Lights out in Scotland
... learning my way the hard way
by Jerry Norton, MHS Class of 1942
The following may occur to the reader as being two separate stories possibly deserving of single efforts. However, in the interest of conveying both background information with the more personal yarn it was thought there was sufficient relevance to make it one.
Shortly after high school graduation I was taking "boot camp" training at Newport, R. I. followed by several months of instruction as a signalman before being assigned to the naval Armed Guard. The Armed Guard consisted of detachments of navy gunners mates and signalmen serving on civilian merchant ships for protection and visual communication.
The North Atlantic convoy battles that terrible winter and early spring of 1943 posed a threat to our ocean supply line to Britain which was vital for the Normandy invasion the following year. Winston Churchill despaired of winning the war if this line were cut. Our convoys sailed very northerly routes hoping that the extremely high seas in those latitudes would be a deterrent to German submarine activity. Despite seas and howling gales, those intrepid German submariners managed to penetrate our screen of escorts and inflict heavy losses on the merchant ships.
After three weeks of plodding at eight or nine knots, we approached safer waters and I, for one, was glad to enter Scotland's Firth of Clyde and know that we were temporarily out of harm's way. (We still had to return).
My ship moored at the Clyde River town of Greenock where we remained for ten days off-loading cargo and awaiting the formation of a westbound convoy. Several factors contributed to the basis of this narrative: British double war savings time, recent Luftwaffe bombing of Clyde River shipyards, the burning of soft coal in those Scottish hearths which emitted a fog of particles in the air and the natural cloud cover in early spring. Wartime blackouts were strictly enforced and the locals willingly complied. The end result was an outside night time which was total darkness.
Being a well-adjusted "North American Bluejacket" I soon became acquainted with a comely young Greenock girl and after a couple of daytime dates she invited me up to her home for tea and scones and to meet her widowed mother. We spent the early part of the evening in a local pub enjoying food, "spirits" and convivial company of the locals and left around 10:00 p.m. when it was still daylight.
Her home was located on a sloped area overlooking the waterfront a short distance below. The three of us spent a pleasant time chatting and swapping stories about our common Celtic backgrounds. A couple of hours later it was time to leave and I was offered a torch (flashlight) to better see on my way back to the ship. They could be flicked on and off and were used by many people abroad at night for safe navigation. Being young and confident I declined the offer as I knew it was only a short walk down the hill to the docks. I had to make only one turn to get on the street leading there.
Once outside, to my surprise, it was as dark as a Pharaoh's tomb and I proceeded only a half-block when I stopped to regroup. Luckily I saw this "torch" flicking on and off coming up behind me. Swallowing my youthful pride, I excused myself and asked this elderly gentleman the way to the James Watt docks. He flashed his light on me briefly and replied, "Sure, Yank, I'm going that way". I fell in right behind him and with little knowledge of where I was he guided me safely to the entrance to the docks. I offered my profound thanks and proceeded under a light-covered walkway to my ship.
Darkness has several shades and it, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Reflecting back on my late night walk I concluded it could have been worse .. it could have been raining.
November 1, 2002