Sunday, August 16, 2015


(There was no Magpie blog last week so I take the liberty of re-posting this.)

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.



Roger Owen Green said...

appropriate piece for the 70th anniversary!

21 Wits said...

Wow, I had no idea this actually happened! Thank goodness everything was eventually back on track and all were safely home again! What a trip it must have been.

Berowne said...

Rather like air travel today. :-)

Kathe W. said...

oh my.....glad it was easily fixed! What an ordeal!

Old Egg said...

How short memories are. They chose to take the first ship hope despite the advised discomfort.
Instead of moaning they should have laughed and said "I've come through a terrible war and am lucky to be alive and on my way home. Have I got some stories to tell."

i b arora said...

nice post

Berowne said...

Nice comment; thanx.

Leslie: said...

Whew! that must have been "almost" as scary as being on the front lines. Imagine if the ship had decided it was carrying too much weight! Oops!

abcw team

Hildred said...

My husband came home on the Ille de France in May of 1945, - pure luxury. However, he went overseas on the Andes - pure hell!

Sharp Little Pencil said...

Berowne, I find it comforting that you all didn't decide to simply HATE Americans based on the catcalls. These pictures? I called Lex to the computer and he was floored! We had no idea the ships carrying the boys home were that crowded!! Wow. An amazing piece of history, Berowne, and we both thank you for this story. And again, thanks for not hating Americans based on that experience... Amy

Deepa said...

I wonder what would have happened if that ship sunk

Ira said...

There we see the soldiers and the like literally swarming the place... Moments like this makes one speechless as the feelings of those on board cannot be experienced sitting at home!

Obsessivemom said...

O My God those pictures look scary. So many many people - it's a wonder everyone got home safely.

BeatAboutThe Book

Berowne said...

For Anna Rochon: As for where I saw Warhol, he and I used the same outfit: Ben Cantesano of New York. It would have been in the sixties. Not much help, I'm afraid...

Sheilagh Lee said...

What an amazing story thanks for sharing

Berowne said...

Thanks, Sheilagh, for an equally amazing comment. :-)

Unknown said...

Firstly my apologies for a late comment, i have been far to busy repairing my blog after a moval from one host to another... and taking care of other things that needed to be taken care of since my husband and i have health issues at the same time.

A very impressive story, ww2 has done harme beyond repair, we all know that. We should never forget the horror of it and at the same time be gratefull for all those who survied and what happened afterwards.

have a nice weekend

Melody (abc-w-team)

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