We had some Italian POWs help us convert the ship [into a troop carrier] and do chores. They were no threat to us, that I knew of anyhow. They were trusted and free to roam the ship and help out with whatever needed to be done.
And, as a matter of fact, three of them stowed away. They told me they were going to and they wanted me to help them and I told them no way – big fine, money, and prison. But they did stow away in the ceiling overhead. And when we got out at sea coming back, three days later, they exposed themselves and were caught. They told me when they got to the United States they were going to go overboard and swim to safety. I told them that the authorities were going to take them and send them back to their country. But anyhow I never saw or heard anymore of that!
What were your duties on the ship?
I started out a mess boy on my first voyage and then I went to bedroom steward, so all in the steward’s department, but started out as a mess boy – served the crew and clean-up afterwards. Then the bedroom steward, I had eleven or twelve officers that I kept their room clean, change their linens, mop their floors, clean their brass. And I had charge of the linen locker. Every Friday I issued fresh, clean linen to the crew and take in their dirty linen. So that’s about the extent of my duties there and my responsibilities.
In the merchant marines, when you leave port at the start of a voyage when you return, no matter where you went, when you return to the United States, it’s the end of the voyage. And the next trip becomes a new voyage.
We got two days liberty for every week we were out at sea. So you were maybe able to go ashore up to a maximum of thirty days – of leave and liberty until your next voyage. At that point we were still had our military obligation even though the war was over. We weren’t free of our military obligation until we had 18 months of active sea duty. At that point, if we had satisfied our military obligation and I signed off my ship and went home and went into civilian life.
Do you remember your captains, your commanding officers? Did you have much interaction with them?
No, Melinda, I did not. But I do remember one incidence that shocked me. Being a bedroom steward, I had the officers’ and the captain’s quarters, and I had the Wheel House to keep clean where the captain and the second mate, who was the navigator of the ship, they would congregate and discuss the trip, the duties, whatever.
And one day I went up one morning to clean the Wheel House and the captain and the second mate, the navigator, were having a discussion. And evidently there was a discrepancy.
The captain asked the second mate to check his figures for mistake. And the second mate said he did and there were no mistakes. So the second mate asked the captain to look over his plans and the captain assured the second mate that no, he was right on course and nothing was wrong, but he thought it was a mistake on the second mate’s part.
And this went on. The captain said to check your figures again a third time. At that point the second mate took his log book and threw it in the captain’s face that, “There’s nothing wrong with my figures,” and “You check your figures,” and walked out.
I was kinda surprised. I don’t know what happened there. See in the Merchant Marines, they had what they called, “logging your pay.” If you did something wrong, they logged your pay. Depending on what you did it would be two for one – two days to pay for one offense or something like that. So I don’t know whether the second mate got penalized, but when he was asked again if he was going to stay with this ship, he said, “No way.” So I never saw or heard anymore of that.
Did you make any buddies over there that you kept up with?
No. Strangely enough, I did meet some nice people and got along with them well while we were sailing, but to say that I continued a friendship after the military career, no, I didn’t.
Now I did meet some people in Italy on one of my trips that I was sorry I didn’t stay in contact with. One of the people I met was in a little seaport, a rail center, a little town north of Rome, forty miles north of Rome, called Civitavecchia (chev-ee-ta-veck-ee-a). That means “City of Old” in English and what happened is, the people in the area, the local folks, they would hang around the dock after the war – no jobs, no work, no money, everybody’s hungry, begging, and so on and so forth. And very often we’d get letters of recommendation signed by the captain of the ship, to allow them to go on to the next ship – that they were alright to board another ship. So they’d come on and do little chores, like wash your laundry for you, fold it, press it too if you wanted’em to for a dollar, two dollars, whatever, you know.
So I got to know this little boy about thirteen years old – nice person. He wanted to take me to his mother and father’s house. So I said alright. And he lived in a bombed-out school building with the wrought iron stairways hanging on by a nut and bolt here and there. I didn’t think we’d be able to get up the height . But we did and went into his mother and father’s little room there and we passed a kitchen stove. When I say kitchen stove, [everything] was all confined in this little room. And he stopped me and he said to me in Italian, “You see, paisano [means countryman or brother], what we eat.” He lifted the lid off of the pot and there was potatoes in it. He said to me in Italian, “potatoes and cabbage.” I felt kinda sorry for ‘em. And I met the mother and father and I got to love that little boy. And I can tell you I begged and stole everything I could get my hands on, I gave to that family. They were so appreciative.
On that particular trip, I met two Italians and one of them said to me in Italian, “You have the face of an Italian.” And I can understand a little Italian. So I said to him, “Yes, I’m Italian.” So he said to me, “Can you do me a favor?” And I said to him, “Si, if I can.” So he went on to tell me that he had two little children and they were sick with bad colds. He needed lemon and sugar to make medicine with.
We Italians, we have our own little remedies, you know what I mean. [chuckles] So I said, “Yeah, I can help you. Come tonight.”
Now he’s with another man from further north [who speaks a different dialect]. This particular man that I’m talking to was talking Sicilian which I could understand. I couldn’t understand a word from that man. But my Sicilian guy would translate to that guy. [chuckles]
So sure enough they came and I emptied out all the sugar bowls in the mess hall and gave’em a bag of sugar and I asked the second mate, who I was a friend of, if we had any lemon in the store room. And he said, “Yeah.” “You mind if I go down and get a couple?” And he said, “No, go ahead.”
So they came back and they wanted to pay me. And I said, “No, no. No pay.” Well, they invited me to their house. So I went and again they lived in a bombed-out school room, a large school room that had four-way partitions. And there were four families living in that room separated by the partitions. And come time to eat, I’m the only guy eating! I said, “No, you eat, you eat.”
They made me sausage and potatoes. I felt so bad for these people. “You should eat this yourself!” I don’t need it, you know?” But those are the little things that stick in my mind.
I met some nice people. But you come to realize, we’re all God’s creatures and there’s not an awful lot that separates us. If you’re brought up in a different culture, you might be a little different than me, but basically you’re the same individual I am. You come to realize that especially when you see all the suffering that we never experienced in this country. We thought we knew what suffering is, you know? But you have no idea.
And they tell you all the dos and don’ts. And the biggest thing was the danger you’re in traveling alone. Because those people would do you some bodily harm to get your clothes, your money, watch, gold, whatever! And, oh boy, you almost have to forgive’em or not think too bad of them, because what’s nature’s first law? Self-preservation! So if you’re hungry and I have a chance to steal some of your food or whatever, I will do it. I’m hungry and for the sake of my children and my family, I would maybe hurt you and rob you. And you see what I’m saying? It makes a better person out of you when you see this. And that’s what I really got out of the whole experience more than a war, is I got the human side of it. Besides it made me a better person, made me more considerate and more understanding, a little more giving than I was used to.
You told me there was an officer on your ship from Germany. How was it having him on board?
You know, I don’t know [how he got to be an officer on our ship.] He must have been a citizen. But he was from Germany and he was our Chief Mate. And he wasn’t the most personable guy, of course he wasn’t my authority so I really can’t pass judgment on him. But I can tell you, serving in the mess room and things like that, he wasn’t the most friendly guy. And when we landed in Bremerhaven, Germany, that night one of the able-bodied seamen called me to the side of the ship and said, “Do you see what’s going on?” So he pointed to the bow of the ship there and there was a little boat. And they were lowering down supplies into that little boat and I think it was relatives of the German officer we had, the Chief Mate. And he had made contact with his family to bring the boat and was going to give’em some stuff. So I witnessed that. And then me and the able-bodied seaman talked it over and said, “What are we gonna do about it?”
“Are you gonna tell the Captain?”
“No, I ain’t gonna tell the Captain! You’re the watch!”
“No, I ain’t telling him.” So we let it go and minded our own business. [chuckles]
How long did you serve? When did you finish your military service with the Merchant Marines?
Oh, it was about 3 years later. I was twenty-one.
What about when you went back home? Is that when you got married?
Yeah, I signed off in Baton Rouge – Standard Oil. Visited with my folks awhile and said, well, “Good-bye, I won’t be seeing much of you.” And I didn’t. [chuckles] I missed ‘em too.
Is there anything else about your military experience that you’d like to share?
In summary, I wouldn’t trade my experience for a lot of money. In fact I came up with my own motto, I think. I don’t think I heard it anywhere else. My motto is, “A little more gratitude and a lot less attitude.”
I like that.
That’s what I try to live by. So that’s my biggest asset from all of this [overseas experience], is that I appreciate people a little more and respect people a little more. We’re all God’s children, you know. – Sometimes that’s HARD, but we have to try to do it. [laughs]
Thank you for letting me interview you today, Mr. Laciura. And thank you for your service.