Convoy Off Iceland, Increasing Gale
AN ARTIST ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC PATROL
Griffith Baily Coale
On September 15th, 1941, the thermometer stood at 92 degrees as I sat at my desk on my first day of active duty at the Navy Department in Washington. I had been a mural painter, working with seven assistants, had climbed down the ladder from my scaffolding, and joined up; little knowing that in a few weeks I would see the wakes of torpedoes and the sinking of the REUBEN JAMES on the North Atlantic Patrol.
Commissioned Lieutenant Commander, USNR, I was now official painter for the Navy, hoping for active sea duty. Through the imaginative understanding of Admiral Hepburn, in the space of one week, I was heading toward an eastern port, armed with orders to proceed by air or sea to Newfoundland and Iceland. Had proceeded so fast that I had got off without being stuck with a single injection, and in a brand new uniform, I reported for transportation.
With a terrific roar and the blinding rush of spray against the gun turrets, the powerful gray bomber lifted her great load of mail into the early morning sunlight, bound for Argentia, Newfoundland. Sitting on bags of mail beside a machine gun, I tried to assume a bored routine expression, to hide my intense interest and excitement at what I was bound no one should know was my first flight. At two thousand feet we leveled off and roared up the coast of Maine into a new world and new life. Eight hours later, with the late sun casting long shadows, we banked suddenly over the rugged, wind-swept mountains and hills, and came down on the cold waters of the U. S. Naval Base at Argentia. Without having had a minutes training, cold, stiff, slightly deaf and extremely self-conscious, up my first ship's side I went, saluted the Quarterdeck, the Officer of the Deck, "Permission to come aboard, Sir. Report for duty, Sir." From then on, they tell me, I wore a broad grin, for having been an amateur sailor all my life, I was now a professional one.
Three days of duty calls throughout the fleet, every courtesy and co-operation from admirals and captains, ends in getting stowed in a room at the Bachelor Officers' Quarters ashore. Now I turn to with a will to make a record of this stark frontier life. I have with me Chief Photographer Clasby, who under my orders is to make movie and photographic records, aside from those covered by my painting.
Vanishing Farm, Naval Air Station, Newfoundland
Newfoundland is a bleak and violent place where Nature puts on a three ringed circus every day and night. The morning will start with comparative calm with a flash of sunlight and brilliant color illuminating the weird shapes of the mountains surrounding Placentia Bay; and in half an hour the wind will be roaring across the steel gray landscape at sixty knots and the people struggling against the horizontal rain and sleet in the half light of an underworld. If you are on a ship for lunch, all boats may be hoisted aboard and you are there for the night, or you may make a jump at a very lively gangway for the last boat ashore. In the mud and the soggy bog. In fog as thick as pea soup and bitter cold; day after day the Navy builds its base.
Here was a small community, its church, its little burying grounds with a few twisted wooden crosses and quaint stones flattened to the ground by the wind. Staunch Irish Catholics had built these tiny settlements in every bight or gut, to fish and live as best they could. The average income per family per annum had been $200.00. A few carrot tops are the only greens. The whole land is a saturated bog thirty feet deep, on which cling the twisted evergreens towering from three to four feet in height. The average "farm" is the size of a New York backyard. Into this community with infinite tact and diplomacy, the Navy bring their bulldozers, stone crushers, lumber, steel and concrete, and create before the natives the miracle of a modern base.
Bogged Down, Newfoundland
Anxious to see the fast disappearing local landmarks, the "Chief" and I tramp over the bogs to the old wooden lighthouse. At the base of the tower, in bedroom, kitchen and parlor, lives the keeper, a little woman dressed in black. "Are you lonely here?" I ask. She looks at me with her fine Irish eyes, smiles and says: "I am lonely when the sea is cam, but I don't mind it when I hear the sea a-roarin'." Again, "Them geese out there in the pasture are rare tame birds, but they be droppin' dead for fear of the planes." In the lee of the lighthouse huddle some tired Chickens and a few blown cabbages.
Father Dee, the priest, is cold Newfoundland's warm heart, and his housekeeper, Mary McCarthy, is as cultured as he, and is the school teacher for the community. With great grace, he is assisting the Navy in the gradual removing of his entire parish to the new place that we are building for them. He tells me that the Newfoundland workmen have gained from ten to forty pounds per man since working as laborers at our base. The Doctor is a rugged character, who does everything from delivering a baby to attending to a consumptive cow. In his small waiting room with its pot-bellied stove and a temperature of 95 degrees, on a long wooden bench sit five patients dressed for the Arctic. On the wall, boldly printed, is this enlightening sign: "Eyes examined - Glasses adjusted - Teeth filled and pulled - Babies delivered, $5.00." He charges 25 cents for the first tooth pulled, and five cents for each one thereafter if he pulls all.
Genesis of Base, Newfoundland
My orders are for thirty days, and the thirty days have gone! The Captain had given me a truck with a closed cab forward, in which I painted when the wind was blowing a gale, and by which we hauled around all our gear. So the "Chief" packs up all my paintings and photographic records, and we are ready to shove off for Iceland. That night at a farewell party with my shipmates at the B.O.Q., there arrive on the beach three officers from Iceland, and I hear first hand the story of the torpedoing of the USS KEARNY. They tell of the tankers loaded with high-test aeroplane gas, lighting the lurid scene like great torches, so that her men actually saw the broach of the torpedo before it hit; and I make up my mind to be alert with sketch book and movie camera, for having got my wish and orders, I go tomorrow in a destroyer on convoy.