Soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, which drew this country into World War II, there came almost daily, unrelated attacks much closer to home. The German naval command lost little time in trying to cut off all shipments of American supplies to the beleaguered British.
From mid-January of 1942 the East Coast was blackened by ruptured freighters and tankers as half a dozen U-boats had free rein until mid-summer, when the U.S. Navy belatedly established an effective system of convoys and air cover.
March, 1942, was particularly damaging: 95 ships lost in the Atlantic area, 48 of them in coastal waters, and not a U-boat destroyed. Yet American civilians seemed only dimly aware of the submarine menace; otherwise I surely would have been more fearful when the American Field Service that same March booked passage for another fellow and myself on a British freighter bound for the Middle East, where we were to become ambulance drivers for the British Eighth Army.
The women's service volunteer who delivered George Tener and me to a Brooklyn dock cried visibly as we headed up the gangplank with our gear. She may have been appalled by the rusty, beaten-up appearance of the vessel, or she may well have been more aware than we neophytes of what lay ahead.
Our awakening came after the heavily laden ship reached open water beyond New York harbor. No convoy awaited us. No protective destroyer. Nothing but our lone freighter with its hold full of military equipment and four crated aircraft sitting on deck.
The danger was real enough. Days came when Sparks, the radio operator, reported a dozen SOS's during the previous night. If the distress call was in our direction, the bridge officer immediately changed course to stay clear of lurking submarines. The safety of the cargo took precedence over rescue attempts, which left each defenseless freighter on its own.
The isolation struck home to me when a pre-departure vaccination became a nasty abscess. The inflammation spread, my temperature got to 103 degrees, and the only salvation was the young third mate's readiness to try his scalpel. The fever waned after his slicing, but the pus drained inward, causing sleepless nights of burning hives.
The ship itself, only 15 months old, had already been through eight air raids in home waters. Its crew members were fatalistic, none more so than the first mate, who was so certain the ship would be "pipped" that he carried all his emergency equipment and prized possessions to the bridge each time he went on duty. His premonition was seconded the fifth day out when a Somali stoker appeared on deck in his shore clothes, suitcase in hand, and raved long and loudly that the ship was about to be sunk. A dead relative had told him so.
For the captain this trip was his first command after years of taking orders. The chief engineer formerly had run a razor-blade factory. The steward had been a night-club waiter. The zigzag course to Capetown, South Africa, consisted of 34 days of
making do by a makeshift crew. As the meat began to spoil, doses of curry became heavier. Intestinal complaints were commonplace. Men in the engine room keeled over in equatorial heat. The chief engineer tapped into the fresh-water supply to spare his condensers, and the last several days the ship was without washing water, used salt water in the boilers and ran at half speed to ration the little remaining coal.
For Tener and Jones the seemingly endless days of empty ocean, cut off from all other human contact, had a nightmare quality of being adrift in another world. We made do by reading, playing cards and writing in our journals. For exercise we helped chip paint and scrape rust, a tedious chore.
We could not be told our exact location, but the sun's direction and differences in time and temperatures gave us the general idea. At night the stars indicated abrupt changes of course as danger loomed. By 6 p.m. portholes were closed, blackout strictly enforced, and our small stateroom became a stifling cell. The ventilation was much worse below deck, where crewmen were housed.
Especially at night we two Americans spent long hours on deck to move and breathe more freely and talk with shipmates. We came to have greater appreciation of the ordinary seamen, who were poorly fed, poorly housed and grossly underpaid. On their floating targets, out of touch with the world at large, they had come to think of themselves as having no other options. If they were lucky enough to get back to their home ports after a sinking or two, their civilian clothes did not gain them the respect given to uniformed personnel. Some even were handed white feathers.
Capetown was our great escape. For three days we got ashore to savor the sights, sounds and smells of city life. Once we learned that "For Europeans Only" did not exclude Americans we ate and drank like proverbial sailors while our ship had its boilers flushed out and supplies brought aboard, including dusty deck mounds of precious coal.
Then, back at sea, the war closed in all too quickly when, the first night out, a ship half a mile ahead of us struck a home-made mine and was badly damaged. The same thing happened to another ship several nights later, supposedly the handiwork of Nazi sympathizers in South Africa.
Our ship stayed close to the barren African coastline, bucking currents so strong that in one 24-hour period we only advanced 116 miles. By then British forces had seized Madagasgar from the Vichy French, and six Vichy submarines were on the loose. Our apprehension mounted as ships passed us in either direction, including a southbound hospital ship, but we saw nothing alarming. On the sixth day from Capetown our freighter was squeezed into the crowded harbor at Durban, a refuge for all kinds of vessels, civilian and military.
Durban, South Africa, proved to be a tourist's delight, and we two Americans did our share of sightseeing. We were not tourists, however, or in a holiday mood. Like so many other seamen we met, some off sunken ships, we were waiting for further orders. The inaction became oppressive. After 11 days the captain got the go-ahead, and our vessel headed in its slow-motion way for the Mozambique Channel with Madagascar off to the right. Crew members tried out the machine guns mounted on the bridge and to nobody's apparent surprise they quickly jammed. We were back to poor food, intestinal troubles and that defenseless feeling.
Twelve days after Durban came the big left turn toward the Red Sea. The equatorial heat, worse than in the Atlantic, prompted crewmen to rig tarpaulins over the aft hatches so they could sleep outside. Two days later we had an overnight stop in Aden, a hellhole that visibly steamed in sunlight. There the ship got more coal and its ultimate means of defense, a 36-foot, blimp-shaped balloon that was lashed amidships by a stout cable, intended to repel dive bombers.
By this time Rommel's Afrika Korps had broken through British defenses at Tobruk and was making its final push into Egypt. Tension in the Red Sea was palpable. Crew members stood by the machine guns, aimed upward, and the balloon was raised to 2,000 feet, then broke free in the wind, which didn't bolster morale. We had a brief stop at Port Sudan, where the crated aircraft were unloaded in a relatively safe place. Then it was on to the Gulf of Suez, where strong winds delayed our rendezvous with a naval escort.
Finally, 77 days from New York, Tener and Jones were met at the southern end of the Suez Canal by an American Field Service officer with our first bath of mail from home and directions to get us to a desert mobilization depot. We had made it! Unfortunately, as we later learned, what had become "our" vessel did not reach its goal. Headed through the canal to unload its military cargo at Alexandria, it got only a few miles into the Mediterranean before enemy torpedo planes sank it. Crew members got off safely, most likely to await yet another thankless voyage.
Edgar L. Jones is a retired Sun editorial writer.