|Back to "Memoirs" Index page|
George G. Dawson
Wantagh, New York-
"I was sure that we were about to capsize. My first thought was of my wife back in New York. She would soon become a widow and might never know what happened to her husband. My second thought was that I didn't want to be alone up there, and I wished I could be below with my shipmates. If I was going to die, I wanted at least to be with my friends."
- George G. Dawson
I was born in August of 1925 on Shelter Island, New York. My father (Harry) was one of six children. The rest were females. He worked as a painter in my grandfather's painting/decorating business. During the summer months on Shelter Island, he also served as a cop. Year-round we had only one policeman on the Island, but a second was needed during the summer when all the tourists and summer residents arrived. Father was a World War I veteran, having been a sergeant and having been decorated. (I don't know what the medal was for.) He was very handsome and very popular on the Island. I am not sure when he married my mother, except that he must have been in the Army because I have a photo of them together and he is in uniform. Her name was Frances. Since I was an infant when they divorced, I had no idea what she looked like. My brother Granger was five years older than I was, and my sister Nan was four years older than me.
Shelter Island is a small island (about three miles wide and seven miles long) nestled between the two forks of Long Island about 100 miles east of New York City. It can be reached only by boat. There is also a small landing strip that can accommodate small planes, but I doubt that it is used very much. During my youth, the island had a population of about 1,200. It is double that now, largely because of the influx of well-to-do retirees from the city. There are no movie houses or theaters. No traffic lights or public telephone booths. The school had about 175 pupils during my youth from Grade 1 to Grade 12. There is no McDonalds there (really primitive, eh?). There were four hotels during my youth, as well as four churches. But there were three fire departments. I believe that they have been consolidated into one now. There were two golf courses and two ferry boat companies (one on the north shore and one on the south shore). There are two post offices--one in the center of the town and the other in an area known as "the Heights", which is in the northern part of the town. Mail is not delivered to the door of the homes there. One has to go to the post office and pick it up. There are no numbers of people's houses. During my time there were few (if any) street signs, although there may be some now. Everybody knew where everybody else was located. During my youth there was one very large hotel (150 rooms) and several smaller ones--all open only in the summertime.
Those of us who were natives of the island made our living by fishing, farming, and catering to the "summer people" who needed someone to cook their meals, wash their clothes, mow their lawns, paint their houses, and mix their booze. My first paying job was caddying on one of the golf courses. Next, I was hired by the big hotel to be part of the maintenance crew, but did many things beside mowing lawns, making repairs, etc. (more about these jobs later).
During my childhood and youth, I lived in about 15 different houses. The reason for this was the Great Depression of the 1930s. For the first five years of my life, I lived in my grandfather's house on Shelter Island. It was a good house that he had built himself in 1890. I was born in this house in 1925 and lived there off and on until I joined the Navy on my 17th birthday. It was a sturdy, well-built house with a kitchen, dining room, living room, and three bedrooms. As time went on, an indoor toilet was added and various improvements were made. My grandfather kept up with the times, being one of the first persons on Shelter Island to have electricity, a telephone, and an indoor toilet. There was a large front lawn surrounded by hedges, a garden on the north side that provided us with corn and other vegetables, and apple and pear trees and grave vines on the other side. There was a barn, a shed, and a chicken coop in the back, and still plenty of room for more trees and shrubs.
Although there was plenty of room for me and my siblings to play in, I got the notion that I would like to have a small piece of ground that was mine and mine alone. I thought that a piece ten feet long and three feet wide would do nicely, so I asked my grandfather to give me such a piece of real estate. When he said that I could not have it, I asked why not. "Because," he said, "it is against the law." Indeed, whenever I asked for something equally ridiculous, I always got the same reaction, "It is against the law." I got tired of hearing this so I finally asked, "Who makes these laws?" He said, "The Senators." I replied, "Well then, I want to be a senator." From that day on I was called "Senator." Not bad for a child of six or seven. But nicknames can have meaning, and my grandfather was very clever at creating them for people in our little town of Shelter Island. A Mr. Scott, who always whined and complained, was dubbed "Misery." Mr. Barker, who walked (actually, shuffled) very slowly was called, "Speed." Mr. McDonald--noted for his propensity to butt into conversations--was named "Buttsy." Indeed, nearly everyone on this little island of 1400 people had a nickname. In fact, the town's weekly newspaper once devoted an entire page to listing the nicknames then in use.
How was I affected by my new nickname? My grandfather was frequently visited by other men in the town who liked to come and get his opinions on political and economic matters. Although I was only about seven years old, I enjoyed listening to the conversations. I learned a great deal. Of course, some things were confusing at first. For example, I had to learn that "damned Democrat" was not all one word. But I did learn things about politics, government, and the economy that most kids didn't learn until they were in high school. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I was way ahead of the others in these subjects. The district superintendent, a pompous man named Mr. Wilmot, had a habit of making surprise visits to the school. He walked into a classroom unannounced and started questioning the students. If they could not answer the questions that he thought they ought to be able to, the teacher's job might be in jeopardy. One day he barged into Mr. Weed's seventh grade class and threw this question at us: "If you had money to invest, what would you do with it?" There was a devastating silence for a few moments, and Mr. Weed began to sweat. I raised my hand and said, "I would buy Home Owner's Loan Corporation bonds." Mr. Wilmot growled, "Why would you buy them?" I answered, "Because bonds are safer than stocks, and these are backed by the government." I had heard all of this from my grandfather. Mr. Weed breathed a sigh of relief, and Mr. Wilmot departed to torture some other ill-prepared teacher. By listening to my grandfather and his friends as they discussed politics and economics, and imbibing as much as I could absorb, I was inadvertently preparing for my own career. No, I did not become a senator, but I made a decent living as an economist.
I was well taken care of by two of my aunts, one of whom (Aunt Annie) was unmarried. My grandfather was a widower and crippled. Aunt Annie lived with him, so she was like a mother to me until my father remarried and returned to Shelter Island with his new wife. I have few memories of my father during those five years before he married my first stepmother, but the ones I have are happy memories. He was the first to get up in the morning, and I was with him as he made a fire in the kitchen and even cooked some breakfast for himself and me. When, where, and how he found his second wife is a mystery to me. It was in 1930 when I was five years old that my father reappeared with a new wife in tow. When my new "mother" (Susan) arrived, my older sister and brother and I moved onto a farm with our father and Susan elsewhere on the island. (The other major catastrophe of that year was the beginning of the Great Depression.)
We moved frequently after that because of our inability to pay the rent. We rented a house somewhere, lived there for a month or two, and then were evicted for non-payment of rent. Because we had no place to stay on Shelter Island, we went to New Hampshire, where my stepmother had a brother who owned an inn. It seemed to me, even as a six-year old kid, that the brother was not at all pleased to see us. We rented a small cottage nearby. Father went hunting for food. We tapped maple trees to get syrup. I went to a one-room school, where I was the entire first grade. We lived in New Hampshire for a few months, but the brother couldn't squeeze any rent out of us either, so once again we got the boot. We moved to Maine, where my stepmother's sister Myrtle owned an ancient farm. The farm had no electricity, no running water, no telephone, and no indoor toilet. Again, I went to a one-room school. Everything was scarce, including food, so once again we were invited to leave. Before the school year ended we were back on Shelter Island, as there were no jobs in Maine either.
We found that the situation had not improved on Shelter Island, but my father came up with a brilliant idea. Near the south shore there was a huge estate owned by the late F.M. Smith, the man who invented Borax and made millions from it. After Mr. Smith died, his family moved to California. The estate, with its huge mansion, boat house, stables, barn, etc., had been abandoned. My father wrote to Mr. F.M. Smith Jr. and informed him that his valuable property was deteriorating. If he would allow us to live there, my father would make repairs and keep this valuable property in good shape. Young Mr. Smith bought a new car just to drive back to New York and meet my father. My father was a very personable man--the type that people tended to like immediately. Young Mr. Smith succumbed to his charm, bolstered by the several glasses of apple-jack that my father plied him with during his visit. He agreed to let us live on the estate.
We were not permitted to enter the mansion, which still contained valuable furnishings, books, and the like. He graciously allowed us to live in the barn. We cleaned out the upper story of the barn and made the best of it. As luck would have it, that year turned out to be the coldest in history. It was so cold that the bay froze over and one could actually walk to Greenport on the ice. The barn was not heated, so we used those smelly little portable kerosene stoves. I squeezed in between my older brother and sister to keep warm at night. Well, now we had a place to live, but what about food? We dug clams, caught fish, picked berries, and sometimes enjoyed venison, thanks to my father's marksmanship. In the spring we planted a vegetable garden. We also had a few chickens, which provided eggs and an occasional chicken dinner. Life was still very hard, but then the government stepped in and provided some help. It was decided that veterans of World War I should receive bonuses. My father received a bonus of $500. In the 1930s, this was a lot of money--enough for us to leave Mr. Smith's abode and find a house with running water, a furnace, and indoor toilet.
After Smith's barn, my father received a veteran's pension ($500, I think) for having served in World War II. This, plus a loan, enabled us to build a house near the center of Shelter Island. We did most of the work in building the house, but received advice and guidance from a carpenter who lived next door. I was about 10 years old at this time. However, this didn't last either as we could not make the payments. In 1937, we went to Florida, as someone had told my father there were jobs there. This proved to be untrue. We stayed in three different places in St. Petersburg, Florida--a motel and a couple of houses. As usual, we got evicted for non-payment of rent. I went to junior high school there. I think the school was named Lelman and is still there. I was in the 7th grade and was 12 years old. Times were hard. At Christmas in 1937, we had one can of beans to share for our Christmas dinner. The school work was easy because I had already learned everything in our Shelter Island school. I did not have any friends while there. I think I was shunned because I was a "damned Yankee."
I was glad when we returned to Shelter Island, I think in the spring of 1938. We rented a large house in the northern part of the Island--an area called Shelter Island Heights. We tried to make a living by renting rooms to summer visitors. My father and step-mother were not getting along. I detested my step-mother. She taught me to fear my real mother by saying that she wanted to kidnap me. Since I didn't even know what she looked like, I was a bit wary of any strange female that I might see on the Island. Susan was vicious and brutally cruel, especially to my older brother Granger (five years older than I), who was not in the best of health. Example: One day we were planting a garden. She needed to cut some string and told my brother to go to the barn (we were living in a barn then) and get "a sharp knife." He came back with a butcher knife, and she was furious. She meant a small paring knife, but he didn't know that. Nevertheless, she beat him with a yardstick until the yardstick broke. This only increased her rage, so she beat him again because it was his fault that the yardstick was broken! I was sometimes beaten with a paddle. There were other things she did to me that I can't bring myself to describe. I don't know why my father allowed this, unless it was part of his belief that we ought to be able to "take it like a man." My father never hit me. It was on my 13th birthday that I "became a man." She was about to give me a whipping for having accidentally broken a phonograph record. I looked her in the eye and said, "You are not going to beat me--ever again." I didn't realize it, but she and my father were breaking up at that time. In August of 1938, they split, and the marriage that had lasted seven years ended. We kids were sent back to live with my grandfather and aunt Annie. That was one of the happiest days of my life. My step-mother went back to New England (Maine, I think), and my father went south. He settled in South Carolina and married a divorcee there. He and his new wife visited Shelter Island a couple of times. She was nice to me and did not try to become a "mother" to me. I was grateful for that.
The next four years living with my stern, but loving, grandfather and Aunt Annie were among the happiest in my life, in spite of the hardships. My grandfather's house was my favorite abode because of the comfort, security, and love that I enjoyed there. Mr. Smith's barn was another favorite abode because it showed that we could tolerate hardship and survive it. When my grandfather died, I lived only with Aunt Annie and at times with other relatives who needed a temporary place to stay. I went to school and had a peaceful and pleasant four years until my 17th birthday, when I joined the Navy.
I was in the 8th grade in 1938 when a hurricane struck Shelter Island. I was sitting in the last seat in the last row next to the wall at school that day. There was a barometer on the wall near my desk. The kid in front of me, Elmer ("Sonny") Edwards, noticed that the barometer reading was dropping rapidly. He mentioned this to the teacher, Mr. Montford Weed, but Mr. Weed commented that that old barometer couldn't be right. Shortly after that the windows began to rattle and trees in the school yard began to be blown over. It was announced that school would close and we were to go home. My only means of transportation was my feet, so I started walking toward my grandfather's house, which was about two miles from the school. As I walked home, I kept being blown over by the wind and trees all around were being blown down. I actually crawled part way home. We lost power, and several trees on Grandpa's property were blown down. Because my grandfather had built the house very sturdy, it suffered no damage that I can recall. We had old-fashioned kerosene lamps up in the attic, so we used them for light. Nobody on Shelter Island was killed by the storm but we were without power for several days. We had enough food because my aunt always kept canned goods in the pantry. There was also a general store right down the road from us. When the storm was over, we busied ourselves cutting up the trees that had blown over and cleaning up the yards.
While my siblings and I lived the remainder of our childhood on Shelter Island, my father moved to a southern state, met a divorcee there, and married her. Her name was Zulene. I never lived with my second stepmother. She and my father came to the Island for a visit once in a while. She was nice to me, but did not try to be a mother to me--which suited me just fine. As for step-brothers and sisters, I know of none belonging to Susan. Zulene had a daughter (I can't remember her name) who was older than me and nice to me whenever I saw her.
I liked most of the kids in the school on Shelter Island, and I think they liked me. Did I like school? It depended upon the course and the teacher. I enjoyed some subjects, such as history, English, music appreciation, and art. Some teachers were great; some were incompetent and even sadistic. (Teachers could beat kids in those days and get away with it.) I was active in a number of things. My class started a school newspaper, and I was voted Editor. I also acted in school plays, and played the drums in the school band, a dance band, and a jazz combo. I had a drum at home. At first it was just a toy, but when it seemed that I had some talent for it, they somehow managed to buy me a good drum. The man who played the drum in the town band gave me a couple of lessons. After that I had an instruction booklet that I used to learn more. I also watched any drummer I saw, such as in a marching band or at a dance. I was not interested in playing any other instrument, although I loved music--especially marches of John Philip Sousa. Also while in school we had to play all kinds of sports. I liked baseball the best.
There was no military group in the school. However, when it became evident that the United States would become involved in World War II, many of us volunteered to be aircraft spotters. A wooden tower was built on someone's lawn (later moved to the school's roof), and we spent a couple of hours at a time watching for aircraft. Any aircraft that was seen or heard was reported by telephone to a central station somewhere else on Long Island. Also, as part of the government's effort to cope with the Depression, there was a program that enabled high school students to do some sort of work in the school and get paid for it. I became the janitor's assistant. One of my female cousins worked in the principal's office.
A teenage boy growing up on Shelter Island was expected to own guns and to use them for hunting. I owned a .22 caliber rifle and a shotgun. The rifle was used primarily for keeping the rats out of the chicken coop. One can't do much real hunting with a .22 rifle. A shotgun was another matter. During the hunting season, my friend Ben and I went to an area called Ram Island. It really wasn't an island, but a peninsula jutting out from Shelter Island proper. The best time for duck hunting was early in the morning, so we went to Ram Island at sun-up, did our shooting, and were back in time to get to school.
One day I was particularly eager to go hunting because I had acquired a new shotgun and wanted to try it out. The ducks were too smart for us that day, and we did not even get a shot at one. So we went back to Ben's house. We entered the barn where Ben's father, a carpenter, had a very long wooden work bench. We stood by the workbench to unload our shotguns. When I tried to eject the shell from my gun it went off, blowing a hole in the workbench and just grazing Ben's jacket. I was shocked and explained, "My Lord--I almost hit you!" Ben glared at me and replied, "You son-of-a-bitch, you mean you almost missed!" We then worried about the fact that there was a hole in the workbench. Fortunately, Ben's father rarely used that part of the bench, which was very long, but used the other end. so Ben nailed a shingle over the hole. For a long time we worried about what would happen when Ben's father discovered the hole in his bench. Miraculously, he never did. Later I went on to join the military, where I learned better ways of using firearms. Ben also joined the military and later in civilian life, he became Chief of Police on Shelter Island. I keep in touch with Ben by e-mail, and we laugh about that incident. He has never retracted his comment, however, in which he asserted that I was the offspring of a female canine.
My first full-time job was in the summer of 1941 at a hotel on Shelter Island, New York. Before that, my only paying job was as a caddy at a golf course. The pay for serving as a caddy was 50 cents. Some golfers expected the caddy to carry two or even three bags for that amount. I rarely made more than 50 cents in a day, and found that caddying was no fun. Some of the golfers had violent tempers. One man that I caddied for often erupted and threw his clubs into the woods. I had to plow through poison ivy, thorns, and other obstacles to retrieve them. Then when back at the club house, I was expected to act as his valet, bringing him drinks, fetching his jacket, etc. There was a large hotel on Shelter Island that opened in early summer and closed after Labor Day. To get a summer job at the Prospect Hotel was everybody's dream. On the lawn in front of the hotel there was a very large sign with the name of the hotel and a painting of the bay with boats, seagulls, etc. I noticed that the paint was peeling, so I approached the manager and offered to repaint the sign. I had always loved to draw and paint, and had even earned a little money painting signs for local businesses. The manager was pleased with the results and hired me to paint additional signs. When all of the sign painting was done, he put me on the payroll as a member of the maintenance crew. I was ecstatic. During the Great Depression, any job was "everybody's dream!" I was pleased to be on the maintenance crew because it enabled me to do work that I enjoyed, such as painting, minor carpentry, and gardening. Since the New Prospect Hotel was the largest building and establishment on the island and paid fairly decent wages, many people sought summer jobs there. One got to meet many people (other workers who came from New York City) and to do kinds of work that other establishments did not offer, such as the very large wedding parties. Meals were provided by the hotel, although they were often the "left-overs" from the kitchen. With the Prospect Hotel wages, I paid for the clothes I needed and also bought myself a drum.
At the Prospect Hotel, I did many chores, such as planting flowers and shrubs, mowing the lawns, and making minor repairs. My pay was a dollar a day and lunch. At one point I was transferred to the kitchen to assist the man who was in charge of desserts. He was a black man, and I soon learned that all the stereotypes I had heard about black people were not true. He was friendly and pleasant, and we got along very well. One time the hotel was handling a big wedding for a very wealthy couple. The dessert menu included something called "Wedding Forms." These were made of ice cream, but shaped and colored to represent various flowers and birds. After the wedding was over, there was a good supply of these forms left. We stored them in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator, and every time we felt like having ice cream, we ate one or two of them. Then one day the head chef came and asked to see the Wedding Forms. He had neglected to tell us that there was another fancy wedding scheduled, and that he needed all of those items. He was furious when he saw what we had done to his precious Wedding Forms. I was then removed from the kitchen and assigned to the bakery.
The baker was a German who adored Hitler. All day I had to listen to his ranting and raving about how "This country needs a Hitler!" We were not yet at war with Germany, so he was exercising his freedom of speech to put down the country that was providing him with a decent living. He was a tyrant to work for. I couldn't do anything right. One of my chores was to carry the 100-pound sacks of flour from the storage shed to the bakery. Since I weighed only 120 pounds myself, this was an ordeal. I was rescued by another German. One day when I was struggling to pick up a sack of flour, this man--who was in charge of all financial matters--saw my predicament. He gave the baker a blistering tongue-lashing and had me returned to the kitchen to serve as a dishwasher. When there were no more dishes to be washed, I served as a "bar boy" working with the bartenders.
The hotel had its own dance band, led by Lester Lanin, who went on to become a celebrated band leader in New York. But on one occasion, another group came from the city to play at the hotel. This was one of the so-called "Big Bands" that was known throughout the country. We were all excited about the fact that "Les Brown's Band of Renown" was coming. Apparently the drummer became ill or was unable to play for some unknown reason, and they needed someone to replace him. I had been playing drums since I was seven years old. I played in the school band, the town's marching band, the school's dance band, and a jazz group. So at the age of 16, I found myself playing drums with one of the nation's best known big bands. It was the thrill of a lifetime. To this day--65 years later--I still brag about having played with Les Brown's Band of Renown.
After the hotel closed for the season, I was back to being just another high school kid. The permanent staff of the hotel went to the Bahamas where they ran a seasonal hotel during the winter months. It was given to understand that I might be able to join the permanent staff after I finished school. What a life that would be! Summer on Shelter Island, and winter in the Bahamas! When the staff returned in June of 1942 to reopen the hotel, I was back in the maintenance gang. We did a thorough paint job on the place, repainting every room and every part of the building. But then the hotel caught fire and burned to the ground. I don't know what caused the fire. It might have come from the kitchen. Perhaps someone left a stove on. Since we had just painted the whole thing, it went up quickly. I did not see it burn. I did not learn about it until the morning, when my aunt (I was living with my grandfather and an aunt) told me about it. I went to the site of the hotel to see if I could help. There was an annex that had not burned, but it was clear that the hotel was finished. I helped search through the rubble to try to find anything of value, but found nothing.
I got a job as a waiter in a small family-owned hotel elsewhere on the Island. It was simply called "Behringer's"--the name of the family. The wages were small and the tips were smaller. When I served people in the dining room, there were no tips at all. When I served people in the "beer garden," there might have been a nickel or dime once in a while. Often after leaving Behringer's, I went up the road and worked as a waiter in a bar/restaurant. This was a different kind of clientele--rowdy drunkards. They were people who thought it was cute to trip a waiter when he was carrying a large tray full of drinks, or even light a match to his jacket when he was bending over a nearby table to serve drinks. My worst experience there happened one night when a party of about ten people came. They drank for hours and then ordered sandwiches. While I was in the kitchen getting the sandwiches, they skipped out without paying the bill. The waiter was required to pay the bartender for the drinks when he got them, and then get his money back from the customers. So I was stuck with a large bill. When I complained to the owner, he just shrugged. It was shortly after this that I turned 17 and joined the Navy.
The pleasant aspects of my life before I joined the Navy were the friends I had on Shelter Island, the kindness of my aunts and cousins, the activities at school, my hobbies (stamp collecting, drawing and painting, playing the drums, reading), and being nicely treated by other Islanders. I was also a Boy Scout, reaching the Life Scout level before I left the Island to join the Navy. I enjoyed the hikes, the camping out, and the trips to upstate New York. Then they added a Sea Scout unit, so I joined that and learned a few things that became handy when I joined the Navy. I learned Morse code, for example, and became a radio operator in the Navy. I also learned how to handle a sail boat and how to rescue someone who was drowning.
Three other close family members also served during World War II. My older brother Granger was in the Army infantry and served in Europe. My cousin Dorothy joined the WAVES (Navy women), and my cousin Clarissa joined the WACs (Army women). Before enlisting, the only veterans I spoke with were my father (a sergeant in World War I) and my Uncle Bill (sailor in World War I). I spoke briefly with a neighbor who had just completed his Marine boot camp. The only information I got from him was that I should expect to do a lot of swabbing of decks. None of these caused me to become apprehensive--indeed, I was only more eager to "get into this thing."
Navy Boot Camp
I joined the Navy in 1942 on my seventeenth birthday. I enlisted because I was eager to do something for the war effort and I had always planned on joining the Army or Navy when able. I chose the Navy because I loved boats and I had grown up on an island. When I was younger, my father (an ex-Army sergeant) had thoughts of getting me into West Point to be an Army officer. My Uncle Bill, who had served in the Navy during World War I, convinced me that the Navy had better food, better living conditions, and less danger than the Army. Also, at that time I believe that one could join the Navy at age 17, while one had to be 18 to join the Army. I didn't want to wait until I was 18 to get into the war. None of my friends joined at the same time. My family did not object to my joining.
I went to the Navy recruiting station in New York City on August 17, 1942 (one day after my 17th birthday). There I got a preliminary medical exam and filled out some papers (I can't remember the contents). I was told that I needed my father's permission to join. Nobody came to the station with me. I took the next train back to Greenport, and then the ferry back to Shelter Island. I was not sworn in until September 4. I was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp. I went by train to New York City, and again by train from New York City to Great Lakes. I did not know any of the others who enlisted at that time.
Before leaving New York City to go to Great Lakes, we had several hours to kill. For a while I helped out by filling in names, etcetera. Then several of us went to mid-town Manhattan and saw two movies. I don't remember the title of the first one, but we went because the beautiful Hedy Lamarr appeared nude for a split second. Aside from that, we didn't like the picture. Then we went to see "Pride of the Yankees," a good film about baseball star Lou Gehrig. Later we boarded a train for Chicago. We got sandwiches to eat on the train, but had to try to sleep in our seats. At one point we stopped and were taken to a restaurant for a meal. Arriving in Chicago, we were loaded into the backs of trucks to be taken to another rail line. Everybody whistled or yelled at the girls we saw on the sidewalks along the way.
As we entered the gate of the Great Lakes boot camp, we heard a yell from the current "inmates" all saying in a sing-song way, "You'll be SORRY!" Our barracks were new, but were not yet finished. The window panes had not been installed, and it was cold and damp at night. We surrendered our civilian clothes, which were put into boxes and sent back to our homes. We were issued our uniforms, and our names were painted on parts of our belongings, such as sea bags and dungarees. I don't think my unit had a number. If so, I can't remember it. (Hey, I am at the age when I can't remember my own phone number.)
I don't remember how many were in my "platoon," either. I did not know any of them before. Most were from New York or New Jersey. A couple of people were taken from our group to serve as temporary petty officers. These were men who had had some military experience. I don't remember any names. One claimed to have served briefly in the Army and got discharged when they discovered he was under-age. I did not see a single black person there.
Our chief was from the south. When we were leaving he told us that he had been apprehensive about having a bunch of New York/New Jersey northerners, but that he was very pleased with us--and we were more than pleased with him. The chief petty officer assigned to our company was not at like the monsters you see in movies. He was a rather small, quiet, and soft-spoken man. We soon learned to love him. I have a photo of him with me and my buddy, a kid named Bisciotti (we called him "Biscuit").
Bisciotti is the only one who stands out in my mind, and that's because we were buddies. After boot camp, however, we never saw each other again. Aside from Biscuit, the only man who stands out in my mind from boot camp was a guy who was in great physical shape and who could do all kinds of things that nobody else could do (such as doing push-ups using only one hand). He was rewarded by being considered the best man in our group and being given his choice of where to go for further training. I think he opted to be a torpedo-man.
There was nothing unusual about the physical aspects of the camp. There were just plain wooden barracks and other buildings. I don't remember being bothered by insects. Our barracks had not been finished, so it was cold and damp. Our bunks were made of wood. We were constantly reminded that the Navy would not tolerate dirt--either on one's body or on one's clothing and gear. We had to keep the place spotless, and we had to shower every day. If someone failed to shower, it was likely that his mates would seize him, drag him in the shower, and give him a very cold shower and scrubbing with stiff brushes.
I can't remember exactly what time we were awakened, but it was probably 6 a.m.. Meals were good, but many of us missed home cooking. Shoes and uniforms had to be spotless. We sometimes had to wear wet clothes because there was no way of drying them after we had washed them. My own situation was not typical, because I was always on call to play my drum. I was called upon almost daily to play the drums for "drill masters" who were teaching guys how to march. Also if there was any kind of ceremony where marching took place, I played the drum. I was not part of a group, although I was not the only drummer in the camp. I did not have to make up for any of the training activities that I missed when I was off playing the drum. To my knowledge, I don't think anybody resented the fact that I got out of some of the training by being a drummer.
I don't remember what time lights were put out. We each did our turn as guards in the barracks. I found it hard to resist lying down and dozing off. I did that once and was caught by a petty officer, but he just gave me a warning. I was never awakened at night except when it was my turn to stand guard.
There was no corporal punishment in boot camp. Someone might occasionally be required to do extra duty in sweeping the deck (floor), but nothing more than that. We were scolded from time to time. For example, when the petty officer came in to get us out of bed in the morning, some guys yelled, "Go f---- yourself." The petty officer complained to the chief, who warned us that there would be punishment if anyone did that again. So, the following morning when the petty officer came in to get us up, someone yelled, "I am not telling you to go f--- yourself, but I am offering it as a suggestion." I was not personally disciplined at any time. I did not get into any trouble. I do not recall anyone being disciplined other than a verbal scolding. The entire platoon was never punished for anything. There were no troublemakers that I can recall.
Food was plentiful and good, but not like home cooking. We had meat, potatoes, vegetables, cake, and coffee. It would not be the Navy, however, if somebody didn't complain about the food. Navy guys used a wide variety of terms for various food items, including "shit on a shingle" for creamed chipped beef on toast; "baby shit" for mustard, "horse cock" for cold cuts. If one was sent to the brig on bread and water, he was fed "piss and punk." Strong coffee was "battery acid." Margarine was "axle grease."
I don't remember how many weeks I was in boot camp, but it was shorter than it had been in peacetime because they needed to get men out quickly. I was excused from many of the activities and classes because they needed drummers. As I mentioned earlier, I could play the drums, so I was called upon by the drill "masters" to play while they taught the guys how to march in good order. I remember taking a number of tests--such as the Navy's version of an IQ test, being given the opportunity to buy GI insurance, and getting service numbers, identification tags ("dog tags"), etc.
We were not called upon to commit things to memory, although we had to listen to a long and boring reading of all the rules and regulations that existed at that time. We all received a copy of "The Blue Jacket's Manual" which was full of good information and advice, although most of the guys didn't bother to read it. I do not remember having to qualify for anything. The whole procedure was truncated because of the need to get men out and into active duty. There was physical education every day, but we did not have rifles, tear gas, or swimming. The only films I remember seeing in boot camp were those horrible things about venereal diseases.
I did not have fun in boot camp. I was glad to get out of it, but I was not sorry I had joined the Navy. I was not at all apprehensive about being trained for war. At that age I was not afraid of anything. (Now I know better.) For me, the hardest thing about Navy basic was the great deal of marching I had to do because of my being a drummer. There was no ceremony when we finished our training, yet I did feel like I was truly in the Navy after the truncated boot camp experience. I had a uniform. I had survived some strenuous activity. I lost weight and was in better physical condition than when I entered the military.
I went home on leave, but can't remember how long it was. I visited relatives and friends. Also, there was a patriotic parade for some holiday and I joined with the marching band playing the drums. I was well-received by my relatives, by my teachers and former school classmates, and by the people of Shelter Island in general. After my leave I returned to Chicago and then went to Madison, Wisconsin for training as radioman. I was pleased with this, and we were assigned to dorms in the University of Wisconsin.
The fact that I knew Morse code was not a factor in being assigned to radio school. I don't know why I was selected for that, although I was told that only those who got high scores on the Navy's IQ test were selected. I was delighted to be sent to radio school because I already knew Morse code and other communication means, such as signal flags. I thought that it would be a chance for promotion, as well. I think that the radio school was in a university because the university had ample housing space (nice dorms), kitchens and dining halls, classrooms, and some professors who could provide instruction in such things as radio electronics. Regular classrooms and labs were used for our training. Those teaching us Morse code and typing were Navy petty officers.
As for duration, I was there twice as long as expected (June 1942 to June 16, 1943) because I came down with double pneumonia and was in hospital for a long time. I don't know how I got pneumonia. It was very cold in Madison, Wisconsin, but I might have caught it from someone else. I was in hospital for several weeks. After that, I was put on light duty (such as helping with paper work in offices) before getting back in to the full training routine for radio operators. The equipment we had was simple--Navy typewriters (which used capital letters only), radios, and telegraph keys. There was no problem with the equipment. Everything worked well. We also had some lectures (delivered by officers) on such things as the type of guns used on ships--things that did not apply specifically to radio communication. Everything I learned in radio school was useful when on active duty, whether it was routine communications or communications during such things as invasions. Field communications are critically important in any wartime situation. One has to know where one's allies are and where the enemy might be.
Our ability to send and receive Morse code at various speeds was measured often. We had to take tests in which we had to copy and send messages, and then we were rated by the number of errors we made and how fast we could send and receive without making errors. I did well at this, and ended my stay there with the rating of Radioman Third Class. I was told that I was at or near the head of my class in this respect. Most people did not emerge from the training with a petty officer rating, but usually as Seaman First Class, but with some "sparks" on the uniforms to indicate that they were radiomen. (Those who were working toward a petty officer position and doing so while on the job were called "strikers.")
I enjoyed radio school. I liked doing Morse code, and being near a city (Madison, Wisconsin ) meant that there were movie theaters, restaurants, bars, and girls aplenty. My buddy Carl was from Chicago, and whenever he got a weekend pass, he went home to visit his girlfriend Shirley Meader. One time he invited me to go with him and he asked Shirley to arrange to have a girl for me. He neglected to tell her that I was only five feet five inches tall. Now, there is an unwritten law in the United States specifying that short men may not date tall women. Dorothy, the friend Shirley had obtained for me, turned out to be five feet seven inches tall. So we swapped, since Shirley was only five feet two inches tall. Everything worked out well and we saw our girlfriends a few more times before completing our training and being shipped out.
After finishing radio school I was sent to Camp Crowder--an Army camp--along with many others for special training that included using rifles and pistols, and other things that one usually associates with training for soldiers and marines. I think I was chosen to go to Camp Crowder along with several others who had earned rating of Radioman 3rd class because we had high scores on tests. We never knew exactly why we were given Army training.
Camp Crowder was an Army Signal Corps establishment. We learned army procedures and became acquainted with army equipment. We were given army fatigues, helmets, gas masks, rifles, and bayonets. We got the same training that soldiers got--marching, rigorous activities such as climbing walls, throwing hand grenades, identifying various kinds of poison gas, and learning to use rifles, carbines, and pistols. We spent a lot of time on the firing range, using bolt-action Springfield rifles, carbines, and .45 automatic pistols.
We were organized into "Communication Teams." A team consisted of nine radiomen (eight 3rd class radiomen and one first class or chief radioman), five men who could speak a certain foreign language, and six officers (one Lt. Commander, one Lieutenant Junior Grade, and four ensigns in my team). In addition to the Spanish teams there were French teams and Russian teams. I assume that they were organized pretty much like mine. My team was known as "Spanish Team 3." The instructors were the same army men who taught the soldiers. Training was both in classroom and in field. We were never told what our ultimate mission was to be. We inferred, however, that the United States might be planning to invade Spain. Spain, under General Franco, was in sympathy with the Germans.
In classroom we learned about army radio equipment, teletype machines, and an introduction to the language of our team. In the field we were taught various tactics and maneuvers. For example, we were told never to walk one behind another because if the man in front was shot, it was possible that the bullet could go through his body and into ours. We were taught the use of gas masks and given experience in trying to identify various poison gases. This was done by putting various types of gas in smoke bombs, having the bombs go off, and having us walk through the smoke and sniff it so that we could learn to identify the type of poison gas. (They all smelled alike to me.) Some of us got an overdose of the smoke when a gust of wind suddenly came up, blowing the smoke in our faces before we were ready for it. It was a horrible feeling. We were all gasping and choking. I doubt that it helped my lungs, after recovering from double pneumonia. In fact, some of us were hospitalized for a few days.
Toward the end of our course, we went through the overhead firing course. On a rainy night we marched several miles to a field that was set up to be like a battleground. There was a trench, which we entered. Across the field there were machine guns with live ammunition, but situated about 18 inches above the ground. When the firing started, we crawled out of the trench, and then crawled toward the machine guns. Along the way there was barbed wire that we had to get under, and there were explosions going off all around. These were like hand grenades, I think, but there were sand bags around them. We would not be hurt unless we actually crawled on top of the sand bags. We wore helmets and back packs and carried our rifles. To get under the barbed wire, we had to roll over on our backs and use our rifles to hold the wire up while we wiggled our way under it. By the time I reached the safety of the machine guns, my gas mask cover was torn to shreds and my clothes were wet and torn. We all made it safely. Our Lieutenant Commander wanted to go through the course himself, but the Army guys would not allow it.
I liked the Camp Crowder experience because it made me understand what the army guys have to go through. We were at Camp Crowder from July to October 1943. I wrote to my girlfriend Shirley while there. We were given a short leave before going overseas, but I wanted to spend it with my family on Shelter Island so there wasn't time to go to Chicago to visit Shirley. I didn't realize at this time that she was my future wife. She was just a nice girl that I had dated.
After a short leave, I reported to the Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. My shipmates and I were given liberty just before we shipped out to North Africa, but because our pay records had not caught up with us, we had not been paid for a while. It was our last day in the good old USA, and we couldn't afford to celebrate it. We pooled our nickels, dimes, and quarters, and found that we had just enough for one glass of beer apiece. We entered a bar and ordered the beer. The bartender was not only unfriendly, he was downright nasty. He took his good old time before serving us. After pouring our beer, he put a cigarette in his mouth and then reached into his shirt pocket for matches. As he pulled the matchbook from his pocket, a ten dollar bill which had been folded into a small size fell out of his pocket and onto the bar. He didn't notice it. We did not touch the money, nor did we call it to his attention. He saw the bill laying there, picked it up, put it in the cash register, and gave us the change! Ten bucks bought a goodly amount of beer in those days, so we managed to down a fair amount of suds before returning to the Receiving Station. Did we feel guilty about this bit of petty larceny? Hell no!! The next day, we boarded the liberty ship SS George Leonard. We became part of a huge convoy headed for the Mediterranean Sea. I don't remember exactly when I left the United States, but I was glad to be going because I did not want to spend the war at home. I was not apprehensive about anything.
The SS George Leonard was a cargo ship that had been roughly converted to carry personnel. There were soldiers as well as sailors on the ship. I don't know whether the ship was also carrying cargo or not. We were jammed into a cargo hold in bunks that were so close together (top to bottom) that we couldn't turn over in bed without pushing against the guy above us. The only people I knew on the ship were the other sailors who had been with me at Camp Crowder. We could not shower, and had barely enough water to clean our teeth. All of our gear, plus our weapons, gas masks, etc., had to be in our bunks with us.
I had never been on a ship that big before, but I did not have trouble getting my sea legs, thanks to the fact that I had been on many boats around Shelter Island and other parts of Long Island. Many people got seasick. I got sick once, but I think there were other causes besides the rough sea. I was helping out by working down in one of the holds, sorting out some materials (books, magazines, and the like). It was stuffy there and the stench of the engine oil was sickening. I went up to the deck and vomited over the side. That was the only time I was ever seasick during my Navy service. I went through much worse weather during the Korean War and didn't get sick, even though every other member of the radio gang was sick. I had no specific duty while on the ship. There was also no further training on the ship, except for being told how to put on a life jacket. For entertainment on the voyage, I read books (a biography of Enrico Caruso, for one), played cards, and at one time enjoyed an impromptu show put on by guys who had some sort of talent. We had one guy in my Spanish communication team who had a great baritone voice. Some others told jokes or put on little skits.
A convoy could travel only at the speed of the slowest ship, so our convoy had to poke alone at a maximum of nine knots. We hit rough weather with very high seas. I saw one of our escorts (a British corvette, which was a relatively small anti-submarine ship only 200 feet in length) go completely under the water, and then come back up again. The trip took about three weeks. At one point on the trip, our engine failed and we had to stop while the rest of the convoy proceeded on. The sight of the rest of the convoy disappearing over the horizon while we bobbed around in the ocean was troublesome to us. We had no escort, so we were alone in the Atlantic without protection. If there had been a U-boat in the area, we would have been a perfect target. We were ordered to put on life jackets and stay out on deck. The engine was repaired in time for us to catch up with the convoy just as the sun was going down. It was traveling at a very slow nine knots (convoys could travel only at the speed of the slowest ship). As we were approaching Gibraltar, where U-boats liked to congregate because so many ships were going in and out of the strait there, the escorts were busily dropping depth charges. I don't think they sank any u-boats, but they kept them from attacking the convoy. This was in late 1943. Once we were past the Rock of Gibraltar, the convoy split. Some ships proceeded toward the North Africa coast. I don't know where the other ships went.
When we went through the Strait of Gibraltar, we were convinced that we would be invading Spain. (One of our Spanish-speaking guys was even planning to visit his grandmother in Madrid.) Equipped with rifles, gas masks, helmets, and Army-type clothing, we were considered ready for some sort of action. When we asked for explanations, we were told only that, "When you come back, if you come back, you will be covered with medals." We thought that when we invaded Spain, our task would be to go ashore with the invading force and set up field radio stations to communicate with ships off shore, with our allies, and possibly with underground freedom fighters. However, we sailed right past Spain and went right to Africa with no stops until we were off the cost of Tunisia. The ship anchored far offshore, and my team was ordered to go ashore. We had to get into the landing craft by way of a rope ladder. It was dark and the sea was rough, so the landing craft was bounding up and down furiously. All I could think of was that I was going to break my leg trying to get into the landing craft. I managed to get into the boat safely, but while climbing down the ladder, I lost my helmet. It took a long time to reach the shore because it was dark and we had to keep going around the masts of sunken ships. We landed without incident and awaited the arrival of our officers.
When we stepped off the boat, I asked the coxswain when our officers would be coming. He replied that they would not come in until the following day. We had no instructions as to what we were supposed to do, so we looked for a place to sleep. It was dark, but we found a place that looked safe and secure. We set up tents, dined on K-rations, posted sentries, huddled together in our little tents, and tried to sleep. But it could get very cold at night in North Africa, so we began to look for something which we could use to make fires. We found some things that looked like the green slats in old-fashioned blinds. We tried to light them, but they wouldn't burn. To our great discomfort, the next morning we discovered that we were camping in an abandoned French Navy ammunition depot and that those green slats were solidified gun powder! We quickly moved to another neighborhood.
When our officers arrived, they were as baffled as we were. They had no instructions either. We never did learn why we had landed at this spot. There were some British troops a short distance to the south of us and some French-Arab troops to the east of us, so we didn't feel that we were in any danger. We remained there for several days and finally learned that we were to go to Oran, Algeria, where the Navy had established the base that would be the base of operations for the Mediterranean. I was given the task of getting the enlisted men in my team to Oran. I was told to go to the Army air base some distance away. They had a cargo plane that made daily trips to Oran, and they agreed to let us ride in it. I had never flown before. It had no seats. We sat on the hard, metal floor for the long flight to Oran.
Oran was a large city that was in appearance much like a typical city in France. There were office buildings, churches, restaurants, theaters, bars, houses, apartment buildings, and villas, and docks and piers by the waterfront. My official designation there was simply U.S. Naval Base, Oran, Algeria. I don't know how many people were at this base. I also don't know what the population of Oran was, but it was a large city with both French and Arab inhabitants. The Arabs tended to live in poorer parts of the city.
The enemy on the ground was gone when I arrived in Oran, but there were U-boats prowling around. One destroyer was torpedoed shortly after leaving port to head for some other destination. Otherwise the enemy was still in parts of Italy and in Southern France. The general situation was that North Africa was now in Allied hands. Germans were being pushed back in Italy, and invasion of Southern France would follow shortly after the more famous D-Day invasion of Northern France. Oran was the major base of the Navy at that time. Troops and ships that invaded Southern France left from Oran. I was assigned to the Navy radio station there.
We were quartered in a fairly large, two-story building that was made of brick or brick-covered cement. It had been a schoolhouse. It was not bad, but there was no fresh water, so we had to wash and bathe in salt water. There were also no regular toilets. We had to go "Arab-style" and squat over holes in the floor. It was not in a compound, but was right by the street. Living conditions were not bad during normal times. Bunks in our rooms were as comfortable as could be expected. Food was fairly good. I ate horsemeat once there. It was very good, but tough. Indeed, I think I have a photo of a butcher shop with a sign advertising horsemeat. (Years later, while serving with the Peace Corps in Somalia, my wife and I ate camel meat, which tasted like veal. We enjoyed it.) The stateside food we missed the most was ice cream.
My job was to serve as radio operator in the "radio shack" near our barracks. During quiet periods we worked in various shifts depending upon the situation and the number of radiomen available. During the critical periods, such as the invasion of Southern France, we were busy for very long periods at a time. Sandwiches were sent from the barracks to the radio shack to keep us going during these critical times, and we got very little sleep. Thus, the "daily schedule" varied from time to time.
I did not go to church in Oran. I am a Protestant and I think all of the churches in Oran were Catholic. There were no religious activities at the base. As for entertainment, there wasn't very much. There was no R&R. I did not smoke or gamble, but I did drink a little beer or wine sold in bars. I had done some drinking (mostly beer) before going to North Africa. Sometimes there were movies shown in the barracks. Once while I was there we put on an amateur night. Guys who could sing, play instruments, or tell good jokes kept us amused. There was a beautiful beach a few miles out of town and we sometimes got into a truck and went there to swim. There was a movie theater in town that sometimes showed American films. The restaurants served nothing but spaghetti and cheap wine. There was one place just for American servicemen that served watery beer.
Prostitution was legal, although regular brothels in the red light district were "off limits" for us and were policed by MPs and the Navy shore patrol. Some of the barber shops had a woman or two in a back room who serviced those who really wanted more than a haircut. If a guy discovered a brothel or a single prostitute working out of her home, he usually apprised other sailors of it. There were prophylactic stations near the red light district, and guys who managed to find a prostitute could go there and get something to help prevent venereal disease. One of the saddest things I have ever seen was the presence on the streets of little girls of about 8 or 9 years old, offering to perform sex acts for a few francs.
I remember only one show put on by USO or something like it. It featured American comedians. There was a Red Cross place where we could go and relax and listen to phonograph music. (The William Tell Overture was my favorite.) The only American women I saw were Red Cross workers and one or two Army WACs. The only holiday I can remember celebrating in Oran was Christmas. Aside from getting a better-than-usual meal, the only thing we did was to have a group of orphan children come to our barracks for candy and something to eat.
My aunt used to send me some of her applesauce cake, which kept for a long time and was delicious. No other things in packages came from home for me. I didn't ask for anything to be sent from home. As for others, one of our Hispanic guys got a package from home that contained such things as lipstick, nail polish, other cosmetics, and some women's stockings that he wanted to give to his French girlfriend. Unfortunately, the nail polish bottle broke and the stuff ruined the stockings.
Nothing unusual happened in Oran that I can think of except for the time when one of our radiomen arranged to trade jobs with a radioman on a destroyer that was in port. He hated Oran and wanted to go to sea. The destroyer was torpedoed on the day it left port, and he was back in Oran with nothing but the wet clothes on his back. We all thought that was very funny. One time I had a chance to briefly meet my brother-in-law in Oran once. He was from Southampton--a town near Shelter Island. He was in the Army in Africa, awaiting shipment to France.
I didn't do any sight-seeing. The Arab natives were treated by the French as inferiors. They did menial jobs and were harshly treated by the police. Once I saw an Arab man being arrested by the gendarmes. They pulled off his pants and marched him down the main street to the police station--he was nude from the waist down. Arabs were treated like black people used to be treated in the deep South in the USA. I became friendly with a little Arab boy who was hanging around our barracks. He followed me wherever I went, even if I had nothing to give him. I forget his name. After I left North Africa, I didn't see him again. My best buddy was a sailor named Jack Griffin. He was from a western state, but I forget which one. He and I went everywhere together, joked, laughed together, etc. When we returned to the United States, he was sent to a different assignment and I never saw him again.
War was no joke. I felt that Hitler had to be defeated at all costs. The people I met there had been under German control long enough to see that it was horrible. We did have a few light moments in spite of the seriousness of war, however. One of my favorites involved our going to the beach to swim. There were no houses near the beach, so we could dress and undress in the open. However, when some of the guys acquired girlfriends and wanted to bring them to the beach, we had to build a little shed for dressing and undressing. We had two doors and a big sheet of plywood separating the male from the female section. Soon, one of the guys drilled a small hole about three feet from the floor. The guys took turns squatting down and peeping through the whole at the girls who were undressing. There was a young sailor who was very prudish and scolded the rest of us for doing this. We teased and taunted him so much, however, that he finally caved in and decided to take his turn at the hole. He crouched down and looked through the hole. Then he jumped up, his face beet red. All he had seen was a female eye looking in from the other side!
Another funny thing happened to me. The French Navy had their radio station on the west side of the city, while we had ours on the east side. We communicated by teletype. The teletype operators there were French Navy women or "French Waves," as we called them. One day after sending some messages, I struck up a conversation with the French operator, who seemed to be nice and friendly. I suggested that we meet somewhere downtown. She agreed to meet me at a popular sidewalk cafe in the middle of Oran. She said she would be wearing her uniform, sitting at one of the little round tables on the sidewalk, holding a popular French magazine in her left hand and a glass of white wine in her right hand. When I arrived at the cafe, I saw about ten French navy women--each sitting alone at a little round table, each with that French magazine in her left hand, and a glass of white wine in her right hand! I realized I had been the victim of a very clever practical joke. I didn't dare approach any of them, so I slinked away. Who says the French have no sense of humor?
The person who kept us laughing often was Larry, the Hispanic guy whose mother sent the lipstick and nail polish. Larry always found clever ways of getting out when he didn't have a pass. He acquired a French navy man's cap and put on the plain black rain coat that the Navy used. He would then sneak out, put on the French cap, and not have to worry about being stopped by our own Shore Patrol.
We remained in Oran until the Germans surrendered (I drank too much that day in celebration), and then we were sent back to the USA. By then, I was a Radioman First Class. I personally received a Letter of Commendation from the base commander. I don't remember exactly what it said, and I can't find it now. It was not related to a specific action, but to my service as a whole while there. I got the usual ribbons for service in that sector, good conduct, and the commendation. This "fruit salad" as we used to call ribbons, looked nice on one's uniform and in photos.
We knew it was our day to be rotated because the end of the war in Europe and the Mediterranean meant that we would not be needed there, whereas the war in the Pacific was still raging. All in my communication team welcomed the return home except the Hispanic guy who had the great bass-baritone voice. He had a girlfriend in Oran and didn't want to leave her yet, so his request to remain was honored. He was almost in tears when he saw the rest of us leaving. I think his name was Torres. The rest of us were glad to leave Oran. It had been interesting, but enough was enough. (The hardest thing about being in North Africa for me had been the long hours in the radio shack without sleep.) The only procedures we went through to process out of Africa were to pack our gear, get on the ship, and leave. We saw no replacement people coming as we were leaving. I doubt that they would have been needed since the war in Europe was over.
I returned to the United States in a troop ship, the USS West Point. I think it was a civilian cruise ship, taken over by the Navy and given a new name. I had no duty on that ship and there was no entertainment. We went straight back to the USA, and the trip took about two weeks. Weather was fairly good on the return trip and there was very little seasickness. One interesting thing about the trip was that we each got a small cup of vanilla ice cream. I had not had ice cream in nearly two years. I found it to be delicious, but very sweet--so much so that I got sick to my stomach after eating it because I wasn't used to having something so sweet.
Upon returning to the USA we were not covered with medals as promised, but at least we were still alive. We disembarked at Norfolk, Virginia and went to the Navy Receiving Station there. Nobody was waiting at the dock except those working there. There were no civilians or newspaper reporters there--just the grey Navy buses to take us to the receiving station in Norfolk. Seeing mainland USA might have been emotional if we had returned to New York harbor with the Statue of Liberty in sight, but nobody had sentimental feelings about being in Norfolk. (The sailor's appellation for Norfolk was "shit city.") The only processing was done as we disembarked, and that was to get on a bus bound for Virginia. The first thing that I did after landing was head straight for that bus. After getting onboard, we had to make sure everybody else was aboard, too.
My last hours with my team were when we returned to the Naval Receiving Station in Norfolk, Virginia. During my first liberty, Jack and I had a few beers and I got a small tattoo on my right forearm. I turned down an offer from a middle-aged lady to go to the beach with her and Jack and I both ignored several scantily dressed "ladies of the evening." After a few days in the receiving station, we got our new orders, which included a leave before reporting to our new assignments. As a team, we no longer existed. We felt sad about breaking up, but we all went separate ways.
I don't remember exactly how long I was stateside before going to Okinawa. I had a short leave, spending a few days visiting relatives on Shelter Island. Then I spent a few more in New York City. I took a room in a hotel there, with the intent of having some fun before being reassigned. One day I took the subway to Coney Island and proceeded to wander around the beach. At one point I encountered a young lady who had reddish-blond hair, milky-white skin, a pretty face, and a perfect figure. Her name was Dianne. She was seventeen years old, and she lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with her mother, a divorcee. We became friends, and I saw her every day for the short time I was in New York. We usually went to the beach, had dinner at a restaurant, and saw a movie in the evening. Her mother was pleasant and seemed to approve of her daughter's latest "beau."
The day before leaving for California and proceeding to Okinawa, where the last great battle of World War II took placer, Dianne and I went to the beach as usual. We had dinner in a restaurant and then saw a movie. When we returned to her apartment that night, there was a note from her mother on the door. It stated that she would be spending the night with a relative. It was very late and I was not looking forward to the subway ride back to Manhattan. Dianne said, "If you don't mind sleeping on the couch, you can stay here for the night." I didn't mind at all! We decided to listen to some music before going to bed. Dianne put on a recording of a polonaise by Chopin. I had removed my shoes and way lying on the couch. The old 78-rpm record player was the type that automatically repeated a record if we did not remove it or stop the machine from playing. We both fell asleep, too tired to do anything but cuddle. So all night long Chopin's polonaise played until early in the morning when Dianne's older sister happened to come by. The sister was furious. Although we were fully clothed except for our shoes, she assumed that she had caught us in the midst of an illicit affair. Dianne simply laughed at her screaming sister and refused to offer any kind of explanation. Being a board-certified professional coward, I quickly put on my shoes, said "bye-bye" and sprinted for the door. I went back to my hotel, packed my sea bag, and headed for California. The next year of my life was spent on Okinawa where we built a naval base after defeating the Japanese. Dianne and I wrote to one another for a while, but as the letters became few and far between, our relationship came to an end. By now Dianne would be 78 years old if she is still alive. I wonder if she still likes Chopin.
After I left New York, I reported to the Navy station in Noroton Heights, Connecticut, where I spent a few weeks teaching Morse code. The people I taught already knew Morse Code, but some were not accustomed to the use of "speed keys." The conventional key for transmitting Morse code involved the pushing of a small key down--a short quick push for a dot. For a dash one simply held it down a bit longer. The speed key made it possible to send a series of dots without pushing the key down for each dot. The handle on the speed key was in a vertical position. To make a dash, the key was pushed in one direction, holding it just long enough to complete the dash. To make dots, the key was pushed in the other direction just long enough for the number of dots in the letter or number being sent. To make an "H" (four dots), the key was held twice as long as was needed to make an "I" (which was two dots). Since speed keys were not normally provided by the Navy, I bought my own to demonstrate it. The other radiomen who had them bought their own speed keys as well. Tape recorders had not been invented yet, but something similar called a "wire recorder" had just been invented and we were able to see one and see how it could be used to record voice messages.
The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan came while I was at Noroton Heights, too. We were delighted that these bombs would end the war. Although I sometimes wish that atomic weapons had never been invented, a Japanese man once told me that we ought not to feel guilty about dropping them on Japan because they would have dropped them on us if they had them. Japan was working on an atomic bomb at the time.
Noroton Heights was good duty. It was a pleasant area that was not too far from New York City. The food was good, and the routines were not too demanding. There was no entertainment on the base at Noroton Heights. When we had liberty, we usually took the train to New York City. A friend and I went to NYC when the news of Japan's surrender came. We celebrated around Times Square in the same manner that most other people celebrated the end of the war--drinking. Some of the bars actually ran out of liquor. I am happy to say that my friend and I did a good deed while in the railroad station waiting for our train back to Noroton Heights. An attractive young woman who had had too much to drink was lying on one of the benches asleep. Several young guys in civilian clothes gathered around her and appeared to be planning to molest her. My friend and I went over to that bench, stood by the girl, and just glared at the guys. Although they had us outnumbered, they went slinking away. Ironically, when the young lady awoke, she assumed that my friend and I were there to molest her and started swinging at us! ("No good deed goes unpunished," as the old saying goes.)
After my duty at Noronton Heights ended, I went by train from there to New York City and on to a receiving station in San Francisco, California. Nothing unusual happened on the trip. I don't even remember any details of that trip. After a few days, I boarded the troop ship Cape Henlopen and headed for Okinawa, where the last great battle of World War II had been fought just prior to the end of the war. There was no training, entertainment, or any other organized activity on the ship. Nothing eventful happened on the trip and we did not hit any unusually rough weather. We went straight to Okinawa, where they were building a seaplane base. The island was about 300 miles south of the main Japanese islands. It was about 60 miles long (counting from north to south) and about 11 miles wide. I was there for a year.
At first I was stationed at the sea plane base on the peninsula called Katchin Hanto. It jutted out from the main part of the island on the east side, and the base was on the tip of the peninsula. There was another base on the west coast where several of my friends were stationed. Just off Katchin Hanto, the Navy seaplanes could fly out to look for submarines or other enemy vessels. Once the war was over, this wasn't very necessary. Nearly everything on the island had been destroyed. The capital city of Naha was leveled, except for the frame of one small building that was still standing, but of no use.
We lost over 12,000 Americans, as well as many ships, because of the Kamikaze. The Japanese lost over 100,000 both through the fierce and prolonged fighting and because civilian as well as Japanese military committed suicide by the hundreds when it was clear that they could not win the battle. There were high cliffs at the southern end of the island, and people threw themselves off the cliffs onto the rocks below.
Okinawa was vastly different from North Africa. In North Africa, there were such cities as Algiers and Oran. Okinawa consisted of small villages and the city of Naha, which was totally destroyed. There were no stores, no theaters, no paved roads. When we first arrived, our quarters consisted of tents. Then the Navy Seabees (construction battalions) built Quonset huts and other stable structures and we slept on cots or bunks.
My original job on Okinawa was manning the radio shack at the Katchin Hanto seaplane base, and then carrying "guard mail." This mail was delivered in person from one base to another. I had a Jeep for this purpose and had carte blanche to go almost anywhere at any time without getting a pass or permission. I carried a pistol. After a few months, the base was no longer a seaplane facility and I was transferred to an airbase at Yonabaru, which was near the southeastern tip of the island. Again, my job was guard mail.
I was friendly with all of the radiomen, but had no particular buddy. At first we were not allowed to mingle with the natives. Remember that many, many civilians on Okinawa committed suicide. They had been told that the Americans would commit all kinds of atrocities if they took the island. Japanese military were kept in some sort of prison camp. Civilians were taken to the upper half of the island, while most of us were in the southern half. Gradually, civilians were allowed to trickle south. We hired some of them to work for us. Most young men had been in the Japanese army and were killed or committed suicide. We hired women to help the cooks and to do other menial tasks. They were docile, cooperative, and friendly once they saw that we were not the brutes they had expected. We had a few old men working in our motor pool, doing such things as changing flat tires. At one time I was also in charge of a group of old men who were digging ditches on the base. We had two young women working in our communications office. They could do only menial tasks, and were enthralled by such "modern marvels" as staplers. One gal asked if she could take one of the staplers to her village to show this remarkable machine to her people. I let her do so, but when she brought it back the next day she had used up all of the staples! I have photos of the two young women.
One day when I had a few hours to spare, I learned that someone with a jeep was going to drive over to the base on the west side on some sort of official business. This person kindly agreed to let me ride with him. There were no paved roads on the island, and no road at all going directly from the east to the west side because of the steep hills in between. We had to drive down to the bottom part of the island and then up on the west side. As the jeep driver went about his business, I visited the tent where my friends were lodged. They were in a festive mood, not just because of my visit, but because they had just acquired a turkey. The turkey had just been roasted and was ready to be eaten. One of the guys had passed by the tent where the cook was preparing a meal for the officers. The cook stepped away from the tent for a few minutes, so my friend went inside, grabbed the turkey, and hustled back to his own tent. We enlisted men did not get turkey. We were still surviving on C-rations, little cans of some tasteless concoction that was supposed to serve as a meal. I was invited to join in the feast. I had been taught that stealing was a sin, and that committing such a sin guaranteed a place for me in Satan's motel. Although I had not stolen the turkey, I was equally guilty of accepting some of it.
The sailor who brought me to that side of the island forgot to come and get me when he drove back. I scoured the entire camp, but could not find anyone who would agree to drive me back to my own base. I would have to walk. If I walked the same way we came, by going around the road, it would take all night. However, there was a footpath through those steep hills, so I chose to head for my home base that way. As long as it remained light, there was no great danger in walking on the path. But many Japanese soldiers had not yet surrendered. They were hiding in some of the hundreds of deep, natural caves that could be found all over Okinawa. The Japanese remained hidden in them during the day, but came out at night to forage for food. Some had crept into our camps to steal, and some even slit throats of Americans.
By the time I reached the highest point, the sun had gone down and it was dark. The path was full of stones and my shoes made a crunching sound. Every now and then I heard Japanese voices coming from the caves near the path. Surely they could hear my footsteps. If they wondered who was walking by and decided to come out and investigate, I might become dead meat. I had learned a little of the Japanese language, but certainly not enough to attempt to pretend to be Japanese. As I passed some of the caves, the voices stopped. I thought that surely the occupants were listening to my footsteps and wondering who was out there. Then I remembered the tune of the only real Japanese song from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, "The Mikado." Hoping that the Japanese soldiers would assume that I was a comrade, I whistled the tune of "Miya Sama." My deception worked!
I did not leave Okinawa during the year that I was there. I didn't ask for anything from home, nor did I receive any packages from home. I also didn't celebrate holidays or my birthday. I continued to write to Shirley, and made plans to pop the question to her when I got back in the States. Meanwhile, our only entertainment on Okinawa was an occasional movie, playing cards, going around the island taking pictures, and swimming. I took pictures of the natural scenery, the damage done by the war (such as the almost complete destruction of every building in the city of Naha), some of the people, the ships in the bay, the ships that had been destroyed either by the war or by the typhoon, the guys that I lived and worked with, things of interest such as the burial caves used by the Okinawans, and some unpleasant things such as the human skulls and bones that were scattered here and there. We were right near the beach, so we could swim there easily. I rarely went swimming for pleasure, however. At first we lived in tents and had no showers, so we bathed by swimming in the bay. We also went out naked in the rain with a bar of soap so we could wash ourselves that way.
Some lumber and other building material was left over from the building of the Quonset huts, so we asked for permission to use it to build a little club house where we could meet, play cards, chat, and relax. Permission was granted and we all pitched in to build our club house. We had enjoyed our nice recreation room for only a few weeks, however, when two guys got into a minor fist fight. Using this incident as an excuse, the officers ousted us from our club and turned it into an officer's club. A well-stocked bar was installed, and seamen were assigned to tend bar, keep the place clean, etc. The men were furious, but could do nothing about it. Then Mother Nature stepped in.
A fierce typhoon struck Okinawa. I was manning the radio shack, which was located on top of a hill overlooking the base below. When I received a message that required immediate attention, I went down to the base to find the duty officer, but I couldn't find an officer anywhere. Nobody was in the officer's mess, in the officer's quarters, or anywhere else. I thought they must be in their club, so I went there. No one was there except the seaman who served as bartender. He told me that all the officers had left the base and gone to a facility inland. "How about having a drink?," he asked. I'm not much of a drinker, but I took a couple of snorts that day. The word spread quickly that there were no officers on the base. The guys were very pissed off to learn that our officers had moved inland when the typhoon was coming. They didn't leave the island. As the typhoon approached, one officer came to the radio shack and asked me what I would do if our antenna tower (which was atop the hill) started to blow over. My sarcastic reply was, "I'm sure as hell that I am not going to try to stop it." It was a stupid question, as nobody could prevent a huge tower from blowing over.
The men quickly converged on the officers' club and went to work on their liquor supply. The bottles that weren't drained were smashed. Aside from trying to find an officer to get the message I had received during the typhoon, and the incident of going to the "officer's club" and finding nobody there but the bar-tender, I do not recall what I did during the typhoon. I had lived through the great hurricane of 1938 that battered Long Island and especially the small island where I lived, so I wasn't overly impressed by the Okinawa typhoon. I remember that when the "brass" returned the next day, it took them a while to figure out how that typhoon managed to enter the club, destroy the liquor supply, and leave the building virtually unharmed. I think that the officers got the point, however. After Japan surrendered and the war was over, we closed down the base. The officers invited all enlisted men to come to the club and help polish off their liquor supply.
At one point an important cabinet member came to Okinawa. I remember seeing him come off the plane where he was greeted by the high officers. I believe he was James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy. Nothing else unusual happened during that year except for auto accidents. Some guys were killed or badly hurt in accidents. I personally saw two of them. Several guys were in the back of a truck which slid off the dirt road and went over into the field alongside of the road. I saw some guys being helped up. One was bleeding from the mouth. I was in my Jeep at the time, and was told to keep moving and not remain at the accident scene. The other accident occurred near our radio shack. The shack (a Quonset hut) was at the top of a high, steep hill. The road to the top circled around the hill. It was a dirt road. There were no fences. Some guys in a Jeep were going around the curves too fast. The Jeep slid off the road and fell down the side of the hill, killing one of the occupants. I don't know if any of the others who were hurt were killed. His personal belongings were sent to his family in the USA. He was not part of my communications team so I didn't know him personally. I don't know what they were doing up on that hill, except perhaps joyriding. We had no hospital near the seaplane base. The death of a man was always depressing, but we just had to press on with our chores.
After we had been there for a few months, the Okinawans put on a show for us. Most of the guys didn't enjoy it because the Japanese music and singing was not to our taste. In one part of the show, however, they tried to imitate American chorus girls. This was the only part that the guys appreciated. The food was about the same as it was in Africa, and my job in the radio shack was the same as it had been in wartime, except less stressful. The emergencies now were typhoons, not bombs. Okinawa was a fairly good assignment. Since the war was over, there was less stress and more time to relax.
I knew it was my time to go home when my four-year enlistment was up. I was not sad to leave Okinawa. I returned to the United States on the USS Tazewell, a troop ship. I went to the radio room and offered to help. The chief radioman assigned me to man the emergency radio room, which was smaller and located near the stern of the ship. There I copied news items and the yeomen put out a daily "newspaper" from them. I also copied weather reports.
My Second War
With my tours of duty in North Africa and Okinawa, I was out of the country for three years and did not see Shirley at all. We wrote often, however, and a strong friendship developed. When the war ended in 1946, I was at last able to return to the land of my birth. I went to see Shirley after I returned home. My enlistment was about to expire and I had to decide whether I wanted to re-enlist or take my chances in civilian life. Shirley would make all the difference. If she rejected me I would stay in the regular Navy and make it a career. If she accepted, I would take my chances in civilian life. It was a happy reunion, so I "popped the question" and we became engaged. After she accepted me, I went home to prepare for civilian life. I returned to New York to visit relatives and she planned the wedding, which was to take place in a friend's house in Chicago. We were to stand between two Christmas trees and get married. This was in December of 1946. I came down with a severe case of double pneumonia and was put in Navy hospital in St. Albans, New York. Shirley took a train to New York from Chicago to visit me in the hospital, but I was in a quarantine ward and no visitors were allowed. She was told she could not see me, but a sympathetic pharmacist mate sneaked her into the ward and put us in a private room. We couldn't do anything but hold hands and giggle, but that was better than nothing. I was not released until mid-January, so the Christmas tree wedding was abandoned.
As soon as possible, I re-enlisted in the Naval Reserve so that I could retain my rating if I ever went back in the Navy. When I was released from the hospital, I stayed with my aunt in Brooklyn. Shirley and I wanted to get married before anything else could go wrong. It was mid-January now, and too late to go to Chicago for the Christmas tree wedding. My aunt arranged for us to get married in her pastor's apartment. The wedding party was the minister and his wife, my aunt and her 10-year-old son Jimmy, Shirley, and me. The date was January 18, 1947. Everybody said it wouldn't last, but it lasted for 58 glorious years.
Shirley and I continued to live with my Aunt Annie for several months until we could get settled into jobs and find a place of our own. I worked as a radio operator at RCA, and Shirley worked as a telephone operator in New York City. We found a very old two-family house in Queens, New York (one of the boroughs of New York City) that was selling for about $8,000. We bought it, moved in, and began making mortgage payments. The only changes made in the place were the improvements and painting that I did myself. There was a family living upstairs, while we occupied the apartment downstairs. My job at RCA was the only job I held at that time. It involved sending and receiving messages by Morse code and teletype. Many of the workers at RCA had been radio operators in the service as I had been.
During the Spring of 1950, the USS Kyne DE-744 and the USS Snyder--both destroyer escorts, were used to take Navy Reservists on training cruises. I went on one such cruise on the USS Kyne to Quebec, Canada. The trip north was uneventful, as we dropped depth charges (killing nothing but fish), fired our guns at targets, and had rescue drills. Everyone looked forward to our arrival at Quebec City and a few days of liberty. The Canadian newspapers treated our visit with enthusiastic interest. Pretty French-Canadian girls stood on the wharf as we docked, and we provided guided tours of the ships for the Canadian citizens. But "boys will be boys" and "sailors will be sailors" the world over. The first incident occurred when one of the gunners mates pointed a three-inch gun at a gentleman walking along a nearby street. Wherever he went, the gun followed him, which made him feel very uncomfortable and engendered some negative reactions towards our heroic crew. Next, some of our sailors met some Canadian sailors and became instant drinking buddies. One of the Canadian chaps who had been treated too generously to Canadian Club and other libations by one of our sailors kindly agreed to let his American counterpart borrow a Canadian Navy jeep. This speed merchant came careening down towards the wharf, couldn't stop in time, and plunged into the river. Scratch one Canadian Navy jeep!
The hearty welcome we had received at first began to weaken, as a shipmate and I discovered when we went to the grand dining room of the prestigious Chateau Frontenac Hotel with our ladies, and were told to "go to the coffee shop." Just one more event was needed to put the finishing touches on our "goodwill visit" to our friendly neighbors to the north. As we were leaving the pier for our return trip, the USS Snyder was moving too rapidly and turned to port too sharply. Her stern ripped off a large section of the pier, leaving another impressive souvenir of the U.S. Navy's visit to Quebec. I suspect that some Canadians were rather pleased when the Korean War erupted soon after this, requiring the U.S. Navy to turn its attention towards the Pacific.
Shirley had not been consulted regarding my re-enlisting. It didn't bother her until the Korean War erupted, and then she was in a panic. I had been going to the Brooklyn Navy Yard from time to time to work in the radio shack there, and had gone on a training cruise on the USS Kyne DE-744. But Shirley really broke down when I got my orders to report for duty and was sent to San Francisco to join the crew of the USS Yancey AKA-93, which was in port there. I saw her only once during the year I was on active duty. We were in port for repairs and she flew out to be with me. We had a few days together.
As a radioman first class, I was assigned to the crew of an attack cargo vessel (the Yancey) which was designed to carry troops, vehicles, equipment, and supplies to the war zone. The ship carried several smaller landing boats that could carry men, equipment, or materials ashore to support an invasion or any other combat operation. See the cover of the August 2006 issue of Military magazine. The ship depicted there is an AKA, and is exactly the same as the USS Yancey. We carried cargo of all kinds--from toilet paper to motor vehicles. The ports we visited in Japan were Sasebo and Yokosuka. Most often it was Sasebo. In Korea we visited Pusan and Inchon. We were allowed to go ashore in Pusan, but not in Inchon. There wasn't much of interest in Pusan. It seemed to be a rather poor and shabby city, much affected by the poverty that goes with war. We went back and forth between Oakland, California (our home port) and Japan or Korea. I think we made about five such trips during my year on the Yancey.
The most comical complaint that I ever heard about ship's food was on the USS Yancey. Some joker got on the "bitch box" (loudspeaker) and yelled, "Now hear this. The chicken with today's duty get down to the galley and swim in the soup!"
One bitterly cold night, we were anchored in Yokosuka Bay, Japan. The signalman on duty was a sailor named Johnson. He was given a long message to send by signal light to a ship at the other side of the bay. It was the longest message I had ever seen and Johnson was unhappy about having to send it. Actually, it would have been easier and quicker to deliver the message by boat, but "orders were orders," so Johnson reluctantly went to work by turning on the light. He held the several pages of the message in his left hand and manipulated the signal light with his right hand. He transmitted one word and then looked up to see if the other ship had received that word, which was indicated by a quick blink of the other ship's signal light. Things seemed to be going smoothly, for every time Johnson looked up, he saw the blink that meant the word had been received. It took over an hour to send the message, which went without a hitch, even though Johnson's hands and feet were nearly frozen by the cold. After completing the message, Johnson looked toward the other ship expecting to see the final "roger" or confirmation that the entire message had been received. However, all he saw was a light that kept blinking--blink-blink-blink. He then realized that he was seeing a blinking buoy. Johnson used every dirty word in the English language, and some that had not been invented yet. But at least he holds the record for having sent the longest message in history to a blinking buoy.
On one voyage we had on board a number of sailors who were just out of boot camp and getting their first taste of duty at sea. Normally we did not have a doctor or a chaplain on board. On one trip, however, we had both. The chaplain was Catholic. He had set up his things to do mass or something that included the use of wine. He stepped away just long enough for somebody to steal the wine. Everyone, including the old chaplain, thought this was quite funny. I know who stole the wine, but there is an unwritten law in the Navy that one does not "rat" on a shipmate. I think the young doctor was just out of medical school and was also getting his first taste of life at sea. Like nearly all newcomers, he was the butt of a joke. He had examined the health records of the crew and was shocked at the large number of venereal disease cases. Two amusing things came out of this. The young doctor was standing near a rail enjoying the sea breeze when two quartermasters standing nearby decided to play a joke. One said to the other, "Did you hear about the navigator?" (The navigator was a full lieutenant.) The other said, "No, what?" The first one said, "He has black balls!" (There is a navigational instrument that has two round objects the size and shape of a grapefruit. They are colored black.) The other quartermaster pretended to be shocked. Saying nothing to the enlisted men, the young doctor approached the navigator and very nervously and quietly said that he had heard a rumor that, "You have, er, black balls?" Immediately realizing that the doctor had been conned, the navigator said (pointing to the two black items in the wheelhouse), "Yes, there they are."
The other amusing thing was that the young doctor approached the captain with the suggestion that they try to reduce the number of venereal cases by having a contest to see which division could have the fewest cases. The captain replied, "You don't know these guys. They will be having a contest to see who can have the most." Another thing that the crew found amusing was when a certain seaman married a gal he had met in San Francisco. He got a dose of the clap (gonorrhea) from his lovely bride!
There were good officers and bad officers on the USS Yancey, and Lt (JG) Berk [fictional name] was one of the bad ones from the point of view of the enlisted men. He was arrogant and overbearing, treating the men in his communications division like dirt. Even after our radio gang had received the highest praise from fleet headquarters for efficiency, he took full credit and gave us poor evaluation ratings. He always walked very fast, not because there was any need for speed, but it made him look like he was doing something important. If someone happened to be in or even near his path, he roughly pushed him aside. His habit of rushing everywhere also applied to ladders. He went up a ladder in a flash, not looking up to see whether anyone or anything was above him. One day two signalmen on an upper deck saw him dashing along a lower deck, headed for the ladder to the upper deck. There was a large wooden bench nearby, so they picked it up and put it over the top of the ladder. When Berk came flying up the ladder, his head smacked the bench, causing him to be laid up for a few days. A few weeks later, we decided to re-paint the radio shack. Everyone pitched in, covering the equipment with masking tape and drop cloths. One man remained in the room to do the spraying while the rest of us vacated the shack. I stood outside to warn people not to enter the shack. But then Lieutenant Berk came dashing toward the door. I yelled, "Don't go in there, Sir!" He glared at me as if to say, "You don't tell me what to do." He jerked open the door before I had a chance to explain. It so happened that the man inside was doing the inside of that door at that moment. Berk got a full blast of paint all over the front of his clothes. Every enlisted man in sight chocked back the impulse to laugh. Before long, Lieutenant Berk was transferred and replaced by a new communications officer who was a decent guy. Nobody on the ship mourned Berk's departure.
A wide variety of things happened during my tour of duty on the USS Yancey. Once while I was taking a shower on the Yancey, the fire alarm sounded. Being in the nude and soaking wet, I couldn't get to my fire station (the emergency radio room) and was scolded for not being there. The fire was put out rather quickly. It seemed that someone left some oily rags in one of the empty holds and that spontaneous combustion ignited them. There were also some episodes in which some guys needed psychiatric care. The most unusual case was that of a Chief Pharmacist Mate. He was a grouchy man, and when sailors came to him with complaints, he had a tendency to think that they were mentally ill. He sent so many men to the psychiatrists in a base hospital that they began to think something might be wrong with him! Indeed, that turned out to be the case.
There were times when some guys did seem to "lose it.". One guy who seemed to be in perfectly good health mentally and physically went wild one time. He put his head down and ran full speed into the metal bulkhead, doing some serious damage to his head. As for my injuries, if they were minor I tended to them myself rather than go to the pharmacist mates. For example, once I cut my hand when my jack knife slipped. Another time while getting off of a landing craft and stepping ashore, something hit my right shin. It was very painful, but I tended to it myself as I realized it was only a flesh wound and that my shin bone was not broken. I was hospitalized four or five times for respiratory problems. I had had a very bad case of pneumonia when I was at radio school in Wisconsin.
Rough seas didn't bother me very much. In my nearly nine years in the Navy, I had crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans many times in all kinds of weather. Furthermore, I had grown up on Shelter Island and had survived some severe storms, including the great hurricane of 1938. But one trip on the USS Yancey nearly did me in. On that trip, I experienced one of the most frightening events of my life. While operating in the areas around Japan and Korea during the Korean War, we encountered a typhoon. The weather was bad when we started and got worse day by day. The sea was very rough, and the ship rocked and rolled violently. At first we got a lot of laughs out of it as coffee cups and trays went sliding down the mess tables crashing on the deck, and as men went slipping and falling all over the place. Eventually, however, the cooks decided that it was impossible to prepare hot meals safely, so they fed us sandwiches of cold cuts. Coffee was not served because the mugs slid off the table.
Sleeping was also virtually impossible. Although we strapped ourselves in our racks to keep from falling out, the ships rolled and pitched so violently that we had to hang on anyway. A large number of acetylene tanks were being transported on the deck of the ship that was right above our sleeping quarters. These broke loose and rolled around the deck, making terrible noises as they crashed into various obstacles, damaging anything they hit. We were all bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and everyone was getting short-tempered.
The weather kept getting worse and it was clear that we were now in a typhoon. High waves crashed over the bow of the ship, making it very dangerous to try to walk on deck, so lines (ropes) were attached from the bow to the stern so that anyone who had to be on deck would have something to hold on to. Waves were as high as the vessel itself, and water broke over the bow. Sometimes the stern was entirely out of the water and the screws turned in the air, causing the ship to shake violently. It felt like some huge giant had picked up the vessel and was shaking the life out of it.
I found it difficult to do my job in the radio room. The typewriters that we used to copy Morse Code messages were bolted to the steel tables, but because the ship was rocking so violently, some of the typewriters broke loose and were smashed. Our chairs slid around, so we had to hang on with one hand and try to copy messages by poking the typewriters with one finger of the other hand. We tried to tie the chairs down, but they broke loose. At one point, our main antenna also broke loose and flew around like a buggy whip. We could no longer send or receive radio messages. Someone had to try to climb up the mast and secure it. As the head radioman, I felt that I ought to be the one to cope with it. I decided to tackle the job myself and try to climb up the mast, grab the antenna as it was whipping around in the wind, and secure it to the mast. When I got up to the mast, however, I realized that it would be impossible to do the job with one hand while holding on to the mast with the other.
I went from the center of the ship to the port side where there was a railing. I looked down at the ocean, and it seemed that the ship was standing still while the ocean was rising up toward us. Actually, of course, the ship was leaning more and more to the port side. I was sure that we were about to capsize. My first thought was of my wife back in New York. She would soon become a 23-year old widow and might never know what happened to her husband. My second thought was that I didn't want to be alone up there, and I wished I could be below with my shipmates. If I was going to die, I wanted at least to be with my friends. We lived together, so I thought we ought to die together as well. The ship remained in this dangerous position for only a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. It slowly started to right itself. The sea seemed to recede, and we were upright for a second or two. I dashed to the ladder and scrambled down into the wheelhouse. The guys there were white as ghosts and their eyes were glazed and blank. They were holding on to anything they could grasp. One of the quartermasters pointed to a device that showed how far the ship was leaning. If the ship had gone just one more degree to the left, we would have capsized and probably all of us would have died. There was no other ship in sight, and even if another ship was in the vicinity it would have been in the same predicament. Many sailors suffered from bruises and other major or minor injuries. Having been born and reared on a small island, I had experienced hurricanes and had faced other dangerous weather conditions, but that typhoon in the Pacific was the closest I came to drowning.
After that, the rest of the cruise seemed like a pleasure trip. The ship was badly damaged and much of the equipment had been ruined or damaged. My concern was the radio room. As mentioned, the typewriters were bolted down, but were shaken loose in the typhoon and some of them smashed. Minor damage was done to other things in the radio shack, such as chairs that went sliding around and slamming into things. We were able to function normally after the weather cleared up. I assumed that there was damage elsewhere in the ship, but I was concerned mostly with the radio shack and with the emergency radio room in the stern.
Eventually the ship had to return to San Francisco to spend two weeks in port for repairs. This was a blessing. I had not seen my wife for nearly a year. I telephoned her from Oakland and urged her to come to San Francisco immediately. She took all of our money out of the bank, flew out, and registered in a hotel. Whenever I was not on duty on the ship, I could be with her. It was a great reunion. We went to shows and concerts, ate in restaurants, strolled in parks, and generally made u p for all the time we had lost.
One night we were riding in a cable car, sitting in the back. She was right by the back entrance, with her purse in her lap. At the top of a steep hill the cable car made a sudden jerk, and her purse fell out of the car and onto the street. I yelled for the driver to stop, but he could not. As soon as he reached the bottom of the hill, we jumped out of the car and ran up the hill. I thought I saw a car stop up there, and I memorized the license plate in hopes that the driver had picked up the purse, but the car was gone before we got there. We then went to a police station and reported the incident to them, giving them the license plate number. The police officer said, "You must be wrong about that number. That number indicates that the owner of the car resides in another part of the state not even close to San Francisco." This was a disaster in the making. Nearly all of the money we had was in that purse, and so was her return ticket to New York. Furthermore, there was no identification in the purse. So even if the driver happened to be an honest person, he or she would not be able to contact us. How would we pay the hotel bill? Where would we get the money for her return ticket to New York? There was nothing in the purse that would show where we lived in New York or where she was staying in San Francisco. We slept little that night. The following day I had to return to my ship. I informed all of my shipmates of the event and tried to borrow money from them. A few came up with small sums, but most had spent their pay in the usual ways that sailors dispose of their earnings while ashore.
Whenever we docked in an area, we had a telephone hook-up with a special number for the ship. My wife had written that number on a slip of paper and put it in her purse. It turned out that the person who picked up the purse was a doctor who lived in another part of California, but who had come to San Francisco to attend a football game. He telephoned the number, and was quite surprised to find that he had called a Navy vessel. The sailor who answered the call told him that the purse he had found belonged to the wife of one of his shipmates. He summoned me and I explained the situation. We arranged for the doctor to meet with me and my wife at our hotel. We met in the hotel lobby. The doctor refused to take a reward. By a coincidence, a newspaper reporter and a photographer happened to be in the lobby at that time. They photographed my wife and me receiving the purse, and the story of the incident appeared in the newspaper the next day. We had our one minute of fame, and the kind and honest doctor had prevented what could have been a catastrophe. If there is such a thing as a guardian angel, it was looking out for me on the Yancey and for me and my wife in San Francisco.
After repairs we went back to our usual routing of sailing from Oakland to Japan or Korea and back. A number of changes were made, but I can remember only those affecting me. When I joined the Yancey there were only four radiomen on board, and none with a rating above Radioman 2nd class. I came on board with another Radioman 1st class and a Chief Radioman. A couple of 3rd class men also came on later. After a while the Chief was transferred to another ship and I became the head radioman. At one point I was sent to the USS Mt. Katmai--an ammunition ship--to evaluate their radio communications. I think I was on board for two days. I tested the radiomen for their ability in sending and receiving Morse code, examined their equipment, etc. I gave them a good rating overall, but found that one procedure (I can't remember what it was) was known by only one radioman, and he was ill. Hence, if that procedure was needed it would not be available. I advised the Chief Radioman to have others trained in that procedure.
As everyone probably has heard, sailors are fighters. They will fight any enemy of the United States, first and foremost. But when there is no foreign foe to fight, they will often fight someone else. Civilians who insult or disparage the Navy are legitimate targets for bare knuckles. Members of other United States services who consider themselves superior to "swab jockeys" are bound to ignite the wrath of the men in Navy blue. Unfortunately, however, sailors too often fight one another. Such a fight was about to take place one day when the USS Yancey was in the Japanese port of Sasebo during the Korean War. There were many ships in the harbor. My friend and I were returning from liberty and were waiting for a boat from the Yancey to come. Dozens of sailors from other ships were also awaiting their boats. Many were drunk. Two other Yancey crew members approached us and said, "Aren't you guys from the Yancey?" When we replied that we were, they told us that they were being ridiculed by some sailors from another ship, that they were badly outnumbered, and asked if we were willing to help if the situation turned violent. We immediately agreed, even though we didn't know these men very well and didn't know what the argument was about. It is an unwritten law of Navy men that one stands by a shipmate, come hell or high water. We all approached the gang of hecklers, who were from a "ship of the line." They considered auxiliary vessels to be inferior. Obviously, they did not realize that the Yancey and many other auxiliaries had served nobly at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It seemed to me that a rational argument would have no effect on the attitudes of our adversaries. It would do no good to remind them that many auxiliaries had been torpedoed, bombed, and shelled, and that many sailors lost their lives while keeping the fleet supplied with food, fuel, ammunition, etc. Perhaps a bit of humor would defuse the situation. As our tormentors glared at us, I commented, "Look. The Yancey has arrived from the States carrying tons of toilet paper. If it wasn't for the Yancey, you guys wouldn't be able to wipe your asses." Everyone laughed, we shook hands all around, and returned to our ships with our noses intact and our knuckles un-bruised.
While I was on the Yancey, Shirley continued to live in the house that we owned in New York City. She had an office job. For a while my Aunt Annie (the aunt who never married) lived with her. My aunt, who was sometimes like a mother to me during my childhood, had been living alone in her house on Shelter Island. She kindly came to live with Shirley and see that she got along okay. She did not live with her the full time I was on the Yancey.
I wrote to Shirley often, so she knew where I was and how I was getting along most of the time. I missed her, but I kept busy doing my job. After the chief radioman was transferred, I was head radioman, and had plenty to do to occupy my mind. When in port I went to restaurants with other sailors, went to shows, concerts and museums, and did a bit of drinking once in a while. (I am not a great drinker, however.) While we were in our home port of Oakland, which was next door to San Francisco, there was plenty to do while on liberty. The San Francisco symphony, plays, and movies provided much pleasure. There was a small art gallery somewhere there that I always went to because they had a painting by Van Gogh that is rarely seen in any of the art books. It is a painting of a farmer kneeling in his garden while his wife is bringing their little girl out to him. He has his arms extended to catch her as she toddles toward him. It is a very touching painting--my favorite of all Van Gogh works. In Japan, I took photos of the people and places (Yokosuka and Sasebo) where we stopped. I bought many things to send home to Shirley--scarves, nick-knacks, tea sets, trays, pajamas, Japanese paintings, dolls, etc. At sea I did a lot of reading when I was on duty in the radio shack and there were no messages to deal with. (I read "War and Peace" by Tolstoy, for example.) I wrote to Shirley often.
I was relieved of my duty about one year after I had been recalled. I was not sad about leaving the Yancey because I was too elated at the prospect of being home with Shirley and getting back to my job as a radio operator at RCA Communications in New York City. I didn't sign up for another stint in the military because I didn't want to be separated from Shirley and my civilian job again. I was in a Navy receiving station in or near San Francisco when I was about to be discharged. For the short time I was there, I read, played baseball with other sailors, went on liberty in San Francisco, etc.
My immediate plans after I got out of the Navy were to return to New York and resume my life with Shirley and my job at RCA. Everything went as planned. While working at RCA, I found that many of the other veterans were using the GI bill to get a college education, so I took a steady evening shift (5 p.m. to 1 a.m.), enrolled at New York University, and went to college during the day time. I got home from RCA at 2 a.m. Shirley had a snack for me, and then I went to bed. I got up in the morning and went to my classes at NYU. I went directly from NYU to RCA during my undergraduate years. I was planning to be a Social Studies teacher. During my last semester, I had to do "practice teaching." RCA allowed me to take a semester off to do this.
I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Social Studies Education (summa cum laude--if you don't mind my bragging), and then obtained licenses to teach in New York City secondary schools. I received separate licenses for junior high and high schools, as well as separate licenses to work as a substitute teacher or a regular full-time teacher--four licenses in all. Shirley and I continued to live in our house in Richmond Hill, New York City all the while. She did office work for various companies. We had purchased an old two-family house in 1948 and continued to live there.
I received a Danforth Fellowship that enabled me to earn Masters and PhD degrees at NYU. Some of the younger students, especially during my undergraduate years, seemed to me to be immature and lazy. I did not become involved in any of the usual undergrad activities. Shirley continued to work during my years as a student, and I earned money from substitute teaching until I received my Masters degree. At that point I became an instructor in the Social Studies Department at NYU. As soon as I received my PhD, I was promoted to Assistant Professor. I taught courses in history and economics, and also supervised student teachers by visiting them in their classes in secondary schools in New York, and sometimes New Jersey as well.
My Third War
While I was teaching at NYU, the country of Somalia became an independent nation in 1960 when the former British Somaliland joined with Italian Somaliland. They had a parliament and a president. They had a police force and a small army. In addition to the poverty that exists in a country that was largely desert, there was constant tribal warfare. On top of that, there was sporadic fighting with Ethiopia. Only five percent of the school age children at that time were getting any formal schooling in the few schools that existed (mostly built by the British in the north and the Italians in the south). There were few schools for girls, who could not attend the schools with boys. The little education that most children got was some introduction to Arabic and the Koran, taught in a more or less informal manner. The Somalis were mostly pastoral nomads, wandering around the desert with the camels, looking for a place where there was some grass and water. They lived in tent-like structures called aqals.
In 1962, New York University contracted with the Peace Corps to train volunteers for service in Somalia and to provide professional support in Somalia. I don't know why I was chosen to head the Somali Peace Corps project. Perhaps several factors were taken into account. I had spent nearly two years in North Africa during World War II. I had had teaching experience in New York City schools. I had no children to worry about. And I think I had a reputation for being hard-working and reliable. After I was offered the job by my dean, I went home and said to my wife, "Shirley, how would you like to go to Somalia and live there for a while?" She replied, "Where is it, and when do we leave?"
Throughout my experience with the Peace Corps, I was what was known as the "Contractor's Representative." I continued to receive my salary from NYU. As time went on, I found myself doing more and more things that ought to have been done by a Peace Corps official or US government employee. First I was in charge of the training program at NYU. Fifty volunteers were to be recruited for the Peace Corps Somalia project, but we got only 37. Some of the 37 volunteers were not accepted for service. Some were not physically fit. Others were found to have psychological problems. One middle-aged man seemed to be trying to get away from a bad marriage.
The Peace Corps specified the courses that the volunteers had to have. The training program was brutal because it was on a very tight schedule. We had to have the volunteers trained and ready to go to Somalia by the time the school year began there. The volunteers had to learn such subjects as Somali history, language, and society, first aid, American history, and the like. (I have a huge box of material in my basement which I collected for this project.) There was a great deal to be done. I often spent the night in a hotel rather than go home because I worked far into the evening and had things to do early the next day.
The Peace Corps was still new at that time, and we had to "feel our way around" many, many problems. For example, how were we to teach Somali history when there was not a single book about Somalia published in the United States at that time except some booklets that the State Department had? How were we to teach the Somali language (which then had no written form) when not a single American knew the language? I had to teach myself before the volunteers arrived--or try to learn along with them. Since the Somalis were Muslims, and often used Arabic, I took a course in Arabic. I had to have books on Somalia sent by plane from England and Italy. I was fortunate in finding a professor from a nearby college who had done his PhD thesis on Somalia and had been there. He was a great help.
The Somali embassy provided us with names and addresses of a few Somali students who were studying in the United States. We hired them to meet with two of our professors of linguistics (who knew no Somali) and develop a set of lessons that were then tape-recorded. The volunteers received copies of the tapes and in addition to the 12 hours of class work each day, they had to study the language from the tapes when back in their dorms. I also had a copy for Shirley and me, which we listened to at home. In addition to the class work and learning the language by tape, the volunteers had to have physical education, thorough medical and dental examinations, have any dental problems taken care of, and have psychological examinations by our professors of psychology and psychiatry. They also had to have a number of injections. Because of the tight schedule, our NYU medical doctor arranged to have nurses give them the shots in the classroom while he was lecturing!
During the first year that the volunteers were in Somalia, another professor accompanied them to provide professional support as they attempted to teach in Somali schools, while I handled administrative problems here in the United States. The second year of the project, that professor returned to NYU while Shirley and I went to Somalia. Our first impression of Somalia was that it was a barren land. As we flew from Aden to Hargeisa, we looked down at the semi-desert below us and thought, "We are going to live here?" Nothing was a surprise because we had received many letters from the Peace Corps volunteers who had been there for several months, as well as letters from Professor Marshall Tyree, who preceded me.
Hargeisa consisted of a few buildings and some permanent homes. Nomads also settled temporarily on the outskirts of the city, living in their "aqals"--which were similar to tents. There were a few small stores in the city, two banks (the Somali National Bank and a British bank), and one small hotel that had about eight rooms. I never entered the hotel, but I believe that one might have had to sleep on the floor. Most Somalis knew nothing about beds. They slept on the ground with a blanket or shawl wrapped around them. Hargeisa was the capital of British Somaliland, which became known as the Northern Region after the British departed.
The population of Hargeisa was estimated at 40,000. However, it was hard to get any accurate count because of the nomads who came and went, and because Somalis resisted a census. Some of the Peace Corps volunteers wanted to help with a census, but it was probably not wise to do so. Somalis were very suspicious people, especially when it came to dealing with foreigners. The population estimate was based upon the assumption that there were four people in every house. We counted the houses and multiplied by four. Several years later, when Somalia was ruled by a military dictator, the entire city of Hargeisa was leveled by air raids.
The house we occupied had been built for the British who controlled northern Somalia until they achieved independence in 1960. It was very good living quarters by Somali standards. There was a small kitchen, a living room with a section for dining, and a bedroom. There were no indoor toilets in the region. The old-fashioned "outhouses" were used. Because the holes were extremely deep, they were known as "long drops." There was a small room for bathing, but never enough water to fill the tub. We had to have sponge baths because water was scarce. Remember that this was a desert or semi-desert. The Somali government provided water. A large, square metal tank was on the roof. It was filled during or after the two rainy seasons. For drinking water, we strained the water and then boiled it.
We adjusted quite well, I think. I had seen much worse during the wars. We had a very good cook named Omar. He did all the shopping for food. We ate such things as goat meat and camel meat, rice, and sometimes a scrawny chicken. We paid Omar $40 a month, which was a huge amount to a Somali. I think other foreigners paid as little as $10 a month. Omar did all the shopping for food. The meat market was not a place one would want to visit because the sight of seeing camels, sheep, and goats slaughtered would have been unpleasant. We also would not have been able to tell good meat from bad meat, and we were not adept at haggling over prices. Instead, we gave Omar money to do the shopping. I am sure that he pocketed some of the money, but that was part of the game. He cheated us, but he made sure that nobody else cheated us.
Sometimes women came to the door with various fruits or vegetables. The bargaining became so furious at one occasion that Omar and the woman got into a "knock-down, drag-out" fight. The woman reported Omar to the police. When the policeman came to arrest him, Shirley said he was busy preparing our dinner, so the policeman kindly left and returned later to arrest him. I don't know how the issue was resolved, but Omar was back with us in short order. Eventually Omar asked if he could live in a small shed behind the house. I was warned that I ought not to permit this, but Omar argued that his little boy had a very long way to walk to school and it would be much easier if he and his boy could live in the shed. I caved in, but soon Omar's wife and a few other relatives were occupying that shed. We liked Omar nevertheless, and he seemed to like us. Once he baked a pie (a very rare treat) and cut a title into the crust: "Mrs. Dawson's Bie." Somalis can't pronounce the letter P, so it always came out as a B.
Among the challenges we had to face was the fact that many Somalis did not trust us. They were well aware that the United States was providing their enemy, Ethiopia, with weapons. Indeed, I think that the planes that bombed Hargeisa were gifts from the U.S. It was even rumored that the pilots were Americans, and that one of the Peace Corps guys signaled the planes to tell them where to bomb. This got started because when the planes came, one of the guys got up on the roof of his dwelling to take pictures. Some Somalis thought he was signaling the pilots. A Somali with a gun then went to the Peace Corps hostel (a house we had rented so that those coming from other parts of the country to Hargeisa would have a place to stay) and held them all hostage until we could get the police to go and release them.
The Somali that I liked most was Ali, the handyman who worked for us. He went with me on every trip outside of Hargeisa, ran errands, etc. He was friendly and good-natured. Indeed, the other Somalis called him "Ali Merayken" (Ali American). I could trust Ali and give him very difficult assignments. One such assignment was to drive 300 miles to pick up some volunteers who were stranded in another part of the country. On their return from a visit to Aden, their plane landed far away from Hargeisa. In a sense, Ali paid a price for his loyalty to us. Other Somalis called him an American spy. Indeed, at one point he was taken into the police station and slapped around by a cop who asked him questions about us. Ali told me about it and I was furious. I stormed into that policeman's office and "blew my stack," telling him that he was messing with an employee of the United States government and to leave Ali alone. The cop smiled and assured me that all would be okay. But he said he wanted to see Ali for just one more minute alone. I sent Ali back in and the cop gave him a few more slaps just to satisfy his own ego, I guess.
Among the things that had to be done as part of my job in Somalia was arranging to have the volunteers get their monthly payments. There were only two banks in the region, so we opened checking accounts for them in one of the banks and deposited their monthly stipends. Unfortunately, few Somalis had any idea of what checks were. This system also broke down because the volunteers often overdrew their accounts and the bank insisted that the accounts be closed. This was after the first year, so I was the one on the scene in Somalia when it happened. Then I had to deliver their monthly payments in cash. There were no trains or buses, so I had to carry the money and drive in my Land Rover to each volunteer. Some of them were as far as 300 miles away from the Peace Corps office. I was away from Shirley for several days. How many days varied because of a number of situations, such as vehicles breaking down, the rainy season making roads into muddy tracks, etc. I stayed in the houses occupied by the volunteers. This often meant sleeping on a cement floor.
I was concerned about carrying all that money while I delivered the payroll checks. Indeed, an attempt was made once to break into the Peace Corps office while I was in there counting out the money to be delivered. The "bush telegraph" worked rapidly. I was seen by Somalis hanging around the bank when I came out with a satchel full of money. On one occasion, I heard one Somali say to another, "Do you know what is in that bag? The wealth of America!" It would have been easy for Somalis to attack me while driving over those dirt roads, even though I had a Somali employee (Ali) with me. I asked to have a policeman accompany me, but the commandant of police could not spare a man to do so. Instead, he let me borrow a pistol. Once the "bush telegraph" made it known that I was armed, I had little to worry about. While I was away on these monthly trips, Shirl held down the office and served as "Mother Hen" to the volunteers.
On top of all this (although on no fixed schedule), I was supposed to visit every volunteer in his/her classroom, observe them teaching, and offer advice in regard to their lessons and classroom deportment. I did so whenever I could, but the administrative chores were so demanding that I didn't visit classrooms as often as I would have liked. Few of the volunteers had had any previous teaching experience, although I did arrange for them to have a short experience in practice teaching in New York City schools. Several of the volunteers quit and went back to the United States early. Among them was a high school English teacher who was about 30 years old. She had a fine reputation as a teacher in the United States, but she was one of the first to quit and go home. Mary (a fictitious name) was thought my many to be the best volunteer in the group. She excelled in every one of the courses except the Somali language. However, the psychologist had a feeling that a person who does badly in learning another language is a rigid person who will have problems adjusting to a strange situation. We all thought he was wrong, but he was right. Mary had come from a teaching situation where a bell rang and everybody showed up on time, where schedules meant something, where there was a semblance of order and discipline. She was shocked to arrive at her school on the opening day and find that nobody else was there. Students wandered in whenever they could get there. Remember that Somalis are mostly nomads who are not accustomed to any kind of scheduling. Even the Somali teachers wandered in late. Discipline was always a problem, too. Mary couldn't take it and resigned after about one month. Others left for personal reasons, such as a death in the family back home. Some of the volunteers became ill and had to be sent home. None were seriously injured. One guy was shot at during the episode when the fighting along the Ethiopian border became intense.
As the second year of the project approached, Somalia broke diplomatic relations with England because there was a part of Kenya (which was then still under British control) that the Somalis claimed. When the British would not yield on this, they broke diplomatic relations. British subjects who had been there as diplomats or officials in the British embassy or consulate had to made a fast exit. Many of the people who left in a hurry left without paying all their bills. Some British people who were not employees of their government remained in Somalia. For example, there was a British bank in Somalia, and the English people working for that bank remained in Somalia.
One thing that made it a bit uncomfortable for us was that Somalis felt that the British were our "brothers" and that we would naturally side with the British in the flap over the territory in Kenya that the British refused to hand over to Somalia. When the British made a fast exit from the country, the Somalis seemed to think that they could get any money owed to them by asking the Peace Corps for it. I was mobbed by these people coming to my office. I did the best I could and wrote to the British government in London to try to get payments for them. In addition to those who had legitimate claims, there were plenty of Somalis who saw this as a chance to get some dishonest money and made fraudulent claims. I had to try to sort all of this out. Normally, this would have been the job of the US Consul, but he was down in Mogadishu (the capital, which is in the southern --former Italian Somaliland--region). He came up to Hargeisa in the North where we were living, and asked me to deal with this problem, as he had much to do back to Mogadishu. So, then I had that chore as well. Remember--technically, I was NOT a US government employee. I was only a NYU employee working under contract with the Peace Corps.
Another major problem occurred when the border dispute with Ethiopia heated up. Fighting broke out between Ethiopian and Somali troops. Since the US provided much support to Ethiopia (including military equipment), we were often considered to be Ethiopian spies. On March 31, 1964, at 6:30 a.m., we were awakened by the sound of gunfire and explosions. From my wartime experience, I knew that an air raid was in progress. Ethiopian planes were attacking. We leaped out of bed. Gasoline was often scarce, so I had purchased several drums of it when it was available and had them lined up alongside of our house. I feared that a tracer bullet hitting those drums would incinerate us, so we tried to leave the house. However, some Somali soldiers nearby pointed their guns at us and made us go back in.
There was a desert locust control camp just outside of town. When this was bombed, the huge tanks of insecticide ignited. It looked like an atomic bomb exploding. When this air raid was over, I went to the Peace Corps office and tried to contact the embassy down in Mogadishu. We had no telephone connection with the southern region and used a radio set that we had in the Peace Corps office. I could not get through to the embassy. Later a second raid occurred, which I watched from in front of the Peace Corps office. A piece of shrapnel whizzed by my head, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be ironic that I survived two wars and got killed in the Peace Corps?" Since the two-year project was just about over anyway, it was decided that the Peace Corps volunteers should be sent home. I had to stay a while to clear up bank business, collect Peace Corps vehicles and other property, and close up the office. Shirley took the volunteers to Aden, consulted the American consul there, and arranged for lodgings. They all went their merry ways, while she waited for me to come.
Shirley was a tough gal. She weathered all of this without getting upset. Later I joined her. We rested a while, then came home, stopping at several other countries on the way. We certainly needed some rest and recreation. We visited Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Italy, France, and England. These were short stays in each country. We enjoyed all of them. For example, we were in Greece during their Easter. We were riding on a public bus when a policeman stopped the bus and got on. He had a bag full of eggs painted red, which he distributed to the passengers. I doubt that any New York cop would do such a thing. We did the usual touristy things in all of these countries, seeing the sights, buying souvenirs, etc.
While in Somalia, I wrote newsletters for friends and relatives back home. I do not have a complete set of these (they are in the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts), but I do have several. Each is about six typed (single spaced) pages. The last one (dated April 20, 1964) gives a more detailed account of the Ethiopian air raids and our activities in relation to them. I also took a number of pictures in Somalia--generally slide photos, but I do have some taken with a regular camera. It was not always easy to take photos, as the Somalis are devout Muslims and often object to being photographed. I once was challenged by a Somali just for taking a photo of a house--and it wasn't even his house! Six of the newsletters can be found in the Addendum of this memoir.
I was offered a position with the Peace Corps, but enough was enough, so I turned it down. As the project was winding down, the Peace Corps representative in Mogadishu asked me if I would stay with the Peace Corps and take on another project. My answer was, "NO, NO, NO!" I was glad I had done this project, but I did not want another. I was very tired, I owned a house in New York City, and I wanted to return to my position at NYU.
I would not recommend the Peace Corps to "anyone and everyone." It is not all fun and games, but a great deal of work and frustration. One must be able to adjust to very different cultural and economic situations, to tolerate hardships, and to accept responsibility. For example and as I mentioned earlier, in Somalia there were many people who thought of us as Ethiopian spies, or as Christians who wanted to convert the Somalis.
It was a pleasure to get back to the USA and my job at New York University. NYU was delightfully dull after Somalia. I did the usual things that professors are supposed to do, such as writing books and articles, attending professional meetings, giving lectures here and there, etc. I lectured about economics and also history. I was interested in both subjects. Indeed, my PhD thesis was in the area of economic history. I taught both subjects at NYU and at Empire State College. For example, I lectured about the Long Island economy to business people in this area. I gave a "demonstration lesson" on inflation to a class of 6th graders. My favorite subjects had to do with heroic women. I am a strong supporter of women's rights. I lectured on "Women in the Economy" and "Women in Business," for example. One of my most popular lectures was about Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in the American Revolution. I also lectured about all of our First Ladies. I spoke to women's organizations and to local historical societies all over Long Island.
I also participated in a couple of the training programs for additional Somali projects. One was at a college in upstate New York and the other was in a college in the Midwest. (I forget which one.) I simply provided some materials and advice and gave some lectures and slide shows to the trainees. While at NYU, I personally benefited from my past work with the Peace Corps. Items about the project and my part in it appeared in the college newspaper. I gave many lectures and slide shows both in and out of the university. I had articles published about the experience--and in a university one must "publish or perish." I am sure that my work with the Peace Corps was a factor in my promotions in the University, as I went from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to full Professor to Department chairman to head of a division quite rapidly. I remained at NYU for several years.
I left NYU in 1970 to take a position as Director of Research and Publications with the Council on Economic Education. Although I had tenure at NYU, I took this job for two reasons. One, it paid about twice as much as I was getting at NYU and it had better retirement benefits. Two, it gave me a chance to do things on a national scale that I had been doing only in the New York area--things such as doing research projects on economic education. I enjoyed the traveling that my new job required, and often took Shirley with me. The Council on Economic Education was established as a non-profit organization to promote a better understanding of economics at all levels. State councils affiliated with the main council appeared in every state. It was strictly non-partisan and non-political. It was supported from donations from both businesses and labor unions. We created materials for all educational levels to make economics simpler, more interesting, and more objective. The councils conduct workshops and courses for teachers at all levels, produce materials, and engage in research to determine what kinds of material and activities make economics more palatable and easier to understand. We created standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of our programs.
After five years with the Council, I resigned in 1975 and took a position as Dean at Empire State College here on Long Island. It was closer to home, and it was another new experience. Empire State College is part of the State University of New York. It appeals largely to working adults and others who would find it difficult to attend regular college classes. The professors serve as "mentors" and meet with students on a one-to-one basis, tailoring their courses and activities to their needs and interests. What were my duties as Dean at Empire State College? Where does one begin??? I did everything from hiring someone to clean the building to evaluating each faculty member. I dealt with student complaints, managed a budget, settled disputes between faculty and/or support staff, and wrote reports regarding all of our problems, achievements, and the like. I recruited students, prepared budgets, and tried to keep expenditures within them. I met with representatives of other state colleges in the area and developed plans for new programs and activities. At first Empire State College was only an undergraduate school. I wrote plans for two masters degrees--one in Business and the other in Labor Studies. The biggest challenge was doing everything we were supposed to do within the budget that the State of New York allowed us. The pleasure was seeing improvements in both faculty and student performance. I still hear from some former students, and have even been visited by some. As a Professor Emeritus, I am invited to many activities. A student lounge was created and named for me.
For many years I was the Managing Editor of The Journal of Economic Education, which was published by the Council on Economic Education. As Managing Editor I screened all submissions. I rejected any that did not fit our needs, such as papers that dealt with some esoteric economic subject but not with the teaching of it. Also, every paper had to be supported by research. A teacher or professor could not just write about how he/she taught a particular economic subject, but how its effects were measured and evaluated. If I felt that a paper was worth consideration, I sent it to at least three members of the Editorial Board (all noted economists). Their comments were then forwarded to the Editor, Dr. Henry Villard, a noted economist and professor from Columbia University. Papers were then corrected and revised and sent back to the authors. The final version went to my copy editor who prepared them for publication.
I retired from Empire State College in 1985, but continued to do some free lance lecturing and writing. I took early retirement because frankly, I was very tired and wanted to spend more time at home. Shirley and I moved from Queens, New York to Long Island in July of 1967. The old neighborhood was changing, the old house was becoming more and more difficult to keep up, and doctors had advised me that the foul air in New York City was bad for me. (I had pneumonia three times and other respiratory ailments.) The house we bought in Long Island--where I now live--had a very large back yard (nearly 1/3 acre) with many trees, shrubs, and flowers. It fit our needs and provided space for Shirley's father, who had moved in with us after his wife died. The area has everything one needs--stores, doctor and dentist offices, restaurants, etc. I wanted to work in my garden, travel for the pleasure of it, and have more time with Shirley. We had no living children. Our one child died before birth many years ago. We don't know what caused this pre-natal loss, but Shirl never became pregnant again.
I did quite a bit of lecturing for the councils on economic education, conducted workshops for teachers, gave lectures in various colleges as well as local organizations, remained on the editorial staff of The Journal of Economic Education, wrote articles, continued to co-author an economics textbook, and wrote short pieces for local newspapers. The economics text that I wrote with Dr. Sanford Gordon is simply titled Introductory Economics, and was published by D.C. Heath. It went through seven editions before we both retired and stopped writing it. I also wrote (on my own) Guide to Economics, Book I and Guide to Economics, Book II, published in 1965 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. This was designed to supplement the conventional economics texts and make life easier for students. Earlier, I wrote Our Nation's Wealth: What You Should Know About Economics in American History, published by Scholastic Book Services in 1968. With co-author Edward C. Prehn, I wrote Teaching Economics in American History: A Manual for Secondary Schools, published by the Joint Council on Economic Education in 1973.
The short pieces I write for local papers usually deal with heroic women. March is Women's History Month. Every year for the past few years, The East Hampton Star publishes one of my articles. Subjects have included Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor; Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female medical doctor; Jenny Wade, the only civilian killed at the Battle of Gettysburg; and most recently, Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams.
Nothing much "out of the ordinary" happened between 1985 and Shirley's death, except for some family problems. My older brother lived in Pennsylvania and suffered from Parkinson's disease. When his wife died he was on his own, so we drove down there on weekends to see that he had food, etc. Eventually he was admitted to a veteran's hospital, and later to a nursing home, where he died.
Shirley suffered from a variety of health problems before being hospitalized just prior to her death. The official cause of her death is listed on her death certificate as "septic shock." The certificate lists as "other significant conditions" renal insufficiency, colitis, and hypertension. As Shirley's condition became steadily worse, I took on all of the household chores that she had been doing. I did the laundry, dusted, vacuumed, prepared meals, shopped, etc. As she became virtually bedridden, I took her meals to the bedroom, and eventually had to spoon-feed her. I also bathed her, clipped her toenails, etc.
She died at 11:30 p.m. on August 7, 2004. For the benefit of her relatives and close friends, I wrote a short piece titled, "The Little Dinner Bell."
The Little Dinner Bell
I was very busy after Shirley's death. My family had a cemetery plot on Shelter Island, and I bought a section for Shirley and me. My cousins on Shelter Island were very helpful in making all the arrangements for her burial there. When Shirley and I got married, our long range plan was to work in New York City until we retired, then move to Shelter Island. After I retired, we decided we wanted to stay here since we loved our house and this area so much.
There was much to be done regarding her will and her belongings. I gave most of her clothing to the Big Brother, Big Sister organization, and distributed many of her possessions to various friends and relatives. I had to try to get the house back in order, as things had been ignored during the long period when she was ill, but still at home, and I was her only care-giver. (She refused to let anyone else take care of her. She would not let me hire a day nurse, nor would she allow any friend or relative to see her.) Her last words to me were, "You are my angel." There were matters pertaining to her will and insurance, and I had to have my own will revised. For a whole year I went nowhere and did nothing that was not related to the legal and economic "fall-out" of her passing. Shirley has been gone for two years now, and I am beginning to be able to talk about her and her illness more easily. I do find it hard sometimes. Our favorite song was "Somewhere My Love" (Lara's theme from the film "Dr. Zhivago"), and whenever I hear it, the tears come to my eyes. Indeed, I played three versions of it earlier this evening. I made a tape for her that included every version I could find, from solo guitar to full symphony orchestra.
A new coffee shop ("The Coffee Grind", or sometimes just "The Grind) opened up on the corner just two doors from my house in December of 2004. It was established by two young women. I went there, and when they found that I was a neighbor, they decreed that I would pay only a fraction of the menu prices. Instead, they often said, "Oh, this one is on the house." I gave them some of the cooking equipment that Shirley had, and I have introduced many friends and relatives to this delightful little shop. They treat me like a king. I even get kisses and hugs, both from the owners and the waitresses, which is quite nice for an 81-year old grouch. I have met some nice people there as well. One is a professor at a local college, and we "talk shop" for hours on end. Another friend I made there is a young plumber who is teaching himself Spanish and is very interested in economics, politics, etc.
A year ago I noticed in the newspaper that one of the local libraries had a "writing group" for senior citizens, so I joined it. I joined writing groups to have something to do, and possibly to meet people. I love to write--not just about economics and history, but many other subjects. The topics given by the leaders can be challenging, but also give me a chance to draw upon my own life and experiences and share them with others. One of the groups puts on a free show for senior citizens in the fall. The owner of a small theater lets us use it without charge. Someone else provides a free lunch for the seniors, and the town provides a bus to bring them to the theater. We read some of our scribbles and poems, and put on amusing little skits. We meet from time to time under the leadership of a retired English teacher. She gives us a topic, and we go home and write about it. The topics enable us to draw upon our life experiences. At the next meeting, we read our papers aloud. Some of the other libraries in the area have similar groups, so I have joined them as well. Some of the people I have met have invited me to their homes for dinner. We also attend plays and movies in the area. We help each other if we need to have someone drive us to a doctor or hospital appointment.
The computer helps also. There are two chat rooms that I like--AOL's "Senior Health" and SeniorNet's "Chatterbox." I "talk" with many wonderful people in these rooms. A woman in the Senior Health room teaches health subjects at a local college. She even offered to come and help take care of Shirley. After Shirley's death she came to see me and we went to a diner for lunch. She is a happily married woman with grown children, but she devotes her spare time to supporting those of us who are grieving or having other problems. Some of the people in these chat rooms even invited me to come and stay with them for a while after Shirley's death. I didn't accept the offers because it is very difficult for me to travel, and I really needed to be alone.
I read a great deal (mostly history), and I write poetry. Most of my poems are comical doggerel, and I sometimes read them to the patrons of the local coffee shop during "Open Mike Nights." I do write some serious poems, and those written during Shirley's last days are very sad. Nothing or nobody can replace Shirley, and never does a day go by that I fail to shed some tears. I have pictures of her in every room, and I carry photos of her in my pockets at all times. I have memories of a marriage that lasted for 57 precious years.
I rarely visit Shelter Island. It is a 95-mile drive, and then I have to take a ferry boat. My closest relatives there are two first-cousins (93-year-old Harry and 83-year-old Dorothy). Their children (my second-cousins) are in a different generation and they do not know me very well, as they were little children when I left the island. Shelter Island has changed quite a bit since I lived there. Most of the people I knew have died. The big field that was across the road from the house of my birth (my grandfather's house, which now belongs to Dorothy) is no longer empty. We used to play over there, and sometimes farmers planted crops on it. That field now has new houses on it.
I do not miss Shelter Island. Being far from Shirley's grave doesn't bother me. I have pictures of her in every room of the house except the bathrooms. She is with me in spirit and in my heart. The grave contains only her remains and a stone. I am reminded of an old joke on that subject. A man goes to the cemetery to put flowers on a relative's grave. As he is doing this, he sees a Chinese man putting a bowl of rice on a grave. He says to the Chinese man, "When do you expect your relative to come up and eat that rice?" The Chinese man responded, "Same time yours comes up to smell those flowers."
As I mentioned much earlier in this memoir, I played the drums when I lived on Shelter Island and first entered the service. I can still play them. Recently I told a friend about my playing the drum during my youth and during my early days in the Navy when I played drums at the request of the petty officers who were teaching sailors how to march. I stated that I had not touched a drum since 1943, and that I wondered if I could still play one. The friend bought me a pair of drum sticks and a drummer's "practice pad"--a device that enables one to practice by not making much noise or taking up much space. The pad is shaped like a disk and is about 10 inches in diameter. I was delighted to find that I could still play the drum with ease. Once in a while I bang away on the pad. Sometimes I put on a recording of Sousa's marches and try to play along.
My wartime service changed me in several ways. When I entered the Navy I was overweight. When I came out of boot camp, I was in great shape. I had also become more confident in myself. I had faced many hardships and dangers and survived them. I had acquired skills and knowledge that I could use in civilian life, such as my skills as a radio and teletype operator. The first change that others noticed was my physical condition. I think they also saw that I was able to take care of myself--that I was not a "kid" anymore.
I think that it was right to send troops to Korea to stop the spread of communism. Some time ago I was in a restaurant where one of the owners was a young Korean woman. I was wearing a cap that indicated my Navy service. The Korean woman came up to me and said, "Thank you for saving my country." Hyperbole, perhaps, but I was very touched by this.
I have not revisited Okinawa or Korea. Once while on a trip to the Canary Islands, Shirley and I flew to Morocco for a day. While going to and from Somalia, we stopped at Egypt for a few days. That's the closest I came to revisiting North Africa.
The two wars can't be compared in many ways. One was worldwide, the other was more limited. One had strong support from nearly everyone. The second one did not have universal support. I remember watching television during the Republican convention and hearing a speaker condemn the Korean War, calling it, "Truman's War." Servicemen coming back from World War II were treated as heroes. I don't think we got the same treatment after Korea. During World War II it seemed that everybody was enthusiastically supportive. During the Korean War it was more like a "so what?" attitude. It was not the all-out war of World War II and didn't get the all-out support. Korea was the forgotten war because it was "small beans" compared to World War II, and had less popular support.
I would hope that a student reading this memoir would see that there was a time when we did the right thing in going to war, but also that war is a horrible thing. It brutalizes people, causes incredible destruction, disrupts our lives, and has devastating economic effects. If anything good came out of the Korean War, it was that the spread of communism was weakened. I think that keeping troops there is reasonable.
My training served me well in North Africa, Okinawa, and Korea. I was a competent radio operator, a responsible petty officer, and physically fit for hard duty. I could adjust to many different things, cope with unexpected problems, assume responsibility, and get along with people of all stripes and colors.
As for permanent disabilities, I think that my respiratory problems stem from the times I had pneumonia during the war. I was hospitalized four times during and right after World War II for pneumonia and related conditions. I can't do much running, swimming, or other such things without getting out of breath quickly. I have not tried to get any compensation for this.
I have also not searched for buddies after these wars. One signalman who was with me during the Korean War was discharged at about the same time, married a New York woman, and was a good friend for quite a while. We lost touch after his marriage broke up and we moved away from New York City. My ship during the Korean War, USS Yancey AKA-93, has an organization that I belong to. I have not attended any of the reunions, however I get the newsletter. I did get a phone call from one former shipmate some time ago, but he is living on the west coast, so we didn't try to arrange to meet.
My naval service affected my post-military life in many ways. I met my wife. I obtained a skill that kept me living until I became an educator. The GI Bill helped pay for my education and gave me a new career. My military service also gave me confidence in myself. I learned that I could face all kinds of dangers and hardships and survive. I think that my ability to survive in Somalia is a case in point. Quite a few people in that Peace Corps project resigned quickly.
I belong to four military societies, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, USS Yancey Crewmen, and Destroyer Escort Sailors. (I was on a destroyer escort for a short time just before the Korean War erupted.) I rarely attend meetings and other activities. Frankly, the meetings are boring. It is good to belong, however, as I enjoy the publications. Also, some provide help to those in need. For example, my VFW chapter paid for a wheelchair for one member who could not afford one.
In a nutshell, my time in the Navy was a great experience. I would not want to go through all of that again, but I am glad that I had that experience.
Love Eternal - Poems about My Wife
Regional Office of Education
Hargeisa, Somali Republic
May 25, 1963
Dear Friends and Relatives:
Please forgive us for sending you a duplicated letter, but with a very extensive mailing list it would be impossible for us to write to each of you individually at this time. We have been in Somalia only two days now, so this letter will deal with the trip over, for the most part.
We left New York by TWA jet around 8.30, May 18. All the seats around us were occupied by people with babies or very young children. I am sure that those kids held a meeting beforehand and set up a "squalling schedule." As soon as one of them would pipe down and go to sleep, another would open up. By the time they had all quieted down, the sun was rising over the Atlantic (1. a.m. by N.Y. time) and there was so much to see that we had no desire to sleep. We reached the northern coast of France at 2.35 a.m., N.Y. time (7.35 European). It was a beautiful, bright sunny day. Soon we saw Paris, and shortly after that we sighted the snow-covered Alps poking up through a heavy layer of fluffy white clouds. It was truly a magnificent sight. Through gaps in the cloud cover we could see valleys and lakes below.
Our first landing was in Milan, where we had time only to go into the airport for a few minutes. We had about an hour at the airport in Rome. We left Rome around noon and flew around the south of Italy, where we could see the famous volcano Mt. Stromboli, very closely. In a short while we were in Athens for another brief stop. Although there were rain showers there, Athens was very beautiful, with the white houses set against the hills.
Around 6 p.m. local time we arrived in Cairo. The sight of the sand dunes from the air was most impressive - they looked almost like ocean waves. We had a 4-hour stay in Cairo. This gave us just enough time for a bus ride into the city and back. We came on a good day, for the Algerian statesman Ben Bella was in town. There were flags and banners everywhere, and the streets were lined with soldiers and policemen. People were milling about, and there was an air of excitement.
We left Cairo at 10 p.m. by Aden Airways and at 2 a.m. arrived in Jeddah, Arabia. This was a strange experience. Before we could leave the plane we had to get large blue passes. A soldier with a rifle was posted by the plane. We showed our passes and walked about 20 yards to the airport building where there was a small lounge. Another soldier was posted at the door there. Again we showed our passes, and entered the lounge. As soon as all the passengers were in the lounge, the soldier closed the door behind us and locked it. Cookies and soft drinks could be purchased in the lounge, and we had Coca Cola and 7-Up (the bottles are marked in Arabic). Most of the occupants of the lounge were white-robed Arabs.
At 6 a.m. we arrived in Aden, a British protectorate at the south of the Arabian peninsula. The heat and humidity were fierce. We passed through customs easily and took a taxi to our hotel, where we had reserved an air-conditioned room. On the way to the hotel we drove through the Arab quarter, where naked children were playing in the streets, and goats were wandering about. We saw a caravan of about 20 camels carrying wood. One very comical sight was that of a goat riding on one of the camels. The goats seem to think they own Aden, for they make themselves at home everywhere. If you leave your car door open, you are apt to find a goat in it when you return. When we arrived at our hotel, an attractive little place called The Rock, we were disappointed to learn that we would have to wait for our room to be vacated by the previous occupants. We had now gone for 2 days without sleep. By the time the room was ready we were soaked with sweat. A bath and the bed were most welcome. After sleeping for a while we went out to see the town. It is a very colorful place. Behind the town there are huge volcanic rocks, and the harbor is usually filled with ships. The streets were crowded with Arabs, Yemenites, Indians, Pakistanis, Somalis, and Westerners. Aden is a duty-free port, and one can get the best German cameras, Japanese radios, Italian typewriters, and all sorts of things, at a fraction of what they would cost in America. We had 3 full days in Aden, where we spent money with abandon, visited the camel market, and simply rested and relaxed.
We had to arise at 4.30 a.m. on the 23rd. Breakfast was brought to our room, and at 5.20 the Aden Airways bus picked us up. I say "bus" out of charity, for it was really a rickety old station wagon that sounded as if it would fall apart before we got to the airport. Despite the early hour the heat was oppressive, and we were soaked with sweat within minutes. Our baggage was weighed at the airport amidst incredible confusion, for the room was jammed with all kinds of people jabbering in a variety of tongues. If we had not been alert, our baggage would have been sent to Mombasa. We finally boarded our plane at 6.45 - it was a small 2-engine plane - and the baggage was stowed in the passenger compartment. We were the only non-Somalis aboard, except for the crew. Fortunately, we sat next to a young Somali teacher who spoke English well and who knew many of the Peace Corps volunteers. Breakfast was served on the plane, lettuce and tomato, hard-boiled eggs, rolls, an orange, and tea.
In about an hour we had crossed the Gulf of Aden and sighted land - the northern coast of Somalia. Except for occasional small patches of green, it is a barren desert. A little more green appeared as we approached Hargeisa, and finally we sighted our new home town. From the air it appears to be little more than a cluster of white houses amid a patch of green trees - aside from that it is all desert again. We were met at the airport by Prof. Tyree, whom I am replacing, and by others connected with the Peace Corps project. We drove to our new house in the Land Rover which will be our means of transportation during our stay here. Without doubt, this is the most fascinating country I have ever visited. During the short ride from the airport we saw camel caravans, flocks of goats, and clusters of "agals" (small huts) which are the houses of Somali nomads. The women wear brilliantly colored ankle-length dresses.
Our house was a pleasant surprise. It has nearly all the conveniences that one would expect in America except for flush toilets. It has a large living room and dining area, a large bedroom, a guest room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It is fully furnished, and there is even a fireplace. It is surrounded by trees and beautiful shrubs and flowers. (This happens to be the wet season. I understand that things will not be so lush during other times.)
Prof. Tyree began immediately to "break me in." First we went to the police station so that I could get a Somali driver's license. I had no trouble getting one (I simply showed my American license, filled out a form, and paid the fee), although the police sergeant stared at me for a while and said: "You look like Al Capone."
It did not take long for an enterprising Somali "businessman" to learn that there were new customers in town. He appeared at the house shortly after our arrival with a supply of Somali spears, knives, and hand-carved wooden spoons. After much haggling over the price, we bought some of these things. One must bargain at great length before making a purchase. This is not only expected--it is a kind of game which both parties are supposed to enjoy. In fact, it seems almost to be a ritual. The seller and the buyer both plead poverty. One or both parties will walk away, pretending no longer to be interested. It is understood, tacitly, that you (or he) will be back. When you have gotten the price down to a fairly reasonable level, the seller looks at you with a sad expression (in the way that an understanding parent looks at a naughty child) and says: "I'm ashamed of you." Now you know that you are approaching the point where a final price will be reached, but not before further argument and negotiation. In desperation, the seller finally thrusts his goods at you and says, "Here - I give you baksheesh." This is supposed to make you ashamed, for he is saying, in effect: "If you are so poor that you can't afford this price, you are in need of charity and I'll give you the stuff for nothing." Finally, the price is arrived at. The seller puts on a great show of asserting that he has given you a lower price than he would give to anyone else, that he has done something for you that no other man would do, and that it is only through his friendship for you that you got it so cheaply. You part amiably, both having enjoyed this contest which lasts from 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour. The next day, or perhaps even later in the same day, the "businessman" is back looking for another round.
Most of the Peace Carps volunteers are now on leave and are visiting other parts of Africa. It will be over a month before the schools re-open, so we should have ample time to familiarize ourselves with the surroundings and get settled down. Prof. Tyree is now packing for his return trip.
We hope to write more letters of this sort after we have learned more about the country and have more experiences to relate.
Our very best regards to all.
George and Shirley Dawson
Office of Education
Dear Friends and Relatives:
We have now been in Somalia for one month, and have a few more experiences to relate. We wrote our last newsletter on May 25, after only 2 days in the country, and thus dealt mostly with the trip over.
Our first few days here were spent in meeting people and getting settled down. On May 25th Professor Tyree arranged a cocktail party for us at the Police Officers' Club, where we met many Somali officials and expatriates. There are not many expatriates in Hargeisa, but they include some interesting people. There is a forestry expert from West Germany, with whom we have become very friendly; an Egyptian veterinarian and his family; Italians who manage the Somali National Bank; Englishmen who run the airline; Indian merchants; and of course the Peace Corps. One of the most popular expatriates is a Capuchin priest, Father Felix. It is quite a sight to see him, with his black beard, sandals, and long white robe, dashing about town on his motor scooter. He is as famous for his mechanical abilities as for saving souls, for he operates the movie projector when films are shown (twice weekly) at the Hargeisa Club, and is the man to see when you are having a problem with your motor vehicle.
One of the most interesting persons we have met is Mohamoud Ahmed, a venerable Somali who was Director General of Education but is now retiring. He has a profound knowledge of African politics and has a better understanding of the American system of government than the average American. He told some interesting stories of his attempts to set up schools in Somalia. As late as 1952 he was greeted by spears and rifle shots while trying to establish education in some areas. He plans to spend his remaining years living in a small village where, he boasted, he will not need a penny. He will live on camel milk and the other simple staples of the Somali nomad. This, he seemed to feel, was preferable to the luxuries which we consider essential. He adheres rigidly the laws of the Muslim religion. When being introduced to Shirley he covered his hand with his shawl before shaking hands with her. It seems that he would have to go through a complicated purification process if he touched a woman.
Along with Dr. Tyree and his family, we were invited to dine at the home of a Somali education official. Our host specified that we wear Somali clothing. For women, this consists of ankle-length dresses and shawls of brilliant colors. Men wear a sarong-like garment extending from waist to ankle, a shawl, and a small, round, white cap. The colors in the men's clothing are not as bright as the women's. The dinner was delicious. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands. Only the right hand is used, since the left is considered unclean. First a large bowl of water was passed around so that we could wash our hands. Then came rice With eggs, onions, and meat mixed in it. There was a dish resembling beef stew, but much spicier. There were meat balls, potatoes, and slices of lamb. Two kinds of bread were served. Both were flat and round about the size of a pancake. One, made with millet, was soft; the other was crisp. We ate these by dipping them into a dish of curry, which tasted much like chili. Finally, we had fruit and tea. Somali tea is very sweet and spicy, tasting like cinnamon. No Somali women were present at the meal, although they had done the cooking, and we were given to understand that Somali women do not eat with the men but must take their meals in the kitchen. A special concession was made for the American women in this case.
Dr. Tyree and his family departed on May 27, and we moved into his house. We hired a cook named Omar, who is reputed to be the best cook in the Northern Region. If they told us he is the best in all of Africa, we would not doubt it. We have decided to "go native", up to a point, and eat camel steaks, goat meat, and other Somali items. Camel is delicious. It tastes something like veal, but is better. At this time of year there is a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Imported foods are available, put expensive. We rarely tell Omar what to prepare, and we never fail to be pleased with the result. He can make a banquet out of' leftovers, and a last-minute announcement that we shall have half a dozen guests for dinner does not phase him. He bakes delicious cakes and makes all kinds of puddings and fruit dishes. Once when we had unexpected guests for tea, he whipped up a chocolate cake and a pudding made with papaya, limes, and other fruits. One really tasty dish that was new to us is his banana fritters topped with a sweet sauce and lime juice. Omar also does the shopping, cleaning, washing, and ironing. For all of this he gets $40 per month plus room and board -- and everyone tells us we are overpaying him. Some pay as little as $11 per month for the same services, although that is quite low even by Somali standards. We suspect, however, that Omar is also feeding a number of his friends and relatives from our larder. Most expatriates find it very difficult to do their own cooking. Shopping in the native food markets is almost an impossibility for a foreigner, and cooking on charcoal burners is something
that takes a great deal of practice.
Our home is nicely furnished. Our lamps have been improvised from old wine jugs, but otherwise we have most of the furnishings that we had at home. We have a telephone and can call other numbers in Hargeisa. our number is shared by a nearby school, and we never know whether the caller is attempting to reach us or the school until we have answered. We have purchased a wide assortment of junk from Ali (we call him "the Fuller spear man") who comes around with knives, spears, bows, arrows, camel bells, lion skins, and the like. Bargaining with these "merchants" is an experience in itself. I described the procedure in the last letter. They have the most fantastic excuses. Ali was trying to sell us a leopard skin, and we noted that a patch of fur was missing. His excuse: "That's where someone threw a rock at it." Finally we bought a small cheetah skin, and Shirley bought two pairs of shoes (made to order) made of cheetah skin.
Shopping in the magaala (town) is another chore. The town cannot be compared with anything in America. It resembles the typical Arab village that you might have seen in a De Mille Bible movie or French Foreign Legion picture. The streets are crowded with goats, donkeys, and people. Driving through town is a harrowing experience. There is a huge tree right in the middle of one of the main streets. The people have no notion of traffic control, and stop in front of your vehicle without looking one way or the other. The town is a colorful place, but unfortunately it is almost impossible to take movies or photographs of it. The people have a strong religious objection to being photographed, and some will protest vigorously even if you try to photograph their animals. The shops are tiny, dingy little stalls jammed with a variety of goods. Clothes, canned food, soap, shoes, film, and many other things will be found in one store. We are constantly surprised both at the number of items we can get (Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Life Buoy soap, for example) and at the things we cannot get. I even bought a biography of Kennedy, written in Arabic. One of the interesting shops is "The Peace Loving People's Book Shop", a communist-subsidized store full of Russian end Red Chinese books. They have a good variety of beautiful oriental prints, which they must be selling at below cost. I don't think they sell many books, for everyone that I know goes there for the prints. Whenever a woman makes a purchase, she is given a free book titled, "Painless Childbirth through Psychoprophylaxis." We are beginning to believe that the book has some strange mystical powers, for every woman who has received a copy has become pregnant shortly thereafter.
There is not much here in the way of organized entertainment. There are movies twice a week at the British -owned Hargeisa Club. Otherwise, we entertain ourselves by having guests far tea or for dinner, and by visiting others. We have received many invitations. My slight knowledge of Arabic led to our being invited to a typical Egyptian feast at the consulate of the United Arab Republic. Planes arrive or depart about four times a week, and many people congregate at the airport for these exciting events. When I say "many", I mean about 50 people, including the airline employees, police, soldiers, customs officials, and passengers. The airport is so tiny that 50 seems like a huge crowd. It is usually an interesting crowd, however. At one time I have seen Somalis, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Russians, Italians, Americans, Englishmen, and Germans at the airport. The planes (small 2-engine prop planes) land on a grassy field and taxi to a stop on a small paved strip. Once when a plane landed, a Somali woman got off with a small boy. She took him to the middle of the strip, removed all his clothes, bathed him with water from a tea kettle, and then re-boarded the plane. One learns not to be surprised at such sights here.
Recently we drove to Borama, a small town about 80 miles northeast of Hargeisa near the Ethiopian border. A number of the Peace Corps volunteers are at work there, building a library for the school and erecting windmills so that better use can be made of the scarce water supply. Although the road to Borama is said to be one of the best in the country, it is incredibly bad -- full of huge rocks, deep ruts, holes, and bumps. The English-made Land Rover is probably the only vehicle that can survive on these roads. Nevertheless, this was an interesting trip. Along the way there were little villages; nomads with flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, or camels; and some beautiful scenery. The Somali nomads live in small round huts consisting of woven mats thrown over wooden frames. They are dismantled and packed on camels when the people move. The huts are erected in small clusters wherever the people decide to settle (this depends upon the availability of water and grazing land), and the cluster is fenced in with thorn bushes. The bushes provide protection, for their long needles are so strong that they will puncture the thickest tire. The scenery on the Borama road is varied. You see great stretches of open plain with hardly a tree; then wooded areas; then huge rock formations on the horizon; and finally the lovely green hills of Borama. The Somali people are intensely proud of the fact that they survive in this semi-desert country, and seem to regard others as weaklings who need comforts and luxuries. They are tall, thin, ramrod straight, and very dignified. Most have fine features, and are quite handsome. They have a good sense of humor, but tend to be reserved until one gets to know them.
This is an ideal country for those interested in birds and animals. Even in our own yard we see a variety of beautiful birds with brightly colored feathers, strange cries, crests, long beaks, etc. We are sometimes visited by "dik diks" -- tiny antelopes, not much larger than a cat. Not far from us someone has a pet lioness, a beautiful creature as gentle and playful as a kitten. There are camels and goats across the street. Many more animals and birds can be seen outside the city.
Recently we visited a home for crippled children and orphans. The director was very proud of this place. The boys sleep in small rooms completely devoid of furniture. They sleep on the cement floor -- 18 of them in a room smaller than the average American living room. The director took great pride in the fact that each boy had a piece of canvas to put under him and had his own blanket besides. Another tiny room containing a few battered chairs and tables, and a blackboard about 2 1/2 feet square, served as a school. Nevertheless, the area is quite attractive. The buildings surround a small courtyard filled with trees, shrubs, and flowers. The boys in each dormitory are responsible for the flowers in front of their rooms and get prizes for having the best ones. They are taught simple trades, such as shoemaking. Actually, they are living rather well by local standards.
Things move slowly here and you learn not to expect too much. Something that can be achieved in minutes in America (such as making a bank deposit) may take hours or even days here. The banks (there are two) open only from 8 to 11 a.m. Government offices are usually closed by noon, and many businesses also. Schedules mean very little.
The climate in this area is delightful. It is warm, but not too hot or humid during too day, and cool enough at night to require a blanket. Thus far we have few complaints.
Tomorrow we are flying to Mogadiscio, the capital. It is located in the southern region, in the area formerly known as Italian Somaliland. (We are in the north, in the former British Somaliland.) All the Peace Corps Volunteers are congregating in Mogadiscio for a conference. After that the schools will open. This will probably be the last newsletter for quite some time, therefore, as I shall have to do a great deal of traveling and there will probably be a considerable amount of confusion as we try to get the Volunteers settled down for their second year of teaching here.
Our best wishes to everyone.
George and Shirley Dawson
Regional Office of Education
Dear Friends and Relatives:
My last newsletter was written on June 23, just before our trip to Mogadiscio. This letter will begin where that one left off. Much has happened since then.
The trip to Mogadiscio involved another "luxury" flight on Aden Airways. It took three hours to fly from Hargeisa to Mogadiscio, and we were served a sumptuous banquet of tomato sandwiches and tea. Since they enjoy a monopoly of air travel in this area, Aden Airways can be very independent. Schedules mean little, and planes may arrive (or take off) an hour early, or a day late. Landings may be delayed while the field is cleared of sheep and goats, or for even less valid reasons. Once after a plane had been in the air for 20 minutes, it suddenly turned and went back to Aden. The passengers assumed that there was engine trouble, but it turned out that the pilot had left his thermos jug of coffee at the Aden airport and was returning to get it. Reservations are only vague promises, at best, and you may be bounced from your seat if someone else slips a few shillings to an airline employee.
Anyway, we did arrive in Mogadiscio, the capital of Somalia. Although it was the cool season in Mogadiscio, we found the heat and humidity oppressive after the cool breezes of Hargeisa. Mogadiscio is much bigger and more westernized than Hargeisa. There are buses, cars, neon signs, and newly-installed traffic lights. The women wear shorter skirts and more revealing costumes than their northern counterparts, although they are still fairly well concealed by our standards. There is a night club called the Lido where one can see naughty Somali girls doing the twist, something that would create a scandal in the Northern Region where such a thing would never be permitted. There are more shops than one finds j Hargeisa, with a greater variety of goods. It is almost like being in a different country. The Italian influence is still strong (the Southern Region was under Italian control, while the North was under the British), and pizza and other Italian dishes are common. Most of the people speak Italian as well as Somali, although the government hopes to replace Italian with English in the schools there. Despite its more modern appearance, Mogadiscio still bears little resemblance to an American or European city. It has a kind of Arabic or Middle Eastern flavor. It is located on the Indian Ocean, and some of the scenery on the waterfront is very beautiful.
There are a few fairly large hotels in Mogadiscio. Although they cannot compare with American or European hotels, they seem modern and impressive in comparison with those of Hargeisa. We went often to one of the newer ones (a modern-looking prefabricated building) for coffee or for meals. It had an attractive restaurant about 4 stories high which gave one a good view of the city. You are soon reminded, despite its modern appearance, that you are not at home, however. It may take half an hour to get a cup of coffee, even though the place is empty. One day when we tried to enter the elevator, we could not because it was being used to store fire wood. Another time we were drinking our coffee and almost imagining we were home when the elevator opened and out stepped a bearded old Somali wearing a turban, mowis (skirt like garment worn by Somali men), and a long dagger in his belt. He seemed out of place in that modern setting, but then - after all - this is his country and not ours.
There was much social life in Mogadiscio. While there are less than 70 British and Americans in the entire Northern Region, there are a couple hundred Americans (mostly associated with the Embassy) in the South. Nearly every night we were invited to some sort of party. Ham, roast beef, and an abundance of liquor presented a strange sight to those of us stationed in the North. The American Ambassador had a party for all Peace Corps people and some other Americans there. Although a power failure made it necessary to use candles for light, the party was a smashing success.
There are more possibilities for dining out in the South than in the North (where the possibilities are almost nil). Water is just as scarce, if not more so, however, and you pay 75 cents for a bottle of pure water with your meals. One evening we dined at the best hotel. We tried eating in the courtyard under the palm trees, but rain showers kept driving us inside. (Some people ignored the showers and casually continued their meals while getting drenched.) Hungry and aggressive cats roamed among the tables, looking for a hand-out. Most of the food was Italian. I ordered Hungarian goulash, but found it so peppery I couldn't eat much of it.
We were in Mogadiscio for the Independence Day celebration on July 1. (This is Somalia's 3rd year of independence.) The city was decorated with flags, and there were parades and demonstrations. The parades were interesting, although we could not find a place where we could see everything. (No one seemed to know where the marchers would be, and people scurried from street to street in search of the parade.) There
were the usual soldiers and police, school children, religious processions; and wild looking men from the bush who carried a weird assortment of spears, swords, daggers, and clubs. After the main procession, segments of the parade split off and continued to march up various streets. Sometimes two groups clashed head on in the same street, causing confusion. The spectators were as interesting as the marchers - people danced in the streets and generally enjoyed themselves. Somali women express their approval not by applauding or cheering but by making a shrill warbling sound that is very loud and piercing. The Peace Corps girls have been trying, without success to imitate it.
Although the week in Mogadiscio was interesting, we were happy to return to the superb climate of Hargeisa. It was good to see all the Peace Corps volunteers together again after a year. Most of the volunteers assigned to the Northern Region returned by way of Aden to buy clothes for their second year here. We were back in Hargeisa before most of them, as there was much work to be done in preparing for the opening of the school year. Our cook, Omar, decided to surprise us by painting the doors in our house while we were away. Although he continues to delight us with his skill as cook and baker, he is a positive menace outside the kitchen. He had bought white paint and smeared it all over the floors, every which way. The result was too horrible to describe. We had to buy grey paint and do the whole thing over.
There were other and more serious problems awaiting me. The schools were scheduled to open on July 8, and I wanted to be sure that all volunteers arrived at least a day early. But 16 of them were in Aden, where they found that all flights to Hargeisa were booked until late in the month. Not only would this prove most embarrassing to us, but it would mean that they would miss the government trucks scheduled to transport teachers to the schools in the outposts and we would have to use our own vehicles to get them there. A few managed to get on a flight from Aden to Burao, a town about 100 miles from Hargeisa. They sent me a telegram saying, "Four PCVs arriving Burao. Send transportation." But the telegraph operator neglected to put in the word "four". Thinking that 16 Volunteers, with their luggage would be arriving, I hired drivers and sent all four of our available vehicles (a jeep and 3 Land Rovers) to Burao. Naturally, I was quite upset when only four returned. In a few days we were able to get the rest back from Aden on a special flight. They were already late, however, and our own vehicles had to be used to get them and their belongings to the outposts. Our vehicles were going day and night, and considerable damage was sustained because of the rough roads over which they had to travel.
Finally, after a few dozen more such problems, all volunteers were at their posts, the schools opened, and the year's work began. I have visited all schools in the Northern Region where Peace Corps volunteers are teaching. Although they are quite different from our schools, I am more impressed by the similarities than by the differences in the pupils. The pupils at the Girls Intermediate School in Hargeisa do about as much squirming, talking, and giggling as one expects to find in an American junior high school. Some of the differences are superficial. The girls dress alike, all wearing white cotton dresses. The boys wear white shirts and khaki shorts. Education for girls is a relatively new concept hem, and the schools are separate. In all schools, the pupils stand when the teacher or a visitor enters the room. This is a rather empty gesture of respect, however, for discipline is a big problem here. By tradition, the Somalis are fiercely independent and democratic. In tribal councils every man has a right to speak his piece. Tribal chiefs are spokesmen for their people; they do not rule over them. Thus, the Somali student freely speaks his mind to his teacher, principal, or education official. Student strikes are fairly commonplace when students are dissatisfied with a teacher or a principal. Last year the entire student body of a school in the Southern Region struck, journeyed to Mogadiscio, and protested to the Minister of Education because their principal was too strict.
Generally speaking, the method of teaching is more traditional and rigid than one finds in America. Teachers usually follow the textbook or syllabus religiously, and pupils protest if they try to introduce anything else. The pupils seem to be motivated largely by a desire to learn just enough to pass the examinations -- if something is not going to be on the exam, they do not want the teacher to waste their time with it. There are exceptions, of course.
Sometimes amusing things happen in the classroom. One of the Peace Corps teachers gave a test to her pupils in which she asked them to define "mythology." One little girl had not studied, but tried to bluff her way through. She wrote, "My mythology is different from your mythology because I'm a Somali." Another time a teacher asked the pupils to name the important rivers of Africa. One girl, thinking of the Zambezi River, raised her hand and said, "The Zamboozi." This delighted everyone, since a zamboozi is a small triangular-shaped pastry which contains very hot and spicy ground meat. Shortly after the Somalis broke diplomatic relations with the British, one of the Peace Corps teachers told her class to write compositions about their fathers' occupations. One pupil simply wrote, "My father is unemployed." She was telling the truth - her father had been the Somali ambassador to Great Britain.
My trips to the schools outside Hargeisa are difficult but interesting. The nearest outpost is about a 3-hour drive from here, while the farthest in the Northern region is about a day and a half away, under good weather conditions. When it rains the roads are sometimes impassable. Most of the schools consist of plain white, one story buildings, furnished simply with metal tables, chairs, and a blackboard. Often there is a different little building for each class. Libraries are scarce, but the Peace Corps volunteers have been setting up libraries in their schools. A striking exception is the secondary school at Sheikh. It is one of the most beautiful school buildings I have ever seen. It is a 2-story structure or brick-red cement, and stones in natural color. The classrooms surround a courtyard filled with flowering shrubs. There is an underground mosque, a theater, and beautiful housing far the teachers. Unfortunately, the building has been poorly maintained since the departure of the British. The school stands in stark contrast to the village of Sheikh, a little cluster of mud huts. Sheikh is a rather isolated spot, up in the mountains where it is windy and cool.
I see many animals and birds on these trips. I have seen herds of baboon, daro (beautiful little antelopes), gerenuk (long-necked deer), ostrich, warthogs, Jackals, and many others. The roads are unbelievably bad - full of rocks, ruts, holes, or dust. On the road from Sheikh to Burao the dust blows in great clouds from the desert. It settles on the road in drifts over a foot thick. Vehicles skid or get bogged down in it. When another vehicles passes, your vision is completely blocked for many yards. You must close your windows and vents to keep from choking. The dust cakes on the windows, and sometimes you must keep your windshield wiper going in order to see. When dust storms occur, you must often stop your vehicle and wait for it to settle because it completely obscures your vision.
You never know what you might find on these journeys. On one recent trip across the most barren and desolate part of Somalia I found a woman with a small baby stranded in the desert. She had no food or water, and she was attempting to walk to her family a distance of 40 miles away.. She had no concept of how far it was, and the area is a barren wasteland where ore can drive for hours without seeing a drop of water or a human being. Villages are few and far between. When you do pass through a village it is a big event. People crowd around the vehicle, staring, laughing, and asking questions. Many will ask to go with you, even if there isn't room enough for a postage stamp. At home I used to complain at an hour-and-a-half subway trip to get to a school on a supervisory visit, but here it may take two days of hard driving over mountains, deserts, tugs (dry river beds), streams, and the roughest roads in creation to reach some of the volunteers. Although it means discomfort, such as sleeping on floors, bouncing around in the Land Rover, changing tires, and inhaling dust, I enjoy these trips.
The most remote outpost is also the most beautiful. This is Dayaha, a school 362 miles from Hargeisa. The school is situated on a plain surrounded by hills. I spent 2 days and 3 nights there recently. The highest point in Somalia is located nearby. I went to Dallo, a rocky cliff about 2000 feet high, which overlooks mountains, valleys, and the sea 40 miles away. There are more grass, trees, and bushes there than any spot in the Northern Region. I also hiked over a very rocky little mountain to a spot where there is a beautiful, clear, cool mountain pool about 30 feet deep. I peeled down to my unmentionables and enjoyed a very pleasant swim, diving into the pool from the high rocks that surrounded it. The only spectators were some eagles circling overhead and two rather indifferent camels munching on the leaves of nearby trees.
Mail is delivered here (when it is delivered at all) in strange ways. A few weeks ago I was driving to Sheikh and stopped at a little village called Go'o (pronounced Go Oh) on the way. Go'o contains about 12 mud buildings, but it is a popular rest stop because it has a tea house. I was enjoying an excellent cup of sweet, spicy Somali tea when a man approached me and handed me an envelope. I had never seen the man before, and this was my first time in Go'o, but the letter was addressed to me. It seems that the man was a truck driver coming through Go'o from one of the remote outposts where two Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. There are no regular mail deliveries to some of these spots - mail is given to anyone who happens to be passing through. I often carry mail myself on my trips, and people have even given me money to deposit for them in the Hargeisa bank. In this case, there was no other non-Somali around, and he simply took a chance that I might be the addressee. The letter was from the volunteers in Dayaha. (Actually there are two villages called Go'o. The one just described is about 70 miles from Hargeisa and is known as Big Go'o. Further on there is a village of about 5 mud huts which is called Little Go'o.)
Despite the many administrative problems that my job entails, we feel that we are living well and have few complaints. Although I repeatedly tell people that I am employed by NYU and not directly by the U.S. Government, they persist in treating me as if I were the American Consul here. There is no American Consul in the Northern Region, there are no other Americans beside the Peace Corps, and since I am running the Peace Corps operation in the North I am treated as if I were the ranking American diplomat. Thus we are invited to social and diplomatic affairs given by Somali government officials or by foreign Consulates. This has its good and bad points. We enjoy "free-loading" on the exotic foods served by the Egyptian Consul, for example, but we are financially unable to reciprocate and invite all the VIP's to our house. A few weeks ago the Somali Army put on a show which included parades, drills, races, athletic contests, and the like. We were invited to go. Hoping to be able to leave early, we mingled with the crowd on the sidelines. But, although I was wearing chino pants, a sport shirt, and desert boots, an officer spotted us and ceremoniously escorted us to the reviewing stand where we were seated in the very first row. There we sat under a blazing sun for three hours, while I was suffering from a severe headache and an attack ct stomach cramps and dysentery. (Everyone has these attacks at one time or another. They are usually called "the Mad Mullah's revenge." The Mad Mullah is the Somali national hero, a great warrior of several decades ago who united the people in an attempt to drive out the British.) We did not dare leave for fear that our hosts might be insulted at our early departure. Also, many Somalis think that my office is a branch of the American Embassy, if not the Embassy itself, and plague me with requests for visas and all kinds of other business that would usually be handled by a consul. Since the British consulate has been closed, the American Embassy handles British affairs here. Many Somalis were employed by the British and some are entitled to pensions, back pay, and the like. When the British officials departed they told their employees, "The Americans will pay you." Thus, Somalis came to my office looking for their pensions. I try to explain that I have nothing to do with this, and that they must write to the Embassy in Mogadiscio. This is hard for them to understand. The typical response is, "You are American. We were told that the Americans would pay us. Now you pay us."
I am on the road about half of each month. One good thing about this is that it gives me a chance to escape from some of the problems described above. Of course, I miss the comfort of our house, which is light, roomy, airy, and well-furnished. We have even acquired a pet -- a devilish little- kitten named Juba. (There are two rivers in Somalia, the Shebelli and the Juba. A friend has a kitten named Shebelli - it's a "she" cat with a big belly, so we named ours Juba.) We had a chance to buy some baby cheetahs, but decided against it because of the difficulty in raising them. They are really beautiful. They are as playful as kittens, but make a chirping sound more like a bird than a cat.
If all goes well, we shall be leaving for Nairobi (in Kenya) next week. Nairobi is a very modern city, and I am going there to buy some books and educational materials. I may also enter the hospital in Nairobi for a minor operation. I am having trouble from a fistula and abscess brought on by incessant bouncing on the hard seat of the Land Rover. A good thick cushion will be a "must" on all future trips.
Our regards to everyone.
George and Shirley Dawson
Newsletter No. 4
Office of Education
November 10, 1963
Dear Friends and Relatives:
A few days after writing the last newsletter, Shirley and I flew to Nairobi in Kenya. We had a dual purpose--to purchase books, educational material, tools, and supplies for the' Peace Corps and to obtain surgical treatment for me. We left Hargeisa September 5th, spent the night in Mogadiscio, and arrived in Nairobi on the 6th. Kenya is very different from Somalia. Even from the air the difference was apparent. From the air, most of Somalia appears to be a barren desert, while Kenya presents a picture of lush green fields and forests. The large modern airport contrasts sharply with the tiny white building that constitutes Hargeisa's air terminal and the dull green shacks of Mogadiscio airport.
Nairobi is one of the most modern and most beautiful cities we have ever seen. It abounds with new buildings in the latest architectural design, the well-paved streets are lined with trees, shrubs, and flowers, and there are scores of attractive shops selling nearly every kind of merchandise found in the United States. One indication of the city's importance is the large number of banks--at least seven branches of Barclays Bank alone. There are drive-in movies, theaters, modern hotels, ice-cream parlors, good restaurants, and even a Wimpy's hamburger place. Excellent full-course meals can be had for as little as one dollar, and we stuffed ourselves on beefsteak, hamburgers, milk shakes, and other luxuries that presented a welcome change from the camel and goat meat that constitute our staple fare in Somalia. Although Nairobi is near the equator, it is always comfortably cool because of its elevation. In that respect, its climate differs little from that of Hargeisa. One important difference, however, is the abundance of fresh water. Even in the rainy season water is scarce in Somalia. Our water supply in Hargeisa consists of a tank on the roof of our house which is filled daily during the wet season. During the dry season there will be less. One of the great joys of Nairobi, therefore, was the ability to bathe as often as we liked.
Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, and the government buildings are very modern and attractive.. Kenya now enjoys internal self-government and will receive its full independence from Britain on December 12. It is an important tourist city, for many visitors who wish to go on safari start from Nairobi. Less than five miles from this modern urban center there are thousands of wild animals. We hired a car one Sunday afternoon and drove out to the plains. There we saw lions, giraffe, gazelle of all sorts, warthogs, impala, zebra, baboons, and many other animals and birds. The animals in this area are protected from hunters, so one can get fairly close to them before they run. You must not leave your car, of course. The lions usually ignore you completely, as they lie yawning and panting in the sun. The baboons are curious and playful. They often climb on the hoods of cars to get a free ride. I managed to get a good picture of a baboon riding on the hood of a passing car.
When I was not in the hospital, most of my time was spent in making the various purchases for the Peace Corps. I did take one afternoon off to drive to the Rift Valley, however, and managed to get to Mombassa for a day. I'll not even attempt to describe the breathtaking beauty of the escarpment and Rift Valley, but I can describe some of the things we saw on the way. We passed many Kikuyu villages.
The Kikuyu seem to be the dominant tribe in the Nairobi area, if not in all of Kenya. They are farmers, basically, and live in small, round mud huts with cone-shaped grass roofs. The Somalis, you may recall, are basically nomads and live in hemispherical huts (called aqals) which can be taken apart and transported on the backs of camels when the people move. The Somalis tend to look with scorn on farmers--the only really noble occupation is herding camels. The Somali's concept of wealth is livestock. A man is considered rich if he owns many camels. Money, houses, and other property are secondary considerations. In fact, the Somali word for "wealth" is the same as the word for livestock. Values are often expressed here in numbers of camels rather than in terms of money. This even applies to human life. For murdering a man, the killer or his tribal group is usually required to pay the tribal group of the victim 100 camels. (If the victim is a woman, the payment is only 50 camels.) When a Somali seeks a wife, he pays per family "bride wealth" usually consisting of camels or other livestock.
The Somalis also differ greatly in appearance. I think it must be conceded that the Somalis are far more handsome than the natives of Kenya. Somali women are often referred to as the most beautiful in Africa. Their brilliantly colored dresses and shawls contrast sharply with the drab clothing of the Kenyan women. The Somali women wear their hair long, while many of the Kenyan women shave their heads. Even when they do not shave their heads, their hair is usually not more than one-quarter to one-half an inch long. The Somali women are among the most graceful in the world, I am sure. They walk with a gentle swaying motion, and their faces are usually placid and serene. Of course, because of hard work and privation, they age quickly. They have large bright eyes and soft features, and usually appear to be extremely shy. They are far from meek, however, and I doubt that anything in the world is louder and more piercing than the voice of a Somali woman when she is angry. As for the Somali men, they tend to be tall, ramrod straight, and proud to the point of arrogance. The Somali man looks you in the eye in a way that assures you he is your equal, if not your superior, in all things. Many of the native Kenyans, men and women alike, punch holes in their ear lobes and stretch the skin so that a long loop of flesh hangs down--sometimes all the way to the shoulders. The result is hideous. The native women of Kenya carry enormous bundles on their backs, the load being supported by a band that goes around the forehead. I saw one woman carrying a huge stack of fire wood on her back. The load extended from the base of her spine to her shoulders, and her baby was perched on top of the bundle.
My ailment proved to be more serious than it looked, and I spent three weeks in the hospital instead of the 4 or 5 days I had expected. A British surgeon performed the operation, and I received excellent care at the hands of British, Indian, and African nurses. They really believe in pampering the patients, and the hospital's food was plentiful and delicious. The cost was only a fraction of what it would have been in the United States. Throughout my stay in the hospital, Shirley lived in a hotel and acted on my behalf in arranging for the various purchases. After being released, I remained in Kenya for an additional 5 days in order to consummate the purchases and be sure that there would be no post...operative complications. We decided on a quick trip to Mombassa during this period. We took the train, which left at 6:30 in the evening, and arrived in Mombassa at 8:30 the following morning. Mombassa is Kenya's leading seaport, and was once famous as a slave port. We explored an old fort built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, toured the Arab quarter where the streets are so narrow that an automobile cannot get through, watched the native stevedores load and unload ships (they carry tremendous loads and receive from 40 to 70 cents a day). and drove through the native section of town. We returned to Nairobi that evening. Since most of the train ride occurred after dark we could not see much. We did have about an hour of daylight as we approached Nairobi" however" and saw giraffe, gazelle" and other wild animals on the plains.
The unexpectedly long stay in Nairobi cut heavily into our funds, but we did squander some of our money on native artifacts. The natives make very beautiful wood carvings, and we bought a quantity of these as well as spears, shields, native musical instruments, and many other items. The prices are incredibly low considering the amount of handwork that goes into these objects. In this respect, the Kenyans are far ahead of the Somalis. The Somalis have not learned the art of wood carving as have the Kenyans. They do make crude wooden animals, bowls, jugs, and the like, but they are invariably distorted and never symmetrical. Perhaps the Somali's lack of ability in this direction can be explained by the fact that he is nomadic. He is constantly on the move, and the rigors of life in the Somali desert (where wood is almost as scarce as water) do not lend themselves to activities of this sort. On the other hand, the Somali is not without-artistic feeling. He expresses his creativity through poetry, however. Poetry is not considered unmanly here--on the contrary, some of Somalia's greatest poets were also her greatest warriors. Since Somali is not a written language, the poetry is passed on by word of mouth. A few of the poems have been translated into English, however, and although much has no doubt been lost in translation, they are still very impressive.
I flew back to Somalia on October 5th. Although I had enjoyed the many luxuries of Nairobi, I was glad to be back. The Volunteers had not been paid their October living allowances, and, since payment of allowances is my responsibility, I can truly say that everyone was glad to see me. A stack of mail about two feet high awaited me, and there was much work to do. Shirley remained in Nairobi for treatment of a minor female, ailment. She was in the hospital two days, and returned to Somalia October 15th. Before leaving Kenya she managed to make a trip out to the wilds and experience the thrill of being charged by a rhino and having lions peep into the car window" She also passed through the villages of the Masai tribe. They differ from the Kikuyu of Kenya, in that they usually raise cattle and disdain farming. They are quite proud and can be fierce. They carry very long spears (I am sending one home), the heads of which are about 3 feet long. The women wear enormous earrings and necklaces. But Shirley, too, was glad to be home again, and our cook Omar's charcoal-broiled camel steaks are not so bad after all. A friend coming from the U.S. brought us a large supply of food colorings. Omar has been having a grand time with them, and we have had bright green ice cream (he manages to concoct a fairly palatable ice cream made with canned milk), blue cookies, red cakes, and orange rice.
We are kept busy, and I never know from one day to the next what to expect. Today might mean a leisurely 5 or 6 hours of work, while tomorrow will involve a hectic 12-hour day. Volunteers are apt to pop in at any hour of the day or night. Holidays are my worst times, for they stream in from the outposts usually arriving tired, hungry, dusty, and with a sack full of problems. It is hard to plan any sort of schedule and stick to it. A well-planned trip will often be cancelled because we get word that a Volunteer in Erigavo (360 miles from here) has been taken ill. (Fortunately, none of these illnesses has proven to be very serious as yet.) Then the Peace Corps doctor grabs his little bag, we throw a few provisions, blankets, and spare gasoline cans into a Land Rover, and off we go. One evening at 7, I was settling down after a hard day, planning to catch up on my reading. But the police contacted me to report that a volunteer was stranded out in the bush without gasoline. He had borrowed a Land Rover and had gone hunting with some Somali friends. They were about 20 miles from Hargeisa when they ran out of gas. One of the Somalis walked back to Hargeisa and reported it to the police. The police did not have a vehicle available just then (so they said), so I had to get some gasoline cans and take off. I found them at about 8 o'clock, sitting around a fire and roasting a dik-dik (a small antelope) that they had killed. I gave them the gasoline, helped polish off the dik-dik, arid then returned home--all in the day's work.
The volunteers are doing some excellent work here. In addition to teaching full schedules, they have set up science laboratories, built libraries, erected windmills (which help to make better use of the scarce water supply), installed electricity in their schools, constructed athletic fields, worked in hospitals, and have done many other things. They get along well with the Somalis. The Somalis, by the way, have a good sense of humor--much like the American brand of humor. They love to trade good-natured insults with friends and make wise-cracks. For example, we remarked to a Somali friend recently that we considered the Somali women to be far more beautiful than other African women. He replied, "Well, perhaps we should breed them for export." The Somalis can also joke about their own poverty. A few months ago, an Ethiopian ship strayed into Somali waters and was captured and impounded at the Somali port of Berbera. (The Somalis and the Ethiopians are bitter enemies.) We were at a party when the news of this exciting event reached Hargeisa. One of the Somali officials quipped, "Aha! We have doubled the size of our navy!" Last year in New York I was having a very serious conversation with a brilliant young Somali student. We were talking about Somalia's relations with other African nations. In a perfectly serious manner, he remarked, "Somalia will soon control Egypt." I looked at him as if he were mad and asked him how this could be possible. He replied, "Oh, we'll just put an atom bomb on a camel and send it up there."
Thus, our life here is a mixture of interesting experiences, hard work, a certain amount of success, and a few frustrations. It is getting cooler now in Hargeisa. We need sweaters or jackets at night and an extra blanket on the bed. Christmas is not far off, but since this is a Moslem country it will not be celebrated nationally. We extend to everyone at home our best wishes for Christmas (or Hanukkah) and the New Year.
George and Shirley Dawson
Newsletter No. 5
Office of Education
January 14, 1964
Dear Friends and Relatives:
The weeks since our last newsletter have been busy and eventful. Many of you have asked about our celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas here. Both holidays were celebrated in earnest. Twenty-five of us convened at the Peace Corps hostel here for Thanksgiving. We pooled our cooks, under the leadership of our Omar, and had a royal feast. We were unable to get turkeys, but we did have several chickens, an imported ham (costing $2 per pound), dressing, vegetables, hot rolls, three kinds of pie, ice cream, popcorn balls, white wine, red wine beer, and many other delicacies.
Somalia is a Moslem country, so Christmas was not a national holiday. There are probably no more than 100 people in the entire northern region who are Christians, but the holiday was celebrated in traditional fashion. We had to drive 100 miles from Hargeisa to find Christmas trees, and then they were so scrawny that it was often necessary to put two trees together to give the appearance of one full tree. Some ornaments were flown in from Aden, but otherwise they were improvised from bits of cotton, colored paper, and cloth. Such things as fingernail polish and food colorings were used to make Christmas decorations out of dry brown berries. Christmas cards from home also helped. About the only thing lacking was the commercialism which seems to pervade Christmas in America. For this we were thankful. Not once were we admonished to go out and buy this or that, and there was no attempt to outdo one another in giving expensive gifts. The gifts that we gave would be considered insults at home, but were much appreciated here--such things as a jar of peanut butter, a can of fruit, a bar of chocolate, or a can of nuts, There were many parties in Hargeisa, and much feasting. A Somali who works for the Peace Corps gave the volunteers a live sheep for Christmas. It was butchered, roasted all day over a charcoal pit, and consumed on Christmas Eve. We all gathered at the Peace Corps hostel for breakfast Christmas morning and then opened our gifts. At noon we joined forces with the British for a magnificent old-fashioned Christmas feast. A few Indians am Somalis also attended. Some of the Indian ladies wore red and green saris. We had turkey, chicken, ham, and pork; six different vegetables; three kinds of dressing; flaming plum pudding; hot mincemeat tarts; and many other good things. About 50 people attended this mammoth affair. Quite inadvertently, Somalia contributed toward the Christmas atmosphere. Much of this country is like a scene from a Christmas card--the camel trains, the costumes of the Somali women, and the appearance of the buildings and villages all remind one of something from Biblical times.
All of the volunteers and staff members in the southern region came to Hargeisa before Christmas. Since there was nothing to do in the south, the Peace Corps Representative (who has his headquarters in Mogadiscio) kindly agreed to substitute for me here while Shirley and I took a combined business and pleasure trip. We went to Aden to purchase some educational supplies am equipment, and from there we went to Ethiopia and French Somaliland. Actually, Ethiopia is only about 40 miles from Hargeisa, but there is no regular transportation service between the two countries, and the dispute over the border makes it undesirable to attempt to enter directly from here. So, we flew to Asmara from Aden. Although we had no visas, we were treated with great courtesy at the beautiful modern airport in Asmara. It seems that "Peace Corps" is the magic word there. Our baggage was not searched at the customs desk and we were permitted to go on to our hotel. The immigration officials, in fact, even arranged hotel accommodations for us and then sent our passports and visas around to us. Since this was to be a sort of "businessman's holiday," we went immediately to the Peace Corps office. Before leaving Ethiopia we visited Peace Corps Volunteers and staff members in five cities.
Asmara, Ethiopia's second largest city, is very beautiful. Its elevation is about 8000 feet, so it is quite cool. Palm trees and flowers line the wide, well-paved boulevards. Most of the houses are in the Italian style and are a sand color or painted in light pastel hues. There are many attractive shops stocked with goods from Italy. Since this part of Ethiopia was formerly the Italian colony of Eritrea, the Italian influence is still very strong. We arrived in Asmara on December 31. With two Peace Corps friends who are stationed there, we quietly celebrated New Year's Eve by eating thick, juicy steaks and drinking Ethiopian champagne.
On January 1st we drove to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea. The three-hour drive was an experience in itself--all the way it was down a winding, steep mountain road with dozens of hairpin turns. The scenery was beautiful. The steep hills were covered with lush, green foliage, and the deep valleys presented a picture of rich fertility. There were little farms and villages on the hillsides and in the valleys. Often, we were literally in the clouds that covered the mountain tops. Along the way the people were very friendly and, unlike the Somalis, did not object to being photographed. We saw a variety of dwellings. A few were like the Somali aqals (hemispherical huts). Some were round with cone-shaped roofs, like the Kikuyu huts of Kenya. There were square shacks constructed of upright sticks or mud. Some seemed to be made of flat stones piled atop one another without benefit of mortar.
Massawa proved to be a humid, dingy port with. muddy streets, a shantytown area of wretched shacks, and Arab-type buildings with crumbling cement walls. After visiting some of the Volunteers there we returned to Asmara. The return was not pleasant. A thick fog had settled over the mountains, so that we could rarely see. more than a few feet ahead of us. Now the drive was all uphill, the road was wet and slippery, and there were no walls or fences separating us from the valleys hundreds of feet below. The road was paved all the way, however, and thus it was a far more comfortable ride than one can expect on Somali roads. We spent January 2nd touring Asmara either on foot or by gharry. There are regular taxis, but we chose to use the two-wheeled, horse-drawn gharry carts, which are less comfortable but cheaper and more fun.
On the 3rd we flew to Addis Ababa in a huge new Ethiopian Airlines jet. We spent the first day "talking shop" with the Peace Corps staff, and on the 4th we toured the city with some Peace Corps friends. Addis is a sprawling and unattractive city, although there are a number of beautiful new buildings and the hills and forests surrounding the city are very scenic. We most enjoyed our visit to the market place, a vast area teeming with thousands of people and animals and covering many blocks. All kinds of goods are sold there, from old rags to expensive embroideries; from scrap metal to silver Coptic crosses. Livestock, grain, fruits, vegetables, jewelry, spears, knives, shields, rugs, skins, baskets, and hundreds of other items can be found there. We were fortunate in having an Ethiopian student with us. As in Somalia, one must haggle with merchants, and the student helped us bargain, so that we rarely paid more than half the asking price.
That evening we went to an Ethiopian restaurant. The building is called a tucle. It is a large round hut with a cone-shaped roof. We sat in a circle on small wooden stools padded with monkey fur. First, a waiter cane with a large brass wash bowl and pitcher of warm water so that we could wash our hands. Then a waitress brought a large platter of injera--huge, spongy pancakes at least two feet in diameter. A bowl of doro wat, a very hot chicken curry, was brought and poured into the middle of the injera. We ate the wat by tearing off pieces of the pancake and dipping it into the stuff. (Using the right hand only, as in Somalia.) Then they brought a kind of hash called alicha which, I believe, was made with lamb. This was very mild. This was followed by another very hot curry called kai wat. It was much the same as the doro wat except that it contained beef balls instead of chicken. Finally we were served another mild alicha which was much like a lamb stew. Each of these items was eaten by dipping the injera into it. With our meal we drank tedj, a very sweet wine made from honey. The tedj is not served in glasses, but is drunk from small, ball-shaped bottles with long, thin necks. We also had a very sweet and spicy coffee served in tiny cups. We departed slightly from Ethiopian practice by feeding ourselves. A group of Ethiopians eating wat together will often feed one another. If a man enters this restaurant alone, a waitress will join him and feed him. (I was sore tempted to return to the place alone.)
The Ethiopians are a very handsome people who resemble the Somalis. The Amharic women usually wear white muslin dresses with the skirt coming about half way between the ankle and the knee, and white muslin shawls. These garments have wide bands at the hems which are beautifully embroidered in geometric or floral designs.. The Ambars do not seem to favor the brilliant colors worn by Somali women. Nearly half the population adheres to the Coptic branch of Christianity, and the women and girls often have Coptic crosses tattooed on their foreheads. Some also tattoo their hands, feet, and throats. The men wear shawls, a long shirt-like garment, and pants that look like riding breeches. Many of the city dwellers wear European-style clothing.
One colorful sight in Addis was a procession announcing the beginning of the Christmas season. Christmas is celebrated on January 7 in Ethiopia. The procession consisted of camels adorned with brilliantly colored cloth and bearing people dressed in Biblical costume. This seemed to us to be somewhat more appropriate than our custom of beginning the Christmas season with the Macy parade.
On January 5th we drove to the Blue Nile gorge with three Peace Corps friends. The countryside was very beautiful, with many green valleys, hills, farms, and tiny villages. There were imposing mountains in the background, and the sky was a deep blue with many snow-white clouds. When we were about 15 miles outside of Addis we saw a small building, gaily painted in blue and pink and decorated with Ethiopian flags. The sign read: "John F. Kennedy's Bar." We were heartily welcomed, and as we enjoyed some excellent Ethiopian beer we were serenaded by a man playing an accordion and a lady singing an ear-shattering song. The song seemed to have no melody. It went on and on without end. It was very monotonous and very hard on our uninitiated ears, but we were flattered by the attention anyway. When we returned eight hours later, the lady was still screeching at the top of her lungs, and the song had not changed. We ordered supper and had the same type of meal described earlier. The five of us ate our fill, touching less than half of the food that was placed before us, for a total cost of $1.20. This time we were also entertained by two men who played primitive one-string violins and sang and danced. One of their songs was about Kennedy, but we could not understand the words.
On the way to the Blue Nile we stopped at a place called Debra Libanos. Here there are two interesting Coptic churches--one is a beautiful new modern structure, the other a very ancient building. Debra Lianas overlooks a magnificent gorge, but the Blue Nile gorge was even more impressive. The Blue Nile turned out to be a muddy brown color, but the gorge was splendid nevertheless. We drove down into the gorge (about a mile deep) on a fairly good road. As we descended, the temperature rose greatly and we were not eager to remain down there very long. We had to return, however, by a very rocky, narrow, steep, and hazardous road. At times we didn't think the little Volkswagen would make it. We finally got back to Addis fourteen hours after we had left.
On the 6th we flew to Dire-Dawa and from there drove to the ancient walled city of Harar. There we explored the old narrow streets where it is sometimes difficult for two people to walk abreast. We were fascinated by the native markets of Harare, which have probably not changed in hundreds of years. There was a great variety of people there. There were the handsome brown-skinned Amhars, with their straight noses, thin lips, and upsweep coiffures. There were the darker-skinned Gala women with softer, rounder features, gracefully balancing jugs or bundles on their heads. There were Harari women of exquisite beauty, wearing brightly colored shawls, dresses, and ankle-length velvet trousers that hug the legs tightly. We even saw a few of our tall, straight, steely-eyed, and haughty Somalis.
After Shirley had purchased some baskets from a Harari woman, she invited us into her home. It consisted of one square room, almost bare of furniture except for a tiny table, two wooden chairs, and some beautiful rugs. The walls were colorfully decorated with some of the lady's best basket work. 0ur conversation was limited to my meager knowledge of Arabic but, like women the world over, she responded to flattery. The truthful statement "inte jamila" (you are beautiful) even broke down her religious (Moslem) objection to being photographed.
The people of the market were generally friendly and gay. The adults usually made half-hearted attempts to avoid being photographed, while the children welcomed it in the hope of getting "baksheesh." Of course, it was not all pleasant. It was dusty and swarming with flies, and there were many lepers, orphans, blind people, and cripples begging. By way of contrast, we later toured a very modern secondary school that would put many of our schools to shame.
On the 7th we returned to Dire-Dawa. After a quick tour of the town we tried. to relax at our hotel. This was difficult because of the battalions of flies in the bedroom, cats fighting in the courtyard, and chickens wandering through the dining room. On the 8th we flew to the port of Djibouti in French Somaliland. Its mixture of French and Arab influence might prove interesting to someone who has never seen such a place, but to us it was hot, humid, smelly, dirty, expensive, and not worth the effort. On the 9th we flew back to Aden, and then returned to Hargeisa on the 11th.
Now we shall settle down to some intensive work, as the first Somalia project draws to a close and as we make preparations for a new and larger group to arrive here later this year. The routine here is sometimes punctuated by minor incidents, some of which you might find interesting. Things often happen that one would never expect at home. One day I was working at my desk in the Peace Corps office when a cheetah wandered in, leaped upon the desk, put its face about a foot from mine, and growled in a most unfriendly manner. It turned out to be someone's pet, and was semi-tame. But for two hours it had the run of the office until its owner took it away--I didn't give it any argument.
Several weeks ago we were involved in a succession of exciting battles. First there was the Battle of the Mowis. (A mowus, you may recall, is a skirt-like garment worn by Somali men.) Shirley was in town shopping, and was accompanied by Ali, the Somali driver employed by the Peace Corps. While Shirley was in a store, Ali was supposed to be minding the jeep. But he went across the street to a tea shop, and three thieves tried to steal some parcels from the jeep. Ali spotted them and gave chase. He caught one, knocked him down, and gave him a good drubbing until some people pulled him off the culprit. The thief, however, wanted revenge. Later, in another part of town, he tried to attack Ali with a huge rock. Furious, Ali went for him and the thief thought better of it and tried to run away. At that point, however, he lost both his sandals and his mowis. This presented quite a spectacle, for he was wearing nothing underneath. He was quickly apprehended and marched off to prison, having lost his freedom, his dignity, and his mowis.
Even more thrilling was the Battle of the Oranges, which occurred in our yard. One day a girl came to the house selling oranges. Shirley called Omar, our cook, so that he could do the necessary bargaining. The girl became angry at Omar and said a few harsh words. Then she spat in his face, and the battle was on. They rolled around on the ground, kicking, punching, scratching, and biting one another. Omar's little boy, Abdi, got into the act by throwing stones at the girl. Shirley tried to break it up. She was screaming so loudly at the combatants that the woman who lives next door thought a riot was taking place and locked herself in the bathroom. Finally, Shirley succeeded in ending the struggle. The girl went to the police, however, and charged Omar with assault. At noon a policeman came to arrest Omar. "But," Shirley protested, "We haven't had our lunch yet. Omar has to prepare lunch." "Okay," replied the congenial enforcer of law and order., "I'll come back and arrest him at two o'clock." At two o'clock he returned and Omar was taken to the police station. He was released on bond, however, and later both he and the girl were given a warning and the affair was dropped.
Omar's latest trial was the Battle of the Chicken. He had purchased three chickens, killed them, and was cleaning them in the backyard. A wild cat came up and stole one of the chickens. There was great confusion in our backyard for a half hour or so, as Omar, Abdi, and various friends, relatives, and passers by pursued the cat--all to no avail. The chicken was lost forever, but thee next day Omar proudly announced that we had been avenged--he had spied his adversary and managed to hit it with a rock. Apparently it wasn't badly hurt, however, for in another day or two it was back looking for more chickens.
And such is life in Somalia. We are living well, although water is very scarce now. It is turned on only for one hour a day, but we have thus far managed to get enough to meet our basic needs. The weather is delightfully cool during the day, and often chilly at night.
Our best to you all, and our thanks for the many Christmas cards.
George and Shirley Dawson
Newsletter No. 6
Office of Education
April 20, 1964
Dear Friends and Relatives:
The last newsletter ended with accounts of some amusing "battles" in which we had been somehow involved. Others of a similar nature have occurred since that time. For example, there was the "Battle of the Banana." One day three women came to the door selling vegetables and fruit. Shirley bought four bananas for one shilling (14 cents). Shirley handed the shilling to one of the women, but immediately a furious argument erupted. It seems that rightful ownership of the fourth banana was in dispute and that one woman was claiming a fourth of the shilling. Soon they came to blows, and once again our front porch was the scene of battle. Shouts and threats to call the police were of no avail. Finally Shirley hit upon the idea of luring them out of our yard by removing their baskets of vegetables and fruit. It worked quite well, and the women followed the baskets into the street where Shirley deposited them--but they continued to fight every step of the way and the contest went on for at least half an hour. We never did find out who really owned that fourth banana.
Then came the "Battle of the Boxes." There were some old crates and boxes in our garage that we wanted to dispose of, so Shirley told Ali (the Peace Corps driver) and Omar, our cook, that they could have them. Soon Omar was complaining that Ali was taking the bigger and better boxes. Then Mohamed, our watchman, decided that he was entitled to a share. (We had hired a watchman because of frequent thefts.) Finally, along came Ali "The Fuller Spear Man" (who goes from door to door selling spears, knives, and other luxuries) and demanded a box too. I was trying to rest, and the din was becoming unbearable. I finally stopped the rumpus by threatening to burn all the boxes so that no one would get any. I thought that this was the end of the matter, but that evening I was visited by the District Commissioner, a high local official. The D.C. said that the question of the boxes had been brought to him by old Mohamed, the watchman. According to the D.C., Ali had later threatened to use his influence with me to have Mohamed discharged and replaced by a member of his own tribe. Tribalism is still a potent force here, and the D.C. feared that if Mohamed should be discharged it might result in tribal fighting. It seems that Mohamed, who is a very distinguished and handsome old man, has a high position in his tribe. Well, I assured the D.C. that Mohamed would not be discharged and so ended the "Battle of the Boxes."
We were involved far many months in a long legal battle of sorts. Last May the cook employed by the Peace Corps physician took a Peace Corps vehicle without permission. He had no license and was not overly skilled as a driver, with the result that he knocked over a tree, smashed into a man's house, and seriously injured an 18-year-old boy. The case was taken to the Kadi Court, where Islamic law prevails. Here the damages were assessed at 80 camels--50 camels for the broken leg and 30 for chest injuries. Now the Peace Corps does not own any camels, so, after long negotiations, a money payment was agreed upon. After having involved us in a number of other difficulties, the cook lost his job with the Peace Corps physician. He did not suffer from prolonged unemployment, however, for he quickly obtained a position as a taxi driver!
Unfortunately, not all the battles occurring here lately have been comical. Somalia has been having a long-standing dispute with Ethiopia over the border question. Somali nomads, in search of water and grass for their flocks, have always wandered about freely. Too little consideration was given to these nomadic movements when the colonial powers drew the boundary lines. The Ethiopians are finding it difficult to control the Somali nomads within their borders, and Somalia claims that portions of eastern Ethiopia rightfully belong to the Somali Republic. A "liberation army" has been set up by the Somalis in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians charge that raiders are being trained and armed in Somalia. In any event, border clashes have been common in recent months.
Around February 6th, heavy fighting broke out at the border town of Tug 1nJajalleh, about 45 miles from Hargeisa. Ethiopian planes began to attack villages all along the border, arms were given to Somali civilians, and troops were seen everywhere. Because of United States military aid to Ethiopia, we Americans were not winning any popularity contests. There were all kinds of rumors to the effect that Americans were seen at the front, that Americans were flying the planes, that we were spies, and the like. We decided to try to carry on as usual. The Peace Corps Representative came up from Mogadiscio. We were concerned about the volunteers at the towns of Borama, Amoud, and Las Anod, since these places are very near the border. Since the roads parallel the border, however, it was decided at first to leave them where they were, for the border roads were often under attack.
The volunteer in Las Anod, which is about 300 miles from Hargeisa, was scheduled to take the Law School Entrance examination at this time. He couldn't get to Hargeisa, so I flew to Las Anod in a small single-engine place to administer the examination to him there. We had to get special permission from the government, and we were told to take a round-about route so as to avoid the border. The pilot was not familiar with this route, and his maps were badly out of date. After we had been in the air for half an hour, it was painfully evident that we were lost. Roads appearing on the map no longer seemed to exist. In other places where the map indicated one road, we would see several branching off in all directions. But I am proud to say that my knowledge of the schools in this region helped us find Las Anod. I had always paid close attention to the schools during my travels. The pilot would fly low over every village we spotted (and there are very, very few of them), and I would be able to identify it by the appearance of the school building. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we finally sighted Las Anod. This was a bit premature, however, for we had to circle the town for a while before we could find the airstrip, which is marked solely by two rows of stones. A few nomads and a herd of camels were occupying the strip, so the pilot swooped low over it to frighten them off. The people quickly got the point, and dashed off the strip as fast as their legs could carry them, with their shawls flying behind. This greatly amused onlookers who were at a safe distance away. The camels, however, were slower to catch on. Those who were off the strip ran onto it. But eventually it was cleared and a successful landing was made.
It took all day to administer the examination. Night flying is impossible here, so we spent the night at Las Anod (sleeping on the floor of the volunteer's house) and took off very early the next morning. I shall never again complain about the drudgery of proctoring examinations at NYU! We had no further trouble, but I learned later that my visit to Las Anod was interpreted by some as an espionage mission. As soon as we arrived in Hargeisa, the Peace Corps Representative boarded the plane for his return flight to Mogadiscio, while I went directly home in the hope of at last getting some sleep. I hadn't had three straight hours of sleep since the emergency began. Shirley was safely in Aden, where she had gone for medical treatment. I had hardly put my head on the pillow when the telephone rang. The plane had developed engine trouble and was forced to turn back. Within minutes it was being rumored that "an American spy plane was shot down while photographing the border." Other accidental occurrences fed this suspicion that Americans were helping Ethiopia. An American exploration company had sent some of its men to Djibouti (French Somaliland) to get several new trucks they had just purchased and drive them to Mogadiscio. The trucks left Djibouti on their way to Somalia before the fighting began and arrived in Hargeisa at about the time the fighting was at its worst. Now it was said that these American trucks had been captured while delivering ammunition and fuel to Ethiopia. Despite the prevalence of this sort of feeling, and a few hostile looks now and then, we managed to go about our business without being molested. Most of the Volunteers were in Hargeisa, for the schools had closed for a religious holiday. Those at the border towns were finally brought to Hargeisa by the police. There was, of course, a great feeling of tension everywhere. Somali gunners became "trigger happy" and fired at Egyptian and Italian airliners on their regular flights over Hargeisa. Eventually things began to cool off, however, and all the volunteers returned to their schools. We had high hopes of finishing out the school term without further incident. Ethiopia and Somalia began talks to try to settle the border question.
There were occasional minor flare-ups on the border, but it did seem for a while that we would be able to stay until May 1, when the Peace Corps project was tentatively scheduled to end. (The schools were to close on April 30.) This was a busy time, nevertheless, as we set about preparing to "close up shop", writing material for the next Somalia Project training program, etc. Anti-American feelings seemed to be subsiding, and with the arrival of three airliners being donated by the United States to Somalia, our stock began to rise again. The people were primarily interested in the national elections, which were scheduled for March 30. There is a very lively interest in politics here. There are about 18 parties, but only three major ones. The parties adopt flags and colors, and followers of a certain party often wear caps, sashes, or shirts in the party colors. One party's
colors are green and white, for example. When some of the party leaders were coming to Hargeisa from the airport one evening the road was lined with thousands of people to greet them. Along one stretch of the road stood a line of beautiful Somali girls wearing white dresses and green shawls. The adherents of a party will pile into cars and trucks and drive through the streets waving their flags and shouting their slogans. It is really quite colorful.
Toward the end of March heavy fighting broke out again at Tug Wajalleh and other border areas. Once again the little border villages with such strange names as Dabagorialeh, Fer Fer, Fna Guhah, Dolo, and Digele were the topics of conversation. Then on March 31st, at 6.30 in the morning, we were awakened by the sound of jet planes and intense anti-aircraft fire. I really thought for a moment that we were about to get it, for the planes swooped low over our house. I had just stored several tanks of gasoline in the garage attached to our house, and it would have been a pretty mess if it had been ignited. But the planes proceeded on to the location of the Desert Locust Control Organization's camp, about two miles outside of Hargeisa. They proceeded to bomb and strafe the camp for over half an hour, probably thinking it was an army base. (It was an army camp at one time, I understand.) We watched it all from our front porch.
When this attack ended, Ali (the Peace Corps driver) came to the house on his motor scooter. There are no telephones in the houses of the volunteers, so I sent him around to them with a message to stay at home until further notice. The schools were closed for the election holidays, and all but one of the volunteers from the outposts were in Hargeisa. We had rented a house to be used as a hostel for visiting volunteers, and about 10 of them were staying there. The Peace Corps physician telephoned and suggested that the volunteers be moved out of the hostel. There is an anti-aircraft gun near it and he was afraid that the hostel would be hit if the planes should attack gun emplacements. I agreed to his idea, and while he went to the hostel to fetch the volunteers I went on to the office. The manager of Aden Airways came by and told me he had a few vacancies on the plane that was leaving for Aden that evening, so I made tentative arrangements to put the Peace Corps girls, Shirley, and the physician's wife on that plane. I kept trying to telephone the physician at his home but could get no answer. After two hours of this I sent Ali to the hostel to see what was happening. He came back and reported that a man with a gun was holding the volunteers and the doctor "prisoner". The man claimed to be a policeman in plain clothes. I immediately telephoned the police, and they said they knew of no order to hold the Americans in the hostel. They sent someone up there to release them. It seems that the man with the gun was one of those persons who had been issued a weapon during the February emergency. He had apparently taken it upon himself to capture "the American spies".
Between 10.30 and 11 a.m., the planes came again. Again they concentrated on the Desert Locust Control Organization camp, doing an even more thorough job than before. The tanks of insecticide exploded, sending up a tremendous column of black smoke which did not disappear entirely for 24 hours. Luckily there were :few people in the camp at the time. No one was killed, although a few Somali women received minor shrapnel wounds. The mast serious case was that of a Somali woman who was hit eight or nine times. She had been expecting her baby at any time. She lost the baby, but she herself was doing well. The town itself was not bombed, but an area about 200 yards from the Peace Corps office was strafed. I was watching this from in front of the office, and a piece of shrapnel missed me by about two feet. I am keeping it for a souvenir of my service with the Peace Corps.
Despite this second attack, our plan to get the women out that evening was not approved and we were ordered to "stay put." A cease-fire was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, and the most popular theory about the air raids is that the Ethiopians wanted to show their strength before the fighting stopped. Heretofore, the action had been concentrated near the border. With these raids, however, 44,000 Somalis in Hargeisa could get a first-hand view of Haile Selassiefs air power. It was quite a successful show.
There was another scare in the afternoon of April 1st. As the Aden Airways plane was landing in Hargeisa on its regular schedule from Aden, the pilots heard a voice on their radio ordering fighters to "attack Hargeisa in four minutes." The men in the control tower at the airport also heard this. The pilots decided to hustle back to Aden, but the attack never came. A very heavy rain storm began at about that time, which may be the reason we were spared another raid. In any event, we decided to be cautious. Once more we removed the volunteers from the hostel and spread them around among the staff and volunteers assigned to Hargeisa. The cease fire seems to be working, however, and there have been no reports of fighting since March 31.
On April 4th I received a message from Mogadiscio to arrange for a charter flight to take the volunteers and staff to Mogadiscio for immediate termination. (As of this moment I do not know whose decision it was to end the project.) I was instructed to remain behind with two volunteers for the purpose of collecting Peace Corps property, packing the belongings of the volunteers, arranging for shipment of personal property, storing the vehicles, and in other ways closing things up. The order was later changed to Aden, and everyone but myself and the two volunteers flew to Aden on April 5th.
After seeing everyone off at the airport we immediately began to collect Peace Corps property. With police escorts, the two volunteers drove to the outposts to get the things left there. Coming back from Borama, which is only two miles from the border, one of the boys was shot at a few times but escaped unharmed. As soon as the property from the outposts had been delivered to Hargeisa, I sent the two volunteers off, while I remained behind to clean up the many remaining details. It has been pretty hectic. With no one here to help me except Ali, I must do hundreds of little things that the volunteers would have done for themselves if they had not been sent out early. I shall not bore you with details of how I have been occupying myself here since April 5th. I have been working anywhere from eight to 16 hours a day, but at last I think I'm beginning to see the end.
If all goes well, I shall leave here on April 21st and meet Shirley in Aden. She went to Aden with the group, then on to Mogadiscio after the people in Aden had been terminated. We hope to visit Cairo, Beirut, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London on our way home or as many of those places as time and money will allow. We expect to be back in New York before the end of May.
In spite of all the troubles, the Peace Corps still plans to go ahead with a second Somalia project. I have been offered the job of Deputy Representative. I can think of at least a dozen reasons why I would like to return, but another dozen why I would not. It was a very difficult choice to make, but I finally decided to decline. I think that the primary consideration is the fact that I am losing touch with my profession. Whi1e I have been here I have had to devote myself almost entirely to administrative work that has had little or no relation to economics and education, my areas of major interest. I am already a year behind developments in these fields, and I fear that another two years away from home would result in complete loss of contact. I have also been asked to participate in the training program for the next group, but that is still undecided.
In summarizing the experience here, I can honestly say that I am glad we came. I still consider Somalia to be the most fascinating country I have ever visited, and we have had many delightful and interesting experiences. On the other hand, these newsletters have barely hinted at the tremendous difficulties that this job has involved. I have never had a full day off while in Somalia--it has been a seven-days-a-week occupation. Frankly, I'm very tired right now. It was impossible to know from one day to the next what the future would bring. One day might be a leisurely and routine affair, while the next would bring a flood of problems. Five hours of work today; 18 hours tomorrow; and no way of telling what would happen the next day.
As for eva1uating the Peace Corps effort here, I believe that the project can be considered a success, the early termination notwithstanding. This has often been referred to as the toughest of all Peace Corps projects, and I can't argue with that assessment. In the face of frustration, tedium, hard work, and numerous set-backs and disappointments, most volunteers not only performed adequately as teachers but went far beyond the call of duty to engage in a variety of useful projects that have been of great value to this country. They have not brought startling changes nor instituted impressive reforms, but in a quiet and modest way they have made some things better for some people--and I think that it was worthwhile.
George and Shirley Dawson
|Back to "Memoirs" Index page||back to top|
© 2002-2012 Korean War Educator. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of material is prohibited.