Mission 31: Crossing to Casablanca

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March 8, 2014 — One thing I had a hard time figuring out was why it took so long for Dad to go from America to Corsica and into active duty. His movement orders showed him shipping out in early September 1944, and not flying his first mission until December 10. Then I found out about troop ships and U-boats. It was my phone call with Norm Doe that filled in the blank. “Only the lucky fellas got to fly over,” said Doe. “The rest of us had to take a troop ship, zigging and zagging all over the Atlantic to dodge U-boats.” Some ships went so far south they hit fleet-crippling hurricanes.

Recalling a September trip to Florida I’d taken when the talk around town rumbled with, “the air is still and the rates are low because it’s hurricane season,” I began researching troop ships that didn’t make it to or from North Africa and why. I imagined all those men packed like sardines and what would happen if a hurricane hit.

Troop ship bunks

Troop ships crossing the Atlantic were jammed with men. On one former cruise ship, the swimming pool was emptied to accommodate bunks stacked six-men high. Image courtesy of NARA.

The Crossing, September 1944

A hurricane was the last thing they expected. Nearly 5,000 men packed like they were already dead, in bunks so tight they felt like pickled sardines. Valentine was the only one not on board before it sailed out of Newport News. He’d missed the train when the father of a young girl had met him on the platform and belted him in the jaw, made him propose—to make right for Valentine’s supposed unborn kid, and the stupid girl who had offered herself up like peanut butter on warm toast to an airman who said he might not ever see home again. But for Valentine, his misfortune was also his salvation.

The hurricane hit when they were seven days out, zigging and zagging across the Atlantic. After one night of breathing tobacco, barf, and bean-powered farts, Bish and a bombardier named McNeary gave up the crowded bunks and went up top.

They found an empty lifeboat and parked it there, out of sight, beyond the smell. The air grew warmer with each degree south they roamed.

“Leastways we’ll already be in a boat if we get hit in the night,” said Bish.

They eased the boredom with cards and a water-stained copy of short stories. They were reading the “Pit and Pendulum” by flashlight, that opening of deepest darkness that they’d come to live and know so well, when the sea opened up and swallowed the ship up to her stacks.

Rain came after that, and a million shrieks of trapped sardines, swilling in a sea of fear, not dead yet, but terrified at becoming so.

The ship heaved from side to side, righting itself only to meet the next wave. Captains in the convoy broke their vow of darkness and lights streamed on, showcasing the hungry swells that curled around the escort ship and hurled it into the General Buckner’s side. Sardines flapped everywhere.

Bish and Knauss clung to their lifeboat, afraid they’d be tossed across the deck.

Boys began spewing from the hold. Fear streaked their faces, puke bubbled on their lips. The crew tried to keep them below, but they fought their way out—into the hurtling rain and the angry wind.

Stuboy and his buddy Jimbo stumbled toward Bish and Knauss’s lifeboat, panicked and delirious. “She’s going down!” they yelled. “She’s going down.”

“Shut-up StuBoy,” yelled Bish. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“There’s a crack down below,” said StuBoy. “The water’s coming in fast.”

“Get in,” yelled McNeary. “We’re riding this mother out here.”

Lightning cracked the sky and the wind chewed at their clothes and skin. As a huge wave broke over the bow and starboard side of the ship, Bish reached for StuBoy and StuBoy fished for Jim. McNeary held Bish by the belt and tried like hell to reel everybody in. Water gripped and gurgled. Buttons popped, pockets ripped, fingernails bit into flesh, but the angry storm was too strong.

“Jimmmboooo!” called StuBoy, as Jim’s hand was sucked from his grasp. “Jimmmmbooooo!” StuBoy’s cry was eaten by the wind as the three boys watched Jim get dashed against the deck rail like a rag-doll before being swallowed by the sea’s watery tongue.

While that scene didn’t make it into the final version of the book for a variety of reasons, it’s still one of my favorites. It’s not because Jimbo drowns, it’s for the pure visceral aspects of it. I can totally imagine Dad ditching his bunk for a lifeboat up top. All my life, he made a point of never sitting with his back to the door. I always thought it was to greet people as they came in, now I know it was for many other reasons; survival being the first and foremost.

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