Flight Officer Jean Train

(As a young woman during the second world war, Jean Train (now Lumsden) served as an officer in the WAAF’s (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). En route to a duty posting in Australia, she was obliged to cross two oceans as well as the continental United States in either converted liners or, for the land portion of her journey, a troop train. The diary she kept offers invaluable glimpses of ocean liners at war and some of its pages as well as a later memoir are reproduced herewith.)


Nowadays, people think nothing of long-distance travel; planes literally shuttle backwards and forwards between the United Kingdom and Australia. But on that day in June, 1944, it seemed an enormous decision for me to make, to agree to go to the other side of the world for I knew not how long. Eventually and rather hesitantly, I said yes. I was to be the senior of three WAAF officers who were to join the British Army and RAF liaison staff for Australia and New Zealand, stationed in Melbourne. I was not allowed to tell anyone where I was going.

On July 7th, Section Officer Louise Cooke, Section Officer Sylvia Kent and I boarded a train for Blackpool and the RAF Embarkation Unit, where we were issued with tropical kit including a topee. We were not told where we were going or how we were to proceed but two days later, in the evening, we were taken to the railway station. A blacked-out troop train arrived and we were put on it, going we knew not where. It was an uncomfortable start to our mystery tour, but to my delight when I raised the blinds in the morning, we were rattling down the south side of the River Clyde.

At 0530 hours, we arrived at Greenock. A large ship was lying out in the river, just how big we did not realize until the tender brought us alongside and we clambered aboard the Queen Mary. So we were going across the Atlantic! That was really exciting.

This great liner, unescorted, using her speed and a constantly changing zig-zag course to escape attack from U-boats, was mainly employed in bringing American troops to Britain. So she sailed comparatively empty on her westbound crossings. We did, however, have 4,000 German prisoners of war on board. At one stage of the crossing, they were reported to be trying to scratch the blackout paint off the portholes.


10 July, 0800: Breakfast! Lashings of butter, sugar, marmalade, bacon and eggs, everything that one could want and hadn’t had in any quantity for years. The three of us are sharing one of the very best cabins on Main Deck, M-15.

11 July, 1130: POW’s came aboard.

1830: Got up steam and sailed down the Clyde. It was a lovely evening and the hills looked beautiful, half hidden in the mist and half clearly outlined in the sunshine. Am now in the cabin getting ready for bed, having seen Scotland for the last time for who knows how long.

12 July: Very wet, nothing much doing; took as much exercise as possible walking ‘round the decks but it was very windy. Had a cinema show in officer’s lounge.Our three Australian friends kept seats for us. Very poor film called The Keeper of the Flame.

13 July: Too wet for boat drill. Louise and I played cards in the afternoon with three American naval types; having spent the morning standing on the stern, watching the wake as we zig-zagged across the ocean...Very rough during the night—we rolled like anything and I was quite sure on several occasions that I was going to fall out of my top bunk.

14 July: Boat drill. Had drinks afterwards (cocoa etc.) with Canadian Navy types. Louise was with one of our civilian friends. All three of us had drinks before lunch with Mrs. Willock; all of our civilian friends were also there. Louise slept all afternoon, Sylvia and I spent the afternoon with the Canadian Navy. Another cinema show, The Adventures of Tabu (sic) in the evening. Sylvia was with the Fleet Air Arm, Louise with the American civilians and I was with the Canadian Navy types. It was very hot and although blackout was in force by the time the show was over, we went up on the Boat Deck. Tubby pretended he was on duty and came round and sent us off to bed. Sylvia ‘round the other side of the deck was not discovered. Don’t know where Louise was.

15 July: Louise and I changed into tropical kit; Sylvia wouldn’t. We caused quite a sensation and were the subject of many not very polite remarks when we appeared at breakfast. It began to get very hot, we all had very potent drinks with Wing/Commander Hornsby Smith, the RAF O.C. (officer commanding) troops before lunch. We felt very happy at lunchtime and were the envy of everyone. We spent the afternoon on the Sun Deck with the Canadian Navy. Louise zizzed (dozed) most of the time stretched out on a seat. We all had tea with the ship’s officers in a tiny wardroom which was unbearably hot.Not awfully exciting, we all agreed, but we sure did appreciate a cup of tea! Sylvia disappeared after supper, her evening became rather complicated with the American Army and the Fleet Air Arm but we think we know who won. Louise and I spent the evening with two of the ship’s officers, drinking and playing darts; we left rather hastily before we became too involved.

16 July: Three cheers, Sylvia changed into tropical kit. It was frightfully hot and sticky all day. We watched flying fish and later in the day saw a school of porpoises. No boat drill, we perched tropical kit. It was frightfully hot and sticky all day. We watched flying fish and later in the day, we saw a shoal of porpoises. No boat drill, we perched our little caps on our heads and went to church in the officer’s lounge. The service was conducted by an American padre. We spent the afternoon on the Sun Deck and read between interruptions from American and Canadian Navy and our own RAF types. We had tea with the O.C. troops, Colonel ? and his adjutant, Major ?. Found conversation rather difficult. The latter part of the evening we sat in the lounge and talked to our RAF friends. It began to get a little rough at bedtime and our packing was therefore made twice as difficult. The cabin was stifling. We slackened speed in order not to reach our destination too soon.

17 July: We got up and dressed and went on deck. We were there in the bright sunshine leaning over the rails until 0900 hours by which time we still had not sighted land but the pilot had come aboard preparatory to taking us up the channel.

0930: We came up on deck again and had our first view of American soil, Long Island. It was a little hazy but we stayed on deck and watched our slow progression up the river Hudson (sic). At last, through the haze with the aid of field glasses, we had our first view of some of the tallest skyscrapers, a very impressive sight; as we drew nearer, we could faintly distinguish the Statue of Liberty. Slowly, the skyscrapers and the statue took on a more definite shape and New York City revealed itself.

We hove to in the river just opposite dock number 90 and there we stayed from 1130 until 1600 hours. We were practically opposite the Empire State Building and through field glasses, we watched the brightly colored taxis or cabs, as we were taught to call them, rushing madly up and down 42d Street on the wrong side of the street to our way of thinking. While anchored off the dock, the POW’s were taken ashore in American Army tenders.

Air Vice-Marshall Willock came aboard to meet his wife who introduced us and we passed the time of day for a few minutes. He thought we were extremely lucky and wondered how we had managed it. I suggested that the Air Ministry wished to get rid of us and was sending us as far afield as possible.

1600: About a dozen tugs came out and pulled us into the dock. Masses of American MP’s followed by Army, Navy and Air Force officers came aboard and disembarkation proceedings commenced.We had dinner aboard at 1700 hours and at 1800 hours, we set foot in America. An American Red Cross shooting brake (station wagon) took us and our vast quantity of luggage to the Hotel Duane on Madison Avenue.

My first impression as we drove through the streets was of full crowded shops and masses of well and brightly dressed women parading the streets.

We found that we had a very a nice suite of rooms for the three of us, a double bedroom with a sitting room where they put up another bed.

(Before our WAAF trio embarks on their transcontinental troop train, this seems an apropos moment to pause and analyze the details of their journey thus far. It seems apparent that for three attractive young female WAAF officers, a wartime crossing was not that far removed from the experiences of a group of young undergraduates embarking blithely for a peacetime crossing on the same vessel. Their varied concerns seem little different from the identical preoccupations that would have infused equivalently aged paying passengers—worries about clothing, over-attentive males and how to forestall them, an extremely busy social calendar, sunbathing on deck, the state of the weather and, especially as the vessel neared summertime New York, the humidity. It was the customary practice aboard troopship Queen Mary to hold daily boat drills all the way across the Atlantic although, with a reduced passenger load on this westbound run, that rule seems to have been abrogated. As officers, the three women ate in the vessel’s Tourist Class dining room which had been designated the officer’s mess for the duration.)


That night, what a thrill it was to see a city lit up again. Bars were stacked full of bottles of every description, food unlimited and the women in lovely clothes. After five years of rationing and blackout, it was hard to believe, but the T-bone steaks at the Copacabana Club were real and delicious.

This was the beginning of what turned out to be a four-week holiday while we waited to be sent on the next stage of our journey, which was to be across the States by troop train to San Francisco. We were in no hurry to move on, we were having a ball. Most Americans had no idea what our uniform was but, on discovering our RAF identity, they lavished hospitality on us, insisted on buying us meals and drinks, and one gentleman even paid our taxi fare for us as we alighted. The heat was intense but, thanks to the Air Force Club in New York, we were entertained every weekend in large country houses.


[The train journey is over]

17 August: Got up in good time for breakfast and then watched our progression towards San Francisco. We had our first view of the Pacific and eventually arrived at Oakland at 11 midday. It was dull and cold and we felt out of place in our tropical kit. We were met at the station by the RAF movement officer, Squadron-Leader Brown, who took us in a Red Cross car over the Oakland Bay Bridge which stretches for 8 miles in all...We were taken to the Canterbury Hotel where we found that we had one room between the three of us. We immediately got into a bath and washed off the dirt of the train and felt much better.

18 August: We got up in time to go off to Fort Mason in a cab for a medical inspection just to make sure we had no infectious diseases...

19 August: After lunch, we shopped, Louise left us to go and have her hair done. Sylvia and I returned to the hotel, packed and got the luggage taken downstairs.

We went for the last time to a nearby drug store for an ice-cream soda. We also bought a bottle of bourbon to take with us and concealed it in my despatch case. After a free cup of coffee and biscuits from the Red Cross, Captain Bracy took us aboard the ship and we installed ourselves in stateroom 200-H on C- Deck with three others who came aboard later. She was the s/s Lurline. The senior WAC officer aboard, Major Baillie, paid us a visit. Our cabin consisted of two, three-tier bunks. I got one of the middle bunks near the portholes which was an advantage the first night as, not having sailed, we were allowed to have the porthole open. We had our supper in the cabin off what we had brought aboard with us. We met several of the WAC officers who were very interested in our uniforms which none of them recognized and then we went to bed.

20 August: Awoke at 7:15 just as the ship was slipping alongside the dock. It was a very gray and dismal-looking morning but I could just see the golden gate before we passed beneath it. We had breakfast at 0745 hours and then went up onto A-Deck, the Boat Deck at that time being out of bounds. We went back to the cabin and I was seasick; shortly afterwards, we had boat drill which had to be done twice. I had to absent myself on the second occasion and, having been seasick again, rolled in my bunk where I was more than happy for the ship to do as it liked and slept until 1600 hours. I got up feeling fine for the second and only other meal of the day other than breakfast and then we sat up on deck but it was rather cold and after talking to the boys for a while, we went to bed.

21 August: Usual routine—boat drill and two meals being the only things we had to do, other than sit on deck where one is not ever allowed to read or lie in your bunk where one can read.

22 August: Changed once more into tropical kit.

23 August: Still nothing to do apart from sunbathing in a very hot oven. Had our fortunes told by cards, it passed a bit of time. It was lovely on deck after blackout and we were allowed to stay up there until 2130 hours. The stars were lovely and I lay on the deck and gazed up at them and wondered what everyone at home was doing. It is extraordinary that there is no dusk: As soon as the sun has set it is dark.

24 August: Very hot. Lay on the bunk and read most of the day. The wind got up a bit. We had a WAC corporal, a palmist, in our cabin to tell our fortunes again, most amusing. According to her, I am apparently going around the world and going to marry in about three years. I must be going home by the other route and not marrying until I get home, all of which I am very glad to hear.

It was absolutely marvelous on deck after blackout. I have never seen the moon in its first quarter give so much light and seem so bright; shining on the water, it gave as much power as a full moon at home. The same as the sun, it was almost directly overhead. There were lots of stars but I have not yet seen the southern cross. Blackout was at 1845 hours and it was dark by 1915. I stayed on the Boat Deck until 2115.

25 August: Woke up early as it was so hot in the cabin and heard the tannoy (loudspeaker) at 0630: “Now hear this! Hit the deck, all hands turn to.” Went up to the Sun Deck as long as I could bear it before it got too frightfully hot. I have never known anything to cause so much interest and amazement as Louise’s sewing, the WAC’s were most intrigued. Apparently, they are only taught to sew with a machine and never dream of making any of their own things. The sun is now to the north of us. We noticed peoples’ shadows being cast to the south side of them after midday today for the first time.

I had never before realized how big a part of the world is water and just how vast is this Pacific Ocean; it is a very beautiful ocean as it is such a lovely, deep blue but at night, particularly, the vastness of it is impressed on one and makes me feel very small and powerless.

In the evening, we went to a cinema show, a film called Whistling in the Dark. It was quite funny although I found I had seen it before. Went to bed directly afterwards but it was difficult to sleep with the cabin so hot.

26 August: Stayed on deck practically all day and got very sunburnt. No drills of any kind which was very pleasant. After diner, we stayed up on the Boat Deck and saw a wonderful sunset, quite the loveliest I have seen so far. As soon as the sun was down , the moon and the stars shone forth and I nearly fell asleep lying on the deck gazing up at the sky. The cabin was nearly unbearable when we went to bed. I think we crossed the equator during the night, which would explain the terrific heat. I got Dorothy to pour some cold water on my back as I lay naked on my bunk; it helped a it. It was quite an eventful day as I saw an aircraft and another ship.

27 August: Sunday. Had my usual sunbath on the Sun Deck after breakfast but it didn’t last long, it was too hot. At 1100 hours we went to church. The service was held on A-Deck and there was a very large crowd there. We sat on the deck. There was a very good American padre and it was one of the nicest services I have ever attended. Just sitting on the open deck in full view of the sea. We had communion afterwards. Spent rest of the day on the deck, there was rather a lovely sunset.

28 August: A very beautiful morning, spent a long time on the deck but not in the sun. Read lying on my bunk for the rest of the day and went up on deck after blackout until cinema time when we met some of the boys and went off to see Charlie Chan in Secret Service.

30 August: The 29th of August missed out of our lives as we crossed the date line so went to sleep on the 28th and woke on the morning of the 30th. Didn’t feel much like lying in the sun, spent most of the day reading until 3:45 when we went with Major Baillie and Captain Bridge to see the messing arrangement; it was really very interesting, about the quickest way of feeding people I have ever seen but doesn’t differ in essentials from our way. All the N.C.O.’s feed with the troops which is the major difference. Spent the evening in Jackie’s and Johnnie’s cabin but it was unbearably hot.

31 August: Well, we seem to be off to New Guinea, a change of plan. I went on an inspection tour with Major Baillie that was very interesting; the cabins were spotless and beautifully kept. We had a discussion in our cabin afterwards on various differences in the services. Spent the afternoon reading and, after supper, on the deck. A very effective sunset with beautiful coloring overhead with dark stormy clouds all around us. Saw a shoal of dolphins leaping along in the water.

1 September: Old ship Lurline was rocking badly, rolling a great deal although the sea was not really very heavy; but it was not a very pleasant day—ran into numerous squalls and, after some sun on the Sun Deck, I retired to the cabin and read for a while. Everyone feeling rather fed up and disgruntled. Went to concert given by the GI’s which was very good.

2 September: Had a sun bath on the Sun Deck and got so hot that I spent the rest of the day on my bunk by the open porthole trying to cool off. Marvelous full moon, saw the southern cross for the first time. I slept out on deck, on the Sun Deck, it was absolutely wonderful to go to sleep gazing up at the moon in an almost clear sky and to wake up to the sunrise. The deck was very hard but I slept well and was only woken by a few spots of rain. on one occasion and someone dropping something in one of the gun turrets on another. On which occasion, I was quite sure a torpedo had hit us.

3 September: Sunday. Five years ago today we declared war. The three of us attended church on the deck at 11 o’clock and had communion afterwards; it was a very nice service indeed. I wrote a letter to mummy immediately afterwards lying on my bunk. The first time that I felt I could write since I came on board. So I am all ready with one to post as soon as we get ashore, or anyone gets ashore. Read all afternoon and wrote to Daddy after dinner. At 7:30, Louise, Sylvia and I emptied our bottle of bourbon in a toast for completion of the war, this year, its sixth year. We were sitting around in our cabin streaming with the heat. The boys, Johnnie, Jackie and John came to see us and then we went to bed early; the ship was rolling badly.

4 September: Arrived at Lae. After so long, it was wonderful to go up on deck after breakfast and see land. The water was absolutely calm but it was green in color. The land consisted of very high hills absolutely covered with trees and dense tropical undergrowth. We could see Dakotas taking off and landing on very wet and Heath Robinsonish (Rube Goldbergian) landing ground. We eventually anchored about 200 yards out from shore. It was amazing to be able to go so close to the shore in a large ship. It was a dull day to start with and the hills were covered in mist. We could see the natives wandering about and a few of them bathing. It certainly didn't look an attractive place to be stationed, just a few huts and jungle all around.; one could just imagine how many unpleasant insects lived amongst the undergrowth. The trees grow right down to the waterside and there is no beach, just a narrow strip of mud at the water’s edge. The country is very lovely; I should have loved to go ashore and penetrated into the hills a bit; they looked very fascinating rising up steeply on every side of the bay. With the field glasses, we could see banana trees and all sorts of vegetation I had never seen before. The only form of animal life was a dog dashing madly about at the water’s edge.

Louise and I stayed on deck after everyone had been ordered to their quarters as we were omitted from the order. It was fun watching the traffic on shore with their lights on and “ducks” rushing down into the water and alongside the ship. We were finally advised to go to our cabins for our safety’s sake which really shook us to the core. We couldn’t believe it necessary but thought it better to take the advice; and from the reports we heard, it certainly did appear to be necessary. Johnnie and Jackie came to see us and were asked to leave by 5 officers and MP’s who came in armed to the teeth to know if we were having trouble.

I am really fed up. God forbid that I should ever have to travel on an American transport again. The Americans en masse are so coarse and undisciplined that they have to be treated as though they were school children by the authorities and living under their orders is miserable. Here we are stuck in our cabin with nothing to do and it is only 7:30. Thank goodness the portholes are open. I have met a few WAC officers whom I like very much but otherwise, I shouldn’t be sorry if I never saw an American again!

(Punctuated by this unusual anti-American outburst, we shall end the first portion of Jean Train’s wartime diary. The balance will appear in the next Gazette. In fact, she would have her wish, sailing home on board British-manned Orion.

One wonders whether peacetime Lurline boasted any air conditioning? Can readers help? Its presence would have improved wartime conditions immeasurably , particularly during blackout restrictions, making the passage more bearable

The daily routine across the vast Pacific seems not dissimilar from the transatInternationallantic portion of Train’s journey, save for the extensive sun bathing and far lengthier voyage. It seems astonishing that nothing was made of crossing either the Internationl Date Line or the Equator. Observation of those commemorative geographical landmarks was usually elaborate on a troopship, where any excuse to relieve the monotony was seen a Godsend, not only for the troops but also for the ship’s crew).

Click Here for Part II of this story.

Queen Mary arrival in New York, not necessarily F.O. Jean Train's landfall but certainly one just like it.


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