On The High Seas An Unpleasant Memory

This voyage was not an auspicious one for me. First, there was the horrible seasickness, which, as a boy who had grew up near the ocean, came as a shocking surprise to me. Our crossing in early January was far from smooth and, twice a day, you waited in long lines before you reached where they were ladling out the chow. Placed just before where you arrived at the serving area was a large garbage-like can full of hot water and a very strong disinfectant. If you were at all squeezy to begin with, the smell and sight of that can was sure to set you off. Many a time I was starved while in line but could never get past that can. When I did, I could not hold it for long.

Among the things the Army relies on to keep idle soldiers busy is senseless guard duty, no matter where you are, and we had it onboard. The worst post by far was on the top, a completely exposed deck where the smokestacks were placed. Of course, with my luck, one bitter cold night I was assigned this bitter and useless post. I soon discovered, however, that one of the two huge smokestacks was actually a dummy with a door on it. Inside was a grate floor covering a large air vent, which went all the way down to the engine room and provided welcomed warmth. With the door closed, it was also a perfect place to smoke a quick cigarette, a high school habit that the Army did nothing but encourage. Just below my open deck was an enclosed deck with a door and stairway leading up to my post. At this doorway, the soldier on guard, a corporal in my battery, would occasionally come out to talk and complain about his need for a cigarette. I told him about the hideaway I had and he left his post to have for a smoke. While he was smoking in our safe enclosure, he thought he heard someone moving outside (he was obviously not at his post) and this jerk opened the door, looked out, saw someone and then crushed out his cigarette on the door. Of course, his burning ashes were sucked out and were clearly visible--at least on deck. That was when the proverbial sh- hit the fan as a guard officer who was checking posts was outside looking for his missing guard.

What followed was humiliating and perhaps typical. We were far from the European coast and any likelihood that a U-Boat would spot such a small and momentary light was really stretching it. Nevertheless, "deserting one's post" and "smoking on guard" were serious charges under any circumstances so it was decided to conduct a special court martial for both of us. In retrospect, the trial was a miscarriage of justice with a pre-determined result aimed to serve as an example to the troops. Since I was neither smoking at the time or off my post, a good defense counsel should have been able to get me off and that should have been his goal. But my companion (who, incidentally, was not a buddy), with two charges, i.e., smoking on duty and desertion of post, could face a heavy penalty, maybe even a general court-martial. The trial, of course, was seen not only as a good example to others aboard and about to go into combat, but something, dare I suggest, to keep the officers busy. My counsel was a Captain who knew as much about law as I did--but he knew how to follow the scent. It was his suggestion or observation that if I pleaded guilty only to smoking on guard and my so-called friend pleaded guilty only to being off post, the ramifications would be limited for both. If I pleaded innocent on all counts concerning the specific incident, which I was, and the Corporal was found guilty of both counts, which he was, the penalty for him was likely to be severe. In my fear and confusion, I pulled one of the biggest bonehead goofs of my life. RESULT: I agreed and we were both found guilty and sentenced to six months confinement and a two-third reduction in pay, including reduction in rank to Private, which affected only the corporal since I had none to begin with. After review by the Battalion or Regiment Commander, our sentence was mitigated to three months extra duty at reduced pay. Of course, for those who had passed me over for promotion, this only proved how correct they were.

This meant three months of the dirtiest jobs available but none exceeded what we had on the ship. Apparently it is a part of good naval tradition to paint everything in sight and we joined all other goof-offs in painting latrines way below deck. It was like the Chinese torture for me because I have some mild claustrophobia and being cramped seven decks down, painfully brushing to fully coat the rough and hard to reach pipe, absorbing the smell of paint, etc., had me running topside and back constantly. Added to my seasickness and lack of nourishment, I was getting weaker and weaker.

As we approached the English and French coasts, a new thrill was added. Nazi subs were in the area and the Allied navies were looking for them. Sitting in our bunks we could hear and even feel the distant depth charge explosions and a few were so close that they boomeranged off our hull with a terrifying blast as if they were right next to us. They didn't mention this in the guidebooks.

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