At Sea

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk at a retirement community here in Pittsburgh.  A somewhat grizzled, unkempt man wheeled himself into the room halfway through the talk and nodded affirmingly as I described the realities of combat that Bill Mauldin captured in his cartoons.  Afterward, we got to talking, and I asked him about his experiences in the war.  I was surprised by how bright and articulate he was.  But I was even more taken aback by the angry tone with which he relayed his memories.  Usually, by this point in life, veterans have arrived at a sort of emotional armistice with their wartimes memories, at least publicly.  Not this man.  This man was still angry, sixty-five years later.

“I was drafted in 1944.  I was 30 years old with a 2 month old  baby,” he said, spitting out the last word like a sour bite of fruit.  “They put me in basic training and cut it short because they wanted to get us in combat as quickly as they could.  They were running out of replacement troops in Europe.  So they sent us to New York City, and we all packed on board the Queen Mary.”  

He paused to glare again.  “Guess how many of us were on that ship,” he commanded.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Guess,” he ordered again.

I tried to think of a number that would seem crowded, but not so high as to sound implausible.  “5,000,” I determined.

18,000,” he growled back.  “18,000 on the Queen Mary.  There were 35 of us in a stateroom, all sharing one toilet.  Those sons-of-bitches fed us twice a day, 6am and 6pm.  In the morning, we got oatmeal and a biscuit.  In the evening, we got a biscuit and something else.  Damn Johnny Bulls,” he said, raising a not-often-heard-today anti-English slur.

The Queen Mary loaded with soldiers, 1944

The Queen Mary loaded with soldiers, 1944

This man’s story made me think of Bill Mauldin’s journey overseas.  I hadn’t known how dangerous and uncomfortable merely traveling to battle zones could be.  First, there were the German U-Boats which sunk over 3,500 American ships during the war.  Then, there was the monotony made all the more unbearable by the zig-zag route convoys took to evade enemy submarines.

The great on-board diversion, besides reading and gambling in the hold, was to stand in the chow line.  The lines were often so long that any soldier wanting a meal had to shuffle for several hours along a twisting route that took him into virtually every hold, through every passageway, and up or down every ladder on the ship. Once in a while, he even popped up on deck, the only time he saw the sky and breathed fresh air.

Queen Mary chow line in 1944

Queen Mary chow line in 1944

Troop ships also made apparent to everyone the gulf between officers and enlisted men in the US Army in WWII, a gulf that subsequent Army investigations and commissions endeavored to close.  Except when snaking their way to the galley, common soldiers languished below deck in cavernous billets scaffolded with bunks sometimes twelve levels high. Stowed on their canvas shelves in holds so dark, narrow, and crammed with gear, soldiers found even reading difficult. Air, fetid on good days, grew even fouler in hot sunny weather. Seasickness compounded the problem, as soldiers in the upper bunks vomited on those below. Lack of space made cleaning up almost impossible; herding the men to one side of the vessel to hose off the floors could cause the ship to roll and capsize.
Few officers ventured below deck. Most remained in the comforts of “Officers’ Country”–the lounges, staterooms, dining halls, and deckside promenades designated as off limits to enlisted men. Officers’ Country comprised half of the ship or more, even though commissioned passengers made up only a tiny fraction of the men on board. With little else to occupy them, army brass policed its domain as if on sentry duty. “Where we can go, where we can’t go,” complained one Europe-bound soldier in a letter back home, “seem to be of primary concern to the officers.”

Then, there was the seasickness.  Mauldin remembered a gale storm hitting his convoy which crossed the Mediterranean for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.  Every man on board got sick.  Bill held out fine until he went below deck to the head where vomit an inch deep covered the tiled floor and masses of men convulsed around toilets lining the walls. The ship tipped bow-first into a thirty-foot trough, sending the men down the floor’s slithery incline, and as the bow rose to climb the next wave, the soldiers tumbled backward in heaps. After scratching and clawing his way to the hatch, Bill managed to regain his position topside, where, perched by the cannon, he watched hundreds of sick men preparing to descend the cargo nets into the heaving landing crafts below.

That soldier I met at the nursing home never made a beach invasion.  He landed in Normandy around Christmas 1944, and was quickly herded into a boxcar with twenty or so other men (another journey which inspired some choice words) and trundled toward the Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge was raging.  In twelve days, he had gone from New York City to the frontlines of Europe. 

A  few weeks after that, he was back in England.  An artillery attack  had put him put him in a hospital.  His war was over.