Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Maj. Gillham writes a "serial letter" aboard ship

Today we read Maj. Gillham's self-styled "serial letter" which he writes during the first leg of his journey aboard the USS Alcor.  It's an informative diary of his daily shipboard life, as well as an insight into the man himself.  In my travels with my grandfather, whenever we came across anything to do with transportation, engines or machinery of any kind, he would stop and explore how it worked, or ask someone about it, or, more often than not, explain it to me.  He seems to have taken this same approach to the ship, and has wasted no time in becoming friends with the captain.

U.S.S. Alcor
9 May 46

Dearest Darling,

This is our second day at sea and I thought I would start a serial letter to you which I can mail at Pearl.

We got underway yesterday promptly at 0900, came out of Tokyo Bay and have been heading due east ever since.  This ship is not very fast (12 knots), but it is comfortable and not crowded. We have the run of the ship, including the bridge.  The captain went to Ga. Tech for 1-1/2 years before entering the Naval Academy.  He has been explaining all his radar and navigation instruments to me today. We have a movie in the wardroom every night.  The meals are fine and served in style.  I have a two-man cabin by myself.  It is located amid-ships and therefore rides easier, I think.  This ship was built in 1927 as the S.S. Dixie running from New York to New Orleans as a passenger vessel.  It still retains many of its passenger vessel days' features, such as tiled baths, a fine promenade deck, etc.  There are three other army officers aboard and several navy officers as passengers.

I took some of those sea sick pills that I brought from Monterey and have had no trouble, although several of the crew have been sick.

We have a merchant ship, the Cape Bon, following us because her radio is broken.

So far I am sleeping about 12 to 14 hrs. per day and eating like a horse.  I have an extra bunk here in my room.  It is a shame the you can't be here, to share the cabin with me.  Even with only one bunk it would be O.K.

10 May --

This ship is not going fast enough to suit me.  I am very anxious to be with you again, my darling.  From what I know so far, we are due to arrive at Hawaii on the 20th and will leave there on the 23rd.  It then will take about 19 days to reach the canal.  So far my main occupation has been eating and sleeping.  I have an enormous appetite and am sleepy all the time.  Since they have good food and I can sleep whenever I want to, I am doing a good job at both. I have read a couple of detective stories so far.  I will probably get down to something a little more serious shortly, but right now I am enjoying not doing anything serious.  There is a nice library on the ship and I intend to look into it soon.

About eight laps around the deck is a mile.  I try to get in a brisk walk once or twice a day to keep my blood circulating.

The Cape Bon is still with us and it is comforting to be able to look out and see another ship close by in all this vast expanse of water.

We have a movie in the wardroom every night.  It helps to pass away the time.

The weather is still partly overcast and chilly, but we expect to run into some that is better soon.  Before long we will bear to the southward and it should be warmer every day.

11 May --

This morning we sighted a mine and came about to try to get rid of it.  We shot at it with rifles from the bridge for some time.  I think I hit it once or twice myself, but that didn't do any good.  They also shot at it with 20mm guns but couldn't hit it.  Finally they had to use a 3in. gun.  It sank without exploding.  I didn't expect to fire a rifle again while I was in the army.  It was an interesting variation to the day's routine.

Now that I have a little more free time, I find that I spend most of it in thinking about you, my darling.  I dream about you when I am asleep, and when I am awake I think back over various events and intimacies in our life together.  Then I try to imagine our actions when we get together again.  It is a very pleasant way to pass the time.  Somehow, I have no fear this time of upsetting that very delicate balance of perfect accord.  I believe we will hit it right off from the start.  I love you too much for it to be otherwise.

Have just come from seeing the picture "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes."  It was an excellent piece of child acting -- made me very homesick for my own sweet girls.  It is probably old, but if it comes back I wish you could all see it.

12 May -- Sunday

Went to church this morning -- did a lot of sleeping, and finished a detective story.  I am getting pretty expert at killing time, and I will need to be if I see this voyage through.  We changed courses at noon today and now are heading somewhat southeast.  This was done to avoid a storm and also to get out of the overcast area.  The captain likes sunshine.  This Pacific is certainly a huge place. Yesterday we got an SOS from a vessel about 800 miles to the north of us.  She was in trouble in a storm.  There were two other ships in the vicinity so we didn't go.  Today we hear there is a typhoon about 1500 miles southwest of us, but we don't think it will bother us.

There are a couple of automatic record players available and a fine album of records.  Also, short wave radio with which we can get San Francisco programs and other places.

13 May --

Have had a busy day today.  Passed our first ship, sighted several whales, took a sunbath, and learned how to operate a sextant.  The captain is turning out to be a swell fellow and is teaching me much interesting sea lore.  For instance, today I learned all the different types of clouds and what they mean.  We had them all today.  It has been a fine day and smooth sailing.  I think he is glad to have someone to talk to, and while he is in the mood I am going to learn all I can.  When I first saw him when I came aboard in Yokosuka, he was bawling out the officer of the deck for not having his gig alongside at the time he had specified.  I thought he was going to be a pill, but he has turned out quite the contrary.

I have your pictures on my desk and they are a lot of company.  I wish you could walk out of it into my arms like the girl did in the picture that introduced the song "If I Should Grow Too Old To Dream" about 15 years ago.  Do you remember?

By the time you get this it will be getting to be warm weather.  This will be Martha's second summer. Do be careful with her food and don't let anything happen to her.  You know Dad's little brother died in his second summer.  There is no necessity for such with modern sanitation and refrigeration, but it will pay to be cautious at this period.  You know they loose much of their babyhood immunities at this age.  I know you are a very careful mother, but I was looking at Martha's picture and had to get it off my chest.

14 May --

We are getting into tropical waters now.  The weather is much warmer -- I have changed to cottons and they feel good.  Since I have my foot locker and duffel bag right in the cabin with me, all my gear is available.  I am disgusted that in my hasty packing, I apparently threw my swimming trunks and a pair of shorts in that box that I sent home by mail.  This is the first time I have had an occasion to use them since I brought them over here.  I took another short sunbath today and later went up and passed a medicine ball with the Capt., Exec., Col. Wilder and a couple of younger officers.  It was a good work-out and I got up a good sweat.

It has been a calm, beautiful day all day.  The sunset was beautiful and the Cape Bon silhouetted against the sky in the fading twilight was quite a sight.

I am a little red from my sunbathing but haven't hurt myself yet. I am reading a book on the derivation of nautical terms, which is most interesting.

This letter has now stretched out to a dozen pages, so I expect I had better close it and start another tomorrow.  We will probably cross the date line in the next day or two.  We will have to live through the same day twice this time. That seems like wasting time, doesn't it?

Japan was interesting, and I am glad I had a tour there, but as I get farther away, the U.S. looks better and better to me.  You always looked good to me, but as I get closer to you I get more and more anxious to see you.  Time and miles will pass and we will be together again before long, my darling.




The movie Our Vines Have Tender Grapes was released in 1945 and was, as Maj. Gillham correctly guessed, old by the time he saw it.  It starred the unlikely couple of Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead as Norwegian immigrants to the U.S., and their daughter, played by Margaret O'Brien (who was Judy Garland's kid sister in Meet Me in St. Louis).  It was based on the novel of the same name by George Victor Martin.

The song that Maj. Gillham referred to is actually titled When I Grow too Old to Dream, written in 1934 by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II.  There were two films that featured the song, both from 1935 -- The Night is Young and My Old Mare.  Below is a version by Vera Lynn (who sang We'll Meet Again at the end of the film Dr. Strangelove).