The Impossible Ship
In the first year of the COVID pandemic, when I was feeling especially discouraged over the sad fate of my fractious country, my mind would sometimes float back in time to 1944, the year my grandfather crossed The Pacific Ocean to go to war. The appeal of this time travel fantasy was obvious to me at the time: It was pleasurable to remember a different, better country that had faced an existential crisis with courage and solidarity and a sense of national purpose. It felt good to be reassured that such a country had ever existed.
Part of this reverie revolved around something I call the “impossible ship,” which is my euphemism for the SS Matsonia, the troop ship that carried my grandfather, the Prime Minister of Australia, and several thousand other people from San Francisco to Brisbane, Australia, in June of 1944. The Matsonia had begun its life in 1927 in the Philadelphia shipyards of W. Cramp & Sons as one of the most technologically advanced cruise ships in the world. The ship was sleek and painted a brilliant white, 582 feet long with two smokestacks that slanted back towards the stern as if bending against a headwind, and fast. The Matsonia could plow forward at more than 20 knots. Originally christened the Malolo, which is the Hawaiian word for flying fish, the ship was refitted and renamed in 1937—Matsonia, an homage to the ship’s corporate owner, the Matson Line. This ship spent the first fifteen years of its life mainly ferrying passengers between San Francisco, Hawaii, and Los Angeles.
But in 1942, The Matsonia was repurposed as a troop ship by the War Shipping Administration. They painted the entire ship a dull battleship gray so that it would blend into the ocean horizon. In the staterooms and the outer decks, they built bunks made from canvas tied to pipes and hung by chains in rows four or five bunks high. They plugged up many of the portholes so the light would not shine through at night and reveal the ship’s location to Japanese submarines. Antiaircraft guns and small artillery pieces were mounted fore and aft and at intervals on the port and starboard sides. Before the ship returned to carrying tourists again in 1946, the Matsonia had made 38 cross-Pacific runs ferrying 176,395 mostly military passengers to and from the war zone. The ship had visited Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Noumea, Fiji, Honolulu, Pago Pago, Tutuila, Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo, Milne Bay, Finschhafen, Eniwetok, Tinian, and Saipan.
The Matsonia during wartime was a spectacle like none of the passengers had ever seen, crammed with people from every class and race and every walk of life, all living together on what had obviously once been a luxury cruise ship—doctors and nurses and merchant marines and Navy boys and Army boys and WAVEs and WACs and cooks and officers and stewards and engineers and construction workers. Matsonia, the great white steel womb of passage, painted gray now, the color of some great lolling sea creature, but still able to plow westward as fast as a destroyer and faster than the submarines that hunted her. The former beauty queen of luxury liners, once a floating platform for the upper class, she was all of America now whether she wanted it or not—the whole sweaty body politic sprawled across her decks, squatting and strolling and sitting and smoking cigarettes and dealing cards and listening to the 10-piece band on the sun deck play “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and "Don't Fence Me In" and cheering a boxing match and swaying in makeshift canvas bunks to the gentle roll of her massive body on the incomprehensibly limitless Pacific Ocean.
I have tried to reconstruct this ship in my mind many times. Some of the raw material for this project comes from a handful of letters my grandfather wrote while aboard the ship or from stories he told when he was alive. Other information I gleaned from obituaries and oral histories and a few books about World War II troopships. The ship itself is long gone, having been sold for scrap in 1977, but like a person, it has left a trace in memory, photographs, official documents, and ephemera.
I can easily picture my grandfather walking the main deck. He would have known many people already. His entire unit, the 132nd General Hospital, was aboard the ship and he had been with them since boot camp in Wisconsin. He was a gregarious, friendly man who liked to be outdoors. He would have walked the length of that ship more than once per day with his buddies from boot camp (the ones with babies at home like his daughter or babies on the way), stopping often to talk to people they met. Having read the more than 400 letters he wrote home from the war, an average of one per day, I know what they talked about: their wives, their babies, the things they would do as soon as the war was over, the souvenirs they would send back, the letters they were writing, their relief over not having joined the merchant marines or the Navy at the start of the war. They would spend the day playing gin rummy and writing letters and waiting in line for a shave in the ship’s barbershop.
Like a lot of the other passengers, he was seasick. “I am eating good again,” he wrote in one letter. “I am alright as long as this ship sails on an even keel. But as soon as it starts to roll, then I feel ill. Only one day I was sick, the rest of the time, like today, I feel just a little out of sorts.” In an oral history recorded in 2005, army truck driver and mechanic Uno Johnson recalled his experience with seasickness:
After I took a trip around the boat I got seasick and a sailor told me, don’t go lay down in your bed, you will get worse. He said to get up there and walk around briskly; don’t pay any attention to the waves, just keep walking. I went around about twice more and I was over it.
Most passengers would not have been so vigorous. There would have been men everywhere feeling "out of sorts," leaning against a bulkhead or squatting on the deck or lying in their cots. Some of them leaned over the rail. Others vomited into their helmets.
He would have seen the artillery pieces and the antiaircraft guns. Richard Charles Stanley of the 132nd General Hospital remembered that the gunners would practice by throwing boxes and crates overboard and trying to shoot at them as they bobbed in the water below, but the ship was heaving so much they couldn’t hit a thing. What would happen if a dive bomber broke through, or a submarine? They all wondered if these guns hastily bolted to the decks would provide any real protection?
He would not have seen any other ships on the horizon. He had heard that the big cruise ships traveled in convoys, sometimes with destroyers and other warships accompanying them, but this time, the Matsonia was sailing alone.
As he neared the ship's fantail, my grandfather would have looked up to see the nurses and WACs looking down from the railing above. Some of the women would lean over the railing to talk to GIs below, because this was the one place where men and women could interact. The women who crossed the Pacific on the Matsonia during the war were always outnumbered by the men, and the sexes were always kept strictly separate. Nurse Mary Burkett was one of 500 women among 5,000 soldiers when she crossed on the Matsonia in 1945. The band played “It Had to Be You” as the women boarded the ship in San Francisco. “When we went in to have our meal we would go in and there would be a tablecloth […] for us,” she said. “The GI’s would be waiting in line when we were at sea. They would start singing and we would join in and two days later they put a halt to that. I’m surprised we got to do it that long.”
A similar crackdown occurred on my grandfather’s passage. One army nurse, Ethel Starbird, recalls that on the first day of the trip, women could mingle with officers on the boat’s sun deck, but on day two, they were restricted to the railing of the starboard side of the sun deck with no fraternization allowed. By day four, their zone of visual contact with male passengers was restricted to the fantail deck, where a Marine stood guard enforcing the “no man’s land” separating the sexes. But there were thousands of little flirtations passing between decks. And some of them took root. According to her, at least two new couples married as soon as the passengers disembarked in Brisbane.
When my grandfather reached the back of the ship, he would have seen men washing their clothes. He writes about this in his letters: The men would tie their clothes to the end of a long rope and then let it drag behind the ship, tossed around in the churn kicked up by the propellers. I can imagine the women on the fantail cheering them on, or perhaps mocking them for their efforts.
The whole American story was aboard that ship—city boys, country girls, people whose families had been Americans since the Revolution, others whose families had just arrived through Ellis Island not twenty years earlier, the grandchildren of former slaves, the sons and daughters of Eastern European serfs who had been terrorized into leaving their homes. They were all milling around the deck, shuffling past each other, sometimes stopping to bum a cigarette and hear someone else’s story, sometimes staring out to sea, everyone trying to pass the time, trying not to let on how homesick and scared they were. Only about 2 percent of the passengers had ever been to sea. Most of them had never traveled outside the United States. And here they were, in the middle of the world's largest ocean, not even certain of their destination, writing letters to loved ones back home addressed from “Somewhere in the Pacific” or “Somewhere aboard ship” because the censors wouldn’t let them be any more specific than that.
College educated. High school educated. Barely educated. Guys who had grown up as sharecroppers. Guys who had graduated from medical school.
The unions were there too, and my grandfather, an autoworker and AFL/CIO member, may have picked this up in his daily rounds. Many of the Matson Line employees were in the MCS, Marine Cooks and Stewards union. The ship’s crew included black and Filipino men who had preferred to serve their country this way because the union’s culture of inclusion and equality was far superior to the Navy’s Jim Crow-inspired segregation practices. So many of the stewards were gay men that they joked among themselves that the ship should be called the “Fruit-sonia.”
Even the communist party was aboard the Matsonia. Seattle longshoreman and labor activist Jerry Tyler remembered that he joined the communist party while working as a steward aboard the Matsonia during the war. “I’d heard all about these Commies and all that stuff, but pretty soon it seemed like they were the only people talking anything that made sense to a working man,” he said. “So when they invited me to join, I said, ‘Sure, what the hell.’”
This ship was no American utopia. The military was still segregated, and the black soldiers slept in separate quarters, most of them below decks in the hotter, sweatier portion of the ship. Early in the Matsonia's wartime service, the ship had used to carry more than 100 Japanese people from Hawaii to the mainland where they would become detainees under the nation’s new Japanese internment policy. One of these men, Yoshio Hoshida wrote that the voyage took eight days rather than the usual four because the ship had to zig-zag to avoid submarines. Like the black soldiers, they made the passage in the most uncomfortable quarters on the ship.
Everyone on the ship during my grandfather’s passage knew that Japanese submarines were hunting them, and though the Matsonia was fast enough to outrun them, the passengers worried about it constantly. On some nights, there were complete blackouts where all the port holes and hatches were covered. Below decks, where my grandfather slept, the air was stifling. And then one night, they could hear a loud strained thumping sound coming from the bowels of the ship and the hull shimmied with a scary new vibration. The ship was burning at top speed to outrun a Japanese submarine. In the dark, one of the men whispered, ‘there’s a jap sub chasing us’ and another replied, ‘we’re faster than the subs, right? That’s what I heard.’ And then the long stifling silence as they all listened to the ship nearly tearing itself apart from within. They were all thinking it: All it would take is a single torpedo hitting the hull in the right place to bring the ship down.
As I have tried to reconstruct Matsonia’s war service, I bump up against an unanswerable question: Why did all of those people from different backgrounds voluntarily board this ship—the GIs from a thousand different towns, hamlets, and urban neighborhoods sleeping on hammocks; the doctors and nurses who left their comfortable practices and middle-class lives; the hundreds of other citizens like my grandfather who left their families for a year or more to serve the war effort. What social force could put thousands of Americans from across the spectrum of class and education and race on a converted cruise ship and then point it across an ocean towards a war on the other side of the world? This ship would be hunted by submarines. If it was sunk, hundreds might die in just a few minutes. The stakes could not have been higher. And I realized that on this single ship, the scope and enormity of America’s commitment to the war effort was fully on display. A Melvillian spectacle, mid-twentieth-century America encapsulated in a single ship. A floating analogy for a nation at war.
Why is this scene so difficult for me to picture? What is so “impossible“ about it?” Certainly, the logistical feat evidenced by this journey is no longer impressive, though it was at the time. In Pax Americana, soldiers cross the globe between hundreds of military bases every day. American aircraft carriers sail around the world. The military specializes in building an efficient fighting force from people who come from widely divergent backgrounds. All of this seems ordinary now. What seems extraordinary to me is the unity and sense of purpose implied in this journey. I live in a country that is divided against itself, incapable of successfully organizing to solve big problems. The recent COVID pandemic proved that America can no longer find the common threads of unity required for people to line up for a vaccine or wear a mask to the grocery store or even agree on the seriousness of the threat during the worst health crisis in a century. COVID was a test of national unity and purpose, and we failed spectacularly.
As I ponder this failure, nurse Mary Burkett comes to mind. In her oral history narrative, she recalled that the sea was rough during the first few days of their voyage on the Matsonia, and yet they were required to line up for their vaccination shots. Despite the ship's pitching and heaving, they would roll up their sleeves and do their duty. The unspoken sentiment of her account echoed something my grandfather often said about the war: "we had a job to do." It was grim determination and a clear sense of purpose. And although Burkett provides no more details, it is impossible for me to imagine that any of them would have refused their vaccinations.