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Chapter 2

After ASTP, Across the Atlantic to England Under Siege

By Lester Segarnick

After spending nine months as a basic engineering student-in-army-uniform in the idyllic setting of Bard College at Annendale-on-Hudson, New York, a time that I have come to call my "gestation" period, the army shut down most of the Armed Services Training Program (ASTP) in engineering and I was shipped out to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to join up with the 271st Infantry Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division.  Thus, instead of being "born normally" as an army engineer, I was "delivered (kicking) by Caesarean" as a combat infantryman once again.
While I reacclimated to the life of an infantryman, and the 69th Infantry Division prepared itself for its overseas combat role in the European Theatre of Operations, D-Day took place in early June of 1944, and the war in Europe began to rage in earnest as the allied forces began to claw and crawl their way back onto the continent, across France and Belgium towards the German Fatherland.
Our unit finally received orders to ship overseas in the fall of 1944.  About 5,000 of us with full battle gear boarded a Victory ship "The Hagerstown Victory" in a New Jersey Port of Embarkation and the vessel headed out under cover of darkness into the cold, rough waters of the forbidding Atlantic Ocean, destination unknown, at least to the soldiers huddled together in the very close, cramped quarters down below deck.  The word we got over the loudspeakers aboard ship was that we were restricted to the quarters to which we were assigned throughout the voyage, except for meal times, latrine requirements and exercise periods, all of which would be strictly controlled and enforced.  Also, we were warned repeatedly not to light up anytime we were on deck topside or near a porthole after dark for fear of being spotted by enemy submarines.
Besides trying to sleep in the quaint but extremely uncomfortable hammocks strung three-high, most of the time was spent talking and thinking aabout what lay ahead; and gambling, with poker and dice being the predominant games of choice.  The only other activity of any consequence had to do with how to avoid or deal with seasickness, a malady which afflicted at least four out of every five soldiers aboard ship.
On the third day out things went from bad to worse.  The 'til then relatively calm seas began a wild, unpredictable and irrepressive "dance."  The sea rose and fell, the waves crashed over the bow of the ship and raced astern, and the skies darkened ominously as the rain pelted down and lightening flashes cracked like a giant whip across the tumultuous heavens.  All the while, our little Victory ship was tossed about, carried aloft on slowly building waves, then dropped suddenly with a crunching thud as the wave dropped out from under the ship.  The rate of seasickness rose from about 80% to 100%, considering that for the duration of the storm, which would last about three days and nights, we were ordered to remain in our bunks or hammocks below deck to avoid being swept overboard.  The stench and heat below decks became unbearable; and fights broke out as patience waned and tempers flared.
By the end of the second day I was so sick and weary of lying in my own sweat and vomit that I decided I would probably be better off dead than continuing to remain in this hell-hole.  I dragged myself up about four decks to topside, swiftly and silently pulled myself out onto the open deck, all the while hanging on to ropes and rails to keep from being swept off the deck into the raging sea by the wind and waves that roared and pounded continuously.  Although I was scared silly I still felt better feeling the wind and rain in my face; at least the stink was gone and I had forgotten about the nausea.  If I was to survive the night I realized that I had to secure myself somehow so that I would not be washed overboard.  I spotted a large canvas-covered cargo hatch partially hidden from view by an overhanging walkway, with many heavy, criss-crossing ropes.  This then was my salvation, I figured.  I quickly crawled onto the hatch-cover, located myself in as obscure a position as possible and tied a loose end of rope very tightly around my waist, thereby securing myself to the canvas hatch cover.  There I lay, soaked to the skin, but happy. . . sleeping fitfully 'til dawn.  I don't know if it was real or a dream, but I seemed to recall hearing big guns being fired on and off during the night.  By the time I awoke, the storm had subsided somewhat, and I was very hungry for a change.  I had not eaten for about two days.  I learned later that submarines had been spotted that night and some of our navy support units had come to the defense of our convoy after at least one troop ship had been torpedoed.
The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful and our ship finally docked in Southhampton, England, ten days after our departure from New Jersey.  We disembarked very quickly, were herded aboard 2-1/2 ton US Army trucks and were driven to Winchester Barracks where we would spend the next two months assembling and organizing while awaiting further orders.
Thus, fate played another trick on me.  Turning point No, 1 had occurred when the Army decided to take a well-trained, physically-fit, combat-ready infantryman and dropped him into the midst of a quiet, clean, pastoral, Ivy League college setting; and, nine months later, reversed the situation and dumped a now docile, softened college student right back into the dust, dirt, mud, noise and danger of the foot-slogging combat infantryman.  What a revolting turning point that was!
On to Chapter 3...
Comments for Lester Segarnick? Email him:lesseg@webtv.com