My Father's Departure on a Liberty Ship during World War II - Doug Barnes

Saturday, June 20, 2020

My Father's Departure on a Liberty Ship during World War II

Men walking up gangplank World War II
45th Division Departure for WW II, Hampton Roads, Va. 1943
(Photo: US National Archives)

Note:
This article is based on my father's diary of his military service in World War II. He served from 1942 to 1945 with the 171st Field Artillery Battalion of the 45th Division. His division was in combat continuously without being relieved from Sicily in 1943 to Munich in 1945. This story is a work of historical fiction.

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Barney woke up in the barracks at Fort Patric Henry. It was very early in the morning and he gathered together all his records, his backpack, a duffle bag, and his rifle. At 3:30 AM he set out by jeep to the port at Hampton Roads. He along with McNabb and Higgins had been selected to oversee the loading of the material and troops onto the USS Thurston. The entire 45th Division had just been deemed fit for combat in Europe. Liberty ships were awaiting the arrival of the 45th Division to take them across the Atlantic and directly into the war.

As he arrived at Hampton Roads he saw ships being prepared for overseas deployment. The operation was akin to the harmonics of a complex orchestra. The scale of the operation was immense. For 3 days trucks, tanks, artillery, shells, and men would be loaded onto the ships in the right order. The convoy was an impressive sight to see. There were 35 ships including 13 screen destroyers, 22,000 soldiers, and 46,000 tons of equipment. It was like a floating city.

Barney saw Liberty Ships lined up along the docks. It was quite a spectacle. The large vessels were pointed like arrows directly towards the shore along a set of narrow docks. Between them on the docks were railroad tracks. This made it possible for trains loaded with men and equipment to pull right between the ships. Large cranes soared above the ships' decks ready for loading heavy equipment. They looked like masts of a foregone seafaring era. Gangplanks for loading troops splayed out of the sides of the ships.

Barney, McNabb, and Higgins were responsible for making sure everyone in the 171st Field Artillery Battalion was loaded aboard the USS Frederick Thurston. He had been ordered to check the identification of the men just before their boarding the Liberty Ship. They had already prepared lists of the men to be boarded on the ship.

The field artillery material started to arrive docks in Hampton Roads by rail and was being loaded onto the ship with the help of the large cranes. The procedure was to place equipment into big cargo nets and the ship cranes lifted them high over the deck and then lowered them into the ship’s holds. Munitions were also loaded aboard the ship, making it akin to a floating bomb.

The loading of the ship was impressive to Barney as it brought home to him both the large commitment of his country and the industrial scale of the war. The men arrived on trains in short order pulling right up beside the USS Thurston. The men exited the trains and began crowding around the gangplank to board the ship. Ladies from the Red Cross were scurrying around giving coffee and doughnuts to men headed across the ocean to an unknown destination. Barney checked the men of the 171st battalion off his list one by one. Once they were checked in, the soldiers headed up the gangplank carrying a full backpack, barrack bags, and a rifle and then disappeared into the bowels of the ship.

Men Waiting to Board Ship World War II
45th Division Men Checking in for Departure, Hampton Roads, VA 1943
(Photo: US National Archives)
Once the last man had been checked off the list it was time for Barney and his companions to pack up their lists, put on the backpacks, grab their barrack bags, sling their rifles over their shoulders, and board the ship. Barney had been busy checking men into the ship and hardly had time to think.

Now the reality of his situation caused a brief feeling of anxiety. He knew every step up the gangplank would take him on a journey that would change his life forever. Before boarding the Thurston, he squatted down and spread his hands like he was doing a push-up in basic training. He lowered his head and kissed the ground. This would be the last time he would see the USA for more than two years.

Barney carried his gear up the plank and then proceeded to the bowels of the ship. He found a bunk and stowed his belongings. The bunks were stacked four high with one on top of the other. There was barely enough room to roll over. They were meant to store as many men as physically possible and comfort was secondary. The men had nowhere else to sit, so they used the bunks for reading, talking, and sleeping, almost all in a prone position. He climbed into his bunk to test it out. It was a tight fit and he wondered how he would endure such conditions for 2 weeks.

Looking forward, Barney dreaded the trip across the ocean for several reasons. He knew the ship conditions would be cramped and foul. The ship also was carrying munitions making it much like a floating bomb. German submarines would be actively targeting the convoy. This worry was reaffirmed during his first abandon ship drill when all men tripped over one another to get topside. With all the men squeezing through the ship hatches, he figured he would be stuck below deck in any real emergency.

He had to put such thoughts out of his head. He reasoned that over 1000 soldiers on his ship were in the same situation. Still, his anxiety about the unknown would rise and fall in waves. To avoid thoughts of his uncertain future, he focused on keeping busy.

After a clanking of the anchor chains, his ship floated backward out of the dock. Barney went up to the deck and leaned on the railing. A million thoughts race through his head as he watched the shores of the USA shoreline get smaller and smaller. Still early in the morning, his ship traveled for just 15 miles offshore and he heard the anchor chains clanking a second time. The USS Thurston stood still in the water waiting for the rest of the convoy to form. Barney could see ships steaming towards his location. It would be a massive convoy. He would soon be en route to an unknown destination.

Barney knew that in the 45th Division there were over ten thousand men just like him who had loaded onto the Liberty ships. They all faced the same fears. They were leaving loved ones behind. The anxiety of being thrust into an uncertain future was somewhat eased by the excitement he felt seeing first-hand the vast commitment of the US Army to winning the war. With all the men and materials being loaded on ships, he knew it would be just a matter of time before the 45th Division would accomplish great things overseas. They were headed to Europe to save the world from Hitler, an authoritarian figure bent on eradicating races and dominating humankind. Barney felt proud he would play a small part in this noble endeavor.

On June 8, the gathered convoy set sail. Barney’s ship was right in the middle of the convoy. He later learned from briefings during the ocean crossing that they were headed for North Africa to practice making amphibious landings before heading for the real thing. Seeing over 30 ships cutting through the ocean headed for North Africa conveyed the vastness of the war effort.

The day the convoy sailed, Barney went to the deck to see off the USA. As they set sail, land became smaller and smaller. He wrote, “The convoy formed and we set sail for an unknown destination. I was feeling very sad here as I was standing by the rail watching the shores of the good old USA disappear from view, leaving Helen behind with a baby to be born soon. It sure is a tough life.” After the land disappeared, all Barney could see was ships, ocean, and sky. On a ship crowded with humanity, he suddenly felt very alone.

After going below, Barney laid down in his bunk nestled into the center of the ship with three men bunking above him and others close beside him. The bathrooms were in use constantly, and they were foul. Men were just not meant for living in such cramped quarters. The conditions for the enlisted men were barely tolerable. Men were sleeping, eating, and cleaning up while rubbing elbows. Barney was frequently being called up to the deck to exercise and perform hardness training which was a welcome relief from conditions below the deck. He tried to spend as little time in the bunk quarters as possible just so he could get some fresh air.

Men Aboard Liberty Ship World War II
45th Division Men On Deck of USS Thurston WW II
(Photo: Mike Hall)
Several times the loudspeakers would blare out drills for abandon ship. Sightings of German U-boats, real or imagined, kept everyone on edge. The ship rolled over large swells during stormy weather. His stomach was constantly queasy. Others near him were throwing up adding to the foul odors.

From his bunk, he heard the grinding engines reverberating throughout the ship. The smell of diesel was a reminder that he was out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean sailing with a military convoy, bound for the unknown. The only bright spot was that Barney knew it was a temporary situation. He thought, “It’s only two weeks.” Every day at sea brought him closer to land.

Towards the end of his Trans-Atlantic journey, Barney was laying on his bunk and reflecting on the twists and turns that brought his life to a long sea crossing. With every rumble of the ship's screw, he now knew he was on his way to a new continent. With men on top of one another, things around him seemed surreal. His mind was conflicted. He knew he was going to be a father soon, and yet he was laying on a ship destined for war. He wished he could go back to his peaceful life with his wife and a new child, but he also was determined to perform well for his country. He felt his training had prepared him for whatever was to come, but he clung to the idea that he wanted to survive the war and return to his family back home.

Barney fell asleep for six hours and woke up after fitful tossing and turning. It took a few seconds for him to realize he was on board a Liberty Ship. He rubbed his eyes and looked around at his cramped quarters, men stacked on top of another and side by side. He smelled a noxious mix of body odor and burned diesel fumes. He felt like he was still in the middle of an unusual dream. It was no dream, and his anticipation of participating in a major offensive would soon turn into reality.

Barney did not know it yet, but he was headed for the invasion of Sicily under the command of General George S. Patton.

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