The first travel episodes

Published 3:59 pm Monday, April 12, 2010

Chapter 4

The SS Mariposa towered imposingly above the Boston Fish Pier, at least thats what the workers called the dock.&bsp; The ship seemed to be trembling slightly, perhaps in anticipation of receiving two regiments of soldiers for transport to the European

war zone.&bsp; In fact, about four thousand men of the Ninety-Fifth Infantry Division were approaching the several sloping gangplanks leading into the ship.&bsp; We (for I was one of the arriving soldiers) were to make the Mariposa our home for nine days in congestion that resembled sardines in a tin can.&bsp; But first, a description of the ship might be helpful.

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The vessel was, if I remember correctly, about ten decks tall.&bsp; It had been built as a luxury cruise liner for wealthier American tourists to sail through the Pacific, courtesy of the once-famous Matson Lines. &bsp;

The Mariposa had shared these pleasant duties with the SS Lurline and its third sister, we were told, the SS Matsonia.&bsp; Our ship had been the crown jewel of the Matson fleet, with luxurious lounges and dining rooms for each of several classes of tourists, but now no more.

The lounges were packed with bunks wall-to-wall and to the ceiling; the dining rooms had been transformed into standing only cafeterias with long narrow stainless steel tables.&bsp; Cabins intended for one or two corpulent and complacent passengers were occupied by four, five, six or more soldiers. &bsp;

Todays cruise ships are, as you know, flat slab-faced linear boxes, luxurious but not very nautical. The Mariposa, on the other hand, was a ship with double raked funnels, stair-step multiple decks, obvious life rafts, and of a somewhat old-fashioned style; in fact, it was just what a ship is supposed to be. The military passengers felt it should be addressed in nautical terms: the ship had portholes, not windows, decks not floors and many of them; modern cruise ships really could be described as fourteen stories high. &bsp;

Nonetheless, how did the troops fare on the Mariposa? The food, of course, varied from really grim to fairly good. How it was served is another matter. To try to sleep was a joke: noise, light, passersby, loud snoring and talking all this was continuous.

As a typical example, Ill describe my situation on the Mariposa.

I was assigned to the topmost of five bunks in the middle of the Cabin Class Lounge (at least thats what the brass plaque by the door said it was). I kept my boots and my shaving kit in the bowl of the opalescent central chandelier to which I was exactly adjacent.&bsp; Electrical service to the fixture had, of course, been disconnected for safetys sake but I dont remember how we got illumination. &bsp;

Each of us had his duffle bag across the foot of his narrow bunk. That was our entire private space: the bunk and the thirty inches or so above it to the ceiling or to the bunk above; not adequate but you could live.

Mess call: time to eat, also not a particular joy but you could and did survive. Each individual soldier did not enter the mess hall at his own dictate for time or method of approach. No, sir, you went on the appointed hour to the top of your designated stairway as it opened onto the highest deck. &bsp;

What a contrast: from the clear sea-laden fresh air inhaled with joy on the open deck then into the top stair-landing, hot, humid, steaming and smelly, reeking of rotten eggs and seasickness residue. O, what a challenge as you went down eight or nine decks, hotter and deeper into the bowels of the ship. &bsp;

If Matson Lines served the country as the licensee/operator of the Mariposa, they made a lot of money from large amounts of uneaten food.

Sightseeing was, however, great if you wanted to look. We crossed the Atlantic on a high northern arc to avoid the still ubiquitous German U-Boats, passing frequently right between icebergs. I dont believe the average tourist then or now sees the close detail of the surface of icebergs that we saw.

After days of sailing on the open seas with occasional vistas of distant islands or coastlines that we could not identify, we eventually approached a visible city, an obvious shipping channel, and finally an inviting unknown dock. It was flanked by interesting towered buildings and nearby railroad yards with empty coaches awaiting our arrival. &bsp;

The towered structures were, we learned, the Liver Buildings; we had arrived at the port of Liverpool. Off the ships we marched in single file across various railroad tracks to the empty coaches, now supplied with locomotives. The trains departed almost immediately and traveled through parts of England I could not then and cannot now identify. I do know that we ended our journey in Winchester, a delightful pause for a few weeks before we crossed the channel to Utah Beach. &bsp;

As a participant in such complicated travel involving so many people at so many places, I can only say that war may be hell and war is terrible waste, but it does seek and develop real abilities from those who organize it.

Finally, and ironically, eleven or so months later, we traveled from north Germany to Le Havre, boarded again the SS Mariposa and sailed back to Boston with military objectives achieved. &bsp;

I have no memories whatsoever of the return trip; I guess I was in a peaceful dream.&bsp; The Mariposa had been docked for eleven months:&bsp; we had been her last passengers to Europe and the first ones to return. &bsp;

The Mariposa itself was later sold to a Greek shipping line, renamed the Homeric and plied the Mediterranean Sea for several years before final retirement, leaving me with grateful memories.