13 Jun Pre- D-Day Letter
The task of cataloging and documenting all of my Dad’s war letters is rather daunting. I have given myself permission to take it at an easy pace and enjoy the process (while working on other fronts of my family history project as well). I want to share the letters here that are particularly poignant, and shed light on what it was like being a soldier headed off to one of the most important battles in WWII.
This is the first letter he wrote to his wife Mary (not my Mom), after shipping out for Western Europe in the huge build up to D Day. He describes what it was like living on board with 500 other soldiers! I found the letter quite amazing and share it with you here (along with a piece of toilet paper stamped “Government Property”):
Here I am – somewhere at sea – sitting on the promenade deck – getting a good tan – and writing my honey. We’re having a good trip, considering and aside from several cases of (not sure of this) wal-de-wave the first few days out, things don’t go so badly – EXCEPT!
We were rushed on board into the PROM PORT compartment – which means the port promenade deck has been filled up with bunks for 500 men – and I mean filled up! And when the men and all of their equipment get in besides – you got something! Put a cot in the busiest aisle at Macy’s Xmas rush, and you’ll have an idea! They have canvas roped to a pipe so, for each bunk. These are stacked four high and held by a chain (each morning the 3 bottom ones are lifted up so you can sweep and hose down the deck. These bunks are 2 feet up from each other and every time the guy under you turns over you get a fast goose! To get into one of these bunk contraptions requires combination training as a high-jumper and trapeze artist. You grasp a bunk on each side of the aisle – take a deep breath – kick both feet up, forward and sideways – push with your right arm – pull with left – duck your head – all in one mad lunge toward your little “stateroom” and land in a heap – on the floor. Say, “to hell with it”, step in the face of the guy under you, and crawl in. THEN your troubles are beginning to start. First you try to push your barracks bag, musette bag, canteen, etc etc into spots where you can at least assume a position of proneness (what a word!) Then you arrange the wrinkles in your mackinaw (for a mattress) so they’ll fit your knife, fountain pens, etc (sleep with your clothes on) lay your weary head on your life preserver (which you NEVER) leave out of reach – ) and wonder how long it will be tonight before the loud mouths get tired of jabbering about their experiences – “so I tell this ___ M.P.”. Gradually, they taper off – and the snorers and mutterers take over. Eventually Morpheus takes over. Occasionally you wake up – conscious of foul air, swishing waves, and creaking ropes – and finally the sun – fresh air – and the rattle of mess kits wakes you up in the morning. You stagger into the latrine and wash and shave in cold – salt water!! (Fresh water is only for drinking and hot water is unheard of). Did you ever try to make a lather in salt water? You work like hell to get something resembling toothpaste – then work twice as hard trying to get that off. During the interim you’ve worked up a sweat – which you wipe off with a towel – and you’re clean.
THEN you get in the chow line for breakfast (lunch is a fast cup of coffee, or soup, and a cookie, or piece of bread, or crackers and cheese – supper is a regular meal – I say “regular” with reservations!) Our particular chow line starts on the prom deck – goes down stairs to the A deck – aft along a bulkhead (wall) to a couple of doors leading into the saloon and down the main stairs to B deck, C deck, and finally (after getting your mess card punched) to the cafeteria style mess (and I mean “mess”) on D deck. They slop a bunch of junk onto your canteen (K rations will look like the “1-2-3 club” after this) and you squeeze your way to four foot high table where you stand and “down” as much as you can. Then you wash your mess kit and find your way bay to your bunk – and get out on deck for a smoke and a look around.
All the ships are still in the same place. Inexorably plowing along. Bouncing, swaying, breaking water over the bows occasionally – but plowing ahead. I can imagine it would be very disheartening to A. Hitler to see. Something very determined and inevitable about it all.
Guys play poker – read – sleep – gripe – and mill around. Cripes how they mill around! It’s like a Sat. afternoon crowd in circus animal tent. And smells worse! A few – very few – of us have braved the horrors of a cold salt water shower a few times, but for the most part guys just go on and on – day & night, in the same underwear and socks! Out on deck, of course, it’s fine – but you can imagine what it’s like at night when the blackout is in effect. Everything is shut up tight – and it’s pretty grim.
Leaning on the rail at night – watching the phosphorus – just barely able to make out the darker shapes of the ships nearest you is pleasant. But lonely. You have time to think of how silly and mixed up you were at our last parting. There was so much I wanted to tell you, my darling. And I wanted to hold you so close to me – but there was something so futile about it all. I took the easy way out and left before the going got tough.
Sunsets and sunrises are very beautiful out here – with you and Karen along this could be a wonderful trip. I miss you terribly sometimes.
You’ll probably get a cablegram before you get this – maybe even a V mail letter, but this is the first (see the (1) on the first page?) letter I’ve written since we pulled away from the dock.
Tell Bill & Ellen that the lighter is a great success. Give my best to the family at 5A – a big hug to Karen, and keep a long, close, warm hug and kiss for yourself, baby – gee but I love you –
PS – Did you get my shoes OK? I bought a pair of officer oxfords $3.45! and very nice they are, too.
PPS – Also adding a little G.I. tissue. Each set clearly stamped. My contribution to the Dept-of-something-or-other.