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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Uncle Sam Wants You (To Get In The Water!)

A few weeks ago, I had to search through the microfilm for an article about a US transport ship that had hit a mine back in 1942. While I had to spend a little more time than usual trying to find the article, it was well worth it in the end. At first, there was some confusion as to when the ship actually sank. It turns out that although the ship went down towards the end of October, it was not released in the media until six weeks later. That's a far cry from our instant news of today, and yet, there were still journalists "embedded" with the troops.

The 22,000 ton ocean liner hit a friendly mine and started sinking quickly. The captain of the ship managed to run it aground on a coral reef (!) and proceeded to evacuate the ship in a most orderly fashion. All of the soldiers had been sent to quarters, and there they waited, playing music and passing the time, until their sections were called. Then they joined the throngs that were doing this:

Have I ever mentioned my extreme fear of heights? I'm not sure I could have climbed down the side of this ship! It seems that several of the soldiers had a bit of trouble getting off the big boat, too.
The rescue boat that carried the writer to the ship's side found one young soldier clambering down a rope that was fifteen feet short of the water. He was very calm. He held to the rope with his two hands and looked down at us.
"Jump," our coxswain shouted.
"I can't swim," retorted the soldier.
"Jump, we'll catch you," we all shouted.
"Well, I don't know," the soldier mused. "I can't swim."
A stream of profanity was directed at him, but he swung there gently, listening us out, apparently too polite to interrupt. Then he said:
"Well, all right, but I can't swim a stroke." Then he began to count.
"One," he said; "two, three," and paused.
"Well, here goes," he shouted, counting, "four, five, six, and one for good measure."
When he got to "nine," he let go and hit just off our bow. He sank like a stone. We waited, boat hook ready for him to come up. It seemed he never would come up, but finally he broke water and we hauled him on board. Then we found out he had jumped with a fully loaded cartridge belt around his waist and had just plummeted on down. When he revived, spluttering, he protested: "I told you fellows I couldn't swim." (Troops, NYT)
I wonder what he was going to do with that fully loaded cartridge belt in the ocean. Perhaps it was his special fully loaded cartridge belt?

What could have been a total disaster resulting in large loss of life transpired with only two deaths. Or wait, was it three? Or maybe four... Initial reports (from 1942) said that as many as four or five men died, but looking at information from after the war points to only two men out of over five thousand that died ( What a beautiful miracle to come out of this:
Wolfert, Ira. "Troops on Lost Ship Sing During Rescue." New York Times. 16 Dec. 1942: A1. Print.

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