From Canada to The United States of America
On the last day of our journey across Canada, our steward pointed and said, “Niagara Falls over there”. The train slowed down and we crossed into the United States of America at Buffalo. Along the way, three of the locomotives had been disconnected; they weren’t needed once we had left the gradients behind. The remaining one was replaced at Buffalo with a new locomotive with New York Central on it. The journey continued, passing through more densely populated areas of small town America. some of the names I remember hearing of before; Rochester, Syracuse and Albany were some of them. Finally, we reached our destination; Newark, New Jersey. Our journey had taken five days and four nights and passed through some of the most spectacular country I had every seen.
Collecting our packed kit bags we left the train and entered the station. We were then escorted to a ferry, which was within walking distance of the station. The ferry was crowded and busy but the service was frequent. Once the required number was on board we were on our way to the city of New York. A short way into our crossing we saw our ship, the Queen Mary, in the distance. With eagerness and some trepidation we left the ferry and walked to the ship. The last stage of our journey was about to begin.
The Greatest Liner Afloat
On boarding the Queen Mary, we were presented with a ticket showing our cabin and deck number. I was in for a shock. Everything was such a contrast to my trip on the MV Athlone Castle when leaving England in 1941.
The MV Athlone Castle was a liner that, before the war, sailed between England and South Africa. On that trip, Bill (my friend who died in the Hakodate POW camp) and I were given a cabin for two with wardrobe, cabinet and washbasin. The headwaiter had played a tune on a small dulcimer to announce that meals were being served. The only concession made for conversion of the MV Athlone Castle to troop carry was the installation of long tables in the dining room to replace the normal ones. We had enjoyed a nine-week cruise to Singapore back in 1941.
But now, on the greatest liner afloat, I was dumbfounded. Our cabins had been stripped bare and filled with metal bunks, four high on each side of the cabin. They were constructed from tubular frames with steel mesh stretched across and a thin mattress on top. The only standing space in the cabin was between the bunks. Fortunately for us there were only four of us in our cabin so we each had a spare bunk where we were able to place our kit. When seated for our evening meal we were given all the information that they deemed necessary. As we entered the dining room I had noticed a wall covered with a relief map showing England and America with the Atlantic Ocean between them on which was a model of the Queen Mary supposedly showing the ship’s passage. I had seen this on newsreels in cinemas before the war when the media had been shown around the interior of this huge liner. We were told that apart from the working crew on board, the Americans were now running the ship. On its return trip from England, having deposited us ashore, the ship would be packed to capacity bringing home 15,000 American servicemen; an uncomfortable trip I would imagine. We were told that they would be served two meals a day; one at 10:00 am and the other at 4:00 pm; we on the other hand, would get three meals!
Once again we were informed, no pay: Britain was broke. We would not, therefore, be allowed ashore. They were unable to say when we would be sailing but it would be as soon as the ship was refuelled and the provissions were brought on board. I felt that the sooner this trip was over the better! After a good meal that evening, most of us walked around the decks looking at New York’s skyscrapers and the lights. That evening Air Chief Marshal Tedder, General Eisenhower’s deputy during the European war, visited us; he walked around the decks talking to groups of us, questioning us about our experiences. He apologised for the lack of cash but told us that books, magazines and newspapers were being brought on board to occupy us.
In the daylight the streets of New York seemed a long way from the docks. Our only view was of warehouses and a three-tier road, which disappeared into the distance. An American soldier guarded the gangway onto the quay. Time dragged as we either walked around the decks or lay on our bunks. After dark some of the airmen went down the gangway and spoke to the guard. He explained that he had orders not to let anyone past but, if they climbed over before they reached him, he would look the other way. The few that did get ashore were treated to drinks but were unable to get into the city centre without a taxi so they decided not to bother.
The Queen Mary set sail after three long days giving us a look at the Statue of Liberty as we headed for the open sea. Looking back, the skyline couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anywhere else in the world. The ship was very stable as we ploughed into the rough seas. We were well into November by now with grey skies and the weather quite chilly. We were all longing to reach Southampton; it seemed a lifetime since the war in the Far East had ended on August 15th, now three months ago.