WWII Troopship USS Cape San Juan 1943
Going to war now days is certainly different than it was a generation or two back. Back in World War II and Korea the primary manner in which troops deployed to and returned from war was on a troopship. Troopships in the Second World War ranged in size from the great British Ocean Liners the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary down to small and often ancient passenger ships. As the war went on the United States adapted a number of ship designs to serve as troop transports as well as built ships specifically designed to transport troops to combat. There was one thing that all of these ships from the might Queen’s to the lowliest tramp steamer had in common was that they were really crowded. Every in of space that could be made to fit a bunk was used. The Queens, which in peacetime might carry 1500-2000 passengers routinely carried up to 15,000 troops. Talk about cramped quarters, these ships made the steerage passengers on the Titanic look like executive class travelers. The smaller the ship the worse the ride and many times soldiers would spend their entire voyage seasick.
Troops on RMS Queen Mary
Well times have changed. We still have ships that carry troops, amphibious ships that can hit from both sides of the plate which carry the Marine Corps Expeditionary Units on their deployments. However, it is seldom that much more than a MEU is ever carried to a war zone. In the Gulf War and Build up from OIF a good number of Marines were brought over that way, however many of these in the Gulf War never went ashore and were kept at sea to keep the Iraqis thinking that they would be used in an amphibious operation. The bulk of the troops who have deployed since Vietnam have done so by air, either military aircraft operated by the Air Force such as C-130s, C-141’s, C-5A Galaxy’s and C-17 Globemaster’s or alternatively civilian contract aircraft mostly run by non-scheduled airlines which specialize in just this sort of thing. Airlines such as World Airways, North American Airlines, Miami Air, and the now defunct ATA have been the primary carriers of troops dating back to Vietnam while other commercial airlines also do charter work. When large numbers of aircraft the DOD activates the CRAF, the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, which is composed of aircraft from the major airlines used on an emergency basis.
World Airways DC-10
The military and chartered aircraft are the closest things now in the world of transportation to the old troopships. On military aircraft troops often fly with cargo in large cavern like fuselages on seats that can be reconfigured to about any way imaginable. The -17 is the luxury bird of the military air fleet, but certainly not a paragon of comfort when fully load with troops and gear. Of course the military aircraft were designed for utility and maximum use of passenger and cargo space. The charter aircraft are a different matter. Most of the aircraft used regularly by the charter carriers for deployments are older DC-10s, B-757s and occasionally a B-767 or L-1011. With rare exception these aircraft are configured to get the most passengers on the aircraft, comfort is not terribly important. There is no such thing in these aircraft as a true “First Class or Business Class section, merely front of the aircraft or back. The seats are the same and as far as leg room there is no such thing as “Economy Plus.” Simply put we are in steerage almost any time we get on one of these aircraft.
We loaded our gear onto waiting trucks at Fort Jackson and boarded military operated “Blue Bird” buses like you send your kids to school on. Unlike your kid’s bus these are white and driven by soldiers that are in some kind of transient status or Army civilians. The air conditioning on a hot and humid southern day is asthmatic at best, especially when the busses are full of troops who are much bigger than the kids these buses are designed to carry. I guess it could be worse; we could be traveling in the old un-air conditioned cattle cars. When we got to the airport we did not go to the commercial side, but rather to the private side. Our aircraft, a white World Airways DC-10 sat on the strip in front of the tiny and woefully undersized terminal where most of us ended up waiting in the open and un air conditioned hanger, our Desert Uniforms sticking to our bodies in the sultry South Carolina summer. We formed up, the baggage trucks arrived with our sea bags and we were organized into teams to load the aircraft. You guessed it, no airline staff to do this, just us. Now since there were a couple of hundred of us finding enough people to do the work was not much of a problem. Nelson and I both volunteered and with the others we stripped off our tops and in our brown t-shirts we organized for the task. The small guys like me and Nelson got to go up into the belly of the aircraft where we waited for guys on the ground to send the bags up the conveyor. Bag after bag they came, most were the tradition sea bag or duffel bag, but others like Nelson and my bags were oddly shaped and some were even large cases issued by individual’s units. Weapons cases were also loaded, each weapon locked inside a lowest bidder plastic case that certainly would not last more than a few trips across the pond. As we loaded the aircraft a rain shower passed by, the humidity was atrocious and the heat did not subside very much. Eventually Nelson looked at me and asked, “Boss you alright?” I assured him that I was and we kept loading the aircraft until there were no more bags to load, shoving bags and stacking them so that nearly every inch of space was taken in the baggage compartment.
One done loading we mustered again. The pilots arrived and began their inspection of the aircraft. At this point we were informed that there was a mechanical problem and that we would have to wait. A couple of more hours waiting around the terminal we finally began to board the aircraft. Finally we got underway and found that we had to make another stop. We had to land at Pope Air Force Base in order to pick up an Army Transportation unit heading into theater. The flight up was short and we expected that after a short delay we would again be in the air. We were wrong. We de-boarded the plane to allow it to be fueled. As we waited in the terminal, once again a rather Spartan affair we found that the crew had exceeded their allowed flight or work hours and that we would have to remain overnight. Unfortunately the contracting staff at the Air Mobility Command had not anticipated this situation and we were stuck. We had already been up most of the day and there were no sleep facilities in this terminal except wooden benches and concrete floors. With our gear loaded aboard the plane and unavailable it looked like things would not go well. Vending machines were quickly emptied and like any sailors marooned anywhere we made the best of things. Sailors broke out decks of cards, DVD video players, made phone calls home or found places to try to sleep on the benches or against terminal walls.
At first it didn’t look like we would be getting any assistance from the Air Force. However, we were fortunate to have as our senior officer and Officer in Charge a Navy Captain who was a jet fighter pilot and wasn’t going to let “his” sailors let overnight in such conditions while still in the United States. After a while our Captain secured box lunches and pillows. He then continued to push and eventually some contracting weenie was rustled out of his waterbed and got us rooms at a Hampton Inn somewhere in Fayetteville. As the hands on the dial of my watch worked their way past midnight the ubiquitous Blue Bird buses pulled up to the terminal. A few people elected to stay behind and for some unknown reason the Air force required some of our sailors to watch the aircraft. Mind you they could only watch it. Our weapons were stowed in the belly of the aircraft. The irony was that the airfield a Pope is secured by USAF Air Police and probably one of the most secure places in the area. The Captain lost that argument and a number of sailors volunteered to remain along with sailors who had somehow made themselves comfortable and didn’t want to move. In my younger days I would have been with them, but I had tried to sleep on those same benches when I went to Jordan earlier in the year I knew that I couldn’t hang with them.
The rest of us mustered again, accountability checks were made and we loaded ourselves on the buses. T rip took about 15 minutes and we were deposited at the hotel. It was about 0130 by this time. The hotel staff was great. Since like our toiletries like most everything else we owned were safely secured in the belly of our aircraft we were now tired, hungry again and pretty stinky. The hotel night manager opened up his stocks and gave us toothpaste, tooth brushes and shavers. He also gave away snacks. I think I got a muffin out the deal. We stood in line and since there were a lot more of us than rooms we were assigned 4 to a room and at 0200. My roommates were four youngish junior officers. There were two beds and a cot in the room, and since none of us wanted to share a full size bed, something I think was a good idea not to do, two got the beds, one got the cot and the third grabbed all the extra linen and a comforter and lay down on the floor. The young guys deferred to my age when I volunteered for the floor, they told me that “because you are a lot older than us sir you get a bed.” I felt like applying for the AARP at that moment but I took a bed which felt really good as I sunk into it and passed out.
We had to be up early to head back to the airfield, the time in bed was too short but better than I had hoped and the shower was great. I felt almost human and was glad that I had packed a clean undershirt socks and briefs in my backpack. We got back to the terminal and box lunch breakfasts were on hand. We still had about 4 hours before the flight and it was Sunday morning so Chaplain Fauntleroy and Chaplain Rodriquez and I arranged to conduct two services. Kyle and Dave did a more Evangelical style service while I celebrated a short field Eucharist. We did this outside the terminal, the weather was not too bad, and probably half of the sailors as well as a good number of the soldiers who had joined us participated. Since there was no Catholic Priest my service was better attended than I thought it would be as in such times I usually pick up a few Episcopalians, Anglicans and Lutherans and maybe a stray Catholic. In these settings I do not interrogate the people that show up as to their background, I do ask that if they are not baptized Christians not to partake of the Eucharist, but figure that God and His grace in the Sacrament will do what needs to be done. I learned this from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Chaplain in Germany supporting the Bosnia operation. Since the Missouri Synod practices “closed communion” meaning that you have to be Missouri Synod to take communion in their church I asked what he did in field settings or chapels where it was not a denominational service. He told me, with great wisdom “Steve, you have to trust that God’s grace in the Sacrament will do His work.” That was an epiphany and I have never forgotten it.
The services concluded we again mustered and finally were able to board the aircraft. We had a stop at Portland Maine to refuel the aircraft in preparation for the trans-Atlantic flight. Now this is a highlight for any serviceman or women being deployed or returning home. The folks in Portland, veterans groups like the VFW, American Legion, Fleet Reserve and Marine Corps League have banded together to meet flights as they come in. They have been given a space in the terminal in which they have computers, cell phones, land line phones and calling cards for troops. They also hand out small “goodie” bags with snacks and home baked cookies. These folks and their counterparts at the former Pease Air Force Base are amazing. It is an example of small town America at its best. Some are World War II vets, others from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. They are still others who have never served but feel an obligation to help. They span the political, religious and ethnic spectrum of the country. After they personally greeted each of us as we entered the terminal, they had a small ceremony and thanked us for our service. Many engaged us in conversation and their hospitality was simply amazing. The Maine Troop Greeters have greeted over 800,000 troops from over 4000 flights in the past six years. They are Patriots in their own right and what they did for us was amazing. I felt a wave of emotion go across my and my eyes get a bit moist as these wonderful people, young and old greeted us, shook our hands and blessed us. It is something that until you experience it you cannot comprehend and I wish that the men and women who served in Vietnam had been greeted like this. It makes you feel that you are not completely alone.
Maine Troop Greeters
Eventually I decided to wander the terminal to see what was available. I saw a small pub which featured the local micro-brew ale which our good Captain permitted us to have since we were still in the Continental United States. I had a sandwich and chips as well as two pints of this local Amber Ale which would be my last drink until the Marine Corps Birthday in Ramadi. The brew was quite good and if I saw it again I would probably buy some. We were then called back to the aircraft. Our flight to Germany was uneventful and we landed deep in the night in Leipzig where a small area had been set up for refreshments, souvenirs, television, games and internet access. We were not allowed any alcohol at this stop as we were now under an 8 hour flight to Kuwait. Our stop completed we got back on the aircraft for the flight to Kuwait which awaited us with temperatures of 120-135 degrees. Something that I wonder how the Deity Herself allows unless it is to give us a chance to preview hell.