Texas Military Forces Museum


111th Observation Squadron
World War II Narrative History

Part V:  At Sea, Again

We remained on the Letitia a week while she lay in a harbor loading on more troops and supplies. Compared with the Queen Mary the Letitia was a rowboat and she boasted none of the conveniences we had enjoyed aboard ship a month earlier. Our quarters were one large compartment aft, and two levels below the top deck. The large room served as both living quarters and dining hall. We slept in hammocks which were suspended over the tables at night and taken down and rolled up during the day. Ten men were assigned to each table and they paired off to serve as table attendants and M.P.'s. Before chow time they grabbed an assortment of pots and pans and carried them to the galley where they were filled with food. The hot food was then carried back to the dining hall. They also fetched wash and rinse water for our mess gear. We found here what we had also discovered in England -- some people have peculiar ideas about food. Items such as creamed herring, mutton stew and corned willie kept popping up on the menu, but found few admirers. There was plenty of good bread, though, which was baked daily, and we wolfed it down along with plenty of fresh New Zealand butter. Each day we took part in boat and air raid drill and loosened up with calisthenics on the top deck. Some of our members were aerial gunners and they were assigned to anti-aircraft gun turrets for the remainder of the voyage.

About ten o'clock on the night of October 27, 1942, the Letitia weighed anchor, and it, with scores of other troop transports, destroyers, battleships, cruisers, and flat-tops, slithered down the Firth o' Clyde, past small craft which held open the submarine nets to allow us to pass. We could only guess as to our destination.

By morning we were well out to sea an some of us were experiencing the first discomforts of sea sickness. The Letitia was surrounded by scores of vessels, many carrying Dutch, French and Greek flags, while most flew the Union Jack. At regular intervals the entire convoy would change direction to the accompaniment of blinker lights and pennant signals. Destroyers and sub chasers patrolled the outer rim of the convoy and, in the days that were to follow, many times we would watch them converge on one spot and unloose their depth charges which would blow geysers of water fifty feet high upon exploding. After one such run all the ships in the convoy lowered their flags to half-mast momentarily, and then ran them back up again. From this we surmised that an enemy sub had been definitely sunk.

The days passed slowly. One night a fire broke out in one of the supply holds, but it was extinguished quickly. As the ship progressed southward it became uncomfortably warm below decks, and despite the danger of torpedoing we found it necessary to remove all of our clothes in order to sleep at all. We were given atabrine tablets as a precaution against malaria and they caused many men to become nauseated in addition to those who were already chronic sea-sick sufferers.

On the afternoon of November 6 our convoy broke into two elements for the purpose of passing through the Strait of Gibraltar. Shortly after ten o'clock that night we were able to make out the outline of the "Rock" on our port side and marveled at the display of lights emanating from the city of Tangiers on the Spanish Moroccan side. While we were passing Gibraltar in the darkness a low-flying seaplane cropped a flare directly over the Letitia, which lighted up the ship and everything else within a radius of a half-mile. For awhile we thought they had us, but apparently everything was O.K., because no shattering explosion followed.

From the time we passed into the Mediterranean Sea (Mussolini's Pond), all gun crews were constantly on the alert, and every man wearing dog tags sweated out the first attack from the much-vaunted Luftwaffe. It never came. All day long on November 7 we circled in the Mediterranean like a sitting duck as the convoy re-formed. By this time we had been thoroughly briefed on the purpose and scope of our mission. In addition, each man had been given a small, blue booklet describing the country we were invading and listing do's and don'ts in regard to our conduct with the natives. We were also given a small American flag which we were to wear on our upper left arm. Just the presence of that flag gave all of us a world of confidence in ourselves. Shortly after midnight on November 8 we gathered around the radio amplifier in our quarters to listen to President Roosevelt address the people of North Africa and explain to them what we were attempting to do. We listened without comment until the realization hit us as the President was talking about us. We were the guys who were supposed to be doing all this! Somewhere, not far from us, more dogfaces like ourselves were taking and holding enemy ground, getting shot at and getting hit. Our time would come soon.

By 5 a.m. on November 8 our ship had crept into position about one mile off shore from the harbor of Arzew, Algeria. In the thin dawn we could make out the ghost gray outlines of houses and buildings bespattering the hills. On our right the British battleship Rodney was plunking fourteen-inch shells into the fort at Oran, which is about twenty miles west of Arzew. In our sector sprays of 20-mm tracers and small-arms fire were visible, reaching from and to the shore. Outside of the periodic roar from the Rodney's big guns everything was ominously quiet. Shortly after 7 a.m. the combat engineers aboard our ship had started down the scramble nets into assault boats which reared and bobbed maddeningly in the heavy sea. By evening the first wave from our squadron had reached shore, where they spent the night in a wine warehouse listening to the zing of sniper's bullets. Drinks were on the house! The ever increasing choppiness of the water prevented any further disembarkation operations, so the remainder of the squadron turned in to await another try in the morning.

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