DIARY ENTRY #1

 

DESTINATION – UNKNOWN

By Don R. Marsh

 

30 October 1943

Camp Shanks , New York

 

The Army fed us our last stateside dinner then marched us back to the tarpapered wooden temporary barracks of Camp Shanks , located near Orangeburg, just north of Tappan in Rockland County in a thickly wooded section of scenic suburban New York . Our records had been checked and rechecked multiple times, including our shot records – no one escaped the final series prior to shipping overseas. The rain was coming down in torrents as we sat on our duffel bags and waited for the trucks to haul us to the Brooklyn docks to board our ship for overseas duty – destination unknown. Loose lips sink ships and they kept us totally in the dark about where we were headed. The rumor mill was working overtime.

 

We 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 Fort Monmouth , New Jersey , were enroute bringing the other half our contingent to meet us at the same assembly point on the docks. The trucks rumbled through highways and streets as darkness fell. Before long we arrived at the docks in Brooklyn where our eyes searched for the expected big ocean liner that we would be taking us on our sea voyage. The Queen Mary had been converted to a troop ship along with many other cruise ocean liners. The vast majority of troops being shipped to the European Theater arrived in 5 to 10 days in the faster ships. This wasn’t to be -- with our banana boat! To our dismay, they off loaded us at the dock and we were told to fall in “by the number” facing the gang -plank of this unusually small vessel. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I had seen bigger ships sailing on Lake Michigan !

 

Flanked 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, including the New Jersey late arrivals, were in the “quarters” as the hole became filled with the mixed pungent odors of wet wool overcoats and with sweat from a lot of nervous armpits and bodies. In the center of the hold, near the ladder separating the rows of the stacked canvas racks was the area designated as the Mess Area, appropriately so named. It contained tables to stand and eat twice a day with a food preparation area adjacent, staffed by the civilian crew.

 

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.

 

Sometime 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 New York . She would be left waiting for me tonight at the cigar counter of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, as she told me later, wondering what happened to me. Although she knew I was pending overseas orders any day, neither of us had expected my sudden departure this soon and had made a date for tonight.

 

We had 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 Astoria cigar stand.

 

On what turned out to be our last date, we spent most of the evening at a piano bar called “Number One Club on Fifth Avenue ” drinking Canadian Club whiskeys where afterwards some anonymous civilian then picked up my tab; but not before we both got well oiled. We had arrived early enough to get a table before the place became packed. Being a nightspot with entertainment, a couple harmonized to sing a duet of several popular love songs from the hit play Oklahoma, including “People Will Say We’re In Love” which provided the romantic mood for us. Love was most certainly in the air.

 

She lived with her family in the Bronx on Mosholu Parkway , so in escorting her home we took the “A Train” to someplace near the Grand Concourse, as I recall. Her parents were asleep when we arrived, but her brother came home later, just as we were in our final embrace of saying goodnight, where we were then introduced. Naturally I got lost on the train(s) returning to catch my bus stop for the bus back to camp.

 

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.

 The 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 USA two years later. It was out of our control and up to a higher authority from this point forward and the fortunes of war.

 

Except 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 Camp Crowder , Missouri while others came from Fort Monmouth , New Jersey . Most of us were Field Wire Basic (MOS 641) soldiers, although we had a scattering of radio operators, radio repairmen and truck drivers. It was explained to us by the five unassigned replacement officers also on board, including one a medical officer, that we were part of a test for the Army Transportation Corps to determine if it were feasible to transport troops, in small numbers, aboard primary cargo ships combined with carrying freight. As far as the guinea pigs GIs were concerned, it was a dismal failure.

 

Painted 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 Liberty ship the George Sharswood.

 

It was 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 Liberty ships were built specifically as army transport carried 550 troops without cargo.  Its speed was a maximum 11 knots, if the screws of the single propeller remained in the water long enough, but they seldom did. The armament was six 20 mm machine guns on the bridge, two 37 mm bow guns and a 4” cannon on the stern. This ancient stern piece still bore the brass plaque on its side that said it was on loan, reclaimed from a public park in the City of Philadelphia and was manufactured in 1903. The Navy sailors on board refused to test fire it for fear it might burst the barrel!  A US Navy armed guard crew, ranging upwards from 12 men and one officer, manned the weapons. The ship contained five holds, three forward and two aft. The crew of 44 civilian Merchant Marine seamen operated the ship. On the bridge were four 25-man lifeboats, two per side. The lifeboats were designated for the crewmen only and “Off Limits” to all soldiers. The Army personnel were instructed not to use the lifeboats in the drills, but were relegated to wooden structured kapok filled life rafts. In the event we had to abandon ship, the life expectancy in those frigid waters in a life raft would have been but a few short hours due to hypothermia.

 

Our Liberty ship rocked and rolled through the swells as we headed north to rendezvous with a convoy of some forty odd other cargo ships off the Banks of Newfoundland. Our submarine protection consisted of US Navy destroyer escorts and Canadian corvettes that constantly circled our large armada of freighters. When they dropped depth charges, we hoped that it was a practice run and not the real thing. The Commodore’s ship would send signals, using semaphore flags and signal lamps keeping radio traffic to a minimum as the convoy began the 24-hour zigzag pattern for the full voyage. The rumors were that we were headed for Sicily in time for the Invasion of Italy; dreamers said we were headed for the Caribbean to enjoy the palm trees and rum and colas. The pragmatists, myself included, guessed we were headed for England to join the BIG ONE – the Invasion of France.

 

Crossing the north Atlantic in November in the rough seas even on board a cruise liner is not a pleasant experience – in a small Liberty ship, a nightmare. Off the Iceland Coast , we ran into gale-force storms with extremely heavy 30-40 foot seas. The deck cargo of high-test gasoline in 55 gallon drums broke loose becoming a danger as they slid across the decks in the heavy rains and high waves. I thought the pitching would swamp the ship as it plowed through the deep troughs between massive waves.

 

 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.

 

I spent 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 leave in Racine after finishing boot camp before attending gunnery school.

 

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.

           

The 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 Boston area; actually he came from Brighton, not far from my paternal grandfather’s home in Dedham . His name was Lawrence A. Hull; we hit it off and later became foxhole buddies as fate determined our future.

 

All portholes and doorways were covered with blackout material to avoid detection by the German submarine wolf packs that roamed the Atlantic for their prey, sending hundreds of ships and crews to their death. We were constantly made aware of the ever-present danger by drills and calls to General Quarters. You never knew if it was only a drill or the real thing, so you strictly followed orders by the number. The blackout was carefully observed by all, crew and passengers alike for our own safety. One moonless night off on the horizon we witnessed a scene as though it was a mirage. A white ship totally ablaze with lights from bow to stern was steaming westward to the USA , apparently a hospital ship carrying wounded from the recently completed Sicily Invasion. I was amazed that the German U-boat captains observed the international neutrality for the Red Cross ships.

           

We were 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, Glasgow , Scotland . So this was the “Promised Land” – we made it! The lush green hills came into sight, giving many of us a touch of homesickness after almost three weeks at sea.

 

 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.

 

Arriving 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, NY , NY , at Litchfield , England , the former home of the British North Staffordshire Regiment, once known as the Whittington Barracks. The ancient red brick buildings were a warm welcome after the long sea voyage. The next week Thanksgiving Day arrived and we were treated to the usual turkey dinner with all the trimmings in the traditional Army fare. Those who asked were given passes to visit the nearby towns, but much like Cinderella, the six hour pass ended at midnight.

 

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.

 

 December 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 village of Cucklington , outside Warminster in Somerset County west of London .

 

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.

 

Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written

permission from the author, Don R. Marsh.

All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family Trust.