Memorial Day: Crisis! Journal from a WWII Troop Ship (part 2)

Number two of three letters written by my father upon deployment to Europe, and mailed after the war ended and censorship was lifted. (Go here for Part 1)


Journal from the troop ship to Europe
March 28, 1944

Dearest –

It’s been quite a while getting around to continuing this. Perhaps the time interval will help to segregate that which is worth recording.

Life on the ship went along pretty much routine. There was a boat drill every morning. I was a “muster warden” at boat #6A, which was to take 54 men in case of emergency. I was to be the last man in what would have been one of the last boats to be launched. A sobering thought!

As officers, we profited greatly by being on an English ship, while the enlisted men were the losers. Distinction between officers and men is very much greater in the British army than in ours. Hence we slept in staterooms with stewards to make our beds and keep the place clean, while the EMs were crowded (and I do mean crowded) into the holds of the ship, sleeping in hammocks so thick that you couldn’t walk around when they were slung, and on top of tables and under tables, and anywhere there was 12 square feet of space. We ate like kings in the officers’ mess while the EM ate poor (maybe even lousy) rations in the holds. We spent our time in the luxurious officers’ lounge while the EMs spend their time on the deck or in stuffy holds. The weather was fine, however, and we weren’t too awful sorry when we came to learn what a very poor quality of troops were in our ship. So poor that a favorite joke was that three Nazi subs escorted us into the harbor feeling that the Allied cause would be harmed more if the troops were allowed to snafu the works. What they will do with these fellows here is more than I know. No doubt they can’t be given much – any – responsibility.

The HMT Moreton Bay is the sister ship to the Jarvis [sic] Bay ship, which distinguished itself in action against a German raider – the details of which are unknown to me. It is a ship of 14,193 tons and 531 feet long. In peace times it carried 542 passengers in addition to its cargo, and a crew of 203. Now it’s taking about 2000 troops across the Atlantic.

Our convoy consisted of 23 ships including the carrier, but excluding the six destroyer escorts. Another troop ship joined us after we’d been at sea for some days. Otherwise, it was made up almost exclusively of tanks, as I said before. We had air cover every day except for a couple when we must have been in the middle of the Atlantic. There was continual argument as to whether the planes were B-24s or flying boats. I held out for the Liberator. The planes would circle the convoy continuously for several hours each day, presumably keeping lookout for subs.

March 18 brought the first – and the only – bad day of the trip. It was foggy – we could barely see the outside of ships in the convoy. The ceiling was low and occasionally it drizzled lightly. With such a day there can be no air cover. On such a day hunting – for the subs – would be excellent. One was hunting. And it found us. It must have been by the sheerest of good luck. At 1016 the tender, which was on the outside of the convoy and two ships away from us, was torpedoed. Those lucky enough to be on deck at the time (I was engrossed in a book in deference to the miserable weather) saw a sheet of flame spring from the bow of the tender. The bow went under water, the ship swung crosswise to our course and fell back and was soon lost in the fog. One of the destroyer escorts was with it.

One long ring on the alarm bell sent us to our boat stations. It was so close to our practice hour that a good many didn’t even realize it was the real thing and not the daily drill. But that news spread faster than the proverbial wild fire and soon we were dealing with a very sober bunch of men.

My thoughts? Well, after the first few minutes I still felt as safe as ever. After all, we’re smack in the center of the convoy. Six destroyers around us. Our boat was exceptionally heavily armed. Still, by some miracle, the torpedo could’ve gotten to us, I suppose. But you can’t afford to be upset by probable danger, let alone by the highly improbable.
So after the boat drill (not really a drill – it was the real thing) I went back to the stateroom and my book. After all, in this chapter Captain Hornblower of his Majesty’s Navy was catching hell from Spanish Man-o-War back in the the early 1800s. I suppose the men were held at their boat stations for a half hour. It wasn’t long afterward that all the officers were requested to go on deck and talk to the men, as they were much excited.
I found them so. Rumors – man how they spread. The sub was sunk, its crew captured and now held prisoner on the destroyer. Also the torpedo had been directed at us and we had been extremely lucky to have evaded it. How that one started, I’ll never know!

Anyway, I was talking to a group trying to spread a bit of common sense and smoking a cigarette. One of the fellows said, “Lieutenant, what brand do you smoke?” If they make you that steady, I’m going to change to them.” Well, that was a hot one! Imagine me, if you can – I can’t – being an example of calmness or an inspiration to a frightened bunch of men at a time like this. Sort of put a new slant on it.

We never heard anything but rumors about what actually happened. But fairly well confirmed reports indicated that the sub had been detected by a destroyer, but that it arrived just too late to prevent it from loosing its torpedo. It did, however, sink the sub and also shell the tender till it sunk. That seemed to be borne out by the fact that there were no more attacks – quite unlike the usual U-boat tactics where the sub continues to follow the convoy. The ships crew (deck hands and steward, at least) had expected further attacks that night. The next day we followed a straight course – none of the zig-zag tactics that we had been pursuing for two or three days (not at the time of the torpedoing, though, strangely enough). That was another indication that there was no enemy craft in the vicinity.

The next day things settled back to nearly normal. We didn’t have any more horseplay on boat drills however. The men were properly impressed. They reported at their boat stations post haste. Another deviation from the normal was that we really had something to talk about now.

Love, George


 

Image result for jervis bay ship images

The Jervis Bay, sister ship to the Moreton Bay; stock photo

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My father’s photos, though I don’t know if they were taken on the way to England or on the way home. Their uniforms look newly starched though!

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