American Red Cross Girls During World War II
CHAPTER 5 / U-BOATS
It was lunch time on Sunday, several days after the Rangitata had sailed out of New York Harbor. Lisa was enjoying the special lunch which the crew had prepared to mark a special day. Suddenly there was a loud crash which shook the Rangitata and sent dishes and cups skittering across the table. Lisa thought the ship had exploded. Although they had all been warned many times about the possibility of attack by German U-boats, Lisa did not think of that as a possibility. She had supposed that U-boats always sneaked up on ships that passed in the night. The idea of U-boats attacking in broad daylight, and on Sunday, did not occur to her.
The emergency bell started ringing short continuous rings, which meant passengers were to go to their emergency stations. Along with everyone else, Lisa stood up and was struggling to put on her overcoat and Mae West. Lt. Hanson came up behind her and calmly and politely helped her with her coat. Then with a quick salute, he was gone to attend to his duties as commander of the American Navy personnel on board. Lt. Hanson... a true hero, always an officer and a gentleman. Lisa was sure that he had been sent by a divine Providence to help her through the trying days after Steve's death.
At the time, however, Lisa was not thinking about how wonderful Lt. Hansen was. The ship's emergency bell was ringing short, continuous rings, and Lisa was trying to remember what that meant. Overwhelmed by the panic of the moment, she had forgotten! She was not concerned about that however, because by that time her instincts had taken over, and her instincts told her to get to the top deck and jump overboard.
She almost made it too. But when she reached the rail a guard grabbed her by the coat belt and collar and literally threw her down the stairs to the deck below. Subdued and ashamed, Lisa came to her senses and returned to her station where she found the other Red Cross personnel and Mr. Briggs calmly standing in the hallway holding their "escape kits." These were waterproof bags that were stocked with combs, lip-stick, towels, wash cloths, Kleenex, face cream and other things that might be useful in a lifeboat. Elsa, too, had braved the cold, and had crawled out of her bunk for this emergency. She was sitting on her escape kit, and she was laughing, which for some reason irritated Lisa. "What are you laughing about?" Lisa scolded. "It isn't funny."
"I'm laughing because everyone looks so scared. And besides it's better than crying."
" You have a weird sense of humor," Lisa remarked, and was immediately ashamed. "I'm sorry I said that. You did a lot better than I did."
Elsa laughed, "That's all right," I'm scared, too. I was worried about you. I thought you were never going to get here. Were you kissing Lt. Hanson a last farewell?"
"Not really," Lisa replied. "I was rescuing women and children."
"I really was worried about you,"Elsa said. "It would not be easy to break a new roommate in to my ways."
Lisa thought, "You can say that again." But she didn't say it, because she was proud of Elsa. Indeed, Elsa had the kind of courage that was an inspiration to Lisa. As she turned to enter the stateroom to pick up her escape kit, Lisa vowed to herself that she would never panic again, and all through the trying years ahead, she never did.
When Lisa returned from the stateroom, a Canadian officer was there briefing the group: "The Rangitata is not the ship that has been hit by a torpedo," he explained. "Although we were the main target, the first torpedo missed our ship and they took the tanker behind us."
"Is it sinking?" someone asked.
"It got a direct hit, and I doubt that it will make it to shore," the officer replied.
"Do you suppose we could see it?" Elsa asked, moving her hips and flashing her come-on smile which was her never- fail method of conning some man into doing something she wanted done.
"Yes, if you'd like." the officer replied, " I'll open the porthole in your stateroom, and you can see."
Lisa knew it was against regulations to open the porthole, and particularly in an emergency, and she started to so inform the officer. But Elsa put her hand over Lisa's mouth, and the officer opened the porthole.
Lisa and Elsa peered out and with startled and tear-filled eyes watched the drama of a sinking ship. The oil tanker had been hit dead center, and had caved in with both ends up, looking like a huge "V" for Victory sign. Heavy black smoke was billowing up around the ship, and the men who had often waved to them from the deck, were jumping over the side into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Sea.
Lisa watched anxiously, hoping to see a rescue ship pick up the men who were swimming about in the water. But all they could see was a Hudson bomber (probably from Iceland} which was flying overhead dropping depth charges into the ocean in an effort to strike and sink an enemy submarine. Lisa and Elsa were so engrossed in watching the tragedy unfold before them that they did not know an American officer was standing behind them until he yelled at them: "What do you two think you're doing?"
Both girls jumped away from the porthole and turned to face him. "We're watching," Elsa said inanely.
"That's obvious," the officer said sarcastically."I should report you for a reprimand. This isn't a game. This is war, and open portholes could cause deaths. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"
Lisa knew the officer was right, and once again she was ashamed for behaving badly in time of emergency.
But no-one could get away with calling Elsa stupid. "Go ahead, have us court-marshaled," she dared the officer. "that would be something different for the home folks to read about."
The officer glared at her, turned on his heel and left, and once again Lisa was witness to the awesome fact that Elsa knew almost everything about everything, and used her considerable knowledge to her own advantage.
Elsa knew, for instance, that the army couldn't do much about the Red Cross or its personnel. The Red Cross was an entity unto itself, and its members were protected by public opinion at home, a well-established but slow moving bureaucracy in Washington, and its own unique position as ombudsmen between the enlisted personnel and the military brass. The Red Cross people could, and sometimes did, get away with almost anything.
When the all-clear sounded, the Red Cross girls rushed to the top deck for a better view. By that time the stricken ship had stopped smoking, and miraculously was still afloat. They could see lifeboats catching the sunlight, bobbing about her. A corvette stayed with the ship, and they could see sprays of water shooting skyward whenever the Hudson bomber or the corvette dropped a depth charge. Lisa prayed: "Please God, save the seamen from drowning."
The Rangitata did not stop, but callously left the sinking ship and the convoy and headed south at full speed, zig zagging across the Atlantic Ocean... a maneuver which extended the length of the trip by some ten days. The food situation necessarily deteriorated, the temperature warmed and rumors ran rampant, such as: "The Rangitata was being followed, and had gone so far South it wouldn't reach England for weeks." The rumors didn't do anything to boost sagging morale, especially amongst the troops on the lower decks, who became moody and irritable. It was Mr. Briggs' idea to recruit Red Cross girls and enlisted men with any kind of talent, and organize a variety show to entertain the troops in an effort to relieve the deadly monotony.
Mr. Briggs expected the Red Cross personnel to contribute much of the talent, but he was disappointed. With the exception of Elsa, who was a professional dancer, and a girl called Mississippi, who had been a singer for a Mississippi Hill Billy band, he drew a dismal blank. However, all of the girls were willing to try, and they hoped to persuade Elsa to teach a chorus-line dance routine, but she refused. "I'll do a solo," she said.
Fortunately there was a really fabulous accordion musician aboard who agreed to furnish the music for whatever acts Mr. Briggs could come up with. Lisa decided to try out for a jitterbug routine. Her partner was a sailor by the name of Tom Brodier who was a phenomenal jitterbug. They won the try-out easily, and Tom set out to teach Lisa a professional routine.
After several days of six hours a day practice on a three-by-five foot platform at the head of a stairway, Lisa learned the rhythmic off-beat step of the jitterbug, and a dozen or more "wild" variations...a "rug-cutting" routine of kicks and whirls, and a fantastically difficult technique of cooperating while Tom whipped her between his legs and back on her feet. It was all quite impossible, but they did it.
During all this practice, Tom furnished the music, which was a mumbled and monotonous, but rhythmic, "Whatcha know, Joe. I don't know nothing."
When they danced in the show, the accordionist played "In the Mood," an inspired dance tune that would forever bring smiles to the faces of all jitterbug enthusiasts. Lisa was satisfied that she and Tom weren't bad, and in fact, they received an especially enthusiastic reception from the British and Canadian forces aboard, most of whom were not acquainted with the jitterbug, which would soon become the most popular dance of the war years.
The star of the show was, of course, Elsa, who did a rhumba routine that was sexy and glamorous and showed off her astounding ability to twirl her hips about in a way that wowed the men. Elsa, who had some kind of a sixth sense, and was always prepared for any opportunity to shine over others, had brought with her a tight fitting black sequin dance dress, black nylon hose, and high-heeled shoes. Lisa thought Elsa's costume was unfair competition for the other Red Cross show girls who wore Red Cross uniforms and flat-heeled walking shoes.
Elsa's dance may have been a sensation, but most of the other acts in the show were good too, and some were show stoppers. There were singers, magicians, skits, and a group of six RAF flying sergeants, who had astonishingly well-trained and lovely voices, and who sang the wonderful Air Force songs; "I've Got Six Pence," and "Around the Square." Almost everyone agreed it was a fine show.
The only men who were not appreciative of the efforts of the variety show cast was a group of surly ex-guardhouse prisoners who were quartered in the meat freezing compartment on a lower deck. Surely, they had little cause to be happy about anything. They were to be among the first of the invasion forces, and that must have been an unpleasant prospect for the future. As for the present, they were crowded together, elbow to elbow, at long mess tables during the day, and at night they slept in hammocks which were swung above the tables. Day and night, refrigeration pipes dripped water on them. Perhaps they had a right to protest an invasion of their miserable quarters by more fortunate military personnel and a group of Red Cross girls who were trying to entertain them. Nevertheless, the cast members were disconcerted when the soldiers booed their efforts. Mr. Briggs soon cancelled the show, and directed the Red Cross girls to distribute comfort kits which contained playing cards, thread, needles, and buttons. Then he ordered the cast to leave the premises immediately.
During the long days, the American officers pulled rank, and amused themselves by ordering the Red Cross girls to report to the top deck where they commanded the girls to "fall in"for drill which included marching up smoke stacks, into life boats, and over the rail. Elsa was the only one who refused to submit herself to this indignity. When the order to top deck was relayed to her, she would merely grunt in disgust and turn over in her bunk. Nothing detrimental ever happened to her, and Lisa thought it must be wonderful to be as wise as Elsa.
Passengers aboard the Rangitata were always seeing things. Someone saw a flying fish; someone saw a whale; someone saw a school of porpoises; someone saw a human body. Then one day, someone saw a sea gull. And very soon thereafter they all saw land...Ireland. It was a wonderful sight for passengers aboard the Rangitata, and everyone rushed to the top deck to laugh, cry and applaud.
Soon, however, passengers were saddened when it came time to bid farewell to shipboard friends. The Rangitata docked at an Irish port, and that evening Lisa and Lt. Hanson were standing on deck watching a tender ship pull alongside when an officer came up to inform Lt. Hanson that he and his men were to board the tender within twenty minutes.
Lisa was shocked. "So soon?"
Lt. Hanson put his hand across her shoulder."Keep standing here," He said. "I want to see you once again before I leave." Then for the first time he put his arms around Lisa and kissed her on the lips. It was a tender, gentle kiss from a very young man who obviously had not kissed many girls in his young life before he became a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was sent off to command an American submarine in the dangerous waters of the South Pacific. With a brisk salute he left to prepare his men to leave the ship. Lisa watched with tears in her eyes as Lt. Hanson and his men boarded the tender. Lt. Hanson then stood alone on the bow... straight, tall, and handsome. Wearing a navy uniform already decorated with medals for bravery in action, he stood at attention, saluting while the sailors sang "Anchor's Aweigh." Lisa waved until the tender disappeared in the dusk. She was thinking how much she was indebted to Lt. Hanson for helping to make her trip across the Atlantic a glorious adventure, and for the sailor, Tom Brodier, who taught her how to do a super jitterbug. She would never forget them. It did not enter her mind that she would never see them again.
The next day, the Rangitata sailed through the Irish Sea, and that evening docked at Avonmouth on the South coast of England. It was the last day of the twenty-two day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, and the passengers danced on the deck, exchanged addresses with friends, and made plans to meet again in London. Mr. Briggs held an evening meeting which was attended by the British Liaison officer who had valiantly exerted strict control of the troops and civilians aboard the Rangitata. The Red Cross girls were pleasantly surprised when he complimented them for behaving "beautifully" and for bringing much cheer to the officers and men aboard the Rangitata.
Elsa couldn't control her glee. "We all thought you hated us," she taunted him.
"Of course not," he smiled. I thought you were wonderful, but it's my duty to appear stern to maintain discipline. I'm sorry."
Elsa smiled her sexy smile. "We forgive you," she said. "We think you are wonderful, too."
The officer's face turned red, and Lisa felt sorry for him.
She thought Elsa used her come-on tricks too much.
The other girls were irritated, too, and they glared at Elsa. The truth of the matter was that all of them were intrigued with this young Englishman who was handsome, disciplined, and who, all through the trip, had been completely unapproachable.
He had been the subject of many compliments and much speculation, and now Elsa was obviously attracting his attention. They were all just plain jealous.
The next morning dignitaries from Avonmouth came aboard the Rangitata to greet the passengers and welcome them to England. The Lord High Constable of Avonmouth was there in top hat and tails, and wearing a beautiful jeweled emblem about his neck. A British Air Commodore was there to greet the Canadian and British forces, and an American Major to greet the American forces.
The American Major called a meeting of the American personnel in the club room where he lectured them on how to conduct themselves in England. He warned them to observe security regulations, refrain from complaining about the accommodations or food, and he warned them not to mention Wally Windsor, whose marriage to Prince Edward had caused the prince to give up the throne of England.
The major then distributed booklets which reiterated all of his instructions except the Wally Windsor one, and also contained some valuable information about English money and its American equivalents.
After the lecture Mr. Briggs gave each girl a paper bag containing an apple
and two meat sandwiches, and directed them to return to their staterooms and prepare to leave the ship.
"Mr. Briggs is a thoughtful man," Lisa remarked. "He even worries that we might not have enough to eat."
"He has been good to us." Elsa agreed. "At least he did the best he could under the circumstances."
The Red Cross girls donned their several layers of clothing, hitched their gas masks, musette bags, and pocketbooks over their shoulders, picked up their suitcases, and in full fighting regalia, marched down the gangplank, across the deck, and up to the English trains that were waiting there to receive them.
The English train was smaller than Lisa expected. "It looks like a Walt Disney cartoon train," she said. "I think it's kinda cute."
"I just hope it makes it to London," Elsa replied, as they settled themselves into a cramped compartment..
Elsa needn't have worried. The little train humped itself, jerked, groaned and puffed away without incident all the way to London Town where Mr. Briggs said they were to report to the American Red Cross headquarters and await further orders.