GIS Sail for Africa, Find
Food Bad; Water, Soap Scarce
 With GI Joe
Date Unknown
Ernie Pyle
This is the seventh in a series of reprints of past Ernie Pyle columns. Ernie is on leave.

IN ALGERIA, DECEMBER, 1942: I came to Africa by troop transport, in convoy.

Our convoy carried an enormous number of troops, and we had a heavy escort, although no matter how much escort you have it never seems enough to please you.

It was a miserable English day when we sailed‹cold, with a driving rain. Most of us just lay in our bunks, indifferent even to the traditional last glance at land.

The ship seemed terribly crowded, and some complained bitterly of the food, and didn't eat for days. The worst trouble was a lack of hot water. British standards of sanitation are so different from ours that the contrast is sometimes shocking. The water for washing dishes was only tepid, and there was little soap. As a result the dishes got greasy.

In our cabin we had water only twice a day ‹ 7 to 9 in the morning, and 5:30 to 6:30 in the evening. It was unheated, so we shaved in cold water.

WE CORRESPONDENTS knew where we were going. Some of the officers knew, and the rest could guess. But some of the soldiers thought we were going to Russia over the Murmansk route, and some thought it was Norway and some Iceland. A few sincerely believed we were returning to America. It wasn't until the fifth day out when the Army distributed booklets on how to conduct ourselves in North Africa, that everybody knew where we were going.

The troops were warned about smoking or using flashlights on deck at night, and against throwing cigarets or orange peels overboard. It seems a sub commander can spot a convoy, hours after it has passed, by such floating debris.

ONE NIGHT a nurse came on deck with a brilliant flashlight guiding her. An officer screamed at her - so loudly and viciously that I thought at first he was doing it in fun. He bellowed:

"Put out that light, you blankety-blank blank! Haven't you got any sense at all?"

Then I realized he mean't every word of it. One little light might have killed us all. I was sorry he didn't kick her pants for good measure.

Smoking was prohibited in the dining room. There was a bar for soft drinks, but no liquor was sold. As somebody wisecracked, "We catch it both ways. We can't smoke because it's a British ship, and we can't buy liquor because it's an American trooper."

THIS TRIP no sooner started than rehearsals for an enlisted-men's variety show began. They dug up an accordionist, a saxophonist, a trumpeter, a violinist, two banjo players, a dancer, a tenor, a cowboy singer and several pianists.

They rehearsed every afternoon. The big night came a couple of nights before we got to Gibraltar. They put on two shows that night, for the enlisted men only. Word got around, and the officers and nurses wanted to see the show, so the night we were approaching Gibraltar they put it on again.

They had cleaned it up some, at the colonel's request, but it still sparkled. The show went over terrifically. There was genuine talent in it, and serious music as well as the whiz-bang stuff. But the hero of the evening was a hairy corporal - Joe Comita of Brooklyn ‹ who did a strip-tease burlesque of Gypsy Rose Lee.

His movements were pure genius. Gypsy herself couldn't have been more sensuous. Joe twirled and stripped, twirled and stripped. And then when he was down to his long, heavy Gl underwear he swung to the front of the stage, lifted his veil, and kissed a front-row Colonel on top of his bald head.

THE WHOLE SHOW was marvelously good But there was something more to it than just that: There was the knowledge, deep in everybody's mind, that this was our night of danger.

The radio had just brought word that Germany's entire U-boat pack was concentrated in the approaches to Gibraltar. More than 50 subs were said to be waiting for us. I doubt that there was a soul on board who expected the night to pass without an attack.

And in that environment the boys from down below went through their performances buoyantly. We sat with life preservers on and water canteens at our belts. We laughed and cheered against a background of semi-conscious listening for other sounds. As the show ended a major said to me:

"That's wonderful, those boys doing this when they're being taken to war like galley slaves down there in the hold. When you think of people at home squawking their heads off because they can only have 20 gallons of gasoline it makes your blood boil."

--Ernie Pyle

Read more Ernie Pyle columns