When in World War II the enemy finally knelt in surrender one thing became clear: all the thousands of the American armed forces stationed in Europe wanted to leave immediately and – GO HOME!
What an exodus! Every ship they could dig up, including a few that had been officially moth-balled - anything that had a propeller that could still rotate - was thrust back into service to carry the GIs homeward.
The ship they put me on then had, usually, a crew of twenty-five. Most such vessels never carried passengers in peacetime but if they did there might be five or six, no more. And here we were, jamming over a thousand into the same space.
We had told the soldiers, as they waited on the dock to board, that it was not going to be a pleasant cruise; in fact it was going to be pretty God-awful and they might choose to wait for a later ship that wouldn’t be so crowded.
To a man, as you might have expected, they sang out “No! We want to go home!!”
Well, we filled up the ship with people. Cheek by jowl might describe it. Some of the poor guys couldn’t even sit down out on the deck, there was no room, and they stood up a good deal of the way. Bird colonels slept on the deck in the ship’s wheelhouse.
Everywhere it was the same; ships of all kinds were jammed to the gunnels.
Huge drums – you couldn’t call them cans or tins; they were as big as oil drums – labeled “Tomato Soup” or “Pork and Beans” and other such culinary delights, were lifted aboard our ship by winch. At least no one was going to starve.
And the weather gave us a break; lots of sunshine, very little wind and a calm sea. We had wondered about the nasty result that could happen if the weather began causing problems and the ship started to roll. The few lifeboats we had could hold but a fraction of our passengers. Better just not think about that.
Once we got under way, our ship was skimming along at top speed. Of course, our top speed was eleven knots, which is about thirteen miles per hour. Many of the soldierie didn’t think it was moving. “Hey!” they shouted, “Kick this thing into gear!” or “When are we gonna start?”
Then, on the third day out, after quite a bit of what I thought was smooth sailing, it happened.
The ship’s engine, which had been designed and built before World War I, evidently felt it had done enough for its country and it just coughed quietly and stopped.
No problem, no danger. We sat there peacefully in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, unmoving, like a lump on a bog. We waited. And waited. The GIs began cursing the ship’s officers, loudly. “Ninety-day wonders!” they shouted, among other epithets. It was embarrassing.
I went below and asked one of the engineering officers about when the engine would start cooking again. He reluctantly said it was not that they were having trouble fixing the thing, it was that they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
After Pearl Harbor, the U S began hurriedly building ships, hundreds of ‘em. Each of those vessels needed crews, so they took kids like me, taking day classes at UCLA and working in a grocery store at night, and after a couple of months of training anointed me as a ship’s officer. They did the same with engineering officers.
In other words, we were all ninety-day wonders.
Since I was an officer, even if of the lowest grade, I had a room. I was able to go hide in my room when not on duty and avoid the embarrassing “90 Day Etcetera” catcalls of the thousand or so commandos on deck.
Evidently an engineer down below finally figured out which switch to pull, or had found the users’ instruction booklet, and the ol’ engine began to purr again.
In spite of everything we managed ultimately to get everyone to the Brooklyn Naval Yard safe and sound.