HISTORY
of
THE 308th INFANTRY

By

L. Wardlaw Miles

Chapter 2
The Crossing


CHAPTER II

The Crossing

STRAIGHT through the night of April 5th, men toiled making the final arrangements for departure. Up to almost the last hour, transfers from and additions to,. the companies, with the entailed paper work, went on in orderly rooms and at Regimental Headquarters. Then, in the dark, the companies lined up for the last time before Upton's barracks, which had been finally policed, and were now left empty of the life which had filled them for seven months. For the last time in that place each company was called to attention and marched off down " 5th Avenue." Singing gaily, they proceeded to the station. Here waited two companies which Captain Lindley had received from Captain Osborne of the Depot Brigade to supply the places of any possible deserters. There proved, however, no necessity to use a single individual from these companies; the Regiment left without the loss of one man. In the early daylight the train was boarded for one last trip to Long Island City. Crowds lined the ferry slip, scanning the ranks of khaki-clad men with the hope of obtaining a last word with some friend or relative. joking with the crowd, the voyagers boarded the ferry boats and, supplied with welcome cans of Red Cross coffee, sailed in the morning sunlight down the river and around the Battery to dock at North River piers.


The review at Upton before embarkment

The transports lay at the docks ready to depart. Loading did not take long. In two hours the transports Lap-land, Cretic, and Justicia, with the 1 St, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions respectively, started down the river. No one was permitted on deck, and so the last view of the New York skyline was at best bounded by the limits of a porthole. In spite of the jealous secrecy, which guarded our departure, it is possible that some general suspicion may have been aroused. At any rate, the windows of lower New York were alive with fluttering handkerchiefs, and the whistles of all passing boats added their shrill good wishes. And high overhead in the sun of early spring the Statue of Liberty looked down on the ships carrying thousands of men each of whose equipment bore her stamped image. How many crimes-how many blunders worse than crimes-are committed in her name! Yet, however faulty our purpose and our preparation, it was not altogether either crime or blunder which was sending these thousands so widely differing in race, fortune, and desires on one common journey for one common end.

With New York behind them, the men turned their attention to making themselves comfortable and inspecting the vessels. Each had been handed a ticket with his berth number and his place at mess. Those so unfortunate as to be in the hold cheerfully admitted that they were S. 0. L., while the Sergeants who were lucky enough to draw staterooms listened sympathetically to them. On the Cretic, Major Budd discovered from the ship's officers that the Cretic's accommodations limited to 1500 men, would have to be stretched to take care of the 2032 assigned to his command. The extremely overcrowded conditions were cheerfully borne, although running each meal in three shifts was a distinct hardship on the soldiers. Life belts, distributed to all, were carried on the person throughout the entire trip. Like many other objects of military equipment, they were never put to the use for which they were designed.

The first night aboard was for many as unique an experience as the first night in camp. No lights were permitted to show after dark, and smoking on deck was prohibited. April 7th dawned with calm seas and bracing air. Indeed throughout the whole trip the weather was unusually good for the season of the year. The decks were thronged by those who eagerly sought fresh air after the poor ventilation below. The mess, now under British control, contrasted with the Upton diet. Meals eaten in the stuffy atmosphere of the hold were none too appetizing.

On the afternoon of the 8th we anchored in Halifax Harbor, to remain twenty-four hours taking on coal and water, and awaiting the remainder of the convoy. Among the ships joining us was H. M. S. Queen Victoria with Australian troops already sixty-eight days at sea. In the harbor opportunity was seized to practice the life boat drill. Boats were lowered, and men went down the ropes in succession to row merrily about the bay, just at sunset of the 9th a great sounding of whistles warned all to stand by; anchors were weighed; and the transports swung into line. Led by the U. S. scout cruiser St. Louis, flying the American flag, nine huge gray ships, grotesquely camouflaged, steamed proudly out to sea, flanked by British and American battleships and craft of every description. From a British battleship was heard its band playing in succession Over There and, The Star Spangled Banner. A little further on a U. S. Marine Band burst with characteristic national tempo into There'll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.

Behind, in contrast to all this music and movement stood the charred ruins left by the explosion which Q razed Halifax a few months earlier, and still further back, the bleak snow-covered hills. But in front-when the breakwater had been passed and the boats had turned their noses sharply to the east-in front of us lay "Over There," the yet unseen and unknown land of which at that hour it was customary to sing in humorous paraphrase:

"And we won't come back
When it's over over there."

The S.S. Cretic, with a capacity of 1500 men, transported the 2000 of the 2nd Battalion

2

The voyage was uneventful. Guard duty, performed day and night, and a constant watch for submarines broke the monotony. Although the submarines never appeared on the field of vision, they formed the chief topic of conversation and became the subject of many a practical joke. One corporal is reported to have posted his guard on a pitch black night and admonished them to keep a sharp lookout for black buoys. Despite their vigilance none was reported. A bonafide bounty of one hundred pounds was offered to anyone sighting a submarine, but in spite of many thrills from floating barrels and boxes, fortunately it was never won.

Boat drill was held twice daily under the strictest discipline. Orders were issued to shoot any man who violated rules in case the extreme emergency should arise. The sound of the bugle might call for an emergency drill at any moment-it sounded particularly inconveniently for any officer who happened to be enjoying the luxury of a bath-and immediately hundreds of men would scramble above decks and rush hurriedly up and down companionways, each to find his appointed post and there answer to his name. To each was assigned a definite duty to perform in order to facilitate the prompt and orderly lowering of the lifeboats. Though the lessons which they taught were never applied, the drills served both as diversion and discipline.

In addition to the boat drills the chief diversion was that of music and concerts. On the Cretic, Captain Mills unearthed a badly mutilated piano from the depths of the hold and with it did much to relieve the monotony. The sight of this handsome officer in hip boots flushing the decks with a hose will never be forgotten by his devoted men. On Sunday morning, Father Halligan held Mass aboard the Lapland. An altar was erected on the lower stern deck. Here in the brilliant sunlight knelt hundreds of khaki-clad men while the Padre, clad in his bright vestments, performed his offices, and the candle flames swayed back and forth in the gentle sea airs.

A few selections from the 2nd Battalion diary will serve to recall the voyage:

APRIL 15TH. Reported presence of enemy submarine. Smoke and cloud bombs dropped overboard from several ships forming a clouded screen across the rear path of the convoy. Battle cruiser St. Louis performing a wide detour to the north sped back under cover of the smoke and cloud screen but with no report of enemy sub.

APRIL 16TH. Merchant vessel intercepted, advises that armed convoy is on its way to meet us.

APRIL 17TH. Eleventh day out from N. Y. Eighth day from Halifax. Clear and calm. Cruiser St. Louis has turned back. Left during night. 5 P.m.-Convoy of eight British torpedo boat destroyers meet us and accompany us forth-with.

APRIL 18TH. Wireless report of French merchantman torpedoed, 50 miles to the Southwest.

Thus for ten days the convoy plowed its way across the Atlantic with the confidence-inspiring St. Louis ever in the fore. The relative positions of the vessels were constantly changing, and the men filled in idle moments by counting the varying numbers of groups, or noting the suddenly shifted direction which any vessel might at a moment adopt. Gun drill was held aboard each ship daily. On the eleventh day, the ever-vigilant submarine watch observed small specks on the horizon ahead. A fleet of submarines of course! The rumor spread fast and every rail was crowded. On the bridge sailors were signaling, and lights flashed the International Code. As the specks grew larger, some one with glasses announced that they flew the Union Jack, and an audible breath of relief escaped from, the crowd when the approaching craft were recognized as British destroyers.

A more inspiring sight cannot be imagined than these small vessels darting first in one direction and then another. The moderate sea then running tossed them up and down like bits of cork, and frequently swept them from bow to stern. In spite of this they were ever on the alert, quartering back and forth like bird dogs, with such an evident nose for danger as to give the onlooker a very comfortable sense of confidence during the rest of the journey through the submarine zone.

Land was sighted on the 19th, as the convoy passed the south coast of Ireland. Needless to say many a wistful glance was cast toward those green shores where not a few of the 3o8th had been born. But soon the Cliffs of Wales loomed up, the guardian destroyers dropped off, and anchor was lowered in the River Mersey at Liverpool. An English mist obscured most of the landscape, but through it rows of neat dwellings and green lawns could be dimly discerned. The following morning the vessels docked at Liverpool, and soon hob-nailed boots were planted again on terra firma.

 

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