Part 3 of 3 of the Series 'We Will Probably Land Christmas Day’: At War in the Atlantic, 1942
This third and final part of ‘We Will Probably Land Christmas Day’: At War in the Atlantic, 1942’ presents my Dad's decades-later recollections of his experience with and in the U.S. Navy in 1942, including his voyage as a sailor aboard the troopship USS Elizabeth C. Stanton.
The “Lizzie,” as shipmates came to refer to the former freighter, with Dad in tow, was heading across the Atlantic Ocean as Christmas approached. In our 10-minute recorded conversation, he and I focused on the ship’s participation in a massive convoy in support of the Allied forces’ invasion of North Africa, the first large-scale US-British blow struck against the Axis.
Of all the parts of my Dad's oral account, perhaps his most colorful relates how an inadvertent flip of a switch illuminated the "Lizzie" during a blackout, which, he noted, could have had a calamitous ending.
' I inadvertently threw a switch’ -- In the photo above, searchlights pierce the night sky during an air-raid practice on Gibraltar, November 20, 1942. My Dad would run afoul of blackout rules while his ship passed through the Straits nearly five weeks later. Dallison G W (Lieut), War Office official photographer / Wikimedia Commons
Part 1 of 2, “Getting To Where We Are Going” by contrast, includes the early parts of a long episodic letter my father wrote to my Mom while in the convoy. In these, he focused on his first quiet week on the high seas, as part of the convoy transporting tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to support the ongoing invasion. The rest of the letter, covered in Part 2, begin with his musing that there are “3 more shopping days ... It includes the USS Elizabeth C. Stanton’s approach to Spain, passage through Gibraltar and safe arrival in Oran.
American troops landing at Fedala, Morocco, on Sunday, November 8, 1942. Civilian and Navy personnel at Pier 45 in lower Manhattan, including my father, installed armor plate on landing craft such as this. US Army photo
What Dad chose not to mention in his letter home was his ever-present unease that the convoy could be attacked at any moment. “All the time we were going there they kept dropping depth charges off the rear end of the ship,” Dad mentions in his interview. “Then they had a reconnaissance plane on the rear end of the ship that took off every day and hovered in and out of the convoy at lower altitudes to see if they could detect anything underwater.” He noted that, at least as far as he could tell, none of the 600 ships in the convoy were lost.
Of all parts of my Dad's account, perhaps his most colorful relates how an inadvertent flip of a switch illuminated the Elizabeth C. Stanton during a blackout, which, he noted, could have had a calamitous ending.
The transcript of the conversation with my Dad, lightly edited, is presented below. It was recorded on Feb. 4, 2004, and begins with his work as a civilian crane operator on Manhattan's Pier 45, where he drew the favorable attention of the Navy's commander there. In a harbinger of the dramatic air-sea-land missions to come, the workers on Pier 45 were adding armor-plating to landing craft.
My Dad, much to his relief, garnered stateside assignments for the war's duration, in Maryland; in Miami, as a physical training instructor for officers in the Navy’s subchaser program, and finally, in New York City, at St. Alban’s Naval Hospital as a physical therapist for wounded military personnel. "Andy" in his account below refers to my Dad’s father-in-law, Andrew Belinski, a Brooklyn-born Navy veteran of World Wars 1 and 2. After Pearl Harbor, Andy was called up from the Naval Reserve and served as a lieutenant, where he was posted to 90 Church Street, a vital recruiting and administration center for the Navy in Manhattan.
Ger: All right, we were talking about Andy, that he had gotten you a job on the Port working on the docks.
Dad: On Pier 45 in the North River. And they had contracts to armor-plate the landing barges. And they need someone to operate this mobile crane. For some reason, I had never been on one in my life. I took to it and they liked it and they had me working.
Ger: On Pier 45, is that in the Village? You told me at one time. Around Christopher Street?
Dad: West Village
Ger: Around Christopher Street?
Towing the hull of USS Lafayette with a view of the Hudson River piers, 1945. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy via the New-York Historical Society
Dad: Around Christopher Street, yea. Then this Navy commander came over to me one day and said to me “How come you’re not in the service?” I didn’t tell him I’d been in the Army, I just said I am married. He said, "We’ll get you a spot, a rental allowance and subsistence, and you can continue on the job here."
Ger: You were a crane operator, did you say?
Ger: And this guy, he was assigned there, and he would see you and ...
Dad: No, he was in charge, he was a lieutenant commander in charge of the whole operation.
Ger: How long did you work there, at Pier 45?
Dad: Only about three or four months, and then, as I say, he offered me this opportunity to go into the Navy. Pier 45 was the Navy’s installation. Andy got me the job, because the Port Authority, the Port Director, supervised it.
Ger: After three months, you caught the attention of the military commander?
Dad: He wanted to know why I wasn’t in the service. I didn’t tell him I had been in the Army and out. He sent me down to 90 Church Street with a letter. It was sealed, I didn’t read it. I saw a little old chief yeoman like Andy with stripes all up and down his arm. He says "Sit down here, kid. I don’t think we can make you an ensign. We don’t have any openings today."
Dad: He came out after I sat there about an hour.
Ger laughs: Is that what the letter said, “make you an ensign.”
Dad: So he said, the best I can do is a second-class bosun’s mate, which is the second highest enlisted man’s rating.
Ger: So that lieutenant commander put in the fix for you?
Dad: Yea, and then my first assignment in the Navy was back on Pier 45. That’s what he wanted me in for.
Ger: Did you have to go through any training?
Dad: Never went to boot camp in my life, never handled a gun or anything.
Ger: He gave you this rank, and then you immediately got your uniform and reported back to work.
Dad: Yea, I went right back doing my job that I did as a civilian for 82 cents an hours. Actually, I was making about the same money, between the pay of a second-class bosun’s mate and the rental allowance.
Ger: What are we talking about ... April of ‘42?
Dad: October or November of 42.
The next thing I know he called me in one day. Now he’s got me suckered into the Navy … "I’m handpicking a crew to go on a special assignment," he says, so I volunteered, and I wound up in North Africa.
Ger laughing: In other words, he picked you to volunteer.
Once on board the USS Elizabeth C. Stanton, Dad was put in charge of an Oerlikon 20-mm cannon, identical to this one found on the SS Jeremiah O'Brien. Photo by Earthpig / Wikimedia Commons
Dad: Yea! But the thing was I had never gone to boot camp. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t have any Naval routine or procedure. And I’d been on board ship as a bosun’s mate. So they made me a gun captain of a 20-mm. I’d never looked at a 20-mm gun.
Ger: Your first assignment -- was that the Elizabeth [C.] Stanton?
Dad: It was my only assignment on the ship I was on.
Ger: You got a letter report telling you to report. Is that how it worked, a telegram or a letter?
Dad: In the Navy, they sent you a notice -- that was to become on active duty. I went home in my civilian clothes and a bag with all my Navy clothes that they issued to me. And then within a week or so they called me to active duty and assigned me to Pier 45. It was all cut and dried.
Ger: How long did you work at Pier 45 as a sailor?
Dad: About two months.
Ger: Now we’re talking about October of 42 when you got your orders to ship out.
Dad: For this mysterious trip! We went over to Staten Island.
Ger: How did that work? Were you told to assemble at Pier 45 and then they would transfer you?
Dad: I was the only one from Pier 45.
Ger: OK, where were you told to report?
Dad: I guess the commander called me in or they gave me a letter or something. I was to report at a certain time, to pick up a bus or train, I think it was, I took a train to Penn Station. They took a wide looping trip to wind up coming in from the Jersey side to Staten Island. Then we went aboard a ship at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Ger: Which was the Stanton?
Dad: I was scared stiff. I was no hero. I was wondering what I got myself into.
Ger: Did the Stanton immediately head out then, as soon as it got its crew?
Dad: After they put on about 5,000 troops, put them down in the hold of the ship. They smelled so, the feet, I don’t think the guys took their clothes off for 16 days. At least the Navy had a little better quarters.
Ger: These were Army troops, I guess.
Dad: All Army.
Ger: Did you run into anyone you know at that point, in the Army?
Dad: I don’t think I spoke to 10 people on board.
Ger: Was it November you shipped out?
Dad: November and the early part of December. We had a rendezvous off the African coast. About 700 ships, what do they call those things?
Ger: Didn’t you assemble into a convoy off the Atlantic coast rather than the African coast? That would seem to me …
Dad: Ships converged from all over the East Coast, all over the ports of Staten Island, Norfolk, probably Florida, and they rendezvoused out in the ocean. And sometimes they went around in circles for days, waiting for the convoy to converge.
Ger: So you crossed the Atlantic in a convoy, I guess.
Dad: And then all the time we were going there they kept dropping depth charges off the rear end of the ship.
Depth charges fired from an unidentified destroyer escort. Photo courtesy of USSSlater.org
Ger: Your ship?
Dad: Yes, because there were suspected submarines. I never saw one but they suspected them, and they dropped these depth charges. Then they had a reconnaissance plane on the rear end of the ship that took off every day and hovered in and out of the convoy at lower altitudes to see if they could detect anything underwater.
Ger: Did the convoy lose any ships?
Dad: Not that I know of. Someone said it was spread out for 600 miles.
Ger: That seems a bit of an exaggeration but could have been ...
Dad: It was 700 ships … They weren’t all close together.
Ger: One of your scariest moments was crossing through Gibraltar, right?
Dad: The straits of Gibraltar. Because of my rating I was supposed to be qualified as a gun captain, bosun's mate of the watch, and all those things that went with the rating. At that time, anyone who was a bosun mate second-class had been in the Navy four or five years. And they’d always say, “Hey Boats, what ship were you on before?” “Oh, I had shore duty, I was on Pier 45.” I lengthened my time there.
My Dad and Mom, together again, at Dad’s duty station in Miami, Florida in 1943. Regan Family Archives
Ger: What happened when the ship passed through Gibraltar?
Dad: They made me bosun’s mate of the watch, and the ship was in complete darkness because there was a blackout in North Africa. The city of Tangier [in neutral Spanish Morocco] was an open city, so all around (Tangier) was blacked out, but Tangier looked like Coney Island. It was a joke! On one side was Tangier all lit up and on the [Gibraltar] side was ... all blacked out. And I don’t know somehow, I, inadvertently, I threw a switch and all the lights went on on the ship. And the captain yelled, “Who turned those lights on? Kill the bastard. Shoot him!” [I replied] “I don’t know .. who, who was up there?” I got out of there in a hurry.
Ger: Were you on the bridge when that happened?
Dad: Yea, but when I saw what happened, in the turmoil, I went down off the bridge and got to the lower deck there.
Ger: Did you consider jumping over? Ger laughs.
Dad: I was just so happy they didn’t determine it was me.