July 20, 1918 – Life at Sea

From July 14 to July 26, 1918, the Katoomba made its way across the Atlantic as part of a convoy of 10 other transports led by the battleship Montana wearing a fresh coat of camouflage.  Imagine being on a ship crossing an ocean known to be filled with German submarines watching and waiting for the opportunity to fire a torpedo into the belly of that ship.  Being in a convoy with escort ships surely helped but still, anything could happen at any minute.

“Uneventful were the days that followed aboard the Katoomba as she ploughed her way across ‘Periscope Pond.’  Field-glasses were very much in evidence among the ‘Louies’ and the ‘bucks’ those days, but the periscope was an unknown quantity, in fact we began to believe there ‘were no such animal.’ However we always wore our old cork life belt morning, noon and night and would have felt very ‘deshabille’ without it.  We shall always recall the ‘bookoo’ mutton and how we oft shared our eats with the fishes and how the shrill ‘G’ note was wont to arouse us from deepest slumber for the muchly damned boat-drill.”

– Our Memoirs: Company A, 301st Engineers

“The food was not of the best and those who could eat, contributed liberally to the rationing of the sea dwellers.  Men lost their equipment, missed their friends and finally discovered that the officers were making themselves more than ordinarily disagreeable by insisting that the floating garbage can be scrubbed from top to bottom.”

– A Short History of the 301st Engineers

“At night no lights were permitted and no smoking on decks was allowed.  Just before the convoy’s departure, submarines had sunk two fishing smacks off the New England coast, and, as a result, the first night out found the same strict discipline regarding the showing of lights and the wearing of life-belts that existed in the “submarine zone.” Life preservers had been issued to all and were worn at all times except in actual sleep, when they were kept close to hand.”

“The weather, with the exception of a few days, was ideal and the sea was never particularly heavy.  The only variation of the monotony of the voyage was the shrill, excited cry of the bugle for boat and fire drill, at which the men, having reached their places, would nonchalantly watch the maneuvering of the convoy and the steady rise and fall of their own vessel until the check had been made and they were dismissed.”

“Now was the time for the ship’s canteen to reap a harvest, and it made the most of its opportunities, for while the quality of the men’s food sank lower, the prices on canteen foodstuffs soared higher.  Oranges sold for fifty cents apiece, and plain crackers, tonics, and such articles were sold at proportionately exorbitant prices.”

“…on the seventh day, when the battleship Montana turned, doubled on its tracks and, bound due west, disappeared on the horizon, all realized that they must be approaching the British escort which would meet the convoy.  Sleeping was fitful that night, for the Montana had stood for security somehow, and early the following morning the submarine guard was increased by a few hundred volunteers who anxiously lined the railing and scanned the sea for a sign of either submarines or the British escort, sincerely hoping that the latter would appear first.  Fortunately it did and the slim little destroyers were a source of great interest to all on board.”

–  The Three Hundred and First Engineers – A History 1917-1920

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