Thursday, October 25, 2007

MEMOIR: Coming home from the war

Ken Burns' brilliant PBS film series about World War II brought back memories of my return home after more than two years Army service in India. I still remember the exact date I landed in the U.S., Feb. 11, 1946. I arrived in San Francisco after a month-long voyage from Calcutta aboard a Navy troop ship, the General Ballou--or "the ba-ba-lu," as we fondly called it.

Most of the men in my outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., and I had waited five months after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 for a ship to take us home. As the frustration grew over the delay, the "political activists" in my outfit began to bombard members of Congress with letters urging them to do something about the shortage of ships.

They also enlisted Drew Pearson, the influential syndicated newspaper columnist, to take up our cause. He wrote a series of columns demanding that ships be sent to bring "the men in the forgotten theater of war [China-Burma-India]" home.

Some men on our base finally began to shipped back to the States after a priority system was set up based on total time served in the Army and the amount of time overseas. Additional credit was given for combat experience. None of the men in my outfit earned priority for the return home because we had not seen combat.

For about three months, we were kept occupied closing our facilities and destroying equipment that was no longer needed. I will never forget the sight of bulldozers driving over countless millions of dollars worth of radar apparatus, radio gear, and other once vital equipment, lined up on an air strip, converting them into scrap.

Before the war, our base had been the giant Kharda Mills, which produced jute. The U.S. Army acquired the property and converted it into the CBI's main air depot. Now we were getting the facility ready to resume its original, pre-war business.

Even though the war was over, hundreds of men were assigned to guard duty to protect our base. Indian independence was to be declared in the next year or two. But bloody communal riots were already breaking out between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims in the villages surrounding the base, as the two communities maneuvered to claim territory. There was concern that the violence would spill over into our base. And occasionally it did.

The first step in our prolonged return to the States finally came in December 1945, when we were shipped to a staging area named Kanchrapara, located in the jungles of eastern Bengal. For me, it was sort of a homecoming. I had spent a month there soon after my arrival in India, waiting to be assigned to an operational unit.

In my first stay at Kanchrapara, I had been assigned to guard duty almost every day. After conquering Burma, the Japanese army was invading eastern India. It had already occupied part of the state of Manipur. And there I was, armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, standing in its way. The Japanese failed to get any closer, but I do not take any credit for that.

But this time my stay at Kancharapra was a far more joyous one. Shortly after New Year's Day 1946, we were piled into trucks and driven to the port of Calcutta to board the General Ballou for the voyage home. During the two-hour drive, we were attacked by a shower of rocks thrown at us by Indian militants who mistook us to be British troops. At least a half dozen men were injured and required medical attention as soon as we boarded the troop ship.

After about a week at sea, the ship arrived in Singapore. The harbor was littered with wrecked Japanese vessels. (Singapore had been a major target of U.S. bombers based in India.) I don't recall that anyone on the ship was allowed to go ashore, but a fleet of small boats sailed out to us with supplies. From what we could see from a distance, the city of Singapore looked like Hiroshima.

Departing from Singapore, we sailed into the South China Sea, where we were immediately hit by a typhoon. The storm was so furious that our ship seemed to turn over on its port side. For those of us courageous enough to be on deck, the sea was no longer on the same level as our vessel. It was as if we were on a skyscraper peering down on the stormy water below.

Virtually everyone aboard the ship became sea sick. I had the misfortune of being in the vessel's compartment that had been arbitrarily assigned to KP duty. It was a repeat of the misfortune I had suffered two years earlier on the voyage to India, when I was in the ship's compartment that had been arbitrarily assigned to serve as the vessel's MPs. In each case, I had to enviously watch the other troops enjoying the luxury of endless leisure time at sea while I was on duty.

The KP duty in the South China sea was a special ordeal, as we had to contend with the hordes of seasick soldiers vomiting in the mess hall. And now, unlike our stay in India, we did not have native coolies to clean up. My compartment mates on KP--most of us staff sergeants or above--were humbled. We had expected to be immune to such unpleasant duty because of our exalted rank.

As the typhoon subsided we entered the port of Manila in the Philippines. We anchored close to the island of Corregidor, the site of the U.S. surrender to the Japanese shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Like the Singapore harbor, the Manila harbor was littered with the wrecks of Japanese ships, and the city was similarly devastated.

The closest that I have ever seen to what might be considered an Army mutiny broke out when dozens of officers boarded launches taking them ashore, while enlisted men were not allowed to leave the ship. Angrily watching from the ship's railings above, dozens of enlisted men began throwing fruit crates and other trash at the officers. I do not recall any disciplinary action taken against them.

Our stay in Manila was a brief one. Sailing eastward across the Pacific, our ship passed close enough to the Hawaiian Islands so that we could see land. Now that the ocean waters had calmed, I felt comfortable in my off-duty hours reading on my hammock. I recall that I was able to finish Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge.

At last we reached San Francisco Bay, passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The same guys who had thrown refuse at the officers in Manila were now lined up on the same ship's railings, weeping that we were finally back home in the States. I have never seen so many grown men crying, and I will never forget the highly emotional scene.

As we debarked from the ship, loaded down with heavy duffle bags over our shoulders, we were surrounded by huge, cheering crowds on the docks. Some people were evidently relatives of the troops and had been alerted to our arrival. As we stood on the docks relaxing, a team of American Red Cross women arrived with coffee and doughnuts. I was annoyed that we had to pay for these modest offerings.

We were quickly loaded on to a ferry boat which took us up the San Francisco Bay to Camp Stoneham in Pittsburgh, Calif., which had been a major military port of embarkation during the war. Now it was functioning in the happier role as a port of debarkation for troops about to be discharged from military service.

As we marched into Camp Stoneham, we were not exactly healthy-looking specimen. Most of us had suffered malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and other tropical diseases. Many were emaciated because of their illnesses. When we entered the camp's mess hall to eat, we were infuriated to see robust, healthy-looking German prisoners-of-war who were KPs serving the food. They had survived the war in far better shape than we had.

A few days later we boarded troop trains arranged to go to discharge centers closest to our homes. My train was headed for Ft. Dix, N.J. I finally had a chance there to phone my family in the Bronx. I had expected to be discharged and on my way to them in a day or two. Part of the discharge process involved a lengthy physical examination. After the exam, I saw that most of my buddies had been given their discharge papers and were packing up to leave.

As the others left, I was told to remain in my barracks. My chest x-rays showed a suspicious spot on my lungs. I was told that I would have to remain in the camp until a lung specialist would arrive to examine me. When he finally arrived a few days later and examined the x-rays, he quickly decided that the x-ray technician had accidentally scratched the film. On March 16, 1946, I was given my honorable discharge papers and allowed to go home as a civilian. I was only 21 years old. I felt at least 10 years older.

A train took me to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, and the subway delivered me to the 167th Street station on the Independent line. Despite the weight of the duffle bag over my shoulder, I jogged the two blocks from the subway station to my parents' apartment house.

I rang the downstairs bell to announce my arrival, and began running up the three steep flights of stairs to their apartment. At the same time, my father came rushing down to meet me. In his excitement, he almost knocked me down a flight of stairs. He embraced and kissed me, crying as a he pulled me up the stairs where my mother and grandmother waited eagerly at our door. Their only son had finally come home from the war.

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4 Comments:

Blogger joared said...

Thanks for sharing memories of your WWII experience along with your thoughts and feelings. Sure seems like they could have spread around to others some of the more unpleasant duties with which you got stuck.

What a let down that must have been to have your discharge delayed, but then the relief to learn the cause was simply a scratch on an x-ray.

The scene you describe coming home after WWII, is similar to one my older brother experienced, when he returned home to our family -- an only son and dearly loved big brother, safe at home finally -- no longer the 18 year old high school graduate who left us a few years earlier.

Saturday, October 27, 2007 7:32:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

What a wonderful story! I got a bit of a lump in my throat when I was reading about you bounding up the stairway.

Monday, October 29, 2007 5:41:00 AM  
Blogger deejaycee6 said...

Happy 83rd Birthday, Mort. I so enjoy your writing and wish I had your talent. Please keep on writing for many more years.

My WWII discharge story is different. My parents owned a cottage court (now called a motel) and Camp Carson (now a fort) was a mustering out place for soldiers. While the poor young men were being processed their wives rented cabins so they could be near their returning husbands.

It was educational for me and others to hear the war tales of these young men and see the damage done to them. I will never forget their stories as my first personal experience in facing the true horror of war. This was no longer a propaganda war movie but a reality. Through the years I have often wondered how they fared in civilian life. I hope they did as well as you obviously have.

Friday, November 02, 2007 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Ron Southern said...

Happy days at last, I would think!

Sunday, November 04, 2007 11:31:00 PM  

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