(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.)
M E M O I R
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.
D I A RY E N TR I E S
[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.