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The Crossing


HISTORY OF THE 305th Infantry
by
Frank Tiebout

Chapter 2

The Crossing


CHAPTER II

THE CROSSING

WHAT! Everybody gotta go below decks! Not to have one last, long, lingering look at the harbor-at Old Girl Liberty whose shape adorns all our baggage? There was nothing secret about the way we boarded the Cedric and the Vauban! Despite the fact that when our ferry-boats steamed from Long Island City around the Battery to the piers the skyscrapers of lower New York waved countless handkerchiefs, and that whistles tooted like mad, someone thinks that if we all keep below while the transport steams down the Harbor in broad daylight no German Secret Service agent will suspect for a moment that American troops are crowded aboard! Oh, well, let's try to get a thrill out of fooling ourselves even though we fool nobody else.

And must even the portholes be closed up tight? Phew! It's stuffy enough below decks with 'em open. just look at what we've got to sleep in, row upon row, double tier, scarcely room between those dividing boards for the shoulders to fit in, to say nothing of letting one roll over and be comfortable.

"As for those port-holes-keep your hands off them, shut or open. Nobody but the crew is to touch them; they will open 'em up in the morning, and close 'em up at night." "-and no man will be allowed to carry matches. Hand over all you have." (Wonder if he knows they are on sale at the canteen down on Deck D?)

"-and don't throw anything overboard, cigarette butts, papers or food scraps. (Perhaps it is that the hungry submarine crews, long at sea and sceutling food, will track us.)

"Put your life belt on-, no, youve got it hind side before; tie it down securely so that it won't crash up against your chin and break your neck when you have to jump into the sea. Don't take it oil until you reach Liv- er, er, until you land."

" Find out the number of your life-boat and go to it promptly the moment you hear the drill call."

"Keep your bunks policed constantly and lay out your equipment in the manner prescribed, each morning. Get out on deck by eight-thirty, and stay out."

" Your green card that you got at the gang plank shows what your sitting is in the mess hall. Be on time, or you're out o' luck."
And so on.

Perhaps it was just as well to preclude the heartaches which a free view of the receding coastline might have produced, to let the men focus at once all their attention upon the inconveniences and novelties of their life aboard ship. There were many of both. Though First Sergeants ate in the main dining room of the Cedric, the messing accommodations for the men in general were awful-crowded, rushed, confused, smelly and disagreeable, two or three sittings necessary. The fish was particularly discouraging, and fish-day was by no means limited to Friday. Already there was ample proof of the food shortage in England, if the service aboard an English vessel could be accepted as evidence. Many were the arguments and the fist fights precipitated by the insolent little bussboys and the stewards. Particularly grating were the attempts to sell privileges, extra portions or favors by the crews. Those on the Vauban will not forget the gunner who frequently paraded the top deck in all his glory, stinging the boys with his lemonade at five cents "per gloss." One afternoon, as he was shouting his old war cry, "Lemonade, nickel a gloss," Larry Sobecki interrupted him with: " I sye, ould choppie, fool the boys just once an' put a lemon in it." Not exactly a fight, this time, but the Englishman's angry retort: "Go wye, you bloomin' Yank; you 'aven't no bloody discipline hat all."

Nobody was in very good humor those first days, anyhow. The Cedric was greatly overloaded, four thousand troops being jammed in where about eighteen hundred had previously been carried. Companies were split up and dragged around from one section of the ship to another, oftentimes the platoons separated in hopeless fashion, one platoon for'ard, another aft, two more tucked into the hold with the bilge. It was after being shifted two or three times that the disgusted Supply Company overheard one of the ship's officers on the Canopic remark during his regular morning inspection: " I think we'll take this company out of here and put them down in-" "What's that you're going to do to my company now?" exclaimed Captain Buttner, while the bolts of a dozen service rifles clicked in threatening fashion. Curiously, they were not again disturbed.

Not disturbed excepting by the periodic drill held on their own diminu-tive portion of deck and at the particular time allotted to them, or excepting by the everlasting inspection of equipment-the knives, forks, spoons, tent pins and socks gradually evaporating-Lord knows where to. Enlisted men can give anybody lessons in losing things. And so useful, those tent-pins! Gradually, too, the four boxes of hard bread, reserve ration, which every man carried, became flapeared and bedraggled, the blue meat tins battered and lost. Or eaten.

It is hard enough to sleep in a hole with a hundred other men, in an uncomfortable, narrow, board bunk, to be cheated out of a half-hour's rest each morning by the daily eastward progress of the convoy and by the consequent readjustment of the clocks, hard enough to be roused betimes for the eternal inspection, drill and policing-why, we cleaned portions of those vessels for the first time in their respective careers; but atop of all this, to take one's turn at guard duty is mighty inconvenient!

At one of the eighty-seven useless posts aboard the Cedric stood guard a big Swede, transferred with hundreds of other comparatively untrained men to the Three Hundred and fifth from Camp Devens on the eve of our departure from Upton in order to bring us up to the required two hundred and fifty men per company. The Officer of the Day, most of whose duties are performed at night, while inspecting the guard asked this man what his special orders were.

" Ahungh! " grinned the round face of the Swede. " Av bane kape feller from das blace." And judging from the bulk of him and the determined way in which he gripped his rifle, it seemed as if he might even be able to prevent a torpedo from intruding upon the sacred confines of his post.

Colonel Smedberg, sauntering on the deck of the Cedric one evening was challenged: "Hey, youse can't go past dis gate!"
"Is that the way you have been taught to challenge?"

"Oh, I see you're one of them there lootenants. Pass on."

"What do you call this?" asked the colonel, indicating the silver eagle on his shoulder.

"Oh, er, er," stammered the sentry. "Why, it's a BIRD!"

But all of the guard details were not so irksome; in fact, the Submarine Patrol, men selected for their intelligence and keen eyesight to stand upon the bridge, in the crow's nest and at other privileged points of vantage, derived considerable thrill from the importance of their work, being required during the tour of duty to detect and report the lurking periscope.

"Say-look at this compass. We're headed southwest! Are we going to the Panama Canal? Holy smoke, now look at it! Veering 'round to the north. Halifax, without a doubt. And now, IT be darned if she hasn't swung 'round to the southeast. We're going to the Mediterranean, sure! Naw, she's simply trying to throw the submarines off the track."

The northern route it proved to be, for presently our small convoy was met by those ships bearing another portion of the Division which had put out from Halifax, and by an American cruiser, making thirteen vessels in all. The superstitious were accused of lingering at the rail for hours, hoping for the addition or subtraction of a vessel or two, and under no circumstances to be separated from their life-preservers.

Others, too, lingered at the rail; for one day of our generally pacific voyage was marred by a tremendous plunging and rolling. Then it was that the food seemed particularly bad, almost useless, in fact. Much of it was thrown away, despite the existing orders to drop nothing overboard.

It was not until after reaching the so-called Danger Zone, on the twenty-sixth, that a real submarine scare developed. On that day, upon our first glance at the sea, it was apparent that a group of destroyers had met the convoy which then, flanked on either side by four or five "tin-lizzie-s of the sea" constantly zig-zagging in and out, assumed ever changing formations-now massed, now greatly elongated, first in a sort of diamond formation, then in column of two's, then staggered-the maneuvering of the vessels and the constant signaling back and forth proving of great interest.

The afternoon sky was bright and the sea as smooth as glass. Troops were sunning themselves lazily on deck; officers lounged about in the smoking rooms. In the midst of calm and quiet was suddenly felt a dull, ominous thud, much as if the hull of the vessel had grounded upon a submerged rock, repeated again and again in rapid succession. Stokers left their boilers, cooks left their soup, the sea-sick forgot their illness; men ran up from the baths clad only in life-belts, making the deck with a hop, skip and a jump, while others proceeded sedately (camouflage, of course) to inquire where the torpedo had struck. Somebody hit up the old refrain: "Throw out the life-line." One of the destroyers, darting up through the lane of transports, was suddenly seen to turn about almost within its own length and race headlong down the column again, dropping depth bombs on the way. Some will tell you with evident pride that a torpedo just grazed the bow of their vessel; others, that at least six periscopes appeared immediately astern; others that the well -known proverbial oil was seen to come to the surface. It was ever easy to discern periscopes. Anyhow, the gunners on the stern took things calmly enough, some remarking that they had never yet seen a periscope, others seizing the opportunity to relate to eager ears how many times they had been attacked on the last trip over.

The boat drill did appear a bit more seriously regarded that afternoon; and it was quite apparent that Major Woodward, obliged to take a position in Sir Ernest Shackleton's boat, was one of the lightest hearts aboard.

The suppressed submarine thrill was not the only form of amusement, Among the few civilian passengers aboard the Cedric were the Archbishop of York, who seemed to think the war hopelessly lost, and Sir Ernest Shackleton, the noted Antarctic explorer, whose discourses were tremendously interesting. Among the troops were a number of corking entertainers who on many an evening filled the smoking-room with music and jest and noise. Major Woodward managed to stir up a bit of entertainment with his succession of rumors and practical jokes and a chess tournament, which he instituted after triumphing over several of the other chess-fiends. Nor will the officers of tile Second and Third Battalions and of Regimental Headquarters, on board the Cedric, forget how Lieut.-Colonel Winnia, then commanding the 304tb Machine Gun Battalion, with shirt collar cleared for action and a pipe of tobacco handy, was continuously at home to the officers, and with what absorbing interest they watched him day after day, lancing an old Gettysburg map with multi-colored pins.

April twenty-seventh found us toward afternoon in English waters, our escorts seemingly more active than ever; near this point, someone soberly whispered, the Lusitania was sunk. Well, if we ever got to France, we'd show the Germans what a mistake they made when they sent all those inno-cent folk to the bottom! And there, presently, loomed the distant cliffs of Wales. A welcome sight! Who would ever have thought, a year ago, that at this time we would be sojourning on the far side of the globe? How preposterous, that we should have left our shops and trades and other diverse interests for this., Come; bring on the excitement; let's get into it!

Now the vessels were assuming a new formation, ap-parently stringing out into single file. Could anybody read the wig-wag messages flashed by the adroit signalmen from the bridge? We strained our eyes and our field glasses in vain, picking up only a word here and there, mindful of all the hours spent in signaling, back in camp-how two squads would line up, opposite each other; if the squad reading the message could not make it out there was no harm done; all that was necessary was to shout out, "We didn't get it; what was the last word?" and the message in full would be shouted back.

The gray outlines of Liverpool and an enormous advertisement for Spratt's Dog Cakes greeted our eyes at five A. M., as we rose Sunday morning, the twenty-eighth of April, our ships riding at anchor in the Mersey. Portentous, the men agreed; if they hadn't already eaten many a dog biscuit on the way over, they were due for some. And there, just as the Cedric was warped in to the dock, a vivid touch of home: a real, live Ford touring car bowling down the wharf, greeted by a roar of eager approval from the populous decks.

Missing nary a chance to hurl a friendly insult at the majestic English bobbies in the neighborhood of the railroad station, the men proceeded at once to the trains, moved to laughter by a sight of their tiny six-wheeled and four-wheeled compartment cars and by the absurd little freight cars presently to be seen as the long train gathered momentum on its journey southward.

To train for several months in the British camp at Winchester, was the general verdict, as we swept through the budding countryside, through villages of tidy, red-roofed houses or through the more populous cities such as Leicester, where girls at the station served hot coffee, where women and girls and little boys and old men waved a God-speed to the Yanks. Some might have been a little surprised to find the railroad stations just as fully plastered with signs, particularly those advertising beverages, as those in America. " What station is this?" someone inquired as the train slowed down perceptibly. "Why," said a lieutenant knowingly, and in all seriousness, "this is-er, BOVRIL ' ';

To be landed at Dover after a ten-hour ride, could mean only one thing: there would be no training period in England. A sight of the steep, steep hill leading to Dover Castle, meant still another thing: that after lugging those murderous packs up the long grade, five thousand young men of America would be ready for whatever the British could offer in the way of a ration and a night's sleep. Despite their present initiation to the light British supper of tea, biscuit and marmalade, and the prospect of sleeping on the bare board floors of the old stone barracks looming high above the harbor, many had the energy and the curiosity to wander back into the seaport town to see what they could see.

The sky was gray and the wind bitter cold. Those who gathered 'round the scanty fire in the British officers' club, listening intently to the post com-mandant, a wounded colonel, whose false right hand bung uselessly at his breast, felt that the war was coming very close. Current English newspapers told of the fall of Kemmel and of the almost certain loss of Calais in consequence. If the wind were just right, the thunder of distant cannon might be heard across the Channel. There in the harbor Jay the battered hulk of the cruiser Vindictive, just returned from its heroic night raid on Zeebrugge. They listened in rapt attention to a recital of that famous exploit, as night came on and the windows were darkened against the possibility of German bombing planes. Nor were hearts any less sober the next morning when we gathered on the quay for transportation across the Channel. A sentry striding the breakwater looked, oh, so realistic, in his full kit: helmet, gas mask, cartridge belt, rifle and fixed bayonet! He must have come right out of the trenches we had read so much about. Good old Chaplain Browne, too, had straight dope that morning, which he whispered in confidence to some of the officers; that the Germans were breaking through toward the coast; that before night we would be digging somewhere in the support trenches; that the British felt Calais to be doomed, and that we were simply being fed to the slaughter.

Is it any wonder then, that the Channel passage seemed the most fiendish journey ever devised? It is thought by some that a destroyer put out from the breakwater in company with the one or two small steamers which bore the Regiment across; but nobody saw them after we fell off the towering crest of wave number one into the trough between that and mountainous wave number two. How we ever got over that second wave, and the next and the next, no one knows-except maybe the one or two copper-lined creatures who weren't seasick.

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