Trooper

Dave Weinke
 

© Copyright 2003 by Dave Weinke

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

She lies at her berth, a rust streaked vessel, a survivor of hard use, but ready to take on the responsibility of another load of men who are off to the “Great Adventure”.

It begins at dawn, men coming aboard from several directions, loaded with heavy packs, individual arms. A Sergeant at the base of the gangplank calls out the last names and the man responds with his first, “WEINKE”, “David A.”, “Johnson”, “Alvin B.” and on and on and on. The loading goes on for two days.

The first aboard are billeted in the bottom of the ship; the men who come later get the upper cabins and are allowed on deck during the day. The men below never get up on deck. They are billeted in every conceivable space, in racks in the open spaces below deck and jammed into the first class cabins that in better days housed two passengers, but now are home to at least 12- 14 soldiers. There are six to eight bunks in each cabin. Each man will occupy a bunk for 24 hours and then relinquish it to another for 24 hours. The man without a bunk will scrounge around and sleep wherever he can. The corridors will be filled with just a narrow walkway between the sleepers. If you do not find a spot early, you will have to sleep sitting up. No one is allowed on deck during the hours of darkness.

Two meals a day are the rule. The chow lines are so long that it takes about two hours from the time you get in line until you arrive at the place where the food is being served. There are no seats- you stand up to a rail that is about chest high, eat as quickly as possible and then get out. You can see that much of your time is spent standing in chow lines. What is eaten is easily forgotten.

Once, kippers are served at breakfast, not surprising since the ship was an English “trooper”. Each man carries his own canteen and gets water from a spigot where an MP stands guard to see that none is wasted. Several cans of  “C” rations are given to each man to be used only in an emergency. But what constitutes an emergency? Usually a look at the two-hour chow line is enough to make a decision about popping a can of the good ole “C”.

There are approximately 20,000 bodies aboard: l9,600 troops, 400 crew. What happens if the ship gets torpedoed? Well, in the parlance of the army, “You just bend over and kiss your ass goodbye”. But it won't happen, at least not on this trip. One of the reasons being that the ship moves at 30 plus knots and U boats do not have that kind of speed. She sails without an escort, relying on her speed to keep her safe. The ship sails a zigzag course and rolls considerably when she changes course.

The men who can, and I am one of them, spend long hours on deck, playing cards, or looking at the ocean. One afternoon a submarine emerges. The men are astounded, but it is one of ours, just stopping by to say “Hello”. The ship has an area between the railing and the very edge of the deck, perhaps 3-4 feet wide, with a vertical lip of 6-8 inches on the very edge of the ship and one man, every day, will lie down in that area and fall asleep, then as the ship rolls, he will flop around. Then one day the “Tannoy” loudspeaker system calls a name, “Will Private Jones report”, over and over again and Private Jones apparently never responds. Perhaps the man lying between the rail and the edge was Private Jones. Who knows?  Of course if someone goes overboard it is just too bad. They will never jeopardize the safety of the ship for one man and secondly, the ship takes at least 2 miles to stop. The morale of this story: “DO NOT FALL OVERBOARD”

One afternoon I wander into the Sergeant's Lounge and begin watching a high stakes poker game.  These guys are real gamblers and there is a large amount of money in the middle of the table.  About this time there comes the sound of a “boom, boom”, and the “rat tat tat” of small guns.  Well, then a most interesting thing happens. The poker players sit perfectly still, their faces wooden. The cards are quietly placed face down. There is complete silence.  Then the “Tannoy” announces, “This is a drill, this is a gun drill” and the game goes on as before.

There are no showers, of course!   We don't even wash our faces. Some men try to put on clean clothing, but I take the advice of a British soldier whom I meet on board and he tells me to wear the same stuff as long as the trip lasts no matter how ripe it all gets, and then when I arrive at my destination, take a long shower and throw away all of the dirty stuff and put on clean. This from a man who has been in the British Army for 10 years. I take his advice and it works.

Finally, after seemingly endless days at sea, the ship arrives at its destination, in this case, Grennock, Scotland. She is too big to lay along side the pier. She moors out in the harbour where barges, or lighters as they are sometimes called, come along side and offload the troops. This takes two days - as long to get off as to get on. As each contingent of men comes ashore, a group of white-haired old men, in a brass band, play lively marches. The soldiers laugh and wave and are happy. The men load on small European-type trains and then are off to wherever. Meanwhile the ship fuels, provisions, takes on those passengers who have reason to be going to the U.S., and departs.

This ship was the original Queen Elizabeth. She made many voyages and never lost a man due to enemy action. At least 500,000 men and women sailed in her, but like most things, she finally outlived her usefulness and went to the “breakers” in India who dismantled her.

She was a trouper - trooper!

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