I left home for the Merchant Marines in mid-December, 1943 [he was barely 18 years old]. Arrived at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, N.Y. For training. There were three different programs available.CHAPTER 1: S.S. BRETT HARTE
The Deck Department which steered the ship, stood lookout, handled all the ropes, mooring lines and machinery and maintenance above deck. This program took 3 months.
The Engine Department operated and maintained the engines and boilers below deck. This program also took 3 months.
The Stewards Department took care of the preparation and serving of food for the Officers, crew and Navy Gun Crew [every Merchant Marine ship carried a U.S.N. Gun Crew responsible for defending the merchant ship against attack]. They also took care of the Officer's living quarters. This program only took 6 weeks.
The primary purpose of the school was to train the crew to launch the life boats. Many lives were being lost because of poorly trained crews. We spent many hours and days learning how to safely operate the boats. Everyone wanted out of school as soon as possible [this was only two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and these young men were “chomping at the bit” to get into the fight before it was over]. I found out that I could take the Stewards program for one trip and if your ships Captain would give you a letter of recommendation,you could transfer to the department you wanted. So that's what I did.
Most trips lasted 6 weeks to 3 months. I boarded the S.S. Brett Harte mid-March, 1944 in Newport News, Virginia. She was a Liberty Ship headed for the Mediterranean Sea. We left port and hit a North Atlantic storm that lasted for 11 days. I was seasick for 12 days.
I served meals in the crew mess hall, sometimes in the Navy mess hall, sometimes I washed dishes, also worked in the kitchen some. I became friends with a deck hand named Mills. When I was off duty, he would teach me what I needed to know to be a deck hand. All about lines, ropes, knots and their uses. We also got an OK from Captain Harrison for me to learn to steer the ship. At the end of the trip, I got my letter.
In addition to our regular cargo, we carried several hundred soldiers and their equipment. I became friends with a soldier named James Rushton. I changed the spelling a little and named my first son Rustin.
As I said, most trips lasted 6 weeks or so. But not ours. We shuttled around for 7 ½ months. Italy, Algeria, Tunisia, Corsica, France, Sicily. Some places like Oran, Algeria and Naples, Italy we visited many times. I got to see many wonderful sights on the trip.
The Rock of Gibraltar is awesome and unforgettable. In the Bay of Naples we saw they Isle of Capris at sunrise. It is beautiful. I also saw Mt. Vesuvius and Mt. Etna. Both are active volcanoes.
We took part in the invasion of Southern France [this would have been “Operation Dragoon” which took place between Aug and Sep of 1944, just after the D-Day Invasion]. While crossing the Atlantic and while in the Mediterranean, our convoy came under air and submarine attack. Several ships were lost. While docked in Naples, Italy we had an air attack almost every night. During the invasion of Southern France, we had many air raids.
The day after the landing, me and a friend went ashore, which was very stupid. We finally returned to the States in Oct. 1944 at Newport News, VA.
Took 30 day leave at home.