Arrival at the new billets in the countryside surrounding Bordeaux was no guarantee of immediate departure. Days or weeks might pass before the troops would board a ship.
When a ship arrived, the Navy informed the personnel officer at the docks that transport was available for a set number of troops. The dock personnel officer contacted his counterpart at the camp, who would then check his priority list and morning report to determine which units could ship out. The message would be relayed to those units to report for embarkation.
As soon as a ship left, more troops would be called up from local billets to replace them at the Bordeaux Embarkation Camp. All soldiers sailing from Bordeaux traveled through this camp, which was actually made up of two separate camps in close proximity. The Entrance Camp, or Embarkation Camp No. 1, acted as a holding area. As space opened up in Embarkation Camp No. 2, also known as Camp Genicart, units would be dispatched for delousing at “The Mill” and final preparations for embarkation.
A photograph of Camp Genicart can be seen at Yakima Memory
When Ralph’s unit, the 309th infantry, was called up, they would have proceeded to the embarkation building. This was an enormous corrugated warehouse, large enough to hold thousands of men.
The building was divided into three sections. The largest section was for well men, the smallest for stretcher cases. The walking injured, aided by crutches or not, were held in the third section.
A kitchen was located off the smallest room. Here, cooks prepared hundreds of sandwiches, along with huge kettles of coffee that could barely be lifted by two men.
Prior to boarding, the men were fed and given last minute supplies by the Red Cross. These were often small items such as handkerchiefs, candy or cookies, and packets of cigarettes.
“Next stop, Hoboken!” was a common refrain.
From the time the Americans entered the war, they had relied on a number of sites within the Gironde-Garonne system to land troops and equipment. A French military commission had recommended the establishment of a naval patrol station at Le Verdon, discharge of troops and supplies at Pauillac and the building of new docks at Bassens. It was these new docks from which Ralph and his fellow infantrymen would sail.
The Bassens docks were located between Bassens and Lormont, four miles from Bordeaux on the east bank of the Garonne. Construction of the dock was complicated by the extremely low, flat terrain and unusually high ocean tides, which inundated the land twice daily. In addition, rail facilities in the area were practically nonexistent. However, such was the pressure to move troops into Europe that the docks and associated railways were constructed in less than six months by Army engineers, including those of the 15th and 18th regiments. This was considered one of the greatest feats of modern engineering ever accomplished in such a short time frame.
The 309th Infantry sailed from Bassens docks aboard the Santa Paula on May 14, 1919.
The Santa Paula had been built as a freighter for the Grace Line in 1917. She was requisitioned in August 1918 and, prior to transport service, she carried military supplies to France.
Amazingly, video of the troops boarding the Santa Paula that day is available online through the National Archives. After you click the link, scroll down until you see the following and click on the video labeled “13”:
At 5:47, a band is playing as troops board the Panaman. Immediately following this scene are several scenes involving the Santa Paula, ending with a group of officers watching the men board, seen below:
Imagine the excitement of these men, who had waited months to go home to their families. In the case of Ralph and the others transferred from the 84th Division, they had spent more time in France following the armistice than they had during the war itself. According to one reporter witnessing the departure of a ship from Bordeaux, “The hilarious happiness was infectious enough to make a stone dog wag his tail.”
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