Chapter III: The War Years in New York, Part One

The electioneering was over. The ballots were in. All that remained was to count the ballots declare the winner. It was a nice day in New York City on December 7th. A movie was showing at the Paramount on Broadway. It was supposed to be a super-duper anti-Nazi movie. I decided to take it in. I needed the relaxation after weeks of election campaigning.

While I was deeply absorbed in the movie, the screen went black. Boos and jeers and stomping of feet sounded throughout the theater. Within a few seconds, a voice sounded over the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt the program at this time to bring you a report from our nation's capitol. It has been reported that less than an hour ago warplanes launched from a Japanese carrier bombed the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. The report states that many ships have been sunk and hundreds of lives have been lost in this sneak attack. We have been advised to relay this message to all members of the armed forces--return immediately to your units for further orders. We shall now return to our program."

A terrible feeling of emptiness hit my stomach. I had shared the feeling with many of my left-wing friends that we would be knee-deep in the European war sooner than expected. But the Japanese were another matter. Some of their high-ranking statesmen were in Washington at the moment negotiating some matters with our Secretary of State, Sumner Wells. No, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise. There were no more pretenses about war, nor about our responsibilities. We were up to our ears in it on all fronts. The Hitler-Mussolini-Hirohito anti-comintern pact was being put into operation by its third partner.

In the Pacific Ocean, our ships were ordered to seek refuge. Vessels now in various American ports were ordered into available shipyards to be fitted with both machine guns and heavy artillery pieces, powerful enough to destroy a submarine by a direct hit or at least give the ship and crew a fighting chance.

Life rafts were secured on the fore and aft rigging and life boats give extra equipment. The wheel house received some extra protection with cement blocks. The Lazaret was made into an ammo locker and the after housing on the poop decks were turned into a fo'c's'le for the gunnery crews which all ships were being quickly furnished with. A number of other features were added to the average ship to make it as safe as possible to survive at sea.

It was a new ballgame now. The election results put me in office by a whopping majority over two opponents, one a devoted right-winger who was forever boasting to the San Pedro membership of the union that he was in favor of organizing a group of American Legion veterans to march down the waterfront and drive all left-wingers out of town. The other opponent, the old New York port agent, was lazy and useless. But, hell, they were small potatoes now.

The job was now taking on new importance. No longer was it a job confined to protecting our engine room members against the money-hungry, union-hating ship owners, as well as protecting the integrity of the union. It was now a job demanding a higher sense of responsibility--one of seeing to it that the hundreds of new ships entering the merchant marine were manned by competent seamen who could deliver men and equipment necessary to win the war. These men and goods would have to be delivered across oceans teeming with enemy submarines.

Days passed quickly. I found myself opening the union office at six in the morning and closing it at eight or nine in the evening. Work was piling up. It seemed trivial to spend time fighting over a little beef like the number of ashtrays doled out in the messroom or some small infringement against our working conditions. The main issue as most saw it was to get the ships properly manned and shoved off to sea. It became an everyday sight to see two or three dozen ships, fully loaded, laying at anchor along the Hudson River, waiting for crews to take them to sea.

Every member of our union was working. We were now relying on a government-operated recruiting school that turned out young men as "qualified" seamen after two weeks of training. They were handed a slip to report to different union halls for ship assignments. The majority of ships we were starting to crew up were vessels assigned to us from the War Shipping Administration. They were known as Liberty ships--five-hatch, slow-moving vessels of some 12-13 knots maximum speed, driven by 2500 horsepower reciprocating engines.

They came from blueprints and shipyards of Henry J. Kaiser. A simply-built vessel, it was put together in prefabricated sections made in factories across the country and put in place by the welding torch. In the First World War, the job of the torch was the long, tedious job of the riveting gun, a harder, slower, and more costly procedure. One set of blueprints was used in the hundred or so shipyards that sprang up across the country. So efficient was the construction of the Liberty vessel that it became a badge of honor as to how quickly a shipbuilding crew, working around the clock, could put one together. One shipyard took 30 days from keel-laying to her assignment for sea duty. And the competition to beat that record would go on.

Of the youngsters that came through my union, I would say that 95 percent of them were bursting with enthusiasm as they accepted their assignment slip and raced out the front door to grab their gear and board their ship. Most looked at it as a new and daring adventure in their young lives and a means to make their mark in the effort to win the war. I don't imagine many at this stage gave much thought to the dangers they were about to come face to face with.

The dangers were many, but they were compounded by the very nature of the exercise of my craft in the engine room and boiler room. Located at least three stories below the main deck, they represented a terrifying trap in the event of a torpedo attack, even more so if the torpedo hit the engine room. The narrow steel ladder from the floor plates to the safety of the main deck offered a poor source of escape in a panic situation.

Yet, in spite of these potential dangers or odds against survival, men answered the bell which signified the time to relieve the watch below. It was a job someone had to do. To the seaman, his job was important to the war effort and contained as many dangers as the jobs of the aviator, foot soldier, or any other person giving his or her all to win the war. My job wasn't by any means confined to just manning the ships and settling some contractual beefs that arose from time to time. Many conferences took place between the War Shipping Administration, governed by Rear Admiral Land, union representatives, shipowners, and often members of Congress.

A call one morning from Admiral Land's office in Washington to come to a conference the following morning in Washington offered me my first flight on an aircraft, a twin-engine plane that seated about 50 passengers. In that period of our history, most transportation such as planes or railroad Pullmans were not easy to come by. A priority clearance that guaranteed you space on the plane or train had to be obtained. There was always the bus if you cared to wait in a line most often stacked with enough eager riders to fill several buses.

It was a simple procedure handled from the Admiral's office. His staff called the airline and reserved a certain number of seats, so many for each union. Of course they did not come free. The unions paid their own way. It was an interesting flight. We were ordered to keep all shades drawn on the windows while landing and taking off. I made the trip sitting next to my old and dear friend "Blackie" Meyers, vice-president of the National Maritime Union.

We took our designated seats in a room filled mostly with military men. The gold braid on their uniforms could have re-plated the White House dome in glittering yellow. It was a quietly-conducted and dignified meeting to determine what to do to save lives of seamen who might come under attack.

I remembered what one of the young survivors of a torpedo attack reported to me after he was rescued from being adrift ten days on a life raft. He lost several fingers and toes from frostbite and exposure. I reported at this conference that had the life raft medical kit contained some rubbing oil to prevent frostbite, he might still have all his fingers and toes. There were several other matters close to the same line that I raised as well. All issues, no matter how insignificant they may have appeared, were well-received. Those requiring action were, in most cases, acted on quickly. All in all, that meeting and the meetings to come were fruitful and had the best interests of the seamen in mind.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three