Monday, January 18, 2010

A Survivor's Story

By Dot Mead - 1945

The following is a portion of a letter written by Pvt. John Jaggers, Mae Jaggers’ son, to his wife, Dorothy, describing the torpedoing of the ship, carrying a cargo of mules, which he was on last winter en route India. Because of the fate of some of the ships which went before them they were ordered to take a longer route, thinking it safer. Because of military regulations details of the disaster could not be disclosed when it happened.

"Our ship was hit at about 9.30 the night of February 6th. The first two pickles hit us in hold No.3 starboard side. They came so close together the two explosions sounded almost like one. It was sort of a bang, bang effect, like a double barrel shotgun being fired quickly. At the time, Mac, myself and three others were in the vet dispensary, which fortunately was on port side. I think that we all realized what had happened and immediately made for the door. The lights of course were gone and it was pitch black. I couldn't make my voice heard above the noise of the ship so lost contact with the other men. It's the best thing they didn’t follow me. I turned to the right after getting through the door and tried to get to the ladder going topside. The hatch covering between upper and middle compartments had been blown--.away and I fell into the lower compartment. Down there it was all broken bottles, oil from the storage tanks and I. I slipped, slid, prayed and grunted around down there until I finally found a girder pointed in the right direction. It was like everything else, covered with oil, and climbing was a problem. I seemed to get up three feet and slide.back two.

After what I imagined to be hours, I made the upper deck. When I could look up and see a star it appeared so good! Mac and the other fellows turned left on leaving the dispensary and were already on deck. I found a life belt, put it on and went around starboard side looking for Mac. I couldn't find him so went back to my raft. He was assigned to the same one but wasn't there. I went to the bridge, still looking for him, and heard he had gone off in one of the lifeboats. I found some water, a raincoat and went back to my raft. (I didn't see Mac again until I reached shore. He was picked up four days before me and made it here, the same day a ship found us). The Capt. was at the raft and we stood there doing what little we could and waiting to see if we would be ordered .to abandon ship. About this time the third torpedo hit, again on starboard side and slightly forward of the other two. Soon after we were shelled once. When the last torpedo hit, the ship broke in two, right forward of the bridge. Holds No. 1, 2 and 3 sank immediately.

Now there was no doubt about our getting off the thing. My raft was the first of our group of two that was cut loose. It didn't drift away from the ship so that no one could slide down the rope to it. Thinking it was free a Lt. asked me to go down the ladder on the outside of the ship, swim out to the raft and see if I could ,throw the line back aboard. The ladder ended half way down the side of the ship; so I had to jump. 'The water was covered with oil and debris and if it hadn't been for the lifebelt I couldn't have made the raft. The ship still had a little forward motion and I swam like the very devil to get to the raft. I found a line attached to the ship and it was easily pulled where it could be loaded.

After we got men both off the ship and out of the water we paddled quickly away. The ship was listing badly and we thought it might turn over on us. I never paddled so hard in my life and made less time. Rafts are the most stubborn things I have ever seen.

We reached a point about 300 to 500 yards from the ship and stopped to rest. We hadn't been there but a few minutes when I heard a diesel motor running slowly. Knowing it was a sub and thinking it was coming alongside to machine gun us, three of us jumped in the water. The others lay flat in the raft hoping not to be seen amid all the packing cases, etc, floating. The sub came up and stopped about 70 feet from us. Baby, I was scared. If I was frightened aboard ship, it was nothing compared to this. The sub stayed near us a few minutes; not moving. The periscope turned around several times but no one came out on deck. Then it moved off and we never saw it again. Of course we thought they were waiting for daylight to come pack and shoot us like fish in a barrel.

Our raft was built for eight men and that night we had 17 aboard. When it was almost morning we found another raft and tied the two together. They took one of our men leaving us 16 which we kept until rescued seven days later. They also had 16 men.

The next morning, the 7th, we saw two more rafts about 700 yards away. To give you some idea of how hard a raft is to manage, we paddled from 7 A. M. until three that afternoon before we reached them and tied the, four together.

We now had 60 men in the four rafts. Some were injured so we kept the original 16 in our raft to make room for them. Even then there was no room to move. We sat jammed against each other, not daring to move our feet without stepping on someone. Because of our heavy load, the deck (floor to you) was constantly covered with water and each wave came over the sides on our backs. We were never dry, even during calm weather.

To make our food and water last as long as possible, and still sustain us, we decided to ration each man two ounces of food and four ounces of water per day. This way our food would have been gone at the end of 20 days and water at 25. We felt sure they would find us by then for we believed ourselves to be only 50 miles from land. We found later we were 100 (due west of Australia). We also thought our S.O.S. might have been heard, not knowing the radio had been blown apart.

The first day on the raft we neither ate nor drank. We found that the cover on our food supplies was loose and the stuff that was not in cans, such as crackers, was spoiled by salt water. It was during this day we figured our daily ration. The same morning we fully expected the sub to pay us a visit.

This was also the same day we got the four rafts tied together. We would like to have gone back to the ship. We could see it still floating but it was impossible to paddle that far. We needed more food, water, blankets and clothing for the men, but the stern of the ship drifted as fast as we did and it was impossible to get near it with a raft. (Mac was in a lifeboat having oars and was able to return to the ship on the third day after we were sunk). We drifted slowly away from the ship and after the fourth day didn't see it again. I heard later it remained afloat for 10 days and finally had to be sunk. Not bad for just one half a ship.

Everyone seemed to do fairly well until the fifth day on the rafts. Then the constant exposure, lack of food and water began to take effect. A few of the men weren't exactly right in the "noggin." The nights were the worse, for then we were colder - not that we were ever warm. I thought that the Indian Ocean was tropical, but how wrong I was! The night we were torpedoed the water temperature was 58 degrees. Some of the men had nothing on but shorts, and from three to five men had to share one blanket. Through everything ole Johnnie seemed to do okay. I didn't feel especially hungry, but I would have given most anything for a big drink of water. About 9 o'clock of the 7th day on the raft we were picked up . . .

(Thanks to Steve Jaggers)

Monday, August 24, 2009

If you're a young reader, you might want to interview an older person, a grandparent or great grandparent and ask them about the great war. Things were quite different then since only Dick Tracy in the comic strips had an electronic watch to talk to someone. Everyone else had to use the telephone in the hallway at home. Few people had television in those days, but everyone listened to the radio. Children had favorite radio shows like Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy and adults listened to the Fireside Chats given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Everyone listened to Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope. Families gathered around the radio, leaning close, to hear news and the evening concert.

You might ask an older person what it was like to live without electronic devices, what things they had to do without during the war, what games they played at school, who their teachers were with so many gone to war, and how they spent their leisure time.

If you're an older reader, why not share your memories of life on the homefront during World War II? If you served in the military during the forties or recall what life was like on the homefront, your experiences need to be shared since you are a living link between this disappeared time and now. What are the similarities and what are the differences and what have we learned about war?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

As the author of this book, I had to knuckle down to do the research on World War II, the game of marbles, the sinking of the SS PETER SILVESTER, the forties and the homefront. This was a more innocent time and place. While suspicion ran high about neighbors down the street, no one thought of locking the front door.

Life in 1945 was quite different. It was a simpler time and place and we were fighting "the great war" under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Everyone, even children, were part of the war effort. Mothers went to work in the aircraft factories and took over the jobs men on the front left behind. Retired teachers took over the classrooms of their younger colleagues who had gone to war. Children collected scraps, saving tinfoil, string, and old tires and newspapers. Everyone had a job to do.

Families saved in many ways, mending socks instead of buying new; growing vegetables in the backyard; walking instead of driving. How Much things cost in 1945. A new house cost about $4.600.00. Rent was $60/month. The year's average wage was $2,400.00. A new car cost $1,020.00. Gas sold for 15 cents/gallon. Two cents could buy a glass of lemonade.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Knuckle Down" means to apply oneself earnestly to a task. Students often knuckle down to finish homework assignments while people in a poor economy must knuckle down to make ends meet.

During World War II, people were told to knuckle down and they did so by saving scraps, collecting grease, reusing items, growing vegetables in Victory Gardens, mending clothes, and making do any way they could. Women shopped with ration book stamps and were not allowed to shop for food or gas without them. This was a time before easy credit, plastic cards, or ATM machines. All resources and energy went into the war effort. There was no choice but to knuckle down.

Knuckle down is also a term used in the game of marbles. One way to shoot is to knuckle down, a technique most competitions demand. As a beginner, it's easier not to knuckle down, but serious marbles means learning how. One knuckle must remain on the ground while shooting. Place your shooter marble on your second knuckle of your forefinger. Curl that forefinger around the shooter, place your thumb behind the marble and flick it toward your target.

Some of the best fiction comes from real life experiences. I grew up in Los Angeles during World War II. My father, a teacher, decided to "join up" and "do his duty." He served aboard the SS PETER SILVESTER in charge of the Naval Armed Guard.

On February 6, 1945 while traveling unescorted in the Indian Ocean, torpedoes struck the hull of the Liberty Ship.

Also on board were 317 mules bound for work on the Burma Road. In writing this book, I discovered a lot about myself, my family, the war years, and the enemy.

While the story is fiction, it is based on fact. All the events surrounding the sinking ot the Liberty ship are true. To the best of my ability, I've tried to be accurate in regards to the events before, during, and after the sinking. I've heard from some of the survivors and family members of survivors. I've read and reread the letters my father wrote home. I've sorted through books and previously classified information, and I've studied photographs and other memorabilia.

This book is centered on growing up at 10827 Woodbine Street in West Los Angeles during "the great war." People living in that house now would be surprised to know we had a vegetable garden in the backyard and chickens, too. Everyone did. It reflects a patriotic time when people did not lock their front doors, shared whatever they had from their backyard gardens, salvaged scraps, mended clothes instead of buying new, and looked out for their neighbors. It was a more innocent and trusting time. While we were suspicious of anyone of Japanese descent and careful not to disclose any secret information about ship departures, we trusted our families and close neighbors. We believed posters in shop windows depicting the enemies in cartoonish exaqgerations, and we listened to the discussions on the radio and watched with riveted attention to the newsreels shown in the local theater before the double feature.

My mother was German in a war against Germany. She idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. The highlight of her life was when Mrs. Roosevelt came to dinner. My father was president of Harbor College at the time and the great lady had been invited to speak before the student hody. Somehow it was decided she would come to the house for dinner, and my mother made lemon merinque pie from scratch.

Events of the war years altered their lives and mine. I grew up during a time when all we wanted was to grow up. Teenagers did not have the power they have now and children had even less. We watched the adults in our lives, endured the air raids and searchlights, overheard snippets of news, and we waited and watched, fearful always.

Douglas Aircraft Factory had camouflage netting with fake trees over the buildings. There were gun emplacments in the bluffs along the coast. America was at war and war was on our minds night and day; our playtime consisted of collecting scraps, playing war, hating the enemy, and writing airmail letters on tissue thin paper.

We were a united front, Americans, and we did our patriotic duty. No one doubted our cause and our goal because we were the good guys.