Last Chapter, First Page

The Repatriation Voyage of the S.S. Jean Lafitte
Tacloban, Leyte, 3 March – San Francisco, California, 30 March, 1945

By Curtis Brooks

The final phase of the wartime history of Americans in the Philippines, for most of us, was the trip from Manila to the United States. My brother and I were with the first group of civilian internees to leave the camp, a journey that would begin on February 23, 1945 and end March 30 of the same year in San Francisco.

I don’t remember when we were first given a head’s up for the trip but it must have been only a day or so before departure. The morning of the 23rd was thunderous, with much firing from artillery all about the city. We loaded onto trucks and headed out the gate on to Calle España and drove east. It was the first time I had ridden on a vehicle since January, 1942 when a bus brought us into camp. We drove along the road for a distance and then came to a stop. There was a sign, “Keep off the Airstrip.” The road from there forward was the runway. Parked on both sides were several transport aircraft. We recognized the C-47, but there other aircraft we did not; we boarded one of those; I think we had a choice of what plane to board and supposed the unfamiliar planes to be the newer ones. Off to one side was a damaged dive bomber that apparently had come to grief using the airstrip. It was a moment of great excitement; we were on our way, further my brother and I had never flown before. In the plane we sat in bucket seats along the side of the fuselage. I remember counting and there were 35 of us on board. A friend of mine who had flown before told us we probably wouldn’t notice when the plane left the ground. Not so; the plane pulled up sharply with a noticeable jolt when we became airborne. The plane headed east and then circled south. To our right, the city of Manila lay blackened and smoking, in the harbor we could see the hulks of many ships sunk during the American bombing raids.

Our flight, on a direct line to Leyte, soon took us over Laguna de Bay. As we passed over the lake we could see American Amtraks churning through the water near the south end of the lake, not far, we knew, the other big internment camp, Los Baños. A heartening sign. We of course knew nothing of the splendid and daring raid by American paratroops and Filipino Guerillas that had liberated the camp that very morning.

After the lake, we were over Japanese-held territory. I looked down but could see no activity on the ground whatsoever. I had a stick of gum, given us earlier, one of several, and pushed it out the little porthole the planes of that day had in their windows. If found, a message from another world. Further on, over the Visayan Sea we could see a large number of fires on Masbate Island. Since there was no fighting on the island at the time these must have been due to agricultural activity. Our approach over Leyte was impressive; we could see endless stacks of supplies of all kinds. Supply dumps set up in the rear area. They gave us a sense of what enormous effort was required to carry on a war so far from the home country. We could also see a large number of shell and bomb craters in the hills and plains; war leaves its marks.

We landed first at the Dulag airstrip but took off again shortly and landed at Tanauan. From the airstrip we took trucks for about a three or four mile trip to what I believe was called “White Beach.” I remember we boarded a landing craft with high sides, probably an LCM. The ride out to the ship in the flat-bottomed craft was a bit rough. I don’t remember but I guess throughout this trip we carried what baggage we had; it wasn’t much.

S.S. Jean Lafitte

S.S. Jean Lafitte

The S.S. Jean Lafitte, we were told, was a C-4 Victory ship. She had a merchant marine crew and a Naval on-board “Armed Guard” detachment to man the various guns located on the ship. We were impressed how well armed this merchant ship was; there were I believe two 3” guns located forward mounted in tandem, then about eight 20mm guns in tubs, four on each side and finally a large caliber gun on the stern. The ship had three holds forward and perhaps two aft; all were made over for troop accommodations, hammocks five high stretching the length and breadth of each hold. We had plenty of room, though, as there were only about 350 of us and the ship had space for 1500. In addition to the freed internees there were a number of military passengers on board. One group, known as ‘beach jumpers’ was being rotated home; we got to know some of these men quite well. There were also several wounded personnel in the ship’s sick-bay being returned to the US.

The men in our group were housed in the forward holds, the women, as I remember, were put into the officers’ accommodations aft. The mess hall was in the center of the ship right over the engine spaces and was a wonder and a joy. We ate standing up at long tables; again the facilities were not at all crowded. Today we would probably look askance at what was provided, but then it was pure paradise. Being right over the engine spaces sitting motionless in the tropical sun, the ship and especially the mess deck became quite hot. The heat did not seem to detract from the bounty the mess contained.

After liberation some friend turned up a pair of new Japanese army boots and since they did not fit him, gave them to me. I wore them constantly in camp but on ship board, the hobnailed boots were a disaster; I nearly broke my neck slipping on the steel companionway. I don’t remember what I had as a replacement. In camp, at the end it was bakias only.

The ship sat in Leyte Gulf for about a week awaiting the formation of a convoy. The time went easily; we got to know the ship, the crew, the drills, and some of the military passengers. From the ship we could see the airstrip at Tanuan. Early each morning we could watch the lumbering B-24s roar down the runway one after another off on a mission, part of the circle of steel closing down the Japanese empire. We could also see PBM Martin Mariner flying boats take off and land on the water near the airstrip. On the other side of the coin there were a few air alerts that occurred while we were in the Gulf. The alarm would sound, hatches were slammed shut, crews raced to various stations and the gun crew took to theirs. All lights were extinguished; these alerts came during the night. They were soon called off and we never heard or saw anything hostile.

While in Leyte Gulf some Red Cross personnel came on board. I am not sure what all they did, but one thing they did do was to hand out money, $25 spending money to each internee. We stood in line; when the turn came for my brother and me, the Red Cross gal, a somber and sober type, looked up and blinked. “Are you two brothers?” “Yes,” we replied, “we’re twins.” “Well,” she said, “$25 will do for the both of you.” We should have gone separately.

The Jean Lafitte left Leyte in convoy on March 3, 1945. As I remember, the convoy consisted of four merchant vessels and two escorts. Others might remember differently. The escorts clearly knew there were civilians on board, including, gasp, choke, women! The escorts made occasional passes by the Lafitte with all hands on deck in gawking mode. Once at sea we were required to wear life jackets at all times. We usually tied these around our waists rather than wear them as prescribed. They were heavy and awkward. There were no life boats carried; our abandon ship station was by one of the four large life rafts carried forward. They were positioned at a steep angle just over the freeboard and one yank on the release lever would send them shooting into the ocean. Once at sea we spent our time playing Monopoly, chatting with the crew or military passengers, hearing and telling endless war stories.

There was a small library amidships with books and wonder of wonders, old newspapers from the US. We poured over these items reading over and over again descriptions of the war and the home front. We had not seen a real newspaper in over three years. We got the picture of a fairly stark home-front, with food shortages, clothing shortages, gas shortages and so on. There were a small number of books, well used as we had ample time and more to read them. Music was also piped over the ship’s PA system in the evening. “Going to Dance with the Dolly,” “Mairzy Doats” and “Rum and Coca Cola (Working for the Yankee Dollar)” were among those I remember.

Each evening, as the sun touched the western horizon, the PA system would remind us there was a war on. “Gun crew report for evening CQ; blackout ship, close all ports, draw blackout curtains, no smoking about decks.” For all of that, the entire journey was uneventful as far as any threat appearing.

On or about the fourth day at sea, the convoy enter Manus harbor in the Admiralty Islands. Again, astonishment was the order of the day. And night. A place that none of us had ever heard of was jammed with shipping, there were airstrips at different places and a vast array of installations on the shore. At night Manus rivaled New York with a myriad of lights both in the harbor and on shore. We could see a large number of warships in the bay and were told that the British Pacific Fleet had assembled there before proceeding on to join the US Navy in its operations. Our ship tied up along side a tanker to refuel; moored on the other side was the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Hobart. Several of us kids crossed over and visited with the Australian crew. I don’t think they knew quite what to make of us, how out of place, but were very kind and we came away armed with candy from the ships store. While we were in Manus, we got a call to meet with a Lt. Cmdr. Miller. He was Mr. Miller, principal of the American School in pre-war days, and now assigned as part of the staff that kept this vast base operational. I remember little of the interview but do remember he was very kind and thoughtful. It was a bit strange meeting someone from the “old world” so unexpectedly and in such circumstances.

When we left Manus we were no longer in convoy but sailed alone. We headed due south and passed through the Vitiaz straits between New Guinea and New Britain with the dark and forbidding and jungle-covered northeast coast of New Guinea in sight. We sailed with lights on; we were informed that this was a dangerous stretch of water; why, then the lights? The danger, it seems, was from collisions, not enemy submarines. Our course took us past the Solomon Islands and then, past them, northeastward across the vast Pacific. As we sailed by the Solomons, the crew pointed out Guadalcanal, site of the historic battle.

And so the long voyage across the Pacific continued. I remember few details, but our days were filled with good companions, good food, and the tranquility needed more than we knew. On one occasion we were overflown by a New Zealand PBY flying boat cruising lazily past us. Just checking. Our course was not straight; the ship zig-zagged her way across the ocean. As before our days were spent in long conversations, listening to music, to the hiss of the sea against the hull. The weather throughout most of the voyage was sunny and calm. Only when we neared the US mainland did we encounter heavy seas with the ship pitching enough to bring the screw out of the water. The vibration of the turning of the unencumbered propeller shook our bunks with a gentle and periodic rattle.

We arrived off San Francisco early in the morning; all of us crowded the decks to get a glimpse of this fabled country of untold bounty, peace and freedom, home to 140 000,000; hard to believe so many enjoyed so much. Yet one of the first things we noticed was firing causing geysers in the ocean to the south. Training, but still. And so we passed under the Golden Gate bridge, with more vehicles crossing than we had expected from the somewhat grim situation pictured in the newspapers we had read.

I remember little of our arrival; taken in by friends from the prewar days who had settled in California. It was a situation hard to absorb all at once. Hard to absorb at all, for that matter. We were on a new and vastly different path to the future, but were leaving behind the land and people we had known and loved since childhood. Would we ever fit? We did, of course but part of us never forgot the trip that was the last strong bond with our old world and precious friends.

Curtis Brooks, September 2014

Note: This post has been republished due to website migration