history

The Christmas that was saved by a turkey

... how giving up a Thanksgiving guaranteed a Christmas at home.

By Joe Sullivan


The troopship General Leroy Eltinge where
Thanksgiving dinner was served on November 1953
while it was underway on the Mediterranean Sea.


Joe Rattigan stood next to the counter top in his Condo kitchen watching
the coffee maker drizzle its contents into a fancy mug. For sure the mug
was a gift from one of his kids, he couldn’t remember which one. In about
a week or so they would be gathering at his daughter Jane’s for
Thanksgiving.

Seven of his nine grandchildren would be there. Danny and Pat, his two
youngest, would be home in Colorado. To his recollection, the only time
all nine had been together was when Pat’s parents brought them back so he,
Patrick, would be baptized in Melrose. Danny, born two years earlier, had
been baptized in Buffalo, New York, hometown of his mother, Mary Beth.

But, seven out of nine wasn’t bad Joe thought to himself, and, what the
hell, you can’t win ‘em all anyway.

He picked up his mug, took a sip, and then walked into his living room. He
was going to turn on the TV but didn’t. He was remembering when he was the
one who was not part of the family group for Thanksgiving, and for two
years in a row. For the first, he had been in Kumwah, North Korea, the
second, on the Mediterranean Sea on a troopship whose next stop would be
Livorno, Italy where a small contingent of Belgian soldiers would be disembarked.

The good thing about Livorno was that, the troopship’s stop after Livorno would be
New York. There wasn’t a G.I. trooper on that ship who hadn’t been
harboring that thought from the time he left the port of Pusan, Korea.

You wont’ be alone.

The purpose of this long, stretched-out trip was to deliver a very large
group of Greek troops, some Turks recovering from their wounds, and the
Belgians back to their respective countries. Since this group wasn’t
adequate to fill the troopship, its full complement was achieved by adding
another 956 American G.I.’s .

When Joe was back in Korea waiting  to be assigned to a group that would
be leaving for the States, the trip from Korea to Seattle or California would take
12 days given one day, more or less. The groups were called “drops“ and
classified by calendar dates. When Joe found out that his drop would
involve travel time of “about a month, more or less” he was dumbfounded.

He considered opting out and trying for a later drop but reluctantly
deciding against. Rumors had been flying overtime that Joe Chink was using
the “cease fire” to get things together and when the 90-day truce was over
he’d start shooting again. The rumors were embellished by including stories
that  Old Joe was pouring concrete bunkers on their side of the DMZ. It
didn’t help that Joe’s own field-artillery group was conducting drills that were
initiated at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.

All of these things were too much for Joe. He went to the orderly room and
said he wanted to take his option to be included in the next drop. He
could remember the anxiety of his two pals Fish Desio and Gooch Falella
when their departure was on hold because the Chinese had launched a major
attack during the rainy season. No way did he want to be in a situation
like that.

He realized that the long trip meant that he would not be home for
Thanksgiving but would be for Christmas. It was a deal he was willing to
make. If he waited for a later drop it could mean that he would be giving
up not only Thanksgiving but Christmas, too.

When the troop ship pulled out of Pusan Joe was anticipating a miserable
trip, a repeat of the experience that everyone went through a year earlier
when they were on the boat that took them to Korea. It seemed like every
trooper on the ship was seasick. “Puke City”, his pal Bill Skelly called
it.

But on the otherhand.

But there were some surprises that came with the long ride home. Because they
would be on the ship so long only four of the six-high hammocks were to be
occupied. Joe’s Aunt Eileen had sent him a package of sea sick pills, Dramamine,
to deal with what he was expecting. But seasickness never happened. It was calm
seas for the first part of the trip providing time for the troopers to adjust to
the gentle rolling of the ship. By the time they reached the Atlantic for the
last leg of the journey they all had the equilibrium of grizzled sailors.

Another one of the big surprises was that everybody got a pillow. We’d be
travelling in style. Joe would also be travelling with Tony Maeleo. Their hammocks
were directly across from one another. They had the same situation on the
trip over during which time they became friends. Separated when they got
to Korea, they never saw each other again until Joe tossed his duffel bag
onto a hammock that he was claiming because it was waist high making
getting in and out much easier. He had no sooner done this when he got a
slap on his backside. The slap was accompanied by a cheery greeting of,
“Hey, Irish!” He turned to see Tony Maeleo who was lying in his hammock.

This wasn’t a surprise to Joe, it was absolute astonishment. Not only had
they been assigned to the same ship but the same compartment. Joe’s
grabbing the  hammock was strictly a random act, he didn’t see Tony before
he did it.

Tony was from South Boston, “Southie” as it was called by the locals.
Southie was known to be a sea of Irish, how Tony’s father picked it for a
home after coming over from Italy was hard to understand. He owned an oil
truck and used it to service the 50-gallon oil barrels that were in the
cellars of the three deckers that made up the South Boston neighborhoods.

And furthermore

Tony and Joe developed a strong relationship to the point that they would
rag on each other. Usually, it was ethnic based. Kidding about one
another's roots. Tony would do a number on where Joe lived, Malden. Or how
the Irish were a bunch of nobodies citing as proof that the Pope was
Italian. Or how Joe’s favorite team, the Boston Braves were totally
inferior to Tony’s Red Sox and how you had to be a total loser to root for
the Braves and how they stunk so bad they had to move to Milwaukee before they
could get anybody to go to their games. (The Braves had moved to Milwaukee while
Tony and Joe were in Korea.)

Joe’s response was that the reason the Braves moved to Milwaukee was
because they were owned by the Perini Brothers who were Italians proof
that you had to be crazy to trust Italians.

The rag sessions would almost always end with both of them laughing. Tony
said Joe liked arguing so much that if he (Tony) fell asleep that Joe
would go up on deck and pick an argument with the seagulls.

The education of a street kid.

In truth the ride home wasn’t all that bad. It provided Joe some
experiences that a 23-year old street kid from Malden would never expect.
He remembered being on deck when someone said, “Look at that!” He looked to the
horizon to see a huge school of tuna that was moving like a train with each tuna  
leaping out of the water and then diving back in again. He could see the
sun glistening off their bodies. He said out loud, “ My God, there must be
a thousand of them!” Somebody else said, looking over at Joe, “Maybe
more.”

When they were travelling through the Indian Ocean the weather was mild
with a gentle rolling ocean. Joe, below deck, noticed that his compartment
was almost vacant. Realizing that this was an indicator that something was
going on Joe walked up the stairway and out on deck. The sky was blazing
with a huge array of stars, some brighter than others, some dripping light
like a fountain. He was amazed at this display and walked to the front of
the ship for a better look.

When he got to the deck area at the front of the ship it was crowded with
troopers who were all sitting down with their legs spread and extended
flat on the deck. Their arms were out behind them to brace themselves so they
could look up at the stars.

It was bright enough to pick out a pal, Harry Strahl.  They had gone through
basic training and radio school together. Joe sat down beside him. Turning
to him he said, “My God, what a fantastic number of stars!” Harry, still
looking up, said “Someone said it’s called the Southern Cross”  “Wow,
responded Joe, “ever see anything like that before?” They both laughed
when Harry said, “Not in Buffalo”, his home town.

We’re not in Buffalo any more.

Not in Buffalo, for sure. The amazing natural things that they had
experienced were in places these troopers had never been nor ever expected
to be. There were other things, too. Like cruising through the Suez Canal.
When the Greek troops got off in Piraeus the GI’s were loaded onto school
buses and driven into Athens. They were given a tour of the Acropolis.
Someone used Joe’s camera to take a picture of him with the Parthenon in
the background.

After they got back on the ship they were headed for their last stop,
Livorno Italy. The trip from Greece across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy was
a sweet deal for the GI’s. With the Greeks and Turks gone the ship wasn’t
even half full. This meant an extraordinary upgrade in the food. Breakfast
included eggs to order where you stood in front a hot grill and the cook would do
them "over easy", "sunnyside", or scrambled.

The short trip was also the occasion for Thanksgiving Dinner, Joe’s second in a
row in which he was away from home. But this dinner, turkey with all the fixings  
was being served when he was on his way home. Couple of more weeks, he thought to
himself, what’s so bad?

There was another adventure when they got to Livorno. The GIs, loaded onto big
18-wheeler trucks were then driven to Pisa. Here, you were on your own but you
would have no trouble finding the famous Leaning Tower. Where ever you
were all that you had to do was look up to find it since it’s top was
always visible.

Pisa would have sort of a downside, too. Wine was very cheap and a lot of
guys really got into it. They bought bottles, thinking they were going to
take them back to the ship. They did take them back to the ship but they
didn’t take them on the ship. That was because while the troops were
standing formation before re-boarding the officers walked through the
formation and confiscated anything in a bag that contained bottles. After that
they walked to the edge of the dock and dropped them into the water. Each time
this would happen an audible groan would go up from the formation.

Look who’s here.

There was another surprise. While they were in Pisa the Army loaded
another thousand or so troops onto the ship taking the place of the disembarked
Greek troops.  These guys were coming home from Germany. There was no grumbling
from the Korea troopers because they knew the newcomers would now be able to be
home for Christmas.

Joe was still standing in front of his turned-off television. He looked
down into his cup of coffee and lifted it up to take a sip. He made a wry
face. The coffee was stone cold. He laughed, this is what almost always happened
when he thought about Korea. He had concluded a long time ago that taking the long
trip option was worth it. An unexpected benefit was that the trip took so long by
the time they landed it made no sense to the Army to make them complete their
enlistment.

So long, it’s been good to know ya,

Joe had been due to get out of the Army in early March. He had a 30-day leave
coming. He’d be coming back from it to be assigned to job that he would be doing
for a little over a month. So, let him go. This decision had already been made
when the troopers who had been on the ship with Joe stood in front of a
grizzled master sergeant. He was sitting at a table in a barracks at Fort Devens
where, after a long bus ride from Camp Kilmer in New Jersey they had been assigned
to sleep for what was left of the night.

They had been bused from the ship to Camp Kilmer. They were told to draw bedding,
they would stay the night. They drew  bedding and made up their bunks, it was mid
afternoon. They were lolling around waiting for chow call when a Master Sergeant
came into the barracks and said turn in your bedding there has been a change of
plans. After chow they would immediately leave for Fort Devens in Massachusetts. A
guy he did not recognize tuned to him said, commenting on this screwed-up run
around, "Are we still in the Army, or what?"  

The sergeant at Fort Devens was looking at the record jackets which the soldiers
had been carrying. The jackets, shiny fiber envelopes, were bulging with the
papers that carried each soldier’s respective Army history. The front of each
one had little hand written summaries of what was inside.

The sergeant would glance down at each summary and then tossed it into an
accumulating pile. He looked up at them when he was through and told them
they were eligible to be let out immediately, they would be in the reserve
of course. It was two o’clock in the morning so technically it was
Christmas Eve. Joe had made it.
 
Joe thought about the long trip a number of times over the last 63 years. It was
an unexpected source of many pleasant memories and experiences that would
have never happened if he wasn’t part of it.

He knew those memories must have become a little thinner over time. But he
knew there was one memory he would never forget. No way will he ever forget his
friendship with Tony Maeleo. He could still see him stretched out on his hammock,
hands behind his head, and with his goofy grin, telling Joe how unlucky he was to
have been born Irish and not Italian.

December 2, 2016       
     



    
    


   


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