The Watch–cont’d

It seemed like every big guy was called Moose just like all the radio operators on board were called “Sparks or Sparky”.  He was big, came in about 230 or so and that was much bigger than anyone else on the ship by far.  Moose played the violin and woe to the fellow who referred to it as a fiddle.  Moose  made it clear from day one that it was a violin not a fiddle played in some hayseed barn dance.   He had secretly shed a tear more than once in his bunk listening to him play, especially when it was Amazing Grace.  It just brought up too many strong emotions of better times and hopes yet unfulfilled.

His thoughts turned to his ports and his earlier voyages for something to fill in the time and tedium.  He liked New Orleans best but only because it was the closet one to home and he could hitch hike there in a day and have a few hours with his wife and the hitch rides back.  One of the few benefits of being in uniform as an enlisted man was that rides were easy to come by.  Almost everyone would stop to give a serviceman a lift on the highway.  Norfolk was just a busy place with industry and port activity everywhere.  In New York he got off the ship only long enough to spend an afternoon wandering around the city and saw Times Square.  The noise and rush of the place unsettled him a bit.  This was his fourth trip to somewhere.  He had already been to North Africa twice and England once.  Liverpool it was.  He thought it was a really grimey place and there wasn’t much to do except for the pubs which didn’t interest him because he didn’t drink.  The one memory that he did relish was a trip out in the country for a day with a shipmate to ride horses.  They had met the farmer in town waiting for a bus and he mentioned he lived out a few miles.  One comment led to another and soon they had a deal to have two horses to ride for 2 dollars for the afternoon.

Moose came into the watch station.  They only exchanged the comments about each other’s area of responsibility and went about their work in silence.   Moose’s size made the space more cramped and he had to move over to the railing.  The clouds were definitely clearing.  There was a clean break now in the eastern sky with only scattered clouds behind them.  He started practicing again his aircraft recognition procedure.  They first started drilling that into them at gunnery school in Virginia.  They would spend hours looking a flash cards with outlines and pictures of the various German aircraft the were likely to see.  The pictures were easy to identify in that setting.  He rarely missed and passed that easily.  He knew a Dornier from ME 109 or a Junkers 152 on sight.   It was very helpful but in reality it was much harder than he had every imagined.  When they first saw planes on that first convoy to Bizerte they were not much more than smudges in the sky–a dark cigar looking object and they didn’t hold still like the pictures did in the classroom back in Virginia.  When they were close enough to recognize either their guns were firing or the bombs were dropping.  The truth is they had to rely on whoever that mysterious person was that made the call that the aircraft were enemy and that all ships could open fire.  No one on any of his voyages so far had ever turned in a report of enemy aircraft; they just reported unidentified aircraft at such and such a location.

As he viewed the eastern sky where things were clear enough to see something he wondered how effective the IFF signals were.  He thought that if you ask, Identify Friend or Foe, that they would answer if the latter with an attack and if the former they might not have heard the message anyway.   He supposed it made sense to try but he remembered the large flight of planes over the convoy as it left North Africa and the entire convoy and escorts opened fire on them.  The sky turned dark with the exploding shells broken by the streaking reds and yellows of the tracer rounds.  They took down some planes.  He saw a couple for sure going down but he was too frightened and busy to notice anything else except for momentary sense of relief and even elation at the sight of the “enemy” craft plunging.   Later they heard the skuttlebutt about how all those planes were friendlies.  That some big shot admiral was in deep trouble and an air force general for not working that out.  The Navy said they had no notice of friendlies flying over and the air force said they were incompetent not to recognize their own aircraft.  If it was true those were our guys it made him feel really bad.  They were just trying to get through all this same as he was and they got blown out of the sky by their own guys.  Of course they never were told anything official this was all just ship board rumor but he had a terrible feeling it might be true.  He remembered the command to open fire seemed hestitate and was given he suspected only because the other ships had already started firing.

Moose commented that he had just heard that an escort had picked up some survivors from the Uboat attack two nights before.  All they saw from their ships was a flash and billowing fire and smoke on the horizon.  Susuposedly the word was that two ships had gone down.  They had been repeatedly told they wouldn’t survive more than about 15 minutes in the water that cold and that is why they constantly practiced the abandon ship drill and the lowering of the lifeboats.  He hoped they did get some but the seas were pretty rough that night and finding them and then pulling them up the boat’s side would have been difficult.  Men that fell into the water were doomed.  They all knew that even the escorts could not and would not turn about to attempt a rescue with subs in the area.  At best you had one chance when they came by.  The convoy would not stop.  They moved slow enough as it was, making no more than 8 knots with the zig zagging and the full loads on most of the Liberty ships.  His thoughts were interrupted with the sight of a new flag and the PA address of enemy planes spotted.

to be continued…



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Filed under history, military history, War

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