"In All Respects Ready for Sea"
THE NARRATIVE of the Western Ocean Convoy when it can be regarded and written whole, will be a tremendous saga. Now we can only sense it building, steal fragmentary glimpses of its parts. Here in Eastern Canada the great saga-making voyages have their silent beginnings. They form the convoy fleets and we, the land-bound, can see them slowly moving into line and watch them disappear over the eastern horizon under their sombre canopy of smoke.
The city alongside goes on with its daily work as the ships sail past, no whistle salutes, no swatch of muslin waves bon voyage from the rocky shore of the harbor estuary, but they are epochal leave-takings nevertheless. They end in miraculously uneventful arrivals at scheduled times in scheduled ports after voyages of miraculous commonplace. Or sometimes, such being the hazard of the North Atlantic in winter and war. they are departures leading out to tremendous adventure, defeat—splendid victory. We can glimpse something of those endings here too and begin to block in, however faintly, two chapters of the many chaptered saga; its beginning and a few sentences, at least, of its end. Look first, the better to understand the purport of the beginnings, at the end, at what may be waiting out there—to the eastward.
Sister Daniel Marie is the merry-faced guardian angel of men who know something about what is waiting. She is head nurse of the Marine Ward in a large and modern hospital called, ambiguously enough, The Infirmary. It is an ample ward and my sensory memory of it is bodily warmth that makes an overcoat immediately obnoxious, and streaming light. Its beds and corridors house men who have been very cold and most of them as far away from streaming light as the acceptance of the inevitability of death in an open boat under the sunless North Atlantic winter sky. They are men wliose ships have been shot from under them and who have been rescued at last by westbound traffic and carried here to Canada. For some reason every time I walked from Sister Daniel Marie’s ward out onto the flint grey ice of February streets my heart was bright with thoughts of spring and Easter. There is a joy in the way the motes dance in the sun of Sister Daniel Marie’s ward reminiscent of spring and Easter, the time of rebirth.
Two of the men from a ship’s boat were there and I went to talk to them. Their ship was a British freighter with an all-British crew. One day in December, about 500 miles off Ireland, a Wop submarine sent a warhead into her rusty belly. Sparks was able to get off a wireless message and the crew into two lifeboats in the six minutes before she sank. Her skipper with eighteen men made one party, and Chief Officer George W. Robinson with sixteen others manned the second boat. They became separated the first night, the Captain’s party to vanish completely. It was a friendly night and with the day that followed it furnished the only friendly weather of the seventeen days to follow until Chief Officer Robinson, with both feet frozen, and three able seamen—Amos John Pearson, one foot and one hand frostbitten, John Edward Morris, both feet frozen, and James Patterson, unharmed—were rescued 200 miles off Iceland. Of the sixteen who had crowded their boat at the beginning, all save these four were dead.
Patterson tells the story. He has earned the right. Gaunt-gutted, lean-jawed, with a hawk’s-bill broken nose and a twinkling light blue eye, he makes it a simple story. The food—one case of bully beef, two cases of canned milk, plenty of biscuits and a regulation butt of water. The mate, Robinson, established rations at once—one can of beef into sixteen parts, two biscuits a man morning and evening, two dippers of water a day for the first three days and then half of that for the remainder.
their use of the lifeboat’s sail and they never bent it again. Eefore midnight it was blowing so hard they A.B. Johan Edward Morris. streamed the sea anchor and tried to hold their dangerously pitching craft head to sea. Before dawn the sea anchor warp chafed through and parted and ten of the twelve oars had been battered out of nerveless hands and lost. They drifted helpless before wind and sea to the northwestward, out of the track of ships.
The cook, an old man, died on the sixth day. They believed it was Christmas Day or the day after. Then four negro firemen, unable to stand water discipline, went mad and died. They had been stealthily stealing water by dipping their socks into the butt's bunghole at night and sucking them dry, but this stolen ration seemed to keep their minds on thirst the more and they drank the sea. One’s name was Brown and the other Bass. The names of the others no one remembers. They stripped their bodies in the boat for even a dead negro fireman’s rags have a little warmth. Pearson, a curly-headed rosy lad. stirred on his white starched pillow in the warm hospital room and asked if I knew how a dead body goes down into the sea.
“The water hunches it all up and—” he pantomimed out the sentence with a slow twisting descent of his hand. “I can still see those blacks. I was remembering good then.”
Probably their sole posterity, these nameless black men, is that vivid memory of their stripped bodies sinking into the clear sea, in the mind of a Lancaster boy.
Then the others died, a mess boy named Tommy George and a cabin boy named Arthur Clark on the same day. Then the fourth engineer, then the apprentice with the memorable name of Alexander Selkirk and the third officer named Bedger, and then the junior wireless operator named Page, and the last was Jerry Murphy, an A.B.
Dead Men’s Clothes
THRIVING helplessly to the northwestward, pushed on by the southeaster that seemed to have no end, the four huddled, padded thick with layers of dead men’s clothes. Four terns they had noticed the first day were still with them, skimming down into the troughs of the seas as the lifeboat slid drunkenly down, soaring in company as the big crests lofted her. Their feet were driving them mad. There were shoes aplenty but their feet—all save Patterson’s—were so badly swollen that any covering made them more bloodless and agonizing. Patterson was never still. At first when there was little room he beat his arms and stomped and took double tricks at the oar. He pulled off his boots and dipped his socks into the clean sea and wrung them out and shoved them in against his body while he kneaded his toes—kneaded them and pulled them until they were pink instead of the sepulchre-white they wanted to remain. Then, when there was more room in the boat, he was forward and aft in her, swinging over the thwarts, slapping this one on the shoulder, grabbing another and shaking him, trying to make him laugh or curse, tucking them in when they tried to sleep wrapped up in the clammy sail and then beating his arms and standing watch alone.
The water was getting low in the butt and the dirt the negroes had deposited dipping their socks, stirred up every time they lowered the dipper and made their ration dark and thick and the four wished for snow or the boon of weather warm enough to rain. One night it did warm enough to sleet, but when they peeled the thin glaze from the thwarts and gunwales and sucked it, it was rank with old salt which encrusted everything.
I asked Pearson if he was still remembering good then.
“Not so good,” he said.
Patterson sighted a vessel far off. He did not tell the others until he was sure, for they had been looking so hard so long he did not want to disappoint them. It made Robinson and Morris suffer to move their legs, frozen hard now, and he knew if he cried, “Ship!” they would forget their agony and flounder about and then afterward they would suffer the more. But at last there was no doubt. The mate on the floor-boards tried to get up but he could
not make it. He did what he could—piped like mad on his small nickel-plated mate’s whistle. It was a tiny shrill in the vast void of that cold world but he shrilled on. Patterson got Pearson onto the thwart beside him and they beat the water like a gull with a broken wing, trying to row toward the ship.
She was coming toward them and finally she saw them. Patterson made the line she tossed down fast. The others had not enough strength left to pass other lines about their bodies so they could be hauled aboard and he started to do it when the captain of the rescue ship ordered a side ladder lowered and sent men down to take over. Patterson, when he saw his mates in good hands, started aloft unaided, swung back and picked up something from the lifeboat and then ran up the ladder like a cat. He is off to sea again this week, A.B. in a Dutch tanker, with the souvenir he went back to pick up in his kit, a slender white enamelled tubular beaker, the water cup stowed in all lifeboats for rationing.
He took some sixteen days in hospital, the last of them under protest as so much laziness. I have never met a man quite like Patterson before. Nor, I believe, like Chief
Ships may die and men may suffer — but today and tomorrow men and ships sail eastward to write another chapter in the saga of the Western Ocean Convoy
Officer Robinson. He is in another hospital with A. B. Morris. Both of them have lost their frozen feet.
“You’ll stay,” Robinson’s nurse said, “just half a cigarette?”
He wanted to talk about the boat. I marvelled at the amazing length of her drift—from 500 miles off Ireland to 200 miles south of Iceland.
“You be very careful about giving out bearings,” he commanded, still on duty, still fighting the war. “The enemy is listening for anything he can hear.”
I FOUND a companion yarn— a story of amazing victory in contrast to the freighter’s brave defeat—the next day aboard a Scottish merchantman. She was scheduled for convoy the following morning and I wanted to spend that day before sailing out in the fleet to see how it felt. The story is the favorite out there now, still fresh enough to have retained, as we can vouch after admiralty investigation, its virgin verity. The Scotsman’s mate, a well-knit,
black-browed Aberdeen man, told it to me sitting in her red plush, varnish reeking saloon. He was waiting for eight bells to make a final inspection of all the submarine-zone gear, and I was waiting to accompany him.
The San Demetrio is the name of the ship in the yarn and she was of, as they say, the Jervis Bay. She is a tanker and she was in line of convoy with the Jervis Bay when the raider closed, as you recall. November 5 in mid-Atlantic. The Demetrio sheered off as she was commanded, but shortly afterward shells splashed around her and finally she was badly hit something forward of amidship, and caught fire. Fire being what it is in a tanker, the order was given to abandon ship. Her people took to two boats and that night they saw the glare of four burning ships against the sky. Every now and then star shells from the raider blended their ghastly blue-green with the red glow of the flaming hulls. In the second boat were sixteen men including the Chief Engineer, the Second Officer and a seaman from the Shetland Islands.
Like the other freighter’s boat, this one too found her gale and streamed her sea anchor. The Shetland Island man “knew all about small boats,” the mate said in his
report, and because of that he was given her helm and the sea anchor was watched for chafe, and parcelled. The night was weathered and next morning found them shipshape and dry atop a great sea. They sighted a Swede, probably the Slureholm who picked up the Jenis Bay’s people, but she did not see them. At noon they sighted a stationary ship to leeward and at five o’clock they were alongside. She was their own ship, the San Demetrio. She was still afire and gasoline lay on the water all about, so they decided not to board her that night but pull downwind and lay-to, hoping to drift with her and size up the situation in the morning.
What was their disgust to discover at dawn that she was gone. But the weather had moderated and they bent their sail and set a course for land to the eastward. Then, by one of those odd quirks of fate the sea loves, they again sighted a ship and, you’ve guessed it, she was the San Demetrio. She was still afire and hot enough amidships; her bridge and accommodation were completely gutted, she was down by the bows. Bad as she was she looked better than freezing in an open boat as a vote they took bore witness. The engineer led the campaign for the pros, on boarding, for his part of the ship—dead aft in a tanker— seemed unharmed. They hove alongside and swarmed aboard. There was gasoline washing over the decks and every time she pitched more spouted up through shell-splinter holes.
The engineer called his small handful of black gang about him and led the way down the engine room ladder. The deck crowd turned to behind the second officer with buckets, ripping away cork insulation that seemed to be holding the fire. At five-thirty p.m. the engineer stuck his head out on deck and announced that he had eighty pound of steam and he thought he could get them water for the hoses. He had plenty of water to spare, he said, for the engine room was flooded to the floor plates. By daybreak the fire was out and most of the rents in the decks and upper works plugged and all hands felt hungry.
There remained in her food locker one large joint of beef and four cases of eggs already cooked to a char by the lire. Below, onions and potatoes were found unharmed. They discovered by chipping at the charcoal armor encasing the joint that there was edible meat, pink and succulent, beneath. The cabin boy shucked an egg and when he saw what emerged from its jet-black shell he took a bite and let out a yell at the same time.
“Something, ye’ll mind,” said my narrator, the big Aberdeen mate, “nought but a tanker’s lad could e’er accom-m-mplish. What the wee lad held aloft for a’ to see was as white and golden as a hardboiled egg at a Pre-e-esbyterian picnic.”
The engineer, champing a mouth crammed with a morsel of beef as big as his list—“his name—aye—was MacPherson—and ver-r-ra probably Sandy, as ye infer”—mumbled something about waiting and he vanished below with two firemen lugging the onions and potatoes. They came up in a trice with a bucket each of the vegetables cooked to a turn with live steam. Sitting about in a circle, feeling very jolly, they feasted on roast beef, onions and potatoes and tinned butter, melted to a broth, and hard-boiled eggs for dessert.
“All, I ha’ no doubt, verra faintly flavored wi’ gasoline.”
Then they wiped their mouths with the grimy backs of their hands and set about getting way on her. She clanked and rumbled and protested, but slowly, drunkenly, she moved. The bridge was gone, there were no charts left. There was an emergency steering gear—a docking rig—aft. It was a small wheel with two spokes and a hub remaining, but it worked. They found a sixpenny atlas full of thumbnail maps. The mate opened it to the pink-and-green map labelled “The British Isles” and brought her up to a tipsy north-by-east and that, by his reckoning, should run her smack on Fastnet Light, Ireland.
The stars came out that night after three days without a break, aye, even a thin place in the sky. The mate, admiring, studied them, then started, then rubbed his eyes and stared quickly down at his deck to see if other things looked as strange. Off the port quartet, the Dipper hung. The pointers pointed Polaris, the North Star. There was no mistaking Polaris. But he bore where Polaris had no right to bear on a ship headed north-byeast—dead astern. The emergency binnacle standing alongside the battered docking wheel had been so upset by Jerry and his screaming eight-inch shells it was hysterically pointing its heretofore infallible north fleur-de-lis, dead south.
The mate sadly hung its tarpaulin cover back over its rattled head and set a course by the stars. He opened the atlas at a new page labelled simply “Europe,” and they held to that. Eight merry days afterward they made landfall. They missed the Fastnet a trifle, in fact they missed all Ireland, and it was the southern tip of the Hebrides they brought down. The only signal flag she had left was the best one of all—her red duster that had been flying through thick and thin—and they came in under that. The chief discharged her through her own pipes with her own pumps and took a voucher for eleven thousand tons delivered.
“And,” said my Aberdeen mate, “let this warm the cockles of your heart and confound the Hun. She sailed—’tis a miracle—wi’ eleven thousand two hundred. Come now,” he reached for his cap, “if ye want to see the racin’ gear we use sailin’ the Irish Regatta. ’Tis a verra comfortin’ parcel o’ equipment.”
Sleeping City of Ships
VWTNTER was on deck. It had * * snowed heavily the day before and the deck was a series of snow-white squares, like frosting on cakes, atop the hatches. Paths ankle-deep in black slush, trodden up the waterways and athwartship, marked off the squares. Ail about, as far as one could see on the quiet leaden water of the anchorage, lay other ships, the rusted, dun-painted tenements of Merchant Jack’s transient town. They were drowsing residences for all the world like some quiet suburb in mid-afternoon on a still winter’s day. There was no bustle or stir of impending departure. A bumboat slid along, curling her exhaust up behind her in the frosty air. She seemed the only thing awake save the gulls.
The big mate inspected a snow shovelling job about the drums of screening smoke. They were lashed to the starboard quarter rail and they look like the galvanized casks canned cooking gas comes in. He beat at an ice-encrusted knot in the lashing that made them fast, with the heel of his gloved hand and knocked it clean. We looked at the fog buoy bridle for chafe. The fog buoy is a wooden fabrication like a stumpy wooden snow shovel. It tows blade forward and the angle of the blade makes it slice down and hug the sea and from its tail or, if it were a shovel, its handle tip, a white plume of water spouts up through a metal spout especially shaped to plume it. It is towed in fog and the ship astern, sighting the plume, knows where the ship ahead must be.
The life rafts had been freed of snow and ice. They poise, ten feet up the main shrouds, ready for a swift coast and plunge into the water. A line through a single block holds their upper end aloft and in snug against the rigging, and their weight rests below on a steel trigger that projects outward from the shrouds like the held-out palm of a big flat steel hand that can swing downward when it is released and let the raft slide by. The rafts themselves are sturdy deal frames built about two rows of metal drums. There is a sunken space in the middle to hold an injured man or a sleeping one. All the rest is covered with hand grips and hand ropes where men must cling and stay awake.
It was all just gear, unemotional, matter-of-fact, in that unemotional atmosphere of the anchorage. There was nothing in the air, in the eyes of the men around me, to indicate that in a few hours they were bound out to face what the freighter faced, or possibly find an uproarious, epic adventure like the San Demetrio’s men. The mood was sleepy, somnolent, half drugged, the mood of a watch below. I thought I had something writeable when the bosun turned everybody to, to swing out the port after lifeboat and get her cocked and ready. They tailed onto the falls, a ragged, unshaven, motley crew. “My Glaswegians,” the mate called them, the name a compound, as they, of Glasgow and Norwegian. The bosun piped all
that is left of the chanty in monkey wrench ships. A “singout,” it is called, with the accent on the last syllable. “Yey-ho.” sang the bosun and “Yey—wa-a-ay!” answered the men, creaking their vertebrae in the rhythmic haul. There they were, silhouetted against the cold, grey sky, much, I presume, as they would look if the reek of cordite was blowing thwartship instead of the smell of the cockney cook’s frying onions, and, chuckling in the wash a quarter-mile down to leeward, lay the mottled green and brown reptilian hull of one of Jerry’s submarines.
Lord, a lifeboat is a small thing. How cold they look with nowhere to huddle down out of the wind, no shelter to slide behind when a sea whips its icy buckshot aboard. On the well deck below I let my fancy depict them launching it, all that was left for them and. ill clad, misfit, unwept, unhonored and unsung, thirty grimy sea hobos facing eternity as they would and could face it, damned bravely. They, standing aside now while the bosun climbed the after davit and swung out into her to give the rudder a trial step in the gudgeons and look over the equipment, were imagining themselves taking their hard chance too. Their faces were glum, screwed up in a grey, silent contemplation. But one of the wipers coming on deck at that precious moment hit the apprentice boy, a tall, pimply, callow youth with big dangling dumb hands and boots to match, fair on the back of the neck with a snowball the size of a grapefruit, and the lovely moment was gone—if it had ever existed. They made me doubt it, for in a breath they changed from such sober contemplation of that instrument promising torture, to uproarious, universal, normal, mean laughter.
THERE was a mood for the book coming home that night. It emanated from more predictable, consistent beings than a Glasgow crew. The ships themselves were afraid. It had been arranged that the harbor boat bringing the captain of my Scots ship back from admiralty conference ashore would take me off. I was going out in the morning with the Navy to see this sailing well along the road and must sleep ashore. It was dark with cloud over the moon when he arrived. We started in. Jack, the coxswain of the twenty-foot Cape Island harbor boat and I. He had one more chore to do, transfer a mate from one Greek ship to another. We found the first Greek without difficulty and the mate’s duffle came down on the end of a heaving line; two imitation leather dog-eared suitcases stuffed to bursting. He followed them down the dimly lit ladder and he was a puncheon built, squat-necked Hellene with a blue overcoat and a grey tweed cap. He looked a little like Tony Galento.
“Hell,” said Jack, “you should have found out where this other Spig ship is. There’s a hundred ships in this basin tonight. How do I know where to find it in the dark?”
“That way—” The Greek motioned with a hand like a clove-baked ham. “You shine the light. I’ll steer.”
With one hand smothering the hub of the Cape Islander’s steering wheel and its little brass-bound spokes sticking out between his fingers, he did steer. From the other hand a half cigarette trailed its perfumed, pungent Turkish. Jack opened the starboard window and, as we slid close under the bows of the big brooding hulls that jumped one after the other out of the darkness, he shined up the flashlight, searching for names. For an hour we went, in under twenty bows close enough to reach out and touch the icecaked mooring chains, then at fifteen knots tight down alongside and hard to port under the towering sterns, with the big Greek nonchalantly trailing his eternal smoke and steering with the other hand. He handled that cranky motorboat he had never seen before as a centaur used to handle his horse’s body.
A southwester, warm and moist, had made up at sundown and there was a harbor lop in the basin. The place was no longer somnolent, drugged. There was a nervousness in the air, a tension. There was a chattering of the lop against the deep-loaded dark hulls of the waiting ships, a mumbling as they mouthed their anchor chain and slowly rose and fell. The whimsy that made them seem like inanimate houses in a crowded town was gone with the darkness. The hundred anchor lights were the lights of some unearthly caravan camped for the night and the ships were nervous tethered beasts They were like brooding, tethered mastodons awake in the dark worrying and fidgeting with slow rhythmic sway. The big Greek beside me was pagan too.
“There’s a nervousness in the air tonight,” I said.
“The ships are scared tonight,” he answered. “We go out in a few hours. Too many fine ships, they die—too many.”
We found his vessel at last. Without a word he lumbered his great barrel body out atop the Cape Islander’s house and stood there riding her jerky pitch on treelike legs as he caught the heaving line that came down out of the darkness. He threw the bowline securing his bags and gave the guttural foreign command to heave aloft. His fat blue back vanished up the ladder and the last I saw of him was the red eyeof his trailing cigarette and his round wide feet covered with a pair of shiny town rubbers.
Old Ladies of the Sea
OTIE SOUTHWESTER had turned X smoky in the morning with a merry sun and a big lump of blue winter sea swinging up the coast. The convoy got off at noon. Running in the length of the harbor we could study it in all its stages of starting. The lead ship, running for the submarine gate, was settled down to her speed, shipshape and ready for sea. A quarter-mile astern followed number two and astern again at her proper interval, number three. Swinging down into line from a berth off-channel was the fourth, with a wet smear down her starboard bow like a runny nostril on an urchin. Farther upstream we could see what the wet smear was, for a hawsehole on the next one upstream was full spouting as her crew hosed her mud-caked anchor chain and the anchor itself before catting it. Other hooks were in various stages of weigh; some straight up and down, others with chain clanking in at full winch with the whole forecastle head shrouded in steam. We turned and ran by, outwardbound. A half mile ahead of us, the leader of the escort now, in charge of the line, was winking her Aldis lamp back the harbor telling her girls to hurry along and stop lagging. We passed her and went outside and lay-to off the sea buoy to watch them form in column of fours. The leaders came out and found the first of the southwester’s wash and wind. It was still land tempered but gusty enough to whip smoke straight off funnels and the enginerooms did not have to hurry to clean fires or adjust oil jets before everything was thoroughly warmed up to running temperatures. Smoke on a hovering day is something Jerry can sight a long way off.
Out the convoy trundled, not houses or mastodons now but plump, lean, highwaisted, low-waisted, sharp-nosed, snubnosed, lean-bottomed, fat-bottomed old lady ships. There was nothing gaudy about them. Call them old lady ships and dress them in seemly worsteds and taffetas. They sported a touch of color up in their hair, the tiny brilliant fiutterof code bunting, indicating station. Slowly, very dignified and set and determined, they rounded the sea buoy and took station abreast.
We left them and stuck our faster bows eastward to see what was ahead. There was Atlantic Ocean blown clean as Monday’s wash and stomping a merry rigadoon to the southwester’s full croon. Our ship— she had once been Vincent Astor’s yacht— said she wasn’t exactly brought up to such things but she’d do the best she could and shedid very well for a hundred and twenty feet of little hull. We ran out twenty miles or so, trying to put a finger on anything thaï might be lurking. Then we came about and ran back toward the fleet. The souïhwester, as I say, was a smoky one and visibility, while brilliant, was not long—two miles maybe. Out of the gentle mist came the lead squad in the Western Ocean convoy parade. It was lined up in perfect station. Then astern we could see the whole column steaming, “bungs up, bilge free, carry on,” as they say in the Merchant Navy.
It was more than a pretty sight. It was a breath-taking one. They were curtsying and tossing. A big sea would run across the line and first one, then another, would lift —seven-thousand-ton f reighters they were, mind—up—up—light as a dory, and show half her length of strake. And then down would sway her bows and with a toss— up-a-daisy—she would lilt her stem like a conga gal and there were her glistening, spinning screws tossing snow-white lace against the cobalt blue sea and sky. And —all is vanity-—dun and modest as the old girls were in public they showed us esoteric
ones their red underdrawers. Topside may put on sackcloth and ashes for Hitler, but bottom paint is still bright barn-red.
We stayed with them through an afternoon that sped too fast. Many brave ships running the Western Ocean convoy in a clean southwester—there was a dream and a sight that, to these lay eyes, like William Davies’ rainbow and cuckoo’s song, “may never come together again, may never come this side the tomb.”
We put a pink and opal sunset up astern, and then the moon, the full moon of late winter, painted the rarest sight of all— thirty or more ships on a swift running sea of molten silver with gossamer crests of wave and soft moving shadow. The moonlight painted the old ladies better than the sun, turning grey into soft blue, and dirty reddish buff into pink, and more magic still suddenly hammering a whole ship’s side out of polished sterling as a sea drenched her and she turned her cheek up for the hot moon to warm. Then words came out of the ether indicating that bigger escort than we, was taking over ahead, and we turned back and headed for a suddenly tame and smelly world called land.