Military history

Gathering the Ships

AN unholy din rolled across Hampton Roads at dawn on October 22. Aboard a dozen ships at five sets of piers, sailors in dungarees and white pillbox caps ripped out linoleum decks, wood paneling, and cork insulation. Hundreds of other swabs with hammers and chisels scraped the painted bulkheads to bare metal. Raging ship fires in the Solomon Islands earlier that fall had convinced the Navy to strip Task Force 34 of all combustible furnishings, giving the fleet the fighting trim of an unfinished garage.

From Norfolk and Portsmouth on the southern rim of the Roads, to Newport News and Hampton in the north, tugboats bullied another clutch of cargo ships into the wharves. Stevedore battalions swarmed onto each vessel, stacking hatch covers on an aft deck and swinging a boom over the exposed hold. Gangwaymen clipped the cargo sling to a pallet on the dock, and chuffing steam winches hoisted another load onto the ship. Above the cacophony of welders and riveters and that infernal scraping, the strains of “Over There” drifted from a warehouse where the port band practiced its war repertoire. The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming.

Into the holds went tanks and cannons, rubber boats and outboard motors, ammunition and machine guns, magnifying glasses and step-ladders, alarm clocks and bicycles. Into the holds went: tractors, cement, asphalt, and more than a million gallons of gasoline, mostly in five-gallon tins. Into the holds went: thousands of miles of wire, well-digging machinery, railroad cars, 750,000 bottles of insect repellent, and 7,000 tons of coal in burlap bags. Into the holds went: black basketball shoes, 3,000 vehicles, loudspeakers, 16,000 feet of cotton rope, and $100,000 in gold coins, entrusted to George Patton personally. And into the holds went: a platoon of carrier pigeons, six flyswatters and sixty rolls of fly-paper for each 1,000 soldiers, plus five pounds of rat poison per company.

A special crate, requisitioned in a frantic message to the War Department on October 18, held a thousand Purple Hearts.

In theory, only 800 people in the world knew the destination of the TORCH armadas; many boxes had been sealed and placed under guard to avoid leaking any hint of French North Africa. Phrase books with pronunciation keys, to be distributed at sea, perfectly captured Allied ambivalence, giving the French for both “I am your friend” and “I will shoot you if you resist.” A propaganda radio station, cobbled together with a transmitter salvaged in Jersey City and a generator from a South Carolina cotton mill, was secretly installed in the U.S.S. Texas, along with a script to be broadcast to Berber tribes: “Behold, we the American holy warriors have arrived…. We have come to set you free.”

Quartermasters had rounded up not only all that lingerie but also 70,000 pairs of goggles and a comparable number of havelocks—neck cloths—sewn at a secret plant in Philadelphia, as well as 10 million salt tablets and 67,000 American-flag armbands, with 138,000 safety pins to secure them to uniform sleeves. Black-lettered labels on the boxes warned: “Do not open until destination is reached.” A thirty-day supply of poison gas bombs, shells, and mines had been tentatively consigned to a follow-up convoy, then canceled in late September after Allied commanders deemed it “most unlikely” that an enemy would use chemical weapons early in the North Africa campaign.

Using a Michelin commercial road guide to Morocco, a government printing plant outside Washington had spent weeks reproducing sixty tons of maps, which were manhandled into the holds along with sealed bundles of Baedekers, old issues ofNational Geograpic, French tourist guidebooks, and volume “M” of various encyclopedias. Armed couriers brought aboard plaster-of-Paris relief maps of Moroccan ports and coasts; the War Department had found that men drafted from the confectioners’ and bakers’ union became the best model makers. Other secret crates contained peculiar fifty-four-inch open tubes and three-pound darts—along with instruction sheets, because almost no one in the task force had ever heard of a “launcher, rocket, antitank, 2.36-inch, M9,” soon to be known as a bazooka.

All cargo was supposed to be combat loaded, a key principle of assault in which equipment is stowed in reverse order of the sequence needed upon landing under fire. Instead, the only principle in effect was chaos. Matériel had been cascading into port since late September, in rail cars so poorly marked that at one point all loading stopped while soldiers pawed through 700 mysterious boxcars that had been diverted to a Richmond siding.

Different railroads served different piers, so that misdirected freight had to be lightered across the bay. Docks grew cluttered with dunnage; cargo holds were packed so haphazardly that soldiers climbing over vehicles in search of their kit broke nearly a third of the windshields. Ammunition needed for ballast arrived late, forcing some ships to warp back to the docks for reloading. Artillery shells, loose grenades, and TNT were simply dumped on the decks, or in passageways, staterooms, and troop holds. The captain of U.S.S. Lakehurst confided that a torpedo would sink his ship in five minutes—unless the stocks of gasoline and ammo were hit, in which case it would be quicker.

An officer with a twisted mind and a classical education had borrowed the motto for Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation from the Aeneid: “Forsan et haec olim meminissee iuvabit.” “Someday, perhaps, the memory of even these things will be pleasant.” Someday, perhaps, but not soon.

On this disorderly Thursday, Patton flew to Norfolk from Washington in a C-47 transport plane with his tin suitcase and an entourage of eight staff officers. In his slashing, runic handwriting he had written his will and a long treatise to his wife, Bea, on how to care for their horses in his absence. He also wrote several farewell letters. To his brother-in-law: “My proverbial luck will have to be working all out. All my life I have wanted to lead a lot of men in a desperate battle; I am going to do it.” To a family friend, he noted that by the time she read his letter, “I will either be dead or not. If I am, please put on a good Irish wake.” Now, striding from ship to ship along the wharves, Patton inspected the cargo with the possessive eye of a man who intended to use every last bullet, bomb, and basketball shoe. When he asked a young quartermaster captain how the loading was proceeding, the officer replied, “I don’t know, but my trucks are getting on all right.” Patton took a moment to scribble in his diary: “That is the answer. If everyone does his part, these seemingly impossible tasks get done. When I think of the greatness of my job and realize that I am what I am, I am amazed, but on reflection, who is as good as I am? I know of no one.”

It was a fair self-assessment by a man who had spent the past four decades preparing for this moment, since the day he had arrived as a plebe at West Point. More than a quarter-century had gone by since his first intoxicating taste of battle and fame, during the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1916, when he had briefly become a national hero for killing three banditos and strapping their bodies to his automobile running boards like game trophies. He had been a temporary colonel at age thirty-two in the Great War, and a founding father of armored warfare. Then, his career had seemed all but over, mired in the lethargy of the interwar Army. At the age of fifty, upon reading J.F.C. Fuller’s classic Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cures, Patton had wept bitterly because eighty-nine of the one hundred great commanders profiled were younger than he. Now, when he was fifty-six, his hour had come round.

He was a paradox and would always remain one, a great tangle of calculated mannerisms and raw, uncalculated emotion. Well-read, fluent in French, and the wealthy child of privilege, he could be crude, rude, and plain foolish. He had reduced his extensive study of history and military art to a five-word manifesto of war: “violent attacks everywhere with everything.” In less than three years he would be the most celebrated American battle captain of the twentieth century, a man whose name—like those of Jeb Stuart and Phil Sheridan—evoked the dash and brio of a cavalry charge. In less than four years he would be dead, and the New York Times obituary would offer the perfect epitaph: “He was not a man of peace.”

“Give me generals who are lucky,” Roosevelt had recently told a British officer. In their encounter in the Oval Office the previous afternoon, the president had shrewdly sized up Patton as a man who was lucky and who also believed in his luck. “Patton is a joy,” Roosevelt had written after the meeting. For his part, typically, Patton dwelt on his disappointment at the president’s failure to deliver a more stirring victory-or-death speech to Admiral Hewitt, whose resolve Patton still doubted. “A great politician,” Patton told his diary after leaving the White House, “is not of necessity a great military leader.”

Nor was a great military leader of necessity a great politician, as Patton had repeatedly demonstrated during the preparations for TORCH. While Hewitt readied his ships, Patton readied his men, and he had approached the task by imposing his will on everything and everyone in his path.

His command for TORCH consisted of three divisions pieced together from other units—the 9th Infantry, the 3rd Infantry, and the 2nd Armored; eight other divisions had been so ransacked of troops and equipment to fill out the departing force that six months would pass before they recovered. In the past two weeks, Patton had traveled to staging areas across Virginia and North Carolina to inspect the troops and “put iron in their souls.” One commander later recalled that he always knew when Patton had visited because the units so honored invariably called to report that assorted officers “had been ordered into arrest after incurring his wrath.” On October 14, Patton sent identical letters to all his senior commanders: “If you don’t succeed, I don’t want to see you alive,” he advised. “I see no point in surviving defeat, and I am sure that if all of you enter into battle with equal resolution, we shall conquer, and live long, and gain more glory.”

In a dinner toast at one base, Patton declared, “Here’s to the wives. My, what pretty widows you’re going to make.” His advice to the 9th Division for defeating the Germans was: “Grab those pusillanimous sons-a-bitches by the nose and kick ’em in the balls.” To others, he spoke of slaughtering “lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.” At Fort Bragg, while he was addressing troops he had once commanded in the 2nd Armored Division, tears coursed down his cheeks and he stalked from the stage without a word. The men roared their approval. In his diary, Patton had once rebuked himself for being “inclined to show emotion, a most unmilitary trait.”

On Friday morning, October 23, more than 150 troop commanders, ship captains, and senior staff officers filed into a tightly guarded Army warehouse in Norfolk. Hewitt spoke briefly, revealing to most for the first time that they were bound for Africa. For more than four hours, the TORCH planners reviewed the operation in intricate detail. They finished with the proper procedures for burying the dead and registering their graves.

Then Patton took the stage in breeches and riding boots, ivory-handled pistols on either hip. He roused the men from their torpor by announcing that he would shoot any American soldier molesting a Moroccan woman.

“If you have any doubts as to what you’re to do, I can put it very simply,” he said in his jarring falsetto. “The idea is to move ahead, and you usually know where the front is by the sound of gunfire. To make it perfectly clear to you: suppose you lose a hand or an ear is shot off, or perhaps a piece of your nose, and you think you should go back to get first aid. If I see you, it will be the last goddamn walk you’ll ever take. As an officer, you’re expected to move ahead.”

Then he challenged the Navy to emulate Admiral David Farragut, who had damned the torpedoes at Mobile Bay in 1864. But, Patton continued, “I’m under no illusion that the goddamn Navy will get us within a hundred miles of the beach or within a week of the date set for landing. It doesn’t matter. Put us on Africa. We’ll walk.”

He finished with a flourish: “We shall attack for sixty days and then, if we have to, for sixty more. If we go forward with desperation, if we go forward with utmost speed and fight, these people cannot stand against us.”

The men came to attention as Patton strode from the room. Most of the Navy officers, and even some of their Army counterparts, had never heard of George S. Patton before. Now they knew who he was.

As the hour of departure drew near, anarchy ruled the docks. Sometimes Patton contributed to the disorder. On one especially hellish morning his quartermasters changed the loading plan six times between eight and nine A.M.

More usually however, Patton, Hewitt, and their lieutenants demonstrated the inventive resolve that would characterize the American way of war for the duration. At the eleventh hour, medical officers abruptly realized that Task Force 34 had stockpiled only a small fraction of the blood plasma required. Recent experience had shown that plasma—the fluid remaining after removing red and white blood cells—was highly effective in keeping wounded soldiers alive, and when dried it could be stored without refrigeration for weeks. With authority from the War Department, the port surgeon by day’s end had requisitioned virtually all the plasma east of the Mississippi River and organized three bombers to deliver it. When bad weather closed in on Norfolk, ground crews lit flares to guide home the pilots. Trucks raced from the airfield to the port with a thousand precious units just before the fleet weighed anchor.

No less dramatic was the saga of the S.S. Contessa. The War Department for weeks had sought a shallow-draft ship capable of navigating a dozen miles up a serpentine Moroccan river to the Port Lyautey airfield, one of Patton’s prime objectives. A worldwide search turned up the Contessa, a salt-caked, rust-stained scow that drew just over seventeen feet and had spent most of her undistinguished career hauling bananas and coconuts from the Caribbean. She was ordered to Newport News. There the skipper, Captain William H. John, a thick-browed Briton with an untended mustache and a long, saggy face, learned he was to load more than a thousand tons of bombs, depth charges, and high-octane aviation fuel for a destination to be named later. The crew promptly jumped ship.

The Contessa was emptied of bananas and winched into dry dock on October 24 for a quick caulking of her leaky seams. Captain John and a Navy reserve lieutenant named A. V. Leslie then headed for the Norfolk jail, which state corrections officials recently had identified as the most squalid lockup in all Virginia. John and Leslie interviewed fifty inmates. Many were bibulous seamen, said to be “bleary-eyed and unsteady on their pins,” but game for a voyage described only as high-paying, dangerous, and far from any Norfolk cellblock. Fifteen men were chosen and their sentences commuted. Navy guards with riot guns escorted them to the Contessa. Pumped dry and heavily patched, the fruiter slid from the dry dock with a clean bottom and made for Pier X, the ammunition wharf, to begin loading her cargo.

All the confusion that characterized the cargo loading now attended the convergence of 34,000 soldiers on Hampton Roads. Troop trains with blinds drawn rolled through Norfolk and Portsmouth, sometimes finding the proper pier and sometimes not. Many men were exhausted, having traveled all night or even all week. One artillery commander, suspecting they were bound for a tropical battlefield, had decided to acclimate his troops by sealing the windows on their train, transforming it into what one surviving officer described as “a sweltering inferno.”

Military policemen patrolled the tracks and bus stations to watch for deserters. The Army in the past six months had charged more than 2,600 soldiers with desertion and convicted 90 percent of them. Indiscipline also plagued units that had been staging in southeast Virginia for weeks. So many men were sentenced to the crowded brig at Solomon’s Island in Chesapeake Bay during amphibious training that there was a waiting list to serve time; on October 3 alone, thirty men had been court-martialed for various infractions. Sensing they were going to war, many troops drank until they were “knee-walkin’ tight.” Commanders distributed pamphlets warning, “The truth is that using the sex glands too much exhausts them and weakens a man.” Many a weak man dragged himself to the pier.

Naughty Norfolk catered to those looking for sin before shipping out, notwithstanding the occasional sign that read “No dogs or sailors allowed.” The town’s iniquity grew with the arrival of each new regiment. Every night, thousands of men swarmed down East Main Street, described as “the largest, most solid block of beer joints in the world.” Taxis became rolling brothels, and fleets of “girlie trailers” served the concupiscent. On October 18, vice officers arrested 115 people in the “largest morals raid in local history.” His jail cells bulging, Norfolk’s police chief asked the federal government to “give me a concentration camp…a camp large enough to handle two or three thousand women.” The strains of war—including many U-boat attacks along the Virginia coast—pushed the town toward hysteria. Widespread rumor had it that local Negroes planned to massacre white citizens during a blackout; the plotters were even said to have purchased 300 icepicks at a downtown hardware store.

Sober and otherwise, the troops found their way to the twenty-eight transport ships. All public telephones at the wharves were disconnected, and port engineers erected a high fence around each dock area. “If you tell where you are going, you may never get there,” security posters warned—pointlessly, because few men had any inkling of their destination. Some soldiers inflated condoms with natural gas from tent heaters and floated them toward town, with notes attached inviting any girl willing to comfort a departing warrior to infiltrate the security area. In a final, senseless act of confusion, the Army insisted the men board alphabetically rather than by tactical unit. Thousands struggled up the ramps with heavy barracks bags and wandered the companionways for hours in search of their comrades. Others disembarked at night, to re-form on the dock by platoon and then reboard.

Eight to twelve officers shared each stateroom. The ranks wedged into holds with bunks stacked four high and hammocks slung in every open space. “God must love enlisted men,” they told one another; “he made so many of them.” Poker and dice games raged in the stairwells. Sailors scraped and scraped. Boys barely old enough to shave lay in their bunks and stared vacantly at the bulkheads, or struggled to articulate in letters home what every one of them felt: I’m scared. I miss you. I love you.

A distant clatter of winches signaled the lifting of the last cargo slings. And a new sound joined the racket: the harsh grind of a thousand whet-stones as soldiers put an edge on their bayonets and trench knives.

Dawn on October 24 revealed a forest of masts and fighting tops across Hampton Roads, where the greatest war fleet ever to sail from American waters made ready. Brief squalls blew in from the Atlantic, shrouding the ships in gray mist. Launches with hooded lanterns carried a few officers from a final night with their wives in the Chamberlin Hotel. Wrapped in a boat cloak, Hewitt boarded his flagship, the U.S.S. Augusta. The rising trill of a bosun’s whistle announced the admiral’s arrival.

From this very anchorage, dispatched with patriotic huzzahs and guided from the Roads by Theodore Roosevelt aboard his yacht, Mayflower, Hewitt had sailed the world with sixteen battleships in the Great White Fleet in 1907. To make the current departure less conspicuous, Hewitt arranged for a mid-ocean rendezvous with several of his biggest warships, including the new dreadnought Massachusetts, which had sortied from Maine. An even larger contingent awaited the task force near Bermuda. This group included the Ranger, his only true aircraft carrier, and four “escort” carriers—oil tankers overlaid with flight decks. None of the carriers had more than half a dozen experienced aviators; the Navy also reported that some crews included “a bare handful of officers and men who had previously seen salt water.” But of the 102 ships in the fleet, only Contessa was seriously delayed. Still loading fuel and bombs at Pier X, she would follow the convoy in two days, alone.

Patton settled into the comfortable captain’s cabin aboard Augusta. A stack of mystery novels lay on the table by his bunk, along with the Koran, which he planned to read during the passage. He had often practiced a fierce martial scowl in the mirror, but there was no need for dramatics now. He was alone, as only a battle commander could be, bound for the sharp corners of the world.

“This is my last night in America,” he had written in his diary the previous evening. “It may be years and it may be forever. God grant that I do my full duty to my men and myself.” He thought of his Wednesday morning in Washington three days earlier. Before going to the White House, he had driven up 16th Street to Walter Reed Army Hospital to call on his ancient hero, General John J. Pershing. A feeble eighty-two, Pershing had reminisced about their adventures in Mexico, where Patton had served as an unofficial aide-de-camp. “I can always pick a fighting man,” Pershing said. “I like generals so bold they are dangerous.” Patton kissed Pershing’s hand, as desiccated as a fallen leaf, and asked for his blessing. “Good-bye, George,” the old general replied. “God bless you and keep you and give you victory.”

Generals so bold they are dangerous. He would take that challenge. To his old friend Eisenhower in London he had written, “We should plan either to conquer or to be destroyed at Casablanca.” He also scribbled two notes to Bea. “It will probably be some time before you get a letter from me but I will be thinking of you and loving you,” he wrote in one. In the other, to be opened only “when and if I am definitely reported dead,” he confessed how difficult it was to convey his feelings for a woman he had known since they were both sixteen years old. He addressed her as if from beyond the grave: “Your confidence in me was the only sure thing in a world of dreadful uncertainty.”

Shortly before seven A.M., the Joseph T. Dickman slipped her lines and moved into the stream, joined by the Thomas Jefferson, the Leonard Wood, and a stately procession of other transports. Destroyers darted ahead into the seaward mists—the lead ship in the position known as Dead Man’s Corner—as the transports threaded the antisubmarine nets protecting Hampton Roads. With radio silence imposed, course adjustments swept across the fleet in an ecstasy of signal lamps and semaphore flags. Patrol planes and two silver blimps scouted the swept channel that angled eastward between Cape Henry and Cape Charles. Building to fourteen knots, the transports steamed out the drowned mouth of the James River, across Thimble Shoals and Tail of the Horseshoe. Soldiers cinched their life jackets and lined the weather-deck rails, staring in silence at Old Point Comfort.

The dawn was bright and blowing. Angels perched unseen on the shrouds and crosstrees. Young men, fated to survive and become old men dying abed half a century hence, would forever remember this hour, when an army at dawn made for the open sea in a cause none could yet comprehend. Ashore, as the great fleet glided past, dreams of them stepped, like men alive, into the rooms where their loved ones lay sleeping.

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