As my father lay wasting away with a disease that had no conscience or sympathy, we would sit in the sun on late mornings after his creature comforts had been met and talk. To him the pleasure was all in the past, times of pleasure and adventures so vivid in his mind. I sensed it was like a reprieve from reality to remember the best of times. Today he spoke of his early life and going far from family for the first time, not just to a new place in this country but across the giant Pacific Ocean. His words were often filled with gaps as he perhaps turned inward to see the time in his mind before speaking again.
You knew now that this thing you had enlisted for was very real. Not just a recruiting poster or a story heard at the bowling alley. You remember the stories told on the job on the railroad about those who we had known, who were drafted and now lost.
Waiting in the line, there were always lines for everything, waiting for your papers to be checked. And then finally on the gangplank advancing on the ship, and then on the deck. You had directions of where to go, how to find the mess hall for your unit, where you would eat, where you might spend the next two weeks of your life, at sea on this troop ship.
The ship was filling fast, you remember your tendency to succumb to motion sickness and you look for a space near toilets and showers. You are looking at spaces available with fewer men where the huge shaft of the propeller passed through the ship, remembering clearly the droning noise constant except for times when the ocean was so wild and the pitching and rolling of the ship lifted the great propeller out of the water and back in again, the roar then grew intense and the vibrations dramatic, but that knowledge came later in near typhoon conditions, now you just wanted space.
Now you are gathered in the mess hall for your unit, it is filled with men all waiting but none of us sure of what came next, it was a time to try to push down the feelings of fear and possibly regret. The room was filled with noise, with anxious slightly agitated men, and then a seaman asked for quiet, he was asking for volunteers, two men to assist him carrying water in large bottles from the bridge area to the galley. Everyone knew NEVER VOLUNTEER for anything!
In seconds one’s mind went to the scenes around you, the seasickness was so very visible and the miasma intense, almost as an involuntary reaction, your arm shot up and you had volunteered! Another man volunteers also and soon we are topside, in the fresh air.
Imagine yourself carrying heavy water bottles down the stairwells and passages and then climbing up again for the next one. You are in an area where the ships crew work and live, so no sickness here. You feel the tiredness in your legs and back but the air is clean and fresh. After hours of this the job finally finished you are surprised to be offered a whole pie to eat and all the fresh coffee you can drink.
The seaman tells us, in an off hand sort of way, to take your time, as much time as you wish, laughing then, you understand as he tells you that while you have been carrying water, down in your mess hall, duty has been assigned and if you were not present, you will have no assigned duties. You will be free to move about, to seek out fresh air and sky. You will not be assigned clean up duty which was endless. If you like to read, grab books from the Red Cross Book Box and then each day go topside but make yourself scarce. Avoid sargents!
You check the time, perfect, as predicted, you will arrive perfectly late!
You find upon returning to the mess, your name has no assigned duty, you stuff your shirt with books and plan to take the seaman’s advice in the morning.
You awake early and slowly make your way topside away from this ungodly mess. Most everywhere you look is sickness, bathrooms are the worst but stairways and railings too, men trying to get to places to relieve their stomach misery. You find a small area used for storage of equipment, you breathe deeply, the air so fresh, you wish it were day fourteen not day two.
Again my father sits silently with closed eyes, I am not sure if he is remembering or sleeping.
You wish you never had to go below decks again, in fact you know you must but each day got better. Men adjusted to the movement of the ship or found ways to cope with the seasickness, but time passed slowly.
You think soon this too will pass and you will then see Japan and a whole new culture. You remember beginning to have positive thoughts, it was then the storms hit, maybe a typhoon. But the ship was tossed about and the sickness began, again.
You escape to the wind and sky each day. Your eyes scan the endless open sea and your mind wishes you had studied nautical maps and books about ships and knots and miles. You wish to “know” more solid facts but really sometimes knowing is worse than wondering.
My father turns to me now, he is pale and tired but in his eyes I can see emotion. I believe he is happy to remember, more happy perhaps to have someone to share his memories with, knowing they won’t be lost forever now.
The time ticked away, day after day until finally you saw new seabirds and other sea traffic, all positive signs the ship was nearing our disembarking location in Japan. Your mind now forgot nautical miles and knots and went to wondering about food and this new culture.
You felt excited, but you also felt unsure! You wonder about family at home, you wonder about the next phase of this adventure. You wonder how long before you would be moved to Korea? How will you travel?
You wonder if you can actually do four years of this constant not knowing. You wonder if you will return home safely!
Now my father's eyes are very tired. He has had enough sun and adventure for one morning, now to his meds and rest.