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A Share In The Whole Ship

June 2024
3min read

JUST ABOUT THIS TIME LAST YEAR I CAME ACROSS a scene that chimed with the season, and that stayed with me. It was in a book called Heart of Oak , by Tristan Jones, a Welsh adventurer who died last year after a life that began on his father’s tramp steamer in 1924 and took him across nearly half a million miles of ocean. He first signed on as a deck hand aboard a cargo ship at fourteen, joined the Royal Navy two years later, and after the war went sailing on his own, crossing the Atlantic twenty times and circling the globe nearly four. The New York Times obituary said of him, “He moved from place to place as if the world had invited him in.” At the time of his death he was living in Phuket, Thailand, teaching disabled children how to sail.

Heart of Oak , one of nineteen books he wrote, tells of his service in the British navy. It was not easy service. Sunk three times before his eighteenth birthday, Jones, posted to a destroyer, saw HMS Hood —with her forty-two thousand tons of steel and her fifteen-inch guns—simply vaporize when a shell from the great German battle cruiser Bismarck found her magazines, and he was there a few very grueling days later to watch the Bismarck roll over and sink.

By the next spring the hard-pressed British fleet was beginning to get some help. In March 1942 Jones was experimenting with the still novel task of shaving when he glanced “through the bathroom scuttle and noticed some strange ships, destroyers with two funnels and no scuttles, a couple of cruisers and the like, and it took me a moment or two to realize that the ensigns being hoisted on their stern-staffs were American.”

He first worked with them on the Murmansk run, that lethal exercise of taking matériel up to Russia at a time when convoy losses were running 40 percent.

This particular convoy left Hvalfjord, Iceland, in late June. A few days out German bombers found it, and Jones watched with considerable envy the prodigal spray of antiaircraft fire the American destroyers put up: “We were often being bollocked and charged for wasting ammo.” One of the men at Jones’s battle station said, “Them Yanks got ‘Enry Ford down below, churnin’ bloody shells out.”

But all this ordnance wasn’t enough. “At about three, the first merchantman—a U.S. freighter loaded to the gunnels with ammo for the Red Army—took a tinfish and suddenly disintegrated into flame and smoke. One of our rescue ships headed over to seek survivors. Everyone in the convoy knew that it was merely a gesture. No one could have survived that blast, which physically shook us, even at five miles distance.”

They were more shaken by what followed. “A sort of low moan went around our ship’s deck, from man to man, from the Skipper on the bridge down to the youngest OD waiting for orders. It couldn’t be heard over the ship’s engines, of course. It was as if we felt it.”

Jones turned and stared. “All the American ships were lowering their flags! One after the other, in quick succession, their ensigns were coming down, even on the destroyers . . . —the Americans were showing surrender .”

A stoker summed up the situation: “The bloody yellow-streaked, steak-yaffing, gum-chewing piss-pots!”

But another crewman, who had spent some time in Brooklyn early in the war, couldn’t quite believe it. He ran up to the flag deck, then yelled out: “It’s all right! Look, they’re hoisting clean flags . It’s the Fourth of July !”

“We peered at the Yankee ships. It was true. One by one they were hoisting what looked like brand new ensigns, until all thirteen had them worn bravely from their sterns.”

“‘Fourth of July?’ said one young OD. ‘What the f___ is that ?'’

“Old Flossie Herbert turned to him scornfully. ‘It’s their bloody Independence Day, of course, you twit!’

“‘Why don’t we have one?’ asked the OD.

“‘Cos we’ve always been independent, idiot,’ butted in a stoker PO quietly.”

Which is certainly true in contrast, say, with the people who were working to sink the convoy. But it is interesting to go on a little in Jones’s book and see what happened when the British and Americans tried to get to know one another better. Jones’s skipper made friends with the captain of the USS Wainwright , and the two destroyers began to tie up alongside each other. But this soon stopped; the acquaintance was corroding British morale.

It wasn’t that the men on the Wainwright got steaks and ice cream or a ship’s laundry, although such luxuries were nothing “we had ever seen, or even dreamed of.” Rather, “most telling, for us, were the easy-going, friendly relations between the American men and their officers.” Jones had never seen an officer call a common seaman by his first name “or addressing him as anything else but a mere moving object.”

The first time Jones and his shipmates saw this camaraderie at work, stunned silence settled throughout the British ship. The extent of the sailors’ astonishment was “not easy to explain,” Jones said. But clearly it was based on more than a mere class-bound response to lese majesty (and indeed may have a good deal to do with the fact that some forty years later Jones was writing his account of it in “a tiny corner of a small port in the United States”). “It was as if each individual American gob had a share in his ship, the whole ship, and not just in one or two small corners of it.”

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