“When Does This Place Get to New York?”


The ships were fast—too fast for U-boats to keep up with them—and were under orders to stop for nothing, not even to help ships in distress or to pick up men in lifeboats. The hazards, therefore, were unpleasant rather than mortally dangerous. In rough seas, zigzagging to present a more difficult target could cause falls, snapped limbs, and put a heavy strain on the medics. Seasickness made sleeping quarters nauseating. Those sleeping on deck were also assailed by the stench of portable latrines. Only two meals a day could be provided for such huge numbers, and they were served in six sittings. The men brought their own cutlery, which they washed in receptacles at the door on leaving. The ships were under British command, but the soldiers were under American command, so the ships were dry.


The most vivid memory of almost every veteran who sailed in the Queens was the compulsive gambling that went on day and night. John Starr, then a 2d lieutenant in the 315th Combat Engineers recalled in an interview that “The poker games would start at eight in the morning and go on until midnight. Every table would be surrounded by a crowd of men, six, seven, eight deep waiting for a seat to fall free. A lot of the players gave up their meals in order to keep on playing. They sent runners for Hershey bars and Cokes.”

The American poet Andrew Glaze, then an Air Force lieutenant, stood on the f oredeck and looked down on “a quarter of a mile of human circles shooting craps. The same sight prevailed on deck after deck, every deck a haze of pale blue smoke. Everybody smoked cigarettes. It was eerie.” Solomon Glushak, a New York lawyer, recalled: “It is important to realize that the GIs had nothing to do. All around them they saw sailors working, officers organizing, naval gunners cleaning their guns. The troops gambled to convince themselves they were achieving something.” Sometimes they did. Glaze encountered a sergeant from New Jersey who disembarked in Scotland, with a quarter of a million dollars.

The other force which fueled the soldiers’ energy was rumor. U-boats had been sighted. The ship was being diverted to Italy. Winston Churchill was aboard on a sealed deck. “On the last voyage”—this was a perennial story—“the Mary raced through a pack of 25 U-boats.”

Most troops were convinced that the Mary was an American ship, and the presence of British crews could not convince them otherwise. “Only Americans could build a ship like this,” said the boys from Tennessee and Montana.

Generally the return voyage was less frenetic. The Mary carried diplomats, American wounded, and German prisoners. Churchill did in fact make three voyages aboard her to confer with Roosevelt, each time turning the main deck into a floating Downing Street, with staff, secretaries, code clerks, and a map room. There was no nonsense about main deck being dry. In his memoirs, he recalled one of the trips: “Five thousand German prisoners were already on board. It had been suggested that they should be transferred to another ship, but I could not see what harm they could do to us.” One wonders what those Germans must have thought when they learned that Winston Churchill himself was pacing the deck above them.

On October 2, 1942, the Mary was carrying her usual complement of fifteen thousand troops, and sailing forty miles north of the coast of Donegal. The weather was fine and she was steaming at 28.5 knots. The waters off Ireland were known to sailors as “U-boat Alley,” and the troopships picked up naval escorts for the last leg of the voyage.

Her escort was the H.M.S. Curaçao, a light cruiser, forty-two hundred tons, with a crew of 439. To the GIs of the Mary, the Curaçao, which looked tiny from the rails of the great ship, seemed to be behaving in an erratic manner, weaving dangerously close to the Mary ’s bow. At the same time the scene was weirdly casual. Sailors could be seen sitting on the hatches of the naval vessel writing letters. Paul Deutschman, then a corporal in the 319th Bomb Group, 440th Squadron, remembered: “She was cutting awfully close in front of us, much too close for comfort. Some GIs’ explanations were that the Curaçao ’s captain was an old friend of the Mary’s captain and was expressing his joy, or that the helmsman was drunk, or that this was the stolid Britishers’ everyday greeting at sea for the Yanks. Some soldiers on deck were actually making bets after a series of near-misses that we would hit the cruiser.”

Captain (later Sir) Cyril Illingworth of the Mary was sailing on a prearranged zigzag course. What happened next was seven minutes of horror. It is awful enough to contemplate an automobile crash at thirty miles an hour. Consider a sailor’s feelings as he sees a razor-sharp skyscraper of 81,000 tons bearing down at thirty miles an hour, with four of the world’s largest propellers churning her through the sea.