Interview of Cyril J. Wyche Transcript Number 70

Today is July 23, 2001.  We’re in the Columbus County Library in Whiteville, North Carolina, and my name is Ray Wyche.  Today we’re talking to Cyril J. Wyche of Hallsboro who served in the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II traveling all over the world.   

WYCHE:  I was born April 15, 1923, and when the war started in 1941, I was 18 years old.  In the summer of 1942, I registered for the draft at Wake Forest Summer School and somehow or other, they managed to make an error which I’m thankful for.  I pulled two and a half years at Wake Forest College and a friend of mine from Hallsboro also tried to sign up with the Merchant Marines and we just decided we’d rather ride to work than walk.

So he got drafted and I carried him over to Whiteville to catch a bus to Fort Bragg and he got inducted into the Army.  They were having trouble somewhere or other.  Wake Forest sent my draft regulation papers and whatever to Hillsborough, North Carolina and they kept them for a while and finally got it straightened out and sent them to Whiteville.  By that time, I was a trained civilian and was not drafted because I was a skilled civilian and they needed me for work.

INTERVIEWER 2:   Essential occupation I think they called it.

WYCHE:   Anyway I’ve always been thankful that they messed up with the draft regulation bit.  In 1943, I called to go to Raleigh and enlisted.  My mother and father carried me up to Raleigh there because I missed the buses in Lumberton trying to get to Raleigh.  They come by at a certain hour and come to find out they were taking pictures for the publicity.  We caught a bus and rode overnight to Norfolk, Virginia.

There we took another physical examination and had supper and got on a ferry boat and went across to the eastern shore and caught a train to New York City.  Got there at daylight the next morning.  There were passes for the subway and we went out near Coney Island to Sheep Head’s Bay.  It was also a Coast Guard training camp there and they always sang a song about, I can’t remember all the words of it.  We always bragged about going from Staten Island to the Statue of Liberty and back, patrolling the ocean and watching for the submarines.

It didn't go very well with our neighbors, right through the fence, for us to sing that song for them.  Anyway we were supposed to have been in Sheep Head’s Bay for four months.  In that four months, we were supposed to have a week’s tour of Long Island Sound and a liberty ship that had been misconstructed and the drive shaft was not in line right.  They were using it for a training ship.

We came back in to Staten Island.  Those that had completed the training were carried back to Sheep Head’s Bay and sent to various places.  We had supposedly another week’s training on the ship because we had been cut shore time on shore there cause they were shorthanded of personnel on the east coast.  Anyway we were getting ready to go to bed and by the time we were getting in bed and whatnot.

Here they come and told us to pack our gear and we were going back to Sheep Head’s Bay.  The next morning, we caught a train right down the eastern shore and a ferry over to Norfolk, Virginia.  There we were put on another ship to mark time so we could be assigned a ship.  I stayed there I guess for about maybe a month.

INTERVIEWER:   How many men were in this group, how many were traveling with you?

WYCHE:   Oh something like 25.  They had us over on the side of the ship on scaffolding painting the side of the ship.  We hadn’t painted all of it what have you because of the water there.  We joked about it and we told them we were waiting for the tide to go out and the water will be down lower and we could paint that area.  Come to find out the ship was resting on sand or mud.  So we told them we had to move the ship down to deeper water and paint the side anyway.

Anyway I was given the rating of ordinary seaman and assigned and we went over, I guess it must have been at least 15 to 20 of us went over to Newport News.  We were put on the ship Mariposa which was a transport ship.  It used to run from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Hawaii and Melbourne, Australia and Sydney, Australia.  It had been taken over by the government and used for troop transport.

We got on there and with a bunch of troops and headed out and ended up over in Casablanca, North Africa.  There we saw a French battleship which had been in the harbor when the Americans landed on North Africa.  They had put a 16-inch shell into this French battleship there and you could have driven an 18-wheeler truck through the hole in the side of the ship.  They were trying to patch it so it could be used against the Germans.

Anyway we ended up back in Boston after 21 days.  That’s how long it took for my first trip across the Atlantic Ocean.  The bulk of my time was spent more or less in the crow’s nest or on the bow because I was a lookout. 

INTERVIEWER:   You were hauling troops?

WYCHE:   Yes.

INTERVIEWER 2:   What about on the return trip?

WYCHE:   It was all German prisoners of war back to the United States because they figured out it was a whole lot cheaper and easier to get them over here, camp them and feed them over here than it would be to carry food over there. 

INTERVIEWER:   Who guarded the prisoners?

WYCHE:   They had some Army troops in there.  One of the things that amused me, they had some of the German prisoners.  Two stories there.  As the German prisoners were swabbing down the decks and they had a guard there with a 12 gauge Winchester automatic sawed off barrel shotgun.  Well he got kind of sick and whatnot and leaned up in a corner and went to sleep with the gun lying there.  The prisoners kept on working.  They didn't bother him which kind of amused me.

And also we had a German general on board ship and he had two people guarding him all the time with a Winchester shotgun and 12-gauge buckshot.  He went to the head, he had the two guards go in with him.  They watched him. 

Anyway we got back to Boston and I came home.  I forget now how many days break I could get for the time I was on sea.  I came back to Hallsboro and visited a bunch of relatives here and what have you.  I went back to Norfolk and was put on another ship.  I had gone in as a ordinary seaman there, but they assigned me to another ship in Norfolk and I was an acting able bodied seaman.

After 21 days, I had gotten a promotion.  I don’t recall what all we had on there.  We had a bunch of rations and what have you.  We went back through Gibraltar and there was when I had one very frightening experience for me.  It was twilight, almost dark, and I was lookout on the bow and we just cleared out of the straits good.  I looked down there and saw two fluorescent strips coming heading straight for the ship.

I just knew they were torpedoes and they were coming so fast and so quick, I didn't have time to raise an alarm or anything.  I come to find out it was porpoises and they bumped the ship to scrape the barnacles off of them.  It was not amusing to me at the time.  It was frightening.

INTERVIEWER:   Are you on the same ship as the first voyage?

WYCHE:   No, this was another ship, the John Harvard.  Mariposa was the troop ship.  We went into Algeria in North Africa and we had some tanks on it.  We got to Belarbi, we built a ramp over the rail of the ship down to the dock and cranked up the tanks and drove them off of the ship.  We did not pick them up and unload them that way.  They drove them off.

INTERVIEWER 2:  They didn't have a crane to pick them up?

WYCHE:   Oh, we had a crane that would have picked them up, but they found it quicker and easier to do that.  It was kind of amusing.  They were turning the tanks over to the British army and British trooper got inside one of the tanks and here he stuck his head up and said, “Blimey, there’s a bloody fan in here” and he was just as happy as he could be.  Can you imagine the temperature of some of those steel tanks could generate and the British tanks didn't have fans, but the American ones did.

They used to have them in automobiles right after the war.  But anyway we went there and we were told right quick like that if there were any German airplanes coming over, we were to make sure there was no lights showing and not to fire any guns cause they could have spotted us as a ship if we were firing guns out in the bay.  There was shrapnel damage from antiaircraft fire or what. 

Anyway we had a bunch of holes where the steel from the bombs or shells cut the canvas.  We had to take them and patch them.  We did have a bunch of rations and things like that in there also.  Then we came back to the United States and I got here some time right after Thanksgiving I believe and I made up my mind right then and there that I was not going back to Norfolk for the next trip because I did not want to make the Russian run.  It was going to be a dangerous trip and also very, very cold in December.

So I called the train, Coastline, what I called it was “always came late”.  It was a passenger train and I went to Atlanta to New Orleans and ended up spending the first night in New Orleans at the Salvation Army because I couldn’t find a room anywhere.  I stayed there about three of four days.  They sent me over to the Coast Guard and told me to take an examination and I passed the examination to be a able bodied seaman.

I picked up a ship across from New Orleans.  We went empty down the Mississippi River Christmas Eve day in 1944.  I was assigned at the wheel, a helmsman, I was steering the ship.  They pulled a gun drill and they had everybody at their guns except one person.  They spent 30 minutes trying to find that one person and they were talking right there in front of me and I kept my mouth shut.

I was at the wheel and couldn’t leave to go get my assigned position.  They finally realized that I was the one missing and they rearranged things so that whoever at the wheel would not have time to do the drill.  Anyway we got into New Orleans the day after Christmas.  We loaded a bunch of sulfa and tobacco and a lot of other stuff and left.  Oh I’m sorry; it was Galveston, Texas.

We loaded up and headed out the Gulf of Mexico and ran into a storm.  That storm, we had the lifeboats hung out over the water.  The rule of thumb deal was that if a ship got torpedoed, ordinarily it sank within 2 minutes and you didn't waste any time trying to get into the lifeboat and away.  A wave took one of the lifeboats away from us.  The ship rocked and rolled.  I’d say half of the China cups and plates and things fell off, slid off the table and broke.

We ended up a lot of coffee drinking out of evaporated milk cans.  Anyway we went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then into Panama to the Pacific Ocean by ourselves.  Went through Cook’s Strait, which is the channel between the north island and the south island of New Zealand.  We went on in to Melbourne, Australia.  There we unloaded and managed to replace some of our crockery and what have you and restock food.  When we left out of Galveston, Texas, we were scheduled to go to Melbourne and then come back into San Francisco. 

They changed their minds out there and we loaded wheat.  That was in the March or April, which would be the equivalent of our fall in Australia.  They were harvesting the wheat.  So we left there and went on across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and stopped.  A country boy out of the backwoods of North Carolina born and raised in Red Bug was amazed to see them load a British ship with coal there on the Arabian Peninsula.

What they had was a bunch of staging and a barge and they had people on the barge loading baskets of coal and two men would take it and pass it up there until it got to the deck of the ship and then they’d dump it and carry it over to the third row of people and they’d carry the basket back down to get it loaded up again.

We got fuel oil there.  So we went on through the Suez Canal to Cairo, Egypt.  Cairo, Egypt was when I got a letter from home announcing that my brother who had infantile paralysis, polio, as a child therefore he was not drafted or anything, he worked at home or in the States, but I got a letter telling me that he had gotten married.  So we went from there up through the Red Sea to Cairo where I got that letter.

Then we went to Messina, Sicily and that is one of the straits of Italy.  You can see it on the horizon there.  Unbelievable to see there was a big, short distance from where we were on the ship, was a big steam locomotive lying on its side and a bomb had fallen and it caused it to turn over and it spread the rails so they couldn’t use the railroad.  I don’t know when they ever got it fixed. 

We unloaded a bunch of the wheat there.  They had a bunch of stevedores and two of them had started knocking off going home and they had tied the bottom of their pants leg and filled their legs full of wheat from the knees down to their ankles.  They got caught and I don’t know what they ever did about it.  Anyway we left there and went to the east coast of Italy, across the Asiatic Sea to Greece and Italy, we were still in Italy and unloaded the rest of the wheat.

I was passing by the hole where a lot of bags of wheat had spilled and they were cleaning out the hole and saving the wheat.  There was some Italian in there singing an operetta.  First class music I’ve ever heard.  He’d sing a while and then all of a sudden, the rest of the gang would join in on the chorus, beautiful music.  Surprising.  Of course I, a Nashville, Tennessee fan, got a change.

Anyway we came on back in.  It was a bad trip more or less.  Somehow or other, they let weevils get into the flour and we’d pick up a slice of bread and hold it to the light and pick out the weevils before we could eat the bread.  Instead of having lard, we used the fat from the goats and sheep in making bread.  Also instead of having ham and beef, we had a lot of mutton.  I don’t care for that kind of meat even today.

Then we came on back in and got to Baltimore.  I came home and did alright there.  Just have to bear with me a minute.  Came back in and in June 1944, in Charleston, South Carolina, we loaded a liberty ship with bombs and ammunition.  Then we went to New Jersey and New York City and top loaded with mail and trucks.  Trucks took up a lot of space and you had mail in it and around it and the ammunition kept the ship low enough and the mail and the trucks were light enough that we didn't have to worry about getting overloaded.

We went from there north of Scotland to the east coast of England.  They broke the convoy up and maybe a half a dozen ships that went around north of Scotland to the east coast.  It was also very foggy one night up there.

INTERVIEWER:   What year was this?

WYCHE:   This was the fall of 1944.  It was foggy one night and we put an electric liner, a flashlight, on a life jacket and tied a rope to it and dragged it behind the ship so any ship coming up behind us would be able to see the light and know there was something up ahead of them.  Somehow another, two ships got so close together that we carried on a conversation with the crew from the other ship.  We were that close together and we were just so afraid that we’d swing around.

Now we were loaded with ammunition, the bombs and the cannon stuff.  Of course, the fuses were not in them.  They were in a separate place.  I don’t know what would have happened, but anyway we got through it alright.  We came on back and went back to Norfolk.  I went back to the Mediterranean, went through Messina Straits of Sicily and over to Naples.

There I stopped and visited and did some sightseeing in Pompey where the volcano was putting out a bunch of smoke.  The first time I’d ever seen an active volcano.  We went to Marseilles, France.  There they were not very nice to us.  A couple of the boys went ashore and got a little bit rowdy with wine or what have you and got arrested. They put them in the jail.  There was not a chair, not a bunk, nothing except a concrete floor.  They had to lie on that.  No bathroom facilities, just lying on the concrete floor until the next morning and brought them back to the ship.

It was not a very nice way to treat us.  Anyway we went to the dock.  The Germans had released or the Americans in the invasion of southern France had caused a lot of the Arabian soldiers or French army before the Germans took over came down to the ship and we loaded a bunch of them and carried them back to North Africa to Algeria. 

There was one character.  He would not for the life of him come on board ship.  He was afraid.  So they managed to get him tied up and used a cargo rope and whatnot and brought him on board the ship like that.  When he got to Algeria, North Africa, they unloaded him the same way.   He didn't have to go like the rest of them did.  It was unbelievable, but they got him back. 

Then we returned to Virginia.  On the way back from there, there was one little experience there at Algiers, which I didn't particularly appreciate.  I think in December or the 1st of January, by anyway they wanted us instead of laying the cargo booms horizontal aboard the ship, had to stick them straight up in the air.  I was one of the ones that was assigned to go to the top of mast in the dark and they’d pick those booms up and another boy and were to throw a collar around them.

We got in to throw a collar around and pin it down and it was wet, sleety, rain and cold.  We were up there.  On each mast, there were four masts were two, the main mast was four and it seemed like to me on the fifth mast there were four of them.  They were put in the landing craft, LCI’s, coming across back, we hit some rough weather and we lost two of them.  They went overboard and washed over.

The Navy personnel was inside, sleeping inside of the main part of the ship instead of the landing craft so they didn't worry about losing them.  Anyway we came back in, it was not a very pleasant time.  That’s when I applied for the…I had enough sea time in that I could apply for a third mate rate.  So I went to Atlanta, Georgia, took the examination and someone told me that was the highest score they ever had on one of their tests there, the one I did. 

They put me on a train and I went through New York City up to New London, Connecticut to Fort Trumbull.  I was up there about four months and when I got through I was a…this was the spring of ’45, I was licensed as a third mate and they sent me to South Carolina in August.  There I stayed for about a month and then I was assigned to the Flemish Knot, it’s a motor vehicle and it’s in the style more or less that they used to use in the islands of the Pacific, a small ship going from one island to the next island.

It wouldn’t have big cargos, it would have small cargos I was assigned to it and went down to Savannah, Georgia, and the day I got there that was the day the shipyard workers went on strike.  So they put me ____.  I’d go down every morning and check in and then I’d come back uptown and tour some island and eat and look around, what have you.  I guess we were there a good while.

Anyway I can’t remember, it slipped my mind if I was on the Flemish Knot when the Japanese surrendered.  We went up to New Jersey again.  It was a little bit frightening and scary.  We were over in New York and had gone to Rockefeller Center to see the Rockettes.  Went back over to the Jersey side.  We were one or two cities south of the ridge where we crossed over the Hudson and they had quit running the buses and what have you.

So we were stuck.  So we sat on the curb there and were deciding what we should try to do and a police car came up.  One of them got out and opened the back door and said, “Get in, both of you”.  We got in and they wanted to know where we were trying to go and we named the place.  So they told us to get in and I just knew they were going to carry us to the jail and put us up for the night, but they didn't do it. 

They carried us down to the city limits and he had called in or radioed in the police town in that city and they took us back to the ship, which was very pleasant.  We loaded up cargo there.  I remember mainly we had a bunch of beer loaded and frozen hams and a lot of rations and what not.  We took off the last of August, the first week in September and went through the Panama Canal to Guam.

I can’t remember where over there.  We went to Okinawa one time and then we went up to Shanghai, China down to Singapore and that’s where we learned two things.  One, if you order a dish there, you’re liable, they claim you’re eating rabbit so you want to make sure it’s long eared instead of a short eared that went meow (laughter). 

INTERVIEWER 2:  This was after the war?

WYCHE:   Yes.

INTERVIEWER 2:  So you weren’t in blackout then?

WYCHE:   No.

INTERVIEWER 2:  But the other times you were.

WYCHE:   We were there about a week.  I went ashore a pack of cigarettes with me and gave it to the ____bumbo, there were about three of us on there.  Each of us gave him a pack of cigarettes to carry us to ashore so we could get a meal and see some of the city.  Cigarettes were real, real expensive there.  We were paying 65 cents for a 10-pack carton, 65 cents each and we were allowed one carton a week. 

Anyway we left there and headed for Shanghai one Sunday morning, headed out.  I can’t remember, somewhere near Guam, one of the other islands and from the time we left Shanghai Sunday morning, we did not see the sun again until the following Sunday morning.  The old man was one of the smartest, wisest people I’ve ever known.  He had us keeping a record of the force of the wind, the direction of the wind and also the seas.

We were in for seven days there and nights with no method or means of any navigation.  Couldn’t see the sun, couldn’t see the moon, couldn’t see stars or anything and come Sunday morning, we were 50 miles of where we were supposed to be.  It was almost unbelievable.  From there, we unloaded a bunch of stuff and went to Wake Island.  From there, we went to Pearl Harbor.

From Pearl Harbor, we went to Johnston Island about 10-15 acres in size and they had used it for a seaplane base.  We went up there and going up the channel, you could look down and see the edge of the coral and on the other side, you could see coral there.  It was not a very wide channel.  Anyway we went in there.  We tied up and loaded a bunch of rations and supplies and things and got ready to come out and we asked for a tugboat to help us.

So they said alright, alright and about 15-20 minutes, came an outboard motor boat and put a line and they were going to pull us, turn us around and we just got turned loose from the dock when they gave out of gas.  So the old man managed to navigate and we got out of it alright.

We went over there to where they were having that bomb test when the Japanese fleet, I forgot the name of the island, but we stayed in there I guess close to a month or better.  We were there when they had that first bomb because the seaplanes were there and they had to make us move so they wouldn’t hit us.  Somebody had fouled up.

INTERVIEWER:   What were you doing during that month?

WYCHE:   Just sitting there reading and writing.

INTERVIEWER 2:  But you had to stand watch.

WYCHE:   We had to stand watch.

INTERVIEWER 2:  But no cargo.

WYCHE:   No cargo.

INTERVIEWER:   You were just parked there.

WYCHE:   Just parked there, I don’t know what all they wanted us to do.  Then when we got through there, we loaded a bunch of Marine Corps supplies and headed back up and one of the boys gave me a packet of underwear shorts and I changed into my shorts every day for 30 days and didn't wash a one of them.  I had clean underwear for 30 days (laughter). 

INTERVIEWER:   Did you ever get seasick?

WYCHE:   No, I did not.  Never did get seasick.  In the North China Sea, the ship hit some rough weather.  I slept in my clothes and pulled my shoes off.  I slept in my clothes because you wouldn’t slide up and down the sheets so bad in your clothes.  I’d bump my head and stub my toes so I got up and sat up and would roll back and forth.  After about an hour I guess I passed out.

INTERVIEWER:   You know, if you were in the military, probably first class or a sergeant or a general, every job level had a certain pay and you got paid once a month.  How did they work it with you?  How did they figure your pay and who paid you and when did they pay you?

WYCHE:   We were paid according to your rating.  When I was at Sheep Head’s Bay, I was given a private equivalency.  When I got up to Fort Trumbull, I got a master sergeant’s pay.  And then when I got on ship as third mate, I got a second lieutenant’s pay.  Also in the Mediterranean, they had two pay schedules there.  They had what they called a submarine pay scale and then a bombing pay scale.

INTERVIEWER:   This is for hazardous duty.

WYCHE:   Hazardous duty, yes.  I forgot just what it was, but anyway it was much better than Army pay.  Anyway we came in San Francisco just before Labor Day and it was the day after Labor Day that we got paid and I caught a train back to the east coast.  They had some military troop trains, boxcar whatever, and it reminds me very much of the World War I stories how they put the troops in cattle cars and hauled them down to France.

They were crowded and what have you.  Of course they had bunks.  We had the troops on one ship going across the Atlantic Ocean.  We were classified as special cargo.  They had to be fed, two meals a day. 

INTERVIEWER 2:  That were the troops, Army troops.

WYCHE:   We ate three meals a day.

INTERVIEWER:   How did you earn your bread and butter after you got off the maritime service?

WYCHE:   Well that’s another story there I guess.  Anyway I came in, came through Wake Forest on a train, Seaboard train from the west coast the day that they were signing up for fall semesters.  I made up my mind I was going home first.  So I went back home and the following January, I went back up there to pick up – my mother and sister insisted that I got a college degree in a year and a half.

I made a mistake with my father there.  He wasn’t sending me money.  I was paying my own way cause see I had all that year’s pay on the Flemish Knot.  I didn't go anyplace until we left New York and got to San Francisco.  I didn't need much money.  I could make a draw whenever I wanted to.  I guess I had better than $4000 or $5000 cash.  I got traveler’s checks and I converted them into $500 checks.

I paid my own way of school.  I should have had my father pay and he could have deducted it from his taxes.  I was stupid.  I went back and finished school and then my sister was working in New York.  She wanted me to come up there so I went to New York for a summer.  Then they started, I believe it was in ’48, they started the Korean War.

INTERVIEWER 2:  That was 1950.  They were still on wartime footing in 1948, the United States was.

WYCHE:   I came back here, went to Savannah, Georgia.  I had an old Lincoln Continental car.  Took it down to Savannah, sold it and got me back as an able bodied seaman.  I made four trips to Europe.  We’d go from Jacksonville, Florida up to Philadelphia and we’d go to Le Havre, France, Brussels, Hamburg, Liverpool, Southampton, London, you name it, we hit it and then come back to the United States.

There again, Philadelphia, I had to register for the draft for the second time.  They were coming up and saying that anybody that was 18 through 25 had to register.  In October in six months, I would be 26.  So I registered again for the draft.  I was gone for about a month or what not and I got a letter this time from the right draft board.  I waited until the day I left the United States to mail the thing back to them.

There was another month before I could get the results from them.  The old man and I got together.  He told them where I was, I was not a draft dodger, I was working as an essential seaman.  So I didn't get drafted. 

But there’s one experience there that I don’t want anybody else to have to experience.  I was put in a boatswain’s chair on top of the mast with a chip and hammer, wire brush, scraper and a pot of paint.  If I saw a rust spot, I’d knock it off, and put a coat of red paint on it.  The next day I’d go back up there with a bucket of gray paint and paint the mast down.  I did that for all three masts, and, believe me, it was not fun.

One time the ____ chair had a rope around it so I wouldn’t swing.  It came untied, loose, and I could see water on the right side of the ship and the left hand side of the ship.  The ship was rolling and I was hanging straight.  It was no fun.  Anyway I got the mast painted. 

INTERVIEWER:   What did you learn from all of your wartime experiences?

WYCHE:   I learned that things are a whole lot different in the backwoods of North Carolina and I’m a firm believer that every person should leave home, go to school or the military and find out that there are other things in the world besides this area.