New Orleans

Before pulling out of St. Petersburg, we learned we would arrive in New Orleans as Ensigns and after the designated course of study, would emerge from Officer's Upgrading School with the rank of lieutenant J.G. We Reported in at the school on the second or third of August 1944.

We were assigned housing on the Army air base about five-miles from town where I soon found myself immersed once again in an army environment. Our barracks were comprised of a large brick building with bunks identical to those used at Fort Knox. The building was situated between a set of train tracks and an airstrip. As frequent and loud as the trains were, they were nothing compared to the huge transport planes thundering down the runway day and night.

In addition to the Transportation Corps, the Army also needed Marine Officers for other Army vessels so we spent our first two weeks learning Army protocol. Accepting an Army commission was non-compulsory so the Army orientation was a waste of time for me. The second two weeks were dedicated to classroom study which was mostly review of things we had already learned. We were then to ply our skills on a two-week training cruise to either Florida or Cuba, which we all looked forward to with great enthusiasm.

At first, it looked like we would have plenty of leisure time, with liberty from five o'clock each night to seven the next morning, and weekends from Saturday afternoon to seven o'clock Monday morning. However, the school administration decided to form a football team and those of us with previous football experience were invited to tryout. Evert Maki, Orval Baker, and I made first string. Evert, who I met at St. Petersburg Cadet School, eventually became my brother-in-law after I introduced him to my wife's sister.

We started football practice in the already stifling early August heat, and classroom instruction began mid-month. We hit the deck at 6:30 AM. and ran at a grueling pace all day. In the first 8-1/2 hours after rising, we crammed morning duties, breakfast & lunch, scheduled classes, lectures & training movies, and practiced Jujitsu under supervision of Army Captains. Then at 3:00 PM, we reported for football practice which ran for several more hours in the hottest part of the day.

Early in September, we scrimmaged in the Sugar Bowl with Tulane University and really took a pummeling. We played our first game September 16, 1944 with Arkansas A&M. The Arkansas student body was made up largely of Marine and Navy cadets. Whenever we met an A&M cadet, they would come to attention and salute since our entire team was comprised of officers.

We were housed in the dormitories at A&M and treated royally with all expenses paid. However, after being such good hosts, all goodwill was eradicated when they beat us forty-seven to nothing. We eventually played Army teams, Navy teams, most of the local college teams and even an Air force team based in Monroe, Louisiana. The GI's took all their hostility out on us. After all, where else could they beat up on a bunch of Marine Officers with no repercussions?

We did all right considering we were a new team selected from a pool of less than one-hundred men and our opponents were all established teams selected from huge numbers of potential players. We came close to winning several games and actually did win one. Due to injuries, the team dwindled down to about twenty-five men by mid October. Baker was among the injured and missed out on our winning game.

Friday, October 27, we took our final exams, and upon receiving passing grades, we were deemed qualified to ship out as Marine Officers but the commandant did not intend to let us go before football season was over. Our test scores had suffered due to the rigors of football practice, and now all our names were stricken from any list that might place us in jeopardy of shipping out.

Graduation was supposed to be Saturday, October 28 but we got caught up in orders causing a two-week delay. With our official course of study completed, we lost our housing on the Army base and soon had to find accommodations in town. The day after Election Day, November 12, 1944—Roosevelt beat Dewey—a friend and I rented a room in New Orleans for $5.50 each, per week.

The room was in a private home in a nice neighborhood, and our landlords seemed like a decent young couple. They had two small children about three or four years old, so they made it clear they didn't want us coming in drunk and disorderly. This was not a problem since my roommate and I were both non-drinkers. The room was clean and comfortable, but had only one bed.

Two days after we moved off base, we were summoned to meet with the base commandant, Commander Dossett. Due to all the injuries sustained by our players, it had been decided to disband the team and cancel the few games scheduled for the balance of the season. Because of our team status, we were still without assignment, so we were permanently assigned as base personnel, officially promoted to Lieutenants J.G., and given a ten-dollar per diem. Later the per diem was raised to twelve-dollars.

I had intended to find work to augment my income once I moved off base but unfortunately, I found there to be a shortage of suitable work available. Signing Cadre at the port each day was the only requirement to collect our salaries but we had to sign in at 8:30 AM and out at 3:30 PM. Some of the officers who found jobs would just have friends sign them in and out, forging their signatures.

With school finished and no football practice, I moved to Franklin Avenue and invested $4.50 a month in joining the New Orleans Athletic Club. At the club, I became good friends with several other members and I ran into Bill Wilbur, a friend from Cadet School in St. Petersburg, who had also joined.

Most mornings after signing Cadre, Bill and I would go to Solaris café in the French Quarter for breakfast. Sometimes several of our friends would join us. Evert Maki and Evan Petroff would occasionally join in on weekends but they both worked during the week. From Solaris most of us went separate directions but Bill and I would usually head for the Athletic Club.

Noontime we could usually be found lunching with a few of the attractive young ladies who worked at Walgreens drug store on Canal Street. I sent a picture to my folks of several of the Walgreens girls and my Mother immediately wrote back advising me to avoid such women. I wrote my Mother explaining at some length how, she needn't worry, and that I always conducted myself as a gentleman.

By this point in time, I was not the shy kid drafted out of college, but I was in fact still pure in the Christian sense. Some of my fellow officers heard of my lack of experience and attempted to provoke me into an encounter with a woman from Walgreens. Married, and with a reputation for being promiscuous, the woman just wasn't the kind of girl I had been pursuing so in the end, I declined the proposition.

Always looking for an opportunity for romance, I once spotted an attractive woman walking along a sidewalk in a nurse uniform. I thought I had the perfect pick-up line so I hurried along and caught up with her. When she paused at the edge of the curb, I sauntered up and smugly asked, "Say, how can I become a patient of yours?" The woman burst out laughing, which was not the reaction I was shooting for.

With her still laughing, and me growing steadily more uncomfortable, she pointed across the street to her place of employment, which turned out to be a venereal disease clinic. It was funny but the situation left me uncharacteristically speechless.

Eventually I found a room in the French Quarter on Bourbon Street. In those days, the French Quarter was a filthy place, filled with low class bars. My room was on the third floor of a building directly adjacent to a popular bar known as the Puppy House. Finding it almost impossible to fall asleep with the noise from the Puppy House, I got into the habit of stopping by for a few drinks in the evening before retiring. I believe I was the only customer to sit at the bar drinking milk.

The number of men shipping out picked up a little when new orders came through for assignments to large Army transports. I let the officials at the port know I still had no-intention of getting back into the Army so I was forced to wait until they needed an officer aboard a Freight and Supply boat.

Up to this time, we had been signing Cadre dressed in any old thing we happened to throw on in the morning but now suddenly we were required to show up in uniform. We had no idea when we would be leaving but we started dropping hints about shipping out since we thought the girls might become sympathetic. Our sympathy scheme worked and we were soon the recipients of much compassion and many parties, including a grand spaghetti feed thrown in our honor by Dottie, one of the girls from Walgreens.

March 19, 1945 about 150 men did ship out, all in a single day. Word around port was that we would all be gone within two-weeks. We had been given all our shots and were ready to leave on a moments notice. However, most of the former football players were among the last to ship. That might have been a hidden blessing since we heard a couple of officers who shipped out several months earlier were killed in a bombing raid.

By April, the Army base had all but folded up and even most of the instructors had left. The remaining students at the base were to be the last group to receive training in the Transportation Corps program at the New Orleans Marine Officers Upgrading School. I continued to wile away my time going to the beach or strolling over to Walgreens to meet two or three of the other fellows who were still around.

Bill had gotten an assignment on an FS boat that was undergoing repairs at the port. I was able to spend time onboard, or sometimes Bill and I would go to the catholic maritime club and play ping-pong. Once when I was assigned to stand Third Mate's watch for several days on the schools training vessels, I returned to the Quarter and found everyone shocked to see me. Bill, ever the practical joker, had convinced everyone I shipped out.

I grew very fond of one of the Walgreens girls, Terrie who was only 18-years old but a very nice girl, cute and a great cook. Our relationship had grown to romance, and just days before I finally departed, we enjoyed a wonderful evening together on a dinner cruise ship called the President.

That evening with Terrie was among my most enjoyable memories of New Orleans. I think I could easily have fallen in love but Romance stirred and then quietly slipped away--not for lack of desire, but the result of circumstance. We were from different worlds, our paths crossed and then destiny simply swept us our separate ways.

Training had outstripped shipbuilding so there were still too many Officers for the available ships. With a congressional inquiry as to why so many officers were assigned to the New Orleans Port of Embarkation, pressure mounted to move everyone out. In typical Washington style, it was decided to solve the problem by hiding the symptoms, dispersing us throughout the various ports in the United States.

The inter island vessels we were trained to man had been taken over by the Coast Guard, so the government really didn't know what to do with us. It was decided to create new positions on larger ships in the fleet such as army transports and hospital ships. We were reduced in rank and commissioned as Jr. Third Mates and Engineers, officially titled as Jr. 3rd Officers. This was fine with us since living standards were reportedly much better aboard the larger ships. We would have been less eager to accept had we known the trouble our new "bastard" ranks would bring us.

Near the end of May, we received word that 3-deck officers and 3-engine officers were going to receive orders to report to the Los Angeles port of embarkation at Wilmington for probable assignment to large Army transports arriving there. Most of my pals ended up in Seattle but having some right of choice in relocation, I elected to go to Wilmington, just a few miles from my home.

One day I received a sad letter from Sid, a friend from Gardena High School who had seen active duty in the Pacific. Sid was home for a few days on leave and had learned the casualty rate among our hometown classmates had been extremely high. We spent the first week of June packing our belongings and shipping home what we couldn't carry on our backs. Then we bade final farewell to our friends.

We were leaving behind perhaps the sweetest sinecure enjoyed by any service unit during the war. Those last melancholy days in New Orleans are among the most poignant memories of my life. I had made new friends and lost old ones, people were moving on, for better or for worse. I moved on too.

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