This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945.
Hello Mr. Reber:
I wrote the enclosed article on the USS Mount Vernon enroute to the States.
Will be seeing you shortly.
And America looked mighty fine for my first time in two years.
On the USS Mount Vernon,
Enroute to the States.
Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley on the downtown streets of filthy Marseilles, as it passed the huge dull-painted G.I. truck taking us to the docks. All the street cars in France’s second city seemed to want to pass us and beat us to the seashore to bid us farewell.
Our final evening (Wednesday, October 3) at the Calas Staging Area was spent seeing a movie, “The Bell of Adamo,” at the Shangri La Theatre, and later listening to the play-by-play description of the initial game of the 1945 World Series direct from the Tigers’ home field – Briggs Stadium in Detroit. We ate doughnuts and drank coffee served by Miss Marjorie Binder of Renova, Pennsylvania at the Little Annie Laurie Red Cross Club, one of the many at Calas. Miss Binder has served for the A.R.C. overseas for almost three years – more than the average soldier on the way home right now. After our last sip of coffee we enjoyed our last night of sleep on European soil.
The trip to the Marseilles docks was made in eighteen minutes to be exact. All along the way French kiddies, knowing it was the very last time they would ever see most of us, waved us good-bye and the usual “thank you, Joe,” which G.I. Joe automatically knows is for his work in the liberation of France.
We found the docks almost a complete wreckage, but still not quite as bad as the Germans left the harbor shortly after the Southern France invasion between Marseilles and Nice took place. Much of the debris has been cleared in order to ease our shipping to and from the States. Again we found the Red Cross waiting for us at the docks and there were plenty of doughnuts and coffee with cream and sugar.
We got our first glance at the ship which would carry us home. And what a ship! Everyone must admit that they failed to realize the vastness of its facilities until they had been on board and thoroughly inspected it for at least a period of 24 hours.
When it came time to board the Vernon each man answered his first name and middle initial when his last name was called. He was given a meal ticket for the entire voyage, handed a paper bag containing candy, cigarettes, matches, tooth brush, shaving cream, dental cream, chewing gum, razor blades, etc. – a gift from the American Red Cross, and up the gangplank we went. Many a soldier dropped his clumsy duffle bag, fell to the ground and kissed European soil goodbye. Others brought with them stones – samples of the ground they walked on while so many months overseas.
Huge American troop ships pulling out of Marseilles harbor is now a familiar sight to the French. Yet an immense crowd was present early in the morning to see us off. And there was the usual shout from a French crowd of any size, “Viva la Amerik.” Those Frenchmen can’t easily forget what we did for them. As they waved American, English, Russian, and French flags we lifted our anchor at exactly 3:23 Thursday afternoon and shortly we were in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The buildings of Marseilles became smaller and smaller and the flags the people held in their hands became fainter. Finally we could see only one flag, an American, because it was the largest of them all. And that’s the last we saw of an again free France – the Stars and Stripes.
It was 625 miles to the Straits of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean was calm, the weather clear. We passed by the Balearic Islands just off the coast of Span, and shortly after that we could see Spain itself. Saturday morning, 2:41, will stay in our memories, for that is when we first spotted the lights of Gibraltar, and at 2:56 we passed through the narrow straits.
The lighthouses on both the Spanish and North African sides reflected in the waters and produced a picture. The lights of Casablanca, scene of the now historic Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin meeting, could also be seen. They, too, made a picture beautifully sufficiently to bring a great majority of the over 6,000 soldiers to the decks for the early part of Saturday morning. We found the straits very narrow and many a solider talked of how the Germans could have easily blocked the straits and hindered our big North African invasion in 1942. After seeing the Rock of Gibraltar we were on the vast Atlantic.
The water became a bit rougher. The weather remained sunny and as warm as any October day can be expected to be. We saw land briefly – for no more than 15 minutes. It happened to be Portugal, and Portugal was the last country I got to see before moving out into this big ocean.
Here we are. Nothing to look at but sky and water. But, then, who cares? We are finally going home. For many it’s the thing they have waited for, for as long as five years.
We are fortunate in several respects. Considering the number of troops already at home and the many more staying in Europe as occupation troops, we feel honored to have with us Lt. Timmerman, holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, who is known to the entire world as the first American officer to cross the Rhine River. Also on the Mount Vernon is Lt. Robert Williams of Erie, Pennsylvania, also among the first officers to cross at Remagen.
This ship ain’t bad. We sleep in large compartments, four on top of each other. So, in other words, I’m sweating out. Pfc. Fred J. Harrison of Sedro Wooley, Washington, T/5 George W. White of Truman, Arkansas, and S/Sgt. James H. Palmer of Jetts Creek, Kentucky, crashing their bunks and coming down on me. The boat sways very little and few have become seasick thus far.
Pfc. Patrick J. Gallivan of Randall, Kansas, thinks no one should be bothered by seasickness anymore, after all the invasion voyages to the beaches of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France. And I think he’s right. Pfc. Leonard C. Johnson of Park River, North Dakota, formerly a medic in the First Division, says he didn’t think anyone would become sick and so he gave his medical bag to a Frenchman for a bottle of four-star cognac.
We arise at 5:30 each morning. After washing (or making an attempt) our eyes open with this cold salt water, we straighten out our blankets, sweep and scrub the floors, and get everything else in shape for the daily inspection at 9 a.m. These inspections have Pfc. Luigi G. Provera so worried that the Hartford, Conn. G.I. claims that this army soon won’t be able to buy anyone into a reenlistment for any price. And then there are the daily “abandon ship” drills, and the soldier who doesn’t care for this sort of thing is Pfc. Robert N. George of Philadelphia. He can’t swim and says he doesn’t want to be as much as reminded of this ship sinking.
The war may be over but day and night each individual carries either his life belt – just like the ones used at Normandy on June 6, 1944 – or his life jacket. Pfc. Peter Arnerich of San Francisco, Calif. Realizes the importance of this probably moreso than anyone else. Before coming to America and joining the army he served in the Yugoslavian Navy. On the other hand, and symbolic of quite a few guys’ opinions, Pfc. John W. Howard of Seattle, Washington claims that the most logical course for the ship to sink would be through enemy action, and since the Krauts are licked “all this stuff is a lot of bologna.” Well, maybe he’s right.
The sailors are different than the soldiers we’ve seen for months and months all over Europe. In England, France, Scotland, Holland, Luxembourg, and Czechoslovakia. The sailor clad in snow white and shining black shoes is in deep contrast to the soldier in his dirty fatigue uniform and his heavy combat boots.
There is, of course, 24-hour duty here on the Mount Vernon. These sailors are scrubbing the decks as early as five o’clock each morning. At 6:45 they assemble for their morning exercise and at seven bells they have breakfast. They have their daily inspections, including a grand one each Saturday morning, Seaman Walter C. Growden of R.F.D. No. 3, Bedford, Penna., tells me. So you can imagine how clean these sailors keep their quarters.
Throughout the day the G.I.s watch the Navy work. The soldiers ask numerous questions pertaining to practically everything on the ship, and at times even take part in whatever the sailors’ work may be. And it could include almost anything from painting the rusty hooks on the ends of the thick ropes spanning the ship toa series of dummy gun drill. There are a total of 643 sailors and naval officers composing this crew and all enjoy their own facilities. One of these is the ship’s carpenter room – just about the same as the one at Pine Grove High School. It was shown to me by a courteous Navy officer this morning.
Members of the United States Marines are ably assisting soldier M.P.’s on the voyage to America. These Marines all are Pacific combat veterans and all seem to be well-built, good-looking men.
There are two big mess halls for troops only, and three good meals are served daily. Meal times are 6:35, 11:15, and 16:10 (4:10 pm). And if you are lucky enough to know one of the cooks you can grab a cup of coffee and even a ham sandwich before going to bed around ten at night.
An assembly of well over 6,000 enlisted men and officers – representing each one of the 48 states in the union – are daily enjoying the facilities of this troopship. There is a huge gymnasium where each afternoon and evening a Navy cage league holds its league games. There are five P-X’s which offer cigarettes, cigars, and candy. And plenty of it. 10 packs of cigarettes, 15 cigars, and 20 bars of chocolate. There is a library with all sorts of reading material and a hospital for the sick and wounded. One would never realize the size of this ship while standing at any point away from it. There are hot showers when the water is turned on, but all this salt water (which is available at all times) is good for, as First Sergeant William Ramberg, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, put it, “for brush teeth only.” Staff Sergeant Narbert W. Pewlak of Chicago thinks the solution is good for the hair.
I can now feel the huge waves rolling up against the sides of the Mount Vernon and as the water splashes up to the portholes it is rocking the ship harder and harder. I am finding it more difficult to write these few notes, but thanks to the courteous sailor who made a separate room with table and chair available for me. Through his contribution I have been able to make myself somewhat comfortable to write several paragraphs.
This ship prints its daily newspaper which is distributed each morning around 10:30. Church services, Catholic and Protestant, are held and sermons are broadcast over the loud speaking system. As many as seven services were held on Sunday and today (Monday) two more took place. As we head across the Atlantic, just as we did two years ago, we are again turning our watches and keeping regulated with the various time zones as we enter them. However, this time we are heading westward, therefore turn the hands backward instead of forward. Yes, we are getting plenty of sleep and should be pretty well rested up by the time we hit the homeland. We are turning our watches as much as 45 minutes every 24 hours.
Right now the weather has turned cloudy, windy and cold, and a remark has just been made to the effect that we are due to run into a heavy thunderstorm in 20 to 30 minutes. It is beginning to rain, and despite the noise of the ship’s engine next to me, I can hear the roar of the thunder way down here in my enclosed room.
The soldiers are passing the time in many different ways. As one walks over the various decks, say at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he sees soldiers so recently on the battlefield, sun bathing “on the Atlantic.” They usually wear nothing but a pair of G.I. shorts and with the aid of a pair of P-X sun glasses they lie outstretched on a G.I. blanket, taking a nice tan. Scenes like these come very close to those found on the beaches of Coney Island.
Some play cards in the rays of the hot sun, while others read magazines – Life, Collier’s, Newsweek, and Look – to name just a few of the many. There is a G.I. orchestra that plays each afternoon on the promenade deck. A radio brings the latest news from all the capitals of the on the globe. There are three movies each day for the enlisted men, and one for troop officers. While hundreds are sitting in on picture shows, other G.I.’s make use of their captured German binoculars and look at, say a passing ship carrying supplies to the occupation forces in Europe, or at a huge airliner flying low in the direction of the States.
Yesterday, a British-piloted B-25 Mitchell medium bomber spotted us, encircled our ship, tipped its wings as if to say “happy voyage home,” and then disappeared in the “wild blue yonder.” Even more pleasing to the G.I.’s is his camera. These combat soldiers take plenty of pictures. They will never forget their trip home.
At night it becomes too cool for sun bathing, and so soldiers are seen sitting on the decks in small groups of four and five, smoking (since it is forbidden inside the ship) and indulging in talks of many various subjects. One of these subjects last night regarded the American Nurse at the 59th Evacuation Hospital on the continent who attained world-wide recognition recently, when, in a special letter to the “Stars and Stripes,” she stated, “The American technique l’amour is unschooled and is fast disintegrating.”
At night G.I.’s also listen to the world series games direct from Briggs Stadium in Detroit and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Broadcasts reach us via the Allied Forces Network (AFN)stations in London, Paris, Munich, Rheims, Nancy, Marseilles, and Cannes. Thus far London seemed to have the best reception. The favoritism for the two contenders, the Tigers and the Cubs, seems to be just 50-50. Much interest rests on tonight’s game as the Cubs can tie the series and force the playoffs into the full seven games by winning, while on the other side, Detroit can take the title with a victory. Football games direct from the college stadiums all over America were heard here on ship on Saturday night.
So that’s just how we pass the time away while we constantly stand on our tip-toes and gze with wide open eyes for the lights of America.
Our stay overseas was far from being a pleasant one, but we wish to thank the civilians who left a pleasant life in a peaceful America to come with us. Those individuals who bravely, just as soldiers, followed us wherever the war took us and warmed our hearts with their entertainment whenever our time permitted us, are people such as Ingrid Berman, Marlene Deitrich, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Larry Alder, Hal McIntyre, Willie Shore, and the cast of the “Capablanca Revue.” And heroes such as Major Glenn Miller will rest in our memories together with the rest of the men and women who fell and will never come back from the wars again. These people left safe, comfortable lives back home to undergo the hardships over here. Their aims were to make us happy, and at times make us briefly forget the scenes of such a fierce war. And I must say their missions were accomplished.
My leaving Europe was also my first and last look at Marseilles. The city was different than the other French cities, Paris in particular. I found Marseilles to be exceptionally dirty. Maybe because it’s a port city.
In one way, Marseilles can be called the crossroads of the world. It is 2,546 years old and today has well over a million people. Despite its historic background, few monuments remain; wars have destroyed them all. “Le Viex Port” with its narrow twisting streets was the last war casualty they tell me.
The “gateway” to France’s second city are the gates of Notre Dame de la Garde. The beautiful church which overlooks the town is by all means the symbolic guardian of Marseilles. As in other cities, shoeshine boys roam the streets and report themselves that they earn as high as $60 weekly.
The greatest singers in musical history have performed at the historic Marseilles Opera House, but the Army has ruled the place “off-limits” to U.S. military personnel. Bars throughout the city are jam packed with G.I.’s nightly. Most popular drink, of course, is cognac, as French beer is still non-alcoholic.
The least reputable street is the Rue Chapelier, located only a few blocks from the heart of the city. It is the scene of large black market operations every day in the week. French orchestras playing old American tunes entertain at the various nightclubs. The shortage of gasoline has boosted the use of horse and buggy cabs, which is a typical French scene.
The Port d’ Aix on the Cours St. Louis is a miniature of the famous Arc d’ Triopmhe in Paris. Howeve,r there is no road under the Marseilles structure, and only pedestrian traffic can pass through it.
One can see many a Marseilles youngster completely outfitted in a set of tiny G.I. clothes which is symbolic of the strong feeling of friendship of most Marsellais, who waited five years for the American liberation.
The Capitole Theatre, requisitioned from the French, serves United States troops seven days a week. The Port Transbordeur which one spanned the Old Harbor, is now completely demolished. The bridge, built in 1905, possessed an ascend and descend mechanism so as to allow huge ships to pass underneath it. The “main drag” of the city is the famous “Canebiera” – one of the best known streets in the world.
The picturesque Promenade de la Corniche follows the winding route of the Mediterranean shore for miles and here Marseilles families take their traditional Sunday walks. More recently G.I.’s and mademoiselles *who by the way have learned to jitterbug in fine style) occupy the benches along the Promenade. The Zoological Gardens are one of the most impressive structures of the city.
One thing interesting to note in regards to France’s largest port is that for a long time Marseilles had been the home of international spies and yet, since its liberation more than a year ago it hasn’t witnessed a single important act of sabotage.
I didn’t get a chance to look over Marseilles, as I overlooked gay Paris, but I do think the Notre Dame de la Garde is its most loved possession. What the Empire State building is to New York, what St. Pauls’ Cathedral is to London, and what the Eiffel tower is to Paris – Notre Dame de la Garde is to Marseilles, only more!
That’s Marseilles, the way I saw it, but before closing my thoughts go briefly to Paris. And these words, almost identical to the song called “When I Last Saw Paris.” –
When I last saw Paris,
Her heart was young and gay,
Regardless how you changed her,
I left her just that way.
And so as we are moving closer and closer to the docks of Hampton Roads, Virginia, our hearts are becoming warmer and warmer to see the peaceful shores of Virginia Beach, and the Iris blossoms of Pennsylvania’s own little “Iris Town,” Pine Grove.
Before closing I wish to say that probably the happiest couple on this ship right now is a set of twin brothers from a little Michigan community named Vassar. These blonde twins have fought from the bloody beaches of Normandy, through the St. Lo breakthrough, Siegfried Line, Aachen, the Hurtgen Forest, a second piercing of Hitler’s West Wall, and across the Rhine to the end of the war. They have lived together in the same foxholes, lived together when German shells and bombs came at us in mass, and yet, Robert and Jack Rigg are today returning to little Vassar as real World War II heroes. They know themselves they were more than lucky to survive.
Featured Image: Sergeant Irvin Schwartz aboard the USS Mount Vernon in October 1945 (The Schwartz Family)