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North Atlantic Patrol


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Between the North Atlantic and Pearl Harbor

Victory at Midway

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North Atlantic Patrol

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At two o'clock the seaman that died this morning, wrapped in a sheet and strapped in a long wire basket, was carried out and hoisted to my little deck. Just outside my door they triced him up with ropes to the under-side of the deck above, as we are sending his body back to the United States for burial.

This is our last night and we have an extra watch set, as the chart shows subs plotted all around us. The wind and sea have come up again, and the ship is rolling and making a hell of a lot of noise. We hope to make our landfall before noon tomorrow. I post my log and finish a long letter to my wife to be mailed ashore, and turn in dog tired at twelve o'clock -- for it has been quite a day. Eight minutes later, just as I am dropping off, the clanging of General Quarters brings my tired feet to the deck. One of our ships has fired star shells and two of them are hunting a sub astern. An hour later I fail in bed, life preserver, shoes and all, pull up the blankets and am instantly asleep.

November 3rd, 1941

At six-forty the general alarm sounds for the last time, and I go topsides to see the pale moon setting over black tumbling waters, and a strange luminous northern light moving like dim ghostly flames across the heavens. Ten-twenty. "LAND HO!" "WHERE AWAY?" Soon with the naked eye we see a great mountain rising straight out of the sea, shaped like a sperm whale's tooth. Presently the coast opens up, a great bleak, jagged contour of mountains topped by a volcanic cone two thousand feet high and covered with snow. Life jackets are disappearing. Every man's face wears a broad grin. Reykjavik dead ahead under a pall of dark smoke against a white sky. Our two charges continue straight for the city, as we salt-caked destroyers swing hard left and in a straight column proceed at twenty knots up the amazing corridor of Hvalfjordur, carpeted with dark green water and walled by sheer, chocolate colored precipices capped with a strangely white icing of snow. Now and then the walls fall away in gentler curves of dull greens and browns, giving way to black violet mountains with their heads immersed in white icy clouds. The scale is so vast that one is convinced that the scattered houses and church yonder are tiny scale toys built by the Icelanders for their children. With a great deal of blinking, a British ship halts us at the gate of the booms (submarine nets), and we wait for an hour for a gray convoy to pass slowly out, guarded by bizarrely camouflaged British destroyers. We slide through the narrow gates, and these at the feet of the great mountains lie our ships. With her gaping wound snugged close against her mother-ship, lies the KEARNEY, and we make fast along side her. On the other side of "Mama" is careened a destroyer fitting a new propeller. The Arctic night rushes down upon us, punctuated by the blinking conversations of the unseen fleet.

Hot chow, and a fifty foot motor boat comes alongside. The REUBEN JAMES' men line our rail and roll is called. Then rough hands tenderly lower the three stretcher cases, swathed in blankets, into the boat. Over the gangway go the thirty-two boys, warm in our issued gear. Tarpaulins are spread over the recumbent figures, and the seated ones are hooded in blankets. Shouts of thanks and goodbye -- and in the driving sleet and snow, the boat shoves off and is instantly swallowed up by the night.

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Hvalfjordur, Iceland

On frozen land

The boat's crew struggle up the stony, slippery hill with our heavy gear. At the base of a small pole flying the Stars and Stripes, stands a stocky man with an incredibly red face, my Icelandic taxi driver. Drive forty miles over many ice-water streams. Pass numerous British and American lorries -- two bogged down. Road one lane with occasional passing places, which drivers race for. Little two-wheeled carts pulled by ponies. Men, women and children with cheeks as red as apples. Sides and roofs of single-storied farmhouses covered with thick sod for insulation. Not a single tree anywhere. We pass sheep with unbelievably long wool, many eider ducks and huge black ravens. The Icelanders eat their ponies, make fine wool from their sheep, and eiderdown from their protected ducks. Add to this a large fishing fleet, and you have the industries that Iceland has subsisted on for one thousand years. We pass camp after camp, British and American, all exactly alike and all living in barrel-shaped fabricated huts. You can tell the British camps by the profusion of barbed wire. Through tank traps and pill boxes, challenged by muffled sentries, we enter Reykjavik. Undulating over its hills, this ancient, modern city embraces its harbor, packed with ships. With walls of gray concrete and pavements of hard black dirt, the city bulges with soldiers, sailors and marines far outnumbering the stolid natives. Having reported, we find that there is no room here for us to stow ourselves. After several calls on the field telephone in the tiny Navy office, we are offered a haven with the Marines back in the hills.

 Front line trenches

On the top of a high hill, on rocks and frozen mud, dressed in wool and cold weather gear surmounted by a huge fur cap loaned by the hospitable Marines, I stand shivering beside the tall young Major. Can just make out the camouflaged masses of the buried guns, and the bulky loom of the men's shoulders in the trenches. A quiet command. The black skeleton of a sound detecting machine swings sensitively around. A Captain with a head phone, in a hole at my feet, mumbles into the mouthpiece: "Dog battery! Easy battery! Fox battery! Lights on target! From two black hills ten miles apart, shafts of white light spring into the air, converging instantly at an apex high in the heavens with the brilliant column of our monster searchlight. They have in their grasp a tiny silver moth travelling at three hundred miles an hour. With relentless ease they stay on their victim, as automatically the long barrels of the guns swing in unison with the tall moving fingers of light. "Well done!" phones the plane, as he vanishes out of range. Again and again with stamping feet in the freezing cold, we practice this delicate operation, for this is the first clear night that the Marines have had in a month. A few days ago I watched the hunt of the shark that lurks below the sea, and now I watch the search for the hornet that stings from aloft. Without warning, two great undulating flames of light shoot from the horizon to the zenith like white gargantuan wings. They fold together and collapse, only to rise again as pale green and pale red fire. Once more they subside and then burst forth with a crescendo of light in kaleidoscopic patterns of mauves and greens and blinding white. I am stunned by the beauty of it. Searchlights, moon and stars pale out before the overwhelming volume of this ghostly, liquid light.

Numbed with cold, we stumble down the hill and with flashlights in frozen hands, Crawl through the barbed wire. Ice is formed on the fur about my face and I have no legs from the knee down. At the base of the hill in the dark and dreary camp, we see a sentry driving Icelandic ponies from the camp garbage cans. They trot away and hide behind a hut, peeping like bad boys around a corner at a cop. When the man's heavy footfall has died away, they sneak back to their horrid pillage.

This is rugged, simple life. My furniture consists of two packing boxes; my washbasin is the bottom of a gasoline can, cunningly lipped over; my drinking water is in a peanut-butter jar, the top of which is my ashtray. I lumber up the icy path to the "head" which is a three-holer beautifully ventilated by the Arctic blasts. Hard by, over our barbed wire, is a native's silver fox farm. With the dawn breaking just before ten A.M., the sun crawls along the horizon and slides obliquely behind the rugged mountains at two-thirty in the afternoon. Thereafter, due to the overtaxed generators, the average bulb is but seven watts. Days of intensive study of our bases in Iceland, and we are back on the beach at Hvalfjordur.

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