Dad’s Service Journal Part II – Rough voyage to Auckland in 1942

This is a continuation of my father, John Steve Moses’ service journal from 1942 to 1944.

Chapter 2 – On a slow boat to the Pacific Theater – October 1942

Notes from a son: John Steve Moses had no intention of joining the U.S. Army, Navy or Marines. My Dad was bowling on Pearl Harbor Day when the news broke in Detroit, Mich. that the Japanese had attacked. He did not run to the recruiting office. His mother would have killed him.

He had a job running a nipple press in a radiator factory and was dating Pat, who he said was the first female DJ in Detroit.  He lived at home with several brothers and a sister and had a darkroom in the basement. In the 1930s he said he was somehow involved in some union activities, part of a group smuggling food into a plant occupied by workers past the police and the union-busting “goons,” as he called them.

But it’s hard to pin down what else he did before the war.  Dad didn’t talk much about the past and never spoke about World War II unless pressed. Here’s some of what we know.

At age 24 he had not finished formal high school. He was the oldest son and during the depths of the Depression dropped out to join his Dad in the coal mines of Windber, Penn. (He kept his last yearbook by his bedside until he died, and later earned an equivalent diploma and a degree in metallurgy from a LaSalle University by-mail course.) His father came from a region in then-Hungary that was in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, according to documents I found in the Mormon library. That was rich mining country and is now in Romania. Dad was born here.

After a cave-in that killed some of the men they knew, the Moses (Mozes before Ellis Island re-spelled it for us) family had decided they’d had enough of the mines and the company store that kept them in debt to the company. A quick, late-night move from the company village was in order. The whole family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and later to Detroit to find work in the auto plants.

Dad’s hobby then was photography, and he thought about writing stories. But the Army caught up with our Dad and most of his brothers, and in spring of 1942 Dad was on a troop train. He’d failed several physicals due to high albumin in his blood due to a kidney defect, until one day the frustrated doctor told him he’d walked up all three flights to the induction center, so he’d do just fine.

When they asked him what his skills were, he told them he was a writer and a photographer. They taught him how to shoot tanks, and then how to wire explosives, improvise boobytraps, scout enemy troop strengths and blow up villages and other targets ahead of the main invasion troops. He was an Army Recon Trooper.

This written record is all we have of his war experiences, except the memory of the rich and colorful curses he picked up while in the South Pacific, and some photos from the war that he developed in his helmet and printed with a lightbulb. Where he got the photographic paper and chemicals I do not know.

The tale resumes with Dad and his unit in Fort Ord, Monterey County, Calif. waiting to ship out to the South Pacific.

Fort Ord is only to be a stopover. From here troops go overseas, somewhere in the Pacific. So we have a general idea we’re going to see Japs instead of the Nazis. Ord really has fine living quarters, big double barracks with showers and heat and nice bunks almost like home.

Had partial blackouts every night due to our nearness to the Coast but it was still easy to get around. Had excellent service clubs and P.X.s. Could get hot meals and almost anything you wanted. Candy was 4 cents a box. Hamburger cost 10 cents but it sure was worth it. Never tasted better in my life. Had girls working behind counter.  One from Texas wasn’t bad to look at, and she sure could talk with that screwy drawl of hers.

Had regular drills most of the day including bayonet.  Sure felt like shoving it in the rear of some of the new non-coms. Bayonet drills are about the hardest in the army. Still had close order, guess we’ll march up to the Japs in formation. Can now march without even thinking.

We’re all getting pretty good on the 37s. Our crew beat every other crew in getting into action with all trails closed in 9 seconds. That’s really luck or something. Crew was Cpl. Stewart, me No.1 gunner, Eddie No. 2, Goss No. 3 and a Mississippi fellow No. 4.

Got compliment today out new looey, a regular fellow. Went on 37 range again, the 1000” one had fun galore with those subcaliber mounts. Better scores than last time in Shelby.

Walked over sand dunes and there was the old Pacific.

September- October 1942

Three days later we went to fire regular A.P. (anti-personnel) ammo. Had targets moving at 600 and 1,000 yards, and a stationary one at 1,500.  Shot 20 rounds, no misses, first shot dead center bullseye and now rated A-1 with every man. Cpl. Stewart was kind of nervous and made a very bad showing, no hits. No one laughed — after all he is a non-com and can make things tough for us. Ratings now taken to Division Headquarters and have reason to believe I’ll get P.F.C. —  better than nothing.

Had a big parade of the whole 43rd Division for Gen. Hester. I hope he appreciates it.

Standing at attention for two hours can get kind of boring, not to say tiresome.

(Editor’s note: This was Brig. Gen. John H. Hester, a former commander of the 43rd  from its days in Vermont, when it was known as “The Yankee Brigade.” He was later given other duties.)

Made quite a few trips to Monterey, a wide-open town on Monterey Bay. Sure is nice, but a few drunks screwed up the place by annoying women and just acting like uncivilized people, so the people acted accordingly. Sent home some souvenirs to Mom and family. Pin for Pat and knife for Bunny.

Made two recordings each for Mom and Pat. Sure is tough talking for three minutes, but Mom sure got a kick out of them, so it was worth the effort. After making the last recording, Pete and I went back to the barracks to find I was being transferred to another outfit by Division. Rumor first had it the 118th Engineers, but next day I found out my new address was to be 43rd Cavalry Recon Troop.

Sure was hell saying goodbye to the fellows, especially Pete. Was in line for sergeant’s stripes, but now I even lose my P.F.C.

Met the recon troops on Sunday. Seem to be a nice bunch of fellows. Got a lot of new equipment the infantry never issued. Finally left Fort Ord for San Francisco on Sept. 30. Had a nice trip, scenery very nice, towns all the way to Frisco. San Francisco itself is on a hill, but it sure looks nice, especially when you soon have to leave.

Saw Alcatraz Prison in Frisco Bay and Treasure Island to the left. Oakland Calif. is right across the Bay, sure is lit up like a X-mas tree. Passed under Golden Gate Bridge when we entered Frisco by train.

(Editor’s note: If there was a heavy rail line into S.F. proper and the wharves back then, Dad would have seen Treasure Island on the right, Alcatraz on the left and passed beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge along the Embarcadero.)

Heard last inning of the Brooklyn, Yanks game while waiting to embark. Saw ship’s name as we marched by with barracks bag on shoulder and Tommy gun with all web equipment plus steel helmet. Sure must have looked like a commando, but felt like two cents. Name was S.S. Grant, flagship of the President Lines.

Oct. 1, 1942

Sailed from harbor Oct. 1, circled Bay a few times waiting for other ships in convoy to get ready.  Had Pres. Coolidge on the left, Bluemfontaine somewhere behind and a few other ships, six in all. Set sail for open sea after noon and boy did we hit some waves.

(Editor’s note: The ships in the convoy were the Grant, Bluemfontaine and Boschfontaine (Dutch), Day Star, Maui and the escort cruiser Detroit, which had been damaged at Pearl Harbor and still bore the scars. The S.S. Pres. Coolidge departed San Francisco five days later on Oct. 6 and, upon arrival at Espiratu Santo harbor, hit two  “friendly” antisubmarine mine and quickly sank)

From “Two were killed in the sinking. Fireman Robert Reid was working in the engine room and was killed by the initial mine blast. Captain Elwood J. Euart, U.S. Army Artillery Corps, had safely gotten off the Coolidge when he learned that there were still men in the infirmary who could not get out. He went back in to one of the sea doors, successfully rescued the men but was then unable to escape himself and he went down with the ship. A memorial to Captain Euart is located on the shore near the access points for the Coolidge. Other sources list four or five dead in the sinking. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, 5,340 men got safely off of the wreck and to shore. There was no panic as the troops disembarked – many even walked to shore.

The official unit history also confirms the description that comes next of massive seasickness.

Everybody was sick, and I don’t mean maybe. And eating was the least of our worries for the first three days. And the food was lousy. Had ox tail a few times and that’s enough to get anyone sick.

Had to stand in line for an hour before we hit the galley and when we did the smell was enough to discourage most. Stood guard all the way over on 37 mm. Had only a few sub scares but boat drills every day. Sprained ankle the day we passed the Equator, ended up in the ship’s hospital.

Boy they sure initiated our officers. Good thing there were no women present.

(Editor’s note: Upon crossing the Equator, officers and men were initiated into the “Society of Neptune.” They were made to eat raw fish, hosed down with Neptune’s fire hose and made to visit the “Blind Barber of Neptune.” All aboard got a “diploma” and much harassment. On some ships, officers and crew switched jobs for the morning, resulting in a lot of brass working hard at scrubbing the decks, according to the official unit history.)

Our sleeping quarters were really the best in rat traps, three decks down below water level. Hot as hell, and we had narrow passageways, slept on canvas bunks for one four on top of the another. Sure was lousy, nothing like we expected to say the least.

Me, Morelli and Newman really had some bitchings about everything in general.

Rumors had us going in every direction of the globe but we were told we’d end up in New Zealand. Saw Samoa way off on the horizon, first land in 15 days. Some of the moonlight nights we had were really nice. Some of the fellows started singing and it lasted for hours. Had an accordionist there that really knew his stuff. Me and Pap just sat listening and talking of home most of the way over. Newman and Cirbett played rummy all the way over. Those sailors sure could spin a few tales, not that we believed them.

Finally sighted an island right off New Zealand, everything looked so nice and green. Saw N.Z. for the first time right after dinner. Headed for Port Auckland. Looked just like a movie scene, white buildings against a green background.

Ship docked around 5 o’clock, so our trip ended Oct. 23, 1942.

As soon as we docked, we had a N.Z. band play for us on the pier, played “The Beer Barrel Polka,” “God Save the King” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Had people lined up all over watching us dock.

Stayed on board over night. Put on cottons, leggings and field equipment and paraded thru town, towns people lined the streets cheering and showing ‘V’ for victory signs. Girls not bad looking, but styles are way behind here.

Paraded to railroad station. Got in little narrow-gauge coaches and rode out to camp 18 miles away. Papakura Station.

Walked two miles up dirt road to camp. Country fairly level and what impressed most of us was the neat little houses and the clean yards. Everyone seemed to be busy.

Arrived at camp and was in for another surprise. We were to sleep in little cottages four to a building. And all around was big trees. Very nice.

Had our first good meal, N.Z. bread and butter with coffee. After eating the ship’s food this was heaven. Got very cold nites and had plenty of wind and rain. In fact it rained every day for a little while. Had exercises every morning and little more. Spent most of days playing football and softball in field next to camp. Met Lt. Baker for the first time and the “Murph,” our first sergeant. Platoon Sgt. Marcotti, Sgt. Nicholas, Sgt. Passareli, Cpl. Wertz, Cpl. Calhoun, Cpl. Halloran.

Had nice week. Pap and “Porky” Washard in our place got along swell, except for  (sic.) time someone brought in an egg and no one knew who. Me  and Pap visited Auckland for fun times. Had a devil of a time there with their money. Pounds, shillings, crowns, pences etc. Just walked in, bought something and held out a handful of coins. Sure was lucky they’re honest.

Seemed to serve eggs with every meal whether you wanted them or not. Had tea until the damn stuff came out of our ears. Their sandwiches were so thin six slices of bread seemed like one of ours. But they never spared the butter and it was swell. Their coffee was a laugh. If they hadn’t told you it was coffee you’d swear it was weak tea.

Had mutton so often some of us started growing wool.

The friendliness of the New Zealanders was what was nice about the place. They actually took you into their homes and they did their best to make us feel at home. The girls were too easy to make, in fact they chased after us instead of us going after them. I’m afraid the population will be due for an increase.

…Went to Davenport on a ferry for a few pennies. Nice place. Had a New Zealand kid for a guide. He sure was amazed at our buying candy. Our rate of pay, $60 for overseas duty, sure surprised them. The soldiers here get only about $25 a month and only two outfits of clothes, summer and winter. They sure are jealous of us.


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