DIARY ENTRY #1
DESTINATION – UNKNOWN
By Don R. Marsh
30 October 1943
Army fed us our last stateside dinner then marched us back to the tarpapered
wooden temporary barracks of
loaded in the rain into the huge canvas covered trucks while the MPs at the
gate peered out from their guard-shack as we stared back in silence from the
tailgate. There were no speeches or brass bands to give us the final farewell;
before midnight we would be eighty-eight GI replacements about to ship-out.
About same time, trucks from nearby
by armed MPs, after we unloaded from the trucks, we carried our two duffel
bags to the edge of the dock facing the boat. They double-checked our names
from rosters then herded us like lemmings up the gangplank to the main deck.
From there to the third hatch where we were ordered to descend the
“ladder” (stairs) leading to the midship hold. After a quick glimpse
around it appeared to be a scene right out of a bad movie. Narrow stretches of
canvas were laced with rope on the steel frames stacked four high to the
ceiling with but 24 inches in between the racks. Before long all of us,
The first soldiers down into the hold immediately grabbed the lowest bunks of the four. A decision they would all later regret. Based on my brother Ed’s sage advice, a Navy First Class Gunner’s Mate, I made a beeline for the top bunk, in anticipation of those below me becoming seasick and the danger of being splattered with their undigested food, as it was sure to happen and did, once we hit open water. We didn’t have long to wait.
before midnight, without a farewell glimpse of the Statue of Liberty as we
were confined below decks, a tug eased us out into the harbor channel and the
gentle rocking began. My thoughts turned to this evening’s planned date with
a very attractive 21-year-old Jewish gal, a strawberry blond, whom I recently
had met in
previously met at the Roseland Ballroom during one of my earlier passes to the
city and found ourselves attracted to each other after our first dance. I
would like to claim that I swept her off her feet, but the truth is that I
didn’t step on her toes but once. I had to take the commuter bus into the
city and she worked in a mid-town office, so after work we met at the
conveniently located landmark – the
turned out to be our last date, we spent most of the evening at a piano bar
called “Number One Club on
lived with her family in the
Even with gentle rocking of the boat I found that I was unable to sleep, so I closed my eyes to recall these pleasant moments with her just as the ship’s twin steam boilers kicked in. The boat began the non-stop vibrations that never ceased until we touched dry land again. I would write after we landed and explain the cancellation of our plans that night, which she fully understood.
ship was headed for foreign lands -- “exciting unknown places” we had read
about as high school kids, which some of us had been studying only a year or
two ago. Tonight, the former high school kids, some not old enough to vote
were men going off to war. Many on board would not be among those making a
return trip to the
for a recent casual acquaintance or two, most of us in the eighty-eight were
total strangers drawn from two separate Signal Corps training centers. I
received my training at
a dull gray with the only port holes visible above deck; we knew this boat was
far from being a cruise ship. By the time we arrived at our destination, we
nick named it the “Ship From Hell” – the
built in the Bethlehem-Fairchild Shipyards Baltimore, Maryland, in 1942, on
hull #0945. It measured 441 feet long and 56 feet wide with a depth of 37
feet; it could carry 9,000 tons of cargo below decks and additional cargo on
deck. Some other
the north Atlantic in November in the rough seas even on board a cruise liner
is not a pleasant experience – in a small
I had lookout duty on the bridge with the US Navy gun crew on the 20mm antiaircraft guns, but it was all I could do to hang onto the ship’s rail. As this was the first trip for the young sailors fresh out of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center at Waukegan, Illinois, they turned sea sick green, as did my landlubber Army friends. I was one of the few who did not become sea sick the whole voyage, but that didn’t make me wish I had enlisted in the Navy, as did my brother Ed, rather than the Army.
as little time below decks as I possibly could by making friends with the
sailors topside. All of them, except their mustang Ensign and one Gunner’s
Mate First Class, had trained at the Great Lakes Naval Center, less than 30
miles from my hometown, Racine, Wisconsin. I learned some had taken shore
The ship was a water-bound prison. At night after lights out, deep in the sleeping compartment of the hold, in the semi-darkness illuminated by only the six red exit lights near the ladder, our rolling iron coffin gave off an eerie glow. I lay there staring at the steel rivets in the ceiling plate twelve inches from my face listening to men snore, passing gas, and the ship’s metal plates groaning. Some men would talk or moan in their sleep – probably having bad nightmares. Waking from their deep sleep, out of habit they would suddenly raise up to hit their head on the bottom of the canvas of the man sleeping above in the extremely close quarters. If a torpedo did strike our ship we were doomed anyway and we knew it. So much for lifeboat mandatory drills.
Each day became more depressing as the conditions on board worsened. For whatever reason, our fresh food rations in the walk-in coolers became spoiled and were uneatable, requiring the Army medical officer to order the civilian cook to throw the perishable decaying food overboard. GIs assigned to KP and cleaning out the cold storage lockers were forced to use their gas masks the stench was so bad. Until the air cleared, the smells from the rotten food added to the fetid odor of the men’s unwashed soiled clothing. It became so unbearable that it contributed to more men with weak stomachs running for the rails. After the first experience of being unable to get a lather from the soap and salt water, no one was interested in any further salt-water showers and each passing day made hygienic conditions worse.
first week had passed by very slowly; time seemed to drag with monotony. We
had freedom of the top deck and many of us spent time staring into space with
our thoughts of home, or elsewhere, as boredom set in. Some read their Bibles
or said their Rosaries while others gambled with the non-stop crap games and
poker table set up. A few of us wrote in our diaries, recording our mundane
observations. At times it took on the appearance of a floating asylum being
run by the inmates. When the second week rolled by the tempers became shorter
and petty quarrels burst into brief fistfights that were quickly broken up by
cooler heads. On board I soon became friends with a likeable Irishman from the
portholes and doorways were covered with blackout material to avoid detection
by the German submarine wolf packs that roamed the
now beginning our nineteenth
day at sea, November 17th, when the lookouts spotted land off on
the horizon. The word spread like wild fire as every man raced to the deck
rail for a better view. It was land – lots and lots of it became visible
assuring us it was not an island, but someplace. By then, anyplace was
acceptable. Soon came the word over the ship’s loudspeakers that we would be
docking at the Firth of Clyde Docks,
Then reality set in and we received the first of many surprises, but not before the pleasant experience of being greeted by American Red Cross lady volunteers passing out hot coffee and doughnuts. Even the guys still nursing queasy stomachs wolfed down the warm greasy doughnuts as though they were their mother’s homemade cake. The party was over and it was time to line up by the numbers, check off names and load on to British Railways Systems funny looking cars that would take us down south to the Birmingham, England rail yards. The trip gave us a good opportunity to study the rolling hills and British countryside as we passed through the”quaint” small villages and towns.
at the rail head late in the evening, we were met by the big GI trucks and
headed to our next destination – the infamous American 10th US
Army Replacement Depot, APO 7245,
Our small contingent of men was assigned to Company “C”, 438 Battalion, 10th Replacement Depot. While waiting to draw assignments, we were once again subjected to routine gas mask drill, close order drill and a formal retreat ceremony required every night – seven days a week – performed for the personal pleasure of the Post Commander, Colonel Frances Killian, as we passed in review before him.
arrived along with our marching orders. Our shipmates were split up at this
time. Some of the men -- Leo Walls, Johnny Rossi and Jim Magruder, among
others, were sent to join the 101st Airborne Division and would
become “legs” – non-jumpers. But most of our 88 were assigned to the 143rd
Armored Signal Company of the Third Armored Division, located on a remote
former mushroom farm near the
The Spearhead Division bound included Privates Norman W. Steele (KIA); William Emerson (WIA); Gerald P. Morey; Edward J. Robitaille; Frances B. Grow; William T. Hatry (POW) Robert Rosenberg (KIA); Kenneth C. Speers (WIA); Harry I. Tuttle; Lowell P. Dillard (KIA); James D, Matthews (WIA); Stanley R. Presgrave; Lawrence A. Hull; Frank Ruffalo; Gerald Fein; Don R. Marsh and Sergeant Herman Moeller. (WIA)
KIA = Killed In Action WIA = Wounded In Action POW = Prisoner of War
The saga of the long sea voyage had terminated and a whole new chapter in our lives was about to open in the next few months as the on-coming Second Front with the Invasion of France was building to a crescendo. The winds of war were gathering among the rising storm clouds. We would not have long to wait to meet our fait accompli.
or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written
from the author, Don R. Marsh.
rights remain the sole property of The
Marsh Family Trust.