No large operation in World War II surpassed the invasion of North Africa in complexity, daring, risk, or -- as the official U.S. Army Air Forces history concludes -- 'the degree of strategic surprise achieved.'
-- Author Rick Atkinson, "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Thorndike Press Large Print Nonfiction Series)” (2002)
My Dad, also named Gerald Regan (or Jerry), played a role in one of the most unsung but vital campaigns in the dramatic history of World War 2. He did so in his characteristically understated style, in large part because he did not have the hindsight of history to know what he and his fellow sailors meant to the war effort. But Dad was also keenly aware that, unlike so many, he escaped this time in a war zone unscathed.
I became aware of the letter I present below, written by my Dad to my Mom, Evelyn, in their second year of marriage, after my Mom’s passing in 2004. I found it when going through her chest of drawers. I mentioned it to my father then, but he evinced no particular interest in it. I was struck by the letter’s earnestness, commentary and trove of details about my Dad that I had never heard -- it constitutes a heart-felt, even whimsical view at times of both sea duty and longing for home as Christmas approached. It was his first Christmas away from his family.
Dad found himself 4,000 miles away from my Mom on Christmas Day 1942, part of a crew of 38 Navy personnel aboard the transport USS Elizabeth C. Stanton. The “LIzzie” carried, according to my Dad’s letter, 2,000 American soldiers in the cramped hold of this former Moore-McCormack cargo liner originally named Mormacstar. He documented the journey, from his ship’s departure off the waters off New York City on Monday, Dec. 14, to his arrival in Oran, Algeria, on Christmas Day. He made time to write, between long, often tedious, occasionally breathtaking stretches of open sea, churning across the Atlantic Ocean.
This was Dad's first and last combat ocean crossing, and he later told me that the experience, described at times below in rhapsodic terms, was sometimes harrowing. At one point in the account below, he wonders aloud if his brother, Raymond, serving in the Army, might be aboard another ship in the convoy. Blessedly for him (and the rest of our family, by extension) the convoy avoided Nazi U-boats, despite 1942 marking the high-point of Nazi success in sinking Allied vessels.
Dad wrote this letter, a little each day, in 12 installments, until his ship landed in Oran. Then, the plan was to hand the letter off to a sailor heading stateside to expedite delivery to his young wife back in Richmond Hill, Queens. I suspect many soldiers and more sailors used the same time-honored strategy, finding that writing each day, no matter how hurried or abbreviated, served as a visceral link to hearth and home.
Whether he mailed the letter upon his return to New York, or succeeded in handing it off, it’s too late to know. It is postmarked Hoboken, Jan. 14, 1943.
Part 1 of 2, “Getting To Where We Are Going,” includes his accounts of his first quiet week on the high seas. Part 2 begins with his musing that there are “3 more shopping days left and I haven’t a thing to buy.’ It includes the USS Elizabeth C. Stanton’s approach to Spain, passage through Gibraltar and safe arrival in Oran.
Finally, in Part 3, ‘Who Turned Those Lights On? Kill the Bastard,’we present a postscript, a transcript, along with the actual recording, of a 10-minute conversation I shared with my Dad in February 2004, centered on his experience during 1942, with a particular focus on the experience of crossing the Atlantic as Christmas approached. Here my Dad reveals his role in an incident that could have resulted in the destruction of his ship.
Photos: Above, A convoy moves eastward across Atlantic bound for Casablanca, Africa, ca. November 1942. US Navy (NARA). Above left, my Dad in 1944, promoted to Chief Petty Officer. (Regan Family Archives) Below right, the USS Elizabeth C. Stanton, Hampton Roads, Va., Oct. 1, 1942. (Source: U.S. National Archives, RG-80-G)
Part 1 of 2: ‘Getting To Where We Are Going’
Monday, Dec 14
Here I am on the high seas heading for somewhere. We did not sail until Saturday morning although we were on board Friday. There are 2000 soldiers and 38 sailors being transported on this ship. It is a very large convoy and it gets bigger all the time. Nothing exciting happens and every day is the same. I miss you very much and hope that you are well and getting along.
The sea is quiet and we are slowly but surely getting to where we are going. We are told that we will be sailing for 14 days so you can see that there won’t be much change in our routine for the next few days. We were told that where we are going we are supposed to stay no longer than 90 days. So if everything goes alright I will be home sometime in April. My beard is growing half blond and half black. I love you and miss you very much
It is raining again and the sea is quite rough. It seems much longer than a week since I last saw you. These ocean voyages seem like years after a few days.
The poor soldiers on board are really cramped and uncomfortable but our quarters are OK. We will probably land Christmas day and I only hope that our little tree at home helps to make your Christmas a happy one. I keep reminding myself that I owe you a birthday and a Christmas present.
Good morning honey. I missed you all day yesterday more than you could imagine. We are not very busy therefore I have loads of time to think of you. You won’t get the letter for quite some time but don’t worry about me as I feel fine.
We turned our watches forward another half hour, by the end of today we will be almost halfway to where we are going. The sea is calm and a slight breeze is blowing so is my beard growing by the feet.
Yesterday we were told that we were going to Oran in Northern Africa. I only hope that they don’t have too hot a reception waiting for us as we go through the Straight of Gibralter (sic). Last night I had to stand Boatswain watch from 12 midnight to 4 AM . I don’t like that switch because it gives me too much time to think and worry about you. I sure hope you are OK. We were told that there will be no means of cable to announce our arrival in Oran so you will have to wait for this letter which may not reach you until the 15th of January. Please don’t be worried.
Today they made (me) shave my beard. I took it off I was surprised. My face had gotten pretty thin. We are still sailing toward Oran and as yet there hasn’t been any change. I only wish I could be with you on Christmas, which is only 6 days off. We have been at sea one whole week today and it seems like a year. Nothing much happens except to look forward to getting ashore. I hope everything is is OK with you and I wish I was with you right this minute.