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 forces within.
July 1944 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
A Lady of Mercy
By S/Sgt. John F. Wojtkiewicz W3GJY-W4GQJ
A 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 so.
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
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.
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.
Suddenly the 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.
Then one 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.
A half 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
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 Luck's deck.
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,
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.
This 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 day.
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.
The 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.
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.
Electricians were constantly on the move, taking care of frayed
wires and short circuits. A fire broke out, but was brought under
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
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 day ....
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.
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