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Chapter 3 The Voyage to France


HISTORY OF THE 304th FIELD ARTILLERY
by
James M. Howard
1920


CHAPTER III

THE VOYAGE TO FRANCE

Sunday, April 21st, was a never-to-be-forgotten day. Every one had been up most of the night, for there were a thousand things to be done. Morning came in a downpour of rain which never let tip for a single moment during the entire day.

What a dreary spectacle the barracks presented! Everything movable had been packed, and the hallways were piled high with barrack bags and wooden boxes. The dormitories were, stripped of everything except the iron cots and the inevitable collection of debris which always accompanies moving. Details of men were busy with brooms. Others, armed with paint pots and brushes, were marking the bag age with black letters and with a crude reproduction in red of the Statue of Liberty, which had been chosen as the divisional emblem. The clerks in the orderly rooms were swamped beneath piles of typewritten sheets from which they must decipher and make innumerable copies of the sailing lists of men and freight. Guards were posted, and no one was allowed to leave the barracks without special permission.

About noon arrived the first of an army of relatives. They had got wind of the departure of the regiments, and swarmed down to the camp. Splashing through pools and wallowing in mud that was ankle deep, they stormed the barracks where their boys were quartered, and then sat in the mess-halls with their soldier friends in pairs and groups the livelong day. Some made brave attempts at hilarity, and, producing sandwiches and cakes they had brought from home, made of the occasion a sort of holiday picnic. Others, especially among the families of the foreign born, gave way unrestrainedly to their grief and wept frankly on the shoulders of the sons and sweethearts to whom they had come to say farewell.

The office of the regimental headquarters was the scene of a great bustle of preparation. Captain Sullivan, the Adjutant, brisk and business-like, was the center of a continuous whirlpool of messengers, clerks, battery commanders, distraught relatives and telephone calls. Colonel Briggs, in his inner sanctum, was all on edge with the pressure and tension of last minute perplexities; and yet he seemed to have time for everybody and everything that needed him.

One little incident occurred which was characteristic both of the day and of the Colonel. About four in the afternoon a soldier entered headquarters escorting a frail little woman whose bedraggled appearance told of her having been floundering, about in the mud and wet of the camp.

"This lady is looking for her husband," he said. "She says he's in the 304th, so I brought her here."

It seemed that she had come to Camp Upton that day for the first time, expecting. to be met by her husband at the station. He, as it chanced, had been detained on important business by his battery commander and had been unable to go to the train, with the result that his wife, utterly unfamiliar with the camp, had been tramping around in the drenching rain from place to place trying to locate him. She was standing in the sergeant-major's office when Colonel Briggs, passing through, noticed her.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.
She told him her story. Evidently she was on the verge of tears.

"You wait. here," said the Colonel, "and we'll see what can be done. Sergeant-Major, get a chair, will you? Or, better still-Chaplain!" he called.
"Yes, sir?"

"Don't you want to let this little lady sit in your office for a while? I think she will be more comfortable there. And I wish you would go over to Battery - and tell the Captain that Mrs. So-and-So is here, and that just as soon as he can be spared I want her husband to come over. Her train goes at five-thirty, and they can have until five o'clock to visit. You might just let them have your office. It's a little more private than this."

As evening drew on there were many tearful farewells, and many brave goodbys. By eight o'clock the last visitor had taken his leave and the men were left to their own devices. Some of them tried to sleep, but, as may be imagined, there was little rest to be had, and the night wore on gloomily enough. The rain, however, which had continued to pour in torrents all the evening, began to abate, and by midnight it had ceased altogether.

About 2:30 A. M. on April 22nd the first sergeants' whistles sounded in the barracks, and the men, shouldering their heavy packs and rifles, fell in for the march to the station.

"The entire regiment [writes one man in his diary] marched down Camp Upton's Fifth Avenue, across Eighth Street, and past all the old familiar scenes on the way down to the station where we had so often happily left for a weekend in the city. There was little or no confusion at the depot, and soon we were all entrained. . . . It was a relief to be seated, as the packs were extremely heavy and the air murky, and we had not had much sleep of late.

"It was hard to realize that we were bound for France, and not on our way to New York on pass. Hicksville, Farmingdale and finally Jamaica brought back memories of Saturdays that now belonged to the past. On each railway platform from Jamaica in were clustered groups of commuters waiting for their morning trains. . . .

"We finally reached Long Island City at 8:30, the place I left as a rookie four long, hard months before. We were hustled on a ferry and soon were swinging out into the East River. It was a beautiful April morning, with a slight haze obscuring Manhattan. The sun broke through, however, and it was an ideal day to have a farewell trip around the harbor."

As we passed under Brooklyn Bridge, some teamsters, driving their wagons high overhead, looked down and, seeing the boat crowded with troops, waved their hats and cheered lustily. It was the first real send-off we had had, and many a man felt a lump rise in his throat as he realized, perhaps for the first time, that we were actually off for the front, and that back of us were all the good will and high hopes of the people of America.

Further cheering greeted us as, swinging around the lower end of Manhattan, we met boatload after boatload of Jersey commuters on their way to the city. There was no mistaking who or what we were, and as we cut across the North River and made straight for the great army transport docks in Hoboken it seemed absurd to think of all the elaborate precautions of secrecy with which our departure was being guarded.

Steaming toward the docks we saw many transports lying there; but towering above them all loomed the huge Leviathan. Could it be that this monster of the sea, wrested from the Germans themselves, was to be the ship to carry us to France? It seemed too good to be true; and yet, as soon as we had debarked, we were marched past all 'the other vessels and lined tip on the pier alongside which stood the giant steamship of the world.

After a tedious wait which seemed in any hours, we filed, one by one, up the gang-plank and proceeded to our quarters --the officers to state rooms which had already been assigned, and the men down into the bowels of the ship. Those bunks! Crowded together in unbelievable compactness, the floors about them unswept and untidy, the air stifling, the narrow passageways a very labyrinth of complexity, those tiers of bunks appeared to the men the last word in discomfort. Yet a few hours' work with brooms and mops did away with the dirt, and, once the ship was in motion, the ventilation was vastly improved. Most of our men were quartered away forward, and Colonel Briggs, realizing the conditions which existed below, secured permission for them to have the liberty of the whole forward deck, so that, both before we sailed and during the entire voyage, they spent most of their time in the open air. A few men were in the very stern of the ship, and they, too, were allowed the freedom of the deck in their vicinity.

There was a day and a half of waiting. Standing on the decks we could look across the river and see New York.
It was tantalizing to have the city in full view, within such easy telephoning distance, within only a few minutes' ride on a ferry boat. Put no one was allowed to leave the ship, and, of course, in the post cards we were permitted to send, no mention whatever could be made of our whereabouts or of the name of the transport.

On Wednesday morning, April 24th, with a movement so smooth that one could hardly tell the ship was in motion, the Leviathan glided out into the river and, turning her nose seaward, started on her course. Let one of the guards tell the story of the departure as he experienced it:

"I certainly was fortunate today. I have been placed on a permanent guard detail for the entire voyage, and my post is at one of the doorways leading to the deck. As luck would have it I came on at 6 A. M., just as we were leaving the pier and swinging out into the river. The decks were cleared of every one but sailors. With a heart too full for expression I got what may be my last look at the town, which is home to me. It was a glorious morning, clear as crystal, and Battery Park looked unusually attractive as we glided by. At once I was carried back to last ' summer and those frequent trips to Coney Island. How I used to try and place myself in the position of one leaving- for France and the battle fields! And now at last I too am on my way to the Great Land Beyond.

I must admit my heart sank a trifle when I thought of all I'll have to suffer before next I set foot in New York. But surely it is worth any sacrifice. Far better to travel three thousand miles to fight the Hun than to some day have him pounding at our gates. . . . New York and all that lies behind, you are indeed worth fighting for, and I'll gladly make any sacrifice, even the supreme one, in order that you may always enjoy your present peace and prosperity."
Once out of the harbor, we might come on deck. , Speculations were rife as to our destination. Some one suggested Brest.

"There's not a port in France big enough for this ship," said the sailors when we asked them. "So far every trip-has been to Liverpool."

We noticed that, instead of heading eastward along the ordinary lane of ocean travel, the ship was edging off toward the south. Presently she swung about and made for the northeast, and after an hour or two southeast. This zig-zag course was pursued during the entire voyage, and it was impossible to gain a hint from the direction of our progress as to what part of the coast of Europe we might be headed for.

We were astonished to find no convoy of warships awaiting us outside Sandy Hook.
"The Leviathan doesn't need any convoy," said the sailors. "She's too fast to begin with, and besides, look at those guns!"

Four huge six-inch rifles were mounted on specially built gundecks forward, and four more aft. A gun crew was constantly on duty on each deck, the gunner in every case wearing at all times a telephone receiver strapped to his head. What with these guards, and with the watch that was constantly maintained from the bridge, the crows' nests, and from various points along the upper decks, a submarine would have had to be wary to get within striking distance. Moreover, we were informed by the naval officers that, owing to the enormous size and the perfect construction of the vessel, two or three torpedoes would be necessary in order to cause real danger of sinking. The consequence was that, although the great ship plowed her way through the waters alone, every one felt as secure as if crossing the North River on a ferryboat.

Nevertheless, the most minute precautions were taken to avoid trouble. First of all, every flashlight, every box of matches, and every cigarette lighter was required to be turned in. Any one who wanted to smoke could borrow a light from one of the sailors. Immediately after sundown the decks were cleared and the doors and port holes closed, so that no light could escape. At an early hour in the evening the lights in the staterooms and cabins, as well as in the men's quarters below decks, were extinguished, and the only illumination was the ghastly and feeble light emitted by a few small incandescent globes of blue glass.

Every afternoon "abandon ship" drill was held. At a certain hour the shrill twe-e-e-et of the boatswain's whistle would be beard in every corridor and corner of the transport, and a voice would call out in stentorian tones, "All-hands -abandonship!" With that, every one would don his life belt and come on deck. Each officer and man had a certain definite place to be, convenient either to a life boat or a raft. The troops (there were more than ten thousand on board) were assembled by batteries and companies under the direction of their officers and marched to their proper places. Each section of the ship was controlled by a naval officer. They alone wore side arms: no one else, for obvious reasons, was allowed to carry a pistol. No attempt was ever made to lower the boats. The whole object of the drill was to accustom the soldiers to getting as quickly and as quietly as possible to the places assigned to them. The first day, the drill was a riot of confusion; but by the time we reached the real danger zone the assembly was made in remarkably quick time and in good order.

Besides our own regiment, there were on board the Head-quarters Detachment of our 152nd Brigade, the 306th F. A., the 11th Infantry, about a hundred Red Cross nurses, and a great many casual troops. The infantry regiment, having been an old Regular Army regiment, had what used to be the traditional contempt for any troops of a different branch of the service from their own. This attitude, mingled with an all too apparent scorn for the "damned drafted men," made at first for no little unpleasant feeling. Even the officers, many of whom were in the Reserve Corps and, like our own, recent graduates of training camps, appeared to delight in a certain discourtesy to the officers of the artillery which for a time was hard to overcome. But the feeling wore off as the voyage continued, and both officers and men learned to have a little more respect for the red hat cords and boots and spurs. Per-haps they found that it made little difference to us whether they liked us or not. At any rate they had to listen on more than one occasion to our men on their forward deck, or to the officers outside the saloon after supper, singing,

"We don't give a damn For any old man Who is not in the artilleree!"

Major Sanders was permanent field officer of the day, and his days and nights were spent in a ceaseless perambulating all over the ship. He had guards everywhere, from the topmost decks to the bilge keel, and from stem to stern. There were many places to which soldiers were not allowed access, and it required constant vigilance to keep men and officers where they belonged. After dark no one was permitted so much as to poke his nose outside, and at ten o'clock every officer was supposed to be in his stateroom. If he were found in the corridor, an explanation "in writing by endorsement hereon" was required, and if the explanation were not satisfactory disciplinary action was in order. Inasmuch as no lights were permitted in the staterooms, there was nothing to do but go to bed.

The men, ordered below decks at dark, had no very palatial places to spend their evenings. They used to congregate on the lattice-work floors in the hatchways, and while away the time singing, joking, dancing to the music of mouth-organs, and trying as best they could to forget the discomforts of their surroundings.

Of entertainment there was little. The ship boasted a moving picture machine, which was used every night in the mess hall; but there were so many thousand troops on board, and the difficulties of getting from one place to another were so great, especially after the water-tight doors were closed between compartments at night, that our men never had but one chance to go to a show, and few of them succeeded in getting there even then. But the band used to play on deck, and sometimes the men would gather round and sing. Ours was the only regiment on board that did sing, and a crowd was sure to collect on the upper decks whenever the music started. On our one Sunday afternoon on board both Colonel Briggs and Colonel Kelly were to be seen, each perched on a capstan, right in amongst the throng of men as they sang "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," "In the Artillery," and "Over hill, over dale." It was a sight worth remembering.

So great was the crowd on the ship that it was found to be impossible to feed the men more than twice a day. With those two meals, the mess hall was busy from morning till night. The food, however, was excellent, and no complaints were heard. Getting as little exercise as they did, the men found two meals quite sufficient, and were it not for the long waits as the lines filed into the mess hall they would have been quite content with the arrangement.

What little exercise they got was in the form of calisthenics. Every morning each organization marched tip to the long promenade decks, and there the men, peeling off their blouses, were put through a short, snappy physical drill. Once or twice there were some boxing bouts. Each day, in connection with the exercise, there was a physical inspection conducted by the surgeons, to guard against any possible infectious disease. A few of the men were taken sick on the voyage, but we were fortunate in not having any serious trouble with illness.

On the whole, the men seemed to enjoy the voyage. One of them wrote at the time, "Really the spirit of the fellows is surprising. Of course it is the first trip the majority of the men have ever had, and they are taking it in the nature of an outing." This held true even in the danger zone as we approached the European coast. "It was difficult to realize [the same writer says] that we were at last in that much famed war zone, that at any moment we might be struck by a submarine. Every one was perfectly calm, and there wasn't the slightest excitement, only the intensest interest in the doings of the destroyers."

For, on the seventh day, we had come on deck to find four destroyers coursing about the ship, two on each side. They would shoot ahead, and then hang back; then one would cross over and join the two on the other side, and presently rush around behind and catch up to its old place again. This was really the first thing we had had to look at during the entire trip, and the little war vessels furnished a diversion that was rather a relief, for the days were becoming tiresome.

We knew that we could not be far now from our port, and again men began to speculate as to our probable destination. On the evening of the seventh day, a group of them were standing on the deck, getting a last breath of fresh air. Suddenly they noticed that from above the bridge, signals were being flashed to the destroyers. They could not see the tiny ray of light which leaped out toward the smaller vessels, but they could see the shutters working. Some of them, trained in visual signaling, began to watch closely, and they discovered that the message was being sent in the international Morse code. Immediately their attention was fixed, and they caught these words: "O-u-r o-r-d-e-r-s c-a-l-1 f-o-r B-r-e-s-t."

This was repeated three times. Just then the guard came along and ordered them below, but they had seen enough to start a thrill of excitement in the sleeping quarters. We were proceeding direct to France!

The next morning, May 2nd, there was a fog so dense that those who were on deck early could not even see the destroyers. Little by little, however, the mists began to clear, and we caught glimpses of land on both sides. The news spread quickly and in no time the decks were crowded. Gradually the sun broke through and dispelled the fog altogether, and we found ourselves gliding smoothly in between the beautiful green hills which mark the entrance to the harbor of Brest.

What a welcome sight that land was! The city itself nestled at the foot of a hill ahead of us, and all around were rich green pasture lands and quaint cottages, with one or two huge windmills and the remains of some ancient fortifications. The striking thing about it all was the atmosphere of perfect peace and tranquillity. Could this be the land that for nearly f our years had been torn by the ravages of war? Was this the country to which we had come to fight the Hun?

Strange looking boats were sailing about, and as the ship came to anchor, several tugs and lighters came alongside. Presently we saw our baggage being trundled through a door, which had opened down near the water line and piled on board one of the lighters. Then came the order for the men to roll their packs and the officers to get their luggage ready, and shortly after noon the regiment began to crawl down through the ship, and across a little gang plank to a lighter which lay on the port side. While we were debarking on one side, the 306th was boarding a lighter on the other. We were the first artillery regiments of the National Army to reach France, and although nothing was said about it at the moment, Colonel Briggs told us afterward that his one desire was to beat the 306th ashore, so that ours might be the very first one to arrive. How he did hustle and crowd the men onto those narrow decks!

Finally every one was on board, and the lighter moved off a good ten minutes ahead of the other regiment. The upper decks of the great Leviathan, towering above us, were crowded with sailors, soldiers and nurses, waving hats and handkerchief s. Then the band, which had been reserved a special place, broke out into music, and to the strains of "Good-by, Little Girl, Good-by," the 304th bade farewell to the splendid ship which had brought us so safely on our perilous journey. One man was seen to kiss the tips of his fingers and reach out and touch the steel side as we moved away, and to say quietly, "Thank you!" He expressed what we all felt.

As we neared the shore, the band burst into "La Marseillaise," which brought cheers from the sailors on French boats that were lying in the harbor. And finally, when we pulled into the dock, the soldiers and stevedores on the shore were brought to attention by the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner." There was a thrill about it all that was new to most of us.

Then the regiment was formed on the street by the pier, and we began a Long, hard march. The men, softened by their eight days' confinement in close quarters, were carrying heavy packs, winter overcoats, rifles, a hundred rounds of cartridges, and canteens full of water. The road lay up an exceedingly steep hill through the town. The sun overhead was hot. But Colonel Briggs had his own ideas about the good or ill impression made by the appearance of a regiment, and he ordered the march to be made at attention, so with the band playing a lively tune we stepped off briskly and started up the road.

Little boys and girls swarmed about our feet like so many beetles, running, jumping, shouting, begging for money, and trying desperately to keep step with the band. Crowds of people gathered to watch us pass, and for the first time we were conscious of the utter absence of young men and the predominance of mourning. There was no hilarity of enthusiasm, but the faces of the people were earnest, often almost prayerful. Occasionally a woman would be seen quietly weeping as she watched the troops go by. It was a tremendously moving experience. The whole significance of our being there seemed to dawn on us at once, and many a man found it hard to choke back the tears.

Others were troubled less with sentiment than they were with fatigue. The packs were so heavy, the sun was so hot, the overcoats were so hopelessly out of place, and the hill was so long and steep, that after a while men began to drop out of line and to sit, half exhausted, on the curl). Every one wished that the Colonel would call a halt, but he kept on, apparently oblivious to everything except getting to the top of the hill. One little urchin, after marching beside him for a minute, reached up and slipped his hand into that of Colonel Briggs. The latter looked down and smiled, and went on, leading the youngster along with him. He was intent, just then, not on the feelings of the men in his column, but on the feelings of the French people. He wanted them to know that here was a regiment, well-behaved and friendly, that meant business, and he intended that we should march through Brest as if we had come with a purpose.

At length, the city passed, the column came out on top of the hill into a road that led through beautiful fields which were decked out in the full glory of spring. Here, at last, the welcome order was given: "Halt! Fall out for fifteen minutes rest." In an instant the packs roiled off the men's backs like Christian's burden at the foot of the cross, and every one was presently stretched out at full length on the ground.

It had been so long since we had seen any grass or flowers that it seemed as if we must be in heaven. Camp Upton had been a barren place at best, and when we left it was hardly out of the grip of a long, hard winter. But here in France the grass was long and luscious, the trees had put forth their leaves, the shrubs were in blossom, and flowers were blooming gayly by the wayside. Little girls came up to us as we sat resting, and offered us tight little fistfulls of tiny flowers they had gathered. The boys were more bold, and promptly asked for cigarettes.

"Mais tu es bien trop Petit (You are much too little)," said an officer to a youngster of perhaps seven years.
"Ah," replied the boy, "C'cst pour mon pere (it's for my father) !"
The little rascals! They learn to smoke as soon as they learn -their A B C's.
The rest at an end, packs were shouldered again and the Regiment resumed its march. After a mile or two on a level country road, the column turned and proceeded up a lane toward a large gate, which opened in the middle of a great stone wall. It was the Pontanezen Barracks, once used by the soldiers of Napoleon. We marched through the gate into a great yard where a throng of curious soldiers gathered about to see who the new arrivals were.

"Loosen up! Give us a tune!" they yelled when they saw the band.
So the band played as we came to a halt. And then, after a few moments' wait while the organization commanders received their instructions, the men were marched to their sleeping quarters and the officers went to their tents, and, glad to be for the present at least at the end of our journey, we prepared for our first night on French soil.
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