CBIVA Sound-off
Fall 1990 Issue

By Leonard H. McLaren

653rd Engineer Battalion Ships Out to India

With barracks bags and GIs safely stowed on board, the special train pulled out of Camp Claiborne the afternoon of 16 August 43 on what was then the first leg of our long trek into the "Great Unknown."

This proved to be a pleasant and interesting journey. We were traveling through country that to the majority of the boys was new and exciting; the great plains of Texas with its ranches, tumbleweeds and cactus, stretching off into a limitless expanse across the horizon. We crossed the sun-baked deserts of New Mexico with juniper, mes-quite and sage, the picturesque Indians and their pueblos, the mountains with their lofty pines, the western towns where we stopped to 'stretch our legs, - and then we rode into California, the land of 'Sutters gold,' the land of the modern gold - oil - thousands upon thousands of derricks as far as the eye could see, the beautiful 'Spanish towns,' and at last Camp Anza, nestled in a valley surrounded by the beautiful and towering Sierra Nevadas.

Camp Anza, the staging area, was our last stop in the United States! Again the confusion and dash of a training camp, overseas inoculations - inspections, physical, and of equipment - physical hardening, hikes, obstacle courses - scaling of the 'cargo net' as a precaution - just in case!

The 6th of September found us ready; the months of training were completed and we boarded the train for our last ride in the States. A short ride, but oh, so important. Our last glimpse at the America we knew and loved; the palm trees, the vast orange groves, the squalid Mexican huts along the tracks, the little old lady, waving tearfully crying, "God bless you boys." A few hours later we arrived at Wilmington, and the Port of Embarkation for Los Angeles. The train was met by Red Cross personnel who served coffee and cookies to the men as they waited their turn to board the transport. The identity of each man was checked upon reaching the gangplank and with carbine slung over one shoulder, the "A" bag was over the other, his last step on American soil was taken as he boarded the transport for his journey into the "Great Unknown."

The ship was the Army Transport "George Washington," built in Stetting, Germany, 1908, operated as a luxury liner until confiscation at the opening of World War I, formerly known as the S.S. Catlin, renamed the George Washington; a large and a fast ship, 722.5 feet long, 36,000 tons displacement, average speed of 15 knots, top speed 26 knots, with the largest twin engines and boilers afloat. A famous old ship, for it carried presidents, kings and queens, and now, GI Joes; proud too, for it was entrusted with the delivery of American soldiers to their destinations without help - unescorted, alone!

We left Wilmington, 7 September 43, and headed into the vast expanse of the Pacific. When the first flush of excitement died away, life on board ship settled into a routine affair; two meals a day, breakfast at eight, dinner at five, swiping food from the galley, for we were always hungry, policing the ship, frequent fire drills, the balance of the day to loaf, blackout from sundown to sunrise. A few days later our destination, India, was made known. This monotonous life continued until 15 September when the Equator was crossed and the age old ceremony in honor of King Neptune was held. Ten percent of the unit went through the 'Shellback initiation' and the balance of the personnel received certificates establishing their membership in the 'Ancient Order of the Deep.'

The voyage continued on uneventfully until 29 September when the island of Tasmania was sighted. One day's shore leave was granted, giving the boys an opportunity to 'stretch their legs,' to see the beauties of this island at close range, and to meet the inhabitants. We were graciously received and were given a hearty welcome by the people "from the other side of the world." Two days later we were once more on our way, heading for the distant shores of Australia. We arrived at the harbor of Free-mantle, port for the city of Perth on 7 October 43.

The transport was provisioned and left the same day, heading into the Indian Ocean.

On the 20 of October we reached our destination - Bombay. At last the long and tiresome voyage was at an end. We had safely covered 16,000 miles, some of them through Jap infested waters. Forty-two days had passed since leaving the shores of the United States. Forty-two days of close companionship - through the heat of the tropics, the cold of the Antarctic, calm waters and turbulent seas, serene sailing and the zig-zagging through dangerous waters; the constant pounding of the mighty engines, the shouted orders and calls of the ship's crew - 42 never to be forgotten days. Majestically and proudly the George Washington came to rest at Ballard Pier. It had a right to be proud - it had fulfilled its sacred trust, the safe delivery of its human cargo.

Many and varied were the emotions which took hold of the men as they gazed upon this new and strange land. So, this is India, the mystic land of the East - the home of Gandhi and the Hindus - fabulous wealth and dire poverty - the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal - snake charmers and sacred cows. This was to be our home for an indefinite period of time.

Shore leave, granted the following day, was taken advantage of by the men. The new and varied sights presented to them for the first time held the interest of all.

In the late afternoon of 22 October, we left Bombay by train and headed north toward the foothills of the Himalayas. This part of the trip was of great interest to all the men. We were in a new land, our new home, and all were eager to see and learn as much about it as possible. The ever-changing scenery, century old methods of farming and ways of living were new and strange. We left the plains and started into the foothills, arriving at Dehra Dun, United Provinces, at 2 PM the 25 of October 43. We marched through Dehra Dun to the British Royal Air Force Transit Camp, located just outside of town, which was assigned to us as temporary quarters until our own camp was constructed.

This was our final destination, the many months of training were about to bear fruit. We were ready for our first assignment. Submitted by Leonard H. McLaren, Cape Coral, FL.

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