The Way It Was The story of the U.S. Naval Armed Guard Service is not well known. Over the years, a book or two on the subject has found its way into print, but I know of none that has been a best-seller. Even the Armed Guard heroes -- and there were more than a few -- were known for the most part only to their shipmates. So what follows here is not likely to attract great numbers of readers, but it may help an old sailor here and there to explain to his grandchildren what he did in that long-ago war that began, for us, with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. At the outset it might be wise to clarify what the Armed Guard was. The words could call up an image of a sailor in web belt and leggings, a rifle over his shoulder, marching back and forth at the entrance to a Navy base. It is doubtful, however, that any member of the Armed Guard ever carried out any such assignment. The Armed Guard was made up primarily of men who manned the guns on merchant ships. These ships were mostly tankers and freighters but also included passenger liners fitted out as troop transports. The men who made up their crews -- officers, deck hands, oilers, cooks -- were civilians. There were instances of friction between Navy and merchant sailors, but they were relatively rare. Gunner and merchant sailor faced the same dangers, and both knew the time might come when their survival might well depend on the other. Not everyone in the Armed Guard dealt with guns. There were signalmen, too, and radiomen, even a few pharmacist's mates. And virtually every Armed Guard crew was commanded by a commissioned officer, in most cases a young ensign or lieutenant (j.g.) recently removed from a college campus. Regardless of rank or rating, these men shared the same hardships. Today they share the memories. The memories are as varied as the men themselves, who came from every corner of the country and every sort of background. Most were young, not yet in their twenties, and many had grown up far from salt water and had never so much as sniffed salt air. Still, they took to the sea like so many Gloucestermen, and they look back with pride and satisfaction on the months and years they spent at sea -- often actually in the sea after being torpedoed and forced to take to the boats and rafts. It was the best of times and the worst of times: liberty in exotic ports far from the war, standing alone in the ship's bow in the dark of night, watching the bow wave curl away in a streak of phosphorent bubbles, or watching in terror after sighting first a periscope and then the unmistakable wake of a torpedo headed your way, or seeing a flight of Messerschmitt 109s banking into a turn that would bring your ship under their guns. Much of it was in-between, neither altogether good nor altogether bad. It was long, wearying hours on watch, maybe in a forward gun tub, or on the flying bridge, maybe in warm, bright sunshine, maybe in frigid, impenetrable gloom. Anyone who went to sea with the Armed Guard will remember dragging himself from his bunk and to his general-quarters station at dawn and again at dusk, day after day, because U-boat skippers favored those times. Never mind that you had just come off watch and had had no sleep for hours. It isn't likely that many young men enlisted in the Navy with the Armed Guard in mind. It isn't likely that many had ever heard of the Armed Guard. The great majority were probably sworn in and went off to boot camp with a vision of going into action on board a fighting ship -- a destroyer, a cruiser, a carrier -- getting even for that sneaky blow dealt by the Japanese on the morning of December 7, 1941. After six or eight weeks of boot camp -- what soldiers call basic training -- some recruits were sent directly to the fleet to chip paint and swab decks and learn on the job one of the Navy's specialized skills. Others were sent to a school, sometimes a school of their choice, where they were taught to be cooks and bakers, yeomen, storekeepers, electricians, machinists. Some went, voluntarily or not, to the Armed Guard. They were given a few weeks of training on the weapons they would use, and then transferred to an Armed Guard Center -- a receiving station in Brooklyn or San Francisco or New Orleans -- where they were formed up in gun crews and assigned to ships. In the early months of the war our merchant fleet was small and old, and there was little in the way of armament available. What there was consisted of leftovers from the 1917 war -- .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and four- and five-inch guns. As the ships were armed, a handful of men were pulled out of the Navy and put aboard these ships to maintain and operate the guns. In those early weeks of the war, a gun crew might number no more than half a dozen seamen under a gunner's mate second or third class. Soon, as new ships began moving down the ways in shipyards on both coasts, they were equipped with up-to-the-minute weapons. Most of the new ships carried a three-inch gun forward and a five-inch gun aft; both were multipurpose, effective against targets in the air and on the surface. Together with these were eight 20-mm. machine guns, usually two forward, four amidships and two aft. And as the new men became available, the gun crews grew, finally averaging about 26 men plus an officer, not including signalmen and radiomen. Of these latter, there might be one or as many as three to a ship. The convoy system was not widely employed in the vast reaches of the Pacific. Except when taking part in invasions, merchant ships usually proceded independently. But for much of the war virtually every ship that put to sea in the Atlantic joined a convoy. Often these included as many as sixty ships in orderly ranks and files shepherded by U.S., Canadian and Royal Navy escorts. U-boats picked them off almost at will in the early months of the war. In a single year, 1942, the Allies lost 7.5 million tons of shipping to U-boats. In August of that year one convoy lost 26 ships, another 15. As late as March 1943, in an encounter involving the war's greatest concentration of German submarines, 44 U-boats in "wolf packs" attacked convoys SC-122 and HX-229 in the North Atlantic and destroyed 22 Allied ships -- 146 ,000 tons in all.. For all who went to sea in merchant ships, the destinations Murmansk and Archangel topped the list of places no one wanted to go. These ports in the Soviet Union's far north could be reached only at great risk, yet it was through them that the Western Allies supplied the Soviet forces with much of the weaponry they threw against the German invader. Day after day, ships en route to Murmansk were attacked by aircraft, submarines, and surface ships. In June 1942 Convoy PQ17, made up of 33 merchantmen -- 22 of them flying the U.S. flag -- departed Hvalfjord, Iceland, en route to Archangel. Although escorted by destroyers, corvettes, submarines, and minesweepers, only 11 merchantmen and two warships reached their destination. Even those that made it were not home free; there remained the return voyage. Although losses declined as anti-submarine warfare techniques improved, German U-boats continued to take a toll into the final days of the war. Their last victim, S.S. Black Point, a freighter, was sunk off Point Judith, Rhode Island, on May 5, 1945. Twelve of the Black Point's people were lost, including an Armed Guard boatswain's mate named Lonnie Whitson Lloyd, who had survived an earlier sinking off Ireland in 1943 en route home from Murmansk. By war's end, 144,970 men had served with the Armed Guard. A document in the archives of the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. calls the story of the Armed Guard "as thrilling a story of triumph over difficulties, of heroism, devotion to duty, sacrifice, and courage as exists in the annals of the nation." And it goes on to say that the story, "which for reasons of military security was veiled in secrecy during the war, deserves to be told." What follows is at least a part of it. - 0 - Thomas R. Bowerman Tom Bowerman spends much of his time at the computer these days, searching, informing, advising. There was a time though, before the computer, that he worked with heavier equipment -- guns. In World War II Bowerman was a gunner's mate with the U.S. Navy Armed Guard Service. He served on five ships and saw a good bit of the world, including parts of it that were visited by few other servicemen. He saw good times and bad, and survived. He was no stranger to hard times. Thomas R. Bowerman was born April 6, 1922, in Pensacola, Florida, just in time to spend his formative years in the worst of times, the Great Depression. Like many others, his father found it hard to find and hold a job, so the Bowermans moved from place to place, to Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Arkansas, to Alabama. They fetched up, finally, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and there they stayed. Bowerman remembers the Tuscaloosa years as the best of his boyhood. He went through high school there, made friends there, and graduated just in time to have a couple of years of growing up before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought us abruptly into the war. Those last pre-war years were instructive if not altogether pleasant. They were spent in the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, mostly at camps in the mountains of Washington. There Bowerman learned a variety of skills. He learned to cook, something of plumbing and electrical work, even a bit about auditing books. And it was there that he really grew up. Upon arrival he weighed 122 pounds; by the time he left two years later he had put on almost 100 more. Back in Tuscaloosa, he tried to enlist but was rejected in turn by the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps. Flat feet, the examining medics said. For a time he drove a truck, hauling mail, then tried again at the Navy recruiting station. This time the medics overlooked his feet, and off he went to San Diego and boot camp -- recruit training. Did it occur to him that he might be killed in combat? "I thought I was immortal," he said not long ago. Even now, in his 80s, he says, "In my heart I still feel like the 20-year-old I've always been." After boot camp came gunnery training and assignment to the Armed Guard. Like many others, Bowerman had never heard of the Armed Guard and was taken aback to learn that he would go to sea on merchant ships. At the Armed Guard Center in San Francisco he was promptly ordered to the S.S. Charles M. Hall, a brand-new Liberty ship. On it he would call on such places as Palmyra and American and British Samoa, and a port in Chile to take on nitrate to be carried through the Panama Canal and to New York. It was not exciting: watch on watch and keeping the guns in order. In New York Bowerman was relieved and reported to the Brooklyn Armed Center, where within days he drew another ship, the S.S. Esso Nashville, a rebuilt tanker that had been torpedoed in March 1942. It took him back and forth across the Atlantic. He recalls being severely beaten by the patrons of an English pub. For the gun crew, the Esso Nashville was not a happy ship. Bowerman and others were ordered -- and refused -- to wash the gunnery officer's sox and underwear. Armed Guard gun crews rarely spent more than a few months on any ships, although there were exceptions, and soon Bowerman found himself assigned to another Liberty ship, the S.S. Charles Sumner. Here the gunnery officer was more considerate of his men. Bowerman served next on the S.S. Lewis Luckenbach, a German-built freighter he remembers for its relatively luxurious paneled crew's quarters and still more visits to England. Finally came assignment to another tanker, the S.S. Esso Providence. On this ship Bowerman called on ports in "every country in South America except Paraguay," and even steamed around Cape Horn at the continent's southern tip, encountering what "has to be the roughest water in the world." As it developed, there were problems that made rough weather seem insignificant. En route to Montevideo, Uruguay, the Esso Providence was torpedoed. Her rudder was blown away and she was towed into Fortaleza, in northeastern Brazil. By the time Bowerman got back to Brooklyn the Atlantic war had ended and he was sent to a receiving station in California to await assignment for the expected invasion of Japan. It never came, and Bowerman went instead to Galveston, Texas, where he spent his last five months in uniform disarming merchant ships. One night a week he served as junior officer of the day, and he fondly recalls the night he ordered several ships to sea as escort for an aircraft carrier while the OD slept several floors above him. Discharged and back in Tuscaloosa, Bowerman found himself like many veterans at loose ends. He reenlisted, first in the Army Air Corps and later in what had become the Air Force, but found neither to be satisfying. He returned to Tuscaloosa, where he enrolled at the University of Alabama. Two-and-a-half years of hard work earned him a degree in accounting, which opened the door to a job as auditor with the Government Accounting Office in Atlanta and, ultimately, to the Army Ordnance Depot at Anniston, Alabama. At Anniston he met Frances, the woman he would marry, and learned among other things the mysteries of the computer. Now, well into retirement, Tom Bowerman maintains an elaborate Internet Web site that reaches out to Armed Guard veterans. He locates them, helps them avail themselves of government benefits, helps them find old shipmates. And he lends a still-strong shoulder to lean on when old men he's never seen but thinks of as shipmates need a word of condolence. - 0 - Sherman K. (Ken) Given It isn't at all likely that, as a boy in Wisconsin, Sherman (Ken) Given imagined himself adrift in a boat far out in the Indian Ocean. Yet on the afternoon of March 13, 1944, he found himself in exactly those circumstances. Given, a U.S. Navy signalman, recognized the grim reality: His ship, the tanker H.D. Collier, had been torpedoed en route to Bombay, and Given and a handful of others who had managed to get free of the condemned ship looked on as she disappeared beneath the surface, leaving only a pall of black smoke and bits of wreckage. The H.D. Collier had been steaming independently, without escort, and damage caused by the exploding torpedo had prevented the radio officer from sending a distress signal. She was still days from her destination, 170 miles from the nearest port. Fire had crippled Given’s boat and destroyed much of the equipment and supplies in it. "I never lost confidence," he would say many years later, "that I'd survive." Given, then 20, had grown up far from any ocean. He was born on a farm near Hortonville, Wisconsin, then moved with his family to nearby Appleton, where his father owned a jewelry and watch-repair shop. Like most of his generation, he has vivid memories of the hardships brought on by the Great Depression. In the fall of 1942, less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, Given enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Farragut, Idaho, for recruit training, then on to San Francisco to learn to be a signalman. Upon being rated signalman third class, he was assigned to the Armed Guard, the branch of the Navy that put gunners and communications personnel on board merchant ships. Soon he was ordered to the tanker Collier. S.S. H.D. Collier, named for an owner of the Standard Oil Co. of California, displaced 8,298 tons and was 444 feet in length. She was built in 1938 at Chester, Pa., for the Standard Oil Co. of California. Now, with a crew of 43 plus 28 men of the Armed Guard, she steamed out to the Southwest Pacific. She called at ports in Australia, then on into the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, much of the time moving gasoline from Abadan, in Iran, to ports in India. In exotic places like Ceylon and Mombassa and Zanzibar, Given was learning about the world. Life at sea was largely uneventful -- until 1:20 p.m. on March 13. 1944. At that hour the submarine I-26 of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a torpedo that found the Collier and exploded on its port side, ripping a hole in the hull that would prove fatal. When the torpedo exploded, Given was amidships, engaged in a game of chess with a member of the gun crew. Only minutes earlier both had been at lunch in the mess room, at the stern of the ship, and had they dallied there might well have failed to survive. The explosion sent a tower of flame mast-high and the fire quickly engulfed the after part of the ship, then moved forward. Ens. William Elwell, the gun crew’s commanding officer, said in his report of the incident that no formal order was ever given to abandon ship. Some men jumped into the sea and others set about trying to launch the ship’s boats and life rafts. Given remembers seeing some of his shipmates kneeling on the deck in prayer and exhorting them to turn instead to trying to get a raft into the sea. Given and some others managed to launch a boat but, because the ship was still under way, the boat was swamped. He then found his way to a raft and, later, to a boat that had been severely damaged by fire. As he and his shipmates looked on, the Collier’s bow rose high in the air and she disappeared from sight, but not before the I-26 surfaced and got off eight or ten rounds at the Collier with its deck gun. It appeared to score no hits. Lifeboats are customarily equipped with fresh water, rations of a sort, a sail and other items, not least fishing lines and hooks. All this had been wiped out in Given’s boat. As luck would have it, when the Collier sank a raft was thrown clear and on it the men in Given’s boat found fresh water, tins of unappetizing but sustaining pemmican, and the material to fashion a replacement for the damaged rudder and rig a sail. It would be enough. Given never doubted that. There were times, though, when it looked as though luck might have run out. When a British patrol plane appeared off toward the horizon, Given fired a flare from the Very pistol that had been recovered from the raft, only to see it rise and fall like a stone into the sea, its parachute unopened. He took apart a remaining flare cartridge and found the parachute labeled, ironically, “made in Japan.” On March 23, ten days after the Collier was torpedoed, Given and the others in his boat were picked by the S.S. Karagola, a British freighter, and put ashore at Bombay on the 24th. Of the 71 men who had made up the ship’s crew and gun crew, 45 were lost, including 10 Navy men. For Given, the war did not end there. He would go to sea again in a Brazilian freighter, S.S., Emilia, and in USAT Bienville, a troopship. He would get to know ports in South America and Europe. On Jan. 12, 1946, the war having ended, he would be discharged. The years since the war have been no less interesting for Given. He became an electrical engineer and has traveled abroad, professionally and for pleasure, to countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. In retirement, he lives with his wife, Clare, in Van Nuys. On rare occasions, he will dig out an old photograph shot by a young gunnery officer from a lifeboat that shows the tanker H.D. Collier, belching flame and black smoke, just before she went down off India. The image is still painful to look at. It helps, though, to know that the submarine that fired the torpedo into the Collier was itself sunk before the year was out. On Dec. 17, 1944, the destroyer escort Lawrence C. Taylor and torpedo planes from the escort carrier Anzio attacked and sank the I-26 off Palau in the Philippines. All hands are presumed to have been lost. - 0 - Carl E. Wopschall Thinking back to the war, and his part in it, Carl Wopschall says, "I'm glad I did it, but I wouldn't want to do it again." Few would, in light of his experience. Wopschall was a gunnery officer in the U.S. Naval Armed Guard Service. Like other veterans of service with the Armed Guard, he remembers calling at out-of-the way places like Tocapilla, a nitrate port in Chile, but hostile places, too, among them Leyte, in the Philippines, and Okinawa. He remembers being bombed and strafed by Japanese aircraft, including kamikazes, and he remembers that his gunners brought down a couple of them. Wopschall probably could have stayed out of uniform. When the attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into the war, he was practicing law in Pasadena, California, and his draft classification was 4-F. Because of a bad knee, he was considered unfit for military service. Still, on a December day in 1942 he left his office and made his way to a Naval Reserve Center in Los Angeles where he applied for a commission in the Naval Reserve. To his surprise, he was accepted and, not long afterward, ordered to Tucson for indoctrination as an ensign in the naval reserve. From there he went to San Francisco to learn something about the guns mounted on merchant ships. There was a bit more instruction in San Diego, then back to San Francisco and assignment to the S.S. Benjamin R. Curtis, a Liberty ship. Wopschall acquired his sea legs in the Curtis, making several round trips to Hawaii, then steaming out to the New Hebrides and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, then on to Chile for a cargo of nitrate to be offloaded in New Orleans. There he left the ship and returned to San Francisco, where he was assigned to the S.S. Joe C.S. Blackburn, another Liberty, in which he would spend the next 14 months, largely in the South Pacific. It was in the Blackburn, at Morotai in the Dutch East Indies, that Wopschall's gunners would be credited with their first kill, a Japanese fighter. They would get another soon afterward off Leyte in the Philippines, where General Douglas MacArthur carried out his promised return to the Philippines. Back in San Francisco, Wopschall was assigned to the S.S. Wayne Victory, which was skippered by a Captain Murray, who had been first mate on the S.S. Robin Moor, which was torpedoed and sunk in the South Atlantic on May 21, 1941, before the United States entered the war. Murray would take the Wayne Victory to, among other places, Okinawa, where invading forces had to contend not only with suicidal kamikaze Japanese pilots but a destructive typhoon. Wopschall remembers that the winds across Buckner Bay "ripped the heavy canvas covers off the 20-mm. guns," and tore the bow section off a power boat secured to the Wayne Victory's stern. All these years later, he recalls details that are clearer in his mind than the names of people he met as recently as yesterday. He remembers one of his young gunners who went ashore on Biak, an island off northern New Guinea, and foolishly set about exploring a cave the Japanese infantry had not altogether abandoned. One of the lurking Japanese hurled a grenade and the other opened fire. The grenade injured no one, but Wopschall's gunner was slightly wounded in an arm and creased across his belly by the gunfire. Back on board the Wayne Victory he suggested that his wounds might be deserving of a Purple Heart. Wopschall, although sympathetic, countered that the young man was lucky not to be court-martialed for being where he had no business being. For Wopschall, by now a lieutenant, the war ended at Buckner Bay, and he soon found himself back in San Francisco, restored to the reserve list and again practicing law in Pasadena. At times, his mind wanders back to his days as a naval officer among officers of the merchant service; others talk of difficulties with this relationship, but Wopschall says he "got along just fine" with the ship's officers. "Every night for months," he says, "I played gin rummy with the radio officer." Two of the men who served in his gun crews have been in touch with him, and he continues to exchange letters with one of them. On occasion, he thinks back to the day when, anchored off Pitcairn Island, he listened to a short wave broadcast of the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. Understandably, it didn't occur to him at the time that he might one day serve as president of the Rose Parade, which traditionally precedes the game. But he did. After practicing law for more than 40 years -- civil law, although, he says, jokingly, that some of his colleagues might have thought it criminal -- Wopschall retired in 1984 and lives in Altadena, a Pasadena suburb. - 0 - Pete C. Sorensen In World War II, a good many naval aviators were trained at an air station not far from Beeville, Texas, where Pete Sorensen was born and reared. Sorensen, however, had enlisted in the first weeks of 1942, months before flight training began there. His was not to be the "brown shoe" Navy. Most of the aircraft he would see in the years ahead were targets to be shot down if at all possible. Sorensen had thought about enlisting even before the war. His father, a native of Denmark, had been a merchant seaman as a young man, although blacksmithing is what he did in Beeville. It was then a town of scarcely 3,000 people, and had been hard hit by the Great Depression. Sorensen recalls what for him was the unusual luxury of the Pullman car that took him to San Diego and boot training. Men were sorely needed at sea in those early months of the war, so boot camp was cut short after five weeks, and Sorensen was sent off to San Francisco to learn how to be a signalman. As it developed, though, flashing light -- part of the signalman's stock in trade -- bothered Sorensen's eyes and he was soon moved on to gunnery training. This, as he remembers it, lasted all of three hours before he was assigned to an Armed Guard crew on board the M.S. Island Mail. The Island Mail never left her berth while Sorensen was on board, and he was soon transferred to the S.S.Columbia at Seattle. On the Columbia, a passenger ship converted for service as a troop carrier, he would spend the next 14 months shuttling between Seattle and Alaska. Growing up in South Texas, Sorensen had not experienced severe cold, "had never seen snow." He would get to know both on the Columbia. In those 14 months on her he made 14 round trips, carrying troops and cargo north and sometimes returning with prisoners and casualties of the invasion of Japanese-occupied Attu in the Aleutian Islands. From the Columbia, Sorensen went to the S.S. Daniel G. Reid, a Liberty ship, which he boarded at San Francisco. Almost immediately, she got under way for the South Pacific, and it was for Sorensen "a relief to get out of that Alaskan weather." The warm weather lasted for eight months as the Daniel G. Reid, steamed from island to island in the Solomons -- Guadalcanal and Bougainville as well as others -- transporting whatever was available to wherever it was needed. The one break in this routine took the ship to New Zealand and liberty for all hands in Auckland. When the Daniel G. Reid finally got back to San Francisco, Sorensen was reassigned, now to a troop transport with the proud name S.S. Dashing Wave. A dashing lady sailor was painted on her stack but the name in fact derived from earlier ships that had borne that name, including a China clipper in the tea trade and a blockade-running brig of Civil War notoriety. It was as a member of the Dashing Wave's gun crew that Sorensen would earn two battle stars for his Pacific campaign ribbon. For she took him to places like Eniwetok, Ulithi, Saipan and Tinian; also to Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Ie Shima, the speck of an island where a Japanese bullet found newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle. At both Okinawa and Iwo Jima the Dashing Wave came under fire from artillery on the beach, and at Okinawa, along with a lot of other men, Sorensen learned about Kamikazes, the Japanese suicide pilots who flew their explosives-packed aircraft into whatever target presented itself. But it was at Iwo that the Dashing Wave was hit and damaged -- not directly because of enemy action but in a collision with another ship, which slammed against her with such force that some of her plates were buckled. The damage happened to be in the very part of the ship where Sorensen bunked -- he "could see daylight" through an opening -- but was fortunately above the water line. She was able to make it back to a West Coast shipyard for repairs. With the end of the war, Sorensen returned to Texas, where he found himself like many others a civilian with skills useful only in wartime. He worked for a time as a builder of oil-field rigs on the King ranch, then as a salesman with a firm that published city directories, but soon concluded that his future lay not in Texas. Going back to California, he tried property management, freelancing as a television news cameraman, even prospecting for gold and uranium. Finally, he went to work helping to maintain buildings and grounds for the Los Angeles school system It was challenging work, dealing with more than 600 schools scattered over about 400 square miles. But Sorensen liked it. He stayed on for 27 years, winding up as acting building and grounds administrator. He retired in 1989. Now and then, as he sorts through the papers and letters and ship's logs he has accumulated, Sorensen thinks about all the turning points that have made a difference in his life. He wonders, for one thing, what course his life might have taken if he had been sent to boot camp at Great Lakes instead of San Diego -- it could have happened that way -- and gone to another Navy assignment, or gone to the Armed Guard in the Atlantic rather than the Pacific. It would have meant meeting different people, seeing different places, encountering different opportunities. And it could have been a lot worse than the way it has turned out. Sorensen has few regrets. - 0 - Convoy to Russia In histories of the Battle of the Atlantic, a single incident is often cited to portray the perils encountered by Allied merchant ships. This relates to a convoy designated PQ17, which set out from Iceland in June 1942 and headed for ports above the Arctic Circle in Soviet Russia. The convoys to Russia, initiated after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, delivered hundreds of thousands of tons of vital food supplies and war materiel to the beleaguered Soviet government. Of necessity, they passed within range of land-based aircraft in German-occupied Norway and through waters controlled by German submarines and surface ships. Of the 33 merchantmen that made up PQ17, only 11 arrived safely in Murmansk and Archangel. In the holds and on the weather decks of the ships that made up the convoy were 594 tanks, 297 aircraft, more than 4,200 trucks and other vehicles, and more than 150,000 tons of miscellaneous cargo. The total value was estimated at 700 million 1942 dollars. Scarcely a third of it was delivered. PQ17 was just one of scores of such convoys, and it stands out only because of the extent of the losses. Other convoys lost fewer ships and delivered more of their cargo, yet they were subjected to attacks no less severe or determined. A gripping account of what it was like on board a ship fated to take on cargo consigned to Russia has come down to us from a young Armed Guard gunnery officer, Ensign Norman Adams Jr. If Adams is alive today, he might clear up a question or two -- the name of his ship, for example, and the time-frame of his experience on board her -- but efforts to find him have been unsuccessful. His ship is identified only as a freighter, and it can be assumed that the time was early in the war, for he refers to .30- and .50-caliber machine guns, which were quickly replaced on most merchant ships by heavier weapons. Adams' story was first related by the writer Edwin Muller, and was reprinted in Reader's Digest from the Nautical Gazette. It appears, too, on Tom Bowerman's web site, armed-guard.com. Adams, described as "a naive and likable boy from Virginia," is quoted as saying that "things got started" just four days out of Iceland, when an enemy reconnaissance plane circled the convoy. A day later, the scout's place was taken by ten warplanes, and "this time they did the business," bombing as they moved down the convoy's columns. One ship dropped back, "so she must have been hit." Meanwhile, enemy U-boats were in among the ships, and destroyers that were part of the escort raced about dropping depth charges. A little past midnight, Adams peered through the "weird, half-light" of the seemingly endless Arctic night and made out "long flashes of tracer bullets from the ship next to us." This meant that a sub had surfaced nearby. Immediately, "we heard the explosion" and saw "the whole ship split wide-open lengthwise, like a watermelon, as her cargo of TNT went off." She "disappeared in a tremendous burst of flame [and] nothing remained but floating debris." Did it occur to Adams that he would never make it to safety? "Yes," he would say later, and he guessed that his shipmates felt the same way. "But nobody said so. It was funny; we were all very polite to each other, even the tough ones." Through it all the ship's captain, identified only by the surname Hiss, was "as calm as if he was in church." After one close-miss, he called through the [speaking] tube to [Chief Engineer] McCarthy in the engine room: 'You still there, Mac?' He grinned at whatever Mac called back." At one point, under attack by torpedo bombers, a Russian freighter in the convoy took evasive action, veering sharply across Adams' ship's bow and threatening a collision that might have sent both to the bottom, possibly along with others. They escaped this potential disaster, only to be attacked shortly afterward by dive bombers, one of which scored a direct hit on the Russian. As smoke and fire billowed up out of her, she began "edging over toward us, so close that we were afraid that if she went up we'd go too." The danger passed but, "in avoiding her we fell a long way behind the convoy . . . the worst thing that can happen to you. The planes always go after a straggler." German dive bombers, three of them, did just that. "They straddled the ship with bombs that couldn't have been closer. We were stunned and thrown all over the deck, half-drowned with the water that came over the side. I thought it was all over then, but nothing hit us. We went back to the guns. By the time we regained our place in the convoy, there was another raid on." There was no respite. From the day after the German scout plane appeared until the survivors reached their destination a week later, the convoy was under virtually constant attack. This was typical of the Russian convoys. Long after the war, a German authority wrote that Luftwaffe bombers and torpedo planes flew 245 sorties against a single Allied convoy en route to Russia. "It made you mad all through to see ships sunk and men in the water," Adams would say. "You kept on the guns and shot at every plane in sight, whether it was in range or not, like a kid shooting at a duck he knows is too far away. But we got one plane; saw it's wings fall off." Of the last hours before making port, constantly under attack, Adams could recall very little. "I can't tell you about it," he said. "It's a sort of nightmare that I don't remember very well . . . . A few hours later we were anchored in the Kola River, just below Murmansk. I went to bed and slept through 24 hours." If the young Ensign Adams who recounted this experience were alive today -- and I don't know that he isn't -- he might be able to tell us how his war went from there. He might be able to tell us about other ships and other gun crews and other men of the Merchant Marine. He might be able to tell us, too, of his life after the war. Wherever he might be, he is owed a considerable debt -- for his Armed Guard service and for leaving us this account of it. - 0 - Francis B. Kent The war, by which of course I mean the Second World War, ended a long time ago, more than half a century, and until recently I never thought much about my small part in it. I never joined the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars or any of the other veterans' organizations. To me they were drinking clubs, and I never lacked for drinking companions. It was not because of any great trauma that I shoved the war to the back of my memory. My exposure to shot and shell was fairly limited, and I have never been haunted by visions of battlefield carnage. Like thousands of other men, I just thought it best to turn the page on that chapter and get on with what were, on a personal level, more important things. Recently, though, there has been a great deal of talk about the "greatest generation" -- my generation -- and it has set me to thinking. I haven't read the book that bears that title, a book that seems to be responsible for much of the talk, but I gather that its intent was to extol the courage and self-sacrifice of the men who had the bad luck to be of military age in the early 1940s. Certainly there were courageous men among us, and undeniably there was self-sacrifice. But I believe these are part and parcel of war, and in no sense unique to my generation or any other. Still, the years I spent in uniform were an important part of my life, and in the past few months I've thought more about them than in all the time since I was discharged.. My wartime experience was both better and worse than that of other servicemen. The only thing that sets it apart is that it was uniquely my experience. The war wasn't yet a year old when I enlisted in the Navy, as soon as I legally could, on my 17th birthday, Oct. 30, 1942. I don't recall that I was driven by patriotism. My friends, most of them older than I, were going into the service one after the other, and it seemed to be the thing to do. Also, I was at that impressionable time in life when recruiting posters that promised manly adventures in exotic places could be persuasive. I was sworn in at a recruiting station in downtown Chicago and, a few minutes later, along with a handful of other recruits, herded onto a North Shore train bound for the nearby Naval Training Center at Great Lakes. On arrival we were greeted by a petty officer dressed in what I would come to know as undress blues. It was too late for lunch, "chow," in service parlance, but we were marched to the mess hall and served liberal portions of bread and bologna, which sailors rarely called anything but "horsecock." Afterward, we were assigned to barracks and recruit companies and issued a seabag full of clothing, together with a hammock and mattress, two blankets and a pillow. The hammock and mattress had been Navy issue for generations; I never had occasion to use either but lugged them around throughout my four years in uniform. Boot camp, as the Navy calls its basic training, was then a 16-week period of lectures in subjects that ranged from military courtesy (failure to salute a commissioned officer was regarded as a serious matter) to small-boat-handling to the perils of careless conduct wth loose women. However, because the war was not going well for us at that time, and men were urgently needed at sea, the 16 weeks were telescoped to six, barely time to learn the difference between a square knot and a granny knot and to get, and recover from, all the inoculations and vaccinations the Navy thought were necessary. Somehow, and for reasons no one ever explained, time was found for close-order drill. The boy who stood next to me in company formation never managed to get it right and never failed to fling himself into me at the order "to the rear, march." At some point, as I would learn years later, someone stamped the words "qualified swimmer" in my service record. I was then and am to this day anything but "qualified" as a swimmer. If I learned nothing else in boot camp, I learned to do what I was told, and to do it if not cheerfully at least apparently willingly. The lesson did not come easily. At night we stood barracks watch, and the chief petty officer who was our company commander assigned me on consecutive nights to the midwatch, from midnight to 4 a.m. After the second of these, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I asked the chief, "Why me?" Without a word, he walked to the bulletin board, took down the watch-list, and wrote in my name for yet a third midwatch. He then went back to his cubicle, sat down, put his pipe in his mouth, and took up the book he had been reading. That was that. My fellow "boots" were all as ignorant as I of Navy ways. Together we learned to say "deck" for "floor," and "overhead" for "ceiling," and "bulkhead" for "wall." We learned that only landlubbers went "back" instead of "aft." With me in the company were men from Ohio and from remote mountain towns in North Carolina. Many of the Ohio lot were from Barberton, which they celebrated for its high-school football teams. They ragged me for shaving what they said was no more than fuzz, and one day they fooled a gullible boy from North Carolina into getting a double-dose of shots. He sat up all night, alternately sweating and shivering. His name is one of the few I remember from the 120 on the company roster: Glazebrooks. He was calleld "Junior." We were given a series of simple aptitude tests, and at the end of our abbreviated stay in boot camp we were moved along presumably on the basis of how we scored. Some were sent directly to the fleet as seamen second class, there to join the deck force chipping paint and sweeping passageways. Most went to another station to be taught something about gunnery, or marine engines, or record-keeping, or cooking, or one of the myriad other skills relative to service aboard ship. For some still-unknown reason, I was ordered to radio school. I knew nothing about radio except how to switch on a receiver and find the station that offered the best in band music -- not Souza marches but big-band swing: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers. After a few days' leave, which gave me a chance to show off my dress blues and my nautical vocabulary back in Gary, Indiana, where I grew up and where, because of the war, there were only a few friends left to impress, I reported to the U.S. Naval Training Station (Radio), at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was mid-December, and cold. Despite the urgent need for personnel to man the ships coming off the ways at shipyards on both coasts, there was no shortening of the course in radio. The book said 16 weeks, and 16 weeks it was. We were taught the Morse code, which I learned quickly and have not forgotten, and the principles of radio theory, which I failed utterly to comprehend. Resistance, capacitance, impedence -- all proved to be as baffling as particle physics. My memory retains nothing of all this except the so-called right-hand rule, which deals with motion, force, and current, and was taught to us by a grizzled chief radioman. Holding up his right hand, with thumb and two fingers extended in three directions, he would say, "Just remember 'my favorite c---.' " That sort of thing tends to stay with you. The university students were kind to us.They made us welcome in their Union Building and at informal dances. Sailor-and-co-ed romances flourished, some perhaps for the long term. I drank 3.2 beer and ate popcorn with a few students in the Union Building beer cellar, but my real drinking companion in Madison was a fellow sailor: Ernie Keller, from North Carolina, who had been in my recruit company at Great Lakes. Our pay at that time was $50 a month, which didn't go very far in the taverns where we spent much of our free time. Ernie had a simple and effective way to cope with this. For less than a dollar, we would buy a half-pint of gin at a liquor store, then move on to our favorite tavern, where we would order a quart of beer and two glasses. We would drink off about half a glass each of the gin and then add what remained to the beer, and proceed from there. It was, as I say, effective. In April, when we completed the course, many of the men in my class, among them Ernie, were sent to the west coast and a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the Princeton. A little over a year later the Princeton was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Many of her officers and men went down with her, and it wasn't until recently that I learned that among the survivors was Ernie. Along with a handful of others, I was ordered to Noroton Heights, Conn., for further instruction before being assigned to the Navy Armed Guard, about which none of us knew anything at all. From the name, it might be assumed that the Armed Guard was made up of sailors with rifles standing guard somewhere. In fact, it was the branch of the Navy that put gun crews on board merchant ships, accompanied by radiomen and signalmen to help maintain a measure of order in the vast convoys that carried men and supplies to the war. None of us liked the assignment; we had hoped to go to a carrier or a cruiser, a battleship, a destroyer, a fighting ship. But we took a steady strain, as they say in the Navy, and settled down to learn how merchant ships go about communicating. It was mainly a matter of procedure. We say things one way in the U.S. Navy and another in the merchant navy. But there was more. We radiomen were taught visual signaling -- semaphore, flashing light, flag hoists -- in order that we might for one reason or another take over for the signalmen. All this took four weeks, and in May, impatient to do finally what we had been taught at such length to do, we were sent to the Armed Guard Center (Atlantic) in Brooklyn. This was a great barn of a place, the old naval armory, packed to the rafters with bunks in tiers of four (or was it five?) and thousands of seamen, gunner's mates, cox'ns, bosun's mates, and a relative handful of radiomen and signalmen, all waiting to be assigned a ship. Included in this assemblage of young American males was at least a sprinkling of accomplished thieves, and the sound sleeper was in danger of losing everything but the underwear on his back. Happily, this interlude was brief. Within a few days after reporting in, my name appeared on a draft list posted on the closely watched bulletin board. A ship! It was no proud carrier to which I had been assigned, no sleek cruiser or destroyer. But it was a ship, an unlovely, ungainly, plodding Liberty ship, christened Alexander Martin, one of hundreds of her kind built in a rush to meet the wartime need. I first set eyes on S.S. Alexander Martin, named for a governor of colonial North Carolina, as she was taking on cargo alongside a cluttered pier in Norfolk, Va., her decks littered with in-port debris and her cargo-handling booms rigged out like the legs of some giant insect. With no notion of what lay ahead, I shouldered my hammock and seabag and ascended the gangway. On deck I was met by a cox'n named Arthur L. Smith. "Smitty," as everyone called him, endeared himself to me by addressing me as "Sparks." No one had done that before. He led me to the compartment where most of the gun crew was quartered and introduced me to the handful of men who weren't ashore on liberty. The gun crew was made up of about 30 young men in their late teens or twenties. Some had been in the Navy for years and had come to the Armed Guard from the fleet, but for the most part they were as green as I was. In charge of us was Lieut. John J. Poole, the gunnery officer, assisted by Roger F. French, a tall, thin ensign not much older than we were. And there was a communications officer, a red-haired young lawyer recently commissioned as ensign, whose name was Donald Miller. There were two other radiomen, Don Gillespie, RM3c, and Mort Coney, like me still a seaman. Three signalmen completed the Navy complement. We came from cities across the country, from the far West to the Middle West to the deep South to New England. Some could scarcely read; others had left college to enlist; they read textbooks when off watch. The merchant crew was as diverse a lot as we were, some who had just signed on as ordinary seamen and others in their 60s and beyond who had been going to sea since the days of sail. One old deckhand had the letters H-O-L-D F-A-S-T tattooed on his knuckles. What the Alexander Martin's destination might be, no one knew. But from the nature of the cargo being swayed up and into her holds, there was no mystery about what sort of place it would be. We were taking on largely the stuff of ground combat; small-arms ammunition and field rations. When the holds were crammed full and the hatch covers secured, a number of LCMs (landing craft, medium) were brought aboard and made fast on the weather deck, suggesting the manner in which our cargo was to be put ashore. On our last day in Norfolk, a detachment of infantrymen burdened with gear staggered up the ladder and were directed to quarters below. We cast off our mooring lines early the following morning and steamed slowly out into the Atlantic. We could not do othrwise because Liberty ships weren't capable of making more than about 11 knots, and that for limited periods. Our first port of call, oddly, was New York, where we joined other ships, freighters and tankers of various pedigrees, and formed a vast convoy reaching to the horizon. As one, we set a course for the great land mass to the east, shepherded along by several old destroyers. Would it be somewhere in the United Kingdon, or would it be Africa, where Allied troops had gone ashore a few months earlier and driven out the German and Italian armies? On board the Alexander Martin, only the captain knew, and he saw fit to tell no one, certainly not me. It was late June, and in fine weather and relatively calm seas we lumbered along without incident. I got to know something of my shipmates and something of the sea. Mort Coney, my fellow seaman/radioman, was a New Yorker and had worked in the Bank of China on Wall Street. He was deeply in love with a girl at home and missed her terribly. When off watch, we often stood at the rail and watched porpoises frolicking just beyond the bow wake. We talked about how long the war might last, and what we might do when it was over. At night I would sometimes go up to the bridge and look out over the darkened ships moving silently across the silent sea. Not a light showed anywhere, and the only sound was the throbbing of the engines and the creaking of the ship. One night, as I stared ahead into the dark, the forward masthead suddenly glowed and flickered as though on fire, and for a moment I thought we might be in trouble. This, I was told by the helmsman, was a harmless atmospheric phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire. About a week out of port it became clear that we were headed for Africa, and at about the same time it became clear that the German navy was aware of our presence. With no warning, no hint of danger, a tanker on our port beam was torpedoed and sent to the bottom. We heard a single explosion, saw a puff of smoke from the doomed ship's funnel, and watched helplessly as she went down by the stern. No more than a handful of her people could be seen jumping from the tanker's decks, and we hoped that one of the escorts would pick them up. We could not have pulled out of the formation to help them, nor could any other ship in the convoy. To do so would have risked collision and, worse, offered a sitting-duck target to the attacker. We steamed on without further incident. The Fourth of July saw us through the Strait of Gibralter and into the Mediterranean, and not long afterward we steamed into Oran, the old port of French Algeria. Here we hardly had time to sample the harsh wine of the region before we were back at sea, headed this time for our real destination: the beaches of southern Sicily. En route we made our way through what seemed to be hundreds of bodies floating on the surface, victims, we were told later, of a submarine attack on a hospital ship. German fighter planes were much in evidence as we anchored first off Gela and then Licata in support of the troops landed there. Close by our first anchorage lay the smoking wreckage of an ammunition ship. It had been bombed, and the stubborn fire kept touching off explosives, creating a lethal fireworks display. Two of our signalmen and I managed to get ashore for an hour or two, and foolishly moved about as if on holiday. We got as far inland as Vittoria, where we found an abandoned Luftwaffe air strip with an intact fighter plane, a Messerschmitt 109, standing on the tarmac. It was a lovely thing, even to my untutored eye a marvel of design and enginering. Somewhere we had heard of the Germans' expertise with booby traps, so we stood a respectful distance from it. It was in the course of the Sicilian operation that our gunners took part in one of the war's sad incidents. Firing on a flight of transport planes, they helped to bring many of them down, only to learn the next day that they were carrying men of the U.S. Army airborne infantry. Scores of men were killed. Our only casualty in the Sicilian operation was a gunner's mate, John Hintz, who brought back from the beach a quantity of German machine-gun ammunition. Hintz liked to separate out the tracer rounds, remove the slugs from the casings and place them on the taffrail, where he lighted the tracer elements and flicked them into the sea. He delighted in watching the green bubbles fizz to the surface. One of the "tracer" rounds, as it developed, was in fact something else, and it exploded in Hintz's face. He was removed to a hospital ship and we saw no more of him. From Sicily we returned to Oran, where we were tied up briefly before being shifted to the big naval base next door at Mers el Kebir. There we lay at anchor for weeks while our future was pondered elsewhere. We learned to drink cognac in the bar of what had been a grand hotel in Oran that had been casually taken over by American soldiers. There was invariably a serviceman of some kind who could play the bar's upright piano, and we sang "Roll Out the Barrel" and "When the Lights Go on Again," and other songs of the time. We peddled most of our mattress covers to the Arabs, who made them into clothing, and we swapped cigarettes we had pinched from our cargo, some to French sailors for wine, and some to British sailors for Cadbury's toffee. Every night a German reconnaissance plane came over, too high for the anti-aircraft batteries to reach, but the gunners never failed to make a deafening and colorful response. "Bed-check Charlie," the soldiers called the intruder. In late August we moved back to Oran and began taking on cargo: weapons, ammunition, rations, and, finally, troops. These were tough, deeply tanned men who had seen much hard fighting with General Patton in North Africa. They didn't like Patton, but they respected him. "He was chickenshit," one told us. "He made us wear helmets and leggings in the worst heat, but when we went into action he was right up there in the lead tank." Departing Oran, we steamed east along the coast to Bizerte, where we joined other ships and formed a convoy, then headed north. Our destination, we soon learned, would be Salerno Bay. All these years afterward, the word "Salerno" calls up visions of sound and fury and death, but on that bright Mediterranean morning when we set out for the war's first serious Allied landings on mainland Europe, we expected a piece of cake. Only a day or two before, the Italians had capitulated. Some of the soldiers in our lot went so far as to remove the ammunition from their cartridge pouches and replace it with cigarettes. The Wehrmacht took a different view of the matter. Even before we sighted land the air overhead was filled with snarling Messerchmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters. I was on the flying bridge when a white, twin-boomed fighter-bomber bore in on the cruiser Savannah. One of our gunners, Louis Givonetti, an Italian boy from New York, correctly identified the plane, but Ensign French, the assistant gunnery officer, insisted that it was a friendly fighter, a P-38. "All German fighters," he pronounced, "are painted black." "It's dropping something!" someone shouted, and Givonetti cast a look of disdain at the officer and spat, "A loaf of old bread." This object, which I learned years later was a radio-guided bomb, hit the Savannah's foredeck, penetrated to a magazines below and exploded, killing a great number of men and causing extensive damage. The wounded cruiser limped away and the next time I saw her was in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where she lay for months under repair. We were anchored off Salerno for what seemed an eternity, though it was little more than a week, under what seemed constant attack from fighters that would roar in over the hills just inland from the beach, strafing and dropping bombs. At first, the merchant seamen were reluctant to stay on deck, where cargo booms had to be rigged and winches manned and bulging cargo nets guided into waiting landing craft. They were quickly persuaded by an infantry major who came on board waving a tommy-gun and threatening to shoot anyone who didn't "move [his] ass and get this stuff ashore." The key to overcoming fear was to keep busy. In the first raid that threatened us directly, I was sitting on the rail looking down into a British MTB (motor torpedo boat) that had come alongside to take on fresh water. Looking up, I saw a fighter that appeared to be about an arm's length away, its machine guns seemingly seeking me out as in some carnival shooting gallery. I toppled backward to the deck, got up and ran first forward, then aft, and then I don't know where. When the planes had gone, I found the gunnery officer and told him that, because the radio shack was secured in port, I had nothing to do. Could he find a job for me? He assigned me to charging magazines for the 20-mm. guns, and I worked happily at this task for the duration of our stay there, becoming in the process perhaps the greasiest, dirtiest radioman in the U.S. Navy. At Salerno, as in the Sicilian operation, our gunners achieved a measure of unwanted distinction. When a German ME-109 hurtled past our stern with a P-38 in close pursuit, the man on one of our after 20-mm. guns sent them both hurtling into the beach. This brought an angry Air Corps officer on board with a sheaf of aircraft-recognition charts. While at anchor in that unfriendly place, Poole, the gunnery officer, logged 25 separate air attacks. Not all the merchantmen were so lucky but we got away from there with the ship intact and most of her people uninjured. There were two exceptions: a member of the gun crew who tore a bloody gash in his scalp when he failed to duck hurrying through a hatch, and the cox'n of an LCM who fell from the ship and landed astride the steel barrier protecting the cockpit. From Salerno we headed to Gibralter, and it was on this leg of the voyage that occurred our sole incident of violence involving a Navy man and a merchant sailor. A big, loutish deck hand called "Heavy" came into our mess compartment one evening and raised a question about the gunners' proficiency. One of the Navy seamen, a well set-up young man named Clarence Tracy, ordered him out, and they were soon throwing punches. Tracy was the shorter and lighter of the two, but much the better fighter and, when his punches began to tell, "Heavy" drew a knife and started slashing wildly. Feinting and dodging, Tracy avoided the knife and suddenly landed a blow that put the bigger man down and out. The ship's carpenter, "Chips," brought in a length of line and trussed "Heavy" up like a mummy, then threw him into his bunk, where he lay mumbling to himself until we reached Gibralter. There he was lowered into a police boat and hauled away, presumably to be put on trial. Our stay at "the rock" was brief, just long enough to take on provisions, which turned out to consist almost entirely of mutton. A fleet of bumboats came out to the ship offering fresh fruit and, covertly, brandy. Their occupants would toss a heaving line up to the deck and then, after negotiating a deal, send up a basket. We put money in the basket and sent it back and they would return it with the merchandise. By the time we made preparations to get under way, there wasn't a sober man on the ship, or so it seemed. A deck hand manning a fire hose on the forepeak, washing down the anchor chain as it came aboard, sent the first mate's cap spinning into the sea. He swore he hadn't meant to. Somehow, we got out of the harbor, joined another convoy, and set a course for Norfolk. We crossed the Atlantic without incident. On arrival in Norfolk the Navy personnel were found to be suffering from a serious vitamin deficiency -- not surprising, considering our mutton diet -- and were injected with vitamins that left a taste of peanut butter in the mouth. Mort Coney, my fellow seaman/radioman, and I were advanced to radioman third class. We were all advised that we could wear two battle stars on the appropriate campaign ribbon, given thirty days' leave and ordered to report back to the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn. I had left home as a schoolboy, barely 17. Now I was back, in brand-new, tailor-made dress blues, with a crow on my sleeve (in Navy parlance, the eagle on the rating badge) and not only ribbons on my chest but battlel stars to go with them. And I was still a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday. Self-sacrifice? Not a bit of it. I was on top of the world. Yet, like other servicemen I put on my old civvies and talked little about where I had been and what I had seen, except with my father, who had been a gunner's mate on a destroyer in the First World War and had also known the wine of Algeria and the brandy of Gibralter. There seemed to be an unwritten code that discouraged servicemen, especially those who had been in combat, from talking at home about their experiences, and discouraged civilians from asking. In the movies, brooding survivors frowned and said, "I'd rather not talk about it," and the movie-going public took its cue from that. I was not only willing to talk but impatient to tell anyone who asked. Almost no one did. Nonetheless, it was a good leave, and I wasn't enthusiastic about returning to duty. When I reported in, nothing much had changed in Brooklyn. The armory still swarmed with restless sailors who kept one eye on the bulletin board and the other on their belongings. Quickly I was assigned to another ship, the tanker Cherry Valley. I found her berthed alongside a pier at Marcus Hook, Pa., a marked improvement over the Alexander Martin. She was cleaner, her quarters roomier and more comfortable. Her crew seemed more professional, from bridge to engine room, and the gun crew was pretty much the same mix as before, men and boys from all over, some experienced, some not. We had a single Navy officer, a former school teacher from Gastonia, N.C. I was the sole Navy radioman, and there was just one signalman. We wasted no time getting under way, moving independently out into the Atlantic and setting a southerly course. It being November, the weather was cold, the sea gray and wind-whipped. Change came soon, though, and before long we were steaming along under a warm, tropical sky. Our destination, we learned, was Puerto la Cruz, a Venezuelan oil terminal where crude was piped into tankers to be carried elsewhere for refining. Aside from storage tanks and a maze of piping, Puerto la Cruz was little more than a village: a dusty street, a handful of shacks, and of course a cantina. We arrived long after midnight and the place was dark. But on the advice of the experienced merchant crewmen we went ashore nonetheless. Immediately there was activity: men and women running toward the cantina shouting, "Alejandro, Alejandro." It turned out that Alejandro ran the cantina, and he soon had the place humming and the beer flowng. Puerto la Cruz, together with Las Piedras, another oil terminal up the coast, would become a regular port of call for the Cherry Valley, along with Aruba and Curacao, the nearby Dutch islands where much of Venezuela's crude was converted into gasoline and other petroleum products. Then, one warm day in the spring of 1944, after getting our tanks cleaned and taking on a cargo of aviation gasoline at Aruba, we joined a small convoy and set a course, unmistakeably, for the Mediterranean. Three or four days out, it was my lot to be standing a signal watch when we were called on to refuel one of the escorts, a destroyer. I stood on the fantail with semaphore flags, passing questions and directions back and forth, and managed to get through this unfamiliar (to me) exercise without incident. It could have been a Navy first. As we moved into Oran, and were being warped alongside a pier, I saw across the harbor a warship carrying a familiar designation on her bows: DD428. This was the destroyer Charles F. Hughes, and a boy I had grown up with, Dick Burget, was serving as a member of her crew. I hurried to the bridge, fired up a signal light, and messaged: "Request presence of Richard F. Burget on board this ship for lunch." As the day wore on, I began to fear that I had got myself in trouble for this unauthorized use of official communications. Then I roared with laughter as a motor launch suddenly pushed off from the Hughes and headed my way, with Burget in whites sitting erect on a thwart, his arms crossed like some flag officer. We had a good lunch, the best he'd had in weeks, and good talk, about old times and about the last few days on the Hughes, providing support for the troops clinging precariously to the beachhead at Anzio. The Cherry Valley discharged her cargo, returned to Aruba, took on another -- fuel oil or gasoline, I've forgotten -- and got under way for Panama and the Southwest Pacific. I saw nothing of the canal on this trip. I got off on the Atlantic side, picked up the mail that was waiting for us, and took the train across the isthmus, rejoining the ship on the Pacific side. All across the Pacific we saw nothing of interest, although at one point we opened fire with enthusiasm on what turned out to be a floating log. Our cargo was pumped out at Noumea, in New Caledonia, and we put about for the long voyage back to Panama. While we were taking on fresh water at Colon, I went ashore in search of some balm for a sore throat. The Navy medics told me that my tonsils were inflamed and should come out, and ordered me hospitalized. In those days a tonsilectomy meant several days in bed, so it seemed likely that the Cherry Valley would be back from Aruba and out into the Pacific again before my release. As luck would have it, she broke down in the canal and was still there when I left the hospital. So I hauled my gear back on board, not at all happy about it. I didn't really like the ship. The next day, feeling unwell, I returned to the hospital and was told I had pneumonia. Back to bed I went. By the time I was released, the Cherry Valley had departed. I was sent to a receiving station to await assignment. In short order I was ordered to USAT Frederick C. Johnson, an army transport based in Panama. This was a curious vessel, under Army direction, manned by men of the merchant navy, and with a Navy gun crew. There were two Army radiomen, a sergeant and a corporal, and an Army doctor, a captain who preferred the company of us radiomen to that of the ship's officers. Much of the time we spent in port at Panama City, and when we got under way we traveled to curious places far from the war, among them Arica, Chile, and Callao, Peru. Why there, I never learned. On one occasion we steamed out to the Galapagos Islands, where we embarked scores of Barbadian workmen who had built an airstrip there. They were accompaned by their familes and, as we passed through the canal and on toward Barbados, more than one of the wives entertained the ship's company for a few dollars a go. From Barbados we proceded to New Orleans, where I was detached, given 30 days' leave, and ordered to report afterward to the Armed Guard Center (Gulf) at New Orleans. Again I was home for my birthday, at 19 an old salt by wartime standards. It was by now nearing the end of 1944. The war in the Atlantic was all but over, although German submarines continued to pick off Allied ships here and there. Rumor had it that radiomen were being taken off merchant ships on the east coast and sent to the Pacific Fleet. Among the station personnel at the AGC was a radioman first class, nemed Gauther, as I recall, who figured somehow in the assignment of loose radiomen. I would be obliged, I told him, if I could be considered for the next ship with a vacancy in the radio shack that might be headed for any port between Florida and New England. It would be no problem at all, he assured me, and within a few days my name went up on the bulletin board. I was to join the tanker Albert E. Watts, which was in New Orleans getting ready for sea following extensive repairs. She had rammed another ship, stoving in her bow. I lugged my gear up the Watts' gangway and we were soon under way, headed for Bay City, Tex. There we loaded aviation gasoline, turned around and headed out into the channel toward the gulf. I was walking forward on the catwalk from the after deck house when suddenly I was thrown off my feet. We had gone aground. We managed to get off without help and, out in the gulf, I was mildly shocked to find that we were headed not east but south. It would be the Panama Canal and the Pacific all over again. The next several months are jumbled in my memory, a montage of names like Palau and Eniwetok, Funafuti and Ulithi and Mog Mog. A non-stop poker game went on in the Navy mess. One of the gunner's mates, Frank Campbell, had no luck at all, and sold me his dress blues I don't know how many times, redeeming them on payday. Toward the end we fetched up at Manus, in the Admiralties, where we drew the only beer ration I can recall, and had three or four crash boats lashed down on the well deck. These were fast boats used in the rescue of downed fliers. We didn't know it but we were to take them to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where the U.S. Navy had had a base before the war. En route, it was decided that we should drink the beer. After all, who knew about tomorrow? The beer was not warm but hot, having been in the sun for days, and we looked around for a way to chill it. Someone recalled that as a student he had chilled beer with the foam from CO2 fire extinguishers, and it occurred to someone else that the crash boats were surely equipped with these things. They were, and we proceeded to steal most of them. The cold beer went down well, the fire extinguishers out through a convenient port hole and into the sea. After Subic Bay we stopped briefly at Manila, which had been virtually leveled by bombs and artillery. We went ashore and found the place a shambles still not cleared of bodies, among them the only Japanese infantry I ever saw. Bill Weller, one of our gunners, brought along his forbidden camera and took pictures that I have to this day. And we found beer on sale even though the stubborn Japanese were still fighting in the hills above the city. Also available was a poisonous moonshine known as Manila Scotch that was reputed to cause blindness. We passed on this. All I remember about the month it took us to get back to Panama is that we stopped at Eniwetok, probably to take on fresh water, and that on watch I read "War and Peace" from cover to cover. The voyage of S.S. Albert E. Watts ended where, for me, it had begun, at New Orleans. Here the Armed Guard and I parted company. I was given leave and ordered to report to the big receiving station at Shoemaker, Calif. Suddenly I was back in the Navy, the real Navy. I was ordered to report to USS Cohoes (AN78), an unglamorous net tender based at Tiburon, Calif.. Then, almost before I had time to stow my gear, I was ordered to the minelayer Terror (CM5) for duty with the staff of ComMinPac, the Pacific Mine Force commander. In my time on the Terror, she never went to sea but lay alongside a pier at Treasure Island, which lies under the Bay Bridge. On Oct. 30, 1946, my four-year enlistment having come to an end, I was given the first of three $100 increments of mustering-out pay, along with 41 days of terminal leave and a lapel pin (the "ruptured duck") that attested to my honorable service, and told that my discharge certificate, dated Dec. 21, would be mailed to me. It was. Did I think then that I had qualified for membership in the Greatest Generation? Nothing of the sort. All I could think of was that I had come to the end of a chapter and that another, completely unknown, was now to begin. My contribution to the war effort was minimal. I hadn't flown any missions in the icy skies over Europe, hadn't slogged through any Pacific island jungles, climbed any forbidding cliffs under fire trying to force a way onto the continent of Europe. I hadn't been frostbitten or shot or blown up or drowned. Like countless others, I had done what was asked of me. More than anything, I suppose, I was grateful. For in return for the years I gave my country, my country gave me a sense of myself. And it gave me, through the wonder of the G.I. Bill, a way to make something of myself. I'm grateful. - 0 - A Final Word Anyone who has read this far will have noted that the last of the foregoing sketches is all about me. This is not because I regard my time in the Navy as in any way more important than any other man's. As I tried to emphasize, I did no more than go where I was told to go and do what I was told to do. No heroics there. My intention in going into such personal detail is to recapture some of the atmosphere that was peculiar to service with the Armed Guard and that, for some, may have faded from memory. You might ask, reasonably, why the Merchant Marine is dealt with only peripherally in these pages. It is not because of any ill feeling toward those brave men, many of whom could have stayed home owing to physical disabilities or advanced years but still chose to serve their country. I write about the Navy men because I was one of them and feel that I can tell their stories honestly and, I hope, accurately. For decades after the war, I never encountered another soul who had served in the Armed Guard, not even anyone who knew what the Armed Guard was. Then, a few years ago, I acquired a personal computer and began poking around in the Internet, posting an inquiry here and there in hopes of striking a spark. Tom Bowerman, an old gunner's mate and creator of the Web site armed-guard.com, found my name and contacted me. And opened the floodgates. Through Tom I have found a number of old shipmates, although most of them are no longer among us. Also through Tom I learned about C.A. Lloyd, who heads the Armed Guard Veterans Assn. and among other things publishes a remarkable newsletter called "The Pointer." Through C.A., as he is known, I have been introduced to a group of old Armed Guard sailors who have been rounded up by Pete Sorensen, who lives not far from me in Sylmar. We meet from time to time at a nearby coffee shop, along with a number of Merchant Marine veterans. We sit around a long table and, after it's been cleared of all but the coffee cups, we swap sea stories. As has been said before, "it seems like only yesterday."
Francis B. Kent North Hollywood, California February 2004
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