Leonard Eaton Varnam (1921 - 2001)
Merchant seaman, World War II
This is an excerpt of a document that our father wrote in 1996.
To my wife, Louise, and children Kathy, Becky and Ed
I have told you about some of the things that happened during my younger years, and included my first three years of college. My college education was interrupted by an incident called World War II - caused by the German Nazi invasion of Europe and the Japanese attach on America at Pearl Harbor.
This story involves what happened to me during the period of November 2, 1944, to January 1947. Five young men from Limington, Maine, joined the merchant marine on November 2 and we shipped out to a base at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. There were two bases in the vicinity - one merchant marine and the other a base for training girls that had enlisted in the Coast Guard. There was a heavy wire fence between the two so that there wouldn't be any hanky-panky. We received the regular basic training that was used in the Navy. We were taught how to march, parade, handle firearms, and to dismantle them and put them back together with our eyes closed. We had regular physical education classes as well as classes in seamanship and handing of life boats. We were detained on base for six weeks while we went through basic training. We were given shots for every known disease during this time.
At the end of the first six weeks we could go home for the weekend. On my first trip home I came down with the measles and was very sick. The doctor told me that I couldn't go back that weekend. The American Red Cross sent a telegram with the doctor's directions to the base commander. It was acknowledged by the commander. However, when I returned, everyone was on my back for being AWOL from the barracks and classes. I had to appear before an officer's mast and explain my whereabouts. Finally the base commander came to my rescue and showed them copies of the Red Cross telegram.
When basic training was over we could join several different branches of training. We could go to cook and bakers school, officer training, radio training and other such choices. I chose cook and baker school and spent eight weeks cooking and baking. It was a fun thing as we baked cakes, cookies, different meats and veggies and we could sit down and eat the food and not go through the mess line.
After final cook and bakers school we were sent to New York City to a shipping school. There was posted a list of ships and their needs for cooks were posted. We could choose the job and the ship. I signed onto the SS George Dewey, which as a Liberty ship. We had no idea where the ship was headed until it left port. This was done for security reasons. The SS George Dewey needed a 3rd cook so I joined on. The 3rd cook was a vegetable peeler and helped get breakfast every day.
We shipped out of New York City and headed south along the coast to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk we were loaded with supplies and joined a convoy headed out in the Atlantic. A convoy is a gathering of ships that are sailing in one direction and are protected on all sides by battleships, cruisers and destroyers. There could be as many as 50 merchant ships in a convoy. Every half hour the command was given to change direction, right or left to foil submarines if they were chasing us.
To explain a bit, the SS George Dewey as a class of ships called "Liberty ships." They were made by Kaiser Industries in California and in the southern U.S. They were also built in South Portland, Maine. They were mainly built for cargo and were built very quickly at a low cost. They were what we used to call "tubs" because of their shape and speed. Speed on trips was about 10 miles per hour. They hauled a huge cargo and they served their purpose well.
These ships were armed with two six-inch guns front and rear and we had four anti-aircraft turrets on the ship. On each ship we had a Navy gun crew of 13 men who manned the guns, if needed. The merchant crew was used to pass the ammunition. In convoys occasionally one would hear deep rumbles caused by depth charges of TNT to destroy enemy submarines.
Our ship was headed to the Mediterranean Sea and destination of Marseilles, France. Our cargo was food. As we passed through the Rock of Gibraltar I heard my only gunfire of the war.
When we reached Marseilles the war with Germany had ended and we could go ashore and into town. To get to town one had to take a trolley that came by every 15 minutes. My buddy and I stood at the trolley stop and several went by with people hanging off the sides and on top of the cars. We decided that if we were going to get transportation we had to grab a rail on the car when it slowed down or not go to town at all. One must understand that a lot of France was bombed and Marseille was a target. The city square was loaded with tables and merchants were selling their wares to the U.S. Army personnel. It smelled as if the chief product was perfume and looked like a flea market.
We noted a "cat and mouse" game with U.S. GIs and French civilians. Cigarettes were scarce or non-existent in France. U.S. Army personnel could get cigarettes for 50 cents a carton and they would sell the cigarettes to the French for $20 equivalent in French francs. After the sale was made, military police would approach the civilians and take their cigarettes away because it was not allowed for the French to have American cigarettes. The carton of cigarettes was probably sold a dozen times and taken away a dozen times. It was wrong to do this but it was a way of getting French currency to use.
Our ship was unloaded and pulled into a pier to re-load. We were being loaded to be sent to the Pacific Ocean. Our cargo was to include 250 tons of ammunition, railroad tracks, P.T. boat engines, trucks and other war materials. The Japanese were still fighting and we needed this stuff in the Pacific.
As we were being loaded an alarm sounded and we all had to abandon ship. Navy divers had found that there was a torpedo under our ship. Had they continued loading, the ship would have hit it and been blown up. Loaded, we embarked for the Panama Canal to go to the Pacific. The officers held a shakedown of crew members and quarters to look for dangerous contraband. They discovered loaded shells, land mines, guns and liquor. Everything was confiscated from us and thrown overboard, including French wine.
At Panama we docked and loaded with food. This included flour, fresh milk, powdered skim milk and fresh eggs. The captain and his officers replenished their liquor supply by sneaking it aboard in burlap bags. From Panama we went through the canal and into the Pacific. We sailed without a convoy in the Pacific. The weather was beautiful and warm and we pitched a canvas over the ship's hold that contained the ammunition. We figured we couldn't survive if the ship was hit so we might as well go the easy way. We slept on cots under the canvas where it was cool.
Not much happened but the voyage from Panama to Leyte in the Philippines took over 40 days. We had a captain who we thought to be mentally unstable and he went off course so that we could sail over the deepest spot in the world. We didn't feel a thing! Just before we reached our destination, the latest atomic bomb was exploded over Japan and they surrendered. When we reached Leyte in the evening, lights were showing from shore and we thought we had a big city on shore. When morning came it was a big disappointment. It looked like jungle from the ship. Natives were very poor, houses were built on stilts, and carcasses of slain animals were handing with blow flies all over them. This was their market and meat supply. The Army had huge stockpiles of vehicles, cement, building supplies, ammunition and local eggs stuck out in the open air. 11 of 12 eggs were rotten. This was a staging areas for the invasion of Japan if it had been needed.
I can't remember what our cargo back to the U.S. was but I think it was surplus Army clothing: shoes, jackets, etc. We shipped out after we were unloaded and re-loaded and went to New Orleans. There we signed off the SS George Dewey after six months on board. When we signed off my take-home pay was $1,400. This included bonuses for duty in foreign and hostile waters. We were unionized and the National Maritime Union had to have a representative present to see that we were not cheated. We were paid off in cash! I bought a money belt and put the money into it for safekeeping.
That night we decided that we would see what Bourbon Street was like. There were many small bars and night clubs. As we were walking down Bourbon Street we met the union representative who was really drunk. We were in front of the Three Aces Bar and Night Club. As we entered the union rep said to the bartender, "Use these men right. They just signed off ship after six months." Of course that meant that we had just been paid. The bar normally closed at 2 a.m. but at 3 a.m. it was still going strong.
At 5 a.m. about ten of us were invited to the Jamboree. This was s spot where all the strippers got together after the bars closed and I suppose, looking back in retrospect, that it was a real show! I still had my money and was sober. I might add that it was Navy Day and all the hotels were full. At 7 a.m. our group caught the train north. We arrived in New York City where I found another ship with a date convenient for sailing. I enjoyed a few days at home and banked my money. This ended my career as a vegetable peeler.
I traveled by train from Limington to New York City via North and South Stations in Boston. The train was really crowded and I had to stand most of the way. Back then ladies were given preferential treatment if possible.
My next ship was the SS Waterbury Victory, a better built ship and somewhat faster (14 mph). Facilities were somewhat better and the galley quite modern ac compared to the SS Dewey. We had a machine that peeled the veggies. The galley crew consisted of a chief cook - or 1st cook - two 2nd cooks and a 3rd cook, a steward and a 2nd steward. The steward was responsible for supplies being ordered in port and loaded. The 2nd steward made out menus to best utilize the supplies on board. The 1st cook was responsible for cooking meats and soups, one 2nd cook assisted the 1st cook and the other 2nd cook was in charge of baking and pastries. The 3rd cook made sure that all veggies were peeled and prepared for cooking. One 2nd cook and the 3rd cook were responsible for preparing breakfast. The 1st cook or chief came on duty at 9 a.m. We didn't have many salads as green produce didn't last that long. We also had a butcher to cut up carcasses and portions of meat, steaks, pork chops and poultry.
I was very fortunate that the chief cook liked me and requested that I be his 2nd cook. Nino was a Puerto Rican and a joy to be around as he did more than his share of the work and taught me a few things about soup making and cooking meats.
This particular voyage was to return some German POWs to Germany. We picked them up in New York City. We could have about 2100 men as passengers. These men had their own kitchen facilities and did their own cooking and baking. In other words, we had facilities below deck for cooking for POWs and passengers, if any.
As went well until we got through the English Channel and into the North Sea. Submarines had sunk a lot of ships in the North Sea and we ran over one about midnight. Our ship was tossed up in the water and a hole about three feet long was punched in the side. The ships were double hulled so was from the hole was contained until we got to Bremerhaven, Germany. We were relieved of our POWs and the ship was put into dry dock for repairs. Bremerhaven was noted as a ship building site and repairs were made quickly.
We picked up American GIs returning to the U.S. The voyage was very rough with high winds and 60-foot waves. Our ship was tossed about but we got home safely. We didn't cook much but used our big 40-gallon steam pots to make soup, mashed potatoes and other steamed or boiled items.
I stayed on the same ship the rest of my time in the merchant marine. Our next trip was to Great Britain and Le Havre, France. We took back more German POWs. Those were real nasty as they were the "elite" troops of the Panzer divisions that had fought in North Africa. They were kept below decks and armed guards kept them there. They thought they were being taken home. We stopped at Great Britain and large ferries came out at midnight and took them ashore. They didn't know where or what was happening to them. The English were going to use them in the coal mines. Had they known that on ship all hell would have broken loose. One of the POWs was a doctor and he operated on my finger as I had poison in it. It caused my finger to swell and ache and the poison to start up my arm. We didn't have U.S. Army doctors on these trips to Europe. They were on board on return trips to tend to U.S. troops. Anyhow, my finger healed and the doctor ate well on the rest of the trip. The doctor's whole family had been wiped out by a bomb in Bremen.
We then went to Le Harvre, France, to pick up troops at Camp Lucky Strike to bring home. Le Harvre was really bombed out. People living in some surviving houses would bring out their slop pails and dump them in the street and fill the buckets with water and take it back into the houses. Our passengers on this trip back consisted of 1300 GIs and 1000 Red Cross girls and the RKO Rockettes who had been over there to entertain. Our first five days were very rough and most of the soldiers and girls were sea sick. The men and women didn't mingle as both were anxious to get home to see their wives and loved ones. They were supposed to be home for Christmas but the seas were so rough so we brought them into Boston instead of New York City.
My next trip took us to the Pacific. During the war there was a group from the Hawaiian Islands who called themselves Neisi or Japanese Americans. They suspected that Washington bureaucrats thought that they were traitors after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They formed a unit to fight in Europe which was known as the 442nd Infantry Division. They fought valiantly in Italy and lost most of the original enlistees. Replacements were sent to Italy and the war then ended. Those troops were returned to the U.S. and highly honored by holding parades in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
We picked up this group in New York City along with a bunch of recruits headed for Japan. We went through the Panama Canal and thence to Hawaii. The recruits and veterans argued and fought the whole trip. The Japanese liked rice with ketchup on it so they cooked their own meals. The American recruits didn't like rice; hence the arguments and fights.
I might add that this was my first tip as chief cook. Nino was taken sick and had to retire from the merchant marine. He gave me his whole set of knives and forks. I still have them today, including a large wire whip. This was a good promotion and I enjoyed it.
We almost got into Hawaii at 4 a.m. and our ship was met by hordes of well-wishers, wives, hula girls and Hawaiian musical bands. The town opened up in their honor and of course the whole ship's crew was invited. U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye was one of those returning vets. A movie was made concerning those soldiers of the 442nd Infantry Division called "Go for Broke." I didn't see the movie but understand it included some pictures of our ship and the homecoming.
I met up with a chum from Limington, Maine, who was in the U.S. Army. He used to work for Locust Farm Dairy when I did. He was stationed in Hawaii and his outfit had charge of the radar cave that had been carved out of Diamond Head. This tunnel was about 70 feet long and contained radar gear. It was reached by funicular. From Hawaii we went to Yokohama, Japan, and dropped off the replacement recruits. We brought back soldiers to San Francisco.
We shipped out of San Francisco loaded with beer and liquor and other items and headed to Guam. We reached the Hawaiian Islands and the ship broke down for a week. We got to Guam and stayed anchored a day or two outside the port of Agama. We were then brought in and unloaded. As I stated we had beer and whiskey aboard. One of the Army stevedores was caught stealing some beer and he was court-martialed and given ten days of hard labor. His hard labor consisted of helping to unload the beer and whiskey.
We returned to San Francisco with soldiers. Our next trip was to the Marshall Islands to pick up more troops.
I decided to apply for my discharge and sent the application to Washington, D.C. for review and action. I made one more trip to Hawaii and got back to San Francisco about December 3rd. My discharge didn't come back but I thought it would be there shortly and signed off the ship.
Contributed by Rebecca Varnam Dyer, daughter of Leonard Eaton Varnam