©2009 John M. Khoury
U.S.A.T. George Washington
At the end of September 1944 when we shipped out from Fort Bragg to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, the port of embarkation, we were the last rifle company to arrive. The place seemed to be in a constant state of activity and disorder. Our equipment was checked and we were given last minute physical examinations.
While we were waiting for orders to move out, one-day passes were issued. I took a pass for a bus to New York City. When I arrived, I rode the subway from New York to Brooklyn to see my family and visit the old neighborhood. Later, I went back to the city and strolled around Times Square, which was crowded with soldiers and sailors. Wartime did not diminish the tempo of the area even though the bright lights were out. I had a few beers, and picked up a girl at the USO for company. She was from Hell's Kitchen, around Tenth Avenue in the West 40s -- just one of the many girls who came there to meet servicemen. When I left, I gave her my APO address because she insisted she wanted to write to me, and then I boarded one of the last buses back to Camp Kilmer.
Early in the morning of 6 October 1944, we moved out in a motorized convoy from Camp Kilmer through the Lincoln Tunnel to Pier 72 at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue in New York City. We dismounted and assembled on the pier with our weapons and duffel bags. We could see our ship, the U.S.A.T. George Washington, which was the Army's largest troop transport. She was a passenger liner built in Germany in 1909 for the North German Lloyd Line. She was interned at New York in 1914 and seized by the United States Government in April 1917 and converted to a troopship. After World War I, she carried President Woodrow Wilson and his staff to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference. After several ownerships she served as a U.S.Lines passenger ship until 1932, when she was laid up and taken out of service. After she was refitted in 1942 with the removal of one funnel and her boilers were converted to oil-firing from coal, she reentered service to the U.S. Army in April l943. She was readied for war, again, so that we could follow where others had gone before us, a generation ago.
Red Cross girls were handing out coffee and doughnuts as we waited to board the ship. Though I did not like those lead sinkers, I took a doughnut, because it seemed to make the girls feel they were helping the war effort.
The L Company Morning Report of that day shows: Pvt. Frank W. Pszeniczny Trfd to NYPE Cas Det Cp Kilmer; Pvt. Dominick A. DeAngelo was moved Fr Conf in Qtrs to dy; 186 EM and 6 Off left US for Foreign Service fr NYPE on 6 Oct 44 at 0920.
It was early that morning when the tugs towed the George Washington out into the middle of the Hudson River, cast off our lines, and the ship started our voyage to war. As I stood at the starboard rail looking at New Jersey, standing at the rail with me were Redbird and Mo. The Redbird was Pfc. John W. Howe, Jr., a very young soldier, about 18 years old, who was always happy and friendly. Neither rain, nor heat, nor Army chow nor any hardships dimmed his exuberance. He was the opposite of a griper and he was fun to be with. He called everyone "Old Buddy." Because of his bright red hair and his bird-like disposition, he was called "Redbird."
Mo was really Cpl. Stanley T. Cardozo, who was about 25 years old and had been transferred from an anti-aircraft unit in the Aleutian Islands. He was from Modesto, California and had a calm, easygoing disposition. Nothing seemed to bother him. He had a ready smile especially when we teased him about his not rushing to the mess hall, the movies, or any company formation. Originally, he was called Moping Mo, but later it was just Mo.
We were watching the sights along the river, when suddenly, Redbird started to shout excitedly, "Look! There's my house! I can see my house!" He pointed toward a cluster of houses on the New Jersey Palisades and said, That's Weehawken and you can see my house there!"
Because we had been wondering about our future destination, I turned and asked him, "Since you are so close to home, what are you doing on this ship?" He laughed and said. "If I didn't think I was coming back, they would never get me on this ship."
I turned to Mo and asked him, "What do you think about coming back?" With a half smile, he shook his head and said, "I don't expect to come back. I think this is a one-way trip for me." Old Mo was as calm as usual when he said that.
When they asked me, I thought about it and said, "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to do the best I can to make it back."
As the last rifle company to board, we learned that the lower decks were full and every bunk was taken. On this occasion, we did better than usual because we were assigned to A deck, which became our company compound. We bivouacked outdoors on the deck in our heavy winter uniforms through cold weather, rain, and storms, and slept on the deck in our sleeping bags. Below decks, the other soldiers were cramped in bunks, stacked four high, like shelves, with just inches of clearance between bodies. The worst part was the foul air from the closeness. Later the smell of vomit from sick men was overpowering. It was great to be topside where hardly anyone got seasick, but if a man did get seasick he just heaved over the side.
This was my first ocean voyage, as it was for most of the men. The sea air in the North Atlantic in October was cold and brisk, and the ocean was vast with white-capped waves all around. The convoy was made up of dozens of ships of all sizes with our ship, the George Washington, the largest. Ships were spread out from horizon to horizon with U.S. Navy ships guarding the convoy. There were cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, and corvettes on the watch for enemy submarines. They did not look very formidable because they were so much smaller than our ship, but they were floating arsenals.
The serious part of the trip consisted of lifeboat drill and air raid drill. The ship was equipped with 20mm anti-aircraft guns manned by the ship's gun crews. We had to clean our rifles every day because of the salt air. I had a bolt-action, five-round, 1903 Springfield with a telescopic sight, which was the army's most accurate rifle. Most of the other riflemen had the new M1 Garand rifles that could fire eight rounds semiautomatically.
As I cleaned my rifle, I thought back to my start in the Army, which began when I joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) because its program promised me the completion of my college education before I would be called to active duty. I enlisted on 22 October 1942, and after just six and a half months, I was called to active duty. Final examinations at Columbia University were advanced two weeks so that students could complete their term before leaving for military service. I had just finished my sophomore year.
On 8 May 1943, I said "Good-bye" to civilian life. My father and my uncle went with me to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan to see me off. This was very unusual because they had never seemed too interested in what I was doing before. They both went out of their way to make this special trip because they were very concerned about me. I did not have any particular cares because at 19 nothing in life could faze me. But they were much more mature and knew that I was headed into an uncertain world from which soldiers don=t always come home to their families.
I boarded the Long Island Railroad train and waved to those aging men who smiled back bravely at me. Perhaps, they were also thinking of their younger brother who had served in the U.S. Navy 26 years earlier and came back from World War I with a sickness that changed his entire life. Now the oldest son had been called to war. Would he be killed or wounded? What would become of him? Their parting words to me were, "May God go with you."
(If you would like to order an autographed copy of "Love Company," please contact the author, John M. Khoury)