In the last two blogs, I went into some detail about my two years spent on the island of Okinawa in the army. I briefly mentioned that I went there on a troop ship. I thought maybe a few words about that voyage might be of interest to those of you who have never experienced the glories of a troop ship with 3,000 fellow soldiers.
The adventure began when after graduating from my Army Security Agency training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, I was given orders that I would be shipped overseas. I had hoped for Europe but that did not happen. I was told to report to San Francisco where I was to board a troop ship to Yokohama, Japan.
To say my heart dropped in my shoes would be putting it mildly. I considered myself just made to go to Europe because over in the Far East, one could get shot. The Korean War was raging at that time.
Anyway very dutifully I took a train from Mississippi to San Francisco. There I was to find a bus at the Fisherman’s Wharf that would take me to nearby Camp Stoneman, California, from where my troop ship would depart.
Due to a mix-up in my train ticket, I arrived in San Francisco three days earlier than I needed. I could have spent those three days doing SF but that was expensive. I figured I’d just as soon live off of Uncle Sam and go on out to Camp Stoneman.
I got there and found that the barracks were full of people who had just gotten off a troop ship from Japan. They were waiting around for their discharges and had little to do except play Blackjack. I joined them and actually was kind of lucky. But my real luck resided in the information I gained from my fellow card players.
I got the inside poop on how to turn the bestiality of a troopship voyage into a deluxe cruise, or as good as you could possibly get it. They told me the very first thing I had to do was make sure I got on the first bus taking troops to the ship. Don’t lollygag around like so many will do, trying to stay on dry land as long as possible.
Once that bus arrived at the ship, I was to board immediately and run with my duffle bag down into the quarters where 3,000 of us were sleeping. They said I wasn’t to expect a bed or a cot but a flat piece of canvas laced onto a rectangular metal pipe. You had a blanket and that was all the creature comforts you were to expect. The main thing I had to realize was that those canvas flats were stacked in racks of six. My card buddies told me to throw my duffle bag up on the top canvas flat, number six. No way was I to settle for the bottom or near the bottom flat. Granted they were easier to get in and out of while the top bunk involved some pretty awesome climbing.
My buddies then told me that I was not to tarry one minute but to run to the Chaplin’s office. Once there, I was to tell him I was an experienced librarian. They told me to lie if I had to because it was super important. Beg them to work in the ship’s library. Then once you get that nailed down, run back to your sleeping rack, climb up and remain like a lion guarding your territory until the boat is on its way.
My card guys buddies all left quickly over the next few days and the place started filling up with wide-eyed guys like me who were about to go on a 21-day voyage. Departure day soon arrived and we were taken on a bus to the docks where a gigantic hulk of a ship was parked waiting for me and my fellow cruisers. I did my best to get onto the first bus, which I did. Once aboard this gigantic old scow called the USS General Black, I ran as quickly as I could to the sleeping quarters. I threw my duffle bag into a number six bunk.
I took off running and found the Chaplin’s office. He wasn’t in but soon arrived. I told him I was a librarian and would love to work in the library. He told me he would be delighted to have me work for him as one of the six ship librarian. I was to report the next morning after breakfast and roll call. I thanked him profusely and took off running back to my sleeping area. I climbed up and watched the place fill up. Others ran for Bunk #6 as obviously they too had been told the scoop.
So the voyage commenced. The ship went up and down and back and forth. That was in the days before stabilizers had been invented and so we pitched and creaked in all different directions.
My knowledgeable friends in Camp Stoneman had told me two other pieces of useful information. Don’t go see the movies and don’t look overboard at the water. I didn’t follow their advice and went to the movie the first night. It was held outdoors on a big screen. The boat went up and down and instead of watching the movie, all you could see was that the movie went from having a background of sky to water to sky. In no time flat, thousands of sea sick lads were heaving, I among them. The next day I looked overboard and watched the water as the boat heaved up and down and before long I was too was heaving. So I cut that and movies out.
I had a wonderful time in the library. It was a super place to work. Everyone on board the General Black had to do some sort of work: latrine duty, KP, cleaning up after movie goers and you name it. One friend, Wendell, had KP and one of his duties was to actually get down into the big pots in his skivvies and wash them out while the ship heaved and he heaved. Some uncaring person as a joke, not me thank you, put a copy of the New Yorker magazine on his bunk turned to the full page ad of The French Line whose slogan was “Getting There Is Half The Fun.” I remember every time I saw Wendell I’d ask him how it was going and he’d say “lousy.”
Speaking of the bunks. I really found out how wonderful bunk number 6 was when we went through a typhoon about eleven days out. The ship bobbled like a cork. All the books were thrown off the shelves in the library and had to be restacked. That was bad but nothing compared to what other people like Wendell and Tommy Joe, another friend of mine, who had latrine duty, were enduring. And those bunks? During the typhoon I was safely up on top #6. Everyone below fell victim to a Niagara Fall of upchucking. The smell was not good but at least I kept nice and dry, thanks to my card- playing friends.
So, if you’re taking a cruise anytime soon think of how spoiled we are these days say to a troop ship in the 1950s bound with 3,000 youngsters to Yokohama.