THE GALLANT SHIP
By Howard FastBEFORE the war, the gray ships had a certain individuality, a name, a color, a flag; but with that curtain of gray came anonymity, a fleet of faceless ghost ships, even the ships' names turned down on hinged boards. The gray ships became an accepted commonplace; one night they filled a harbor; the next night they were gone. To the layman, there was nothing to differentiate them; seen from Riverside Drive in New York, from the docks at Antwerp, or from the beach at Iwo, the gray hulls were peas out of the same pod. The minute difference which told a Liberty from a Victory from a C2 went unnoticed; the shape of a kingpost or the curve of a hull mattered not at all, and the names in the newspapers, when the gray ships were launched or sent to the bottom of the sea, only added to the commonplace, a thousand names like: Joseph T. Lincoln, Franklin Jones, Mark Smith, Isaac Sempner, Marcus Pollack, Arnold Schofield--names so peculiarly and unostentatiously American that they robbed finally the first and last breath of romance.
So even to the men who sailed them, dead ships went to a nameless graveyard. They were expendable in the fullest sense of the word. A cruiser or a flattop might come limping back to port, battle-scarred but undefeated, ready to rest in the Navy Yard until her wounds were healed and go to sea once more, the same crew on her, the same guns anxious to talk again; but such a thing was almost unknown with a merchant ship. When the torpedo struck and superheated steam at 700 degrees filled the engine room, annihilating life almost instantaneously, the gray ship's career was over; those who could manned the boats and rafts and got away; the ship and the dead went down. On an ammunition ship, the result was quicker and more spectacular, a Fourth of July cascade, and then nothing at all; on a tanker, a flaming sea made an end to the story. And those who survived went onto another ship. Some men were dogged by bad luck, and ship after ship went down under them, until their whole past was a hazy memory of crash and explosion.
Thus it was somewhat unusual for the men on the Gray Victory to talk of ships rather than men. It happened one afternoon in the Bay of Bengal that a wiper told of the gallant ship he was on. The first gallant ship. A turn of phrase is not a rare thing among seamen, and I thought he had used "gallant" in a purely descriptive sense.
"It's an award," he said. "Like the Purple Heart. Only they give it to ships."
An AB snorted: "What ships? I never heard of it."
"I heard of it," the third engineer said. "They give it to ships."
"Anyway, this was the first 'gallant ship.' It was a long time ago. In the bad times."
THE SUN was hot; there was just enough of a pitch and a roll to the ship to lull the men, to bring up things they hadn't talked about recently. The AB, who had sailed all through the bad times, demanded, "How could there be one gallant ship? How could there be one special? I went out with a convoy to Murmansk, and there were forty ships to begin with, and there were only three at the end, two Liberties and a tanker. So where do you start and where do you finish?"
The wiper said it wasn't he who had given out the award. He just happened to be on the ship, and the ship happened to get the citation.
"I suppose you pinned the Purple Heart onto her bow," the electrician said.
"No, I don't think so--"
"What run?" the AB wanted to know.
"Tobruk to Alex. They needed stuff in Tobruk, so we went in there and came back to Alex."
"Short run," someone said.
"It was a short run and the weather was nice," the wiper agreed. "The Mediterranean was like a sheet of blue glass, and the moonlit nights were so pretty they made you want to cry. But we had Stukas for twelve days." He made a long wide motion with his hand. "Twelve days. Like hens laying eggs on us."
"No convoy?" someone said.
"Sure, we had two destroyers and a PC. But the Stukas finished them. Then we had some Spitfires, but not enough. The Stukas laid two on the topside, and there was no more bridge. We had ammo in number two hatch, and they laid on that. My goodness, it was like the fair at home in the summer, and it was just a wonder that we stayed one piece. That was my watch, and we sprung a pipe, just a little, but the second got it on the face and side and it was a whole day before he died. We got out of the engine room, and the chief cursed us back, and the steam was still making. We used the emergency steering gear aft--."
"Was that going in or going out?" the AB asked.
"Going into Tobruk. Going back to Alex we thought we would have a nice run, and maybe lay in the sunshine a little, but the Stukas came back and cleaned out the three-inch gun crew. So the ensign ran aft to what was left of the deckhouse, asking for volunteers. The steward was in the last war in the artillery, and he came in with three messmen, but the first shot blew off the breech block and killed the steward.
"You must have looked like a butcher shop," the third engineer remarked.
"We looked awful bad," the wiper admitted. "It came so it was a relief to go down to the engine room and not see all them things--I mean for a little while it was a relief. The vents were all smashed and it was hot down there. The Stuka dropped a dud down where the smokestack had been, and there was an oiler who was just a kid; he began to cry and he just cried all the rest of the trip." After a moment's pause and silence the wiper remembered that thirty-three men had been killed in the crew. "Not counting the Armed Guard," he said.
"Did you ever get her back to stateside? "
"We got her back," the wiper nodded. "But it was an awful slow trip on the Atlantic. It took us thirty-three days from Gibralter to stateside. Same as the men in the crew who were killed. A day for each man. I wrote a letter to the Daily News about it, but they never printed it."
"You should have wrote to Pegler," the third engineer said.
The AB remembered that he and his friends had written to Pegler, but had no answer. "We sent him a big postcard," the AB said. "It was after a run to Murmansk where a lot of good ships kissed off. There was an ammo ship running abreast of us in convoy; and a torpedo hit it, and it went up like puff of smoke. We were so close the concussion ripped clothes off men on our ship, and a piece of their bulkhead was imbedded in the deckhouse. We left it there across and back, and then at home we ripped it out and had it polished down and engraved with the names of the guys on the ammo ship. We sent it to Pegler, but we got no answer."
I recalled Pegler's series of columns attacking the merchant service, and watched these men quietly working off their dislike. They were not violently aggressive; they accepted the fact that Pegler had the last word in print; but, one by one, they took out of their memories the sinkings, the blackout collisions, the bombings, the long, thirsty days in the open boats. These were commonplaces, and ordinarily, it was not considered in the best of taste to bring up old sinkings. But a writer being there made them conscious that perhaps a piece of this or a piece of that might hold on, gain the permanence of being put on a page of print. They were slow-speaking men, and whatever the happening, it came from their lips reduced in size, robbed of color, blood-stained sometimes, but mostly as a vague and not too eager memory. They mixed ports in their talk, and they varied the seas. For those who had been in it from the beginning--and there were not many, so great had their casualties been at the beginning--there was an anonymous parade of ships, tankers and Liberties and Victories which for half a decade had plodded back and forth between the continents. And like threads connecting it all, there was the hammering bell of general quarters, the piercing blast which called them to boat stations, the list to one side or another, the constant factors of a ship going down....
I asked them what they had thought of the moving picture, Action in the North Atlantic.
"It wasn't a bad picture," the wiper said. "But it gave the public the wrong impression. It gave them the impression that we were a bunch of roughnecks."
The AB said, "Bogart's all right. But how long's a ship's officer going to last if he's a toughie like that? An officer's no good unless he knows how to act decent. You don't want to meet a quieter bunch of guys than ships' officers."
And someone else said: "You can't go nowhere on a ship. You got to learn to live with people; you got to learn to give and take. My word, Bogart, he didn't even have courtesy; he wasn't a gentleman."