Sea Bag of Memories
This book contains original poems, cartoons, drawings, paintings, crafts, and models generated by small ship sailors of WWII.
When an enlisted man arrived at Boot Camp and received his gear and uniforms, some Navy clerk thrust at him also a canvas hammock, a thin mattress, a pillow, and two cream colored woolen blankets. These sparse items he lugged wherever he went, taking his bed with him, even aboard ship. To store his uniforms, work clothes, and personal items the clerk tossed him a gray, cylindrical, thirty-four inch high, thirteen inch diameter, canvas sack. It had a row of six stitched grommets around the opening at the top through which the sailor inserted a length of rope. With that he drew the neck of the bag closed and secured it with a square knot. This sack was his Sea Bag.
This Sea Bag was an enlisted man’s primary possession because he kept in it all he owned, needed, or prized. His Sea Bag was his retainer for all he owned while in the service. Rummaging through its contents he could trace his career, ships and stations on which he had served, places he had visited, actions in which he had been engaged, friends he had made, and shipmates he had lost. In that sense then, the storehouse of his memories of his time in the naval service was his Sea Bag.
Creativity among sailors has a long history. Down through the ages men who have gone to sea have left their traces in yarns told, song and chanties sung, and art and handcrafts.
Travelers and warriors on land could leave their mark by changing the landscape, constructing monuments, and altering indigenous peoples through marriage or less civilized methods. The sea, however, is eternal in form. It is not malleable nor can one build easily on it, and it is not peopled. Sailors could not leave their mark on the sea. They left their mark, instead, in other ways such as by composing songs and poems, relating tales, drawing sketches, painting pictures, decorating their ships, and making handcrafted items and ship models.
During their days aboard the small ships in World War II, the men lived, worked, fought the enemy, stood watches, ate, and slept in close uncomfortable quarters with little time or space for private thoughts or actions. Yet, they, like former sailors, played music and wrote, drew, painted, and crafted items that were original and humorous and artistic. It is a tribute to these men that, despite the limitations on their personal lives, their restricted freedom of thought and action, and the dangers that confronted them, that they found the time and the mental and physical discipline to compose and construct what they did. Their original works are not only tributes to them but to the tenacity of the human creative spirit.
The strains of their music, songs, and tales are no longer with us, but some of their material work still exists. Some small amount of it is available for public view, scattered throughout museums. Much of it is in personal collections and not known to the public and historians. These items should be displayed to the public and preserved as part of the history of the young men who served on the small ocean-going ships of the Navy and Coast Guard of the United States in World War II.
This book is my contribution to the preservation and recorded history of some of those original creations generated by the small ship sailors of World War II. With this collection I hope I have helped the current generation and future generations learn what those young men created under such adverse conditions. I also hope I have opened, explored among, and made available, for those erstwhile young men, treasures from their Sea Bag of Memories.
Like the ships, the young men who served on them also are disappearing into the depths of history. Various types of United States Navy and Coast Guard combat ships participated in World War II. After the war some of them continued to serve. Others became target ships and followed many of their less fortunate sister vessels to the bottom of the oceans. Hundreds of ships fell to welders’ torches and became scrap to be used in peaceful applications.
Government agencies and private organizations preserved a few representatives of most of the types of United States ships. They now are museums, some afloat some landlocked. They are available for former sailors and their families and future generations of people to visit and learn what it was like to be a sailor in World War II.
While aboard any of these museum ships people see and touch the cold steel of the vessel. They pass through the bridge and hear, in their mind’s ears, orders to maneuver and operate the ship. In the officer’s wardroom they stare at the green felt table where officers ate, and they see ship’s items, personal trinkets, old flags, and other memorabilia. Passing through the mess hall they visualize young men balancing and grasping at their meals as the ship rolled and pitched. In the crowded living compartments they picture men in body-wide triple layer bunks with a thin mattress and two wool blankets grasping what sleep they could between grueling watches. In the bowels of the ship, the engine room, their ears seem drowned in the pounding of engines and whining of machinery, and they feel the blasting heat. At the gun stations they stare along muzzles at kamikazes plunge toward them. They hear the whine and thud of bullets and shrapnel tearing into the flesh of shipmates. All this visitors can do and sense what it was like to serve on and be at war on a naval ship.
Mostly though these visitors can do this only for the larger ships. Years after the war, people rushed to preserve the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other large vessels. Not much energy, time, or money became available for doing the same for the small ships, however. Of the thousands of patrol and mine craft, cutters, and similar small ships that fought the war only one remains as a monument to the entire Donald Duck Navy – the minesweeper, USS Hazard AM 240. Almost as another show of lack of interest in and a last indignity to the small ship fleet, their only representative, USS Hazard, does not roll freely in the waters in which she fought. Instead she lies buried halfway to her gunwales in earth in Omaha, Nebraska.
Except for that lone ship, now and for the future, people can learn what it was like on a small United States combatant only through old black and white photographs, a few feet of decaying movie film and video tapes, and a few books. The films known to the author are listed in the section titled Film Library, and the books are listed in the Bibliography.
But what of the young men who sailed across the oceans, lived their lives, and fought the enemy on those ships? From images staring up from the pages of old photograph albums, we, and future generations, can see what those men – boys, many not old enough to drink alcohol, drive a vehicle, or vote – looked like. We see what they wore, and how they smiled and laughed at their confined, boring, and dangerous duty.
There is some record, however, of what they thought and said, and did. This comes mostly from recollections composed years after the fact from memories. Whatever exists in writing from the time they were aboard ship is primarily in letters they wrote home. But these letters are truncated by censorship so we cannot always understand the true stories of what the men were trying to say.
In many ways, what they wanted to say was expressed better in their creations, their poems, their pictures, their cartoons. Much of it was lost or lays neglected in family archives. Some has been made public and appears in this book. I hope the samples shown here revive memories of the days aboard ship for the men and enlighten other readers about the life they led.
Over more than half a century since World War II, some of these erstwhile young men and boys have continued to generate memories through their continuing art works. Some of their work also is in this book, and I hope it shows the attachment small ship sailors had to their country and duty and experiences and shipmates.
Over the next few decades their voices, pens, and brushes will be stilled. Small ship sailors of the future, and the world, will have lost a precious resource. But they will have gained an equally precious legacy – the works of the men of the “Donald Duck Navy” who were “Too Good To Be Forgotten.”