Alone At Sea In Wartime
By James E. McEldowney
Ruth's Rat Stories - Table of Contents Bachelor Days

A Cargo Ship and An Escort Vessel

Have you ever heard of a convoy? A ship convoy is made up of many great big ships all going in the same direction They go together for safety during wartime and have escort vessels with guns on them to protect them. It is fun to see a convoy. Each ship is longer than a football field. They plow through the water, each sending up a spray of water. They are scattered over the ocean like so many toy ships. They keep far enough apart so they will not run into each other even in a storm.

In one of the front ships is a man called the Commodore. He is in charge of all those ships. He has to "talk" with the captains of the ships in his convoy but he cannot use wireless because the enemy might be listening and come to know where the convoy is and try to sink the ships. Rather than wireless they use a powerful light. It flashes off and on, using short and long flashes. Every letter of the alphabet is made up of so many long and short flashes It uses what is known as the Morse code. Using the bright light they spell out the instructions the Commodore wants to give to the captains of the ships. At other times they send messages using flags. A man raises or lowers a little flag held in each hand to spell out the message. I used to know those flag signals. Now I have forgotten most of the letters.

I had to go to India during the war. We had lived there earlier, but now it was wartime and my family had to stay in the State s until it was safe for them to join me. You can read about their trip out to India in the story " The Mercy Ship Gripsholm."

Soon after Barbara was born I was told to go to a certain city where I would get on a ship for India. I could not even tell my family what the name of the city was. When I arrived in that city I was told that the ship I was to sail on was the very one the Commodore would also be on.

Now I can tel I you. We were to leave from New Orleans. After I got there I met another missionary who was also going on the same ship. He was going to China. He was a lovely southern man. while we were in New Orleans we traveled together by street car. In those days the white people rode in one end of the street car and the black people rode in the other end. once when we got on the street car all the seats for white people were taken. There were a couple of seats in the section for blacks. My friend said, "Jim, [++Page 36] come on. Let's sit down," and we sat with the blacks. Almost at once the conductor came. "Youall can't sit in this section." My friend was a little southern man who had a very southern accent. He said, "Well, if our brothers in the black section do not object, we will ride here." There was some chuckling among the black people. Had I said the same thing, using my mid-western accent, we would have been thrown off the streetcar, but hearing this from my friend, the conductor didn't know what to say. He turned away and let us stay. That was the first time I had ever experienced segregation. Segregation separates people according to the color of their skin.

After we had gotten on the ship there was a delay. The gunman for our ship, a young Englishman, had not returned to the ship. The whole convoy was delayed half a day while they searched everywhere in New Orleans for him. Finally they found him. He was half drunk, but the convey was still able to sail. When we got to Trinidad they took him off the ship and he was court marshaled and given a sentence of two years of hard labor.

I was on that ship in the convoy for over a month. Near Cuba we were stopped by an American warship. It came alongside our ship. They shot out a line between the ships and took off bags of mail. I had written my family and wanted them to know I was all right. That letter never reached them.

Sometimes as we sailed along a ship might leave the convoy to go to a port. At other times our convoy would pick up a number of ships from another convoy headed in another direction. At such a time, usually a number of our ships would leave our convoy and join the other one. We were in a convoy while we sailed along the north coast of South America then our ship had to go across the south Atlantic alone without convoy. We were headed for South Africa.

We sailed alone for two weeks before we reached Cape Town, South Africa. The first morning the captain called us. "You will have to help us now that we are alone, Each passenger is expected to stand guard two hours each day and night at assigned posts along the tailing. You will have to look carefully at the ocean and report to me if you see any sign of a submarine." Just before we reached Cape Town someone reported a submarine and the ship began going in circles and weaving back and forth. That continued most of the night. We escaped but a British transport in the same area was torpedoed. I saw it a few days later tied up at the dock. There was a big hole in the side of the ship where a torpedo had struck, but the ship did not sink. It made it to port.

When we reached Cape Town, we experienced segregation once more. Among our passengers were five well-trained black officers who were being sent by the American government to Ethiopia to train pilots and help the Emperor. In Cape Town the rest of us passengers were sent to one of the best hotels in the city. It was [++ Page 37] marked "for whites only." Blacks were supposed to go to some very inferior hotels reserved for blacks only. But these black officers were on American government business and it became almost a diplomatic problem. After two or three hours word came for the blacks to go to an American hostel in the city where American soldiers and sailors lived together in barracks.

The chief minister of the Anglican Church in Cape Town heard how these very fine black men had been refused a proper place to stay. The next Sunday he invited all five of them to come to his cathedral, which was for whites only, and he gave them an honored place to sit. I was proud of him for showing them that dignity.

After I had been in Cape Town three weeks and I had not found a way to go on to India, I was told to go to Durban, across South Africa on the east coast. Even on the trains there was segregation and the African black people had to ride in very poor cars. But I found the trip an exciting adventure.

In Durban I was finally able to get passage to India. Before we left I went out to some black churches. one had been built near the ocean. It was unusual. Years before the volcano on the island Krakatau, in Indonesia erupted and much of it had been blown into the sky. The dust and dirt from it filled the air to a great height and it drifted around the world for some months. Some of the dirt fell on ocean waters. Gradually it was churned up into floating balls, rock shaped, light in weight, and over the years some of it had floated all the way to, the coast of Africa. People called it pumice. The black people had used pumice for the roof of their church. It was quite a historic building.

On the way north from Durban we were in another convoy. That convoy had small escort vessels that could travel only four knots an hour (about five miles an hour), That meant that all of the ships had to travel at that speed.

My ship was an old one, that had been used in India-Africa trade. We had more than 100 passengers. My cabin was down near the engine room and was so hot that at night I brought the bedspread up on deck and found a safe spot to lie down. When I woke up in the morning I was so grateful that we had made it safely through the night that I sang, "When morning gilds the skies, my heart awakening cries, may Jesus Christ be praised!" Then when we sat down to breakfast we were served cooked cereal. Each morning as I received my cereal I would take my spoon and lift out the numerous grubs that had been cooked in it and stack them along the edge of my bowl. Then I ate the cereal and was thankful for it.

One day when I was playing deck tennis at the back of the ship, the table suddenly seemed to stand on edge. Actually the ship began to go in circles for the Captain had seen an airplane off in the distance. He guessed that it was a Japanese plane from [++Page 38] submarine and that they must have seen our convoy.

That night one of the nurses on board our ship became seriously ill. Lights flashed out over the water as the captain asked the Commodore permission to leave the convoy and rush ahead to get her to a hospital in Mombassa. We reached there two days ahead of the convoy. when the convoy arrived in Mombassa we were told that one of the ships had been sunk by the Japanese submarine.

For more than two months I had been on the way and I had not heard from my family, nor had I been able to receive word from them, so when we reached Mombassa I decided to send a cable. In it I was careful not to say where I was or where I was going but I merely reported that I was all right. In a couple of days I received a reply from Ruth giving the same information about the family. Then two police officers came to the ship to arrest me for sending a cable. I told what I had said, then I asked them, "If it is against the law to send a cable, should not those in the cable- office refuse it?" That was the last I heard from them.

Mombassa is a wonderful harbor. You enter it between beds of coral. The coral is brilliantly colored red, blue, yellow and green. Once inside the harbor one is very safe.

When we left Mombassa we had to cross the Indian Ocean without convoy or escort. After two weeks we passed through the locks into the inner harbor at Bombay, India. There along the dock were two large ships, waiting to take many people from India to America and Europe. We tied up and the agent met me and said "You could not have come at a more inconvenient time. All the hotels and guest houses were crowded with people waiting to get on those ships." The best he could offer was a place on his office floor, so I spent the night in his office. Because the armed forces were given preference in wartime it was a few days before I could get a ticket for Jabalpur. I had been three and a half months on the way. The agent in Bombay said he would send a cable to Ruth and tell her I had arrived, but he forgot and it was a week before he sent it. By that time I had written to her that all was well, but she would not get that letter for a month.

Soon after I left Bombay there was a terrific explosion. A ship had entered the inner harbor with a load of explosives. it should not have been permitted in. I had hardly reached Jabalpur when that ship blew up. It scattered bits of ship for miles around and sank 26 ships including the one I had come on. A report of it was in the Reader's Digest about that time. How fortunate I was to have left Bombay when I did.

Now as I recall that trip I am amused because in Cape Town I had gone with Dr. Stewart, a botanist, to the University of South Africa. Stewart had sent many plants from India to the University over the years and they welcomed him. While I was there I saw some [++Page 39] beautiful Crepe Myrtle bushes and I asked for a small one to take to India. I looked forward to plant it on the campus. All the way across South Africa and up the coast and across to India I had taken care of that plant. Then when I got to the campus I discovered that the campus was alive with Crepe Myrtle. It had been there all the time but I had never seen it before. There is a lesson in that story. We should learn to notice what is around us. I was more than glad to be in India once more so I could help out at the college at a time I was needed. [By James E. McEldowney, August 1997]

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