©2014 John M. Khoury
Voyage to Europe
At mealtime, we took our turn going down to the dining room, which still had some of the fine wood paneling and ceiling fixtures of the passenger liner that she was before she became a troop ship. The wide elegant stairway led to a chow line where we filled our mess kits with inelegant army food and our canteen cups with tepid coffee. The most unappetizing meal for me was breakfast and the nauseating smell of hard-boiled eggs. Fortunately, we did not have that every morning.
One day, I was assigned to serve on the chow line, and my offering was rutabagas. As I stood there with serving spoon in hand ready to slop a helping into the oncoming line of mess kits, I was asked, "What is that?"
ARutabagas," I replied.
The reaction was usually a wrinkled nose and a "No, thanks."
This happened with every other soldier, who invariably withdrew his mess kit and walked on. While other pots on the chow line were being emptied and refilled, I still had more than half of my first pot of rutabagas. Then along came a soldier who asked, "Are those sweet potatoes?" Well, they did look like sweet potatoes and, since I wanted to get rid of them, I lied and said, "Yeah! Sweet potatoes!" From then on, every mess kit was filled with "sweet potatoes." Shortly afterward, I was roundly cursed by numerous diners who hated rutabagas. However, one soldier came back to tell me that he loved rutabagas and wanted seconds. He scolded me for lying, but as a soldier, I had a mission to get rid of the rutabagas.
Every day, we had to wash in salt water with sudsless soap and shave in the same way. The toilets and the shower stalls were very small, so that it was in and out very quickly. I never felt clean after a salt water shower. My body, my hair, and my face felt clammy like I had just been swimming in the ocean. With so many soldiers on board who had to shower, shave and use the latrines, not a moment was wasted in the latrines.
During the first few days of the voyage, I lost almost all my money, about $10, playing seven-card stud poker. That was the most popular game. The loss did not matter because there was no place to spend the money and the Army took care of all my simple needs. I often wondered what the winners did with the hundreds of dollars they won.
To pass the leisure time during the rest of the voyage, Redbird and I started playing bridge as partners. We were a good team and won most of the time. There was always a crowd of hecklers around because Redbird kept everyone laughing. We would forget for a while that we were not on a pleasure cruise.
It was awesome to look out over the vastness of the ocean and the sky during the day. The gray seas, so deep, reached from horizon to horizon under cool blue skies that hid behind pillows of floating white clouds. We were so small and insignificant - this whole convoy of hundreds of ships that was a powerful military force on its way to war.
Nights on deck were beautiful as we looked out on the ocean. The cool, brisk, October sea air was refreshing. There were no lights on any ship, and the blackness of the night amplified the lights of heaven. The moonlight glistened on the white-capped rolling sea. Wavelets spoke to us at a conversational pitch. As the ship cut through the water smoothly, the engines hummed below and the world seemed to be at peace all around us.
Suddenly, after several days at sea, a tremendous North Atlantic storm overtook us during the night. We were buffeted with torrents of rain and mountainous waves that swept over the entire ship. Where we once were looking down at the water, we now saw huge waves twenty feet above us as this great ship was driven down into a valley of the sea. The bow dove into a wall of foam and pitched up through the far side to be pounded again by another and another furious avalanche of water. The ship pitched and rolled helplessly in submission to the power of the storm, and she shuddered each time the propeller tilted out of the water. The vast array of ships in the convoy seemed to be converted into scattered pieces of flotsam tossed about among the waves. In L Company, we stayed awake on A deck, in the soaking rain and waves, hanging onto the railings, amazed by the fury of the storm.
When dawn came and calm returned, we were told that the storm was one of the worst the crew had ever seen. During the night, our ship miraculously avoided a collision with another ship that was nearby. Yet the storm seriously damaged our steering mechanism. While repairs were being made, we were idled with Navy ships patrolling the sea around us. The damaged rudder controls were repaired in a short time, and it was then onward, eastward, to our destination.
All was now peaceful again on board ship until we neared land. The gun crews for the 20mm anti-aircraft guns were on constant alert and prepared for the possibility of an air attack. Around the convoy, the Navy escort ships were very busy patrolling for any sign of enemy U-boats. We were almost unconcerned that anything unexpected was going to happen. The seas had been mostly cleared of German pocket battleships and submarines that had sunk hundreds of ships in the previous two years. The Allied navies had won the battle of the Atlantic in the recent past and sinkings had become very rare.
(If you would like to order an autographed copy of "Love Company," please contact the author, John M. Khoury)