(Whereas travel by cruise ship is common enough today, travel by troop ship is not. One of those involuntary GI passengers from Word War II, Carl Dannemann of Houston, has been kind enough to put down some remembrances of his transatlantic shuttling during hostilities.)by Carl Dannemann
After a month in "limbo" at Pennsylvania's Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot (not a cheerful name for a holding camp prior to overseas shipment!), there followed a week at the Staging Area of Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts. There we were really ready for our three-day pass to New York City (the
last time free in civilization before who knew how long).
The time was July, 1943 and the
new musical Oklahoma! had just opened on Broadway. I don't think I've never known three days to go by so quickly and on the morning of the 16th, we were toting our duffle bags onto the train to Staten Island. There, on an old wooden pier, were the familiar and welcome Red Cross "Gray Ladies" with coffee and doughnuts before we had to get our sea legs and clamber up the gangway. As a ship buff since childhood, the first thing I wanted to know was what vessel was this that hopefully would get me safely to the other side, wherever that might be exactly. I soon found out we were on board the Army Transport Ship Edmund B. Alexander-ex-Amerika, a 1905 passenger ship built for the Hamburg American Line, interned at Boston in 1914 and converted to an American troopship in 1917.
Just outside the harbor could be seen, in the fading light, the outlines of several other ships gathering to join the convoy. A tug started pulling the old Alexander away from the dock and I tried to imagine the different places we might be headed for: Would it be North Africa? England? Or maybe some remote, little-known island?
The first few days were uneventful, with good weather prevailing. It was interesting to watch the zig-zagging of the dozen or so ships in slow unison. Meanwhile, we settled down to the long boring days at sea (no movies or dancing girls here!); with a passenger-load of 5,000 men on a 20,000-ton ship, there was precious little open space anywhere. Half of us were assigned to the three-tiered bunks below for use at night (I was one of the luckier ones in this group) and the other half had the bunks during the day. This meant they had to spend the dark night hours on the open decks and no smoking was allowed because a total blackout was observed. By now, several groups of craps-shooters were active wherever a bit of space could be found, accompanied by excited shouting. Others tried to find a quiet corner to read a paperback.
But on the fifth or sixth day, the picture changed drastically. We had entered a low pressure area with very high winds and 20-foot waves. For me, it was a wonderful difference from the previous boring days because our ship was really bouncing now and, coming from a seafaring family, I enjoy a good mid-Atlantic storm for a day or so, especially without stabilizers.
Unfortunately for some of my colleagues, however, their reaction to this kind of weather was quite the opposite. I remember one young man (from the Midwest, who had never even seen an ocean before) so miserable with the dry heaves that he was groaning and writhing about on deck. I was sure that had he been able to get to the rail, he would have tried to throw himself overboard--anything to stop that awful sickness. I really felt sorry for him.
That night at dinner at the stand-up tables, after having had to wait in a seemingly endless chow line in the stuffy mess hall, another fellow brought his tray and stood across the table from me. Then, as he looked at the food, his face turned pale and, without taking a bite, he grabbed the tray and ran to the GI can in the corner, threw the whole thing into the can and vomited on top of it. I felt sorry for him too, and gave him credit for doing the best he could under the circumstances. The worst, though, was that so many were sick that as the day wore on, there was no longer any place left for them to be sick in. What a mess! And the crew couldn't keep up with the clean-up work. It was then that I thought perhaps I shouldn't have enjoyed the storm after all...
Fortunately, the rest of the voyage was calm. On the tenth day out of New York, we found ourselves moving up the River Mersey under a sky full of barrage balloons. What a relief and a joy to know that we were
in Liverpool--really lucky. But our hopes of a night on the town, after all those days of privation, were dashed when it was announced that we were to remain on board to await further orders the next day.
Early the following morning, the orders came: We were to collect our gear and disembark in several different groups as called. I was in a group of some 500 and we were led along the docks for about a mile until we came to two other ships. It was then that I realized that England was not for us after all. What a disappointment! Now where were we headed?
Back to the West
The group was evenly divided between the two vessels. I was in the half put on board Cunard's Samaria and the other half went on board Canadian Pacific's Empress of Australia. Unlike the United States, the British did not change the name of their merchant ships when used in war service.
By mid-afternoon, both ships were moving downriver and, when we reached open water, a Royal Navy corvette joined us. It was about this time that we learned that we were en route for Iceland and that U-boats were known to be active in the area; hence the naval escort (not very encouraging news).
Although a submarine was rumored to have been sighted--if indeed there was one--it must have been chased off by the corvette because we had no problem, thank goodness. In fact, this was a relatively pleasant trip; the weather was good and, with only 300 souls on board, there was plenty of space. Limey Shipboard
However, there were two notable differences from the American troopships: First, they used hammocks for sleeping and second, Britain's wartime food shortages were evident. The average lunch, for example., consisted of two pieces of bread with two slices of baloney (or similar meat loaf), coffee, and one apple per person. On the other hand, the evening meal was quite adequate: boiled beef or roast mutton, with potatoes, Brussels sprouts, tea and Jello for dessert. Breakfast would usually be porridge, coffee or tea, and toast with marmalade; on Sunday, powdered eggs and a bit of bacon might be served instead of porridge.
Three days after departing Liverpool, we got our first glimpse of Reykjavik on the horizon. This neat clean city was a pleasure to see. Upon debarking, Army trucks were on hand to transport small numbers of us to various military units on the island. As I had been with the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, I was assigned to the Signal Radio Intelligence Company. It was our job to intercept German military communications in Norway.
Incidentally, Iceland had been occupied by Germany at the time they invaded Norway and Denmark; but as their losses on the continent became more serious, they decided it was more important to have replacements there than to keep troops where they were serving comparatively little purpose so they withdrew completely from Iceland. At the same time, the United States decided that it would be a good idea to have a military presence close to the Germans' northern operations, so arrangements were made to move in, particularly since no invasion battle would be necessary.
My three months in Iceland were better than I had any right to expect in the wartime military: i.e. August, September and October were good months weatherwise, and I enjoyed seeing some of the countryside in a place I never dreamed I would visit. One of the highlights was an unbelievale display of the Aurora Borealis a few nights before leaving, the sky shimmering with bright colors.
On The Move Again
By November 1st, the powers that be decided that my company was needed in England to see what the enemy was up to along the French coast (as we found out later) with a view to planning for the eventual invasion. So on that evening, we boarded the S.S.Susan B. Anthony-ex-Santa Clara, then being operated by the U.S. Navy as a trooper. We sailed unaccompanied and zig-zagged our way alone, Navy escorts apparently being more urgently needed elsewhere. It was a pleasant enough voyage--the ship was not crowded and we were eating American food. On the third day, we saw Greenoch Harbor in Scotland, and again we were happy to be in Britain, albeit somewhat wary about whether it was to stay for a while this time. Fortunately, it was.
After a couple of temporary encampments in the south of England, we ended up in an old mansion just outside London to resume our eavesdropping on the enemy. Needless to say, this was a providential setup as we could get into the city frequently; and although there was the occasional Luftwaffe air raid (and later the buzz bombs) and strict blackout regulations, there was still the theater and walks in Hyde Park during time-off periods.
The now-famous D-Day, June 6th, 1944, started with wave after wave of allied planes flying overhead in an easterly direction and we knew the big push was on. Exactly one week later, the first V1--a doodlebug, it was called--flew over us toward London. From that night on, it was wise to retire with one's helmet close to hand. There was a constant barrage, mostly by night, but during the day as well. Nobody got much sleep but we got used to it.
Across to France
One evening at the beginning of October, we boarded an old Channel ferry in Southampton for the crossing to Normandy. At the same time, a North Sea storm blew into the Channel and threatened to swamp the vessel so a quick retreat was made to the safety of Southampton Water where we sat out the night. By morning, Mother Nature had calmed down and we made an easy crossing to Omaha Beach where we climbed up the cliffs and set up pup tents in an apple orchard for five days while waiting for our radio receivers and company vehicles to catch up with us. This was the only time in four years of military service during which I had to live in a tent and subsist on C-rations; how lucky can you get?
An interesting point the reader may wonder about: Why were we sent to the Continent so long after D-Day? The procedure had not always been so. At the time of the landings in North Africa, Radio Intelligence Companies did follow close behind the front line troops and, as a result, were often decimated by enemy fire. So the fighting men were left without the immediate intelligence reports necessary to plan the next tactical move. From then on, therefore, it was decreed that these Signal Corps Companies were to operate no closer than 50 miles from any front line action.
After being temporarily billeted in two different locations in France, we reached our final post at the end of November: Eupen, Belgium, just across the border from Aachen, Germany. We were just getting used to our new surroundings in the high school of this nice little town when the Wermacht mounted its last big push (The Battle of the Bulge) just before Christmas, and managed to get right to the no-no limit of 50 miles from us before being stopped, thus saving us a fast departure.
Thereafter, it was pretty easy going for us; and needless to say, we did more than our share of celebrating in the local cafe on VE Day. But life got boring during the summer while waiting for our turn to go home. We did get a nice R&R leave to Nice in September, though.
Finally the magic order came: We were transferred to a staging area in Liege for a few days to wait for a ship. Armistice Day turned out to be the long-awaited date, the beginning of our "liberation."
As the bus made its way through the rubble that had once been the proud home port of the great French Line ships, Le Havre, I could see the gray outline of the vessel that would receive us, the USS Admiral Capps, a Navy troop transport. She was a wartime newbuilding, probably not as stout as the old Amerika but equipped with more modern facilities.
However, she was not built for speed; the voyage to Hampton Roads (Newport News, Virginia) took eight days. Nevertheless, the 2500 men on board were a happy lot. The so-called Recreation Area was located on the lowest deck and right in the bow, so that the decor was strictly battleship-gray steel bulkhead sloping inward all around with the forward end coming almost to a point, and plain steel decking underfoot. As the ship pitched in the slightly rough sea, there was a resounding "smack" each time the bow dropped from the crest of a wave into the trough. But it was a good craps shooting space!
At last we reached our long-awaited destination and oh, did that American shoreline look good! We were treated that evening to what seemed like a banquet after all those years of army chow: Steak and ice cream!
(Your Editor extends thanks to Staff Sergeant Carlos Dannemann, USA ret.)