Remembering
World War II

WWII: We crossed the Atlantic in a rolling freighter

... liberty ships are not exactly the Queen Mary

by Tom Dillon

Editor's note: Tom Dillon's story of crossing the Atlantic during World War II begins with this issue -- and will continue in future monthly issues. He was a member of the U.S. Army Air Force, and his mission was to put the brand new B-29s into service. Some of Tom's photos are from that voyage; others are from a liberty ship that docked at Boston recently.

The recent arrival in Boston of the last remaining liberty ship, of the 2700 built for World War II, revived memories for two Melrose residents. Ed Vickery and Tom Dillon sailed from Newport News, Virginia, on this type ship. Ed boarded the Abraham Lincoln on February 11, and Tom boarded the Caleb Strong on the 12th. These ships were designed for cargo and were modified to transport troops. Very primitive I say.

Here's Tom's version.

We had an early morning call-out and loaded all our gear on trucks that transported us to the docks at Newport News. The majority of our outfit were from the Midwest and this was their first view of the ocean. When we boarded the liberty ship we didn't know that ship from the Queen Mary, but the difference soon became apparent. There were 550 men in a converted cargo hold,. Bunks were five-high canvas racks. I thought it wise to pick a bottom bunk. Good idea until four men above got seasick.

We formed a 100 ship convoy and headed to where ever we would end up. There was total secrecy .. we were an air force outfit, bringing the first B-29s into service. Space aboard was precious as we were never more than six feet from another airman. Food was tough but most were too sick to care. Recreation consisted of card games, reading, and when possible sitting on the hold-covers to get fresh air. The chaplain had a hand crank record player with about 10 records, unfortunately all country western to the delight of the rednecks and dismay of the rest. Unbelieveably, it disappeared about the fifth day.

It was quite a social experiment confining over 500 men of all backrounds in such small quarters. We were a new outfit with a totally new aircraft. I was transferred from a photo recon group with fighter aircraft to the largest heavy bomber made.



February and March is not the ideal time to cross the North Atlantic, as we soon found out. We encountered three major storms that battered the entire fleet. Each lasted three and four days. One minute it looked as if there was no water under the ship and then the waves would tower 40 to 50 ft over us. These ships had a reputation for breaking apart so terror was normal. I think it was during the second storm, one of the airmen had an attack of appendicitis and the flight surgeon, who was seasick from the moment he came aboard had to remove it. The medical facilities were basically first aid, so a transfer to another ship was required.

A destroyer escort came along side and shot a line to the freighter. A bosun chair was rigged to carry the doctor and patient to the destroyer. The ships were bouncing around like a ball. We thought it was bad on our ship, but how those sailors could stay upright was a miracle. A transfer like this created a new diversion and all on board wanted to see it, which caused the ship to list and dunked the doctor and patient in the freezing water. After the successful operation, the flight surgeon was returned to our ship and told us it was the only time he was not sick on the entire trip.



Learning to eat on a rolling tossing ship was an experience. Disaster struck with the first meal as our food slid off the mess tables to the deck. Some were of the opinion that that was the best place for it. Sea sick cooks don't prepare gourmet meals. So what ever was presented had to do.

The first shower was another adventure. Water is precious on a ship, so unbeknown to us saltwater was used for showers; soap and saltwater produce a gooey mess, almost impossible to remove.

Sanitary conditions got worse as the trip plodded on. Ventilation was primitive as the ship was designed for cargo. The great thrill was off the coast of Portugal, the captain had the crew remove the hatch cover of our hold, and I swear the birds fell out of the sky from the stench.

The convoy split about 20 days out. Some ships went to England and we plodded on. Top speed for our ship was six knots. We could have swam faster. Forty four days out of Virginia we docked at Oran, North Africa

This was just a staging area for our still unknown ultimate destination, India.

Editor's note: Watch the October issue of the Mirror as Tom's journey through the world war continues.


September 5, 2008


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