General quarters sounds throughout the old transport as we pass through the gate of the submarine nets, and the ships officers and we passenger-officers help to steer the confused civilian men and women, still holding their instructions in their hands, to their boat stations. We have passed slowly out in column with other ships. Astern lies the beautiful harbor, with its green dancing water, surrounded by the clean white city nestling between the sudden hills and clinging to their rugged sides.
And so our ships form in columns under the watchful eyes of destroyers and a Navy blimp, and over the cobalt waters of the Pacific we move towards Hawaii a Pacific convoy bound for Pearl Harbor.
I am awakened by a sound of the East, the beating of musical chimes by a Guam mess boy. The blackout port-covers are removed from the deck outside. I drop down my shutters and the fresh chill air rushes in. Strange that it hasnt the salt tang of the Atlantic. The sea is as flat as the deck and the ships slight roll is pacific.
Her officers mess in their own wardroom topsides, and the passengers have two sittings in their big messroom, as this ship is packed to full capacity with troops, Army and Navy nurses, contractors, mechanics and stenographers, and heavily laden with a valuable cargo. The enlisted men and mechanics stay below on the main deck, and form long queues to have their food heaped in their own mess tins. As I go to my table the Victrola in the corner of the large room is playing "Remember Pearl Harbor." There are four long tables running fore and aft, and at mine are fellow Naval officers going out to join ships, Army captains and lieutenants commanding the men below, and Navy nurses. Not one of the nurses has ever been in a "boat" before, and three or four disappear during this first breakfast, in what appears to me to be a fiat calm. We officers kid the remaining ones with the old, old ship stories of "mail buoys" and other gags, as hoary as they are salty. This is a courageous and loyal group of women going out to many fronts for Army and Navy, and our hats are off to them.
From the bridge it is a gay and pretty sight, all these good modern American ships with colors flying, plowing along in columns against a background of brilliant blue and white. "Flying fish weather" porpoise, albatross and sunshine. Leading the central column is the blue-gray cruiser, and forward to port and starboard of her plow the alert destroyers. All these Americans moving bravely out to bases for the all-out fight to win. The Exec. points to a big ship to' port loaded deep with munitions "A little too close to my liking. If she were hit with a tin fish in the night, it would blow us and most of the convoy to hell. Remember that ship in Halifax in the last war?"
I go down to work on an oil sketch in my stateroom that I have rigged up as a little studio. "Man crash-boats," rasps the order over the loud speaker. Always fascinated by this operation, I go out on deck to see the cruiser lying with her starboard side to windward just ahead of us, ready to catapult her planes. On the far side of her square box stern, out beyond her port quarter, the plane crouches on the catapult run, with her revolving prop gleaming in the sun. There is a puff of smoke the plane shoots across the deck, curves slightly down and in a continuing arc zooms up and away, as the bang of the report reaches us over the water. A second plane ready on deck has instantly taken the place of the first. With perfect timing the third plane comes up in the elevator, unfolds her wings and takes her place, as the second report reaches us. In ticking seconds the four have roared away, sweeping the horizon with keen eyes for little yellow men in submarines.
Transport fo'castle head - Pacific
convoy bound for Pearl Harbor
Ship's boats - Pacific convoy bound for
Leaving the bright lights of the smoky, noisy mess after coffee, I grab my cap for a walk. I pull open the bulkhead door and step out into the cool velvet blackness, dodge unseen some groping promenaders, and find the rail. After a few minutes to get my night-sight, I look aloft and can just sense the loom of the boat-bottoms swung out above, count the fifth from forward with her bow abreast this stanchion I have my bearing, know where the door lies inboard, and start to walk. Forward the liquid phosphorescence dances along the curving bow-wave, flows like cold fire down her side where air and water meet.
The soldier sentry marches back and forth athwartships, looming large near me, disappearing and then vaguely silhouetting against the distant port rail. He is guarding the ladders from the lower deck. His methodical march hesitates and comes to a halt near me. From his obscure contour, he appears to be a tall rangy country boy, not yet quite accustomed to walking his post in a military manner part of our citizen army. The cool sea breeze tells me that he is young and lonely, for I have a son that is a soldier. "Good evening, sentry." "Good evening, sir." I wait. A shy boys voice says, "The ship is dark, sir." "Aye, our ships are well darkened." "I wish my ma could see me now." "Shed be proud of you. What state do you hail from?" "Pa and Ma have a farm in Iowa. Gawd, Id like to smell the hot sun on that corn! I used to think our fields were big, but they aint much in size compared to this ocean." "Your father must miss you on the land, but I wager hes proud too that you are a soldier." "I dont know, sir, Im a landlubber. Ive been seasick until today." "Hell, thats nothing," I say, "if I were a soldier in the trenches, Id get trench mouth!" That makes him laugh. He resumes his dreary march across the deck.
Making my way aft past the giggling conversations of the unseen couples, I move to the rail and look up from beneath the black overhead, count the dim ghosts of the boats, walk straight inboard from number 5, and put my hand on the invisible doorknob.
All passenger-officers aboard have watches to stand, all but me, for I have a special card stamped with the seal of the ship, which reads:
TO ALL SENTRIES AND PERSONNEL
Commander, U. S. Navy
At General Quarters each person has his station, for fire or abandon ship. I roam about with sketch book and binoculars, for my orders are to draw whatever may happen. Soldiers and Marines with axed bayonets guard the boats, and I study the men at, their battle stations. Bristling with guns, the old girl is ready to fight for her life. Taken over by the Navy in 1917, she was then a modern coastwise liner, gay in her fresh peace paint, her decks filled with carefree tourists bound for Caribbean cruises, with yet no realization of the first World War. Since then this faithful old transport has plowed the seas for hundreds of thousands of miles. We can do twelve and a half knots wide open in fine weather, and are the slowest ship in the convoy by a big margin. Her Chief Engineer says to me, "Yeah, shes a comfortable ship, but when I go below on duty, her engines are so small I cant find them." I feel sure we get many a resentful glance from our younger sisters, impatient with the slow old lady that they could walk away from with the greatest ease.
Except for the nuisance of having always to lug life jackets and seeing the gun crews standing their watches, all is peace and ever increasingly warm sunshine. When I was very young, crossing to Europe in passenger vessels, I used to long to be a merchant officer and answer the ladies questions. Now I feel just like this, for I am used to combat ships. A pretty girl points at a one-stack destroyer and says, "Commander, what kind of a transport is that?" Another, looking at the handsome cruiser moving forward close aboard us, says, "I didnt know freight boats had so many cannons." With cap on one side, hands jammed in my coat pockets, legs apart, I am that young liner officer, gently correcting the landsmans abysmal ignorance of ships and the sea.