ATC Insignia

Army Transportation Corps

In 1942, the Army Transportation Corps (ATC) was created to resolve logistics issues among the various branches of service, combining all land, sea, and air transportation under a single command structure. The Army Transportation Service was then brought into the ATC as the Water Division.

Those of us who played on the school's football team graduated last, but we emerged from Marine Officers Upgrading School in New Orleans with the enhanced rank of Lieutenant J.G. We had been trained to man small interisland vessels but by the time we graduated, ships of that class had been taken over by the Coast Guard and new replacement vessels were not ready.

With ships unavailable for us, It was decided to create new positions on larger ships in the fleet such as army transport and hospital ships. We were reduced in rank and commissioned as Jr. 3rd Mates, Deck or Engine officers according to our specialty, and then dispersed to ports around the country to await assignment.

I requested assignment to the Vessel Manning Cadre in Wilmington since it was close to home. My request was granted and, due to having previous army experience, I was placed in charge of the other officer's traveling with me from New Orleans. Upon our arrival at the Vessel Manning Cadre, we reported in mass to the port commander. I saluted proudly. "Nine Jr. Thirds reporting from New Orleans Sir."

A no nonsense Army man, Captain Blomgren stared at me with a bewildered look on his face. "Nine Junior what from where?"

It was understandable the Captain would be confused. The rank of Jr. 3rd Officer was created only to spare the brass from embarrassment when they found they didn't have a place in the fleet for us as Lieutenants J.G. We were Marine Officers, but also civilians with Civil Service ratings, and we wore uniforms identical to naval officers, except for the ATC insignia in place of a Navy star. Ship's Captains protested at having these "90-Day wonders with bastard ranks" foisted upon them and some even refused outright to have us aboard.

Captain Blomgren had no idea what to do with us so we found ourselves again with nothing to occupy our time. The Devil finds mischief for idle hands, and we soon became such an annoyance to port authorities they decided to put us to work. One of the men in our group with some legal experience studied our contract and discovered we had the right to refuse orders not outlined in regulations according to our rank.

A few of us began refusing work unless it fell within the officer category, and soon we were generally deemed persona non grata by order of Captain Blomgren. Being healthy young Marine Officers, we enjoyed popularity among women working in the offices around the port so we were shifted from one office to another in an attempt to thwart any success in our amorous pursuits. When that failed, we were restricted from entering the office buildings, requiring us to sign the daily report by having it handed to us through an open window.

With little to occupy my time, I purchased a 1940 Crocker motorcycle. The port was only 18-miles from my folk's place in Hermosa Beach so I could now make it home in about 20‑minutes. When Captain Blomgren learned of my frequent excursions away from the port, he increased the number of times I had to sign in each day until it was no longer possible to go home.

I resented being so severely restricted, so I came up with a plan to thwart the Captain's orders and at least restore my ability to window-shop for romantic prospects. When we first arrived at Wilmington, I noticed document messengers zipping around on three-wheeled Cushman motor scooters, so I volunteered for messenger duty. Imagine how I must have looked astride a three-wheeled scooter in my gold braid officer's uniform.

As a messenger, I was able to travel anywhere in port, as well as up and down the Pacific Coast Highway between Wilmington headquarters and the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation. I now had unrestricted access to places where I had been denied entry only a few days earlier, which served to anger Captain Blomgren even more.

I was the only unassigned New Orleans graduate remaining in port when the Hospital Ship Emily H. M. Weder steamed into Los Angeles harbor on August 3, 1945. The ship only came to port for scheduled renovations, but Captain Blomgren was not going to miss a chance to get rid of me. I was quickly transferred and ordered aboard the Weder.

No protocol existed for officers with the rank of Jr. 3rd Mate, and ships didn't even have regular berths for men assigned as such. To make matters worse, the Weder's captain was Gustav W. Olson, a crotchety old tar strongly biased against Jr. 3rd Mates even before I arrived. The Captain's thick Swedish-accent was well salted with expletives so whenever he referred to Jr. 3rd Mates, it was "oonyer turds", preceded always by the "F" word.

It took only as long as my initial interview before I was on the wrong side of my new skipper, when he asked about my seafaring experience. "In addition to several trips between Catalina Island and the mainland while at Avalon", I said, "I sailed on a week long training cruise from St. Petersburg."

The captain scowled in disapproval, so I tried to infuse a little levity. "I also have several weeks experience manning a three-wheeled messenger's scooter at Wilmington."

The Captain took everything I said as flippant and disrespectful. A few seconds into the castigation that followed, I realized life with Captain Olson would be no bed of roses. The ship's renovations included removing a bulkhead to enlarge the captain's quarters. In spite of my rank, I was now low man aboard as far as the captain was concerned, so he assigned me to guard his quarters while workers were on the premises.

During renovations, a fountain pen disappeared from Olson's cabin. The first I knew of it was after the Captain asked for my pen to sign some papers. After signing, he informed me someone stole his pen on my watch. He said that I was therefore responsible and he would just, "keep this one", as he stuck my pen in his own pocket.

This particular pen was a Christmas present from my family so I impulsively reached out, pulling it from the Captain's pocket and placing it back in my own. Captain Olson went berserk, screaming profanities and ordering me off the Weder immediately, demanding I never set foot on his ship again.

I returned to the port office and told Captain Blomgren what happened. "My instructions emanate from Washington and that's final", he said, adding for good measure, "Thank God I won't have to put up with you any more."

Captain Blomgren then instructed me to return to the Weder and explain to Captain Olson that it was beyond his control to alter my assignment. Somewhat apprehensive, I returned to the ship only to be stopped by a guard at the top of the gangplank. When Captain Olson was summoned, he was more irate than before. He administered another tongue-lashing, then ordered the First Mate to escort me back to the pier.

I was so frustrated by the time I returned to Captain Blomgren's office I was beyond caring what they did with me. Before the Weder came in, I was planning to spend a few days camping with my family in the mountains so I decided to revive that plan. "I'm going camping with my family", I said, "You talk to Olson yourself. Maybe you'll figure something out by the time I get back".

Captain Blomgren was now so frustrated himself that he didn't respond, so I just left. During my absence, the two captains, Blomgren and Olson, indeed met. "Once a man is cleared for assignment in Washington, there's no choice in the matter--you'll sail with Mehan on board, by God, or else," Blomgren demanded.

In words unfit for printed page, Olson fired back at Blomgren telling him exactly where he and I could both go and what we could do when we got there. Then countering Blomgren's own ultimatum, Olson added, "Mehan's not gonna put a foot on my ship again, I doan care vaught you do, by God."

When I returned to the port a few days later, I reported straight to Captain Blomgren and found him in a dour mood. "Mehan, we have a real problem," Blomgren said, "Captain Olson apparently dislikes you even more than I do. He's flat refused to have you back on board."

It was déjà vu all over again. Just like my Army days, I managed to cultivate the highest degree of enmity toward me in two hardheaded superiors. Olson knew an ATC officer could not be fired but could be discharged for a serious infraction. Attempting to have me discharged with prejudice, he claimed to have found me sleeping in his bunk while on duty guarding his quarters. To his credit, Captain Blomgren refused to process Olson's charges since they were so preposterous that even he didn't believe them.

A few days later, an Army Transport steamed into Los Angeles Harbor. After hearing the Captain of the transport was having trouble with a Jr. 3rd Mate on board his ship, Blomgren made the rounds and brokered a deal. After trying to have me dishonorably discharged, it must have galled Olson to sign off on my discharge papers but, if he wanted to get rid of me, he had no choice. I was quickly discharged from the Weder and reassigned to the Evangeline, while the other officer was switched to the Weder.

The Evangeline was under command of Captain Howard H. Cleaves. When I learned we were transporting a boatload of nurses from San Francisco to Manila, I thought a Guardian Angel must have been looking over my shoulder. On September 8, 1945, we steamed out of Los Angeles Harbor. It had been a long time coming but finally, I was realizing my ambition.

I quickly learned that our "bastard" rank was resented by superiors and subordinates alike, and with no attempt to hide their feelings. As time passed, we gained a little respect from our shipmates but our initiation could be frustrating at times. I was soon assigned my first duty on the Evangeline, raising the Transportation Corps flag as we pulled away from the dock.

Standing on the bow, with me poised to respond, the 1st Mate gave the order. "Hoist the halyard smartly!" I hoisted smartly all right, but whoever hooked the lines, left the bottom of the flag unattached so, to my great embarrassment, it went flying like a kite, .

After a few days at sea, we ran into the first of several storms, each more sever than the one before, culminating at last in a full-blown typhoon in the San Bernardino Strait. Nurses were first to succumb, then as the ship pitched with greater and more constant force just about everyone aboard was inflicted to some degree with seasickness. In spite of bad weather and profuse vomiting among the passengers, we managed to have considerable fun at sea.

Jr. 3rd Mate Silva, one of my classmates from New Orleans, was also on the Evangeline. Silva had a remarkable knack for getting into trouble or becoming the goat of horseplay. On our first night out, the weather was crisp and clear so Silva was assigned night watch in the wheelhouse. The control lever for the ship's foghorn had an automatic setting for blasting a periodic warning during foggy conditions.

The foghorn was so loud it could nearly blow a man off the deck if caught unaware. Silva somehow managed to activate the switch, which had no effect until seconds later. We hardly lost sight of land when the foghorn shattered the night air with Silva as startled as anyone on board. In the Captain's quarters below deck, it would have been an ignored annoyance had there been fog, but in clear weather, it could only mean trouble or horseplay.

Captain Cleaves negotiated the distance to the bridge in mere seconds. With only a helmsman and Silva in the wheelhouse, it didn't take long identify the culprit. This was not Silva's first run in with the Captain so the lambasting that followed elevated the Captain's reputation for creative language to legendary heights.

Silva was always trying to impress someone, but particularly the nurses we were transporting. One day, during a lull between storms, Captain Cleaves was on deck chatting with a nurse when the young woman spotted Silva. "Oh look," she said, "There's your Chief Navigation Officer."

After learning Silva had given himself a promotion, the Captain decided to cut him back down to size. Noticing one evening that Jr. 3rd Mate Silva had not yet arrived in the dining room, Captain Cleaves announced there was a new officer on the ship. It was customary for everyone to stand when the Captain entered the dining room, but the captain asked us to repeat the procedure and stand and sit again when he did.

When Silva walked through the doorway, the Captain stood up, and we all followed suit as instructed. Silva looked bewildered but proceeded to his seat. The captain sat down, and so did we. The Captain had arranged for a nametag to be placed in Silva's napkin holder declaring, "Chief Navigation Officer". As Silva realized he had been had, his bewildered look faded to horrified humiliation.

After 21 days at sea, just after the weather finally cleared, we sailed past Corregidor into Manila Harbor. I stood on deck as the Evangeline wallowed lazily toward her moorings. In spite of the oppressive heat, I stayed topside, drinking in the surreal world around me. Japan's official surrender had come before we left Los Angeles, but the ravages of war were still visible everywhere. Masts of sunken warships pierced the harbor's waters and the thick air was laced with the haze of smoldering debris.

At twenty years of age, I had not yet experienced the wanderlust possessed by many healthy and active young men, nor had I, during my short sailing tenure, been particularly affected by the ageless allure of the sea. I considered myself to be generally devoid of much emotion and felt my ambitions to this point were merely career oriented. Yet here, the gentle motion of the ship as it yawed its way through the harbor's wreckage, the smell and sounds of the harbor, the suffocating humidity, all conspired to stir my senses with almost intoxicating effect.

After docking, some of us were allowed two hours shore leave, which was safely within the time allotted for unloading passengers and cargo. Leaving the ship, I found it hard to comprehend what I found. It was almost immediately evident that the normal infrastructure of civilization had seized to exist in Manila.

Ships docked in the harbor dumped their trash and garbage onto rotting piles just beyond the wharf, presumably to be eventually hauled off to some landfill. In the mean time, small nearly naked children climbed all over the mushy putrid masses, looking for God only knows what. It was a sight most revolting, and heart wrenching at the same time. The wretched plight of those children has remained through the years among my most vivid memories of the Philippines.

Devastation in the city nearly defied description. Bombing had reduced large areas of a once thriving metropolis to piles of brick and splintered lumber. Only the occasional small structure or skeleton of a former building hinted of modern civilization. Further diminishing any hope of decent human existence, dirt, mud and smoldering debris was everywhere. The lingering stench of smoke and rot and human refuse was inescapable.

Still, as I ventured farther from the waterfront, I was amazed to discover areas of the city bustling with activity. Hordes of natives were going on with their lives without regard to the havoc around them. Merchants had re-established businesses by fabricating makeshift stalls from sticks and cardboard.

Solicitations from beggars and prostitutes were repeated with monotonous regularity and naked children ran about unrestricted. The streets were full of Jitneys whizzing around among pedestrians at dangerous speeds. MP's patrolled the streets in Jeeps and other GI's, drunk and sober, mingled among the natives or wandered in and out of brothels and bars.

By the time I made my way back to the ship, I was overwhelmed by the filth and chaos of Manila. Feeling an urge to rid my body of the suffocating layer of filth I had accumulated, I showered, shaved and put on fresh clothing. For someone who had always given little attention to feelings, I now was emotionally exhausted by the events of the day. It was almost comic relief hearing, that during the short time I was ashore, Silva had gotten himself in trouble with the Captain again.

Silva I was told, had been on watch in the wheelhouse when some crewmember decided to play a prank on him. The bridge intercom system had a handle which could be rotated to about a dozen different locations such as gangplank, kitchen, all officers, dispensary, and so forth. To communicate, one simply placed the arrow in the desired position and cranked a handle to ring the designated location.

Someone set the bridge intercom arrow to direct calls to the Captain's cabin, then, from another location, they rang the bridge. When Silva answered the call, no one responded. After several calls, Silva twirled the handle frantically thinking the offender would answer. The first time the Captain answered, he was so exhausted from having stayed awake during the storm he simply dismissed the call as a mistake and hung-up without bothering to identify himself.

The persistent prankster called the bridge again. This time, Silva rang back and cut loose with an ear-full of expletives. Captain Cleaves was an expert at foul language, but I'm sure he was not accustomed to being on the receiving end. Too late, Silva realized his mistake and the Captain appeared on the bridge in full fury. After the usual verbal assault, the Captain ordered Silva off the ship until further notice. Only Silva's ATC contract prevented him from being permanently evicted.

The Evangeline was scheduled to return to her homeport in San Francisco with a load of homeward bound soldiers. Judging by the GI's faces as they came up the gangplank, a happier lot you never could see. There were thousands of women in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) also stranded in the Philippines. Ships were scarce so, in addition to about six-hundred men, we also packed four hundred or so WAC's aboard. This was the first large group of WAC's to be demobilized after the war.

The women were shabbily dressed and appeared to be in poor physical condition. To exacerbate the problem further, we didn't have suitable accommodations for them. Hammocks were hung everywhere to the point you couldn't travel between any two points on the ship without encroaching on some WAC's privacy. Still, since the women were so eager to get home, the WAC Director, Colonel Boyce was unwilling to stop the shipment.

Thankfully, we enjoyed fair weather and, other than the effects of overcrowding, the crossing to San Francisco was uneventful. After feeling Captain Cleaves increasing wrath, even Silva was unusually inconspicuous. In fact, a WAC ended up bunking in my cabin thanks to Silva, who normally shared my cabin but graciously gave up his bunk to the attractive young woman.

Within a day or two after our San Francisco docking, I noticed a front-page story in the San Francisco Examiner about WAC's arriving home on the troopship Evangeline. The women claimed, according to the article, their ships quarters were a "rat infested hellhole". No wonder the WAC who shared my stateroom was so eager to accept the invitation.

With our return to San Francisco, my term of shipment on the Evangeline was completed and I was discharged accordingly on October 22, 1945. About that time, the Coast Guard announced it was releasing all previously requisitioned interisland Army transport vessels. Accordingly, Jr. 3rd Mates were to be promoted to 2nd Mates and sent to the South Pacific to relieve the Coast Guard so their officers could return home.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009