15 September 1945
20 DAYS ABOARD TROOP TRANSPORT or A BIRDS EYE VIEW OF THE PACIFIC.
By Rowland Stephen Bergstrom
15 September 1945
This account was started the 15th day of September, one day after having anchored off the Island of Cebu, a centrally located strip of mountainous land in the Philippine group, 500 miles, south of Manila.
Natives met us in their crude Kayak boats as we slowly made out way into the bay. Some of the natives were anxious to trade their wares of vicious looking knives, handmade sandals, sea shells, etc. Others carried freshly picked bananas and pineapple for bartering purposes. Cigarettes seemed our most valued medium of exchange.
Most of the boats were long and extremely narrow in beam, necessitating an outrigger to hold steady the craft. In appearance, they reminded one of crude canoes. After a closer inspection we noted that woven bamboo was chiefly used as a covering. There were also larger boats, but less numerous than those just mentioned. Most of them were equipped with sails and appeared to be overgrown boats of the original type. Occasionally could be seen twin hulls supported by braces and carrying the customary outrigger; expertly manned they slipped through the water noiselessly.
Most of the visitors were men and young boys occasionally accompanied by a young girl who was dressed in gay clothing of varied colors. They were handsome and muscular, dark copper of color; the whiteness and perfection of their teeth astonished one. They were friendly but seemed a little shy or self-conscious. Some of them could speak English fairly well. Those who were less proficient were able to make themselves understood by the universal sign language we have all learned to master in some degree. The children especially amused us as they dove for coins we tossed overboard; they are exceptionally alert and excellent divers, seldom return to the surface without their treasure. Many of them were stark naked but apparently unaware of their immodesty.
From our point of vantage could be seen shadowing the low plateau bordering the sea shore and extending possibly two miles inland, fantastically high and rugged mountains, covered with tropical vegetation to their very tops. To the left of our port side lie the city of Cebu, named after the island; having a pre-war population of 155,000 inhabitants, the city ranks second in size –Manila, the capitol, being the largest. Gazing through binoculars we could see standing the stone and steel structural remains of what once had been modern building or more enterprising industrialist. Dotting the shore line were hundreds of humble looking native shacks covered with thatched roofs. To our aft lay a small island barely rising from the water which served as a station for radio communication and signal towers. The island was in habited chiefly by navy personnel and amphibious forces who were billeted in huts and tents supported on wooded foundation of framework, raising the structures from the ground. Off its shores were anchored scores of motor launches and larger amphibious boats that were undoubtedly used in landing operations a few months previous when warfare was raging both on land and in the sea for many of them were badly scarred.
Later that afternoon we were to learn that arrival was unexpected, so consequently we remained on board awaiting further new regarding our movement orders. The morning of the third day found us up and about bright and early for we had been informed excursions to the mainland had been arranged. Due to unsettled weather, however, the trip was postponed for the majority of the troops, after crew had managed to transfer 1400 men to landing craft. The sea was so rough that the huge barges moored to the ships had broken loose. It was late that night before the troops were able to board the vessel again; however, they greatly enjoyed the prolonged shore leave. The following morning the transportation commander announced that the remainder of the troops would be privileged to go ashore.
It was evident upon arrival that the city had suffered innumerable bombings; much destruction was wrought throughout a large portion of the main thoroughfare. It could be imagined, however, that his metropolis had been a peaceful, thriving city that enjoyed much culture and civilization. Business establishments had been house in quite modern building of bright Spanish architecture. A large garage partially destroyed, bore the sing “Ford”. Down the street 12-inch lettering bearing the name “Proctor and Gamble Trading Post’ graced the wall of a huge corner building.
Units of our army were busily occupied constructing huge warehouses, the frame work of which consisted of study bamboo beams, to shelter thousands of tons of surplus supplies, equipment and ammunition Included among the various items of importance to a modern army were crated trucks and jeeps that had apparently never been unpacked, weapons of all types, canvas housing facilities, food, miles of communication wire reeled on immense spools, all neatly arranged in debris cleared areas ready for storage or other disposition. In operations could be seen army manned American Caterpillars, bull-dozers, two and one half and five-ton trucks. One begins to realize the vast monetary expenditure necessary to keep an army in operation. Many crews supplemented by scores of Philippine laborers, were busy clearing away the rubble and salvaging brick and lumber.
Occupied chiefly by engineer and amphibious battalions, the presence of the 106th and 77th infantry divisions was also noted. Primarily a resting area for the 77th, it was disclosed after a period of recuperations, they were to leave for an island in Japan. Much bitter fighting was endured by this division in slightly over 100 days of combat over the Pacific. Their last major military operations were staged on the island of Okinawa. According to fellows, who were questioned, the average points of those still present ranged in the sixties, higher point men having already been screened. Anxious to be on their homeward journey, these men eagerly awaited their voyage to Japan for it was rumored further screenings would be made of eligible individuals.
Seldom could a native man or boy be seen who wasn’t clothed in some article of GI clothing. Life seemed quite bearable for the troops who were permanently stationed in the city. They occupied shelters build approximately three and on-half feet off the ground. Wooden floors joined and extended by about 36 inches of woven bamboo gave the barracks a substantial appearance for combating the elements. The roofs were covered with heavy, weather-resistant canvas. The duty of the soldiers was not of a strenuous nature, their chief complaint being the lack of fresh water and their fare of concentrated canned rations.
Accosted by a native woman who was possibly in her thirties (it’s difficult to determine the age of a native) we were shown a basket of fresh bananas and pineapple which she interested in disposing of for remuneration that seemed quite ample to us. Pleasant in appearance, she was clothed in a dress of rayon, wearing sandals on her feet. She spoke English fairly well. We discovered only men were interested in bartering for Cigarettes; “money” was her reply, for she desired to purchase rice. Accepting our money in lieu of the Peso, she had no difficulty in determine its value. It was quite apparent Americans had occupied this territory for some while for they are free spenders and tend to cause an inflationary market. We were told 12 bananas sold for 1 Peso (50 Cents in our money) and one pineapple brought the same amount. At any rate it proved a treat to enjoy fresh fruit.
Occasional Japanese vehicles and other equipment were seen along the roadside. Numerous signs were scrolled on walls in Japanese symbols, about the only remaining reminder of Japanese occupations, aside from the scar of scorched earth left in their wake. Many of the troops were royally entertained at the American Red Cross Canteen; it included the fortification of their bellies with food and soft drinks.
Among the souvenirs the native has to see were “Mother of Pearl” earrings and other mountings suitable for rings and stick pins. They sold for as high as 30 Pesos ($15.00). Many of the fellows were fortunate in obtaining Japanese invasion money. Resembling the Peso in color and design, the currency bore the inscription “the Royal Bank of the Japanese”.
A number of the fellows ventured from the main thoroughfare in search of tropical fruit trees; they were especially impressed by their first sight of cocoa nuts and bananas. Education institutions were numerous. Most of them closed for repair, the city boasted a college for girls, a university, many grammar schools and junior colleges. The touch of western civilization was very evident wherever one went. American culture and economics has meant much in the making the Philippines a progressive commonwealth.
Looking back over our 19 days at sea, one marvels at the proficiency of the Navy in manning a troop ship packed with several thousand passengers, safely through thousands of nautical miles without incident. To us of course, the trip seemed like and endless journey, our nerves were constantly on edge; nevertheless we had arrived thus far suffering no apparent physical ills save a general weariness caused by the closeness of our everyday existence.
Most uncomfortable proved the sleeping quarters of the enlisted personnel. Much has been written regarding life aboard a troop transport but o actually realize the unpleasant discomforts the troops are called upon to bear, it’s necessary to experience the voyage as a fellow passenger. Reconverted storage holds, running deep into the ship server as sleeping compartments. A stuffy atmosphere is always present in the overcrowded accommodations. Although ventilating systems are piped throughout, they are inadequate to properly perform their intended task. Exceedingly uncomfortable became the nights as we made our way towards the tropics. The air became stifling in the holds; five minutes after retiring in our canvas covered cots which rise in tiers of four high, our bides would perspire profusely Upon awakening after a restless night of tossing and turning, one’s temperament was far from pleasant.
At 6 A.M. every morning a mad dash was made to the washrooms which were built to acommodate a small portion of personnel at one time. One sweated out the line to await his turn. Only certain periods of the day was hard water available, this waiting and 10 minutes at the bowl furiously splashing water and hastily going through the process of shaving, for fear of trying the patience of those persons through the process of shaving, for fear of trying the patience to those persons standing in line. One learns the meaning of the word “tolerance” n a literal fashion before time has been sufficient to acclimate himself to this type of livelihood. However, the routine soon becomes a matter of course.
Shortly after a new day is under way the desire to fortify oneself, caused by the constant knowing in the pit of any empty stomach, is a paramount issue for 15 hours have elapsed since nourishment was administered, Having the console oneself with two meals a day requires a normal being considerable human suffrage for the sea air give a person an enormous appetite. Occasionally the morning meal included baked beans, so traditional in our naval history; a precedent unlikely to be broken but still just a difficult to digest. Food is far from elaborate but it must be remembered the difficulty that is encountered feeding several thousand troops in a ship’s mess.
An attempt is made to entertain the passengers by special service personnel. Recorded music and radio programs were everyday features over the public address system. At night, weather permitting, movies were shown on deck. After the evening meal, mess hall was quickly converted to a movie hall and compartments take turns in attending these feature. A ship’s library is maintained for the pleasure of the troops aboard; reading becomes a great pastime in wiling away the long hours of leisure time. Each morning a mimeographed edition entitled “The Pacific Express” is published, keeping the troops informed of outside activities in the world. The news service is obtained over the ships radio.
A little information regarding the sea-worthy vessel we have so far spent nearly three weeks abroad; named the USS General John Pope, this ship, a sister ship of three, is the pride of the US Navy; of enormous proportions, it is one of the faster type of our troop armada. A two-stacker this ship sports a promenade deck an officer’s lounge and dining room of luxurious appointments an spaciousness Staterooms for naval officers and ship’s crew are elaborate and modernly furnished with adjoining wash and shower rooms of tile. Due to heavily strained fresh water supplied, salt water only is available for those desiring to shower. Conveniently located aid stations are housed throughout the ship, well equipped with medication located for all emergency purposes. A modern hospital fully staffed, capable for meeting the severest cases of ills, is located off the promenade desk. Patients are accorded every comfort a permanent installation can afford.
Completely fireproof, this vessel is built chiefly of steel. One cannot imagine the available cubic space for storage and refrigeration a ship of this type provides. Picture in your mind if you can, the huge quantities of food stuffs required to feed upwards to 7500 passengers and several thousand more in event double loading is in effect, for a period of six to eight weeks with provision for emergency rations in additions. To its confines, facilities actually amount to a floating modern city which is self-sufficient in every respect.
Manned to the hilt with protective weapons ranging from machine guns to immense cannons, the fire power on this vessel was revealed at a practice drill during our voyage. Ordered to our compartments prior to the sounding of the emergency alarm, we were stunned at the roar of the reports emanating from the defensive armament. The ship literally shook from the simultaneous firing.
Exceedingly calm in direct contrast to our recent voyage in the Atlantic, we found our Pacific journey smooth-travelling, upsetting our equilibrium at no time. Little did we realize three months ago, when our division pulled ups takes in Germany and Czechoslovakia after having participating in the closing phases of the European conflict, that we should be travelling to the opposite side of the world.
Out nautical course after leaving the port of Seattle, Washington, steered at approximately a 40 degree angle, steadily losing several degree latitude each day; starting at 48 degrees from Seattle’s temperate climate to the tropical heat 8 degree’s N Latitude, the closeness of the equatorial radiance was very much in evidence. Our passage brought us very close to Midway in the Hawaiian chain shortly after which we crossed the International Date Line, thus gaining a day on the calendar.
We then proceeded eastwardly passing the tropic of cancan imaginary line, thence between Wake Island and the Marshalls, onward to the Carlines, Guam to our north where we anchored off the small island of Ulithi for refueling the 11th of September, after 14 days at sea.
For hours prior to our anchorage we passed through a strait bordered on both side with scores of tiny, barren islands of rock and sand with an occasional isle revealing tropical foliage. It was on such outposts we discovered small contingents of army and navy personnel who maintained naval repair, operated airfields and radio stations and provided refueling and supply depots. It was here we received our first glimpse of beautiful coral reefs that formed the connecting like between the chains of islands, for which the Pacific is so famous.
Although noticeable dissension was evidence among the troops relative to our hasty departure from the states before the promised disclosure of the revised discharge point plan was made public by the War Department, the moral of the troops remained high. Receiving the news over the ship’s radio eight days after embarking, revealing the new critical score, however, and brought voice resignation when it was learned that 45 pointers with Foreign Service to their credit were eligible for retention in the states for it affected several hundred on board.
During daylight hours the decks were crammed with GI’s bathing in the sun. Very effective too, were these hours of exposure for most of the men emerged with a healthy coat of tan. Repeated warnings failed to convince some men of the extreme penetration of the sun’s rays, however, and suffered the torture of being virtually burnt to a Crips. Needless to say, more care was taken after this revelation became a reality.
Prevailing winds caused the temperature to cool considerably on the eve of our departure from the Islands of Cebu. Morning found us again in sight of land as we entered San Pedro Bay at Tacloban, in northern Leyte, capital of the province, where we were joined by other transports carrying troops for the 97th infantry division. From here we were to convoy on to Japan. The bay was humming with activity that morning, much shipping began congregated in the harbor. Overhead the drone of powerful motors brought our attention to the air filled with huge PBY Flying boats, army transports and pursuit ships.
It was difficult to imagine that only a short time ago this harbor was the scene of fierce naval fighting. Speaking to a soldier who was standing next to me at the rail as we again set sail; I learned the cause of the grim lines evident in his facial expression. “Just last October, he said, my brother was one of two hundred fellow sailors who lost his life when the aircraft carrier to which he was assigned became the victim of a Japanese air attack and ate a suicidal crash which caused the ship to sink.”
Our convoy consisted of three troop transports and several cruiser escorts. Not until late the next morning did we lose sight of land. Dozens of signal towers and search lights dotted the coasts of the various islands, constantly keeping the ship’s navigator oriented on nautical information.
As we were leaving the harbor, and amusing incident occurred. A sailor had evidentially taken up a hobby in the ship’s workshop for rising in the sky at the bow of the ship was a kite of huge proportions, gently kept at and even keel by a long dangling tail of knotted dungaree’s. Excitement ran high when suddenly there emanated a loud, demanding voice from the ships amplified shouting “Secure that kit immediately; it’s interfering with our signal!” a loud Roar arose from the spectators in protest. The kite, however, disappearing momentarily, rose again as if another direct defiance, only to disappear permanently in another moment.
Towards morning the northwesterly trade winds blew with great fury and before long we entered into a rough sea of white caps and swells which cause the ship to toss and roll for the first time in 21 days. Our convoy, through travelling considerably slower than when he ship was unescorted was making steady progress. We eagerly looked forward to entering the temperate climate zone of Japan, which lies much in the same latitude as the United States.
Throughout the remainder of the voyage from leyte, the sea remained quite rough and the sun’s ray’s beat furiously rather than subside as we had anticipated. Fling fish were occasionally seen sailing through the air as if they were birds of feather then disappeared beneath the surface of the water. By now everyone was speculating as to our future destiny in Japan; rumors ran high but most of them unfounded.
During the evening of September 23rd the ship ran into a squall which continued raging thru the night. Morning, however, found they sky clear with the sun shining brightly. Most noticeable was the sudden change of temperature. It was apparent we had gotten out of the tropical zone into a more temperate climate. Sometime earlier in the morning we had entered Tokyo bay and received our first glimpse of Japan. For several hours our ship steadily made its way through the deep bay waters. On either side rose mountainous summits, rising out of the sea with sudden abruptness. Most fascinating was Mt Fujiyama which majestically dominated the horizon, rising in a pyramidal shape, abruptly ending in a wide, flat peak.
Early in the afternoon we reached the entrance of the vast, natural harbor. It was a magnificent sight. Lighting at anchor were hundreds of our naval vessels of all types. The air was filled with amphibious planes that were trolling back and forth. Occasionally could be seen small, crude sailboats rigged with rectangular sails, manned by Japanese. As we neared the port, a Jap civilian boarded our ship and piloted the vessel safely into a channel separating the piers, one of which was selected for our debarkation. To our starboard side lay at anchor two hospital ships of huge proportions painted in white bearing the “Angel of Mercy” markings.
We were amused to find the harbor intact, comparable to Boston and New York, the piers were equipped to handle thousands of tons of shipping. Across the skyline could be seen modern buildings of brick, raising several stories into the sky. In the distance to our right, close to the water’s edge were shipbuilding yards and a heavily industrialized area apparently undamaged.
What might have been disaster, but turned out to be an amusing incident, occurred the morning or our debarkation. Sentries had been stationed at the foot of the gangplank for the purpose of guarding equipment that had recently been uploaded. The hour was early, light just breaking on the horizon. Unbeknown to one of the soldiers, the pier had no guard rail. This condition went unnoticed until suddenly the fellow backed off the ledge, plugging into the cold water from an eight foot drop. After gathering his wits, he realized his predicament and began to swim back to the pier only find himself confronted by a concrete wall much too high for possible escape or rescue from his companions. Help came from the ship’s deck when a Marine sentry tossed a sturdy rope overboard, and with the assistance of several men, hauled the bewildered fellow aboard, none the worse for his embarrassing experience.
Boarding trains after convoying a short distance through the commercial district of Yokohama, we comfortably seated ourselves in extremely long char cars, shedding our gear and heavy duffle bags. Out first glimpse of the Japanese people was now claiming out undivided attention as we proceeded through the city of Yokohoma into the suburban districts. Much devastation was in evidence and confusion seemed widespread. Crowds of people were scurrying in the early morning. They looked strangely odd to us in their midget appearance, their peculiar clothing and the pallor of their skins. The sight of them was mute evidenced of an impoverished people who had been at the mercy of imperial war lords. Many were probably returning to their jobs in the city; others less fortunate were possibly recruits for labor battalions formed to remove the rubble from the battered areas.
Yokohama and Tokyo appeared as one. To a foreigner like me, one could not distinguish between the two. Mile after mile were stark naked. Towering above the rubble like giant tree’s stripped bare of their foliage, were hundreds of smokestacks, the only remaining reminiscence of what had once been the great industrial factories for Japan’s war machine. Amid this spectacle, dotting the entire landscape, were house thousands of families who had been made homeless. Improvised shacks of rusted iron roofing salvaged form the debris, furnished shelters.
This scene greeted is with for miles as we passed through the outskirts of once modern Yokohama and Tokyo. Soon our train brought us into the country, as if for a breath of fresh air. Here our military offensive had spared its slashing, paralyzing might. Beautiful fields of rice paddies nearly full-grown and green vegetables graced the well-kept gardens that were immaculately clean. Oriental farm buildings evidence the numerous intensified farming operations in this section for they were spaced at frequent intervals.
It was evident that the rural population had fared immeasurable better than those of the city. Most of the men were still in ill-fitting military uniforms, perhaps the only clothing they now possessed. Women for the most part were garbed in a one-piece garment resembling pantaloons. Belted at the waist and gathered at the ankles, the appearance was not repulsive but rather practical looking compared to the uniform of the men. Especially antiquated-looking were the trouser the men wore; fitting like an acrobatic performer’s suit, they wore tightly-bound leggings which accentuated their slimness and shortness of stature. Their digitized shoes were constructed of cloth tops with flat rubber soles. The large toe was separated from the other four giving them a peculiar appearance.
We were amazed to find such a large network of railways in operation; many of them were electrically powered. Virtually the only means of transportation, the numerous stations and passenger cars were crowded to capacity. Recent newspaper articles reveal Japan’s intention of electrifying the majority of their railroads due to the severe shortage of fuel.
Especially noticeable was the peculiar way in which the women carried their infants. Strapped to their backs with a wide silk sash neatly tied in a bow at the mother’s waist, children peacefully slept while their benefactors went about their business.
Often our position from the train windows afforded us a close-up view of country dwellings. The simplicity of home-life was evident. Furniture was scarce. A portion of the floor is raised and mats of woven rice straw are placed on the surface for sleeping purposes. Occasionally could be seen bedding ticks, no doubt introduced to provide softer sleeping accommodation. Wherever one looked he could see person’s resting along the roadside seated in a squatting position, their buttocks barely off the ground, an age-old custom created due to the dampness of the ground.
Oriental architecture is a far cry from our classroom memories of its historically famous splendor. Most buildings in the country are unpainted and dilapidated looking in desperate need of repairs. Children are very numerous. It’s a common sight to see six or seven tots in a yard not varying over two inches in height, grinning from ear to ear and bowing in polite curtsies as we pass by.
After two hours of riding our train pulled into a small station five miles from Kumagaya, where we detrained and proceeded by convoy two miles to a large airport, our garrison for the next two weeks.
Remaining at the station to take charge of certain equipment left in our trust, several companions and myself had an opportunity to observer local color in the small community. When the time arrived for loading, a short, rather muscular Jap came to our assistance. Offering his service by saying “help, no”, he hastily removed his shirt in preparation for duty. “You speak English”, remarked one the fellows, to which the Jap replied, “How do you do, how do you do”, in rapid succession. Questioning him further, we learned he had been in the employ of the Tokyo Times where he picked up his limited English vocabulary. As we departed he said, “So sorry, thank you very much”, and bowed graciously.
And thus ended our voyage of 28 days aboard a troop transport and the resumption of military service in a new phase of duty, that of the role of occupation forces. We’re in a strange, fascinating country, so vastly opposite form our accepted civilization. This is the land of Shintoism and mythology, the land of feudal landowners and lowly peasants, the land where people worship their emperor as a supreme deity, who for hundreds of years, through heritage has carried the unprecedented distinction of being the center of Japanese political, economic and social rule; the land of rice paddies and mulberry trees, the stench of ancient sewage systems and stinking fish, the land of beautiful shrines and temples the land of jujitsu and hari-kari.