NOW HEAR THIS
by Don Jordan
Aboard a Coast Guard Troop Transport somewhere in the Atlantic (Special to the U. S. Coast Guard Magazine)
From a perch on the fantail bits, aboard this Coast Guard-manned transport, I hope to continue to drop the monthly word your way, from whatever war corner I happen to be in. We get around a bit on this ship and there’s no shortage of copy on an assignment like this. One thing certain I’ve run into the Coast Guard gang in every harbor and on every dock we’ve tied to since taking to the high seas. Where they’ve been and what they’re doing is the story I want to give you.
So the order is, “Belay the Cleveland Corner!” The author’s gone to sea and found a bigger story to tell. First is needed a new title and to the editor and the readers, I offer, “NOW HEAR THIS!”
You sea dogs will spot it immediately as the familiar call that sounds from the ship’s “P.A.” system when the O.D. is about to announce orders or information. So we begin, ”Now Hear This!”
The rush that marked her construction, launching, and final entry into active duty in the combat waters proved indicative of the way she was destined to serve. Call her restive . . . impatient . . . spirited . . . and you best describe her manner. She hasn’t stopped long enough since shoving off with the first full load of troops, heading for the European battle fronts, to even let her shafts cool off.
Our skipper is a match for the temperament of the ship. Captain George W. McKean took her over and called for a “tight and happy ship.” His record indicates that he’d rather fight than run but when you’re carrying about 5,000 Yanks in the holds below, your orders are to run. A veteran of major Pacific campaigns in this war, Captain McKean recently served as skipper of the USS Middleton.
You never forget the day your first load of troops come aboard. Moving in single file, silently, they stream over four gangways into cargo ports from fore to aft. They are men who have become just numbers. That number is scrawled in white chalk on the helmet of each. They don’t say a word. They don’t have to. That number on their helmet tells the whole story, who they are, where they’re from, where they’re going. Like a solemn pilgrimage they file along the decks in many rows then go below through open hatchways. Down the ladders, one, two, three decks below, go these men, each burdened with a full field pack and any personal possession they can carry.
The seriousness of the expressions you see leaves a deep impression. There are smile, quiet jokes, there’s the inevitable soldier who suffers caustic reprimand from a crewman after he was cordially greeted the dungaree-clad Coast Guardsman with, “How’s the Navy treating you?” There are guitars and ukelele cases strapped on top of field packs. But above it all, through the smiles and jokes, you can see a bewilderment, you can see an American who doesn’t particularly like to leave home this way but he’s determined to keep the cocky Yankee chin up.
Row upon row of bunks, four deep from deck to overhead, fill every troop compartment aboard this ship. Upon these the thousands of embarking soldiers pile their belongings and climb atop to await a roll call. The Army compartment commander prepares a muster list of the troops under him and from that time until the voyage is finished, these compartments become separately governed groups under the top command of the Army Colonel aboard as transportation chief. The troop compartments are, in reality, single decks in a troop hold. Transports of this class carry four holds full of troops, in a crossing. Three compartments in each hold, with approximately 400 men to a compartment, add up to a small floating city when we get underway.
As we drop our lines and the sea detail secures mooring cable and side cargo ports, an Army band blasts jazz from the dock. Nobody really listens to it yet it fills a void. For no one is making much noise. The same silence that characterized the boarding now marks the atmosphere of the crowded decks. Troops jam the rails and fill the passages that are open to them but they are quiet. You know what they are thinking as the ship slowly moves from the dock and if you’re honest with yourself, right about this time you become damn glad that you picked an outfit where if you get yours you get it suddenly, out of the sky or from under the water, and not after tortuous hours of waiting in a fox-hole or crawling in and out of shell craters and slit trenches.
Five thousand Yanks staring at the shores of the U. S. A. until the horizon swallows the land, is a sight that puts a lump in your throat. For some of them it’s the last glimpse of home until they return months later, as they left, aboard one of these same Coast Guard transports. For some it’s a farewell look until they come back wounded, perhaps disabled completely, to seek a new beginning in the country they fought for. And there are the others . . . they will give their lives to help perpetrate the ideals of their nation. These 5,000 Yanks are thinking all of this as America drops from sight.
I was thinking of it, too.
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