In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri destroyed between 16 and 18 million military records, including 80% of those for individuals discharged from the Army between 1913 and 1960. Combining this information with the fact that none of Ralph and Bernice’s letters from 1918 and 1919 survive, I thought it was highly unlikely that I would be able to find any details about Ralph’s time in the AEF.
Luckily for me, there are far more resources available than I expected. Men who were also aboard the Aquitania when it set sail on September 2, 1918, wrote letters home and some of these were published in their hometown newspapers. A number of these men were also in the 334th infantry or its medical detachment, just like Ralph, and shared their experiences after disembarking from the Aquitania. As a result, we are able to construct a rich picture of what the war must have been like for Ralph and his fellow soldiers.
Hurry Up and Wait
The strains of “Over There” mentioned in the previous post must only have lasted so long. Boarding the ship and waiting for it to embark seems to have been a rather tedious, and much longer than anticipated, process. The man who wrote the letter below had spent two days and nights aboard a troop ship preparing to embark when the peace was declared:
Aboard the Aquitania
As the Aquitania finally pulled away from the docks, the regimental band played on the deck of the ship. As many men as possible would likely have crowded onto the deck to catch a last glimpse of their native land. Leaving from New York City, their last sights would have been the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan’s financial district with Jersey City on the other side, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. They would have sailed past Staten Island and Sandy Hook and out into the open Atlantic.
Next, the men headed below deck for their supper. The same cooks who had been with the regiment at Camp Sherman travelled with them aboard the ship. Incredible organization and timing would have been required to serve meals to several thousand men. As we saw in the video of the systems in place at Camp Sherman, the cooks’ skills were well-honed.
Following dinner, the musicians returned to the deck to play for the officers before retiring for bed. The enlisted men were offered the option of a picture show in the mess hall, but they couldn’t get the machine working, so the evening was spent in singing instead.
For the first three hours of the journey, the ship was accompanied by a convoy of destroyers and hydroplanes. Afterward she was left to her own devices. With her complement of six 6-inch guns and her considerable speed, she was thought to be capable of outrunning any attacker.
The accommodations aboard the Aquitania seem to have varied greatly, depending on where in the ship each man was placed. Photos of suites and first, second and third class staterooms follow. There was also a steerage class area, though I was unable to find any pictures of it. Presumably, it would have been similar to that described in the letter at the start of this post: small and crowded, with large numbers of men possibly sleeping in hammocks hung from hooks.
The passengers aboard the Aquitania on this trip were lucky in that the seas were calm for much of the journey. Unfortunately, this didn’t preclude the men from suffering seasickness.
Of course, not everyone felt the same way.
The regimental band continued to provide entertainment throughout the journey, performing minstrel shows and various concerts. The typical minstrel show consisted of dancing, singing, a “stump speech”–the forerunner of modern stand-up comedy, and humorous skits. For much of its early history, minstrel shows often involved white men in blackface and much racist content. By this time, however, the popularity of such performance was on the wane. Many groups instead attempted to adopt an air of refinement and differed from other mainstream entertainments only in name.
Some confusion may have resulted from the change in time as the ship progressed on its journey. As the ship crossed into different time zones, the ship’s time was changed but of course, the men’s watches had to be reset each morning. They likely stayed on a set schedule, resulting in a feeling that I can only imagine was like that of daylight savings time, over and over again. Perhaps this gradual change saved them from the kind of modern-day jetlag one experiencing when flying overseas.
The last night of the journey, the men were told that they were now entering the danger zone. Each man had to sleep fully dressed and wearing his life belt in case of attack.
At 10 a.m. on September 9th, the Aquitania came into sight of the white chalk cliffs of southern England. An English convoy met the ship and escorted it into port at Southampton. The men stayed aboard the ship until September 11th when they were loaded into smaller ships and ferried across the English Channel under cover of darkness. Later ships carrying portions of the 84th Division were diverted to Scotland and rode trains to Winchester, England.
The trip across the Channel was probably the most treacherous portion of the entire journey. The men were warned against even lighting a match, in case it attracted the attention of a German submarine. However, the men arrived safely at Le Havre on a wet, dreary day in mid-September. They were finally in France.
Next Time: The Yanks Are Coming