Occasionally, I publish some of Mr. Montgomery’s musings edited only for grammatical errors. I’m sharing this one since Mr. Montgomery’s interment at the Ivy Green Cemetery in Bremerton, complete with military honors, is this Friday, October 5th at 1PM, 1401 Naval Ave., Bremerton, WA.
RETURN HOME from the WAR in EUROPE – 1946
The war was finally over, even the Japanese had surrendered. The US Army in Europe had already been sending soldiers home as soon as the Germans had surrendered. But most of them were slated to be shipped off to fight against Japan. By January 1946 the USA was almost ready to abandon Europe to its fates.
THE RUSSIANS – I can remember sometime after the official surrender signed at Rheims, we had a delegation of Russian Army Officers apparently making a survey of our headquarters in Frankfurt. They stayed around for several days and disappeared to the east. We even received a shipment of 30 Underwood typewriters from Hartford, Conn, to outfit a liaison office at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). They had special Russian keyboards for the rumored Russian unit that was intended to be part of the Headquarters. Apparently the honeymoon with the Russian had already lost its gloss with the surrender. I can remember months before, even in the Paris headquarters, I had a conversation with a British Sergeant who voiced the idea “Don’t put any trust in the Russians” (an attitude with almost the whole British delegation at SHAEF) “As soon as the war is over, they’ll go back to being communists, and we’ll become the enemy.”
It was in this atmosphere that I got onto the Army’s return home qualification list. So, one day sometime in late January, I was notified to pack up ready to return to the USA. A group of us were moved to a residential part of another town somewhere near Frankfurt, for about 2 weeks. I still have no idea why this particular move. We sat around waiting for transportation orders for almost 2 weeks.
The Army commandeered some German civilian houses, fairly nice middle-class workers residences, and told us “pick a room and move in”. We met the owners of the house, who apparently were told to pack up and move out to accommodate US soldiers. In our house was a man, wife, and 1 or 2 children in their early teens. What I do remember was that us Americans were a little disturbed by our “occupation” of this civilian family. The shooting war was over. Anyway, we sympathized with the family residents, and made ourselves a private deal, where the owners and family stayed in the house, doubled up in their rooms (apparently the house had 4 bedrooms) and we tried to act like guests rather than an occupying army. The person we saw most often was the 13 year old daughter, who had learned English better than the rest of the household, and so we talked to her a lot and even participated in card games, etc with her. It was an extremely cold winter, and the father fired up the furnace which I suspect he had not operated for years. We even had hot water in the bathroom, and shared their kitchen.
It only lasted for about 10 days, when we were rousted out, climbed aboard army trucks and took off across Germany and France to an encampment somewhere near LeHavre in France. I can remember arriving late in the afternoon to this camp located in some French farmer’s field. It had been thrown together and consisted of a number of Army Hospital tents, with about 30 folding cots for beds. We had to bring bed rolls, and the usual Army traveling kits.
The weather by this time was miserable, lots of rain (just like home). By the time it got dark, a real storm hit us. It was pouring rain, wind blowing, etc. By the time we got our tent full of soldiers into bed in our cots, the canvas above us was flapping away. We were awakened by shouts, yells, and noises from outside our tent. The tent next to ours had collapsed, and was flapping away in the wind and rain, with them running around trying to protect their belongings, and rescue the tent, which was trying to fly away. We also noticed that a number of our own tent stakes had pulled loose, and we were on the verge of losing our tent also. The entire crew joined in and attempted to stake down this tent against the wind. The problem was that this was a French farm field; the ground was soft muddy farming land, and was saturated with water. The tent stakes weren’t holding. I remember grabbing one of the 6 ft tent poles lying on the ground, and several of us drove it into the ground in place of the 18 inch regular stakes. We actually drove those 6 ft poles down until there was only about 2 feet left in sight. We double tied them along with the regular stakes, and finally got our tent anchored against the very strong wind.
The fellows from the downed tent, moved in with those in the tents still standing and we went back to bed for the rest of the night. I think we had about 45 guys in cots in our tent. I have forgotten how long we stayed up on this hill waiting to move aboard a ship, which was supposedly waiting for us in the Harbor below. Anyway, we finally got moved down to the dock, and aboard a troop transport to return to the US.
The Ship was the “SS LEWISTON VICTORY” built in the Kaiser Shipyards at Portland, Oregon. It was one of the shipbuilding wonders of the War. I don’t remember the tonnage. There were hundreds of these ships built during the war. Kaiser became famous for building complete ships in 10 days or two weeks, when it usually took a year in the old days to build one of this size.
Our ocean cruise accommodations were on a ship built as a cargo vessel. I think where I was finally bedded down was about 4 decks down. I think we were directly over the propeller shaft. The ship’s engine was just forward of us. It was a high speed turbine, that whined away mightily for the whole trip. In our compartment the presence of the engine, the rotating shaft and everything were constantly in our midst in sound.
About 2 decks up was the Mess Hall, with accommodations for about 300 at any sitting. Rumor was that the ship was carrying about 1500 US Soldiers back home on this trip. I took a top bunk. I discovered when we got underway, that a lower bunk was not a good place to be if people above got sick. More about that later. The first day out at sea the ocean was calm and it looked like our return trip would be uneventful. It was down the English Channel and out into the Atlantic Ocean. I have forgotten how long we took to get to New York. This was a ship built for cargo transport and was not noted for speed. It definitely was not the one that brought me to England in 1944 (USS WAKEFIELD was a speed demon in comparison). On this ship, up on deck, the surface of the ocean looked as calm as water in our old bath tub at home.
Late in the afternoon of the 2nd or 3rd day, an announcement came over the PA system: “This is the Captain. We are turning onto a more southerly course in order to avoid a major north Atlantic storm that is currently approaching the coast of Europe. We hope to miss the strength of this storm, but you are advised to make sure that everything is properly fastened down” CLICK . For a while nothing unusual happened, clouds were approaching, and it was getting windy up on deck. Anyway, nothing unusual happened until it was dinner time. I remember on my way down the steps at a landing just above the MESS HALL when the ship took a sudden and steep roll, and its usual backlash. Somewhere I have a photo of this particular moment on this ship. I had brought a camera and was just pointing the camera from a landing above the tables when the ship took its first roll. The picture shows one fellow carrying a typical army steel mess tray of food. Except this man was in a sort of crouch as he sailed rapidly across the deck, and stopped himself, by slamming his food filled tray against the bulkhead on the other side of the dining area. Things had been so quiet and peaceful for most of 2 days that people, including the crew, had become careless about securing things down. The mess tables, which had holding racks for things like ketchup, coffee, sugar, cream, etc. were almost totally cleared of these items. None were in their fenced in places on the tables. As a result there were various ketchup and coffee stains high up on the bulkheads as the ship took several rolls from side to side. When I got down to dining area, it was chaos in the kitchen too. One of the big coffee containers (probably 40 gallons) had rolled over and dumped its contents onto the kitchen floor along with a large sack of new potatoes and other loose objects – all floating around in the entire kitchen area. (OK it is officially the Galley).
In the midst was one of our volunteer KP soldiers (something of a comedian) who I found sitting high on a table that was bolted down, and as the ship rolled he was cry out loudly: “WHEEEE”. Like the patron of a carnival ride As it turned out, the ship took several violent rolls hard enough that some of the crockery for the Officers Mess flew out of their captive wall racks and crashed in pieces in to all the other stuff on the deck. It was quite an adventure.
I decided to go up where I could see out on deck. The order had already come over that no one would be allowed on deck except crew members with proper safety cables. This was supposed to be the southern EDGE of a North Atlantic Storm, word was that we were several hundred miles south of the center of the main storm, which had been our original route.
In our lower bunk area, the sound of the engines was kind of disturbing too. This turbine engine normally whined a lot even when not under stress, but on occasion the ship would plow into a wave, and when the stern came up, the turbine would suddenly let out a whine of protest – unnerving! When I was in the upper deck area, some character repeated a rumor that the ship had received some serious damage, and welders were sent into the forward area. A few minutes later, several crewmen with a suite of welding & brazing outfits rushed past us on the way forward. Whatever they were supposed to be doing, I never found out. All I can say is that we made it back to New York.
We finally made it past this storm, and entered calmer waters. It still left a lot of our soldiers seasick though. I found that whenever I could manage it, the best place to lounge on a ship when making long low rolls, was lying on top of one of the cargo hatches, and relax.
A welcome sight was our approach into New York Harbor and a seeing the Lady with the Lamp: The Statue of Liberty. We had finally arrived in America, and I would be sent off to an Army Camp in New Jersey.
That’s another story.