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)

This narrative is a work of historical fiction. The article is based on my father's diary of his military service in World War II. Clayton Barnes (Barney) 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 duty beginning in Sicily, 1943 until the end of the war in Munich, 1945.


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. Barney, Higgins, and McNab had been selected to check in all personnel onboard the USS Thurston for transport to Europe.

Heading to Liberty Ships at Newport News

On June 4, 1943, Barney woke up at 2:30 AM in the barracks at Fort Patrick Henry. He had prepared for his work the previous day. 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 Newport News.

In the jeep bumping down the road toward Newport News, Barney said to Higgins and McNab, “It’s awful early.” His mind was not yet focused on the day ahead.”

McNab said, “I’m not looking forward to the trip across the Atlantic. I’m not sure how my stomach is going to hold up.”

Higgins chimed in, “Yeah. Me too. We won’t be boarding until we check everyone in so I’m worried that we won’t get a good bunk.”

Barney said, "I’m not sure there’s a good bunk on the ship. We’ll all be jammed in together.”

McNab replied, “We’ll be sleeping in those bunks at sea for two weeks. I’m glad I’m not a sailor. I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a ship all the time. Just think what it must be like to be aboard a ship under fire.”

Higgins looked a bit uncomfortable. He said, “They say submarines are going to be trying to attack our convoy.”

Barney replied, “That’s true. We’re gonna zig zag across the ocean so they don’t get a good target. Also, the destroyers will be hunting for them. I heard they’ve been doing a pretty good job. It’s been mostly merchant ships that have been attacked.”

As they arrived at the port, they jumped out of the jeep. Before them they could see even at the early hour the docks were a beehive of activity. McNabb said, “Let’s make sure we have all our stuff. We won’t get a chance to do this twice.”

Barney said, “I’ve got all the records organized. We just have to check everyone in and then board the ship. We’ll be sailors soon.” Barney took all of the records he had packed up from the back of the jeep and loaded them into a duffle bag.

Heading for the docks, Barney saw Liberty Ships lined up in a row. 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 saw firsthand the large commitment of his country and the industrial scale of the war. Ships in nearby piers were being loaded up with vehicles, artillery, and other supplies. 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 making the ships akin to a floating bomb.

45th Division Boards Liberty Ships

Now it was time for the 171st Field Artillery to arrive at the USS Thurston. The task of Barney, Higgins, and McNab was to check the identification of each man just before their boarding the Thurston.

The men arrived en masse by rail 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, McNab, and Knowles checked the men of the 171st battalion. Once they were checked off the list, 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)
All day Barney hardly had time to think. Now with the last man checked off the list, it was time for Barney and his companions to pack up their lists, put on their backpacks, grab their barrack bags, sling their rifles over their shoulders, and board the ship.

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, Knowles, and McNab carried their gear up the plank and then proceeded to the bowels of the ship. Barney found a bunk and stowed his belongings. The bunks were stacked four high with men on top of each. There was barely enough room to roll over. Comfort was secondary. The bunks were designed to house as many men as physically possible. Comfort was secondary. The men had nowhere else to sit, so they used the bunks for reading, talking, and sleeping, mostly in a prone position. Barney climbed into his bunk to test it out. He didn’t have much headroom and had to slide into the bunk sideways. He felt like the ham or cheese in a sandwich. It was a tight fit and he wondered how he would endure such conditions for two weeks.

USS Thurston Leaves Docks for Staging Area

Barney had seen the loading of the USS Thurston so he knew it was carrying large amounts of munitions making it much like a floating bomb. He had to put such thoughts out of his head. He reasoned that over 1000 soldiers on his ship were in the same situation. 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.

His ship traveled for just 15 miles 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.

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 make world history overseas. They were headed to Europe to save the world from Hitler. 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 over 30 ships. The day the convoy sailed, Barney went to the deck to see off the USA.

The rail was crowded with soldiers scanning the horizon to catch the last glimpses of land. Barney squeezed between two soldiers and could feel a cool breeze against his skin. On a ship crowded with humanity, he suddenly felt very alone. To ease this feeling Barney turned to the soldier next to him and said. “I guess all the preparation is over. We’re really underway now. It’s really sad to see the good ole USA disappear from sight.”

“That’s for sure. I’m really going to miss my family and girlfriend.”

“I’m married and my wife came to see me off. I was really happy to have some days with her before we set sail.”

“My girlfriend didn’t come to see me. I hope that’s not a bad sign.” He smiled.

“I’m sure you’ll be alright. I found out a couple of months ago my wife is pregnant. I guess I’ll become a father somewhere overseas. I’d sure give everything to be there for the birth. That’s just how it is these days.”

“Congratulations. You must be very proud.”

“I am proud. She’ll stay with her family while I am gone. They’ll take good care of her."

“You’re luckier than most. When the baby comes, at least you know she’ll be safe ‘n sound. Those like me with girlfriends are in a tougher situation. Being apart for so long takes a toll. Promises are promises, but I have to be realistic. She may not wait.”

Both Barney and the soldier were now squinting to see land. Barney said, “There she goes. The good old USA is just about gone. Now we’re officially headed for Europe.”

“No one wants this war, but the Brits can’t do it alone. It won’t be easy, but we’ll get it done.”

“I’m impressed with the massive convoy. Look at all those ships. There must be over 30 of them. Other convoys just like this one have already sailed or will sail to Europe. The Germans don’t know what’s coming.”

“I must say, it sure is an impressive sight.” They both could hear the churning of the ship's propellers.

Barney turned and said, “Nice talking to you. I’ve got to head below deck to get some shuteye.”
Men Aboard Liberty Ship World War II
45th Division Men On Deck of USS Thurston WW II
(Photo: Mike Hall)

45th Division Crosses the Atlantic

Barney looked out beyond the rail one last time and all he could see was ships, ocean, and sky. After going below, Barney slid sideways into his bunk nestled into the center of the ship with men bunking above and below him. The bathroom was in use constantly. The head was big enough at 30 feet long and glazed floors. Dozens of toilets lined both sides of the room. Between men being sick and missing their target, it was pretty foul.

Men were just not meant for living in such cramped quarters. They 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.

Periodically the loudspeakers would blare out calls for drills or simple warnings. Once he had heard over the loudspeakers, “Now hear this, We are entering an area of considerable enemy submarine activity. Stay away from the sides of the ship.” German submarines were actively targeting the convoy.

Sightings of German U-boats, real or imagined, kept everyone on edge. With all the men squeezing through the ship hatches, he figured he would be stuck below deck in any real emergency. The way to the deck was quite circuitous. It didn’t give Barney any confidence that he was sleeping 3 feet below the waterline of the ship.

One blessing was that the weather was mostly calm during his Atlantic passage. Despite this, his stomach was constantly queasy from the easy rocking motion of the ship.

From his bunk, he heard the grinding engines and the constant smell of diesel. This 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 brings me closer to land.”

Toward the end of their crossing, the lieutenant in charge called all the members of the 171st Field Artillery Headquarters staff together. They met in a drab ship’s meeting room. He said, “You may be wondering where we’re headed. I just got briefed and I can tell you that we’re headed for Oran which is a port city in North Africa.”

Barney asked, “Isn’t the war in North Africa over. Do you know why we’re going there?

“We’ll be practicing landing just like we did back in Maryland. Given how we performed there we could use some additional training. This means we are one step closer to the real thing. That’s all I can say because that’s all they told me.”

That evening 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 and water gurgling against the side of the ship, he now knew he was getting closer to a new continent. With men on top of one another, he was tired of life aboard ship and was ready for a change. 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 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.

Towards the end of his trans-Atlantic journey, Barney was standing above deck in the sunshine, clear and pleasant. He could see the blue color of the Mediterranean Sea. The ships in the convoy were sailing straight through a passage with land on both sides of the convoy. He’d studied maps and knew he was passing through the straits of Gibraltar. He thought to himself, “We’re almost there.” Barney didn’t know it, but he was headed to prepare for the invasion of Sicily under the command of General George S. Patton.

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