Crossing Aboard the SS Santa Maria

By Mark Flanagan, Co M, 273rd Inf Reg


We left Camp Kilmer on a train that was blacked out and had military police (MP) guards with Tommy guns (to keep us from deserting, I guess).  We troops of M Company of the 273rd Infantry envisioned that we would certainly board a gracious liner like the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth I, where we would walk up a long gangplank into the side of the ship.  We were rather surprised, as we waited on the pier, to notice that the gangplank went down onto the main deck of this vessel alongside.  One of the troops asked a Navy type, “What’s the name of this boat?”  The reply came that it was the Santa Maria, and our guy says, “Jesus, didn’t Columbus take it back with him?!” 

The Red Cross gals were passing out coffee, donuts and Raleigh cigarettes (which everybody hated), when our esteemed comrade-in-arms, Jay R. Lowenthal, fainted, and had to be assisted aboard once we got the order to go.  I saw Jay several years ago in Phoenix, and he still claims he was “shanghaied” overseas and should be compensated for the indignity.  

Once aboard, we descended one or two decks into the very bow of the ship.  There was a big brace holding the two sides together, and we stuffed our duffel bags into that space which, in turn, gave us a little more room at our bunks.  I can’t remember if there were four or five bunks on each stack, but it was pretty tight, even for the guy on top. 

The first couple of days were pretty nice, so we must have been headed south.  About the third day out, I was put on KP (kitchen patrol).  With another guy from the company (I don’t remember who) we were put to work cleaning burlap sacks full of rotting Brussels sprouts.  We started out with a vegetable about the size of a baseball and by the time we got the rotten leaves off, we ended up with an object the size of a golf ball – still covered with considerable rot from our hands.  This we did all day!  I have not eaten a Brussels sprout to this day and would just as soon starve to death than consume one, especially one the size of a golf ball.  Now some of you troops will know what contributed to your mal-de-mer, in addition to many other things. 

Now for the good news – just next to the vegetable storage area, way the hell down in the ship, were the bakery and the racks where the bread was stored to cool off from the ovens.  My friend and I would sneak down there each day, pretending we were on KP, and steal a loaf of bread.  We would rearrange the loaves a bit so it wasn’t evident that one was missing.  He and I would find a discreet place to eat our bread while you other clowns were suffering from the worst food created by man.  I do believe that it was this bread that has contributed to my good health, wealth and handsome appearance over these many years! 

Our compartment was so foul that most of us spent as much time as possible out on the deck, if you could find a spot to stand or sit down.  Everybody else tried the same thing, except those miserable wretches who never seemed to get out of their bunks for the whole trip.  Some vowed that they wouldn’t come home until a bridge was built!  (Amazing how my trip home aboard the Rock Hill Victory was like being on the Queen Elizabeth II today.) 

Another major reason we stayed on deck was that one of our older and more worldly GIs informed us that submarines always aimed their torpedoes way ahead of the ship they were trying to sink, and logically, since we were so slow, the torpedo was most likely to hit our bow rather than amidships or the stern.  He also advised that if we were hit, we should hold our breath until the compartment filled with water, and then swim out through the hole made by the torpedo.  Most of the M Company men avoided this guy for the rest of the war, as you can imagine. 

Once we got to Southampton, we suffered the indignity of being loaded into open 2-1/2 ton trucks for a trip to Basingstoke in the worst rainstorm of the century.  Why the jerk didn’t put the canvas up, who knows?  The trip seemed like it took all night.  We since made the trip from Southampton to London four times, and I can promise you that today it wouldn’t take 45 minutes to get to Basingstoke.