In observance of Memorial Day, here is one of the 500 letters my father wrote to my mother during their three and a half year of separation during World War II. The first year he was in officer training at New York University. Not yet married, they saw each other once during that time, and talked on the phone twice. The next time they were together was the day before their wedding when he was stationed in Texas. They had six weeks together, then, before he went overseas—a deployment he hadn’t thought was going to happen.
On the troop ship, he wrote her three letters about his experience crossing the Atlantic, to be kept until the war was over and censorship was lifted. Here is the first.
Journal from the troop ship to Europe
March 10, 1944
Stellajoe dearest —
This will be the first of my “uncensored” letters. Being uncensored they will also be unmailed. I hope it will be sort of a diary to record the many interesting things that are taking place but can’t be written to you. Maybe they’ll be interesting when you get to read them. Then again, perhaps they won’t.
We left Camp Kilmer at 7:15 Wednesday morning, March 8. It was daylight when we left, but we had eaten and loaded under a bright moon – the earliest we’d been up since we arrived at the staging area.
Our outfit had been alerted the previous morning. That cheated me out of calling you Tuesday night as I had planned. No doubt you had already guessed that there were times when I couldn’t phone you. That’s when the camp was alerted. But when we were alerted quite a change came over the fellows in the barracks. There was an immediate packing frenzy accompanied by much laughing and joking. The most inanely obvious joke being that this didn’t look like a “dry run” any more – we’re actually going overseas. Also there was more singing than ever before. This is what we’ve been waiting for. No one backs out now – naturally – but what is more remarkable perhaps is that no one wants to.
Our party of 30 officers had been detailed as an advance guard to board the ship a day early and be the loading officers for the main party arriving the following day. I was in charge. I didn’t volunteer – would have been better satisfied to have been forgotten. It did get me the advantage of riding in the driver’s seat of the truck however.
We were fairly well burdened, what with heavy coats, a small pack, our carbines, canteen, knives and hand luggage, to say nothing of the heavy four buckle arctics on our feet.
The convoy headed for Staten Island and we disembarked at a pier in the lower Hudson and immediately boarded the ferry that was to take us to our boat. It was a pleasant ride up the Hudson past the Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island, Ellis Island, Manhattan, and what was most heartbreaking, right past the Queen Elizabeth. We all hoped to dock there and board her, but it did no good. We went right to the pier at the foot of 59th Street.
We docked at 1100 and immediately boarded the HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) Moreton Bay.
It didn’t take long to find out that we were on an English owned and operated ship. It had originally been on the England-Australia runs carrying, largely, frozen meats. The name comes from an Australian bay. We were shown to our quarters. Our chins dropped, or rather our mouths fell open. We were to live in state rooms on the top deck – luxurious quarters compared to what we had been led to believe was in store for us.
There are six fellows in our stateroom in three double beds. There are rugs on the floor, a wash basin, locker and drawer space. Certainly as clean and comfortable living as I’ve had since I’ve been in the army, with the exception of the all too few happy weeks I spent with my wife.
We ate at 1300 – the officers’ mess. A very scrumptious six-course dinner served in the best English fashion at tables with table cloths and much more silverware than I knew what to do with.
After dinner we whiled away most of the afternoon in the officer’s lounge. That is an exceptionally fine place on the top deck just above our staterooms. Card tables, big soft chairs, small library, piano – almost everything. No nurses, though. Seem to have left them behind at [Camp] Kilmer.
Yesterday the main body came aboard. They were greeted by a band and Red Cross workers passing out coffee, doughnuts, and candy. Something we missed by boarding early.
At the gang plank, each man gave his name, it was checked off a list and he was assigned to a compartment – a made-over hold in the case of enlisted men. The loading officers were in their assigned compartments, received the men as they arrived, and showed them to the rear. By the time we had 100 men in our little 2 by 4 compartments with all their luggage and equipment, you would have sworn there was not room for another. Yet we got 146 more – 240 all told. They’re really traveling steerage. More about that later.
This morning the ship started blowing for its tugs, and at 9:05 on the 10th of March we were away – actually out into the river and headed overseas. About 10:30 we went through the “gates.” The sub net guarding the entrance to the harbor was opened for us and we were drawing overseas pay. For officers we got a 10% increase – $15 more per month for me. Enlisted men’s pay jumped 20%. Now we’re sure it’s not a dry run! They aren’t fooling this time!
Soon we were out on deck, having been kept inside during the trip out of the harbor. This is the first time I’ve ever been out of sight of land. My first time aboard an ocean-going vessel. Boy, we’re all eyes, all ears. What will no doubt be boring as hell in a week, is now intensely interesting.
In the afternoon, we began to see the convoy form. There’s an aircraft carrier aft off the port side. Figure that out landlubber! We can count some 25 ships now. Mostly tankers, and it looks like all of them have airplanes for deck cargo. A navy blimp – two of them in fact – are constantly circling overhead. There are at least six destroyers out on the fringes of the convoy. There’s a very perceptible feeling of safety. We can hardly take seriously the boat drills that we’re going to practice daily and oftener.
It’s almost supper time – “tea time.” This brings me up to date on what’s happened so far. I’ll try to add to it soon and tell you some of the details, and maybe something of our impressions and thoughts. Wish I was an author now. There’s such a lot to record!
(Editor’s note: Letter #2 includes a frightening incident at sea. Here is the letter I posted last Memorial Day, written at the end of the war. )
5 thoughts on “Memorial Day: Journal from a WWII Troop Ship”
I really love how he recognized the significance of what was happening and wanted to document it so thoroughly and thoughtfully. Looking forward to seeing more. He wrote beautifully. I’m sure he would be proud of your lovely sharing of the times. You are your father’s daughter in the way you craft a story.
Thank you. I always new he was a good writer, but I only ever knew him to write technical stuff related to his profession, and scathing letters to editors, particularly Time Magazine where he was well known in the editorial department. Reading these letters was a real eye opener. I would love to publish them someday. Sigh, so many projects, so little time.
Oh Gretchen, I cannot thank you enough for sharing his letter! I am transported thru time and space. Just imagining what is described is splendid indeed.
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It was nice to read it again. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Fascinating…looking forward to the next!
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