The military would never tell servicemen where we were going during World War 2, but it was a fairly easy bet that we were headed for Hawaii as a first leg to the Japanese front. The night before we were to board our ship, I had supper in San Francisco with the girlfriend of one of my friends. It would be the last time in a long while that I would have a home-cooked meal.
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In the morning, my buddy and I headed out to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard where the ship we were to head out on had undergone some repairs. Like many other ships used by the Americans, this one was a foreign ship that had been more or less stranded far from its homeland and was now helping in the anti-Axis war effort. We were to board it at the yard and begin our trip from there. We reported in and then, hoisting our duffle bags onto our shoulders, took our place to board. There was a long line of men, thousands of men. The line moved slowly, the duffle bags grew heavy. It seemed that when finally we put them down to rest, the line moved again and we’d lug the bags once more. Eventually, we reached a narrow gangplank and walked up it to the ship’s deck.
Aboard, we were checked off a list. (Always lists. All of these lists were typewritten and reproduced in carbon copy.) Then, we were directed below deck to large sleeping hulls where hammocks were stacked five high. The bunks were assigned in the order in which you had walked onto the ship. The guy in the bunk on top of yours was perhaps two feet away. I knew I could not sleep there. I placed my things down and waited for the other men to settle in. Later, I would find another place to sleep.
When everyone was on board, I went up on the deck and found a spot underneath the turret where I could spend the night. One of the first days when there wasn’t
much to do, I decided to take a nap. But, I was soon startled awake. The turret guns were firing so loudly near me I thought I’d go deaf! After that, I switched to a spot in the bow used to store life jackets. It was comfortable lying on all those jackets. Since it was warm, I did not need blankets. That’s where I slept all the rest of the way to Hawaii, never once sleeping in the hammocks below deck.
We spent that Christmas on board ship in the middle of the Pacific—moving along at approximately 12 knots an hour. It was hard not to think of home and of my family. The previous year, I had been in Richmond, Virginia, lonely then, too. Now I was facing the possibility that this could be my last Christmas alive.
There were always submarine spotters on duty on the ship. We spotters stood at intervals along the rail. Duty lasted two hours, during which there was coffee and food available. One night when I was on spotter duty, I must have fallen asleep because all of a sudden I saw an enemy sub nearby, clearly outlined in the water. Fortunately, it was a dream, and I woke from it real fast and realized what had happened. We were always living under fear, and my dream was reflecting that.
Continually going around the ship was a sub-chaser, known as a Patrol Craft. These PCs were rugged, powerful ships. They were small—often having a crew of only 60 to 70 men, but their depth charge attacks on the Japanese (or the Germans) helped win the war. They protected convoys, hunted submarines, sank small craft, shot down airplanes, bombarded landing areas, and led landing craft on to invasion beaches. The one accompanying us kept going around and around us at a fairly high speed. Fortunately, our PC did not meet any enemy.
Several days out, I saw some guys carrying cases of beer bottles and I asked them what they were doing. “Carrying beers for the officers,” they said. “We get to have some after they’re through.” I thought that was another duty it would be good to volunteer for, so I did.