The day was Wednesday, 13 October 1943. The war in the Mediterranean had been grueling for me, commanding officer of the USS SC-692, a 110-foot subchaser with a crew of 30. We had been escorting convoys, guiding assault landing craft to their beaches, and patrolling against subs and E-boats along the coast of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy for almost a year. The SC's wooden sides were scarred with shrapnel from shore batteries at Licata and Salerno. The faded Stars and Stripes at her stern were full of jagged holes from the same actions. But this day all that was over for me. I was going home.
I was so happy at the prospect that for once I lost my appetite and could only get down a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee that morning. But the happiness was severely tempered by the sudden separation from those 29 young men with whom I had lived and fought as a tight-knit seagoing entity for so long. At quarters at 0730 the relevant orders were read, and the command went to the ship's superbly qualified XO—Ensign Charles Shelby Coffey Jr. I thanked the crew for their loyalty to me and their competence and went over the side with a final salute to the colors and the gallant little ship.
Then a whole different kind of adventure began. With my suitcase and seabag in the back, the 692's new CO drove me to the airport just inland of Palermo, Sicily, in a tiny little Fiat. We had liberated it from the Germans, who had liberated it from its long-lost original owner a year or so earlier. After a long wait on the muddy field, my C-47 took off at 1000 for Bizerte, Tunisia, across the Strait of Sicily, where I arrived at 1130. Bizerte was the SC's logistical base, so after determining that there was a flight to Algiers at 1400, I hitched a ride to the naval operating base to pick up my pay account and health record. But the base had been moved, and neither was available, which meant that I would have to make do on the passage home with the $20 in my pocket. I ran into a couple of SC skippers also en route home, but they were going in a Liberty ship, which would probably take three weeks. I was in a hurry and turned down their offer to join them.
The next leg was in another C-47, with aluminum bucket seats along the sides of the fuselage and rubber-lined firing holes in the windows, bound for Algiers. We took off at 1500, but an hour out, black oil began streaming from the port engine. We promptly put down on a Marston matting strip at Bone, a British night-fighter base a hundred miles or so east of Bizerte. It was quickly determined that the repair could not be completed that day, so the Brits fed us and put us up for the night. The accommodations consisted of tents with bunks of wood frames and stretched burlap with lighting provided by kerosene lanterns. (The "us" were three or four French Army officers, a U.S. Army chaplain, two Army Air Forces pilots, another U.S. Naval Reserve j.g., a Navy technician, and yours truly.) The following morning we washed up in borrowed helmets, shared a single towel, caught a quick breakfast, and were driven through the mud back to the field where, blessedly, the C-47 was ready to go again.
Except for a French fighter jock who did Immelmans and slow rolls within touching distance of the transport and caused some anxiety, it was a short and pleasant flight to Algiers. There, despite dire rumors of long delays, we caught a flight by way of the Gibraltar Strait to the U.S. naval air facility at Port Lyautey in French Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa. We arrived at 1740, the entire flight having been over water, along the North African coast, out through the strait, and south around the continental corner, presumably to avoid international complications flying over Spanish Morocco may have entailed.
Things were looking good. And they seemed to be getting better when a yeoman met us and asked for those desiring passage to the United States. I was first in line, my orders in my hand, ready to board and be off. I quickly filled out the necessary forms and handed them in. Then came the low blow.
"Have you had a yellow fever shot?"
I thought of all the dozens of shots I had in the last year. One of them had to have been yellow fever.
"Certainly," I said.
"Do you have your health record with you?"
"No. You see it was not available when I left my last command."
"Then I'm afraid you'll have to talk to the doctor in the morning, sir."
Morning brought an hour or so of discussion in which it was determined that without proof of the shot it would be necessary to give me another, followed by a medically required ten-day interval before I could fly. Learning all of that resulted in my boarding a truck the next day to Casablanca where a fast army troop transport, the Empress of Scotland, was due to sail for New York that evening. But once in Casablanca, I discovered the transport was full. The passenger list had been closed for a week and since then 200 people had been added.
As well as myself, two more were urgently applying for passage, a chief carpenter's mate and a reserve ensign I had talked into this apparently futile ride to Casablanca. At the last moment two confirmed passengers fell ill and had to cancel. How to decide which two would go? The transportation officer went by the book—senior man goes. That was me. But the chief had been overseas for a year and had been awaiting transportation for two weeks. I conceded my place to him. The ensign was about 20 and had been out as long as I had. I suggested a coin toss. I lost.
I next hopped a ride in a whaleboat out to a cruiser said to be leaving soon with a fast convoy. Aboard, it turned out she was not sailing for almost a week and the convoy was not fast. Back ashore I ran into a destroyer escort officer I knew who introduced me to his skipper. The DE happened to be named for my grandfather—the Robert E. Peary (DE-132). Her skipper offered me a ride home, but it would be a 21-day passage, so I passed.
It was time for a new approach—get the yellow fever shot. At a U.S. Army hospital a doctor listened to my sad story and agreed to give me the shot and date it ten days back. Problem solved! But there was no yellow fever vaccine available to him that week. I then heard that flying the northern route—by way of the UK, Greenland, and Newfoundland—did not require the shot. Oh boy! But sorry, there were no flights scheduled on that route for an indefinite time.
I took a break and had lunch. As I was leaving I noticed a Navy doctor getting into a jeep and asked if he was going to the hospital. He was, and I climbed in beside him. On the way I gave him my by-now much-practiced appeal, and he bought it.
"You're an officer; I'm an officer. You tell me you have had a shot for yellow fever and all that is keeping you from flying home to your family is a record of the shot?" he asked. The doctor then told his yeoman to "type up a chit saying this is to certify that Lieutenant (j.g.) E. P. Stafford received yellow fever anti-toxin—what date did you say "October 1942." He signed it with a flourish and had to fend off my protestations of gratitude and appreciation. I immediately called for transportation back to Port Lyautey but did not depart before delivering a fifth of really good scotch to my benefactor.
Things were now looking a lot better, but a couple thousand miles were still between me and the USA. I talked the disbursing officer into paying me on a "memorandum account" and was listed on the next flight, a big four-engine flying boat, a PB2Y-3 Coronado. But it was having problems. The plane had been waiting down at Bathurst in British Gambia for an engine replacement so long that, in those biologically rich warm seas, it had picked up too many barnacles and so much slimy vegetation it couldn't get off the water after the new engine was installed. We heard the crew tried and failed to scrape the hull to get her airborne. They sent for a diver who was able to remove just enough of the stuff for takeoff with no load at all. It carried barely enough fuel to get her to Dakar, where a crane plucked her out of the water for a proper cleaning. Then it was back to Bathurst for full fuel and payload and up to Port Lyautey to make the all-important (to me) transatlantic flight. So I would be home in a day or two, right? Wrong.
A transoceanic flight in 1943 bore no resemblance at all to one in 2009. Our Coronado, now known as Barnacle Bill, came in on the afternoon of 20 October, flown by an all Pan-American crew, and the following evening the lucky 20-odd passengers boarded from a wooden dock on the Sebou River. Surprise! There were only eight seats—but no complaints. The payload consisted of a number of comfortable mail sacks, and if one was lucky, the bunk of a crew member on duty was available. The passengers covered the spectrum of the U.S. military. There were two Navy pilots with a chief aviation machinist's mate and a couple of air crewmen headed for Boston to pick up a plane and fly it back, a lieutenant commander from an amphibious staff who was going home to have all his teeth pulled and a plate fitted, another lieutenant commander was travelling with three very heavy mail sacks he never let out of his sight, a major in the Army medical corps, two warrant officers (a pay clerk and a carpenter), two U.S. Navy j.g.s, and the literal star of the list—Adolphe Menjou. Looking very dapper in his short, tailored Eisenhower army jacket and tiny, waxed moustache, the movie actor was returning from a USO tour.
This takeoff was nothing like those in the C-47s. We taxied what seemed like miles down the river, made a 180-degree turn, added full power with a sustained roar, and slowly picked up speed. I was afraid we were going to run out of river, but eventually the little pontoons on the wings folded outboard and became the wingtips, water stopped streaming past my window, and the ride suddenly became smoother as we were airborne. The Sebou is not straight, and the takeoff run required some turns, which slowed the necessary acceleration. As the sky turned orange at sunset, we circled up and out over the darkening sea and headed south. It was hot in the plane, and it reeked of high-octane fuel, but again there were no complaints. We were headed home.
Night came suddenly, like a fade-to-black at the movies. We read and chatted and, one by one, fell asleep. Reveille came with equal abruptness, the PanAm steward yelling and turning on the lights at 0500. But he was a couple of hours early, these big sea birds didn't takeoff or land in the dark. We splashed down at 0730 at Bathurst, British Gambia, about as far west in Africa as you can get, and moored to a buoy in a long line of similar Coronados and British Sunderlands. The crewmen who helped with the mooring and took us ashore in immaculately maintained small boats were the biggest, blackest men I had ever seen and dressed in starched, blindingly white shorts and uniform shirts. Even at 0730 it was stiflingly hot. But not for long. There was a quick breakfast of sausages and tea while the plane was refueled, and after what seemed like endless taxiing and thrashing around in the sea and in the heat, we were back in the air and finally headed west.
At first the flight was very pleasant, cooling as we gained altitude. Out the small windows we seemed to be drifting slowly through a world of bright blue and white—the blue sea and soft white clouds below and the paler blue sky above. In a few hours lunch was served—sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs in white shoe boxes and later coffee. After lunch, with a lot of pseudoceremony and good-natured ribbing, the lowly "pollywogs" who had never crossed the equator, became trusty "shellbacks" as we traversed that famous line. And (a little prematurely it seems on reflection) we all became "shortsnorters"—those who had flown across an ocean, a big deal in those days—and exchanged dollar bills with signatures attesting to the validity of the passage. Mine was signed by Adolphe and was a fun souvenir for quite a while.
In the afternoon the cloud deck rose and so did our plane to stay in the clear, and it got quite chilly. But eventually, after 11 hours and a long descending spiral we splashed down in a narrow river adjacent to the city of Natal, Brazil. It had taken me 30 days at sea to cross the other way, and 11 hours seemed almost supernatural.
Barnacle Bill did not moor or anchor out this time but tied up to a dock. We collected our loose gear and got ready to go ashore. But it was not to be. Not yet. The door opened and three small, dark men entered and slammed it behind them. They produced large pump spray guns like those in the old commercials that said, "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" With robot-like merciless efficiency they filled every nook and cranny of the cabin with some sort of choking, blinding, biting insecticide. Then as we all coughed and wiped at our eyes and noses, the three lined up with folded arms at the still-closed door. The leader announced in a commanding voice, "Five minutes!" And they waited every second of that time before opening the door so we could stumble out into the Brazilian sunshine.
The country appeared to be a land of only white and green. Everyone we saw wore white, and the rest of the world was lush, garden green. They served us rum and Coke while we waited for a ride, and then took us to the PanAm staff house where we paid $2 each for airy rooms with high ceilings. We showered and redonned our wrinkled khakis for dinner (our luggage was permanently stowed in the plane and unavailable). Dinner featured large, tasty steaks and unlimited seconds of everything, including apple pie al la mode and thick, black coffee. My bed was so wonderfully soft and comfortable in the cool Brazilian night that even the heavy coffee was rendered powerless and I dropped off smiling to be on the right side of the world again.
Reveille came noisily at a most uncivilized 0330, and we were in the air again with the dawning of first light at 0510, full of a hearty three-meat breakfast and more of that powerful coffee. As the sun came up over the Atlantic, I tried to formulate my impression of Brazil from that 12-hour glimpse. It was a land of great plenty: tires (rationed at home), silk stockings, dark people in white clothes and white houses, shiny new cars, and green lawns and soft breezes—and scores of pilots from PanAm, American Export Airlines, and the U.S. Army Air Transport Command.
All morning the big seaplane flew over land, and, surprisingly, the terrain looked burned and bare and brown with scars in the earth that had been lakes and rivers. But four hours out that changed and below was lush, dark green jungle and rivers of flowing water, and always far off to starboard a thin, faint line of blue that was the sea.
At 1030 we landed at Belem, still in Brazil, for fuel. There was time to visit the naval base, where there were a score or so of the small patrol craft-SCs, PCs (bigger and with steel hulls), and minesweepers like those we had operated with in the Med—and several young officers I knew. But the war reached even across to serene Brazil with the news of the death of an old friend whose big salvage tug was bombed and sunk off Salerno. There were stories of inexpensive and desirable items such as perfume and stockings, which were hard to get at home, but we had no time to investigate. We were off again at noon, soaring over an endlessly thick, deep, dark green blanket that covered all the land. Then, after about six hours, there was the sea again dotted with green islands. At 1830 came the familiar skimming and settling and splashy taxiing, and we were in Trinidad.
On landing we were greeted by a couple of attractive PanAm hostesses, had our temperatures taken and recorded for some unexplained reason, and were whisked off in a station wagon to what appeared to be a BOQ. They gave us about five minutes to wash up and then took us across the street for dinner. We all took very welcome hot showers and turned in early. I had found my bag on the plane, smuggled out some clean skivvies for the next day, and with my usual shaving gear rolled up in a (by now) well-soiled towel, felt downright civilized.
It was a short night in Trinidad. Reveille was at 0345, breakfast at 0430, and takeoff at 0610. After skimming low over some jungle hills we were back over water for the short flight to San Juan, where we had our temperatures taken once again, quickly refueled, and were back in the air at 1130. I remember the San Juan airport was very busy with a steady stream of silver DC-3s arriving and departing.
A long, hot afternoon over the open sea was broken only by better box lunches than we had experienced up to then, new magazines to read, and some napping if the building tension of the fast-approaching homecomings allowed. But at 1615 the big-winged flying boat circled over a blue harbor full of warships (new destroyer escorts undergoing shakedown training) and splashed down at Bermuda. We tied up at an island in the harbor (no temperature-taking this time), loaded into a couple of motorboats, and were taken very rapidly—the two operators appeared to be competing—to our hotel, the Belmont Manor. There, we had a good dinner and afterward a couple of rum and Cokes. I found the drinks therapeutic because in the soft Bermuda evening with the scent of a million flowers, the prospect of being home again the very next day was so intense it was painful. It was also so intense that I didn't sleep worth a damn that night and was up an hour before reveille, ready to go. The check-out at the hotel was a welcome revelation that seems incredible today—the total tab for dinner, lodging and breakfast: $6.15.
They gave us a good breakfast that morning and a ride out to the island where Barnacle Bill was tied up. All around the island were moored PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariners in British markings and PanAm Clippers. We were in the air again at 0810, out over the harbor full of DEs and then the open sea. The cooler temperatures reminded us it was the end of October at about the latitude of North Carolina, and the tropics we were used to were far astern. This was the shortest hop of the passage, but it seemed the longest. I went forward to the luggage compartment, found my bag, and rather awkwardly in the suddenly rough air and the lack of headroom, changed into clean khakis.
Just before noon we circled over southern Long Island, splashed down, and taxied to a ramp at LaGuardia Airport. It was a bitterly cold, gray, windy day in New York, and at first we all felt like strangers in our light tropical uniforms. It helped that the attractive stewardess who shepherded us through customs, immigration, and the rest was the wife of a subchaser skipper in the Pacific and thus most sympathetic and helpful. I shared a cab with Adolphe Menjou into the city, managed to get $12.50 for $17 worth of Italian, French, and British currency, and grabbed a train to Albany. It was hard to realize that I was actually back in the States, and I was so tense with anticipation sitting still was difficult. A lovely old lady (I'm sure she was a couple of decades younger than I am at this writing!) saved my sanity. She had been everywhere I had just come from, and we chatted away the time. Once in Albany, we shared a cab to her home in Troy, which was on my way, and the same cab took me the last 30 of all those miles from Palermo.
And thus it was that in the early evening of Monday, the 25th of October 1943, I found myself with my hand on the door knob of a large frame house on Main Street of Bennington, Vermont. But there I had to pause, to quiet my heart which was hammering so hard I could feel and hear it, and catch my breath. But in a minute I was standing in a warm living room staring at a gray-haired lady whose eyes were wide with surprise and who held a finger to her lips and pointed to the bay window at the front of the house. And there I saw a baby carriage beside a couch and on that couch, asleep, my lovely, dark-haired young wife. And in that carriage the son of three months I had never seen. For one reserve lieutenant (j.g.) of the U.S. Navy, the war was in remission until further notice.