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Chapter 2. From Upton to France


The 302nd ENGINEERS

by,
Gilbert H. Crawford
Thomas H. Ellett
John J. Hyland


FROM UPTON TO FRANCE

THE special trains carrying the Regiment from Camp Upton arrived at Astoria, Long Island, about daylight of 29th March. The men and baggage were immediately ferried around the south end of Manhattan Island to a Cunard dock on the Hudson. This was the farewell view of New York's familiar landmarks, for later when the R. M. S. Carmania, which was to carry the Regiment across the Atlantic, sailed down New York Bay, all soldiers were ordered below decks.

From the ferry boats, the embarkation to the Carmania was rapid. The 302nd Field Signal Battalion accompanied our Regiment, as did also a memorable group of Signal Corps (women) telephone operators. The Carmania, ** one of the finest of the Cunarders still afloat, with a battle history of her own, was a splendid vessel of about 20,000 tons, which was used not only as a transport, but also as a general passenger ship.

Colonel Sherrill was the military commander of the ship which slipped out of the harbor during the afternoon of the 29th March, 1918. The route lay first to Halifax, where we spent Easter Sunday. No one was allowed to go ashore. The first lifeboat drill was held in Halifax Bay. Due to the great lack of experienced seamen on the Carmania, men from our Regiment had to be selected and trained as boatsmen. As has always been the case in our history, the necessary talent was readily found and the drill was very successful-except for Captain Greene. He scorned lifeboats because he was the proud possessor of a patented life preserver of complicated design. With this apparatus, he gave a demonstration during the lifeboat drill. Unfortunately, the balast was not sufficiently great and the Captain had to be rescued from his preserver!

A convoy of four ships assembled at Halifax. The old British cruiser, King Alfred, was assigned as the convoying warship. Leaving Halifax on the 2nd April, 1918, the convoy proceeded leisurely across the Atlantic. The course was secret, but amateur navigators kept us well advised of our location. These advices unhappily did not agree, varying at one time from the Azores to Iceland. The weather was wonderfully mild and the sea calm. The daily round of lifeboat drill, physical exercise, ship inspection, bulkhead guard, and submarine watch was pleasantly broken on 6th of April, the first anniversary of the entrance of the United States into the World War, when a celebration was held with the battalions massed on the forward portion of the ship.

No exciting incident occurred until the night of April 10th. The Carmania, with her convoy, had at dusk entered the submarine danger zone and had been joined by British destroyers. During the evening, these agile foxes of the sea had scented submarines. We on board were soon to hear our first sound of actual war. A depth bomb, dropped within half a mile, shakes even a mighty ship such as ours. What it does to the submarine has been often described. We heard several such bombs that night, so were all keyed up to the experience of the following morning.

Reveille on shipboard was held at daybreak, each man reporting to the lifeboat that had been assigned to him. On the morning of the 11th of April, we were entering the waters between Scotland and the north of Ireland. The entrance to this channel was a pest spot for submarines. As ships converged to enter the Irish Sea they offered to enemy submarines the most tempting targets. Here it was that the Tuscania was sunk. Daybreak and dusk were the most propitious times for submarine attacks. At daybreak we had passed within a few miles of a convoy of from twenty-five to thirty ships, and had been joined by more destroyers. The day had fully dawned, and most of us had turned from the chill decks to hot breakfast, thinking that we were not to experience the excitement of a submarine attack.

Captain Edward B. Simmons, Company "D", Officer of the Day, was on deck about 8:30 A. M., when one of the destroyers nearby dropped two depth bombs. At about the same instant, Captain Simmons and others saw what they supposed to be the bubbling wake of a torpedo shoot under the forward quarter of the Carmania. (In reality the ship had crossed the wake of the torpedo.) Almost immediately there was a heavy explosion at the stern of the King Alfred, which was then steaming along about three hundred yards to our starboard. The torpedo had struck, not our ship for which it was obviously intended, but the King Alfred. Then we witnessed the most stirring scene-destroyers dashing about dropping depth bombs all around the convoy. As no second torpedo was seen, the submarine was undoubtedly destroyed by one of the first depth bombs. This incident was particularly remarkable because of the quickness of the destroyers in locating the submarine and dropping the bombs before the first torpedo had reached its mark. From the direction of the torpedo and the velocities and distances apart of the various. ships, it was calculated that the torpedo had been aimed at the Carmania and had crossed her bow within fifty feet. The damage to the King Alfred rendered that warship temporarily unseaworthy. Consequently she left our convoy and steamed into Londonderry, Ireland. In answer to a wireless message of sympathy to the commanding officer of the King Alfred, came back, with thanks, the characteristic British reply: "Carry on!"

No further incident of moment occurred during this voyage. The Carmania docked in Liverpool early on the morning of the 12th of April. The Regiment did not debark. however, until the morning of the 13th. On the night of the 12th-13th, German Zeppelins made one of their longest recorded raids across England and dropped bombs within twelve miles of Liverpool, plainly within earshot of us all. By this time, between the "subs" and the "Zeps", everyone was convinced that the Regiment was really beaded for the war.

Bright and early on the 13th of April, the Regiment marched from the Carmania to the several railroad yards in Liverpool and quickly entrained. The day was perfect as the Regiment sped through southern England. It was Saturday and many people were out-of-doors, working in the war-gardens near the railroad lines-doggedly and with true English persistence. It will be remembered that in England, late March and early April, 1918, was a period of great depression because of the terrible reverses of the British Armies in Picardy and Flanders. The Flanders catastrophe had occurred while our Regiment was at sea. The spirits of the English with whom we talked were very low, but none of us will forget their enthusiasm at the sight of the Americans. If for no other reason, the shipment of American troops through England was justified because of the inspiriting effect it had on the civilian morale.

The trip from Liverpool to Dover took only eight hours. The trains sped rapidly across the beautiful country, through the outskirts of London and on to Dover. Shortly after passing London war's gruesome picture was vividly painted for us. Train after train, loaded with wounded soldiers, passed, moving swiftly toward the city. These hundreds of bandaged men told all too plainly how desperate was the struggle across the channel, to join, which we were hurrying.

At Dover the Regiment spent the night, quartered in the chill barracks of Dover Castle. It was the consensus of opinion that there could be no more depressing place to spend the- night than this renowned and picturesque relic of Old England.

Thus it was that we "saw" England in eight hours! Many would like to see more of it, but Lieutenant-Colonel Per-Lee is about the only one of us who was fortunate enough (after the Armistice) to get leave to go to England. He enjoyed himself enough for the whole Regiment, so it is said.

During the day of the 14th of April, the Regiment was transported across the English Channel to Calais. Many wished for the mythical Calais-Dover tunnel, for the Channel was particularly boisterous. Capt. John W. Mark, our supply officer, an Englishman by birth, led the reaction of the Regiment against the roughness of the passage.

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