RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET
I was up at the crack of dawn and on deck when we cast off our mooring lines and headed back out to sea. I saw the name of the destroyer as it took up a position in the lead as escort vessel-USS Chester. I was more interested in the view of the island than I was of the ships in the harbor. In the back of our minds we knew that here was the mightiest navy in the world and no power on earth could ever do it harm. We believed it, as everyone back home in America did. Foremost in our thoughts was the anger at being denied shore leave. Breakfast was delayed that morning for there were no volunteers for KP. Why, we wondered, couldn’t they have let us go ashore? There wasn’t a war going on!
The two troop ships took up positions side by side with the destroyer sailing between and slightly in front of us. After dinner that first night out of Honolulu, we were given orders that called for a complete blackout each night. We were also given permission to sleep on deck. It rained a little during the night but I didn’t mind. It was cool and the moon on the water was beautiful.
The next day, to break the monotony, I let my friends shave my head. We had fun and I took much razzing but I didn’t mind. When we didn’t have work details, we spent our time gambling and playing cards while some wrestled and frolicked on deck. One day while on work detail I found an old cot. I bragged about how wonderful it would be to sleep on deck with a cot. But that night when I set it up and stretched out it collapsed with a bang on the hard steel deck, to everyone’s laughter. I discovered the cot was beyond repair and pitched it in the rubbish. I ended up sleeping in the hold with the rest of the men. My bragging had cost me some teasing for a long time to come. Another night after supper Sergeant Sayer and I went to the officers’ social hall to play music for a colonel’s, birthday party. The sergeant pounded away at the piano while I played the accordion. I became disgusted when I saw the luxury the officers enjoyed compared to the life we enlisted men had to lead in the hellhole where we slept.
We crossed the International Date Line and dropped south across the Equator and paid our dues to Neptune, a shipmate with a mop for a hairdo and a toilet plunger for a scepter. The nights were complete blackouts with not even cigarette smoking permitted above deck. It was miserable below deck. The heat and smell in the holds were dreadful. We slept on deck whenever possible. But almost without fail, it rained and we had to grab our bedding and rush below.
The mornings were usually beautiful and the days balmy, and the ocean a magnificent purplish blue. We never tired of watching flying fish break the surface and shoot across our bow. We marveled how far some could fly, floating only inches above the surface of the water, only to disappear beyond the crest of a breaking wave. We also wondered what monstrous fish might be chasing them to send them flipping across the water as they did. A song I was requested to play on my accordion every day was “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Sometimes Jake the trumpeter accompanied me and half a dozen men kept the beat on tin cans and boxes.
Early the morning of October 19, we sighted a verdant, high volcanic island. Word came down the line that it was Guam, one of America’s eastern naval bases. It was raining and there was a rainbow in the sky. The officers and non-coms were allowed shore leave but the rest of us were not. At six-thirty that evening, while the enlisted men grumbled, we pulled away from the island and sailed westward.
The rest of the trip to the Philippines was uneventful, except now below the Equator dreamy days and balmy evenings were interspersed with rain squalls, crashing thunder and a sky filled with flashes of lightning. It was especially awesome to come on deck at night, into pitch blackness, and suddenly see both sky and sea light up from one horizon to the other in a single flash.
We continued to spend much time watching flying fish jump in front of the bow, and now in the warmer tropical waters of the South Pacific came another marvel-an ocean that glowed, like a sky that’s lighted with billions of fireflies. At first, the phenomena appeared to be reflections from the stars as we cut a course through the water, but we soon learned that on moonlit nights the plankton-rich seas of the South Pacific glow with phosphorus. They were like diamonds you wanted to reach out and grab.
Four days after leaving Guam, we sighted the Philippine Islands and by evening, we were sailing through the San Bernardine Strait, the narrow channel that separates Luzon in the north from the twin islands of Samar and Leyte in the south. ”We all crowded the rails, and there was quite a bit of excitement,” I wrote in my diary. ”We are now heading into the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. The ocean is just like a lake with hardly a ripple on the water.”
Once through the channel, we turned north and entered the Visayan Sea. I slept on deck and was up at 4:30 and began writing in my diary: “Awoke during the night to see islands on both sides of the ship, and this morning there are islands in every direction. On the starboard side, there is a mountainous island that resembles a volcano. The peak is shrouded in clouds and it’s actually hard to tell what it is. All the islands are quite close and we can see vegetation. The water is calm although there is a fresh breeze blowing. All the boys are on deck and we are getting quite a kick out of the flying fish. Coconuts and strange sea kelp float by. At 9:20 a.m. two U.S. Army pursuit planes dove at us, over and over, giving us a show. It was quite thrilling.”
In a few weeks seeing planes dive at us would no longer be a thrill. It would turn to terror.
We sailed into beautiful Manila Bay, where the rock of Corregidor, like a lone sentinel, guarded the entrance as it had done diligently for the Spanish for 400 years before the Americans came. At last, we were in Manila, the end of our journey. Tasker H. Bliss and Williard A. Holbrook ended their voyage at the docks at Cavite on October 23. To mark our arrival, a rainbow above the city was there to greet us. We tied up to the dock and excitedly disembarked with all our gear to a wonderful reception. There was a strong sense of patriotism in the air. I felt I now knew that proud feeling the Yanks had experienced when they landed in Europe during the First World War. A band played the Philippine and American national anthems while Filipino stevedores sold bottles of cokes for a quarter and packs of cigarettes for a dime. We boarded Army trucks and through cheering crowds drove to Fort McKinley. Here we were assigned to our new units.