On the high seas


Lee McCollum

We Sail For France

WHEN we landed at Camp Mills we thought that all we had to do was to lay around and take it easy while we waited for sailing orders. We got fooled because the first morning after we had finished breakfast our sergeant came up to us and said, "Come on suckers, you're on my detail. Follow me." We followed and found ourselves headed for the depot, where we were put to work unloading the box cars which were standing on the sidetrack. We carried everything from heavy sacks of beans and sides of meat to barrels of nails. We learned about the work part of the army, and we slaved at it during the remaining three day stay there.

It was one of the hottest days on record when we marched from Camp Mills to the trains that were to take us to the docks. To help it along, those of us who had joined up in the Pacific Northwest still wore heavy woolen uniforms. The army had been too busy to change them for lighter material more in keeping with the change in climate.

Each man rolled his blankets up in a long thin roll. Then he put them over the top and the sides of an already overloaded pack. There was no place left to put our overcoats. So we put them on our backs! Tie that one if you can. With the thermometer at 90 in the shade.

After leaving the trains we were loaded on big ferry boats that took us to Hoboken. There we got our first glimpse of the ship that was to take us to France.

After three hours of weary waiting we finally went up the gang plank of our boat, the good ship Nestor. She had been in service for years as a meat freighter between Australia and England. John Bull must have forgotten to clean it before he let Uncle Sam use it for a transport. It reeked to high heaven of year-old smells of sheep. Chicago's packing house district was sweet essence of lilac in comparison.

Our platoon was assigned to bunk in the lowest part of the hold of the ship. When we reached there we were all in. We peeled off our overcoats, and about everything else. The sweat was running off of us in rivelets. But what a relief to be sitting down again! That night we laid on the deck of the boat without a stitch on, gasping for air in that heat-laden atmosphere, and praying that we would soon be towed out to sea.

Sometime in the middle of the night we felt a cool breeze blowing. We were moving at last. Then we dozed off and slept. We awakened early next morning to find ourselves far from sight of land. Looking about us we found that our ship was one of some six or eight in the convoy. Each ship was heavily camouflaged with a bewildering array of zig-zag designs painted on its sides. The convoy was flanked on either side by two U.S. Navy destroyers. At the head of the fleet one of Uncle Sam's battleships majestically led the way. It was a comforting sight.

For two days the battleship and destroyers stayed with us. Then, sometime during the night, they left.

That was the time the doughboys began to appreciate the Navy. Gone was the sense of safety brought by those heavily-armored fighting ships. Instead we were filled with fear of the sea and the submarines. Then and there was born the profound respect we hold for the boys in blue who man the Navy ships.


The Navy took us over and the Navy brought us back,

Two million doughboys more or less were saved from sub's attack;

The transports leaving U.S.A.,
would have been but few,

Without that span of navy boys, without their courage true.

The papers told of battles of doughboys deep in France,

But seldom of the Navy
that patrolled the seas of chance;

Never a word of endless nights that kept us safe from harm,

How Navy by its ceaseless work was Army's strong right arm.

The eyes of the nation seemed to be on uniforms of brown,

There was much of hero worship when the soldiers came to town;

He was praised in every army camp or when on a dress parade,

Few ever saw the Navy work, or knew of what 'twas made.

The Navy took us over, a dangerous job done well,

The Navy shared war's dangers as it ploughed each ocean swell;

The Navy was the guardian of plain doughboys like me,

It was the Nation's "Seeing Eye," that kept us safe at sea.

WELL, we soldier boys don't envy the sailors any more. We are three days out from shore now and already the list of sea-sick passengers on our troop transport is a long one. Our quartet hasn't been able to peep a note up till now.

The name Nestor, which someone gave to this tub we are sailing on in about the year one, is the right name. It is a nestor, all right. A nestor of all the rotten smells my blunt and not too sensitive nose has ever had the privilege of sniffing. To help it along, the hammocks where we sleep are placed in two rows, one on top of the other. The top row bumps the ceiling, and the man sleeping in the hammock below is bumped by the body of the man in the top row. Half the night you find yourself either on the floor or on the way there. It takes a chimpanzee with an extra strong pair of hands to hang in one of these canvas bags that are called "hammocks."

The port holes are kept closed for fear of showing any light for enemy subs to shoot at. So there we were, stewing in our own sweat. Between the odor, the heat, and the lack of air, it was impossible to sleep. To get relief some of us would gang up in the latrine and swap yarns. At that it was about the cleanest place on the ship. If we popped our heads out of the hatch to get a breath of air, some sailor with a cockney accent would shove us back and say, "Blymme ... why'nt you beggars ever stand 'itched?"

The food they served us was something to forget-. Yet it still sticks in my memory. I've knocked around some in my time and been in some pretty tough holes, and have seen food of all kinds, but the very worst of it was a chef's delight compared to what was rationed out to us on the Nestor. Bad as it was, the portions were less than half what they should be for a man on land, much less one at sea, where appetites increase.

Breakfast and dinner were our heartiest meals. In order to obtain food we were given ration tickets. Then two or three men were appointed for ration detail from each table. These tables seated fourteen to eighteen men. They would take the tickets and stand in line for hours before they could cash them in at the food commissary. There they would receive a certain amount of bread, sugar, tea, or whatever the slip called for. We were fed mutton, mutton, and then more mutton for dinner. The meat was old and strong, and tasted the same, as the ship smelled.

For supper the usual meal was a piece of cheese about the size of a dollar for each man and some crackers with plenty of pink tea. Tea that was really pink, and sickly to smell and taste. Finally complaints were made to our major and he raised billy hell with the captain of the ship. After that the food was a little better. But very little.

Every day we would have three or four life boat drills. Clang! . . . would go the bell, and we would make a dive for our life-saving belts, get them around our necks and start tying them as we ran quickly to our assigned stations, close to where small boats swung from their davits. This was to insure our own safety in case we were attacked by submarines, of which there was an ever constant menace.

One thing happened during the trip that compensated for some of the more unpleasant parts of it. The lieutenant in charge of our platoon was very military and precise. He was tied up heart and soul in his I.D.R. book. That was the blue book of Infantry Drill Regulations, and this lieutenant knew it backward and forward from cover to cover. Before entering the army via the route of National Guards, he had been an all-star football player on one of the California college teams. He was always rushing about as though he were still carrying the ball.

At the time this incident happened we were far north in the Atlantic, where it was a common thing to see icebergs. We had just come through the tail end of a bad storm. Due to the roughness of the sea some pretty sick boys answered the bell for life drill. Then this military-conscious lieutenant would force us to stand at attention for a minute or two, with the boat rolling, pitching, and swapping ends. Immediately the sickest of the boys would have to make for the rail and "heave Jonah."

During this procedure our lieutenant would look on in a bored and disdainful way, and start telling them to "brace up and be men." On this occasion he had just started to go through his performance when we noticed that green look coming around his gills. He started gulping a little and tried to stick it out. But it was no go, and he headed for the rail. As he hit the rail he took off his hat and heaved.

Some unfortunate soldier on the deck directly above him also hit the rail at the same time. Sad to relate, the lieutenant was on the receiving end of whatever the poor sufferer on the deck above had to give. To the tune of our hearty guffaws he dolefully turned over his command to one of his sergeants. We were beginning to feel that war had its compensations.

When we were one day out of Liverpool our convoy was met by two destroyers of the U.S. Navy. Fear of the subs parted with this thrilling sight, and confidence again swelled in our breasts. Overhead was an English "blimp," shaped like a great cigar wrapped in silver-hued tin foil, following our convoy for miles. As we drew closer to our destination, we saw the dim outline of Ireland on the right, and later, Scotland on our left. We could see the misty clouds hanging close to their hills and mountains, bringing thoughts of home to us Pacific Coast boys. Late that night the boat docked at Liverpool.


ARRIVING at Liverpool, we wobbled down the gang planks on the "sea legs" we had acquired during our thirteen-day trip across the Atlantic. With overloaded packs on our backs, we formed a ragged line of marching men, as we went up the cobblestone streets, hundreds of years old, to the trains waiting to take us across England.

"Were we all eyes?" I'll tell the world we were!

Now we were getting our first glimpse of a foreign country. As we passed the aged, dingy little buildings along the waterfront, and the quaint "pubs" that lay enroute to the station, I'll bet our eyes were as big as apples.

The impressions were fleeting, but lasting. Narrow streets, funny looking little trams instead of street cars, ragged civilians near the boat, two wizened old women selling dried up oranges. Some English soldiers standing on the sidewalks, watching us go by. Some of them shouting, "Glad to see you, Yank!" Then before we knew it we were at the railway station.

Here we got a real surprise as we loaded into the continental trains, with their odd little individual compartments holding eight people each. Though we were exhausted and weak from the effects of the food on the Nestor, we nevertheless all felt like kings as we looked out of our own little compartments when the train pulled out of the station at a high speed, leaving the outskirts of the famous port of Liverpool behind us.

The trip across England was an "Alice in Wonderland" adventure to all of us. The factory districts and towns of Manchester and Leeds, with their continuous blocks on blocks of red brick houses, was something new to us. The monotony was broken only by street separations. The farming country of England and its quiet and orderly villages left a lasting impression. There were so many shades of green; the farms were so small; separated by well-planned and trimmed hedges; they brought forth many "ah's" of admiration from us American soldiers, who knew only the wide, sweeping farms of the West.

Arriving late that night at Winchester, one of the famous old cities of England, we unloaded from the trains, and after a brief rest started up the old Roman road built by Caesar in his invasion of Britain in the year 54 B.C. Soon we arrived at Camp Winanal Downs. This was a large English army camp, and there we were well fed, and rested for three days before leaving for France.

We were given a one day furlough and visited the ancient and historically interesting sights in Winchester such as the old church that had stood for hundreds of years and is of world-wide fame. A British Tommy, who was convalescing from wounds received in France, offered to show several of us around. Three of us went with him and we hired a horse and cart and spent most of the day riding around in the small villages and farming area close to the camp. Here we saw thatched houses as old as the early history of England itself, and many quaint pubs or taverns, from which hung the swinging brass signs, telling the name of each pub, such as "The House of the Lion," etc. These we visited and tasted of the ale, which was bitter and not to our liking. At the end of the day we returned to camp and bid our new made soldier friend goodbye. We offered to pay him for his courtesy, but he would not have it that way, and said he had had more fun that day than in any day in years.

After our short rest at the English camp we were again bound for the front. This time our destination was Southampton, but a short distance away. Here we were to embark on the final stretch of our last and most dangerous sea-going trip. We were to cross the English Channel to land at Le Havre, France.

At Southampton we embarked on an American ship named the "Harvard," by coincidence a ship that once I had ridden when it had traveled American waters. It was good to see American sailors again. After the trip across the Atlantic under guidance of the "Limejuicers" -the English Transports-the sight of our own American sailors was a welcome one.

The trip to France was a short one, and the crossing was made over night. Our boat was so crowded that there was little space in which to lie down and rest. Most of us sat up and exchanged news of home, and wondered what France would be like. We passed a ship enroute, with a great Red Cross on its side in electric lights . . . that was quite a sight to us, and we

learned that it was a hospital boat bringing home wounded soldiers.

This gave us something to think about, for now, as we were nearing the end of our journey, we were learning for the first time the more serious side of war. Then, with dawn, our transport landed at the port of Le Havre, and soon we were to set our feet on French soil.
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