Every soldier or sailor worries about how he will react when first confronted with actual war. After all, that is when he starkly realizes there is someone out there whose intent is to thwart his mission, which may involve killing him in the process. Those of us who never had to endure direct combat can only admire the courage of those who did. But even we who were on the fringes had our anxious moments.
I had volunteered for the Navy to avoid the miseries that I envisioned as the lot of the foot soldier. The better image was the clean ship, the blue sky, the churning sea, the bracing breeze.
In pursuit of that image I signed up for training as a quartermaster, the most glamorous enlisted rate in the navy. The quartermaster ("master of the quarterdeck") works up on the bridge. His duties involve steering, knowledge of compasses and the rules of the road, signaling by light and semaphore and the rudiments of navigation.
Let's go back to January 1944: While I am on temporary shore- patrol duty in San Francisco (a city I grow to love) I finally receive my orders: report to ACORN 24 at Port Hueneme, California. ACORN is an acronym and to this day I have no idea what it stands for. But at Port Hueneme I am abruptly jolted from my hope for a romantic voyage on a wine-dark sea. We are issued marine fatigues, boots, battle helmets, a rifle, survival rations. Every day we practice amphibious landings on the California beach. This, I bitterly reflect, is not what a quartermaster is supposed to do.
We depart from Los Angeles after two weeks of training, mere troops shoehorned with thousands of others into the abused cabins and lounges of what had been in happier days the most glamorous U.S. passenger liner, the S.S. America. Now painted battle gray, it is renamed the West Point.
After 12 days at sea the 200 men of ACORN 24 are transferred to another ship in New Caledonia. It's an old armed merchant rust-bucket called the Mormacsea, which takes us to Milne Bay in New Guinea. The rumor -- which was apparently true until plans were changed -- is that we are going to participate in the invasion of western New Guinea, still held by the Japanese.
Instead we join a convoy bound for the Admiralty Islands and, of course, have no idea what we will encounter there. We arrive in its vast Seeadler Harbor to find the outer islands of its archipelago still under siege. There appears to be no serious resistance, hence no danger to us, as we watch the fighting, like an audience, from the deck of the Mormacsea. "Our fortunes are made," says my friend Don Kephart. "We have seen war."
But seeing war proved more endurable than waiting for it. A couple of nights later, near bedtime on the Mormacsea, sirens began to sound from the ships in the harbor. "General quarters" (meaning everyone to his battle station) is announced over the loudspeakers, and we are advised that we are under air attack
and that we -- being only passengers -- must go below deck to our bunks. Someone actually says, "This is it, men."
We file down into the darkness of our multi-tiered quarters. My bunk is the top of four, from which I can touch the rough steel
underside of the main deck. I imagine being physically obliterated by a bomb hitting the deck just above me. The passivity is what makes it unbearable. I would rather be on deck with the sailors manning the guns. I lie on my bunk, rigid with fear, reviewing my insignificant life and struck by the absurdity of dying on my back.
Though we hear no bombs exploding, no anti-aircraft shots fired, the tension goes on for two hours. In this mortal suspense I am so utterly awake that I am conscious of every sound. Then I hear a rumble -- perhaps distant guns, or bombs falling somewhere far away. No, that is not it. It seems to be all around me. To my right, and then to my left.
The sound is snoring. My shipmates, hanging on the edge of eternity, are using this respite to catch a little shut-eye. This, to me, is unbelievable. Don't they realize they are about to die? In what way are they different from me that they can sleep in this moment of truth? Perhaps they are braver, or just philosophical about the odds. If that's the case, they are right. The alert ends, the bombs have fallen on an airstrip several miles away -- not even close enough to wake anyone up.
Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.