We sneaked out of New York harbor under cover of night, leaving from an out of the way pier on Staten Island. The German U-boats still roamed the Atlantic, having taken terrible toll all along our coast during the previous year, this phase of the war now well documented. Our stacks and spars were shrouded in fog. A ghost-like antibarrage balloon was tethered high above our stem.
We sailed that night and all the next day into a howling September Nor'easter whose thundering waves, winds, darkening clouds actually provided some protection from submarines while also investing almost the entire ship's company with seasickness. My own sea-legs stood me in good stead.
Our troop ship was the last of the great four-stackers of the Cunard line's fleet of luxury liners. She had been stripped and fitted as a troop ship capable of carrying as many as 7,000 troops plus many tons of ordnance for the troops in the field. She would sail alone, changing course every seven minutes in submarine infested waters, relying on speed, and a six-inch naval gun with platform and gun-crew at her stern. She slipped out of the blacked-out New York harbor at night, carrying one of the first large contingents of US troops and armaments (including Sherman tanks) --- and us. We were a prime target.
Our AFS contingent, 50 of us, was the 26th AFS unit to leave the USA designated Unit ME 26, still relatively early in the American participation in the War. Unit 1, 100 strong, had set sail from Halifax almost a year before our Unit, and a month before Pearl Harbor, and there had been an AFS presence in France even before this.
"Embarkation." Charles P. Edwards. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.
After a long, uncomfortable night train trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, we boarded the U.S.S. West Point and sailed three days later, on November 10. Formerly the S.S. America, the West Point was a fast luxury liner converted to a troopship, and now was part of a large convoy taking British reinforcements by this roundabout route to General Auchinleck's forces in the Western Desert of North Africa.
Certainly the average American who had not seen such an armada spread out for miles over the ocean---passenger ships, freighters, and U.S. Navy fighting ships in awesome power---had no concept of the commitment that Roosevelt had made to the war effort that early on.
We know now that from the time the Germans gained control of the coastline of France, in the summer of 1940, the American government had operated, unannounced, a "short of war policy" that included protection of the shipping of Britain and her allies. It was in September 1941, three months before we sailed, that the American navy began direct convoy escort in the western Atlantic, and it was in October that the first American warships were torpedoed.
It was as well for our nerves that we were not aware of the ups and downs in the Battle of the Atlantic and knew nothing of the somber statistics of merchant ship sinkings through 1940 and 1941. It so happened that by late 1941 when we sailed the struggle had swayed briefly in favor of the Allies. The German U-boat packs and long-range Kondor bombers operating from the French Atlantic ports had been countered by fighters catapulted from the decks of merchant ships; by the quantity, quality, and training of the convoy escort vessels; and from mid-1941 by the speed and accuracy of the decoding of the messages to and from the German submarines (even though the Germans were simultaneously reading the British naval code). These developments for a time transformed the odds.
"A Call to Africa" Scott Gilmore. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.
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The departure of the first American Field Service unit for service with British troops in the Middle East augured little for the future. A large group left New York by train on 6 November 1941, the first defection occurring in New Haven. In Boston the group was joined by members from the New England area, the whole unit reaching Halifax at midnight on the 7th. Late on the following day their baggage was driven alongside the troop-carrier West Point (formerly the America), and the 100 members of Unit ME 1 embarked that evening. The experience was new and its execution was sufficiently confused to call forth from one of the embarkation officers the comment: "You see them gypsies there? There's only a hundred of them. Can you believe it? And don't you know they're more bleeding trouble than all the twenty thousand others."
William H. Wallace, Jr., who with William de Ford Bigelow had gone to Halifax to represent Mr. Galatti, recorded that "on Monday, 10 November 1941, at 8:25 A.M., the West Point slipped out from her dock and headed down the harbor."
The war began aboard the West Point. Captain King wrote that the officers' quarters were crowded at 6 to the cabin. However, for the majority of the unit, 20 men and all their 60 to 100 pieces of luggage were assigned to what had once been a cabin for two (12 by 15 ft.) with bunks in tiers three high. The ship carried so many troops that there was not one room left over large enough for the whole of the Field Service unit to be gathered together, and its lectures had to be given to one-quarter of the group at a time. Although there was plenty of salt water for bathing, fresh water was strictly rationed. Meals were eaten in shifts, standing at high tables. And sleeping on deck, when the ship reached the tropics, had also to be done by turns. Orders were passed on by means of typed bulletins posted in each cabin.
Capt. G. F. J. King was in charge of the unit, assisted by J. T. Ogden, A. T. Ogden, and A. McElwain. The volunteers were grouped in 10 sections of 9 or 10 men apiece, with A. C. Geer as "sergeant major" in charge of the "section leaders." With the unit traveled Col. R. S. Richmond, overseas commander of the Service, and Major S. Benson, who was to assist Colonel Richmond and give special attention to the publicity so necessary to an organization dependent upon voluntary contributions for its funds. The statistics of the unit showed that its members ranged in age from 18 to 64 and represented 22 states, 44 American and European universities and colleges, and 36 occupations. Later units were to be just as diverse in their make-up, allowing for differences in size, and all were to find that not only the war but also war's tedium began on the voyage out.
A typical day was recorded by C. B. Ives, on 5 December:
"We have wonderful weather. . . . Every day is like the one before---desultory reading, chess, looking at the sea, looking at the sky, talk (mostly foolish). We have had lectures on the organization of the British Army and are having lectures on first aid. It takes a certain amount of time to walk up two flights of stairs to the embarkation deck and a certain amount of time to walk down the two flights to the cabin, where one may find a poker game, an argument about the merits of the latest impossible rumor, or nothing at all but a few sleepers, readers, or both. An hour before sunset, portholes are closed and smoking on deck is a major offense. At 9 P.M. lights go out all over the ship, except for a few very faint blue ones, and portholes are opened. Then people stumble around until they get tired of stumbling around and go to bed, bumping into doors and each other and trying to fix in their minds the places where they leave their clothes so that they can be found in the morning. At 5:30 A.M. or earlier the bell rings in a persistent manner and everybody gets up, dresses, and puts on life jackets and stands around in the cabin for about an hour. . . . Breakfast starts at 7 A.M."
To relieve this monotony, and to gain a few extra privileges, a group of 28 signed on to work in different capacities with the ship's crew.
"Middle East 1" George Rock. History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956
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Conditions aboard ship were none too comfortable with eighteen to twenty men to a small cabin. Water (both fresh and salt) was rationed. About one-third of the daylight hours were spent in mess lines, and once the food was obtained, we ate it standing up at long, troughlike tables. No one had the desire or the privilege to loiter over a meal. There was always another waiting to move into the space you occupied. The messroom itself was chokingly hot. Perspiration ran down your face and arms into the food as you ate.
From dark to daylight the ports were kept closed, and the crowded cabins became dank, smelly holes. The shoddy mattresses stank with the nightly soaking of perspiration they received. Sleeping space on the open deck was reserved, and rightly so, for troops who were living in quarters much worse than ours. At five-thirty each morning there was "stand-to": warning bells rang, and everyone clambered from his bunk and donned a life jacket and stood awaiting the "all clear." Wearing a life jacket under those conditions was like clothing yourself in a steam-heated corset.
But on the whole all this was good for the unit. It hardened the strong and showed up the weak. It brought to light those selfish individuals who would sneak to the upper decks and take the space reserved for some poor devil who lived next the boiler room below the water line. It brought to light those men who would live by the rules. Never again would these men, whether in the Syrian Desert or the Western Desert, have to live under conditions so harsh, so severe.
The administrative setup on leaving New York was this: Ralph Richmond, a member of the American Field Service in France in 1914-1918, was in command of the AFS, with title of Colonel. Major Stuart Benson, a sculptor and artist of note, was second in command and in charge of publicity. Captain George James King was to command the unit in the field. Lieutenant John Ogden was to assist King. The unit itself was divided into groups of nine to ten men. In charge of each group was an appointed group leader. The group leaders were never delegated authority, and as a result none felt he would be backed up if he tried to assume disciplinary powers. Unfortunately, the officers, living in quite another section of the ship, had decided upon a policy of aloofness, and a schism arose between the men and officers
Three days out of Halifax I was appointed sergeant major by colonel Richmond. I had the help of Chan Ives and Fred Hoeing and Tommy DePew and Evan Thomas and other solid members in the unit, and we attempted to inaugurate a system of policing and self-discipline. Upon us fell the complaints, moans, and criticisms of the rest of the group. It was not an easy task; in fact, that this first unit ever reached the field is due entirely to these few men I have mentioned.
"Chapter One." Andrew Geer. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.
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WE LEFT from a pier in Brooklyn. After reporting to the American Field Service at 9 A.M. we counted baggage, stencilled names on bags and listened to speeches until noon. [...] at 10 P.M. finally mounted the long gang plank onto a strange ship. It was an oil-burning Danish cruise-boat that was only four years old and was well equipped for tropical conditions. [...] The ship accommodated fifty-seven passengers comfortably---there were one hundred of us,[...] About five the next morning there was a clang of bells, anchors heaved, hawsers whipped and tugs whistled. I jumped up and stood in the bow with the others. As dawn came up we pulled out into the Lower Harbor and the ocean. [...] Every day we assembled on deck at 9.30 A.M. First Aid for an hour in groups of eight, then drill an hour and calisthenics, with the ship sometimes plunging madly while we tried to keep in line. At 1 P.M. we lunched, then had French lessons followed by Arabic. At 4 P.M. I rehearsed the chorus for a show we're giving soon. It is very wittily written by Le Boutillier.
"Chapter 2." Caleb Milne. I Dream of the Day. Africa 1942-1943. New York: Longman's, 1945.
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My AFS unit sailed from Boston on February 17, 1942. I had just turned seventeen. Our unit had its own officers, but once we got "over there" we would be under the direct orders of the units to which we were attached. My unit would serve mostly in North Africa with the British and French armies, as well as with the French Foreign Legion. We later followed the action into Italy and Germany.
Our officers were St. Louisans Hugh Scott and Jack Carter. Later Bill Farelly, John Sewing, and Frank Poettegen joined up. (My brother Barney joined us later still but left AFS in 1944 to join the regular army.) Our group of 110 men was shoehorned into the squash court of the Queen Mary, the famed British ocean liner pressed into service as a troop ship during the crisis. Here the realities of the war began for us, though we wouldn't know that for a while yet. If we thought we were going off to adventures, we certainly met with anything but that aboard ship. Every day was exactly like the one before: desultory reading, cards, checkers, chess, looking at the sea, looking at the sky--exciting stuff. There were so many of us that meals and sleeping were done in shifts, and since there was no single space big enough to gather all the AFS people together at one time, orders were passed around by means of typed memo. There was a regimen for just about everything: lights out at a certain time, portholes closed at a certain time, sleeping and rising at a certain time, drill at a certain time, standing around waiting for drill at a certain time ... we thought it was all tiresome. Ha. Little did we know that the definition of 'tiresome' was yet to be written.
"On the Way to Over There." Joseph Desloge, Jr. Passport to Manhood. Self-published. 1995.
The daily routine, which started off with reveille and stand-to with life-jackets at 5:30 A.M. and ended with lights out at 9 P.M., included nothing more strenuous than three meals a day, an inspection of quarters, and perhaps an occasional lecture on army organization or first aid. I'm afraid I can not boast of any great hardship, and we were so well convoyed that danger was almost non-existent. The most annoying thing about daily life was that we had to eat our meals off long wooden shelves, standing throughout, squeezed in with a tremendous crowd of soldiers. The main problem of the day was what to do between meals. Every inch of the ship either below decks or above was crowded with troops---except, of course, the forbidden territory reserved for officers or ship's crew. For a while it seemed that the only way to pass the time was either being jammed up in one's bunk, going slowly mad to the rhythm of housey-housey numbers being shouted up and down the corridor, or leaning up against the rail on deck, watching the water go by. The main trouble with the latter alternative was the fact that it had the same rush-hour atmosphere as the mess hall without benefit of food. Finally some of us hit upon a solution of sorts. We dug up some boxing gloves and disported ourselves on that portion of the deck reserved for petty officers. Apparently the petty officers were laboring under the illusion that we were training there for some sensational affair, because they never saw fit to throw us out. So it happened that I was introduced to the world of amateur boxing.
I always think of the hours spent on our special deck with a great deal of pleasure. I didn't enjoy being pommeled about very much, but it was good exercise, and it really was a wonderful opportunity to get out in the sun and to appreciate the impressive spectacle of a well-escorted convoy. For reasons I can not mention here, we were so well escorted that the number of navy craft accompanying us was almost double the number of troopships. One couldn't help feeling at times like the King of England reviewing his fleet as our guardians went through their paces. I never tired of watching them, because there was always something new to see. I could always count on either a new formation or at least new background supplied by the ever-changing scenery of sky and sea.
"Troopship." Evan Thomas. Ambulance in Africa. New York: Appleton. 1943.
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On that night of September 21 the slate-gray sides of HMS Aquitania rose, wall-like, behind and above the side loading doors spaced along a Staten Island dock. We of Unit 26, 50 odd fellows spic and span in English-cut trench coats stood in helpless clusters near piles of bulky bedding-rolls and even bulkier duffle-bags into which we had carefully packed all the latest "doodads" that ambulance drivers in Africa were going to need. Already we looked to certain "Section Leaders" --- "top men" picked out by the Major for guidance: "passports ready? ... don't lose those tickets! ... the Major is taking care of everything..."
We shuffled restlessly, stamping our feet in a cold night of late September while long files of American troops, tin-hats, rifles, "C" bags complete, moved in endless line up the long gang-plank.
It was not yet our turn to board, to struggle up the long gang-plank as the soldiers had done, to cut the last thread between ourselves and home.
Some of us would not return.
There were state-rooms (officers' quarters) for the first 37 of us to board. The remaining 13: well, the Major was doing his best. Perhaps there would be some empty bunks in the lower regions of the ship. I hoped so, because I was one of that "ill-fated" or "unlucky" number. The "unlucky 13" is what the others would call us during our forty days and forty nights on board.
Those state-rooms up on the boat and promenade decks weren't all that much to brag about. In a letter written "at sea" Jock wrote: "We only have a room about half the size of our toilet at college for six guys... but they feed us very well." We of the "unlucky 13" by contrast had enlisted men's rations.
We of the "unlucky 13," already singled out on our first hour of embarkation, stood guard beside our duffel-bags in the deep shadows of one corner of the dock now almost empty of its throng of uniformed people. The Major, his picked men, his Section leaders, most of his Unit 26 had long since disappeared into the bulk of our troop ship. They were assigned to state rooms on A and B decks. One large state room was set aside to be Unit HQ: a place where "Mike" could typewrite orders of the day, where lists and rules could be posted, where the Major could issue directives and hang up his uniform jacket with the colored bits of ribbon from World War I.
All this while we stood on the stilled dock until early morning ... and then wearily trudged into our own quarters with the troops down in E deck in what had been the pool and had been fitted with metal bunks slung in tiers of three and smelling of feet and arm-pits.
This was our first bond of friendship. We were the "E deck boys," members of the "unlucky 13", black-sheep of a crack unit, occasionally invited to officers' quarters where the Major sat at a little table with the "officer of the day."
Some of us: Chan Keller, John Leinbach, George Collins, Art Ecclestone, Jay Nierenberg, Jack Chaffee were soon joined in our work and our play by Vern Preble, Jock Cobb, Howard Brooke. We would all stick together for training; and during difficult times in Egypt, Tunisia, Italy. Eventually, we joined and formed the core of C Platoon of 567 ACC/AFS, and served in the same Sections of that Platoon.
We were the bunch from E deck. In time we became pretty thankful for the unlucky" break that got us "stuck" together, henceforth a "lucky 13." Oddly enough, some of the "picked men" went home when their first term of enlistment expired.
After life-boat drill, everybody acted bored, and lined up for a "Pepsi" in the main lounge. One or two officers in tow of Colonel Baird, in command of the ship, would make their morning inspections at this time. The Colonel was one reason why I was glad to be under the Major's command. Once we had "shaken down," settled in, and gotten our sea-legs, the Colonel took ship's affairs firmly in hand.
All officers and Field Service men were summoned to the main lounge on a hot equatorial afternoon. The Colonel strode boldly onto a raised platform at the end of the ornate salon. He commenced auspiciously: "Now I don't pronounce my 'r's' like they do at Harvard, and I don't pronounce my 'a's' like they do at Yale, but I pronounce my 'h's', and that's HELL'"
It was one of those situations in which you wonder if you are supposed to laugh. There was dead silence. Fortunately the Colonel labored on: "The Cruise is over! Preparation for the theater of war commences ... today! We are approaching our designation! Now I want those latrines down on E deck clean, and I mean CLEAN ... "I knew then that I wasn't supposed to laugh when the Colonel spoke. There were to be many such enlightening bits of oratory before our "designation" was reached.
The tempo of life on shipboard quickened perceptively. The Colonel carried on extensive latrine inspections, scoured the ship for fifth-column activity, engineered frantic submarine and air-raid drills, doled out sentences to the brig for those caught in an embarrassing position with a nurse behind one of the funnels after black-out, filled the stuffy lounge with bombast and invective after each noon meal, occasionally paraded the decks in a relaxed mood but with his paunch at attention.
For the Field Service it was a case of "keep up with the Jones's" from then on. The Major matched the Colonel, move for move. "Picked men" gave map reading classes posing all kinds of impossible questions about ambulances lost in the wilds of the desert. Examinations were taken, and handed in. Note-books were kept, and graded by the Major himself. Squad leaders were kept hurrying each day, overseeing weekly "kit-lightening" inspections. "Lightening your kit" was one of the special manias of the Major. He had gotten down to a trunk and duffle-bag himself; and all of us had filled up boxes full of pajamas, sheets, extra books, underwear, extra socks and any other such excess baggage to be disposed of that a "hardened" desert rat would be ashamed to possess (or so said the Major).
"Basic training" was in store for us. Squads were lumped under "picked men." An "officer of the day" dined at the Major's table to help make important decisions and to discuss important affairs. Ties had to be worn at officers' mess (to which we of E deck were occasionally invited): sleeves were not to be rolled up, short pants had to have a respectable "longness" to them lest the 200 buxom Army nurses on board (also with officer status) be offended. Demerits were handed out it you were late to the daily morning meeting held in the heavily paneled rear lounge of the ship. The Major addressed these meetings in a low, important sounding voice so that no one in the back rows could hear what was said. Gradually a program of work, and of play, evolved for all members of Unit 26.
There were classes in first-aid. There were French classes given by three characters representing "La France Libre." The Major had an especial sympathy for these fellows, because Field Service and France were "brothers" in the last war --- so much so that we ended up by lugging their polished trunks full of polished uniforms off of the ship when we arrived at our "designation." Uniforms, trunks, and Frenchmen wrangled political jobs in Beirut and settled down to cocktails at the Normandy Bar as a part of the civilizing influence of the French empire.
There were Section leaders posted in the corridors all night as a precaution in the event of attack by submarine, or from the air, There were times for going to bed, times for getting up, times for shaving. These getting up times, and our watches, were advanced an hour each week to compensate for the time zones we crossed. We were getting "toughened" for the desert, and besides there could be no stint in the competition with Colonel Baird.
The schedule of the mounting crescendo of our lives began to read something like this: 5:45 rise, on deck at 6:00 for physical drill, below at 6:20 to shave, on deck at 6:30 for close-order drill and uniform inspection, breakfast at 7:00, map-reading classes at 8:00, 9:00 reserved for meetings of the Unit, everyone attending. Then followed first-aid classes at 10:00 and language classes in the afternoon. Orders of the day required map-reading homework each evening, and lights out at 10:00 PM. "Black marks" were handed out to all those who were tardy in any of this.
The American soldiers began to look at these antics with amused wonder. There was less and less time for the charming company of the nurses.
But we were happy in the knowledge that we were being toughened, prepared for a life of desperate rigor where a man must win or be defeated by the desert. We lightened kit willingly, and went through all the rest of it with glad hearts. After all the Major knew best ---he'd been through it all before.
And so when we eventually lined up in smart array on the sand at the Port Suez Transit Camp, counted off by fours, wheeled and turned in the appropriate array, and were "reviewed" by a bewildered Major Hinrichs who had come from the Cairo office to welcome us on our arrival, each person felt sure that all he had to do was climb into an ambulance and pilot it to the front.
Among the only things we didn't know how to do were to drive an ambulance, dig a slit trench, follow brigade divisional and corps signs marking out routes and points for medical evacuation or army advance. These things really mattered ... but in fairness to the Major, couldn't very well be taught on shipboard.
"At Sea: Forty Days and Forty Nights." Charles P. Edwards. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.
* * *
"I did not hear the alarm. I was awakened by the turning on of the cabin lights Morrisey, my roommate was dressing. We were both due on watch at two o'clock, and I thought that possibly he was dressing for that. Then Gubelman burst into the cabin and said, "What's going on here?" I grabbed my lifebelt and rushed up to the deck.
"All I can remember out of the confusion was my surprise that the decks were wet, and the cold. I dashed down again, grabbed my overcoat; and returned to my station, it was time to climb the ladder down to lifeboat ---No. 2. Everything was very much under control. The First Mate was the last to leave. Then we shoved off, rowing.
"We didn't put up the sail until about dawn. I'll never forget how beautiful it was --- the great red sail unfurling, and the sun upon it, and the men in their yellow suits against it. We sailed on all day, the other three boats following. We had an extremely good time in our boat, laughing, telling jokes; and the British engineers taught us a number of songs to which we have words. We were very pleased the way the seamen accepted us and liked us. They called me "Tubby". Edwards was a good sailor, and Madeira was outstanding in his stoicism. We slept in the lifeboat, uncomfortably, but with good cheer, and with occasional songs and jokes.
"About 6 in the morning we saw a smokestack on the horizon. We got near it and recognized a similarity of cargoes between it and our own sunken ship; and we figured that their destinations were probably the same. The First Mate, therefore, asked only for positions and cigarettes (which were given); and we shoved off. We had gone half an hour when we noticed that the ship was steaming towards us again. The first lifeboat, with the captain, had been picked up, and we also were taken aboard. It was a Norwegian ship, and there was coffee and cheese in the Salon, and a general reunion. For the first time since the torpedoing, I found myself trembling. The coffee slopped all over from my shaking hand. We had a good time with the crew. Edwards and I shared bunks with the men aft.
"At six the next morning we hove into Halifax, and, after arrangements were made, were landed. We were rushed in a bus to the Allied Seaman's Institute, where tables had been roped off, with signs on them that read "Reserved --- For Survivors Only".
"AFS News Bulletin No. 4, November 1942.
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Katharine Savage. Chapter Ten. The Story of the Second World War. New York: Scholastic. 1957.