2.1 Across the Atlantic

Thursday, June 15, 1944

Dearest Wife,

Forgive me using this paper and pencil. My pen ran dry (I clean forgot about bringing ink) and it’s a little easier to write in a notebook. I’ve been too busy to write until today, working 4 hours a day overtime in addition to my watches. But now we’re caught up and it’s pretty much a case of work when you want to.

I’ve tentatively planned out a daily program for myself as follows:

7:20 AM Get up, eat, and go on watch
11:30 AM Eat lunch (I’m still on watch, but I’m a standby)
12:00 Go to bed
2:00 PM Get up and practice seamanship (right now that consists of learning how to steer – when I learn I hope they’ll give me a regular wheel watch – then I’ll use this hour for signaling, knots, etc.)
3:00 PM Overtime work, personal work (laundry, etc.) or more seamanship
5:00 PM Supper
5:30 PM Study navigation, read, and write
8:00 PM Go on watch
12:00 Go to bed

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

The watch so far is just standby and lookout. Standby the first hour–lookout for two hours–and standby the last hour. Lookout is in the crows next in the daytime and in the bow at night. It’s a rather boring two hours, really–particularly so since there are so many lookouts. Navy men lookout all over the ship, and most of them have binoculars–we don’t. So you feel sure they’ll spot anything long before you do. Of course from the crows nest you do have a wider range, but even there the chances are the escort vessels would know anything far before you. At night, of course, the job is to watch the ships ahead and on either side and be sure they don’t come too close or go altogether out of sight. So far I haven’t had a thing to report from lookout.

I did have quite a scare the first night though. I saw a white streak heading for the bow of the ship and I thought, “well, this is it”. I felt a little silly but very relieved when it turned out to be just a porpoise in the phosphorescent sea. It did give me cause for thought, however. Since there I was faced (or so I thought) with a situation when seconds counted and all I could think was “this is it.” It doesn’t bode too well for a real emergency. The trouble I think, is that I don’t really believe anything can happen to me. I think, “this is it,” and it’s the same sort of situation as when in a dream I start to fall. It’s happened so often and I always either wake up or fly away so that I no longer have any fear–I know it isn’t really going to happen. And I suspect that’s about the same thing. The only cure I can think of is to plan each contingency ahead and to do it over and over again in my mind. That way I may be able to act promptly when the occasion arises–which I hope it won’t.

The primary function of the standby on watch is to listen for the whistle from the bridge and come a running. However, in the daytime, if there’s any work to be done the bosun can put you to work doing it. That was contrary to my expectations and I think it may be a difference between the SIU and the NMU. I’m not sure. That’s only between 8 and 5, however. Any other time -or Sundays–if you do deck work, even on standby, it’s overtime. Standby from 8 to 9 in the evening (That’s me) has charge of the blackout, which usually takes most of the hour. At 11PM I have to make coffee for the oncoming watch. Seaman certainly do like their coffee! And about 11:30 (AM & PM) the standby calls the next watch.

Friday, June 16, 1944

I’m writing in the mess hall tonight. And it sure is noisy. Tex does like to talk. But it’s a table to write on so I’ll have to do my best to ignore it. Yesterday I was out on deck, but it’s raining today.

I handled the wheel for the first time yesterday. And I didn’t do too badly. I hope to get a regular steering watch soon. -I’ll feel more useful than at lookout.

Finished reading 40 Days of Musa Dagh yesterday. It’s really quite a book, and very well written. I don’t know how much historical basis there is for the story. The individual characters are so true-to-life. No one is all good or all bad. And sometimes, as at the very end, bad actions have good results and vice-versa. The individual characters all reach appropriate ends, with one or two exceptions, but it still manages to be realistic. I started to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but had to give it up because the type is too small. So I’m reading some of Ibsen’s plays.

It’s now after supper and I’m writing in my bunk. The mess hall is too noisy and I don’t have the necessary powers of concentration–not that the room is quiet.

Things are pretty much under control on the ship now–which means no overtime for the present–so I slept all afternoon today. I’ve had about 45 hours so far, counting that in port–and at 90 cents an hour, that’s not hay. Even after taxes.

I don’t know whether it’s just this ship or all Liberty ships, but they don’t seem interested in keeping the ship up. The only work done on the ship is day to day necessary things. No painting or anything like that. Of course it may be that Liberty ships are only supposed to last the war–it may be different on the Victory and C-type ships.

We did do some painting though. We have a deck cargo, and as I said we pulled out without having it painted. The interesting thing was that we had no decent brushes so we worked part of it with mops. My shoes don’t look like they used to! We painted it for security, of course–the unpainted wood made a nice light target against the dark sea.

Saturday, June 17, 1944

I’m trying the mess hall again -this time against poker game. How those boys do play – all their free time and high stakes. Sometimes a single pot will have 50 or 60 dollars cash in it.

Finished reading Ibsen’s plays today. They’re not particularly cheerful numbers, but still pleasant reading. Although reading plays is never too satisfactory.

Also read an article by Hutchins in a recent magazine and spent most of my time on lookout criticizing it. His outlook strikes me as very similar to Hilton’s Shangri La. The idea of an ultimate perfection of a few (and incidentally I’m not at all sure I care for his ultimate perfection, but that’s beside the point) with no provision made for the many. And if war doesn’t demonstrate the complete impossibility of that situation, I don’t know what does. His article is also unfair in that it argues against a strict trade-school approach to education without considering the possibility that there might be any sort of system which embodies both an appreciation of the past with a practical approach to the present and future.

I suppose you might like some idea of the ship. The over all picture is 5 holds -3 forward and 2 aft of the main superstructure in which are the quarters, galley, mess halls, and bridge. The only other superstructure is the one story navy quarters in the stern. In the very bow is the fore-peak–three layers below deck and forward of the collision bulkhead. The top two layers are storage space for lines, etc. and the bottom one is a tank. Then come 2 large holds served by the foremast, on which is located the crows nest. No. 3 hold is a smaller one, then comes the main house. On the main deck are crew’s quarters, galley, and mess rooms. Below deck is the engine room. On the second or boat deck are officer’s quarters and auxiliary navy quarters. Next is the hurricane deck with Captain’s quarters, chart room and regular bridge. And finally on top is the flying bridge–used in fair weather. Each deck is smaller than the one below. Number 4 and 5 holds are served by the same mast and then the navy quarters. In the very stern the steering engine room is used as an auxiliary store room. Also, each mast is stepped in a tabernacle–inside of which are storage lockers. Mounted on the deck and cargo and bridge are numerous gun turrets.  Over each hatch but #3 is a good-sized box of deck cargo and beside the holds are some trucks as additional deck cargo. Catwalks have been constructed to make it easier to get around the trucks.

Our cargo is mostly the sort that one doesn’t need to think twice about. One hit and we’ll need parachutes–not lifeboats. Bombs of all sorts and sizes and a good chunk of detonators just to make sure. And you didn’t want me to sail on a tanker! Deck cargo is plane gas tanks and the above mentioned trucks.

Monday, June 19, 1944

There’s a wonderful satisfaction in being able to put to use some of the seamanship I’m so painfully acquiring. This morning I carried one end of a line aloft and the problem was how to carry it. Without having to fumble around with different ideas I just tied a small bowline and put my wrist thru, thus leaving both hands free for climbing. A small thing–yet if I hadn’t know then bowline I might have fumbled around quite a while and wound up with something not as satisfactory.

Speaking of seamanship, I’ve got a good system for getting my AB. The bosun is thinking of going to officer’s school, and so I teach him math and he teaches me seamanship. I hope I don’t have as far to go as he does–the first two lessons have been in long division! But he really seems to want to learn. And I sure want to learn seamanship and learn it well. I don’t just want an AB’s ticket–I want to know my stuff. My reasons are not only so I can take a pride in my work (although that would be enough) but I figure the better AB I am the more chance I have o getting recommended to Fort Trumbull. Also in the back of my mind is the thought of getting some help in navigation from the master ormates on my next ship.

Two physical facts have pleased me so far. One is that I’ve yet to get sea sick (knock-knock). I fully expect to, but I’ve ridden out some pretty good sized swells so far. Part of it is due to the fact that I’ve been eating hearty and regular–and part to the fact I’m keeping busy. And part may be pride–no one else has been sick yet.

The other is my lack of vertigo. I have a respect for high places–but no fear at all. Of course we don’t have any real high ones, but I make the 40 foot climb up to the crows nest without thinking about it–and this morning I was up on top of the crows nest with the line I mentioned above.

I’m now a daytime helmsman. Yesterday I took the wheel for an hour under supervision, and today I started a regular watch. So the daytime watch is now an hour and twenty minutes each of wheel, lookout, and standby. In a week or so I hope to stand a night watch also.

I read The Scarlet Letter yesterday–the reason I didn’t write. It’s the sort of story that’s hard to put down. A study of the effects of sin. It’s hard to make it seem as real as 40 Days, however. Although the one is something entirely beyond my experience, the external events are the only ones strange. I can imagine myself thinking similarly to Gabriel Bagradian if I were in his circumstances. But in the Letter, the focus of the entire story is internal–and the entire concept of Sin–the whole theme of the book–is foreign to my imagination. Just for fun I tried to visualize myself in the predicament of each of the two men–and my thoughts and actions would have been very different. In the preacher’s place I would not have wasted away with remorse, but would have sought practical means of achieving the happiness I would feel a right to. The problem is more difficult in the case of the husband, for I cannot imagine you as unfaithful to me–but I’m sure my motives would not be revenge, but rather a serious attempt to work out whatever solution seemed practical and best for yours and my happiness.

Tuesday, June 20, 1944

If I didn’t do this writing every day, I think I’d lose all track of time. One day is just like another as far as the routine goes.

I wonder what kind of weather you’ve been having in New York. Cool is the most flattering word to describe out the climate so far. In fact, today is the first day in quite a while that has even been sunny. Even in the daytime and working I usually wear a shirt, and on the evening watch it’s usually shirt, sweater, and pea jacket. Today has been a little better, though. Right now I’m sitting on the port side of the deck which has the advantage of being both the lee and sunny side.

The figure at the right is an approximate idea of the crows nest. It’s about 7 feet high and 3 to 4 feet across and is located on the crosstree at the top of the fore-mast–about 40 feet above the main deck. In chilly or rainy weather one goes in the door and looks out thru the slit between the walls and the roof. In nice weather one can sit or stand on the cross trees beside the crows nest or better still climb on top of it. It is breezy on top, but one gets the full benefit of the sun. That’s where I was this morning.

Yesterday we did some overtime work for a change. Rigging the jumbo boom. The jumbo boom is a single extra-heavy boom used as a derrick for handling extra large pieces of cargo. Rigging it (or the particular job we’re doing now, anyhow) involves getting 2 five-fold metal blocks each weighing close to a ton, and about a thousand pounds of wire cable all into place. The blocks were quite a bit away from where we wanted them, and it was really fun moving them. First we tried dragging them by hand, using a 3 to 1 advantage and 6 or so pulling. But we didn’t get far. Next we used the sinch, rigging up two fairleads so that we could pull in the desired direction. Worked fine for a while, until with a crack the catwalk collapsed. We finally dragged in along the deck beside the catwalk but all in all it took all day to move one block about 30 yards. This morning, profiting by experience, the other block was moved comparatively easily, and Chips has already repaired the cat walk.

Friday, June 23, 1944

Been working overtime all week, and so no chance to write. We’ve been rigging the other jumbo boom, and it’s just about as big a job as the first. Haven’t finished yet. Working overtime all afternoon throws my schedule out of kilt. Cause then I have to sleep after supper and as a result I don’t get any reading, writing, or studying done. But an afternoon’s work means about $2.70 in the bank, so it’s worth it.

Another reason for not writing has been the weather. Wednesday was perfect, but yesterday was cold and rainy. Which means I can’t write outside, and it’s pretty hard to find a place inside. I can read over a disturbance, but writing and studying are another matter. And the things they talk about! Some of it might even shock you, Thea. I’m beginning to realize all the things I’ve missed (or not experienced, rather–missed implies a regret at not having done something) by being brought up as I was. And I also realize what they’re missing. Anyone who’s been through all that some of them have couldn’t possibly appreciate the pleasures of a married life–especially to be married to such a wonderful person as you, my wife. There was something I read in Don Quixote that made me think of you, Thea. Where he ways his lady is beautiful that to look at her makes all the extravagant things poets say about their loves seem not the least incredible.

The Atlantic Ocean is a hell of a lot of water!

There’s a lot of pretty swell fellows aboard, though. A lot of them may have different backgrounds than I, but basically they’re all so friendly and easy to get along with. Which after all is the important thing aboard a ship.

Take Ed Emery, known aboard as Tex, for instance (I don’t mean take him literally–you better not trying taking anyone but me!). Born and brought up in the South–Texas and Carolina–he’s about 25 or so. Was in the Navy before the war and got an MD because of a head injury. He’s on my watch so I have quite a chance to talk with him. And he does love to talk. About his past and future both. His past is interesting but not very printable. Suffice it to say that from high school on he’s had doings with queers, prostitutes, pickups, and virgins. No particular motivation in life except to have a good time. Easy come, easy go. Likes to gamble–in fact I’ve made some money by his gambling. He’ll be in the middle of a card game and pay me to stand part of his watch for him. His idea of the ideal future is for about 3 fellows to own a small sailing cargo ship and haul where they please. West Indies, South America, West Coast, Alaska. To make life more interesting he proposes they should each have a girl aboard–might even marry her if he still likes her after a few trips. Like us to be part of his crew, beautiful? That sort of life appeal to you? Although even Tex admits it might not be a very good place to raise a family. It’s funny, but most of these men are older than I in years–and yet in some ways I’m more mature than they are.

Heard a good story the other day (this had probably better be censored. In fact, I’d better not put it on paper at all. Remind me to tell you about the woman who brought the rabbit catchup when I get home. Also the one about the drunk who got lost in the forest.)

*Image* Typical day of a typical sailor on the 8 to 12 watch.

Sunday, June 25, 1944

It’s interesting how being at sea brings out a hirsute ambition in many men. I don’t just mean the laziness of not wanting to shave. Everyone here shaves at least once a week–most of us about twice. But the collection of beards and mustaches that abounds is truly awe-inspiring. You should really see the formidable lipgrowth on the mug of your loving husband. It’s the kind I’ve always wanted to grow but never been allowed to in society. By the time I get back it should really be enough to frighten little children. But cheer up, my sweet. You shall never see it in its pristine (or primeval) glory. I want to impress you with my new uniform too much.

I’m now standing regular wheel watches, both day and night. 80 minutes each on wheel, lookout and standby, and we rotate the order in which we stand them.

I just finished reading Ill Wind by James Hilton. Like the rest of his stuff which I’ve read it’s got an interesting idea but falls just short of being really good. The theory is that small events can often change the course of history–which while it’s not a new idea, is still capable of interesting developments. It’s really a series of short stories in which the main character in each story affects the life of the main character in the next. It starts with a man’s hat blowing off in a small British colony in the East and leads on to an attempted assassination in France. The connecting threads are on the whole subtle and well done–sometimes being an important event and sometimes merely a matter of timing. One chief fault is that one character in particular figures out of proportion. He is an important part of 3 episodes while all the others are important in only one. And yet he is not by any means a central character of the story. Had the book ended where he did, it might have seemed complete, or had he a less important part it might have seemed smooth-flowing. And the ending as it is is not satisfactory. It gives neither a feeling of finality or importance, nor one of indefinitely continuing action.

Many of the stories are rather morbid. Similar to Somerset Maugham’s short stories, and yet not as well written. Maugham’s morbidity has an originality and conciseness about it which this definitely lacks.

There’s an undercurrent of social unrest in the whole thing, too. The decadence of the depression years is brought out, and yet it’s a purely pessimistic approach. There is no particular hope held out for the future, particularly for the future of democracy. All in all, I should say it’s not worth bothering with.

For an interesting and true example of small things and history, read the story of a French soldier in Napoleon’s army in Joseph Gollobm’s Spies. (I think we have it at Roslyn. The whole book is quite good, by the way).

There’s a moon in the early evening now. It’s very pretty up in the sky but I wish it weren’t there. We’ll get a full moon just about when he hit the Mediterranean. Which makes us perfect targets for subs at night. On the other hand, it’s better in case of a plane attack. Planes can get us by dropping flares on a dark night, and with the moon we’ve got a better chance to fight back. Oh well–one must be fatalistic about such matters. I wouldn’t write this to you except that you won’t get to read it until it’s all over and I’m safe at home again.

Stars at night
Shining bright
These, my love, are my delight

When at sea
Though dark it be,
Stars will help me home to thee.

Then we’ll view–
Me and you–
Stars up in a heavenly blue.

Moon on high
In the sky
Tell my love for her I sigh.