This blog post was written by Graduate Student Assistant B.J. Thome. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature in his second year at The Texas Collection. This post is the third in a series about the 56th Evacuation Hospital, an Army medical unit with close ties to the Baylor University College of Medicine, which was active during World War II.
Ben Merrick, like Lawrence Dudgeon Collins and Jabez Galt, was a medical officer in the 56th Evacuation Hospital, commonly known as the Baylor Unit. Like the other members of the Baylor Unit, he received a commission in the Army Medical Corps Reserves and was called into active service in 1942. Like Collins and Galt, he served with the 56th Evac in North Africa and Italy, writing of his experiences in a diary and his letters home, including the taxing experiences of the Anzio beachhead.
Anzio, however, wasn’t the only time when the 56th faced the possibility of danger. In fact, as revealed by Merrick’s diary entries, the initial crossing of the Atlantic was a frightening experience. Whereas Collins, Galt, and a handful of other medical officers from the 56th crossed the Atlantic in a smaller ship with a brief stop in Bermuda, Merrick traveled with the majority of the 56th in a repurposed cruise ship, the S.S. Mariposa.
The first difficulty they faced were the crowded conditions aboard ship. Before the war, the Mariposa typically carried around 1,200 people, including both passengers and crew. Once the war started, however, the Mariposa was repurposed to transport military personnel across the Atlantic, carrying well over 5,000 people. The soldiers being transported were packed into any room where space could be found or made. The stateroom, where Merrick slept during his journey across the Atlantic, was originally designed for two passengers. During the war, nine officers were crowded into the room. Merrick’s first diary entry at sea, dated April 16, 1943, describes his room: “Stateroom 112 is anything but spacious. A room about 12 x 12 feet into which are crowded 9 bunks, in 3 tiers of 3, each tier having its bunks supported from 2 upright pipes by means of chains.”
Not only was the ship crowded, but the entire crossing was overshadowed by the threat of German attack. Merrick’s first diary entry aboard ship notes, “Of course, everyone has thought and talked about the possibility of torpedo attacks. There are a goodly number of ack-ack guns on top on top. Hope we don’t have to use them!” While crossing the Atlantic, the Mariposa might be ambushed by German submarines firing torpedoes. They also might be attacked by German bombers, requiring the Mariposa to use the antiaircraft (or ack-ack) guns Merrick references.
As their journey continued, Merrick noted how they took several precautions to minimize the risk of German attack. First, from the outset, the Mariposa did not maintain a direct course. Instead, as Merrick notes on April 16, “the ship is zigzagging, as you can see by its wake.” His entry the next day similarly observes that, although they seem to be generally headed southeast, the ship “changes directions so often that she has at various times also headed northeast, due east, & southwest.” The constantly changing course would make it difficult for German ships to pursue the Mariposa and its zigzagging would help prevent German submarines from successfully targeting the ship with torpedoes.
Another precaution they took was maintaining a strict blackout after 6:40 pm. The risk, of course, would be that any light source after dark would make the ship an easy and obvious target in the middle of the ocean. Those who flouted the restrictions even in a small way faced consequences. Merrick’s entry from April 18, 1943, describes two such breaches of the blackout: “Today I found out that a sergeant had tried to light a cigarette out on deck, against the advice of his fellow soldiers, for we have been cautioned against that time & again. He had no sooner struck the match than he was tackled by a dozen soldiers. His stripes were removed & he is now awaiting to be called on the carpet by the captain of the ship, so I’m told. It is also rumored that an officer lit a cigarette on boat deck last night & that he may be confined to his room for the remainder of the trip. If it’s true, such punishment would not be severe enough in my estimation.”
Despite the crowded conditions, the constant threat of German attack, and the careless actions of a couple of the soldiers, the Mariposa crossed the Atlantic safely. On April 24, 1943, the ship put into harbor at Casablanca, much to the relief of the passengers. As Merrick’s diary entry, written while waiting to disembark, announces, “It was really a thrill to see land—Africa! Safe at last! No submarine would get us now.”