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Shipping out - By train and ship to the Azores

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On 20 December 1943 at around 1700 hours the first train left on the 2,500 mile trip to the east coast, carrying the men and equipment of companies B and C. A second train followed two to three hours later with H&S company and company A. Their destination was Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia and the port of Hampton Roads. Even with the fastest streamliners of the day the trip from Idaho would have taken three days, and the 801st Engineers did not enjoy that luxury.

GIs on train
G.I.s on the shuttle train between Camp Patrick Henry and Hampton Roads

The railroads bore the brunt of transportation around the United States in World War II. Traffic soared to record levels as millions of men and uncounted tons of equipment were moved from training camps to embarkation points and from factories to ports. Whole trains of oil and gasoline tank cars were forced to take the place of tanker ships that were being sunk by the dozens right off the American coast by German U-boats.

This was all done by private companies that had struggled and tightened their belts through the lean years of the depression. They had to call into service every possible piece of old and worn-out equipment to handle the burden, and had to make up for key personnel who had left for service in the Armed Forces. That they succeeded as well as they did is a testament to their ingenuity and hard work. But the result was that the 801st rattled their way across the continent in cars that were often relics of an earlier era, shunting from siding to siding on overcrowded main lines.

Christmas dinner was box lunches served on the journey, a melancholy thing for young men, many of whom had never been away from home for Christmas before. The trip was described even in the official history as "long and tiring."

Nine days of processing and preparation at Camp Patrick Henry included being issued a new gas mask and training on all aspects of loading and unloading ships - including abandon ship drill. Shortly after noon on January 3rd the 801st loaded into one more train for the ten-mile trip to the docks at Hampton Roads.

The 801st sailed on four ships, three of which departed in convoy UGS-29 on January 3, 1944. The Liberty ship John Clark carried 18 officers and 326 men of the battalion. LST 44 carried six officers and 144 enlisted men, and LST 228 carried a detachment of 1 officer and 4 men. A second Liberty ship, the Gideon Wells, sailed ten days later with six officers and 300 enlisted men. Fifty-six other transport ships made up the convoy, which was guarded by thirteen warships, including the Escort Carrier USS Guadalcanal.

It was a fourteen-day voyage across the Atlantic to the Azores, all through waters infested with German submarines. Officers were accommodated in staterooms in the ship's superstructure. But it was obvious that enlisted men were not so much passengers as cargo. Over five hundred men were stowed in the forward hold, a space roughly sixty feet square with three hatches, one exit ladder and one electric light. Canvas hammocks were arranged five high in solid banks. And it was quickly noted that the Italian prisoners of war that had occupied the space on the Clark's previous journey to America had little or no opportunity to take advantage of the few salt-water showers.

The salt-water showers made lathering impossible and left a sticky skin that, according to the official history, discouraged "all but a few impeccables." The heads were troughs topped by board seats; they were flushed with salt water, and when the roll of the ship coincided with that of the trough, so were the men's backsides.

The authorities tried to make things a little easier. The first night each man got a Red Cross Kit containing a pocket sized book, sewing kit, stationery and playing cards, as well as a carton of cigarettes. Nevertheless, conditions in the dark and crowded hold were abysmal. According to the official history,

"The ship's motion caused food to spill from mess gear and some carelessness on the part of the men combined to make the place dirty most of the time. As the trip progressed the tarpaulin was coated with grease 1/8" thick and it demanded the agility of an acrobat to navigate one's way around... Midnight of any night was an unforgettable sight when viewing the hold as one ascended or descended the ladder, and was colorfully described as resembling a scene in the sewers of Paris. Bordering the square would be found the berths, some of which were occupied by men reading or sleeping. In the small, crowded square, several attempts to "redistribute the wealth" were being undertaken by various groups."

There were a few days of rain and cold, but the weather was generally good, allowing the men to line the rails and watch the "several score" of ships in the convoy. Occasionally an escorting plane from the "baby flat-top" (the US Guadalcanal) would fly overhead. Men were given immunization shots, and battalion Chaplain Captain McElroy held services both Sundays at sea.

About a week out of port the Ship Troop Commander, Lt. Col. Gray, cleared up the mystery of the ship's destination: the island of Terceira in the Azores. He stressed that the treaty between the Allies and Portugal permitted the American presence solely to assist the British in building an airdrome and its associated structures.

This simple explanation was in no way representative of the desperate political maneuvering that continued almost until the Americans showed up in the harbor. For some time it appeared that the 801st might have to shoot its way ashore, as the Portuguese government refused to allow anyone but "technicians" to land under the British treaty, and were adamant that armed troops would be opposed by Portuguese defenders. But diplomatic manuevering eventually paid off; in the end the Americans were to be considered as part of the Royal Air Force and the Portuguese garrison would stay in their barracks.

A few days later Lt. Col. Galanti elaborated that an airdrome built at Lagens would buy the one unpurchaseable commodity of war --- time. Building a good airfield at Lagens, he related, was the first step in shortening by 6,000 miles the current southern air route for the ferrying of aircraft and war materials to the European war zone. This route detoured down into the Caribean, to South America, and across to the coast of Africa, greatly reducing the service lives of the aircraft before they even reached the theater of operations.

On the morning of 17 January 1944, after 14 days at sea, the engineers of the 801st woke up in Angra harbor.

Next: the Azores - Strategic crossroads >>

Shipping out

The train trip from Idaho to the Virginia coast was long and miserable, with the soldiers crammed into ancient cars heated with coal-burning potbellied stoves. The train would often sit on sidings for hours as more important traffic went by the on the heavily burdened rail lines.

At one point in the Appalachians the train shunted into a siding for another long wait. Across a small field was a country store. First the men started slipping away by ones and twos, but soon hundreds of soldiers – officers included - crowded the store buying anything edible.

When the troop train finally got its clearance to proceed and began whistling for the soldiers to return there was a mad dash. The train was badly delayed as the men crowded on board up the steep steps from the ballast.