A Tribute to WWII Veteran and Merchant Mariner Lee Franklin Spitzer 1907-1999
The following is taken from the handwritten memoir of Lee Franklin Spitzer, a WWII veteran who served in the Merchant Marines. It is republished with the permission of his loving daughter Joan.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, we were on a farm of I believe 92 acres and I worked in town at the furniture factory. A law was passed by U.S. congress that anyone who had control of as much as 85 acres must farm them to the best possible and not work in industry. We had only about 40 acres of good low land plus the rest was high land with a shale base. Not very productive. We had I think 6 milk cows and produced milk for Hershey Creamery in Pennsylvania, we were in Maryland just about 3 or 4 miles south of the Pennsylvania border.
We were not able to obtain enough income on our anchorage. One evening a friend who was on the draft board came and told me Lee, we have placed you on as A1 subject to immediate call up. We had 4 children and wife and I talked about this for a few days. Realizing my brother was in Merchant Marine and could come home after each trip we decided I too could join that service. So, wife and I went to Baltimore, and I enlisted. Wife returned and I was shipped to Shepheard Bay New York. This was on long Island in NY City.
There I spent 3 or 4 months in training. Then was sent to Baltimore to board a ship. US James Shield a Liberty Ship. I signed aboard as carpenter. When I went aboard, I discovered she was being loaded with bombs. I went ashore in Baltimore. To visit an aunt who lived there. She gave me a box of candy bars and box of Wrigley gum. She said I was to give it to the kids in Europe.
We sailed on Christmas morning 1943 not knowing where to or what routes. Went out into the Atlantic alone. Up the coast at night to New York harbor anchored a few days. Then ordered out into Atlantic again and form into a place in a forming convoy. Our place was on the outside column and the last ship in the column because we were loaded with explosives.
While in New York harbor a man came aboard to measure us for insulated suits. Scuttlebutt immediately was we were headed for Murmansk, Russia. The tale was not many ships returned from that trip.
This first trip across the north Atlantic was quite an experience for me. Heavy seas broke aboard, constantly. We had much freight lashed upon upper decks.
The chief mate called me out for an emergency. The waves had torn louse 4 or 5 jeep that had been lashed to bollard welded on deck.
Chips you must get a few seamen as many as you think you will need. I called 4 seamen out on deck, and we first tried by main man power to slide them into place. They were sliding fore and aft or from port to starboard as the waves and roll of the ship guided. I went aboard one of them and steered to advantage until we got 1 in position. We anchored that one with steel cable and turn buckles. Until finally all were secure. We all 5 were soaked by near freezing, salt water and then a glorious hot shower.
So, on we went until we were off Northern Ireland. We received orders to leave the convoy. Sail into Irish Sea and on south to Swansea Whales. England was short of bombs too. There we unloaded our entire cargo. It was necessary to anchor offshore until hi tide for the hi tide was about 30 ft higher than low tide. We went through a high wall at high tide and the gates were closed.
We experienced no air raids there, so we were given shore leave almost every day. I walked up a highland into a area of small homes. Since I had some candy and gum in my pockets, as I walked also the weather was not real cold. I saw a small pale faced boy looking out the window. I began to talk to him and offered him a bar of candy. He refused to touch it and asked what it is. I said candy. He replied candy, at that time his mother appeared. She said hello and I responded to her greeting and told her who I was. Oh my, she said, sweets. He has never seen sweets. Thank you so much.
A bit further on I came to school. Children were playing on the ground one came close to me; I offered him a stick of gum. He grasped it ad with a loud thank you. He yelled “gum”. Instantly I was mauled. So, I broke each stick in half and pasted it out until I had none left.
Each day we went ashore, and I found a restaurant that had fish and chips. Every time I went ashore, I asked for fish and chips. After a while one waitress as soon as I entered sounded out fish and chips coming up.
We finely were unloaded, and our deck was full of damage mahogany lumber, had been used to secure the bombs. They refused to receive it for they had no official orders to remove it. Some beautiful clear mahogany, so we were required to secure it and then when out at sea dumped overboard. I sure could have used that fine lumber. But shows the wastefulness of war.
When we were unloaded, they placed aboard about 1300 tons of ballast. Mine refuse. We should have had 1500 tons. So, we were light in the water for north Atlantic crossing in February. It was a very rough trip.
We left the port of Swansea and sailed to Milford Haven a bay in north Ireland there we waited several days for a convoy to form
Sailed from there on about the 1st February. and out into North Atlantic. There was a man in Germany who called himself, Lord, Ha Ha. We often listened to him on the evening radio. Late that evening the radio was on in the mess hall and LHH was on and stated that the convoy that left Milford Haven has been contacted by our submarines and out of a convoy of 60 ships we have sunk or damaged 30+ and sunk, 1 aircraft carrier. We all looked at each other and then began to laugh when we realized we were that convoy. But within the hour we stopped laughing we were in the midst of subs.
The Canadian Corvettes began rushing all about the convoy. Ash cans were exploding below water and the results were of such that we were well aware subs were about. If you would like to experience such sounds as our empty ship repeated. Climb into a steel drum and have a couple of guys beat upon it with sledgehammers. The Corvettes scattered the subs, and we were able to escape that evening. Next am the carrier sent up a plane an they were able to force the subs to stay under water all day we were pretty sure we were free of them. The next am the Corvettes discovered they were on our tail again. They had surfaced during the night and had overhauled us.
So that night about midnight I was almost thrown out of my bunk. The convoy had changed course 90 degree and the ship rolled very far over 45 degrees. Captain said next day we had rolled 48 degree. We were now sailing south instead of west. We lost the subs.
The day after our first contact with the subs, the anchor cane scupper was leaking. Chief mate called to duty; your chain scupper is taking water you will have to fix it. Take a man with you and go up forward and plug it. This was my fault for I did not close it properly. Not realizing the force of the tons of water that came upon the deck when the bow went under a giant wave. The sailor and I took whatever we thought could keep water out. Rushed behind the main mast. Until the sea rushed to the stern then rushed behind the foremast until the next sea rushed a stern. Then to the chain scupper did a bit of work and held on for the next sea ad continued until we had sealed the scupper then back to strip and a hot shower. The water over the side about 30 – 36 degrees.
We continued without problems until we entered port. I think it was Baltimore. About 30 days later I received orders to report for duty. Was assigned to a ship at Norfolk Virginia.
1944 March 20—The Peter J. McGuire, I went aboard. The only person aboard was the 2nd mate. As soon as I reported to him, he said Chips she is all yours. I am going ashore and will not be back. But in a couple hours the new Chief Mate came aboard.
We were loaded with mixed cargo of many supplies including 500 troops who slept in #between decks and cooked and ate in #3 tween decks. Very close quarters. We were part of a large convoy almost horizon to horizon. The second or third day out we ran into a high sea. Waves of great size began breaking over the ship. One of my duties was especially important. Sound the Bilges. Some from the top deck which required a long line to reach to the bottom of the ship. We would keep the metal on the round. Dry coat it with chalk. Open the scupper and drop if water was upon the sinker (about 10 inches long). It was then necessary to bring it out dry it up and try again. Sometimes it took a bit of time.
The aft part of the ship was easier. One could go down into engine room follow the shaft alley from there to the stern. Sounding Bilges as one went.
During this storm those poor troops in the tween decks became seasick in those close quarters and as it was necessary to check there too. You can well imagine the stench of that space, and no one could leave to the deck because of the danger of being washed overboard.
In a day or so that storm subsided and as we sailed along, we were ordered into single file. Looking ahead some mountain peaks were seen. We broke into single file in the Atlantic and our ship the Peter J seemed to lag behind, suddenly a navy destroyer came alongside and an officer with megaphone called “Captain if you cannot keep up, I will be forced to sink you. Almost instantly the throb of the engine increased. We entered the Mediterranean Sea on Easter Sunday. We entered the Bay of Merce El Kasher and dropped anchor. This being the coast of North Africa.
Just forward of our anchorage, anchored a large tanker. We were allowed to float our motorboat and visit them. After unloading their cargo from us they were torpedoed by a sub. A large hole
I was in the forward tank on the port side. They had been anchored there for about 4 or 5 months and was used for storage as other tankers arrived from U.S.
We took our motorboat through that hole and sailed around inside that tank. The crew was so anxious to go on home. They were tired of just anchored.
From there we went to Oran North Africa and discharged our troops and cargo all but emergency supplies which included clothing, food, medical supplies, ammunition and may things we could not identify. From there we sailed around a mountain to Azure a small port over the mountain. There we waited further orders. We loaded 500 South African Ubangis. Vicious looking tattooed faces and bodies, with French officers. Most of these fellows sat about deck with one leg straight out unbent.
But while we were discharging the cargo it was a Muslim Holy time. No Muslim was permitted to either eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. We were told that a Holy man determined sunset by a small open box like a shoe box that had 3 threads from end to end. 2 white and 1 black or the reverse. (This was for cloudy days.) When he could not tell the difference of the colors it was officially sundown. We heard a sound, loud sound, like a cannon shot and everybody immediately quit work. If a cargo net with cargo was in the air that is where it was left.
We needed to be alert at the time for the winches was powered with steam, as that steam collected the pressure dissipated and down went the load. We hurried to return it to the deck or back into the hole.
These people seemed to be anything but honest as I walked the hole at one time, I saw a man grab a nice new white sheet and quickly deftly wrap it under his turban. That evening after the sunset signal I pointed him out to the armed guard. He motioned him aside with his gun and called another guard who came and began to pat about his body. Finally, about his middle and under his turban 4 or 5 sheets appeared.
Ashore we could from time to time see women covered with white sheets only 1 eye exposed and stamped U.S. Army or U.S. Navy.
I discovered the reason later. I saw one reach into what seemed to be a side pants pocket and pull out a long thin blade about 21″/2 feet long. He began to sharpen it there on deck. When loaded we found a small convoy to sail to Corsica. An Island where Napoleon was banished to after his defeat in Europe. There we discharged the troops and from there went to Naples Italy. On the way we anchored for a couple of days at Sicily. Sicily we were in sight of the mountain of Etna. Frequently active mission. Then through the Messina straits, up the coast – West Coast of Italy through the Capri straight to Naples. There we anchored off the coast until there was room for us at the dock.
We were at Anchor for several days and could not dump any garbage overboard. So, by the time we entered the harbor there were large numbers of large garbage cans full on the stern. When we entered the harbor there were many sunken ships of all sizes from large liners to destroyers and freighters and very many small ships. Some large ones were used as docks for they lay there with bottoms up.
We were fortunate to be tied up at the cleared dock. Even where houses had been destroyed. Just a lot of men, dropped the gangplank and a large crowd of men rushed aboard. Each one seemed to have a can or bucket of some kind and they rushed astern. A short time later a lot of noise came from the stern and when I went aft there were those men pushing and shoving and growling at each other like animals fighting to get a share of the garbage.
They ate all that garbage from every can. All that was needed was to wash and rinse them out. That was truly hunger.
This was the port where I was ordered to rig both heavy booms. I began to break out the deck crew. I asked myself what will I do now. I did not know the procedure. So when they gathered about I said you have done this many times so turn to and get the job done. Start with 50 ton first, they looked at each other for a moment and began to run to various positions. Some to windless, some topside, some starboard, some port.
In a couple hours both booms were rigged as I stood and watched. then reported to Chief mate all rigged. The next day the captain called me in to his office and handed me a letter of commendation to read, which stated that was the quickest they had ever had 1 boom rigged let alone 2. I received a Thank you from the captain.
Then Cargo began to come aboard rapidly. A very mixed cargo. After the lower holes of 2 & 3 were full we closed them, and 500 troops came aboard. They told us they were replacement troops for the front lines. But soon the order to batten down hatches was called out and while we were doing this, 55 gal drums began to come aboard, all were full. Some oil and some gas. They were all over the deck. When hole H-2 to 4 were battened down a landing craft were placed upon them.
After working most of the night we left the port of Naples as the sun was rising behind Mount Vesuvius and on up the West Coast of Italy. That evening as we began to enter the harbor of Anzio. The antiaircraft guns began to fire. Our first right of aerial warfare. We proceeded to anchorage in shallow 5 miles off the shore. Boats were waiting for us and all the troops were quickly shipped to shore. The two landing crafts also were quickly afloat.
We all went to chow and then to bed. I was asleep pretty quick. About 10pm General alarm sounded, and everyone quickly dressed, took our emergency gear and rushed on deck. My emergency status, was aft of the radio shack. 1 deck above the main deck. The Bosun was at the same location. The window was open to the radio shack, and I heard sparks say these words “Another wave of bandits over Rome heading south”. I turned to the Bosom and said that must be at least 2. It wasn’t very long until everything seemed to explode, Shore batteries ship guns our 3 ½ inch cannon our 5 inch gun and all our many 50 caliber machine guns. Most firing tracers the sky was lit up like a Christmas tree, but it was not Christmas. Then the scream of falling bombs high pitched shrill whistle becoming more piercing as they came closer and BAMB the explosions one hears very little for the rest of that hour. After the actions ended, we were told 50 plus planes had attacked from 3 groups and each group made two passes over us. Our 3 ½ inch gun received credit for downing one plane. I do not know how many bombs were dropped over our ship. They dropped a perhaps 25 or 50 large bombs at one time.
Not one bomb hit our ship. One large bomb hit just off the bow exploded in the water. The Bow arose into the air and the stern struct the bottom of the harbor. At least twice I saw bomb straddle the ship, many dropped along each side. After Bombs exploded, I would tremble uncontrollably and then more whistle of falling ones and I would stiffen up until explosion. After the action ended, I stood on deck thinking here we were more than 50 planes had tried to sink us. Surely some of those airmen were experienced. Our deck was full of 55 gal barrels of oil and gas. We were not hit. This seemed to me a miracle, even a small incidental bomb on that deck and I would not be alive. Then I knew someone was praying for me. God only could accomplish what had transpired. Thank you, Lord. So often that prayers were offered in the last 47 years. Thank you, Lord.
Our Skipper told a group of us the next day, no one is allowed to go ashore here but I never see what is ongoing on those amphibians running from us to shore.
When I arrived ashore there was about a 10-acre field near the edge of town that had a huge pile of enemy arms and ammunition piled 10 or 12-feet high. I began to look for souvenirs and found a German Rifle in a box wrapped in cloth covered with a kind of greasy material. I carried it back to the ship, cleaned it thoroughly and asked the Chief mate to put it into Ships stores.
So many of the crew obtained rifles also. Plenty of ammo was laying on the ground in large quantities. These crew members began to throw bottles into the water and use them as marks to shoot at. Shells would ricochet from the water and even travel over the shore after some hours of this firing, the shore ordered it to cease.
The crew continued to fire from time to time. The next day the army sent a search company aboard and shook down the ship, all military articles were confiscated. Including the one I had in Ships Stores.
I went to shore again. At this time the Germans had been driven out of Rome. I met a army truck driver and he invited me to his Bivouac. I accepted and we drove a mile or so out of town.
The town was almost completely destroyed. I did not see any buildings that were undamaged. Destruction, no people only military.
At the Bivouac the soldier received orders to load his truck at a supply depo. And then we returned to camp for evening chores. We left about 1PM for Rome. Arrived the next AM about sunup. Drove past the ancient Colosseum and on to the place to unload. We left Rome in the evening traveled for a few miles over the Appian Way. Then toward Anzio we received a radio report that the road would be stopped within minutes. We left the road and when the planes came with machine guns blazing, we were under the truck. When we returned to Anzio my soldier friend took me to the Beach and the Peter J was still anchored.
We soon received our orders to proceed to Civitavecchia which is the part of Rome we anchored and received some 5 to 6 hundred German prisoners. Each day we received a few more and soon we were ordered back to Naples.
Those prisoners were mostly teen aged boys or elderly men. The teens were mean and swore at us in German and other tongues. The older men were anxious to talk, one especially was interesting to me. He spoke English.
I asked how a man his age came to be in combat? He replied and I took the first opportunity to surrender. I asked why. After WW1 if it were not for food packages from America our family would have starved. I sure did not wish to fire my riffle at any American. I might have hit a member of the family who had saved our lives!!
A gift of about 20 years was repaid with Thanks. We then were returned to Naples there we were loaded with much ammo and food supplies. Here again when we had #2 and #3 lower holes filled. They were closed and left for troops in between decks. And on top of the opening of H2 and 4 aft two landings. Craft were secured. First there came aboard almost 200 army Stevedores to unload and another 500 troops we were ordered out to anchorage. No further information was given us at this time. I had not received any mail from home for many weeks. But one day a mail call. I was handed a package of letters more than 20 and was excused from duty. Among those letters was one with a cold shock. Earl, Howard, and Terry had polio. I desperately need some ash. We are quarantined. I made a b line to the Skipper and showed him the letter. He at once said this ship is sealed no one can go ashore no one can come aboard. But you go to the Purser and draw all the money you can. But you can only have ½ of the pay due you until you return home.
I will send you ashore with the Chief Mate to the Red Cross and send all you can. I was able to draw $220 plus dollars. When we reached the Red Cross, he refused to cable the funds. He said you are a civilian. I can only do this for military people. No way could we get any help from Red Cross.
We then went to the fleet Post Office they could only allow a money order of $100.00 to be sent. It was necessary to send $100.00 go out, return, and send another. After the cost of the 2 transactions, I had only a few dollars left. Since that time, I have not given to the Red Cross.
We were anchored for about 30 days and finally received orders to sail then scuttlebutt said to Southern France. I cannot give the date when we anchored in the Bay of St Tropez amid the den? of an invasion that began the night before.
I saw a formation of German Bombers that seemed to be coming at us. But I lost sight of them. I the discharge of troops and the gunfire of our own ship.
Then a German shore battery began to drop some shells about us and we were ordered out of the Bay. When we turned seaward a cruiser was firing at some aircraft which appeared to me to be exploding. I guess every Gun was firing. That ship was firing so many glowing projectiles that I thought it was exploding. We later were able to approach shore and discharge cargo.
From there we went to Marseille. There I went ashore and met a man who had lived in New York for some years, and he invited my shipmate and I to dinner at a hotel. There we had a vegetable dinner no meat or fish, only hard dark brown bread. When we were served, he from his coat pocket produced a package wrapped in brown paper. Opened it and it was part of a loaf of white bread. He broke it into 3 pieces. All the while blowing some insects from its surface. This was a very special gift
There had not been any white bread baked in all of Europe for several years. We ate it with thanksgiving for as he broke it, he said I have been saving this for a special occasion. We were greatly honored.
There was a massive cathedral in this city well known all over the world. I cannot call the name, but it was quite a large and massive church. From here we railed further east along the coast to Joulon, France where there was a large French Navy base. Here I went ashore at the base and prowled about bombed out buildings and salvaged many nuts and bolts of small sizes as I was out of these in my carpenter shop aboard. When I attempted to put them with my store, I discovered they were metric sizes instead of our standard sized.
One of the things I noted almost all the buildings had just a large hole in the roof. They had been bombed very effectively.
Here we unloaded all of the remaining cargo and here we left to…we thought to leave the Mediterranean. But when a small convoy had formed the commander of the escorts ordered all ships full speed of 10 knots. Our captain ordered engine room more speed and we could feel the vibration of the over speed of the engine. We could not keep up. Our bollards was to full of dirt and shell. We were ordered out of the convoy and into the port of Oran, North Africa from which we had twice sailed.
On our way it was discovered that someone had failed to remove a quantity of large artillery shells from #2 Hole. I was ordered to take all the men I needed and secure those shells. When we entered the lower hole, 70+ shells were jammed between the ribs of the ship and the planking that usually kept cargo from the side of the ship.
I asked our Chief how to get them down. He replied break them loose and let them slide down. They have no detonators in them. I tried that with a about 8-feet up the wall and down it come with a clatter. With that one of the men rushed back up the ladder swearing as they went. But we soon had all of them corralled and left the hole and that was the last we saw of those shells.
So, we tied up in Oran North Africa and begin to load material from the battle of North Africa. They continued to load until we were full and then anchored to wait for a slow convoy.
Finally came the wonderful news we were going home. I had received little news from home and was much concerned about our 3 boys. One letter I had received stated Earl was still in the hospital but the others two were some better. I had no positive info until we docked in Baltimore, and I called mother and was relieved to find that Howard and Terry were without visible problems, but Terry had poor vision. Elsie wanted to come to Baltimore and accompany me home. We were to be paid off the next day so the next evening she and our 3-year-old daughter arrived. The first thing my 3-year-old said to me “You are not my daddy” But mother did recognize me. Mother reminded me that I was dressed in a different uniform. I no longer wore the monkey suit of the training period. That was the only photo Joan had ever seen of her daddy.
AFTER THE FIRST TOUR AT SEA DURING THE WAR
We took a bus across the new Chesapeake Bridge to Eastern shore of md and on down to ferry over the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and on to Norfolk and Portsmouth.
There I received a 6 month leave to help with the boys. I received a job in the Norfolk Navy yard for the 6 months. That job revealed to me how the Government was controlled by big business. I was placed on a crew that was building Engine boxes for aircraft engines. All were working with hand tools, driving screws by hand. After a day or 2 I asked about an electric drill, one of men told me to ask at the tool room. I asked and received one and used a broken screwdriver and began to drive screws about ten times faster.
After a while a big shot of some kind walked up and said here man, we don’t do that that way. He took the electric tool back to the tool room, handed me a hand screwdriver.
The next day I was transferred to a repair job in an outside yard quite at the back of a large storage yard. I worked with an older man. I complained about the way they worked in the other plant where I was transferred from. His answer this is a cos plus contract, the more it cost the more profit for the contractor. People fighting in need of supplies and here (cost plus contract). Two of us with only a very few boxes to repair. I complained to our boss who came by every day or so. His reply was that was all we had to do so just keep working don’t let any lead man see you loafing (cost plus).
Not a very rewarding job. After being absent from my family for so long it was a difficult period of adjustment, but the boys seemed to improve especially Howard and Terry. Earl had much adjustment because of continued physical impairment. We adjusted as best we could. But many problems had crept into our relationships.
Earl became rebellious and found it difficult to adjust to his physical and social situation. He told us he was leaving and going on his own. We talked to his doctor, and he advised to let him go. The next we heard of him was a call from South Carolina police. I don’t remember what city. I asked the policeman over the phone has he broken any laws? His answer was no but a 14-year-old cannot be let loose in our land. I replied then “let him go free”. I received a pretty complete dressing down and not pleasant words. But I did not change my mind. He was set free. The next report was a phone call from some place (I believe in Pennsylvania) Earl himself was on the line. He said Daddy can I come home? I said sure and he said I will be there as soon as I can. As I remember in about 2days he came home tired, hungry and needing the Love and Concern of the family.
At the end of 6 months, I received orders to report for assignment to a ship. One of the Navy officers told me he could have me attached to the base for the duration of the war, but I chose to go back to sea.
I went for the series of shots and sent was sent to a new ship that was ready for its first voyage. The Jean Ribaut? I went aboard June 8, 1945. When I went aboard the only person aboard was the 3rd mate. He said we were 2 shots short in our starboard anchor chain, then said Chips I am going ashore, and I won’t be back. She is all yours. It was not long before the Chief Mate came aboard, and I gave him the message of the short anchor chain. More about that later in the voyage.
Soon a Captain Berger came aboard, and the rest of the crew were soon in place, and we were busy checking our jobs. I discovered that all the deck bollards were froze up from the trip from west coast. I found a gallon of liquid wrench and after a few days with the help of steam winches had them free.
Soon we were ordered to a coal dock. There we were loaded with 8500 tons of coal in about 6 hours. Ready to sail that evening. You can well imagine the condition of that ship. Hugh containers that held 2 carloads of coal, each rushed up the top then the bottom opened, and the coal rushed into the hole through huge slots. Coal dust flying.
That evening we left dock and sailed out into the Atlantic that night by AM we had formed into a loose convoy. By the afternoon the ship was sea shape with pump working and sea water washing everything.
About a day or two later the engine of our ship began to have bearing trouble and we had to slow down and dropped out of convoy. We were adrift in the middle of the Atlantic while the crew opened the shaft bearing and the shaft was 12 inches in diameter and they put a new shaft housing or whatever they did. We were adrift for almost 2 days and finally it was repaired, and we preceded alone. Of course, the war with Germany had been ended. I do not have the date that the war with Germany came officially to an end.
We sailed on and the next stop was a port in Eastern England across the strait between England and France. We anchored for a short time in an English port. I have forgotten the name. From there we went to the mouth of a river in Germany. Went up it a short distance to the Keel Canal through it to the Baltic Sea at Keel Germany. There we followed a mine sweeper toward Copenhagen Denmark.
During this time there was 2 or 3 columns of ships, and we came to a sudden blanket of fog that came upon us in just a few minutes. I was at mess and heard the fog horns of several ships and was ordered at once to the anchor windless? When I rushed out, I could not see the bow of the ship. When I got to anchor windlass the Chief mate was there and we waited for orders to drop anchor. We could hear many ships fog horns, some close some faintly.
Suddenly out of the fog came the bow of another ship. It came so close that the men aft could have reached it with a 10-foot pole. In just a few minutes we were ordered drop the anchor St 2 shots. We did and secured for the night.
The next AM we discovered we were only about 10 miles from Copenhagen where we were to unload. We then learned the channel to the port was only 26 feet deep and our ship needed 27feet 6 inches of water. That was Captain Burgers 1st mistake. He had failed to check the charts he was to follow.
Then we had to go out of Bearing Sea through a passage into the Atlantic and go all around Denmark back through the passage between Denmark and Norway to the harbor. A 3-day trip because it was not safe to sail at night because of so many mines in the water. The mine sweepers went before us. They were German ships with German crew and English officers.
Finally, we were at a dock in Copenhagen. Their power plant was almost out of fuel and sure needed the coal. Copenhagen, the cleanest city I ever saw. No loose paper, dirt, or filth of any kind. One of my shipmates went ashore and he lit a cigarette. As we waited for streetcar and as it stopped, he dropped his cigarette and put his foot upon it. A lady beside him tapped him on the shoulder and said “ni ni ni ni” He picked up the cigarette and put it in his pocket. High apartment houses had flower boxes at every window with blooming flowers.
We saw the entrance to the underground bomb shelter and all about that entrance was grass growing. In Germany, France, England and Italy and everywhere else we had been the dirt that had been excavated just lay about in unsightly piles. In this country everything was clean and in order. We discovered that the first action of housewives was to scrub the walk and the side walk every am. A truly clean city and country.
I do not remember how long it took to unload. From there we were ordered to go first a channel between the sea and Norway. A peninsula of Norway that protruded far out into Bearing Sea. A very narrow pass. We had a pilot boat with us. At the end of the canal pilot boat left us. Through a few miles of open water, we met a pilot boat with another pilot. Our Captain refused the pilot saying, “I have charts”. Then we came to a few rocky islands which became more and more numerous until our Captain was lost. So, he began to use ships horn to blow for a Pilot. We were thankful for calm water for it took about 2 hours for a pilot boat to reach us. The new pilot came aboard in vile temper, and I did not understand his language but I am sure it was not complementary. Captain’s 2nd mistake. We then proceed up the coast of Sweden to a river at Sundsvall Sweden. There it was necessary to back stern into dock to load paper pulp.
So, it was necessary to move upriver a certain distance drop starboard anchor and back down river. So, when we were at the proper position to drop starboard anchor, we did so with orders to drop 3 shots. After drifting back to chain strain. Captain Berger cried out more chain on Starboard A. We continued to give him chain until we had no more. The Captain said more chain on starboard A . Chief Mate talking to him on bow telephone replied we have no more. Captain replied by megaphone I said more chain on Starboard A. The mate replied I told you we have no more. The papers call for more chain the locker. I said give me more chain. As a result, the captain came down himself with flashlight to look for himself. He found the chain locker empty. All Chain out. So, it was necessary to heave up
that anchor, drift down river drop port or have tug tow u upriver drop starboard A in 2 shot closer place and then have stern toward back to be secured at port side dock.
We loaded affront half of our space with paper pulp and next day cast off for further north to another paper mill on a river. Here we were getting pretty far north. Looking at a map I am not sure which river we entered to finish our load. There were two rivers Lulean and Umea. I am not sure which one we entered to a paper mill dock. I believe it was the southern one. We tied up and they began loading. Next the people told us tomorrow was circus day at the town. Some of us decided to see the circus. It reminded me some of the first one I had ever seen but more primitive. No motorized equipment only horse drawn vehicles. It was very interesting.
Back aboard there were no duties for me. Just loafing with the off-duty crew. That evening about 11:00 I decided to leave the crew on the stern and go to bed. The sun was still shining on the horizon just behind the mountain. I walked along the starboard side and leaning over the side felt a few drops of warmth on my face. Immediately I knew what it was. Rushing to below decks ladder called the engineer and yelled you are pumping oil over the side. With an oath action began below. The fuel oil we used when cold was so thick pump could not pump it. Needed to be heated in order to transfer from one tank to another. The engineer was and thought he was filling his fuel tank. The wrong valve was opened, and he was pumping overside. That oil was smeared through all the machinery.
We learned 300 barrels were pumped out. Later we heard it cost the shipping company $20,000 to pay for cleaning that mill. When we were loaded a tug alongside asked if we needed help to turn about. The captain called back no thank you I can handle this. Another Mistake….
Before we were clean of the dock, he had pulled a large bollard completely. Pulled off the dock and our new 3 ½ inch howitzer was stretched so tight we could not bend it to coil it on deck. It was laid along the rail from starboard to port until the stretched part was on deck.
Then down the river we went back to Sundsvall. I do not know why there. Maybe we needed to make clearance for all the damage to the papermill.
There I needed a haircut for I had not had one for about 6 weeks. Going ashore to a barber. I entered a shop with many barbers and plenty customers. When I sat in the chair the barbers held up the clippers and said? Machine. I nodded yes so, he started back on my neck and right up over my head to the brow. Then I realized what he meant. It was too late to yell no, so I let him finish. When I returned to the ship the crew started laughing and cried Chips you found some American Indians over here? You are scalped.
But finally, we were permitted to leave but only with a pilot.
We were going home and so out in the North Atlantic we sailed. It took a couple of days to hit the Atlantic out of the North Sea and past the Shetland Islands through the then calm.
September 2, 1945
THE NORTH ATLANTIC WAS THE PLACE WE CELEBRATED THE END OF THE WAR WITH JAPAN!
When we heard the news about Japanese Surrender on the radio, one of our shipmates said war is over I quit. I’m going ashore. He went out on deck but here was no land in sight.
That was the date my war record ended according to my papers. But we were about 3000 miles from home. I do not have any record of when we arrived at the port of Newport News Virginia. Then to home in Portsmouth.
There was another period of adjustment to my family. I obtained a job with a furniture factory that was just getting organized. I worked for a few days and the foreman of the plant resigned and I was asked to take his place.
I worked for a few weeks and the finances seemed to diminish. Mother and I had talked about California and so I started for California. Hitchhiked from Portsmouth and after a few days arrived at Abilene Texas. BROKE.
LEE’S HOME COMING FROM WAR AS TOLD BY ELISE LEE’S WIFE
Mom and I met dad in Baltimore. He was dressed in a Black Commissioned uniform, and I was used to seeing him in a white sailor uniform so I would not accept him. I kept screaming “you aren’t my daddy” We went to Peoples Drug store, and I saw a Teddy Bear but still would not let Dad touch me and just kept screaming. I finally fell asleep and when I woke up Dad dressed me and took me to People Drug Store and bought me the Teddy Bear. So, we became friends.
Dad was on 6 months leave so we lived in an apartment in Portsmouth, Virginia while Mom worked in Navy yard as an Electric Welder in the dry dock Navy Shipyard. This is when she lost part of her finger. She had a hand injury in shipyard which became infected requiring half of middle finger to be amputated.
She worked on the Aircraft Carriers: USS Lake Champlain which was commissioned in June of 1945 and USS Shangri-La was Commissioned September 1944. Last of 24 Essex class A carriers. Shangri-La was used in the pacific Theater of Operations in WWII and earned two battle stars and then served in Vietnam. Lake Champlain was used to carry troops home from WWII combat theaters. Later served in Korea and helped blockade Cuba during Cuban Missile Crisis.
Both have been scrapped Lake Champlain was decommissioned in 1969 and sold for scrap 1972. Shangri-La was decommissioned in 1971 and sold for scrap after 11 years used for parts.
I was the first child to come to Virginia. Mom had been working in the ship yard and all of the kids were with relatives in Hagerstown, Maryland. Not sure where the boys were, but I stayed with Aunt Gladys and Uncle Clarence. After the boys came to Virginia folks bought a house and some furniture. First purchases were Sofa and bed.
Dad was on 6 months leave because Howard and Earl had polio. He also worked in Navy yard but then was called and had to go back to sea. His first trip was to Germany with a load of coal and he was gone for 2 years. War was over while he was in the middle of the ocean and he did not get any credit for the last 2 years of service. After dad went back to service, mom and kids stayed in Portsmouth.
The post A Tribute to WWII Veteran and Merchant Mariner Lee Franklin Spitzer 1907-1999 appeared first on Dr. Rich Swier.
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