#4 The Persian Gulf

The Armed Guard crew of the SS Alexander H. Stephens. From left to right, top row: Charlie, Max Nerat, Jim Quattlebaum, Bill Nestman, Lauton Muncie. Bottom row: Russell Olson, Paul Nelson, Jim Murray, Arki (sp?) Narramore.

We left Cape Town and headed for our destination; the Persian Gulf. We sailed without a convoy, kept out in the middle of the Indian Ocean to avoid contact with the enemy. German subs operated in Mozambique Channel. If my memory is correct I believe Mozambique was a neutral country and the Germans refueled and re-stocked their supplies there.

We finally arrived at the Persian Gulf. It is ironic that now 48 years later the U.S. Navy has ships patrolling the Gulf.

Charlie wrote this in late 1990 during the Gulf War.

When we finally arrived at Basra, Iraq, again a place that is very much in the news, we didn’t realize we would be here for almost four months. Our ship spent almost four months anchored in the Shatt-Al-Arab [Shatt al-Arab] river. This is where Tigris and Euphrates rivers combine to empty into the Persian Gulf.

We had a cargo of airplanes for Russia that were to be assembled outside of Basra and later flown into Russia.

Iraq was occupied by the British at this time; a result of the Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941. Iran was also occupied, by the British in the south and Soviet Union in the north, Anglo-Soviet invasion the same year. Both occupations were undertaken to make sure that Iraqi and Iranian oil did not fall into the hands of the Axis powers. Both Basra and Abadan were important ports for American Lend-Lease weapons and supplies bound for the Soviet Union.

Landing pass issued by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Abadan, Iran, 1942.

The port facilities at Basra and Abadan were very primitive and the merchant marine sailors had to use the ship’s cargo booms to unload. This was slow, tedious work. The war was going badly for Russia at this time and other ships were arriving with vital supplies that were urgently needed and could be unloaded and delivered to the Russians faster. The planes we carried were B-25s and they had to be assembled and tested before being turned over to the Russian pilots. The Boeing Aircraft Co. had a facility staffed by civilian mechanics that put the planes together. They had a nice set-up with barracks, recreations rooms and even a bar. They welcomed the Navy men but the merchant marine couldn’t get in. I took my first airplane ride in a B-25 while it was being tested.

A Liberty Ship in rough weather.

Liberty ship in rough seas. It was difficult to aim our old 4” gun especially since they had to be trained and pointed manually. The most modern guns we had were two 20 mm (note the old sights).

Oerlikon 20 mm cannon used an an anti-aircraft gun.
Instructions for reporting aerial-dropped mines, Shatt al-Arab, Iraq, 1942-3.
Warning to the Armed Guard crew about dangers of prostitutes and diseases, 1942-3.
Jeweler’s business card from Khorramshahr, Iran, 1942-3.

I bought a silver bracelet for my mother from this silversmith. Your grandmother still has it.

My grandmother gave this bracelet to my mother, but unfortunately it has been lost.

When we stopped at Trinidad on the way south we were assigned an Ensign named J.B. Quattlebaum. He was what we referred to as a “90 Day Wonder” or a college boy making officer grade after 90 days of training. He was a good guy and I welcomed having an officer along as it was difficult for me a 19 year-old to get the old merchant marine salts to follow my orders for ammunition handling during general quarters.

Charlie is referring to the V-7 Navy College Training Program, which is a 90-day school for the training of Naval Reserve officers. After completion, the graduates would be commissioned as Ensigns in the Naval Reserve and sent to active duty.  This program was started in 1940 in order to quickly train officers for the greatly expanding Navy.

I finally received my rate as a third class gunner’s mate. It didn’t change my job but the extra pay was good. I had passed the tests for this promotion when I finished training in Chicago however the red tape and almost non-existent mail service delayed it.

Christmas book for British troops, 1942-3.

There were no American troops in this area. The British “Desert Rats” were fighting in No. Africa and there was a British Army Hospital in the desert near Bagdad. This is a Christmas book for British soldiers.

Map of the Persian Gulf from a newspaper, 1990.

The preceding map is of the Middle East today and where there are soldiers, marines, pilots and sailors stationed today. As I write this on Nov. 15, 1990 there is a real threat of war. I hope it doesn’t come to that and that the Iraqis have the good sense to realize they could not win and could be destroyed. The men on duty here now at least can fight the boredom by training, maintaining their equipment, and a certain amount of entertainment in the form of movies and VCRs (not in the front lines). We did not have enough equipment to take care [of]. We could not wait until the ship was unloaded and we would start home.

The Iraq Times, February 26, 1943.

The picture of me dressed as an Arab was drawn by Paul Nelson of Chicago. He was a good artist and it helped pass the time. Sailors in the Armed Guard were not paid on a monthly basis. Instead we carried a small account book that we could take [to] the ship’s captain, any American installation, regardless of the branch of service or American embassy. They would give us what we wanted and stamp the amount in our book and at the end of a cruise what ever we took would be deducted from our accumulated pay. We didn’t require much money as there was not many places to spend it. Later when I transferred out of the Armed Guard I had a few hundred bucks saved.

I have the picture that Paul Nelson drew and he was clearly very talented. It is too big for my scanner so I will have to post it at a later date.

Back in June, 1942 when we received our equipment and supplies to outfit the ships we were given baseball equipment, checker games, books and a hand-cranked phonograph. This was our recreational equipment. While in Iraq we would arrange ball games with other Armed Guard units. If they had just come from the States we would swap phonograph records with them. Because all our mail was addressed to our Armed Guard base in New Orleans and then send to a port they thought we might be [at], we did not get very much. It might arrive a day or two later after we left and take months to get to the Persian Gulf area. If we knew a ship was heading home we would ask them to take on mail to the States for us.

Document written by Charlie’s superior officer recommending him for promotion, 1942.
Document sent to Charlie’s commanding officer denying the promotion, 1943.

You can see by the preceding letters the Navy would not authorize my promotion due to the fact I had not been examined by the proper authorities and the request was not on the proper form. It took four months for this information to get back to our ship. However, the main thing was that we were finally heading home. On April 16th while at Cape Town we received a record from another crew. It was Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”. It was very popular at home, and it is still played each year even today. We had not heard it before and it reminded us how much we missed our families and the holidays.

2 thoughts on “#4 The Persian Gulf

  1. Cheryl Rogan
    Cheryl Rogan says:

    I really enjoyed Post 4. So much of that part of the world is still in turmoil today.

  2. Nancy Schmuldt
    Nancy Schmuldt says:

    I am really enjoying reading these posts. I can almost picture Charlie telling the story, with his east coast accent.

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