Sunday, June 3, 2012

from Rosa Morgan, 8 May 1945, Seward, Alaska


First Day of Peace, 1945

Dearest Mother,
It was on a day something like this that you first heard from me, wasn’t it? [Rosa was born on Nov. 9, the “False Armistice” just before the end of World War I. Her mother said people were cheering in the streets at her birth.] So we think it an appropriate time for you to hear again from your long-silent daughter. I have more to say on the occasion of this war’s ending than the last. 

THIS IS A HAPPY DAY!

The sentiment is far from unique but, Mother, it comes from the heart and it is about the only coherent thought I can produce today, what with four or five night and days of hanging over the radio trying to coax the right words out of the rising and fading roar of the short wave, followed by a period of celebrations shared with other peace-happy GIs. We didn’t beat the dishpan out of shape or derail any trolleys (Seward hasn’t got ‘em), or stampede the reindeer, but four happy people talked away the hours until morning in the bare (except for radio and army cot) living room of the ACS house, building dream castles we hadn’t dared to think about even two weeks ago. One of the two who shared our watch was a former newspaperman from Iowa assigned for some obscure army reason to the Medics. Besides a wife at home, Dave has a small daughter and a son he has never seen.  Mac, a mess sergeant, has a 2 ½ year old girl back in New York left in her aunt’s care. Her mother died when she was born and Mac cherishes nothing else in the world but this tiny Jessica whom he hasn’t seen since she was a year old. 

Compared to the long of these two to have the war over and to be allowed to go home and back care of their families, our own enthusiasm for release to a peaceful world must seem insignificant. But it isn’t. We just add their desire to ours and all the others around us, and the collective total of wishes for a post-war world beginning right quick is staggering, even in this small post.  … Talking about the new feeling of lightness—probably no more than the forgotten pre-war normal sensation of freedom from the dead weight of absolute army authority that sits on an enlisted man’s chest and interferes with every breath--we all agreed that today, if we wanted to try, we could fly.

...
All our love,
R&M                                                                                     

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

19 September 1939, Paris



Dear Frank [Sadler]:

Only a few blue lights are burning in the Gare de Lyon. The windows of the station are painted black. Stacks of sandbags are piled around key pillars in the big building. About fifty feet from the baggage wagon on which I am sitting, a group of nuns are ladling soup for refugees from the outlying districts. Why women and children should be brought into Paris is more than I can guess. There must be a hundred guards in the stations. Stretched out beside our luggage on the platform below me, Rosa is catching up on lost sleep.

This is our fourth day out of Bucharest. Ordinarily the trip to Rotterdam would take about 48 hours, but that would mean a trip through Germany. When we succeeded in getting tickets on the Holland-America line from Rotterdam to New York, we thought it might be possible to go by way of Berlin, but the consul at Bucharest wouldn’t even consider issuing a visa. Consequently we have had to make a detour half way around Europe: through Jugoslavia, Italy and France. By now we agree with Sherman about war. 

Rosa with the bagged up boat, May 1939
When we left England Rosa and I were travelling with exceptionally little baggage. We had our portable typewriter, a duffle bag and a small grip. By the time we were ready to leave Roumania, the situation was different. In the first place there was our boat, the Romur. It was in two big bags, one of which resembled a fat laundry sack and the other an overgrown golf bag. Then we had a cheap but enormous suitcase loaded with souvenirs, camping odds and ends we couldn’t bear to throw away, books, newspapers, napkins, a sun hat, a broken flashlight, and a Roumanian nightgown. Or course we still had the little grip, the duffle bag and the typewriter. The crowning touch, however, was the pottery with the blanket wrapped around it. While we were in Rucar, we saw the peasants making enormous wool blankets. They sheared the sheep, carded the wool, made the thread, wove the blankets, dyed them and combed them. We bought one. In Bucharest we found a little shop where we could buy peasant pottery for ridiculously low prices—so we bought a complete tea set. With the blanket tied around the ceramics for protections, Rosa has coddled that tea set halfway across Europe now. 

Adding to our baggage woes have been our travelling companions. Although half-back Paul, our fellow American, is travelling light, our Australian friend and his wife have fifteen suitcases between them. He has all the goods he accumulated in three years away from home while she, a refugee from Germany, has everything she ever owned. 

We left Bucharest on the fifteenth at 11 a.m. It took two taxis, crammed unbelievably full, to get us and our baggage to the station. European third class couches are divided into compartments designed to seat eight or sixteen. We piled into one for eight, managed to arrange our baggage so that we could find seats afterwards, and then locked the door. We refused to open it until the train was well under way.

Everything went smoothly until about one o’clock the next morning. By that time we were in the middle of Jugoslavia. Then the train stopped at a squalid little station and we were told we had to change trains. Paul opened a window while Howard and I dashed out to the platform. Then he passed the bags out to us. The porters came to help, were refused because we had no extra money for tips, and stayed to admire. It was like one of the old fashioned comedies in which fifteen men got out of an Austin. The poor porters almost dislocated their jaws their mouths fell open so far as bag after bag poured from the window. We had an hour and a half’s wait in a pouring rain before our train puffed into the station. It was impossible to find a compartment to ourselves this time, so after stowing the baggage as well as we could, and finding seats for the girls, Paul and I alternated at pacing the hall until the train pulled into Zagreb at eight in the morning. From then on we had the compartment to ourselves until we reached Trieste at about noon.

We had three hours in Trieste, so we went sightseeing. Down at the waterfront we scandalized the natives by going wading. In several places I tried to cash an American Express Check, but no bank was open during the lunch hours. When we returned to the station we had to fight for seats on the train to Venice, but managed, by wild flailing of the Romur’s paddles and accidental dropping of small bags onto other passengers’ heads, to get a compartment to ourselves.

In Venice we paused long enough to change trains and to catch a glimpse of garbage and gondolas by the Grand Canal. Rosa and Howard gave us a real scare by almost missing the train. There was an awkward wait in Milan—from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. The benches in the waiting room were crowded so we slept on the floor. Rosa, Howard and I went to see the cathedral at 5 a.m. and almost missed the train.

At Torino there was an especially long way to shift baggage between trains, so we stole a porter’s wagon, loaded the luggage onto it, and started to move. Then the porter saw us. The repercussions were nearly international. All the porters and the station cops gathered around to stick out their chins like little Duces and their hands like any porters. After screaming like wounded eagles for ten minutes we finally settled for 5 lira, telling the porters to apply the rest to Italy’s war debt to us. 

No sooner did we cross the French border than that French secret service grabbed us. We were led into a little room in the station and a gaunt and Gallic man with an enormous nose began to question us. At first we thought our visas, acquired in Roumania after a two day fight with the U.S. and French consular officials, were no good, but it developed that the Intelligence Officer wanted to know if we had noticed anything about troop movements in Italy. We told him all that we knew and in return he waived customs examination for us. 

The trip from the border to Paris should take six hours. We were on the way for nearly two days! There were four changes of trains, four fights with porters, a mad scramble for forgotten baggage, and several interesting talks with a little Scotch lady who was doing refugee work in Poland when the war started.

Adding to our fun has been the fact that we ran out of money in Italy. Actually we are not broke for I have an American Express Check and Howard a Cook’s Traveller Cheque, but nobody is willing to cash them for us. With the last of our Italian money we brought fruit, bread and jam. The fruit and jam are all gone, but we still have a little bread. There is a penalty for mentioning food in our compartment. 

"The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense."
We pulled into Paris about five hours ago, and while the Australian and his wife slept, Rosa, Paul and I went for a walk around the darkened city. The streets are not completely dark. Every other light is painted blue and left burning. There are guards on all the bridges and near each important building. Surprisingly few of the buildings have sandbag protection and there are no balloon-barrage sausages floating around. We saw no anti-aircraft guns, but all of the windows in the stores are webbed with tapes, which is supposed to keep them from breaking in case of an explosion nearby.

The morning papers are full of the news of the Russian invasion of Poland. We heard of that for the first time from the French official at the Italian border. None of us can figure it out and we’ve decided to study surrealism rather than international politics. At least surrealism isn’t supposed to make much sense. The people we have talked to are angry and disappointed about the Russian defection, but they still feel that they can and must beat Hitler. The most common statement we have heard is: 

“It will take longer now.”

Our train is supposed to leave at 9 a.m. for Brussels. We hope it won’t be much longer now.

As ever,



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

11 September 1939, Bucharest, Romania



Murray and Rosa got married March 5, 1939 and left for Europe on a freighter that same day. He was 23, she was 20. Their plan was to buy a kayak, learn how to paddle it, and take it down the Danube to the Black Sea. They almost made it. This letter to Murray's childhood best friend Frank Sadler describes the end of the river trip.

Dear Frank,
The Roumanians have persuaded us to discontinue our paddle to the Black Sea, but they had to toss Rosa and me in jail yesterday to put the clincher on their argument.

For the last week Rosa and I had been debating whether we should call off the paddle, fold up our boat, and start at once for home. The last 400 kilometers of the Danube are very slow and abound with mosquitoes, but we didn’t even figure that in our decision to quit. Slow water and biters wouldn’t be enough to cause us to stop when we are so near to our real destination. Our new worries rose from the war.

A few days ago I asked a Roumanian official what he thought of our going down the river now that the war had started.

I don't know who the woman in the middle is.
“The Bulgarian border patrol would probably shoot you,” he replied.

Not exactly encouraged, I asked one of our friends at the American Legation what he thought.

“Listen,” he said, “The Roumanians are nice people, but the boys they have watching over the river are young and excitable. They’re just as likely to shoot first and ask any questions that come to their minds later. Besides it isn’t going to be long before all hell breaks loose in this section and you had better get out of here while there are still some frontiers open.”

That made a lot of sense to us, but we still wanted to paddle that last 400 kilometers. When we took the train for Giurgiu yesterday, Rosa and I still hadn’t reached a definite decision. We were going to see how we felt when we saw the boat. Our passport was at the Ministry of Propaganda getting stamped with the official exit visa and our arrangements for tickets home are nearly complete, so we thought we might be able to spare five days and dash down the river to Vilkov, the Black Sea port.


When we had landed at Giurgiu we had not counted on the cheapness of living in Roumania or the many attractions of Bucharest and its hinterland. We had told the commandant of the port that we would be back in three or four days, and he had given us permission to leave our faltboat beside his flagship—an armed tug which was used for river patrol duty. That was five weeks ago.

The train from Bucharest goes only as far as the city of Giurgiu. The port, which is government property, lies about three miles away. Rosa and I hired a droshky and told the driver to take us to the commandant’s office. We got as far as the bridge which crosses a small tributary of the Danube, just below the quays of the port, when our troubles started.

One of the soldiers on guard at the bridge wanted to see our passports. I told him in English, French, Germany, and pig-Latin that our passport was in Bucharest at the office of the Ministry of Propaganda being stamped with an exit visa. He was both polite and firm. We must go back to police headquarters in the city. He came with us.

At police headquarters we were allowed to cool our heels in an anteroom for about half an hour before being ushered into a tiny office and the presence of an official in a worn khaki uniform which would have looked better with a little washing. So would the official. We were told he could speak French, but someone had been fooling him—or maybe we were wrong. Anyway, it didn’t sound like French to us.

Murray's father and Rosa's mother were back in Tacoma, waiting for news.
Our inability to understand him must have looked suspicious to the little functionary. He glared for awhile, began to shout, and finally, when I thought that he would burst or pop an eye out of its socket, he jumped up and left the room.


Another long wait, and then we were led into the office of the local big shot. I don’t know his position, but he was either chief of police or representative  of the federal  government for the district. He spoke both French and German and we had no trouble making him understand us.

I explained that we had a boat down by the river, that we wanted to take it away, and that our passport was in Bucharest. I suggested that he telephone either the Ministry of Propaganda in Bucharest or the Commandant of the River Police at the port. Either could identify us, I pointed out. He replied that he regretted that we had been subject to delay, but that we would be allowed to go as soon as he had made the necessary
The kids are all right.
telephone calls. It was all smiles and thanks as we bowed ourselves out. A matter of minutes, we thought. 

The guard led us back to another section of the building and put us in a little room with two narrow benches down the side and a heavy desk nailed to the floor in one corner. The window was barred. There were several Roumanians sitting on the benches, but none of them paid any attention to us. We sat down to wait. An hour later we were still waiting. 

I began to feel restless and irritated. I opened the door and walked down the hall toward the big shot’s office to see if I could stir him into action. I was intercepted by my friend in the khaki uniform and steered back to my little room, where Rosa and I waited for another half hour. Then she went foraying through the building, but the guard led her right back. We were both beginning to get sore. Another hour and no news. It was late and our plans for the day were completely disrupted. Mad clear through I started down the hall again.

My khaki uniformed pal met me about ten steps from the door of our room, grabbed my arm and started to pull me back. I didn’t feel like being led, and he annoyed me anyway. I yanked my arm free. He grabbed at it again.

“Just a minute,” I growled at him. “You’re pushing around an American citizen, and you’re going to get your nose smeared all over your dirty face in about another ten seconds.”
He didn’t understand the words, of course, but the tone must have given him a pretty good idea of what I was driving at. He flared right back at me, shouted Roumanian some more, pointed back to the cell.

All at once it clicked. I hadn’t realized before that we were really prisoners. 

“OK,” I said, decided that I had better take it easy. “I’ll go back, but you telephone Bucharest.” I repeated Bucharest about five times and made the motions of telephoning. He looked as stupid as ever. Then I turned around and started back to the cell. Evidently feeling that he had me on the run, the dirty-faced dope made a lunge for my arm.
That was one too many. I let him have it with my elbow in his stomach and he grunted. By the time he straightened up I was in the doorway and facing him. He took a couple of steps toward me, so I cocked my right and started jiggling my left around a la Freddie Steele. He moved one step closer and I was all set to let him have a right when I saw a soldier coming down the passage. Roumanian bayonets are 18 inches long, so I decided to sit down. My pal slammed the door.

About an hour later he came back and looked in. I was foxy this time. Instead of making any passes at him, I whipped out my pen and notebook, walked over to him, and bending quite close looked at the numbers on his uniform collar. Then I wrote the figure down in the notebook.

It worked. He decided maybe I was someone important. With a dazed look in his eyes he clicked the door shut and we could hear him hurrying down the hall. In a minute or two he returned to show us back into the big shot’s room. I decided to follow through on the act. I raved and ranted in English for about ten minutes, and finally subsided into German and French to tell the braided boy behind the desk just what I thought of officials in general, him in particular, and nincompoops as a class. I larded my talk with enough references to America and President Roosevelt to make him think that he must have at least the vice-president in his office.

It was only half effective. I think I convinced him that he had made a mistake, but I didn’t make him believe that he should make an exception. He had to check up some more. The commandant of the port, he said, had been transferred. The Harbormaster had no record of us. He hadn’t phoned Bucharest. We would have to spend the night in the jail and then we would be released after he had phoned Bucharest in the morning.
At that, I went into my song and dance again. We were not spending a night in jail. I called upon the Greek Gods, the Supreme Court, the Constitution and the Marines. I screamed and yelled and beat my chest like Tarzan calling his apes. Finally he gave up.
“You may stay at the hotel,” he said. “You may phone Bucharest yourselves tonight and see if you can get one of your friends to identify you.”


With that I subsided. It was too late to fold up the kayak, so we might as well stay. We were given a guard to go to the hotel with us. On the way we passed a telephone station and put through a call to our best friend in the propaganda department. This official at once asked to speak to our guard. We took great delight in watching him reel under a tremendous verbal attack at long range. By the time that conversation was over, we were persons of importance in Giurgiu. We weren’t even guarded at the hotel room, and this morning we were escorted to the river where we found the Romur intact.

Our troubles had decided us that we’d never get to the Black Sea in the five days we have to spare, so we folded up the kayak and came back to Bucharest. We expect to start home on the fifteenth.

As ever,
Murray


Friday, March 30, 2012

Adak Island, late April 1944, “Letter No. 3”


Dearest Nunny…

My last letter,  a thirteen page opus entitled No. 2, probably will not get to you. It was written before I understood the censorship restrictions. These include no discussion of means of transportation. Just in case the letter does get to you, that one taboo should explain why ten or twelve pages are blank. From what I have been told of the local censor’s rules they are almost exactly the opposite of those under which my last two letters were written.

This place is surprisingly pleasant, at least today. The scenery is tremendous combining the best of Rucar, Patzcuaro and the Monterey peninsula, although there are no Rumanian women serving corn mush, Mexican gals serving tortillas or John Steinbeck serving Tortilla Flats. 

My duffle bag is now under a steel cot in a Pacific and I have the typewriter on a nice desk in another hut. I also have an impromptu desk, an overturned packing box, beside my bed. Tomorrow I have off to complete some of the details of getting established in the hut, but the next day there will be work in earnest.  

Bill Usedane, one of the Elliotts’ closest friends, is more or less looking after me here. He is frightfully busy at present, running one of the sections in the absence of its commissioned officer. But already we have established a rapport on the merits of Thomas Wolfe, an understanding reached over the fervent protests of Joe Miller, who thinks Wolfe the best modern writer. Joe is at another typewriter in the room, batting out a letter to his wife. 

I had four letters today: two from you, the first announcing Carmen’s [Rosa’s houseboat housemate, Carmen Fett] arrival and the second her success as a tortilla tippler. … One letter was from Ann Elmo saying she liked the story on the Huts and hopes to sell it very soon. She also asked where she should send the check for the piece in Adventure. The fourth letter was not really a letter at all. It was a pamphlet, reprinted from Journalism Quarterly, entitled: “Importance in Content Analysis: A Validity Problem.” The Author? Milton D. Stewart. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks terrific, with footnotes quoting such publications as “Sciometry, August, 1943,” “The Nazi Newsreel,” from Wartime Communications No. 61, and “Public Opinion Quarterly, VIII.” And so far into the addendum. Milt is identified as a former newspaper and magazine man, has worked with the Office of Radio Research , and with both the Bureau of Intelligence and the Overseas Branch of the Office of Information. God, when I think that kid is only 22 now I feel like crawling under a blanket and calling it a day. 

There is a local paper published here and the editor of it is Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer. One of the kids that Bill Usedane introduced me to has had some stuff published in Esquire but has done very little writing since coming here. This kid, incidentally, was kicked out of the University of Chicago, for, it is rumored, radicalism.
Well, darling, although my cot does not look as comfortable as the one in the houseboat, it is inviting right now and I think that I had better turn in. This has been a rather busy day.

You are much loved, Nunny, and forever thought of.

Ever,
M



For a short summary of Milt Stewart's career:

A good short history of Dashiell Hammet's paper, The Adakian:
http://windblownanddripping.com/about/



Aboard the transport to Adak, late April 1944


Salud my sweet…

Last night was unpleasant. In the late afternoon a good wind came up, which, combined with a moderate swell, made the ship flip her fanny in a most unladylike manner. Late in the afternoon a wave hit us just right and pair of the rafts which are in racks along the rail slipped into the sea. We turned back after them which meant that for a while we were in the trough of the waves. We really rocked. Then when we were pulling the ships back aboard we were not under power. We bounced along like a cork.

The kids on KP had quite a time. They were trying to keep the pots and pans in place, the tea from spilling, and various pieces of heavier equipment from climbing their frames. They lost all the tea in one big wave and a considerable amount of creamed chicken (no less) in another. Topside, the biggest of the waves piled GI spectators four deep along the rail. In the latrine one man fell in urinal. That same wave caught me walking across the officers’ mess with a plate of creamed chicken. I landed on top of a table, chest down on the plate. In all the confusion no one was hurt, although a couple of men were shaken up a bit. 

We continued to bounce around during the night. I felt bad. I don’t believe I was seasick, because my stomach was not upset. But I kept having fever and chills and my head ached. So I went to bed early. I mentioned in the last letter that I have a top bunk. That is a good thing ordinarily, but not in yesterday’s weather. I’m about ten feet from the floor and whenever the ship rolled enough I found myself hanging over the edge of the cot. My dreams were feverish. I kept dreaming of falling into pots of boiling metal, and I would wake up to look down at the floor, glowing dully in the light of the red night lanterns. The little clock stopped about a quarter to 12, and that made the night seem even longer. Doors banged and tin hats clanged against the walls. I got tangled up in the sleeping bag, which really is two bags, one inside the other. And then, crowning touch, I went to sleep about seven and almost slept through breakfast.

…I am, as usual, being troubled by manifestations of race prejudice among the men. We have some Negro personnel among the navy troops aboard and it annoys me to hear them referred to as coons, etc. They are Jim Crowed a little, but less than might be expected. For instance, they use the same washrooms as the rest of us and eat that mess with the rest of the naval personnel. This bothers a few of our southern boys. … Other racial remarks: by Joe –“He’s smart in a Jewish sort of way,” and by Tom – “a good guy even if he is a Jew.” While on the subject, there is a good and brave and restrained chapter on race prejudice in the Penguin book, “Psychology for the Fighting Man.” Sometime when you are in the University Book Store take a look at it. The Penguins are in a little case by the stairs going up to the Record section. 

Gee, I’d like to hear some good music. I am now getting an overdose of Blueberry Hill, as done by the bunk boys.

An interesting story from Joe [Miller]: He had discovered an old man who claimed to be Philadelphia Obrien, an ex boxing great. He wrote his life story for the Sunday supplement of the Lewiston paper and got a stranded boxer from Maine t pose with him for some pictures. Afterwards he staked the Maine man to a couple of meals and found him a room at the home of a friend. The day the AP killed the Obrien story as a phony (Obrien was dead) police arrested the Maine boy for a triple ax murder in Spokane.
When we boarded ship there were no Red Cross girls on the dock to give us coffee and kiss the boys goodbye. But today Red Cross gift kits were distributed. They are green cloth bags containing soap in an oiled cloth bag, a pack of red-backed playing cards, a large pack of Red Cross stationery, a package of life savers, a sewing kit with needles, thread and buttons, a shoeshine cloth and an extra pair of shoelaces (very welcome), and a Pocket Book. My book is Earle Stanley Gardner’s “The Case of the Sulky Girl.”
At the same time they were passing out the kits, the Red Cross men opened boxes of books and magazines. Quite a few of the books were of the Army Services Imprint, the first I have seen. They are about the same shape as a pocketbook but the binding is across the narrow part. They type is in two columns on each page. They are very easy to read. I picked up Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. At present I am on page forty and fascinated. … Greene, you recall, is Gracene’s playmate. Even so he writes very well…Among other titles on board now are Howard Fast’s The Unvanquished, Saint Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars, Herman Melville’s Typee, and Murray Morgan’s Day of the Dead.

D of D is already a chapter longer than when I boarded ship. I have just killed Felix and introduced Angel to the blonde’s bedroom where, at this very moment, the poor boy is being held at the point of a gun. The situations are stereotyped a trifle? It is quite a novel. Even I am not sure what is going to happen next, and I would not be surprised if good did not triumph in the end. …

In addition to reading Greene and some extracts from The Telephone Booth Indian, I’ve done a little work on the Spanish texts. Already I am appalled by what I have been saying. If I can make myself work at it, we should be in pretty good shape to talk Spanish when we go back to Mexico. How are your conversations with Senora Fett proceeding? I can guess—in English.
This has been a day of modest excitements. In the morning, after breakfast, Neil and I were on deck when we heard a plane. At first it struck us as nothing unusual and then we realized we were out of sight of land and that, conceivably, this plane might not be friendly. But it was friendly, of course. It circled us three or four times, and went away. I recalled the story of how on his first Atlantic flight Lindbergh swept down at midsea and tried to shout at some fishermen to ask directions. Now the sight of a plane in mid-ocean is almost commonplace. 

Until about an hour ago, the weather had been quite calm and many more men were on deck than before. The variety of costumes is amazing. There is no specific dress required for the GIs aboard ship and the men wear everything from their fatigues to their Arctic issue. The most common costume is an open shirt, OD pants, Arctic field jacket and arctic wool helmet cap (the one the pulls down over your ears.) Some of the men wear their fatigue caps with the same outfit, and a few, including myself, are reveling in our first chance in some time to be outdoors bareheaded. The navy personnel are equally varied in their clothes. About half wear their blues, plus the pea jackets which you admired recently as we went down on the streetcar. Others wear their rich blue fatigues, which look like something Gordon Ford would enjoy. Headgear runs from the white beanies to black, tightfitting wool caps, these latter especially popular with the Negroes. 

The civilians, of course, have the most interesting clothing. They are all men going out to the construction projects and their gear and get-up makes the days of the gold rush seem very near: furlined caps with big earflaps, blazers in colors that would make Fletcher Pratt blanch, leather deerslayer jackets straight from Abercrombie and Fitch, mukluks, tin pants dark with the dirt of England, North Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Africa. Oddly, the Filipino workers are the most conservative in their costumes, either because they were not so well fixed financially before boarding ship or because previous experience with the weather where we are going has taught them what they will need. 

The old-time construction workers, who were in the game before the war, form an elite. They say little and unlike most other passengers freely admit they do not know where we are going or when we will get there. While most of us know our ultimate destination none know the route. The old-time civilians do not even speculate. Nor do they indulge in the fanciful worries about subs and storms which plague many of the men. Most are old hands at ocean crossings and more than one have been in Atlantic convoys under attack.

One old boy, who has been doing construction work ever since the last war and has been around the world often enough to misplace his birthday by a week, was in a convey that was scattered a couple of years ago somewhere between England and Iceland. His ship headed for the state, going north of Greenland to get off the usual lanes and to take advantage of the long Arctic night. “And, he assured me, “I’ll be a son of a beehive if we didn’t see the most beautiful northern lights for two full days and the lighted the water so that the British officers, who had not given up their cameras, the sons, could take pictures and have them do out just fine, and it was the most beautiful, most ugly, most awful thing in the world because we wanted it dark and here it was light as a virgin’s heart.” Not long after this speech I saw him sitting on a bulkhead, reading The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

There is remarkably little mingling between the civilian and military groups aboard. This is due in part to the fact that some of the men resent the $100-$150 a week salaries the civilians are said to be making. But more, I believe, it is just a different approach to the whole thing. The soldiers  are being sent, the civilians are going of their own accord. That makes a profound difference. One group does not readily understand the other. It is another angle of the thing that worried me at Adair. 

As to my reading, I have finished Ministry of Fear, which in spite of Greene’s occasional lapses into Cory-ish religious references is a good book. … I am about to start Typee, by Melville. Red-haired, sad-faced Tom Kelly, strong of seed, is now reading Homer, for the first time. He assures me, “That boy is good. What a line! When he told a woman he wanted her! I didn’t know the Greeks were like that.” Neil is reading Bell for Adano and making unkind references to the army in general , General Patton in particular.  Joe Miller has finished all of James Farrell’s short stories and looks bilious. 

Another beautiful day, calm sea, moderate swell and some porpoise or seal playing far off the starboard side. So far no planes, no fire drills: not even the routine breaks in the routine. 


Breakfast was good: stewed apricots, little pigs, scrambled powdered eggs, bread and jam, mixed dry cereals (grape nuts, puffed wheat, corn flakes) with powdered milk, coffee and cream. Hardly anyone was sick and there was no repetition of the unpleasant experience of seeing a man take a bit, stop, and fill his messkit with vomit.
A trio of men are sitting, back to me, on the bunk two down, listening to a fourth, a black Irishman, tell about a date he had in Seattle just before leaving. The gal had been drinking beer and her met her while she was leaning against the wall of the Moore Theatre, urinating. “Hell,” he said. “She just bent over a little,  and I figured any girl that could do that was the girl for me. We got along swell until she rolled me for six and when I found out I said gimme back my six. She said what six, so I let her have five, knuckles up, and it knocked out all her teeth and I reached down the front of her dress and felt around until I found the six bucks and I got out of the taxi. There was a sailor standing there and he saw her out cold in the corner, her mouth all bloody, and I thought he was going to climb my frame but instead he says, how was she. I told him fine and he gave me two bucks to let him take me over. So I took his dough and got the hell out of there. Christ, I wonder what the taxi driver thought.” After which one of the men with a guitar went into a song:
I fought the battle of Seattle
From First to Ninth and Pine
I met every kind of woman they is
And none of them were kind.       

Another man on one of the nearby bunks was telling his experiences last night. He had met a woman welder from Boeings at a restaurant and found her pleasant to talk to. She turned him down on a date, so he followed her home. She wouldn’t invite him in and wouldn’t accept his invitation to go out to dinner. Finally she told him to come around the next day for dinner. It was a very nice meal, better than his wife had cooked while he had been home on a furlough, a few days before. She let him kiss her, but no more. They had several dinners together and one night she bought him a case of beer. That night their necking became a bit tempestuous and finally she said, “If we’re going to do a thing like that, let’s go to bed.” So they did. “And by God,” he said. “She just wouldn’t let me go.” He kept calling every night until just before the ship sailed. He told her about his home town and found that she had lived in it. When she asked him if he was married, he told her yes. She said, “That’s too bad because I’m going to break it up.” She told him she was going back to his home town to tell his wife about everything. He tried to talk her out of it, but she didn’t seem convinced. “Christ,” he said, “How I hope I don’t get any mail.”
I have to close this now so that it can be censored and be ready to go out as soon as we reach port. … To say how much I miss you, how much I love you is still beyond my ability with words, Nunny. I only hope that you do not miss me much as I miss you.

Best to Carmen, Jean, Bill, Myrtle, Haj, et al, and all my love to you,

M                      

Friday, February 17, 2012

Late April 1944--Aboard the transport


This was written during the voyage from Seattle to Adak Island in the Aleutians, his first of three Aleutian posts over the next year.

Hello Nun...

 The tortures of Tantalus. For a while we lay in Elliott Bay, drifting in big circles or, occasionally, butted about by tugs. Seattle lay just out of reach. I could even see the Public Library and wonder if you were there at the Chinaman’s photo exhibit, and the Volunteer Park Museum. I imagined you might be there, too, looking at the jade or going to one of the string concerts.

Being in sight of home longer than we had expected caused a certain feeling of futility to be added to the tension created by just leaving. It made the usual gripes a little louder: why wasn’t the PX open, why didn’t the public address system sound louder, why did the public address system sound so loud, where were all the p.f. civilians doing aboard. The usual things for in the Army the gripe is always with us.

But to go back to the start…or to the end. After I waved goodbye from the door, I went into the day room. In due time (whether hours or days I cannot say) the sergeant of the guard explained that we were not to leave the building under any circumstances and not to use the telephone. He collected our Class A passes and handed us copies of our orders, which said where we were going and a few other details we already knew. We also received a mimeographed outline of the things we are forbidden to talk about in our letters. This outline covered ten paragraphs. The list of things we can talk about was contained in a single sentence.
Adak is the dot over the I in ALEUTIAN, more or less.
After the lecture and distribution of orders, we had only a few minutes to wait. A truck came to take us to the dock. We rode in the open truck, our bags piled high around us and rolling against our knees whenever we stopped on the hill. The wife and two kids of the fellow who had been in the car next ours were there. They drove along after the truck. She was crying and he was trying not to. His name is Tom Kelly and he was down from the Aleutians on furlough. Tom went to the University of Washington (from 1934 to 1940, inclusive) and studied forestry. He says he was around the campus so long that when he graduated Hugo Winkenwerder did not smile when he handed him his diploma but instead sighed and said, Goodbye, Old Friend. An ACS Engineer, he is trying to develop a wood plastic and has written to the War Department for a transfer to ordnance. Things being what things are, he will probably get transferred to Ascension to study the life and habits of the scabie birds. The little boy whom you thought was too told to be his son is his step-son by a previous marriage. The much-diapered little girl is their daughter. Until Tom went into the army, as a 1941 volunteer, no less, the Kellys had two children from an orphan asylum living at their home. They returned the kids when he enlisted but plan on adopting a few more when he gets back. Also creating few now and then. He has the bunk next to mine and is not a bad egg. 

We are bunked in the hold. The bunks are in tiers of five, and fortunately, I have a top bunk. That means I can sit up straight […] and by putting my feet on the bunk across the aisle and my back against my life preserver, hold the typewriter on my lap and work. It is only moderately uncomfortable. The bunk frames are metal and canvas hammocks are tied on them with rope. 

Meals are something of a problem. We eat in shifts: army, navy, civilian. I slept through the first breakfast; or rather got up just at breakfast time and did not know the call had been sounded. So did a lot of other army men. We got pretty hungry before dinner, there being only two meals served a day. 

The mess line is fantastically long. It stretches back throughout the hold, winds in and out of aisles and runs once or twice through the latrine, a circumstance which sometimes eliminates the queasy of stomach. The food is served cafeteria style, thrown into our messkits by men on KP. The civilian workers as well as army and navy personnel draw KP, so there are no gripes there. 

We eat standing up (like the American Bars in Budapest). Today’s dinner was wholesome but bad in the usual Army way: bread and butter, coffee and cream, vegetable salad (long on radishes, short of everything else) sauerkraut and wieners in the army’s best manner, and some gunny pudding which only Howard could describe. It does not quite come up to houseboat fare. I did not take seconds.
The real thing
One military version
We are all supposed to wear our Mae West life jackets at all times except when in or by our bunks. About half of the soldiers are doing it now, and about one percent of the civilians, they not being accustomed to doing things which seem on the face of them foolish. I imagine that once we get in any sort of rough weather the rule will be much more rigorously enforced – and obeyed. The water looks not only cold but deep. The jackets are bright blue and have little red flashlights attached. They are worn like sweaters, which is fortunate because extra warmth is already welcome when on deck. The jackets are awkward when eating. It is hard t get near the plate in them.

We are being convoyed by a flight of gulls. It pleases me to think that I may have fed some of them from our front porch. 

Recreation facilities on the ship are, so far, almost non-existent. Everyone is providing his own. Some of the men have musical instruments: a boy on a bunk nearby has a guitar on which he plays cowboy songs and late twenty love laments; another has a mouth organ, but so far it has not sounded. Mine is the only typewriter in evidence. Quite a few books have come out of the barracks bags: certainly more than were in the private possession of the entire illiterate Seventieth. The MP on duty at our corner of the hold is engrossed in The Glass Key. Joe Miller (no comic book man, he) a big teddy bear of boy who has the bunk across the aisle and below mine, is deep in the short stories of Farrell. Tom Kelly is going over a book on ordnance and Neil Atkinson is looking through Luce’s eyes at the world scene and American Century. 

Joe Miller, the Farrell fan, is the ex-city editor of a morning paper in Lewiston, Idaho. He is a graduate of the Oregon school of journalism, to which he transferred after two years at UCLA. At Cal he know Woodie Wirsig. He also knew Bob Bailie, the boy who took Koski’s place on the Washie [the Grays Harbor Washingtonian, which Murray edited in the early 1940s] and snafued so flagrantly. Bailie, I hate to admit, is in the ACS. [Bob Bailie went on to become the founding publisher of the Sammamish Valley News and an ardent booster of Redmond, WA]
Miller’s father helped Jan Masryk draw up the Czechoslovak constitution and is mentioned on page 120 of Lengyel’s The Danube. Joe is very well informed on the Balkans and we kept the rest of the hold awake last night arguing whether the Serbs were pro-Russian or not.  […]

There are a number of negros aboard, most of them navy personnel. For some reason they seem to be more queasy of stomach than the rest of us. And there is nothing so pathetic as a seasick Negro. He takes on a greenish patina, like old bronze, and his eyes have the misery of centuries, and he groans, ever so slightly, and says, “Ah wish ah were at peace with this here sea.”

One night when I was working late I took time out to talk to one of the Negroes who was on guard duty. He was a young fellow in his early twenties with a smooth, chocolate face, a surprisingly delicate nose, and wide-set, very alert eyes. Before volunteering for the Navy, he was a pre-med student with a year at Northwestern and year at a southern college. Since coming in the Navy he has completed about three quarters of college work by extension.

When I expressed surprise that he had transferred from Northwestern to a school in the south, he said he had three reasons for the change. It was cheaper; there was no reason for going to Northwestern because Negroes were not allowed in the graduate school; and, most important, he wanted some social life.
I asked what he thought about the war and he said it was worth fighting to give the U.S. a chance to “become a democracy.” 
I asked what he thought about the war and he said it was worth fighting to give the U.S. a chance to “become a democracy,” He was certain the Negroes would have an even tougher time than they do now if the U.S. should be defeated. He said that he liked a lot of things about the Russian system but that he could not stomach violence and force used even for ends he agreed with. I asked what he thought of Russia’s death penalty for anyone who preached racial intolerance. He said he did not believe in the death penalty. He has a sister taking journalism at, I believe, Chicago university and when the war is over he wants to go to Wisconsin and believes he will be able to do so. We talked newspapers a while and he said he likes PM and the New Republic. He is a John Chamberlain fan, which kept the conversation going awhile. I believe he is also to be stationed at APO 980 and I hope to see him again. 

One of the white sailors, who saw me talking to the pre-med boy, came up to me later and said: “Say, Shorty (sic), you seem to like them shines.: I said something about their being the same as anyone else, and he went into a big Jones laugh which showed all the gold in his front teeth and said, “They’re iggerant, Shorty, they’re just naturally iggerant. Never was a nigger could tell a whiteman nothing.” And very pleased with himself, he scratched his testicles, rolled his shoulders and sauntered out the door.
[…]
Guy de Maupassant
A second-hand story. One of the men claims he knows a fellow who left a gal pregnant when he went overseas. After two years in the Aleutians he finally got a furlough to go home and marry her. When he got back to Pittsburgh he found the girl had turned professional and had a venereal disease. He did not want to marry her. The problem: should he marry a whore or try to convince the army that he had not faked the whole thing to get a furlough? Like the VD letter in Yank, that would make a swell short story idea for Guy de Mope.
[…]
We were in sight of land today, little islands in the distance. The water was gray, the islands black. There seems to be no vegetation. Everyone ran topside to see them and stood, face into the wet wind, looking at them and, almost in unison, turned away and went below, depressed. Before long, the islands lay behind us.
[…]
One of the first sergeants aboard, a tightly-built middle-sized man in his late forties, a regular army man with wrinkles in his neck and wrinkles around his eyes, spoke a little piece tonight. For the most part he has been very quiet, not commenting on anything but the weather, and listening with somewhat pained amusement to the second lieutenants around the Sergeant Major’s office. But today the talk was on the merits of being in service. No one could discern any current ones, but several of the fellows spoke glowingly about how the Vets would “run the country.” The old timer looked at the loudest talker a while, rolled the chewing gum into a corner of his mouth and said, “They’ll run the country about six days. When I got back from the last war I had to take off my uniform in my own home town. The little boys threw stones at me. You mark my words. There will be 13 million vets after this war, but there will be 130 million who were civilians.” He rolled the gum into the other corner of his mouth and added, “And maybe it’s a good thing.”
[…]
The weather is already Aleutian. We have not seen the sun since yesterday. The wind is just what our first German lesson claimed. The rain became sleet and, for awhile, the sleet snow. Men are wearing their Arctic issue whenever they go on decks. I regret that my parka and wool cap are in my hold bags. The men on guard duty who have outside posts have put on their all wool face guards. They look weird. One of the officers on the bridge has a green rubber mask which covers most of his face. He looks horrible.
The sight of another ship at sea is always a thrill to me, I think even more than seeing land after a week or so. Today is the first time that I can recall that I have seen a ship headed in the same direction. Watching one wallowing through the water ahead of us, bow down stern high, stern high bow down puts our own motion in a new perspective. Also it is nice to have something else moving in the hostile, fog-bound, snow-swept circle which is our world. Nearly all of our gulls have turned back and the few the still follow us cry mournfully, without letup. 

The gulls remind me more of home than anything. Remember to feed ours regularly because it is very possible that I may see them up here. I have been thinking of your all day, wondering where you were. My guess is that Carmen [Fett] has arrived and that you and Jean [Elliott] and she spent the day working on the houseboat, or maybe taking a paddle in the kayak. 

I am beginning to understand the psychology of the masochist. To think of you is such pleasant pain, to paraphrase a somewhat better poet. I love think of home and you, but thinking of them hurts. And yet it is a pain I cannot do without. 

Today my little clock had stopped and I asked one of the fellows what time it was. He looked at me and said, “Who cares? From now on we measure time by the calendar.”

Remember how after the Washie had gone to press we used to go down to the Royal and watch the customers read the still wet copies. I have somewhat that feeling right now. When I typed out the ship’s news tonight (revising it from the Press Association dispatches), I made an extra copy for the ACS gang which all bunks in one corner of the hold. The copy is being passed from hand to hand now. It is a nice sensation.
[…]
Sometimes I wonder about officers. I had an Air Corps captain ask me if Fairbanks was in the Aleutians. Of course a man does not have to know geography to be able to fly, any more than he has to appreciate literature in order to be an efficient killer, but I can never get used to seeing ignorance in high places. Some of the more inane actions of Army bigwigs affect me the same way the speeches of our beloved Congressman Smith used to. I reject the evidence and refuse to believe that such stupidity can be anything but a front. I shall have to recall Thomas Jefferson’s program for the University of Virginia: “Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error as long as reason is left free to combat it.” 

That homily reminds me that I had a long and almost beerily philosophic talk with Tom Kelly last night. It started when he told me, as a compliment, that he had noticed whenever the other men spoke of two-timing their wives my face stiffened and I froze up and dropped out of the conversation. My good old poker face. It gives me away so often that I often wonder how I ever managed to get a news story. I explained that I didn’t want to seem prudish but that I could not understand the psychology of the boys who bragged. From there we went to Willkie, the Christian ethic, Howard, the Sinarquistas, Shostakovich, James Cain, Jimmy Cain and Haines, Fritz Wascowitz, peace terms to Japan, rugby football, race prejudice, Joe Louis and finally Frank’s foul battle with the Filipino in Concrete . Perhaps you can follow the associations which led us from topic to topic. …The companionship is certainly an improvement over Adair. 

Snatch of conversation: “That’s going to be my hobby when I get out of the army.”
“What is?”
“Whorehouses.”

Frank Knox
The ship received the news of the death of Frank Knox with remarkable calm. In spite of the glowing obits about his greatness everyone aboard remarkably convinced that he U.S. will be able to carry on the war without him. The day he died was the only one in which I have not written up the news digest. The PA report was minus a couple pages of war news and it did not seem worthwhile to write out the rest of the crud. Late that afternoon one of the men with a shortwave set picked up some dots and dashes. It sounded like a new report so I got the typewriter and one of the ACS operations boys took down the report. Men gathered from everywhere to listen and watch. I stood fairly well back in the crowd and listened to the rumors: “Someone has sighted a sub near here,” “The Second Front...,” “Churchill is dead…” “Turkey has entered the war.” When the telegrapher read his first paragraph, which described how sorry Cordell Hull was at the news of this blow to the United Nations, the death of Knox, the crowd quietly dispersed, the telegrapher folded the top back over the typewriter and I went back to my bunk. [Knox, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 1936, was Secretary of the Navy at the time of his death. Roosevelt tapped him for the position to help build bipartisan support for American participation in World War II]

[…]
Adak coastline
Tomorrow we get to APO 980 [Adak] and this letter will be mailed from there. I hope you will have received a telegram before you get this but if not, you know I’m here. After this I’ll write at least every other day.

I am very much in love with you, my sweet. I try to concentrate on each day and not think of time in lump sums. It works better that way. And although it has taken twice as long to get this far as it does to cross the continent, I do not feel far from you. I am so terribly glad, Nunny, that you are you.
Ever,
M