By Sgt. Mack Morriss

YANK Staff Correspondent

AN EAST COAST PORT—The USHS Arcadia, her hull a startling white with huge red crosses blazing amidships, tied up at the pier where a band and a fleet of ambulances awaited her.

The band played a march, and aboard ship the wounded said yeah, they knew there’d be a goddam band, but why didn’t they swing it. The band played maybe a couple more military pieces and then jived into something that was stronger on the reeds than on the brass.

And the wounded from Italy hobbled to portholes or swung up stairways to the open decks, leaned on the rail and beat time to the music with whatever limbs they had left. From all over the port side of the ship the battle casualties made like hep cats and watched as the Arcadia discharged the first of her cargo, the commissioned cases who were able to walk.

ushs arcadia

The Hospital Ship Arcadia during WWII.

They moved across the gangplank and stepped into waiting GI busses. Trained Negro litter bearers handled their luggage. Then came the psych cases, each one escorted by two men. Then the walking enlisted men, most of them with only a few personal belongings in little Red Cross ditty bags but some with barracks bags which they surrendered to the litter bearers. At the end of the gangplank two Negro soldiers grabbed every man under the arms and helped him negotiate the low step down to solid ground, that last step he took to get back to the States. One of the casualties bent over and put both palms flat on the concrete pier, yelped in mock amazement and danced rather uncertainly into his bus. He was the only one. The rest of the boys from Salerno and the Volturno and beyond hardly changed expressions. Some of them seemed to relax tensed lips to let out the breath they’d been holding. But that was all. No dramatics.

The Arcadia unloading the port of Charleston, NC during WWII.

The Arcadia unloading the port of Charleston, NC during WWII.

The litter patients came last. The Negro handlers, who deserve the reputation they have as experts in the work, moved them into the ambulances in a smooth effortless stream.  In five hours the Arcadia was emptied.

The whole business of getting back home was just about as simple as that. The swing music was as inappropriate, perhaps, as the marches for the men who couldn’t walk—and none could walk very far—and there was a profound incongruity about it: but war is full of incongruities, and the wounded wanted the jive even if they did come ashore with dead pans. They were pretty solemn about it, those with an arm or leg gone or the few who were blind, but there were no tears. Nobody bawled, no matter how much he felt like it if he felt like it at all.

Earlier, several hours before the 800-patient hospital ship had docked, there wasn’t a dead pan abouard. On B deck, Ward 31 was getting ready to disembark. Since every ward in every hospital has its comic, 31 had its paratrooper from the West Virginia Hills. He and the Chief, an Oklahoma Indian, kept the bulkheads ringing with their patter.

There was an excess energy, pent up after days at sea, and the wounded sought safety valves for its release. The Chief calmly put his GI cane across his knee, threatened profanely to break it, thought better of the idea and instead banged it merrily on the deck. The paratrooper, his face and arm scarred and an eye missing because of a hand grenade some now-deceased German used in a hand-to-hand fight a Salerno, looked out the porthole to see a launch chugging alongside. He erupted.

arcadia hospital ship

Interior view of a ward onboard an Army hospital ship.

“The U.S. Navy—in dangerous waters. Look at ‘em! Goddam! Let me off this boat. I wanna get at them USO soldiers,” he howled, switching services. “Oh, let me at ‘em!”

He registered a burlesque ferocity and, crouching into a fighter’s posture, strode up and down the narrow passage between the tiers and bunks.  It will take a while for him and the others to get over that feeling which he expressed as comedy but which he actually felt as a kind of tragedy. It is an emotion most returning soldiers have, for a while, regarding servicemen who of necessity are still on duty in the States.

A grave guy from Iowa stood on his one good foot and grinned at the paratrooper.

“Lookit him,” spouted the ‘trooper, still going strong. “Goddam Infantry soldier. Went out, him and his outfit did, to fight the whole Jerry army. We had to come floatin’ down to get him out of it. Goddam Infantry.”

The sober infantrymen defended himself briefly: “We was trapped.”

A Japanese-American captain limped through the ward. The paratrooper followed him with his one eye. “Goddam good fighters, them fellers. We used to send out patrols and the Jap boys would bring ‘em back in. Our Jump suits were too much like the Jerries. Them Jap boys was takin’ no chances. It was sort of rough on us. Rugged but right, though.”

“Rugged, but right,” echoed the happy Chief. Then he started needling some kid about having been overseas 19 months and coming home now to a wife with a 2-month-old baby. The heckled soldier swore comically, boasted that for a guy like him it was easy and invited the Chief to go to hell; it was his kid all right.

Meanwhile the paratrooper threw his arms around a middle-aged nurse and asked for a date to get blind drunk ashore. The nurse tactfully refused and the trooper said well, he still loved her anyway. Among other nice things about the Arcadia were 43 nurses who had a high average of good looks.

Two men, each with a foot encased in plaster casts that left only their toes uncovered, suddenly tumbled off a bunk and started whirling between the tiers. One was a Seabee, the other a soldier. They were trying to pull the hairs off each others’ toes imprisoned in the casts. The ward looked on half-interested. The Seabee won.

A blind sergeant, his hands on the shoulders of another soldier, walked majestically toward his bunk. The ward fought its tendency to hush. Somebody reached out and tickled the blind guy under the arms. He grinned and felt for his bed. The two playful foot casualties came at him from either side and started tickling. The sergeant roared and lashed out in an arch around him, laughing. He had lost his eyes when a clip of cartridges exploded in his face, detonated by a hit on the chamber of his M1.

It was an hour before docking time. From the opposite ward came the smell of coffee and luncheon meat.

“When do we eat, goddam it?” yelled the wounded in 31.


A blind sergeant, his hands on the shoulders of another soldier, walked toward his bunk. Somebody tickled him under his arms.

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