Hams in Combat: A Lady of Mercy
July 1944 QST Article
is another installment of the Hams in Combat series that QST ran during
WWII. I enjoy waxing vicariously nostalgic of a time before I was born,
at time when there was still honor, courage, selflessness, and pride
of country. During World War II, it was an ingrained part of most citizens,
whether or not they happened to be serving in the military. Our modern
day troops still have it, but sadly fewer and fewer people see their
own country as any place special in the world. Sure, as
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, "War is hell,"
but then again so is witnessing the tearing apart of your country from
July 1944 QST
of Contents]These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the
ARRL's QST magazine. Here is a list of the
QST articles I have already posted. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
See all available
vintage QST articles.
A Lady of Mercy
By S/Sgt. John F. Wojtkiewicz W3GJY-W4GQJ
FEW DAYS after the bombing raid on Violet we were on our way back to
Carnation. There was constant air activity. Allied planes of all types
moved in endless patterns across the Mediterranean to Rose. Every now
and then an Allied fighter would swoop low over us and dip his wings
in salute. Something about those fast, devastating fighters commanded
respect. But it couldn't compare to the feeling I had when we passed
a fleet of American warships traveling in a single, majestic line. They
had just come back from pasting a port in Rose and seemed to possess
an air of quiet satisfaction. I helped dip the Lady Luck's flag in salute
to the fleet, experiencing a feeling of complete reverence as I did
Ashore in Carnation the following afternoon I found there
was strict curfew and no one was supposed to be in the city unless on
official business. Not wanting to stay in the outskirts of the city
I hailed a Navy truck hauling supplies and gave the driver a long, sad
tale about friends I had to see in Carnation. Being a sympathetic soul
he told me to climb in with the supplies and smuggled me through the
military police. The MPs must have figured I was on official business,
for once I was inside no one bothered me.
reached a section of the city where row after row of buildings lay in
ruins. A small boy who spoke a little English appointed himself my guide.
As we walked along he pointed to this and that building, telling me
which had been bombed by the RAF and which by the Americans.
When we reached Cafe Roma I gave the boy some chewing gum and thanked
him for the tour. Seating myself at a corner table, I ordered a bottle
of wine. A few minutes later two of the mates from the Lady Luck entered
the cafe and, needless to say, they joined me in a series of toasts.
I say "series of toasts" because that's the seamen's way of excusing
the system of multiple drinking they employ.
Before long the
world suddenly seemed very wonderful. The people of Carnation were wonderful.
We were wonderful. One of the mates could speak the language of the
people fairly well and soon we were surrounded by a crowd of them, three
deep. Through the mate's interpretation we exchanged viewpoints on the
war, the wines, the customs, the cigarettes and the future.
It was now six o'clock and we had orders to be back at the ship by eight.
We bade the people good-by and started off in search of a ride. We were
in luck; within five minutes a jeep picked us up and deposited us right
in front of the dock gates. We presented our papers and started for
the boat which was to take us to the Lady Luck.
three of us halted in our tracks. There, dead ahead, was the Lady Luck's
tall stack moving out to sea. We stared dumbly. It couldn't be. We still
had an hour and a half of liberty time. I made a feeble joke about being
left behind in Carnation, but the response was even weaker. No matter
how much of an adventurer one is at heart, it is no fun to be stranded
in a foreign port in wartime without proper papers.
of the mates went into action. Rushing up to the skipper of an LCI boat,
he told of our plight. Now, a mate carries quite a bit of authority,
but an LCI doesn't chase fleeing ships just to deliver a few stragglers.
I waited for the skipper's polite refusal. But, unaccountably it was
a deal - the LCI would take us.
The LCI's engines roared and
away we went after the Lady Luck, now a good six miles ahead of us.
It was exhilarating to feel the power of those engines under the thin
steel deck. The propellers churned up a mountainous peak of water as
they bore along under full throttle and I felt (with the help of a couple
of bottles of wine) like the hero in a movie thriller.
hour went by and the lights of the Lady Luck seemed no nearer. An hour
passed and still we seemed no closer. It didn't make sense. The Lady
Luck can only do sixteen and a half knots wide open and there would
be no reason for her to be going full blast. The LCI should do better
than eighteen knots and we were wide open. Still, the fact remained
that it would take three or four hours to catch her at the rate we were
going. We tried blinking her down, but there was no answering light.
The LCI's skipper was very nice - but enough was enough. He had patrol
duty that night, so we had to turn back.
There was nothing to
do but go on patrol duty with the LCI. Personally, I was quite in the
mood for it by then, for the wine was having its full effect. I took
one last look at the fleeing Lady Luck and then settled down to enjoy
whatever might come.
It was a very dark night with everything
blacked out. Suddenly a huge, black hull loomed up. With all guns trained
on the LCI it challenged us. We all tensed until the LCI established
its identity, for one shot from the cruiser's lightest gun would have
blown us to very small bits.
In spite of anticipated action
I slept peacefully the night through, awakening the next morning to
see Carnation bathed in warm, peaceful sunshine. Looking out on the
bay I saw, of all things, the Lady Luck. I couldn't believe my eyes.
Why would she be back in Carnation after racing out to sea like a scared
rabbit the night before? I woke up the mates from the Lady Luck and
asked them if I was seeing things. They assured me I was not. Thanking
the skipper of the LCI, we made our way back to our ship. Never has
anything seemed so good as the moment I planted my feet on the Lady
It turned out that the captain had been told to
anchor a safe distance outside Carnation to escape the expected air
raid. Naturally the ship. couldn't wait for us, so it just went ahead
according to orders. During the night a German FockeWolf flew over
the Lady Luck and circled as though picking the best place to drop its
bombs. While the raider was circling the Lady Luck it spotted a destroyer
about a mile away. After gaining altitude for a moment, it dove on.
the destroyer, releasing its bombs - all of which, however, fell wide.
The destroyer in the meantime had signaled a near-by airfield
that the Lady Luck was being attacked. In no time American night fighters
were overhead and the German raider was brought down in flames.
We took on casualties that afternoon. For the first time I learned
that the constant sound of rifles we had been hearing in the outskirts
of the city was the firing of snipers. After that, whenever I heard
the crack of a rifle I felt sure that the sniper had me singled out
for a pot shot.
Not far out of Carnation I went below to the
administration office of the Lady Luck. There, lying on the floor on
stretchers, were badly wounded men, many of them in agony. Yet every
one of them returned smile for smile as I passed by, as much as to say:
"Don't worry about me; I'm okay." It made me wonder, seeing those men
as they were then, what right anyone has to complain about rationing,
taxes, no cars or little gasoline ....
When I reported back
to the bridge a few minutes later the captain looked worried. I soon
discovered why. We had, by deft maneuvering, just missed a floating
mine. Not one of the small or medium-sized kind, but a big one. It would
have blown the Lady Luck in half had we struck it. I looked astern through
the field glasses and, sure enough, big as life the mine was floating
-in our wake. The horns standing out on the surface of the mine (its
contact points) looked more wicked and diabolic than those of the devil
himself at that moment.
There was nothing the Lady Luck could
do about the mine. We had no guns to set it off. Yet it was a crime
to let it float around to blow another ship to bits. At that moment
a plane appeared overhead. When it turned out to be an Allied plane
we signaled a message reporting the mine and its location.
time we took the casualties to Orange Blossom instead of Violet. The
harbor of Orange Blossom is strictly man-made. A long sea wall runs
almost parallel with the shore, and at a glance one can see why it is
such an important Allied base.
The next morning I went ashore
into the city of Orange Blossom. There I got the full impact of the
food shortage when I saw a group of poorly dressed natives standing
around begging, not for money but for any small particle of food we
could give them.
When I arrived back at the ship there was great
excitement aboard. A rumor was circulating that we were going back to
the States. It seemed too good to be true, but when the captain came
aboard he confirmed it. We were heading back to the States that very
While we were taking on fuel in the afternoon all hell
broke loose in the hills behind Orange Blossom. Big guns started blasting
and the din was terrific. We all looked heavenward to see what enemy
craft had been spotted, but no planes were in sight. It turned out that
the Army was trying out some big guns. I don't know the value of those
guns as weapons, but if they won't hit the enemy they surely will scare
him to death.
Late that night we were on our way to get our
clearance papers. I could fairly hear an official coming aboard and
saying: "Sorry, but your orders have been changed." But no - the Lady
Luck was cleared within a matter of minutes, and soon we were on our
way out into the open sea.
days after we left there was a stiff headwind, but the weather was
clear and the sea steady. The night of August 25th brought hurricane
warnings from Nova Scotia. According to the reports a full gale was
offshore, heading toward Nova Scotia, and would probably hit the following
night. The next day the wind got stiffer, but it was nothing to worry
about and most of us figured we would probably escape the main blast.
But that night all hell broke loose around the Lady Luck.
sea seemed to come to a boil. Odd pieces of equipment broke loose on
deck, and even good sailors were getting that telltale look symptomatic
of seasickness. I thought of the casualties below and the misery such
a sea would bring them. But soon I forgot everything except the Lady
Luck herself. I wondered if she would break in two as she spanked down
on the sea after sticking her bow sickeningly upward over the combers
that drove in at us. The gale was terrific now and the sea was being
whipped into a white lather. The captain issued orders for all ship's
personnel except those on watch to stay below, and for everyone to stay
away from windows. Some thought the last was a foolish order since the
glass in the Lady Luck was half an inch thick surely enough to withstand
By now the blow was at its worst. The doctors, nurses
and enlisted men's crews all were suffering violently from seasickness.
They could barely hold their heads up, yet there was so much that had
to be done for the casualties.
Accidents began to multiply.
Men and women were being thrown headlong down ladders, against walls
and into furniture. The captain's warning to stay away from windows
was forgotten and a group of enlisted men clustered about a porthole
to look out. Then - crash! - a huge sea smashed into the glass, shattering
it to fragments. Many were cut. One man would have died on the spot
if a quick-thinking sergeant hadn't clamped his thumb on the man's severed
jugular vein. Beside sewing up this man's throat, the doctors took seventeen
stitches in his face and eleven in his leg. Yes, the captain had known
what he' was talking about!
The sea and wind were now doing
their best to tear the lifeboats away and deck crews worked constantly
to keep them securely lashed. I found out later the deck engineers were
out in that storm off and on all night lashing those boats.
were constantly on the move, taking care of frayed wires and short circuits.
A fire broke out, but was brought under control.
By now the
sea had become an inferno minus only the flames. Waves forty feet high
picked us up, and then threw us down and down until we thought we would
never come up again.
The sea had not spent itself when the doctors
were called upon to operate. It meant saving a man's life, and blood
plasma had to be administered. (Give a pint of blood when you can. I
tell you in all honesty that it truly saves men's lives.) It meant operating
on a table that was rocking tumultuously, in a room with all its windows
knocked out, by doctors and nurses so sick they could barely hold their
heads up. Yet the anesthetic was given and the operation successfully
performed. . . .
I became acquainted with some of the casualties
on the return trip to New York and I found that those who were the most
severely wounded were least inclined to brood over their misfortune.
Most were quite cheerful and happy beyond words to be going back home.
Some who were badly maimed dreaded seeing their families and friends
for the first time for fear of a too-sympathetic reaction. Sympathy
is the one thing they do not want.
I couldn't help but compare
my feelings at returning home to the feelings of those soldiers who
were returning as they were. What mental torture they must have gone
through on the return trip - wondering what would await them at home,
wondering if their sacrifices would be remembered in a world quick to
forget. I, for one, won't forget. I'll remember those men to my dying
I have said very little about the nurses aboard the
Lady Luck because I wanted to see how they stacked up at the end of
the trip. Believe me, they stacked up all aces. There's very little
ballyhoo about nurses. They do a non-spectacular job well and that's
that, but if the public could see the sacrifices they make, the backbreaking
work they do, the countless odd jobs that keep them on the go at all
hours - well, verbal praise is inadequate. I have seen those nurses
so seasick they could hardly stand up, but it didn't interfere with
their administering to the wants of the wounded. The cheerful smile
was still there. The willing hands were still available. Nothing I can
say here can do those nurses justice.
The same goes for the
doctors and the enlisted men, too. They worked under the most trying
conditions sometimes, but always quietly and efficiently. There is no
glory in the work they do, only the satisfaction of knowing they are
tending to the humane part of war. And if anyone tells you the overseas
medical corps is a safe outfit brother, put them straight for me.
I doubt if there is one person who served on the staff of the
Lady Luck who isn't more than a little proud of her. She still is carrying
on her work of mercy "over there." Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I give
you a ship small in size but big in deed - a gallant lady of mercy -
the Lady Luck. THE END
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