Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
We were shipped to Newport News, Virginia and boarded a small ship, which was equipped for prisoners in the forepart and cargo in the rear. The ship was a Liberty ship named the USS John S. Pillsbury. The bunks were nose to butt close. Sweltering! The odor of the human was detectable with a first whiff. I was worried about getting seasick .I am very susceptible to motion sickness. I took the precaution of buying two cartons of Hershey bars for energy in case I got seasick. I had the boxes in my barracks bag, hanging from the bunk where I was assigned.
It didn’t take long for the motion sickness to come on. In a just a few hours, while still floating out of the harbor, I was over the rail losing my guts- all of ’em. Lordy, how I hate seasickness! I wasn’t alone. My seasick buddy and I stayed side-by-side up on deck for about a week without food. We laid together and when the deck hands came along with the fire hoses to swab the deck, we just moved over a bit. My seasick buddy was a sailor just out of boot camp.
I paid a ship’s sailor 35 cents to go stand in line with my mess kit to get me some food. He brought the food to me and I took one look at it and gave him a few more dimes to dump it in the “Head”. He washed the mess kit out in salt water. When I finally got my “sea legs”, my mess kit had corroded through from the saltwater bath!
The food was for pigs only. The powdered eggs smelled like a fart. I had to actually hold my nose to get some nourishment down! I became ravenous. I remembered my stash of Hershey bars. I went down to my bunk, which I hadn’t visited for a great length of time, to get a Hershey Bar. Going down to the bunks made me sick again. The Hershey Bars were gone! Stolen! Some bastard saw the edges of the boxes in my barracks bag and stole those precious bars! Y’know? At that time I wished he wouldn’t make it home just for that! I laid a curse on him. I wonder if that thief did come home! He didn’t deserve it! At one time I suspected the thief. A guy was auctioning off an “Oh Henry” or “Baby Ruth” bar! I bid five dollars and I lost it! He didn’t have the guts to auction off Hershey Bars though! That would be a dead giveaway.
It took us about 23 days to reach Bizerte, in North Africa. I wrote letters every day to pass the time even though they wouldn’t go anywhere ’till we got to port. We witnessed destroyers shooting their Y guns–depth charges called “ash cans”. You could feel the charge as it went off. The walls of the ship would vibrate. I saw many of the charges go off near our ship. We only cruised going about 10 knots. The German subs were lurking out there somewhere. There were ships as far as the eye could see on the ocean. I watched the dolphins play alongside as I leaned over the rail. Now I gained full control of my body and was starving. We were fed just twice daily and very meagerly–it was like prison fare. We were allowed to have saltwater baths in the nude on deck. Once we were allowed to walk through a fresh water shower. That was too much of a haste and really wasted the water.
We had to “pull guard” on the only fresh water fountain. The weapon we were given was a rusted action “03” rifle with no rounds. It was good as a club only. There was a water ration of one canteen probably for a day. The water fountain was right by the Galley door.
I was on guard one night and the cook was making fresh bread. The odor wafted past my nostrils–I couldn’t stand it any longer! I went inside OFF my post and sawed a big chunk of bread off a loaf, which was already sampled. They even had a jar of strawberry jam there and real butter! I heaped some on the bread and gulped it down, even though an officer or two came by and glanced at this brazen soldier ravenously chomping on the bread. I could have been tossed in the brig but which was easier to live in? The brig or the bunks? The unfairness of it all! I envied those sailors. They had really good food on their ship. Meat, bacon and eggs, pancakes, turkey, fresh bread and real coffee to live on! As good as Uncle Sam ever had! I could see the difference in our treatment. Our food was prison fare! It was pure cruelty equal to being in a medieval prison. When you are as hungry as I was you could eat an old shoe. I suppose you won’t believe me when I tell you I had to hold my nose to eat the powdered scrambled eggs–I am telling you they were very bad–It was a cruelty! I remember once getting a half-rotten potato about the size of a goose egg. I complained and the cook took it back tossed it into the big stainless steel vat and handed me another which had a small vine already growing. It was like being on Columbus’ Nina or Pinta. I wager to say.
Entering the Mediterranean Sea – October 1943
I remember sighting the shores of Africa in the distant haze. We slithered by the Rock of Gibraltar. I saw pictures of it in our geography classes. True enough! There it was! We passed Oran, which glistened in the sun and appeared to be a city of great beauty. Not so! We had a lightning storm in the Mediterranean. I saw lightning strike the barrage balloons and go to the sea, burning the cable like the filament in a light bulb. It was spectacular!
A bit further into the Mediterranean, on the afternoon of October 3rd, a squadron of Junkers 88 (I think) came over us from the direction of Africa and dropped bombs on our convoy. I saw a bomb drop on the starboard and the port side of our ship, missing us. I was surprised that the explosion was a fiery red. I imagined the explosion to be like a depth charge. The “ack-ack” from the convoy was something to behold! It was terrific to witness with all the puffs and tracers! I couldn’t believe that all the German planes would get by. I think they went by unscathed, although I heard a Navy gunner holler, “I got one. I got one”. There were empty 50 caliber shells all over the deck and I saved one for a souvenir. I have since lost it.
All hands on deck were ordered below. A priest prayed with the GIs. I ignored the order. I stayed topside on deck the whole night scanning the skies for another attack. I didn’t sleep a wink. In the morning in the distance were two P-38s encircling the convoy. During the night I saw several ships burning and the oil transport next to us was hit and the fire extinguished. Alongside was a patrol boat and I could see them lowering a stretcher to the patrol boat. It was probably a crewman or more who were burned. That ship was in close enough to observe without field glasses. There was a calm as Old Glory flew over every ship with the barrage balloons overhead. One of the Merchant marines said in disgust! “I wish we would have been in harbor!” I asked him “Why?” and he said, “Because we would have gotten paid double if the raid was in a harbor.” Sheeessh! See the difference?
On reaching Bizerte Harbor I witnessed something shocking in person! The ship steward was tossing cartons of meat overboard, which he was supposed to have fed us GIs I thought! I knew it was meat because in my work at the mink farm we bought meat for the mink in the very same type of carton! USDA! At times on board ship we nearly had a mutiny because of starvation. There were 150 sailors out of boot camp and 150 GI replacements side by side, rattling mess kits and yelling obscenities at the authorities. My seasick buddy was a sailor just out of boot camp. I was glad I didn’t finally get naval duty! Terra firma for me! Yes siree!
On the ship we were introduced to “C” rations at the end of the trip. I was yelling at the guy down on the dock and exchanging comments. He said about the “C “rations,” Oh yah? Wait till you get the stuff we got here”.
Next to our Liberty Ship I was surprised to see a whale-like thing surface. It was one of the submarines that came along with us to guard us. I wonder now how it could have withstood all the depth charges which I saw the Navy fire close to our ship. The sub must have been on surface at that time. There’s quite a shock underwater from an “ash can”. The walls of the ships would shudder when a charge exploded.