Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Father's Foray into War

With my dad's death last year, an entire branch of the family history was lost, as well as a family member. That history included a foray into the worst War ever, as a young 22-year old Arkansan left for the Pacific, uncertain of ever returning.

Fortunately, when I visited Port Charlotte, FL in 2001 (just after Easter- following my talk at an Atheist Convention in Orlando) I read my dad's war diary again and he allowed me to photocopy the first few pages at the Port Charlotte Public Library - promising later that I'd be able to have the diary itself. Recently, while going back over the file with the notes of my Atheist Convention speech I also found the photocopied diary pages.

What follows are his own words from those first pages as he sailed into the unknown and participation in the Pacific theater that would endure three long years. The time span basically covers the first few months of his war experience.

January 16th, 1942I left Camp Robinson, Arkansas on a troop train. We went by way of St. Louis and Chicago. On Sunday nite, January 18, we arrived at Indiantown Gap, an Army Camp in Penn.

January 20th, 1942about 12:30 P.M. we arrived at port of embarkation in Brooklyn, N.Y. We walked from the troop train to the U.S. Army Transport, “Thomas H. Barry”. This being the first ship I had ever seen, was very large, and there were 5,000 officers, nurses, and enlisted men aboard, when we pulled anchor on the cold morning of January 23.

The “Barry” carried approximately 25 guns, and from the beginning of the trip, I felt sure that we were well protected. Ours was the first largest convoy of troop ships to cross either ocean. The first few days on the water were quite interesting and I somewhat enjoyed it. But as the days became longer, and the ocean rougher, it was a damnable experience for us all. We had only salt water for showers, and shaving, and our drinking water was rationed, one quart a day. Our food was terrible, and most generally we could expect rice and scrambled watery eggs for breakfast, and stew for supper. We were fed only twice a day.

We passed most of our time playing games, reading, and listening to lectures on what to do, if we were attacked by the enemy. One Sunday Morning many of us on deck saw one of our Navy destroyers sink an enemy submarine about three miles out from our ship. Depth charges were used. I had my first and only scare one morning after being at sea for about a fortnight. One of my buddies and I were playing Checkers on the deck – when all at once there’s a loud blast – as though the “Barry” was torpedoed! One of our lieutenants told us to get inside and tighten out life-belts. I was too afraid to speak! I heard guns on the ship firing and my only thought was “God save us!”

After what had seemed hours, but only a few minutes, we learned that our convoy was having an “attack drill”!

February 1st, 1942We sail into the Panama Canal, which is our first stop since leaving Brooklyn, eight days ago. Going through the canal and “locks” was very interesting to me. It took our ship eight hours to go through the canal. Panama, as we saw it from the Barry, looked very beautiful with the many coconut trees lining the shores. After taking on supplies, we leave the canal Feb. 2 for our destination, Australia!

Feb. 4th, 1942we crossed that famed line, commonly known as the equator! We received our equatorial rights, and were initiated into the “King Neptune Court”. Several weeks later we drop anchor at a South Sea Island, called Bora Bora. Hundreds of Natives came up to our ship in their rugged canoes, or LAKATOI’S, as they are known. Many of us Americans gave them money and toilet articles for fruits, coconuts, pineapples, etc., that we so badly wanted. We were here only six hours, to refuel.

After 35 hellish days and nights on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, we reach our destination, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on Feb. 28, 1942! We marched off the “never-to-be-forgotten” Barry, and boarded an electric train which took us to our new camp, “Royal Park”. This place is paradise! We are fed good, and we’re permitted to go into the city on the second day after arriving. Everyone is very friendly toward us “Yanks”, and they invite us to their homes, parties, dances, etc. The Australians speak English, but they have so much more “slang”, and speak faster and indistinctly. It was difficult at first to understand them, but we soon “caught on”. The Australian girls had rather be with an American, than an Australian soldier, anytime! Odd? Yes, but true. Several of the nice girls that I met asked countless questions about the United States. I admire them for their loyalty to the Australian Commonwealth and their desire to do all they can, to help win this war.
Melbourne was in a “brown-out” every nite, and as I walked down the streets after a show, I would pass young girls and boys singing “Bless ‘em all”, “I’ve Got Sixpense”, etc. From the beginning, I liked Australia very much. The winters seldom get below freezing and the summer months are December, January and February.

Among the many places of interest, I went to Coffee lounges to hear different orchestra’s, Melbourne’s famous St. Kilda Beach where thousands of people swarm and Tuna Park, where one may find rides, shows, and amusements of every kind. I visited Flinder’s Street Railroad station, the busiest in the world – and there it really isn’t safe to turn around and go back!

Our work in Melbourne wasn’t hard. Usually in the morning we would drill, or take a hike to some part of Melbourne. Sometimes we would be on a work detail at the docks (at Port Melbourne) , and we had guard duty at times. We were free about every nite to go to town, or a tent show at camp.

April 17th, 1942, our good times ended in Melbourne, the 43rd Engineers were separated and we’re to go to nearer to “the front”. We, of Co. E, are put on a large freighter, and as I write this now, it’s my understanding that we are to go New Guinea. Our first stop is to be Brisbane. We have a better “set up” here than we had on the “Barry”. Our meals are very good and we have plenty of good water. It should not take over another week to reach Brisbane.

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