It was during World War II, on September 18th, 1943, that I boarded the troopship, Argentina, in New York Harbor.
The scuttlebutt was that we were headed for Africa to join our illustrious commander, General George Patton. However, a few days after sailing, we were told over the loudspeaker that since the war was essentially over in that theater, we were sailing instead to England to join up with the Allied Armies preparing for the invasion of Europe, D-Day.
This news was received on board with great jubilation since the prospect of the heat, and the sand had not been something we all had looked forward to. With that threat now alleviated, we were much relieved and our attention became focused, instead, on whether or not we would make it safely all the way to England, what with the number of troopships being attacked and, in some cases, sunk on the Atlantic at that time.
The fear of being sunk had originated with the training we had only recently gone through concerning the possibility of abandoning ship. We spent hours climbing down rope ladders, simulating the ones with which we would have to descend the very steep side of the ship, just in case.
As a result of this apprehension, many of us could be seen at the ship’s rail, when not giving up to the fish, contemplating the vastness of the ocean, which was seemingly covered with ships of all kinds, including troopships like ours – supply ships, destroyers, and other naval vessels. The only thing that was missing was air cover, which didn’t arrive until later when we came closer to our destination.
However, despite our fears and trepidations, we all put on a happy face, and hoped for the best.
I felt that, in a situation like this, anything could happen. And it did, right at the outset.
While walking up the gangway, one of those small-world things happened. I looked to my left, and there, alongside me, in this crowd of soldiers, was Bob Free, a former schoolmate of mine at Stockton High School. I think I may probably have asked him the rhetorical question, “ What are you doing in a place like this?”
Our meeting under these circumstances was a miracle, but it was only the beginning.
At the top of the ramp, I spotted a sign instructing all Jewish enlisted personnel to report to the Officers’ Mess for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) holiday service). I had completely forgotten about the holiday and seeing that sign brought back many wonderful memories so I decided to attend. Although Bob wasn’t Jewish, I looked over to him and asked, “Would you like to come along with me?” He said he would and we went together.
When we arrived at the mess hall, we found, as was true of all the military religious services, one religious leader would fill in for another when the occasion arose. So it was that a Lutheran chaplain filled in for the rabbi, and performed a wonderful service for us Jewish soldiers.
I was so happy to have been able to attend this service, so far from home, that, with Bob in tow, I fought my way, through the other rapidly exiting GIs, to the makeshift bema (altar). I saluted the chaplain and with my hand still at my brow, said, “Sir, I hope you know how much comfort you brought us Jewish fellows aboard. We really appreciated it.”
Returning our salutes, the chaplain smiled, “Thank you so much for coming up and thanking me, soldier. By the way, do you two fellows have any duties to perform on board ship during the voyage?”
I answered, “No sir, we just boarded and saw the sign at the top of the gang-plank referring to this service.”
After that exchange, he gave us each a card along with a note to show to our commanding officers. These cards declared that Bob and I would be the chaplain’s assistants for the duration of the voyage. This meant that instead of sleeping one night in a stack of four or five bunks below deck and the alternate night on deck, as all the other enlisted men had to do, Bob and I were assigned to the Red Cross cabin. This large cabin, which had probably been the Captain’s quarters during peacetime, would be the library and the PX (where cigarettes, candy, and games would be issued). Although technically we were assigned as the chaplain’s assistants, we would have no religious obligations. Instead, our duties aboard ship would be to hand out the goodies and issue the books from the lending library. These cards also entitled us to eat at any time, bypassing the chow line which extended seemingly for miles all around the deck.
Also, for the lucky chaplain’s assistants, there were private quarters with a private bathroom, meaning we didn’t have to use what were called the “heads.” The huge latrines, located at various places on the ship were not only places to relieve oneself, but were, as well, the only places where smoking was allowed. The result was that while in them, a person could hardly breathe. The allure of tobacco, however, conquered all.
A few days into the voyage, Bob and I got another special assignment, that of showing first-run movies every night to the officers in the officers’ mess. This not only put us on speaking terms with the officers, which was not the norm, but enabled us to eat the leftover officers’ fare after the movie.
When looking back on those days aboard ship, I marvel at how much those chaplain’s cards and their rewards meant to Bob and me. Just for being polite, showing a little appreciation, and bucking the traffic which was exiting the religious service, post-haste.
What the two of us experienced on board the Argentina is a wonderful memory, however, my only regret is that I’ve not seen or heard from Bob since the day we debarked.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.