Slow Boat to China
The 29th Marines had three days to get ready to sail for China. Finally, on September 30, 1945, we made our way in a convoy of heavy trucks to the docks at Agana. Fox Company was assigned to USS Napa, AP 157. There were no bands playing to send us off, no one making speeches, no one waving flags. Instead we had MP’s in helmet liners wearing white armbands and Sam Rayban sunglasses screaming out orders. They carried carbines slung upside down over their shoulders, directing traffic and pointing out the directions where the trucks had to line up. We disembarked and formed long lines, and with full packs and seabags to tow, we slowly filed up the gangplanks to our new quarters that would be home for the next 21 days.
We reached the quarterdeck, set down our seabags, turned aft and saluted the ship’s ensign. Lt. Clark Brandmire stood at the railing with the battalion roster. “Fox Company this way, follow me,” he called. He lead the way through a double set of black curtains to a narrow ladder that led down into the depths of the ship. The light was faint, a reddish glow, and almost immediately the air grew heavy. We came to one deck, and then another, and still another. We went down five decks to the very bowels of the USS Napa. We could not have gone deeper. “Find your own bunks,” Lt. Brandmire said and left us to our own misery.
The steel-framed, canvas bunks were stacked eight high with hardly enough room to tum over once you climbed in.
Everyone struggled to find bunks near the entrance, close to the head, but I edged my way to the rear as far as I could get, and there I found a top bunk. It was a good choice. Directly overhead was a red light encased behind tiny bars, obviously to keep one from unscrewing the light bulb. The light was dim and cast an eerie glow, but with a little straining I could edge closer and then there was enough light to read.
We were allowed on deck until taps at eight, but first we had to pass through several sets of heavy black curtains to reach the open deck. There was concern that Japanese submarines hadn’t got the word that the war was over. The smoking lamp was out and in the black of night there was little to see. Ships in the convoy appeared in silhouettes of black, like paper cutouts. You couldn’t help wondering how the fleet managed to keep formation as it did in the darkness.
Daylight aboard brought much relief. We were required to wear our lifejackets at all times, which no one liked, but Stevenson and I found an area under a lifeboat where we could escape from the crowd and no one could see us. It took some scrambling on our bellies but the effort was worth it. Here we reclined, using our life jackets as pillows, and listened to the mesmerizing sound of the sea as the USS Napa rose and fell as she met each wave head on. We spent endless hours staring out at the sea with its unattainable horizon, and when we tired of dreaming we read or played cards. Sometimes we invited one or two others to our refuge. Other times we just talked, rambling on about home, wondering out loud about China. The others listened intently as I told them about the US Marines in China during the Boxer Rebellion. I told them horror stories about eunuchs from The Dowager Empress, stories that I read in my bunk only a couple hours before.
“You mean they cut off their balls just so they could serve the empresses?” they asked, and then they wanted to know if China still had eunuchs. I had to slow them down when they got too far ahead of me, and then that night I would read up on my history book to prepare myself.
I found the text from Spoken Chinese the most fun. I didn’t tell anyone about my hidden books. At night in my bunk under the glow of the red light I memorized a Chinese phrase or two. Of course, I had no idea about my pronunciation but that really didn’t matter. And so I studied “Are you Chinese?” – a stupid question to ask. “Do you speak English?” – almost as bad. “Where is a hotel? A restaurant? A WC.” I surmised WC had to be another name for “head,” or Marine talk for toilet. Then, the next day under the lifeboat, I would spring my Chinese on my listeners. They had no idea what I was saying, and often I didn’t either, but it was fun playing the fool. Naturally they would ask where I learned my Chinese, and jokingly I would reply that I came from a missionary family.
“You’re full of crap,” Terry said.
Stevenson always backed me up. “He’s right,” he answered.
“How do you know?” “I just know.”
Our secluded area provided another service that made life a bit easier. Washing clothes aboard a troop ship was a problem. No washing machines. No laundry service. Marines crammed into the heads, under the showers, and attempted to scrub away the dirt and smell from their dungarees with salt water. Others had found an easier way, by tying their clothes to long lines and dragging them aft of the ship. The pounding sea usually washed them clean, but before long everyone was crowding the aft deck vying for space to tie their lines. Often times it became a real mess when lines tangled and fights would ensue. Under our lifeboat we didn’t have that problem. We dangled lines over the side, with our clothes securely fastened to one end. At the water’s edge below us, the ship cast a wake that kept our laundry a yard or two away from the side of the ship. It worked as long as they didn’t pump the bilge.
When we weren’t reclining in our hideaway, we were waiting in the chow line. The lines were frightfully long and incredibly slow moving. Those who were readers could get an education just while waiting. We had but two meals a day. There was no seating arrangement in the mess hall. We ate standing up with our trays resting on narrow counters that ran the length of the mess hall. There were no seconds, and with the lines as long as they were, there was no possibility of sneaking in line a second time. There just wasn’t time.
The chow line formed above deck and led down the ladder to the first level. The chief cook, a fat sailor with four hitches behind him, had a pet monkey that he picked up in Madagascar. The monkey was the ship’s mascot. The Marines hated him. The sailors called him Jarhead, which didn’t sit well with us. He was a dreadful, vicious creature. He stood guard above the entrance to the mess hall, like King Kong, and every Marine that went through the chow line had to pass beneath this scowling, ugly beast. As we came out of the bright daylight it was hard to spot him at first, and this is when the howling, screeching animal would come swooping down from out of nowhere and snatch away a hat from the head of an unsuspecting Marine. If the Marine had on sunglasses, he would grab the glasses. Sailors roared with laughter as the monkey fled by leaping upon a boom over the sea and out of reach.
Scotty Johnson didn’t think it was so funny when Jarhead snatched away his Raybans. We were surprised how calm he remained, for those glasses were his proudest possession. He wore them constantly, even when it was dark. He actually made a good show, and we all envied him wishing we had Raybans. Scotty never said anything about the incident, but we knew down inside he intended do something about it. “What you gonna do, jump through the rigging after him?” Terry asked and everyone laughed.
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see.”
Scotty had mess duty the next day and that night when he returned to his quarters he carried a tiny bundle wrapped in his skivvy shirt. Still he said nothing. A few minutes after taps sounded and lights went out, Scotty climbed down from his bunk on the pretense of going to the head. He slipped up the gangway and went on deck. Less than twenty minutes later he was back in his bunk.