By Donald Benham
I now want to return to the time I spent in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. When we were training on the Southern railroad they had sleeper cars on the siding in Hattiesburg. We were scheduled to leave Camp Shelby in what they called a bus, but it was really a truck with benches in it. They ran on a schedule every two hours, more often than that in the daytime. It transported us from the camp to our sleepers in Hattiesburg. There were cook cars that made our meals while we were stationed there. We would spend a week in Hattiesburg, from Sunday night until Friday night. Sometimes we smelled pretty terrible, seeing that there were no shower facilities. They would call us from there to catch our trains because the train would stop there to refuel and fill their water tanks. We would be called to go from Hattiesburg to New Orleans,Louisiana which was 125 miles or to Meridian, Mississippi which was 85 miles. These stops had no shower facilities either but they did have cook cars or diners where our meals were cooked. The meal that had been prepared for a 5 p.m. dinner did not taste very good at 3 in the morning. We did have restaurants close by and if we had any money we could get a hamburger.
Our crews worked the first in and first out system at our terminals. Sometimes we would lay there, in Meridian or New Orleans, for 12 to 14 hours before returning to Hattiesburg. Every train had two locomotives that were all hand-fired except for five that had stokers (pipes with an auger in it that carried the coal from the coal tender to the distribution plate that scattered the coal evenly into the fire). When we got up on the stoker-fired locomotives, we were asked what railroad we worked for. If our railroad used stoker-fired locomotives, they would ask us to fire that locomotive. We generally did it for awhile and tried to teach the firemen how to fire the stoker.
Most all of the crews were bootleggers and they bought liquor in New Orleans and transported it to Meridian because Mississippi was a dry state. The state did permit beer sales. We had finished our training, so we were waiting at Camp Shelby for transportation to our embarkation port. While we were waiting, they gave all of us, at different times, one-week furloughs. When we were finally all back together, we were transported to our train which consisted of sleeper cars and express cars made into diners and we started on our five-day trip west. When we arrived in Los Angles we changed our direction and went north to Pittsburgh, California which is across the bay from San Francisco. On our way west, we would be shuttled onto sidings for trains to pass, or we would pass other trains because we were on single tracks.
Sometimes we were near a city and we could get off and get candy or pop. When we arrived in Pittsburgh at our barracks it was about 2 a.m. We were ordered to take our clothes off. We ran (not literally) single file through medics to get shots and inspections of bodies and feet before we were able to go to our bunks. About three days later, we were transported to the dock and were loaded onto ferries where we were taken to our ship. We boarded our ship and were assigned our sleeping quarters which were three bunks one on top of the other, our sleeping arrangements for about six weeks. Later in the evening we set sail for who knew where.
The ships name was “Mooremaxie”. It was a freighter converted into a troop and freight ship. Most of the freight was our equipment (locomotives and cars). There are swells when a ship leaves the port. About 30 percent of our troop got seasick. We had showers which would use sea water. The only soap that would make suds was a soap similar to Fels-Naptha. I don’t know of any reason for me to have a bar of Fels-Naptha, but I did. All the other soaps would not suds up and left a film in the sea water showers.
We did have very smooth sailing. The ship was running without an escort. It was capable of going twenty knots an hour and could elude submarines. We traveled in a zig-zag pattern so we probably traveled 100 or more extra miles trying to get to Halendia where we stayed for about three weeks while they formed a convoy to go to the Philippines. While at anchor we had lectures about how to treat the Filipinos and what was expected of us. As we lazed around the captain allowed us to use our shelter halves (half a tent) to shield us from the sun while we sat on the deck. We played bridge and pinochle. Butts and I were champion bridge players (Butts and I became fast friends and we visited each other frequently after we were discharged from the army).
Coming over they had assigned some as patrolmen. We were assigned areas to monitor for smokers because the lit end could be seen for quite a ways away and could alert the enemy. The rule was no smoking above deck after dark. I was assigned to the captains deck from 4 a.m. to noon and the captain came out on deck and asked my name and where I was from. He said “ I’m from Ashtabula also. I knew your Uncle Ray.” He asked me how the food was and I said, “Well, it’s army food.” He told me anytime I wanted to I could go down to the crews dining room and eat there. I told him it wouldn’t be right for me to do that because of my buddies but I would take some of the leftover food such as a pork chop or ice cream. So about every three days they gave me ice cream. He introduced me to the chief engineer who took me down to the boiler room and the turbines and showed me how they operated. They also had diesel generators in the hole to furnish electricity and circulation of water.
After waiting in Halendia, we joined the convoy of about 40 ships going to Manila. Some of those were wooden ammunition ships (the wood would not attract the mines). Their limited speed was about five knots an hour. We were several days getting to Manila. Navy destroyer ships circled the convoy to protect us from an attack. When we arrived in Manila, we laid there a couple of days until word came that we could unload and transfer into a small boat that would take us to shore. A rope ladder suspended about 25 feet from the deck to the smaller boat. We had to crawl down that ladder and some guys were pretty reluctant. I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our duffel bags. The bags were put into big nets and were lowered to the transfer boat. As we hit shore, we would pick up our own bag and be transported to our area where we lived in tents for about three weeks. This article catches up to our previous article where we talked about our living in the tents while the bridges were being rebuilt.
Donald Benham was born Nov. 28, 1919 in Ashtabula. He served in World War II in the Army Transportation Corps, worked on the railroad for 38 years and in contracting for 12. He was married for 69 years to Flora and has three daughters. He’s traveled extensively in the U. S., Canada and Mexico, lived in Florida for 35 years and now resides at Brooks House Assisted Living in Hiram.