Eleanor had christened her, the largest U.S. liner afloat, [the SS America] which was enough to make the Democrats on board happy anyway.

As expected, the first day, still in port, was one of confusion. We waited for hours in an endless and beginningless chow line, and when it didn't move, we hadn't the slightest idea where it would lead us. It went down one companionway and up another, through corridors, down, down into what seemed the very bowels of the ship. The moist thick heat below was unendurable. Food was carelessly slopped onto our mess gear. We ate standing up in what was once, as I mentioned, a gorgeous ballroom. Sweat poured onto our food which in turn we poured unappetizingly down our gullets as quickly as possible so we could leave once again to breathe fresh air.

So this was the routine - two meals a day in a suffocating dungeon.

At 1:00 o'clock on February 22nd we weighed anchor, and the massive hulk steamed out of the harbor. Crushing one another, we jammed the portholes and hatches for a last glimpse of our homeland for we didn't know how long. An odd silence, broken only by an occasional sentimental remark or an imprudent - and regretted - wisecrack, prevailed. It seemed that in only a matter of minutes the land became a distant and indistinct outline, and the vessel began to roll. It was the first time we had ever felt that roll.

Catalina island soon appeared. Dumbfounded, we stared at it. We were no longer in the U.S. It was unbelievable. Our longing began then.

The unfamiliar roll became only too familiar. As the vessel nosed down, our guts went down with it; but as the vessel commenced to rise our guts rose more slowly and lodged somewhere in the middle. We began developing headaches. When walking, we couldn't tell when or where our feet would strike the solid shifting floor. Even clutching anything nearby failed to steady us. Some crawled into their bunks, experimenting with positions that gave them only temporary relief. We heard that fresh air would make us feel better so everyone scrambled for the open, shifting deck. As the ship traveled at a brisk clip, the breeze was refreshing. With a wondering gaze, we stared at the blueness of the ocean and the aquamarine foam whipped up by the bow, as it cleaved the ocean. Soon, the sound of guttural vomiting began, and the ship's crew dashed all over the decks trying to carry out the navy's tradition of spotlessness. The "heads" were certainly busy that night. The constant patter of running feet dashing to the toilets annoyed those in agony and not lucky enough to be able to vomit yet. At first, we had complained that two meals wouldn't be enough. We complained no longer. The smell of food was nauseating. I went one and one half days without eating. The plumper nurses wishing to reduce found their cure here.

On the second day, after sighting a flat-top on the horizon, we realized what fools we were for not bringing field glasses along. The one owner of field glasses, always surrounded by a curious crowd, was the envy of us all as, pointing here and there, he searched the horizon, commenting loudly on what he saw. We learned that many parts of the ship were restricted. Gruff guards were stationed to ward us off, making us feel like lonely, bewildered curs. Gradually, our boisterous equilibrium revived. Conversation began again, and those happy over recovering from their depressing misery began to sing. Eventually a throng accumulated, and all the services - the Seabees, army, air corps, Marines - vied with one another singing their service songs. Immediately, the spirits of all were uplifted. Bands of singers sang into the wind on various sections of the decks. One spectacular extrovert elected himself impromptu M.C. and directed us with impressive vitality. As darkness fell we went below happier, renewed.

In short order we grew accustomed to the established routine. The dread of visiting the restaurant inferno, the everlasting gazing at the technicolor blueness of the expanse, the contempt for the arms and legs sprawled over the decks, the shrill bugle calls, the harsh restrictions, the encumbering life belt, the gradually growing filth and the unkempt appearance of the restless men, the torrid sun, and brilliant, blinding sea, the painful sunburns, the rasping nerves, the privileged passengers, all began to tell in our countenances and actions. After a week we passed a climax. Anger and disgust evolved into indifference and lassitude.

Finally, our outfit was given a deck assignment: chipping paint on the fantail, a restricted zone. Given passes allowing us to enter the fantail at anytime (although none of us liked the idea of working), we soon began enjoying it, after the boatswain, our boss, arranged for us to have gallons of ice cream - at our own expense, of course - which, at several pints per person, we literally devoured. Even though our chow consisted of beans, beans and more beans, canned meat, canned meat, and more canned meat, we were hungry and ate heartily. However, it soon became evident that we were eating less and less, and sometimes not at all. Every afternoon it seems the ice cream was bloating our stomachs. Most took advantage of their passes and visited the fantail to escape the intolerable, stinking mob to sun themselves. Eventually, after wearing out our privilege, because we had used our passes too freely, we were again restricted to our old private province.

Everyone read anything he could lay his hands on. Books (pocket- books) were issued, and we swapped them, until everyone was swapped out. The ship printed its own news bulletin. Our news-hungry mates followed around those who were able to secure one from an acquaintance in the ship's crew. Such lucky fellows promised a mate that he could have the bulletin next, which in turn he passed on to another and so on.

The barbers improvised a shop on one of the windy decks. You knew they were at work if suddenly you discovered a crop of hair blown between your legs. Closely shaven heads became a fad, then a curse, after the equatorial sun beat down on them.

I was fortunate enough to have brought a map with me. By the time we landed, it was no longer a map, but rather a shredded semblance of one. Everyone prophesied our position. A few geography wits were sufficiently convincing to be subject to frequent consultation. Although their guess was no better than the next fellow's, no one bothered to entertain that possibility.

We arose one morning, our skin clammy and sticky, greeted with an amazing rumor. The West Point had been sunk by Japs. It was that ever-present scuttlebutt starting again. Although nobody knew for sure where the report originated, it was thought it came from the ship's radio. We cracked sour jokes about our sinking, such as finding Davy Jones's locker a most interesting place. Never questioning the great importance of this ship, we were certain that we were rich booty for a Jap sub. As a matter of fact we had heard that the Japs had been searching for this tub for the last two years. Although never sure how many were on board, rumor had it between 10,000 and 15,000. A member of the crew told me the rumor had it about right. Some speculated, boy, what an experience it would be to have this ship under attack. Just think of the headlines. But no, there was no land in sight so we immediately retracted the idea.

Just before, and consistently after reaching the equator, flying fish were the latest curiosity. Because they are difficult to spot, only after three or four days were we sure that we actually saw the creatures. Once educated to look near the ship's prow, we could see them emerge in flocks from the ocean then glide in a glistening mass along the waves and eventually plunge with a plop into a crest. For days, the most our slow- sighted friends could see were the miniature circular plops. Soon, when they came to recognize a glistening mass taking form before their eyes, they went about bragging that at last they had witnessed the flight of fish. Eventually, the flying fish became a part of the monotonous blue expanse, eliciting no more of our attention than the once fascinating bluecaps.

The nights below decks became torture. Due to light regulations all hatches had to be closed. The air was putrid and exhausting. Many of us couldn't, or rather wouldn't, endure this below deck hell. We gathered up our ponchos (an oilcloth cape) and lifejacket (which was always at our side) and slinked above deck to curl into a gunwale or some obscure corner for a difficult but more endurable night's sleep. The night air was penetrating and chill, and it inevitably rained before sunrise. Our pillow was a lifejacket, our mattress a steel cranny, and our quilt a cold, stiff poncho. When the rain came, we curled up more tightly, refusing to go below. Soon the entire population below began looking toward the deck as a haven for resting, and soon it had to be stopped because such an aggregation of humans covering the decks would hinder any necessary emergency action. So the crew began rounding up the desolate deck sleepers to send them below. But an hour or so later they would only return to continue their rudely interrupted sleep. I had been awakened more than three times in one night, a most annoying score. Finally, I managed to find a spot that the crew hadn't discovered until the last night.

The night sounds were weird: the wind like a choir, moaning as it swirled around the mast, the deck rhythmically creaking, the soothing swish of the waves passing the prow, the crashing noises of the ocean, all topped off by a crescendo of blissful snoring. The heaving motion of the ship rocked us to sleep; the ocean sound was a lullaby singing to us. I enjoyed those heavenly moments preceding my awkward sleep.

The ship continued on its seemingly infinite course, weaving in and out, changing direction every few minutes as a precaution against subs. One morning the weaving was more marked. A sub was on our tail. Gad, what special people we must beþ


subs after us. The thrill of knowing, or supposing, that we were in the process of evading a sub tickled us.

Another afternoon a deafening boom resounded. The ship shivered and we with it. The effect was paralyzing. There was another burst, then another, producing a concussion of breathtaking gusts. The guns on the ship were being tested. I was weak with relief.

At last we noticed birds, floating debris passing by, and we saw ships more frequently. It was a glorious, sunny morning when we saw a blue, barely perceptible haze interrupting the horizon. Again our owner of the field glasses took first place in popularity. There, before us, was our first glimpse of foreign soilþ


New Caledonia. We were all intoxicated by the strange sight of actual land and the romantic, gigantic thrust of jagged mountains. Once again all portholes and hatches were crammed with men. Every small boat was an object for careful examination. The lighthouse on an island in the harbor greeted us with blinker signals, welcoming us to Noumea. Now the fellow who claimed to know something about code, pushed aside the field glass owner, and translated the signals into a meaningless jumble of letters. After this, the field glass owner resumed his former position of importance.

We lay up in the harbor for an entire day. The night was intriguing; lights were everywhere. The other ships in the harbor glittered brilliantly. Lights played upon the dancing ripples. We were impressed with the enormous size of this base. Perceptible only in the morning light, the harbor was a constant hustle and bustle of activity.

A blast vibrating the air, chains rumbling, told us we were on the move again. And again the portholes were busy with arms madly waving as we passed the ships at anchor. Once more the familiar rolling began, although mal de mer was negligible. The Coral Sea was uneventful and unexciting. New Guinea was to receive us.