From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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Journey to England
Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

Published in Worcester Sunday Telegram {Mass.] in 1943

  The officers had told us that the whole embarkation was to be secret, and to keep our traps shut about it, or by golly the German submarines would be waiting in droves! So we said nothing, dimly hoping that our families would, by some flare of intuition, realize that the boat was pulling out and that we were on the first leg of the great adventure.

I've often wondered about that day. One must observe the rules of security without question, and yet it irked me to think that a half-million people, more or less, waved and shouted frantic farewells as we chugged out of Brooklyn on a ferry, bound for Staten Island and the good ship "Repulsive." Yet my own Shrewsbury, Mass., folks must guess the whereabouts of their ever-loving son. It was very annoying, and the only asset to be plucked out of the situation was that it gave us something to gripe about. We griped most heartily.

I was the first man aboard the ship. Incidentally, I hope to be the first man aboard on the way back, too, and if they don't snap to it, I may even take off alone in a rowboat.

Anyhow, a couple of Army officers from the transportation corps, our own company commander, and the first sergeant, stood by the gangplank to call off our names. There were a number of MPs wandering around too -- probably there to see that no one made a break for one last sortie around New York.

There was really small danger of this, because while the spirit was willing, the flesh was burdened down with barracks bags, ordnance and other odds and ends of a soldier's trade. We weren't thinking of bright lights then; we were only wondering whether any mortal man would be able to stagger up that blasted gangplank without dropping a good percentage of his equipment into the sea.

How did we feel? Were we suddenly frightened upon coming face to face with the great, watery no-man's land between peaceful America and flaming Europe? Somehow I doubt it, and yet it is difficult to explain a trooper's feelings at that climactic moment which is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

This was reality instead of rumor. Here the smell of the vessel and the sea was in our nostrils. Behind us was America, and at hand was the transition we had so long awaited. I think that the emotion was relief.

Believe it or not, there is a measure of relief and satisfaction in going aboard a troop ship for overseas duty. From this moment on, we were divorced from the "home front army." We were soon to be veterans of foreign wars. That was something to think about -- and there was that extra 20 percent increase in pay!

Old sailors, I thought morosely, must have holes in their heads! Here was chapter one of the great adventure, and here was I, sourly regarding the contours of a white ceiling. It wasn't a nice ceiling at all. It was criss-crossed with steam pipes and iron braces. It was damp with a dismal film of moisture. It rocked, keeping cadence with the dismal sound of marine engines. Boy, that was a lousy ceiling!

Have you ever been seasick? Have you ever been seasick on an upper bunk, in a troop ship, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? What a sensation!

We were two days out of New York bound for the European Theater of Operations, or, as it is fondly referred to over here, the ETO. Mind you, we weren't told that we were going to the ETO, but truth will out.

Since we had been trained for competition with the former world's champions of blitzkrieg, and since our ship, the USAT Repulsive (fictitious name, but apt), was steaming in the general direction of the big show, we took three guesses and they all came out "England."

Halfway across where no one could swim back and spread the glad tidings, we were issued a booklet on how to "get on" with the average Englishman. That, of course, besides revealing our destination, was decided to be a technical error. Most of us weren't especially interested in the average Englishman, and nowhere was there any reference to the lovely lassies of that tight little isle. It was very annoying.

But back to the ceiling, that white, squirming old ceiling which I regarded with so jaundiced eye for all of two days! My friend, Steinhart, I understand, had a more interesting ceiling. On his, some prison-bound German soldier had whiled away the turbulent hours by drawing a coat of arms.

It was a fancy, well done job, scalloped neatly around the shield, and engraved with such place names as Amsterdam, Paris, Crete, El Alemein, and Bengasi. The last notation, scrawled in glumly, was the report: "Casablanca to New York -- 11 days."

The ocean had been green at first, choppy and flecked with foam, but it wasn't rough. No one was sick, not even as Manhattan's famous skyline melted into the mist-blue horizon. Standing at the rail, watching the sea gulls soar in our wake, we felt that this was to be indeed a restful cruise.

Five hours later the long green swells began to turn poisonously blue and heave with mighty unrest. The company commander murmured farewell, and repaired to his stateroom. The first sergeant suddenly became deathly pale. (How we suffered for him, it says here.)

And numbers of swarthy troopers became strangely silent at the motion to which they could not become accustomed. Gradually the decks were cleared and possibly two-thirds of the entire outfit became interested in lying still on the long rows of bunks. Steinhart and I -- with our respective ceilings -- were not alone.

Seasickness is seldom fatal. Soldiers usually suffer for a couple of days and then, to their own surprise, recover completely. On the third day out, most of us were treading the deck again, pale, it is true, but beginning to enjoy the trip and feeling a part of the up-down-sideways motion.

We found that there were interesting things to talk about, and that a bunk was merely a place to sleep after the last blackjack game was broken up. The ceiling lost its wicked aspect entirely.

There was little talk of submarines on the way to England. Most of us were convinced that Doenitz and his wolf packs had been beaten. We called our quarters in the hold, "Torpedo Junction," but that was for a joke. There was satisfaction in watching the screen of destroyers that led, flanked and followed our convoy. There was equal pride and security generated by the appearance of big four-motored Liberator bombers, circling the fleet of transports and warships like sheepdogs guarding a scattered flock.

For the most part we spent the long days on deck, bundled in kapok life jackets, watching the ever-changing hues of the ocean, arguing pleasantly with each other about the size and type of war and transport vessels to right and left of our own "Repulsive."

The schedule became a succession of sleeping, eating, lounging on deck and playing cards. There weren't many details. The thrice daily chow line wound through ships corridors for a distance that approximated a country mile.
There was a post exchange from which we might purchase candy bars, tobacco and cigarettes, toilet articles and other items at cost. It wasn't a bad voyage. We learned things: for instance, we learned the reason for the ever-changing colors of the sea.

Steinhart, who is a percentage man, wracked his brain for the answer, but no one seemed to have it. This became the puzzle of the day until the ship's chaplain supplied a book which told all, as they say in the confession magazines.

Changing sea color is caused by the reflection of light rays. In deep water the blue rays penetrate further before reflecting upwards, and this is why the sea appears brilliant blue where the water is deep and clear. In coastal areas, or where the sea is muddy and filled with impurities, transparency is less, and the green rays reflect more vividly than the blue. The changing colors of the sea are caused entirely by the spectrum of colors present in sunlight, its absorption by the water, and the light which is reflected upward from the most intense of these rays.

The voyage proceeded without incident. No U-boat rose to loose its complement of torpedoes, no long-range raider flew over the horizon. The first sergeant scrawled "Usual camp duties" in his morning report each day. And each day to the recreation room came the chaplain, armed with his good book, and determined to instill religion in the hearts of those wicked tank destroyers sprawled upon the floor, playing cards as though each hand might be their last.

The chaplain, a popular man despite the satanic appearance of his charges, drew forth hymn books from an empty .50 caliber machine-gun box, and passed them around to the men. The services were conducted assiduously, and no soldier erred while the man of God spoke, or while he led them in devotions. Yet, the moment that last hymnbook was packed in the machine-gun box, and the chaplain turned to go, all hands raced for their playing cards, and went back to work with a vengeance.

One day while we were leaning on the rail and watching the escorting destroyers tend their flock, two fast airplanes pitched low over the convoy and howled across the sky in tight formation. It was the first time we had seen Spitfires. No one who has studied airplane silhouettes could ever mistake that wide, elliptical wing and slim, racy fuselage.

Fighter planes are not designed for long range sweeps. Suddenly we realized that Great Britain lay dead ahead. Before sunset the coast of Ireland loomed on the horizon. We were practically in, and yet another day passed before the ship nosed to a halt, guided by the clean-lined little tugs of Britain.

Before us lay the land and the people that had alone held Germany at bay in the bitter months of 1941. The voyage was over and we had arrived safely. I was thrilled at the sight of the green fields and neat hedge rows, the old stone work, and the sausage balloons trailing their cables.

We were moving up. This was the final jumping off place. Germany was 20 minutes away by air.

Did we, American troops, arriving in the old world, think about these things? We did not; down on the quay there were girls in uniform! There was a British band playing American tunes -- with an English accent. There was land after days at sea.

(Passed by U.S. Army Censor)

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