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.
Part 2 of 3: '3 More Shopping Days Left, and I Haven't a Thing to Buy'
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What a lovely and precious record of an important part of your family's history, Ger. Thank you for sharing.
Last week when Ger was working on posting his dad’s letter we discussed some of the historical background to what his parents, Gerald and Evelyn, were going through in 1942. And what the United States as a whole and their generation had gone through leading up to the very difficult Christmas of 1942.
I’m certainly not an expert on the Atlantic Front or Oran. In a more personal sense the Second World War is not “my” war. In an uneasy sort of way the Second World War is my grandparents’ war. Although, to be absolutely accurate my maternal grandfather was much closer in age to the doughboys of World War I than he was to the G.I.s of the Second World War. Nevertheless, despite not having a strong personal connection to the war, I do have a degree in American History and specialized in the homefront impacts of the war. The events of the late 1930s and early ‘40s still shape the world we live in today. I truly believe that all human stories are unique.
However, there are also certain shared experiences of a generation, a decade, a battle even. And, sometimes, after three quarters of a century, it is hard to read between the lines, read the story that Gerald really didn’t need to write down, because he and Evelyn had lived it together. So... Ger asked me to add a few comments about what life was like stateside for the women of Evelyn’s generation & explain some of the undercurrents in his dad’s letter.
1) Uneasy Allies: 1942 was the United State’s second Christmas at war. Officially the United States went to war with Imperial Japan (and the rest of the Axis Powers) in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unofficially the United States had been stumbling towards war for years. One of the most tragic stateside ironies of the late 1930s and early ‘40s was that on December 6th of 1941 the average American probably knew more about the Third Reich than he or she knew about all of Asia. The American press had covered the rise of the Third Reich throughout the 1930s and once Britain went to war with the Third Reich many U.S. journalists became openly pro-British (or at least anti-Nazi). Admittedly there were a handful of pro-Nazi American journailists. (And some very prominent pro-Nazi American celebrities.) But by the end of 1941 any American still expressing pro-Nazi sentiments was fleeing for the metaphorical hills. Nevertheless, despite the swelling anti-Nazi atmosphere of 1942 many Americans on the homefront were still not particularly “pro-British.” There were some fairly significant resentments between U.S. and British service personnel (of every rank) in 1942. At the higher ranks there was a bit of a cat fight going on as to who would have precedence leading the invasion. At the lower ranks there was an almost tribal atmosphere of resentment. The Brits made a big deal that America was late to the war --and had been “late” to enter the First World War as well. For Americans in 1942 there was a real fear that World War II would be the second chapter of the Great War --years of bloodshed followed by an uneasy and inadequate peace.
2) Finding Work on the Homefront: Gerald’s worries about Evelyn being able to find a job while he was “away” speak to the fears of the Depression era generation. And the fears of a post World War I generation. The widows of the Great War had often had a very tough time of it in the post war years and that was one of the harsh lessons learned by the next generation asked to fight. Gerald and Evelyn were survivors of the Great Depression. Survivors of a decade of mass unemployment. And survivors of a decade when American women saw their access to good jobs --and sometimes any job-- bleed away. The 1930s was the decade of the celebrated “Forgotten Man”, ironically the forgotten woman of the 1930s --often a widow or a “spinster” caring for elderly parents-- truly was forgotten. Many of Gerald’s contemporaries --young men heading into combat leaving behind young wives & sometimes children-- must have shared his worries over his wife’s abilities to keep the family afloat if he did not return. The fact is NO ONE in the United States had a hard time finding a job in 1942, by 1943 if you could breathe you could be employed. War production introduced the United States to the Third Shift & the United States became the factory of war.
3) The political issues with the invasion of Oran are also interesting. But the fact of the matter was that although it was a really significant moment, North Africa probably wasn't that much on the radar back home. Americans on the home front were focused on the Pacific in '42.
4) The other aside I have to draw attention to is Gerald's taste in music. Listening to the radio was a communal event in the '30s and '40s. And I think it is something that needs to be pointed out today because now music is something experienced alone. People listen to their earbuds, it isn't a shared experience anymore. But for Gerald and Evelyn’s generation, and for a man away from home for the first time, gathering around the radio to listen to the same programs that were being played back home was probably a way of staying in touch.
Here's a short video I shot of my Dad and his pals (and fellow Navy vets) Arthur Mercante and Frank Alonge, reminiscing about how they met in the Navy.
Heritage Partner Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 26, 2015 at 6:17am
What beautiful memories of your parents, handwritten letters that have shown the test of long endurance at sea for Dad and at home for Mom. Precious, memories , treasure the Gerry
Thanks for sharing