Sunday, July 26, 1942
This morning, it being Sunday, there were services on the port promenade. Benches had been arranged on the deck, facing a canvas backdrop on which a Red Cross flag was pinned. Father Francis W. Kelly of Philadelphia, a genial smiling fellow with a faculty for plain talk, gave the sermon. It was his second for the day. He had just finished the "first shift," which was for Catholics. This one was for Protestants.
It was pleasant to stand and sing on the rolling deck with the blue panel of the moving sea, on our left, to watch. There we could see two others of our fleet of transports rolling over the long swells, nosing into white surf.
The sermon dealt with duty, and was obviously pointed toward our coming landing somewhere in Japanese-held territory. Father Kelly, who had been a preacher in a Pennsylvania mining town and had a direct, simple way of speaking which was about right for the crowd of variously uniformed sailors and marines standing before him, pounded home the point.
After the services, ironically, many of the men turned to the essential job of loading machine-gun belts. Walking around the deck in the bright morning sun, I had to step around lads sitting on the former shuffleboard court, using a gadget which belted the cartridges automatically. All you had to do was feed them in.
The lads seemed quite happy at the job. One of them kept time with the clink of the belter. "One, two, three, another Jap for me," he said.
Others tried other ideas. One was reminded of the song "Chattanooga Choo Choo," by the sound of the leader. He hummed a few bars of the tune.
Another boy said, "Honorable bullet take honorable Jap honorable death. So solly."
"I've got a Jap's name written on each bullet," offered another. "There's three generals among 'em."
"Which one's for Tojo?" asked a buddy, offering to play straight man. "Oh, Hell, the first one's got his name on it," was the answer.
This conversation, while it did not hit any stratosphere of wit, indicated one thing anyhow: that the lads here at least were relaxed and in high spirits. Probably the facts of full stomachs and clear hot sunlight, with a pleasant breeze, contributed somewhat to the psychology of the situation.
I thought I might as well do a round-up on the morale situation aboard the ship, and so wandered through her splendid innards and turned all the promenades. In the luxurious, modern after lounge, preserved much as it had been in the recent days when the ship was a passenger-freight liner, I found things quiet; one officer was reading an Ellery Queen novel as he sat on a modernistic couch job done in red leather and chrome. A red-headed tank commander sat at one of the skinny black-topped tables where recently cocktails had been served to civilian passengers traveling between North and South America. He was writing an entry in his diary.
The black-and-cream dance floor, a shiny affair of congoleum, was vacant.
In the barroom at one edge of the salon, one of the leather-upholstered booths was filled with officers idly passing the time of day, content and happy, like the men, with full stomachs and pleasant weather.
The bar itself, a semi-circular slab of light wood, was vacant, with nobody to buy or sell cigarettes, shaving cream, and "porgy bait"--naval, marine slang for candy--which sparsely occupied the shelves where once a gleaming array of bottles must have stood.
There was soft music, coming from the salon's speaker system. That, and the modern comfort and beauty of the place, brought the thought that this is a pleasant ship on which to travel to war, a sort of streamlined approach to an old adventure, even if there is no liquor behind the bar.
Leaving the pleasant lounge room to go out into the equally pleasant sunshine, I rounded another promenade and found at one corner of it a group of marines, most of them squatting on the deck, gathered around a blackboard.
A sergeant was holding forth as instructor, pointing to one after another of the interesting chalk symbols he had marked on the board. It was a course in map-reading. The sergeant pointed to a chalk representation of a wagon, with a horse-shoe alongside.
"What would you say it was?" he asked one of the men.
"It's a horse-drawn vehicle," said the marine.
"That's right," said the sergeant.
I went from there to the forward deck of the ship. Here, it seemed, most of the troops had congregated. They crowded all available standing and sitting space. They were occupied, on this day of rest, principally with "shooting the breeze." Some were leisurely turning over a hand of cards or two. A few worked among the complexity of steel cables, derricks and hatches, busy with routine jobs.
I climbed down a narrow ladder into the mouldy semi-darkness, relieved only by bilious yellow lights, of the No. 2 hold. Here I first found myself in a wide room, the center of which was entirely filled with machinery, wooden boxes and canvas duffle bags.
Around the edge of the room were four-level bunks of iron piping, with helmets, packs and other gear dangling in clusters.
But the place was deserted, except for two or three marines busy sweeping the deck and swabbing the floor of the dank shower room. The rest of the inhabitants were obviously engaged with duties and pleasures in other parts of the ship.
Most of the other holds, similarly, were occupied more by machinery and idle equipment than by people. Much more pleasant on topside. In one hold I found quite a few marines sleeping on their standee bunks, while in the center of the room, two marines in stocking feet chased each other over piles of black ammunition boxes. They were given some encouragement by the few men around the edges who happened to be awake, sitting on boxes or duffle bags.
I went back up on deck, satisfied that this was a peaceful, lazy day of rest almost everywhere on the ship. Everyone seemed relaxed, despite the fact that probably, today or tomorrow, we will know where we are headed, where, possibly, we may die or be wounded on a Japanese beachhead.
But the pleasing state of relaxation, this Sunday, is understandable. We have been so long wondering where we are to go that we have long since exhausted all possible guesses. One figures one might as well amuse himself while waiting to find out.
In the lounge again, I spotted Maj. Cornelius P. Van Ness, the graying, earnest planning officer of this group of troops, unfolding a message which had just been given to him by a young naval lieutenant.
"Something to do with our destination?" I asked.
He smiled. "No," he said, "but I wish it were. I'd like to know too." Even the colonel, said the major, doesn't yet know where we are headed.
After lunch, I had gone back to the stateroom to further digestion with a little bunk duty, and was passing the time of day with two of my roommates, Red Cross Worker Albert Campbell and Father Kelly, when the fourth roommate, Dr. Garrison, rushed in puffing with excitement (Dr. John Garrison, a Los Angeles dentist, was a Navy medical officer).
"A lot of ships just came up," he said, plunking his portly bulk onto his bed. "A whole navy. Better go look at 'em."
So we ambled out on deck to see the horizon spotted with ships, in a huge semi-circle around us. There were transports and freight ships, cruisers, destroyers, and the long, high, box-like shapes of aircraft carriers perched on the rim of the ocean.
Talking along the promenade suddenly became louder and more enthusiastic. Officers, sailors, marines were busy counting up totals, trying to identify the different types of ships. Charlie, our slow-speaking, colored room-boy, as usual, had the latest dope. He shuffled up to us and gave us a detailed account of the ships present. Among them he listed the "Pepsicola" and the "Luscious."
Identification, at that distance, was difficult, but one thing was certain. We had made a rendezvous with the other and main part of our task forces. We were conscious of the fact that this was one of the largest and strongest groups of war vessels ever gathered, certainly the largest and strongest of this war to date. The thought that we were going into our adventure with weight and power behind us was cheering. And our adventure-to-come seemed nearer than ever, as the new group of ships and ours merged and we became one huge force.
That night, there were movies in the comfortable, swanky, ultra-modern ward-room, where officers dined. It was a light thing called Our Wife
with Melvyn Douglas and Ruth Hussey. The colonel, amiable, polite John M. Arthur of Union, N.C.--called "Doogy" because of this fondness for the natty in clothes and grooming--sat next to me. Between reels I suggested to the colonel that it was amazing that his people could relax and enjoy themselves like this, when they were heading for the unpleasant reality of danger, bloodshed, etc. He said, yes, he though so, too.
Excerpted from Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. . Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.