The convoy formed in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde skirted the west coast of Ireland and steamed south across the Bay of Biscay where some U-boats were based. USAT URUGUAY was part of an invasion force with Royal Navy ships guarding against submarine attacks. Indoctrination lectures informed the GIs about North African geography, weather, and inhabitants. The atmosphere on board was sobering. No one knew how the French would behave. Also, the German Desert Fox, Field Marshal Rommel, had an awesome reputation.
There were just four-thousand eight-hundred bunks for the eight-thousand soldiers on board, so most had to hot bunk, that is, two soldiers taking turns at occupying one bunk. The troops were fed stand-up meals twice each day. Breakfast, available from midnight to noon, consisted of powdered eggs, sometimes with peas or with bits of chopped frankfurters. Stew was on their menu every day from noon to midnight.
Because of the GIs’ miserable circumstances Adolph Gabrunas, another junior engineer, and I let a few soldiers hang out in our cabin. They were a good bunch and always mindful of the fact that after our midnight to four morning watch, we had to sleep.
When on deck for a bit of night air I saw a light flash way off from the port bow. I assumed it was a torpedo explosion, but an old timer said, “That is the lighthouse on Cape Saint Vincent.” Just then it flashed again. Of course! Portugal was not at war. We were happy to leave the light behind, but before the night was over we were confronted with the lighted coasts of Spain and Morocco. U-boats had only to silhouette ships.
While the French were vacillating about whether or not to repel the allied landings our convoy was held overnight behind Gibraltar’s minefield. That was the last opportunity I had to talk with my GI friends. All tried to be cheerful even though the atmosphere was foreboding. Three asked me, upon my return to the U.S. to contact certain of their relatives and simply advise that they were in good spirits on the eve of the invasion.
I arrived in New York three weeks after URUGUAY discharged troops in Mers El Kébir, Oran’s second port three miles west, and set out to keep my promise. Only the parents of the soldier who lived in Philadelphia had a telephone. They were very grateful to receive their son’s message and invited me to visit.
I next called upon the wife of the Hispanic GI in a neighborhood near Brooklyn’s Court Street. Her English wasn’t good and my Spanish was nil, but we understood each other and she insisted on making coffee. It seemed like I received a hundred gracias before I departed.
My third call was on Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section near the Crown Heights neighborhood where I was raised. The night was black with a cold steady downpour. When I approached the red-brick 1920s-vintage apartment building, the area seemed to be abandoned except for a nearly empty streetcar that rattled past. The weather was the kind that caused people ashore to pity sailors at sea.
No one answered the doorbell, but a curious neighbor told me that the GI’s mother was playing cards in her brother’s apartment two buildings away. After getting further drenched, I found the apartment and told the man who answered that I had a message for his sister. She came to the door with her sister-in-law.
I expected her to be thankful for the message. Instead, she momentarily stared at me and then suddenly screamed, “Why are you here and why is my son not?”
Her brother grabbed her shoulders and while giving her a hard shake he yelled in her face, “What’s the matter with you? This boy has to go back out there!”
No movie could have made it more dramatic as I slipped away into the miserable night.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo