STORIES OF A MERCHANT SAILOR
CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA
by Gordon Sollors
The British Faith
was my second ship.
I had been
a Deck Boy on the previous
and I was about to find out that the life and job
of a deck boy on a
tanker is very different to the life and job
of a deck boy on a troop ship
been my last job.
I was sent to Birkenhead
from the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool in
Liverpool to sign on the M.V. British
on a cold, wet, November afternoon in 1942.
hustle and bustle of a large
passenger ship, going aboard a relatively small tanker which had
laid up for repairs was a doleful experience.
Click for UK Map.
MV British Faith
in November is a cheerless place, or so it seemed
to me at
that time. The ship was high out of the water, I lugged my case and
up the gangway, and on to the after deck. As it happened, the first
I spoke to was the Bosun, he directed me to the Seamen's Fo'c'sle,
was on the starboard side for'ard.
When I entered the fo'c'sle, there were other crew members already
soon had my duties spelled out to me. I was to be the Seamen's
primary duties were to bring the food from the galley, wash up the
and to keep the messroom and fo'c's'le in a clean condition at all
was directed to the bunk which was to be mine. No choice, just
bunk kid". It was the top bunk, furthest for'ard, on the outboard
the fo'c'sle, and next to a porthole.
We left Birkenhead that evening, the ship took in ballast, to put us
in the water. For docking purposes, my station was aft. I was to
this later. Being winter, it was always cold, but whilst waiting for
ship to maneuver alongside, we could stand in the engine room fidley,
was always nice and warm.
It was whilst stood in the doorway that I learned that a motor ship
actually started with a blast of compressed air. When the telegraph
there would be a huge belch of compressed air, which I suppose
the inertia of the propeller until the diesel combustion process
over. Then the tall, slotted air intakes - one to each cylinder -
shake and rattle until the propeller shaft was turning smoothly. I
We made our way from the
River Mersey, to the
River Clyde, where we
for other ships with which we would form a convoy. I think we stayed
Clyde for a few days, during which time the sailors erected huge
in some of the tanks to ventilate them. One sailor tried to tell me
these were used sometimes as a means of helping the ship along in
conserve fuel! He didn't fool me. I knew they couldn't work whilst
the anchor down!
Eventually we got under way, and out into the North Atlantic. Word
was to be our destination. I was elated. At last
would see all those wonderful sights we saw in the pictures, and hear
This photo shows the tanker
in convoy somewhere off Britain. The convoy is being
shepherded by a Short Sunderland Flying
Boat operated by
Britain's RAF Coastal Command.
This photo is courtesy of
Dennis Sandford, who was
serving aboard British Faith's
sister ship MV British Advocate
when she was captured by the German
Admiral Scheer, on February 20, 1941.
spent the next 4 years in a POW camp, and after the war he
became Chief-Officer aboard
He now lives
in Queensland, Australia.
For the first week out from the U.K., whilst we were still within
air attack, ALL deck department personnel, had to do a gun watch.
included even me! We had
D.E.M.S. gunners aboard, but they were just
enough to man all the guns all of the time. Again, I was quite
saw myself shooting them down like flies. An hour on watch in the
gun pit soon put paid to those images!
For my first watch, I was put in a pit with a single gun which really
looked no more than a Lee Enfield rifle mounted on a pole with some
plate just big enough to cover me as I stood. From memory, I was told
I had never heard of them before - nor since!
should be aware that this was 1942, and there were still ships which
not yet been fitted with the more up to date
Oerlikon gun which was
become the standard. The gunner showed me what to do to fire the gun.
had a bolt action which could be set for either single shots or
fire'. The bullets were contained in a brass belt, with a hinge at
every third bullet. The gunner told me that should the gun jamb,
let it go, and make myself as small as possible in the gun pit!
The next gun pit I was allocated to contained guns just as ancient.
one had twin guns mounted on a swivel. I think they were
They had fluted barrels with what I thought were water
hoses attached. I only spent one watch on these, then it was back to
With the poor weather, it was almost impossible to walk around the
to keep warm. I was frozen stiff for most of the time. I doubt
fingers could have fired the gun had it been necessary! After one
this, the thought of a return to messroom duties seemed almost
comparison. We kept the same vigil on our return journey.
After about three weeks of constant movement, I awoke one morning to
eerie silence which is the difference from being at sea, to being in
I hadn't even woke up when the anchor went down! I almost fell out of
bunk, got speedily dressed, and went out to have a look. It was still
- it was about 6.45 AM. But there it was, the Great City itself!
a tender alongside, and I could hear real American accents! Boy, this
really living! In my pitifully naive imagination, I could see Clark
Joan Crawford, Betty Grable et. al. walking down Broadway,
smiling at all
and sundry - myself among the sundry.
Then back to the voice of reality - "Have you got the seven bells'
breakfast yet?" We up anchored, and left New York that day. We joined
coastal convoy from which we were to drop off at
Delaware Bay for
and a load of aviation fuel. There had been a lot of
activity at that time on the East Coast of America, and we were
substantial escort, including a U.S.Navy Airship! This would come
hover around for some time, then go back to base.
As it happened, it wasn't the Germans who put our nose out of joint,
successfully grounded the ship in Delaware Bay. This was fortuitous,
because it meant that instead of going to
Marcus Hook in Philadelphia
planned, we had to go hard a port into a canal which took us to
where the ship had to be dry docked for inspection. Since Christmas
only a week or so away, no one had any arguments with that!
We tied up at the huge
Bethlehem Steel Shipyards, where
turned out by the dozen. We could see all the ship parts lying on the
shore, all ready for installation on the next ship. There were rudder
posts, rudders, anchors and propellers by the dozen. Miles of anchor
all laid out, and ready to be hauled aboard the next ship.
This is the SS John W. Brown,
which along with the
SS Jeremiah O'Brien, is one
of the only two
surviving Liberty Ships. John W. Brown was built
by the Bethlehem- Fairfield Shipyard of Baltimore,
in September 1942.
photo is from the
SS John W. Brown Project Liberty Ship website.
In Gordon's next story, Steering Lessons,
he writes about the
SS Frank A. Vanderlip.
She had the unusual distinction of having her British name,
Sambuff, changed back to
her original American name.
My first night ashore almost turned into a disaster. In keeping with
naivety with all things American, I wanted a Ronson Cigarette Lighter.
Well, Spencer Tracy used them, and that was good enough for me! At
time, the English pound was worth four American dollars, and a few
had drawn out two pounds ten, which gave me just over ten dollars.
over Rupert Murdoch!
I went ashore with the
Ordinary Seaman. At sixteen, he was a year
than I. We walked along the silent quayside, knee deep in snow. The
on the gate was most cheery. At that time, English people were
the month' over there. What with the blitz, and everything. In fact,
known, pieces of bomb shrapnel which were common enough in England,
selling for about $5 in the U.S. If one was lucky enough to have a
(which hadn't actually killed one!) with German writing on, then the
was considerably higher!
We were hardly out of the gates when a hearty voice called over "Hi
you guys, wannalift?" Did we ever! He had a big black car, and we
invited to `jump in' The conversation was full of praise for the
effort, he was constantly telling us how brave the Brits were. Before
he pulled up in a brightly lit street, and opened the door for us.
your guys come here for their clothes when they come ashore" he said
indicating a large shop. Not wishing to be discourteous we followed
Then the `Big Sell' began. Not that the stuff was rubbish, far from
was just that, well, we really hadn't intended buying those things at
time! He had (Levi) dungarees with rivets and triple stitching at a
(five bob) a pair. (Anything up to $100 these days!) The price was
that much different from U.K., but they were the REAL THING, i.e.,
American!! We were, as they say, putty in his hands. About fifteen
later, we left the shop, each with a large parcel, and MUCH lighter
pockets. We hadn't been robbed, we hadn't been cheated, all the
were of excellent quality. We had been maneuvered. It was just that
without our realising it, our priorities had been changed for us.
we had a couple of dollars each left, so we had a cup of coffee and
doughnut each, then found our way back to the ship.
The ship was `run down' ready for dry docking. We had no heat, or
and the condensation in the fo'c'sle turned to ice on the bulkheads.
to sleep fully dressed! Later we were sent ashore, and put up in the
Biltmore Hotel. Undreamed of luxury!!
Taffy, (the Ordinary Seaman) and myself were
a little bit more cagey when
we went `ashore' from the hotel. We went to the
Missions to Seamen
were given a wonderful meal for a few cents. A lady came from the
and offered us free cinema tickets. The Americans really couldn't do
for us. On Christmas Day, through the Missions to Seamen, we were
to dinner with a couple who had two children and lived on the
We were even given free tram tickets to get there.
were kindness itself, but on reflection, I think they were expecting
older `men' who possibly, could have provided a more mature
than we were capable of. As it was, Taffy and I were only a few years
than their own children, and we paid rather more attention to
`P's and `Q's than trying to make interesting conversation. Our
exceptionally nice, and had wrapped a small gift each for us.
I had a small
wallet and a carton of `Lucky Strike' cigarettes (I wasn't legally
enough to smoke!) Sadly, I lost the wallet some time later, and in
address of the people who treated us so kindly that Christmas.
We eventually loaded up at
Philadelphia and made our way out to the
Atlantic where we joined a convoy bound for England. After about
weeks in America, there were several things which I had grown to
Commercial radio (practically unheard of in England at that time)
one of them. We were not allowed radios in our quarters, so we were
dependent upon the Radio Operator tuning in the ship's radio. As the
between us and the U.S.A. increased, so mercifully the blare of
radio decreased, and the sanity of the BBC News and Forces
Before the United States
entered the war,
Halifax, Nova Scotia , with its spacious
harbour, Bedford Basin, was the main
for the North Atlantic convoys to Britain. This photo shows a
convoy in Bedford Basin being readied
This photo is from
A Nation Forged in Fire: Canadians & the Second World
War 1939-1945, by J.L. Granatstein & Desmond Morton.
Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989.
We arrived in
Swansea without incident in early February. I
tried my best
not to speak with an American accent when we went ashore,
but then, with
accents like one hears in Wales, who would have known the
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