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?”

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.

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