A Troopship Officer in the South-West Pacific: Doctor Warren Adams

Posted on Friday 26th January 2018


A Troopship Officer in the South-West Pacific: DOCTOR WARREN ADAMS

Warren Adams was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the inter-war years. Today he is a retired grandfather in his 90s settled in North East England having pursued a distinguished and varied academic career after his wartime service in the United States Navy (USN). His grandparents lived into their 80s and 90s and he might also attribute his own longevity to being a descendent of Presidents John Adams (1735-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) both of whom were comparatively long lived for their era.

Growing up during the 1930s was tough, not least owing to the economic conditions of the period. His family had to sell their home which had belonged to the Adams family for three generations. As a boy Warren’s life was also hit by tragedy when his younger brother, aged only five died which had a deeply traumatic effect on the family, especially his mother. Warren had to follow in the footsteps of a successful older brother, Forrest Hood Adams who became an eminent medic specialising in paediatric cardiology, and this was difficult at the best of times.

When growing up matters were further complicated for Warren owing to his small physical stature. As he recalled ‘I was very small for my age, not even 5 feet at 17 years old when I went to college.’ This led to him being bullied at school and created several embarrassing moments. ‘Once when auditioning for a school play, a girl’s voice was deeper than mine.’ Unlike his older brother, Warren lacked focus and by his own admission he was a hyperactive and troublesome youngster.

In an effort to help Warren, his father strongly encouraged him to become involved in sporting pursuits, notably tennis. By the time he was 15 years old he had been crowned boys North-West clay court champion, leading his father to hope that he might even make to major tournaments such as Wimbledon as an adult. However, Warren’s academic interests did not flourish until after the Second World War. While still at school one teacher sought to encourage him academically by threatening to ‘ban him from athletics.’ This seemed to work and as he remembered ‘my grades started to improve, especially in chemistry.’

Warren eventually graduated from high school in 1940-41 and subsequently went to work at his uncle’s timber yard in California. Here he became aware of the local Japanese immigrant population and the common complaint amongst Americans that ‘the Japanese work too hard.’ With tensions between America and Japan escalating Warren became aware that the Japanese were also being interned into camps, something he considered was a prime example of fear dominating the decision making process.

Having broken the Japanese diplomatic codes the American Government was aware of Japan’s hostile intentions during 1941, but remained ignorant of her precise plans. In the early hours of 7 December the American Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii was target by a Japanese surprise air strike. The large warships, many of which were berthed alongside each other made an excellent target, although the three air craft carriers that were part of the Pacific Fleet were absent. In around two hours the Japanese sunk five battleships, three destroyers, one mine-layer and destroyed around 200 aircraft and killed in excess of 2,350 American service personnel. During the entire operation the Japanese only lost 29 aircraft and 55 men. As historian H. P. Willmott observed ‘carrier aircraft had shown at minimal cost to themselves they could destroy battleships far beyond the horizon range.’

Events at Pearl Harbour catapulted Warren into the Second World War and at 17 years old he was eligible for the draft. Because he had already enrolled in a USN officer training programme combined with one years’ study he was destined for naval service. As he enjoyed swimming and had sailed a boat as a boy this appealed to Warren. He later admitted he also chose the navy because he didn’t think he would be able to qualify as a pilot or aircrew. Soon Warren was posted to San Francisco ahead of being deployed to the South- West Pacific during early 1942.

Rapidly his inexperience came to the fore during the outward voyage to the Solomon Islands. To avoid become seasick he and a comrade spent the night ‘top side’ on their transport. ‘We made the mistake of staying downwind of the smoke stack not realising they would blow the tubes at night and we got covered in carbon/smoke etc.’

As a comparatively lowly ensign he joined AP 41 USS Stratford, an aging vessel that had been requisitioned by the USN as a troopship during the summer of 1941. She had originally been the SS Catherine built in 1918 by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and was comparatively small and slow. Her steam turbine could propel her at a top speed of 9.6 knots, and there was space to carry around 300 troops in addition to the crew of 132 men. Warren remembers her with some fondness despite her age and deficiencies. ‘We would bring in troop reinforcements to places such as the Solomon Islands and ferry out the wounded, plus deliver post, food and wine when times were slack. The wine always seemed especially welcome.’

The USS Stratford spent the bulk of the war (c. August 1942-April 1945) in the South-West Pacific theatre where as Warren said she delivered troops and cargo to both rear areas and advanced bases. As the campaign progressed and American forces penetrated deeper into the Pacific her ports of call increased. As well as New Zealand and New Caladonia, she would eventually call at the Solomon, Treasury, St. Matthias, New Hebrides and Russell Islands, plus New Guinea. She ended the war taking part in operations to liberate the Philippines, and remained there until December 1945, before sailing back to the United States the following year to be decommissioned.

As a junior officer Warren had several duties aboard USS Stratford, including mounting watches. As he had good night vision for much of his service he was assigned the mid-watch (midnight until 4 am) both at sea and when in port. Even so, there were numerous challenges to be overcome in fulfilling this duty. Warren vividly recounted that it took time to realise that ‘Dolphins swimming through the water were not torpedo trails’ as the two looked remarkably similar to the uninitiated.

He was also in charge of the deck men or deck crew, comprised from all those sailors who lacked engineering or specialist trade training. It was their job to keep the deck clear, clean the ship, and perform any general maintenance tasks that were required. Although they lacked specialist training, many of the men were experienced sailors, and some had even been fishermen in civilian life. Most were considerably older than Warren and he discovered being in charge of them rapidly taught him the value of establishing ‘good relationships with those you have to work with’ and developing man management skills.

Under Warren in the deck crew was an experienced NCO known as Woody who had been in the navy for several years prior to the war. Every morning Woody would consult with Warren about the duties for that day. As Warren explained typically I would say to Woody ‘You know what the deck crew have to do. We’d have a brief talk and he would tell me what they have to do. Then we’d assemble them and I would tell them what needed doing and put Woody in charge. This worked well and Woody was very happy.’

Towards the end of his naval service Warren was supervising the deck crew when they were tasked with painting the sides of the ship once safely moored at Pearl Harbour. There was to be no leave for them until the job was completed. With the men’s welfare in mind Warren had arranged for them to start the job promptly and even joined in to help them with the painting. He was spotted by the captain who was about to head for shore in a dingy and admonished for ‘getting down and working with the men.’ As Warren observed he was told in no uncertain terms that in the navy it was not considered the position of an officer to behave like this, and he had to go to his cabin with the captain’s voice booming in his ears. This experience, plus the disparity between the men and officers that he frequently witnessed during the war, was one factor that encouraged him not to pursue a naval career after his war service was completed.

Another task that befell Warren was to be in charge of the care of troops when they were being transported aboard USS Stratford. They endured fairly primitive conditions in the hold where soldiers had to sling-up hammocks, and Warren remembered he often heard complaints that ‘rats woke them up at night.’ Only salt water showers were available, and this added to the troop’s discomfort when salt dried on their bodies in the humid conditions of the South-West Pacific. Many were also hungry, and would demand vociferously ‘we want food,’ leading Warren to quickly climb back up the decks main ladder and attempt to rectify the situation. Typically, the USN provided rations that were an improvement on what most soldiers received. This led Warren to appreciate how well off he was compared with the troops they transported, plus he had access to a good shower every night, something most soldiers could only dream about when on active service.

Periodically Warren had to ascend the crow’s nest in order to check it, and report on the condition of the ladder. Even for an athletic 19 year old keen on sports this was a tough assignment owing to the movement of the ship at sea, as well as the height of the ladder. He was even less keen on having to go down into the hold to the ‘main shaft on my hands and knees to certify the automatic liquidators were working.’ Once when he had to do this the alarm sounded, and ‘I knew I could not get back up the ladder which caused me to have a panic attack before the all clear sounded.’ In old age this would trouble him again when he was temporarily immobilised owing to undergoing surgery on his knees.

Another feature of Warren’s service as the First Lieutenant or Ensign aboard USS Stratford was his interaction with the rest of the crew. Among the senior officers were the Captain and Executive Officer who remained fairly remote figures, plus a Medical Officer who was a doctor specialising in plastic surgery. As he put it ‘companionship aboard ship was relatively inadequate.’ Although the navigator was a friend from high school the only other young officer who came from the East Coast was particularly immature, even playing child-like games on deck.

There were another two more senior officers, one of whom was a former policeman, and ‘both out for their own good.’ Warren recalled they were ‘not considerate of the men,’ particularly when on leave at some islands. ‘They always headed for the nearest officer’s club and as troop officer I could never get these two to help the men get beer and go to a recreation area because such parties needed an officer present to make them legitimate.’

Warren discovered he had replaced a first lieutenant who was a Southerner and had run fundamental church sessions every Sunday. This was before being spotted coming aboard with a woman at a port in New Zealand. Owing to the hypocrisy of the situation the captain had stopped the services. He also became aware of the level of racial discrimination that existed in the USN. During the 1940s the American armed forces were organised along racially segregated lines and this didn’t start to effectively change until the Korean War (1950-1953). Aboard USS Stratford there were around five black personnel who were all assigned to the officer’s mess, and according to Warren ‘lived in crowded quarters in a disagreeable part of the ship, one was even a university graduate and they deserved better.’

Sailors who served for two years or more in the South-West Pacific ran the risk of becoming what was termed ‘jungle happy,’ when the isolation and conditions of active service started to affect them adversely. Warren vividly recalled encountering a sailor on one watch who had succumbed to this condition and drunk himself into a stupor using home-made alcohol. The man eventually had to be court martialled. He found the man ‘perched on top of equipment like a bird, smelling like a barber shop.’ It was a common practice for men to attempt to steal alcohol from the ship’s compass which had to be locked to protect it, but in this case the sailor had made his own brew by ‘straining shaving lotions through bread to get neat alcohol,’ hence the barber shop smell.

Warren’s service aboard USS Stratford was intimately connected with the epic naval and land based battles for Guadalcanal. In August 1942 US Marines had landed there and began what writer and broadcaster Charles Roetter described as, ‘a bitter six-month struggle for the possession of a fever-ridden, almost uninhabitable, yet priceless piece of land.’ Japanese control of the Solomon Islands had led to the establishment of a base at Guadalcanal which threatened to severe sea supply routes between America and Australia, and it was this that had precipitated an American offensive. Initially the Americans achieved surprise, but soon the Japanese began mounting resistance, particularly via heavy air attacks.

Typically, Japanese ground troops also proved fanatical, even when outnumbered, before the last units were eventually evacuated in February 1943. The Americans suffered approximately 6,000 total casualties in the land campaign, while the Japanese received an estimated 14,000 killed or wounded, and 9,000 dead through disease/starvation.

Simultaneous to the land campaign several naval actions took place with both sides eventually losing around 25 major warships. At the Battle of Savo Island on 9 August Japanese skill at night warfare and the handling of torpedoes came to the fore sinking four USN cruisers and one destroyer. Subsequently, at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons an American naval force successfully intercepted a Japanese convoy carrying reinforcements for Guadalcanal. However, the action severely depleted the USN’s carrier strength in the area as both the USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga were damaged.

At the Battle of Cape Esperance in October another Japanese transport force was engaged, although it managed to land troops successfully. Later that month at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands the Japanese again inflicted heavy damage on American aircraft carriers but had two their own damaged in return. The naval campaign reached a climax in November when a series of Japanese efforts to land reinforcements were countered, with the ultimate result that the USN achieved naval supremacy in the region, despite the losses that it had suffered.

By holding onto Guadalcanal the Americans kept open communications with Australia, and were able to establish naval and air bases vital to the support of future operations in the region. According to historian and US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Joe Mueller, ‘Guadalcanal provided an archetype for jungle and naval warfare in the Pacific’ and proved ‘a hard fought campaign that shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility.’

While the fighting raged on and around Guadalcanal, USS Stratford continued to be deployed in the area ferrying in reinforcements, evacuating wounded, and bringing in supplies where and when required. Her relatively small size (length 261 feet, beam 43 feet 6 inches) proved a distinct asset, particularly when compared with larger troop transports. As Warren noted ‘our small size allowed us to enter and negotiate the many small harbours in the region fairly easily.’

During 1942-43 Warren continued to develop as a young man, and gained an appreciation of USN life, which under wartime conditions threw up some unusual circumstances, which probably would not have been tolerated in peacetime. At one island the USS Stratford acquired a jeep which had been parked by another unit near their berth. As Warren explained ‘one time the ship picked-up or ‘‘borrowed’’ this jeep, it was the kind of crazy thing that happened in a war situation.’ At Guadalcanal he was also warned that it was advisable to avoid the US Marines HQ, as not only were these troops extremely tough and battle hardened, but an inexperienced naval officer like Warren ran the risk of being wounded and he remembered being told ‘the Marines would probably steal your watch.’

On another occasion he managed to locate a friend from North Minnesota who was serving with the Seabees, one of the naval construction battalions or CBs which gave them their popular name. They were tasked with work such as repairing the airfield at Guadalcanal and other facilities including docks. However, as Warren discovered the Seabees also had a prominent role to play in building officer’s quarters and he was mightily impressed when his friend’s unit threw parties. After sharing a few beers with Seabee officers one night, Warren engaged in a youthful act of fun that belied his relative inexperience, and could have potentially had serious repercussions. ‘I decided to role a coconut over a Quonset hut [equivalent to a pre-fabricated steel Nissen hut] and the sound it made sounded like the ‘‘brr brr’’ of a Japanese machine gun. Sometimes there were raids by Japanese troops and we all had to spend the night in fox holes with snakes etc. I didn’t let on that it was me and it was quite an experience, all part of growing up.’

Warren was also impressed by the sight of a PT boat unit that was based at one island they stopped at. These were the American equivalent to British Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) and to a young man like Warren they appeared ‘exotic, like military speed boats.’

During his service in the Solomon Islands he also nearly had the opportunity to play tennis as ‘in one place there were these beautiful tennis courts, green with arc lights for night playing.’ It was known that he had brought his tennis racquet with him aboard USS Stratford, and this created some interest amongst the crew and other personnel. As Warren explained ‘I was full of youthful optimism, inexperience and bravado. When we stopped there I asked if anyone played tennis.’ It transpired that there were two airmen on the island, who were keen players, and soon potential matches between them and Warren generated much excitement, especially amongst those fancying a bet on the outcome.

Luckily for Warren the airman were away on a bombing mission, as he rapidly discovered that one of them had played in the pre-war American Davis Cup team, and the other was pretty good as well. It was some relief when after only one night his ship was ordered to set sail. ‘We never did have that game of tennis and I learnt to be more modest and cautious and I never mentioned tennis again.’

Sometimes the USS Stratford was required to sail in convoy and this was often challenging for the aged, slow vessel. Warren recounted that in February 1943 as the Japanese were withdrawing from Guadalcanal we formed part of a convoy when the threat of Japanese submarines was considered serious. ‘We simply could not keep up with the rest of a convoy and kept receiving messages ‘‘to maintain speed,’’ but with our engines at full speed we would blow up black smoke, so the message would come over the radio ‘‘stop making smoke’’ as this could have alerted Japanese submarines and/or aircraft.’ The rigmarole went on for several days with ‘continuous messages of ‘‘maintain speed’’ and ‘‘stop making smoke’’ and so on but eventually we made it.’

Another time USS Stratford was approaching Manilla in the Philippines where the harbour was strewn with sunken ships and other wreckage from the war. They received the message ‘AP 41 do you have radar?’ Warren recalled that they replied ‘yes’ even though their radar equipment was still waiting to be unpacked in the hold. As he later said ‘the answer was technically correct, and this was typical of the kind of thing that went on in a war situation.’

Similarly, during one mid-watch he spotted lights in the distance and had the signalman send a message enquiring about the weather. This was not authorised and an answer came back demanding ‘’name, rank and commanding officer?’’ Warren later confessed ‘I thought I had put my foot in it again’ but he escaped trouble by ‘proposing we didn’t answer and turning off our top lights so it looked like we had gone behind a cloud.’

Once, USS Stratford was confronted by a cruiser from the Royal Australian Navy, which had her guns trained on the smaller vessel. This was because every day a code for the day was issued on the bridge and used by all friendly ships. Somehow the code had not been changed and consequently the wrong answer was given when challenged. As Warren remarked this was yet another example in war of where ‘incidents happen from mistakes or due to young idiots.’

As a sailor Warren had also to contend with the vagaries of the weather at sea. Sometimes the storms were so severe in the South Pacific that ships took ‘water over the top i.e. above the level of the bridge.’ He remembers one convoy where this happened and several ships were lost. In such a situation other vessels such as USS Stratford had to put out their booms in order to try and pick up survivors. For Warren this represented one of the more harrowing aspects of his naval service, and he noted that ‘the booms could often also be deployed to pick up troops during amphibious warfare.’

Warren ended his war in the Philippines, servicing the various islands there by delivering troops, supplies and post. He was often aware of the gunfire from where the fighting occurred and thankful that he did not have to participate in any proposed invasion of Japan. Even so, he remembered assembling as part of a great armada in the summer of 1945 near Tacloban before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. There seemed to be thousands of Allies ships, ‘big ones aircraft carriers, battleships, little ones like mine and LSTs [Landing Ship Tanks].’ Subsequently, he vividly remembered spotting some of the Japanese aircraft flying over to commence the signing of the surrender.

With hostilities over USS Stratford remained in the Philippines, before eventually sailing back to United States in 1946, and Warren continued to serve aboard her until she was decommissioned. The crew were eligible for the American Defence Service Medal (with Fleet clasp); American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; World War Two Victory Medal; and Philippines Liberation Medal.

At San Diego the crew were granted a couple of days leave. Warren’s father drove down from Passadena to meet him and it was ‘a shock travelling by car at speed after the slowness of the ship.’ Eventually they were ordered to head for Baltimore on the East Coast via the Panama Canal and prepare for decommissioning. This entailed negotiating an area known to sailors as ‘Typhoon Alley’ and they stopped in North Carolina on route. This left Warren as a young officer in an awkward situation, as the captain and the navigator had both left the ship to receive orders and take sightings that would prevent the ship from running aground.

An announcement came over the blinker ‘‘All ships make way to ocean as quick as possible or otherwise provide for typhoon.’’ I had no more clue how I was going to get that ship down river. I couldn’t take sightings as that wasn’t my area. So I got onto the chief engineer on the intercom. ‘’We’ve got to do something there’s a typhoon coming’’ and I said ‘‘Chief can you get me engine power so I can drop the anchor and sail against it so we don’t get blown ashore.’’

They deployed their second anchor in the end to prevent the ship from running ashore. This incurred the wrath of the captain when he returned to the ship because as she was old it took a long time to disentangle the anchors. However, Warren was at a loss to know what else he could have done in an effort to keep the ship safe during the stormy weather.

The decommissioning of USS Stratford during spring 1946 effectively marked an end to Warren’s naval service. However, he remained on the reserve officers list and counted himself fortunate not to be recalled when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, as happened to some of his contemporaries.

Like many young men and women of his generation Warren was moved by his wartime experiences and had matured both mentally and physically during his service. It had by his own admission been a learning experience, and as he commented in his case supported the old adage that ‘you send a troublesome youngster to the military and it makes a man of him.’ The USN also helped give him confidence in dealing with people and at a relatively young age he appreciated how to handle responsibility.

Yet, simultaneously his naval experience pushed him towards pacifism and ultimately led him to join The Society of Friends (Quakers). He was deeply affected by the discrimination he witnessed against black servicemen, and the plight of the many islanders he had encountered in the South-West Pacific who endured harsh conditions and poverty. This was not helped by the war and he recalled sometimes having to transport villagers and their animals aboard USS Stratford so that they remained out of the way of the American military when new bases needed to be established.

His war experiences also ignited his academic interests, particularly concerning ‘people who are discriminated against around the world’ and ‘how societies run themselves.’ After the war he fondly remembered his strong willed mother encouraging him to pursue the path of self-improvement, and announcing to him that ‘my life was mine to lead and react, to humanely.’

Eventually he obtained a doctorate and became an economic historian, initially specialising as a researcher in agricultural/rural sociology. In the late 1940s Warren worked with Birdseye, the frozen food manufacturer, an experience that taught him a great deal about marketing, particularly when as part of his research he had to visit the San Francisco farmer’s market.

Later his research took him to Georgia where he became especially interested in labour conditions, often drawing upon documents from English history. By the 1950s he was teaching ‘Labour Management’ in Texas. As an academic and a Quaker during the post-war period he also became concerned with assisting black communities in California organise for self-help after the massive decline in ship building in that state. As he observed during the war it really had been a case of ‘a ship a day’ at the ship yards there. However, post 1945 there was simply not the need for that sort of output and large numbers of workers were laid off, many of whom were blacks who had been moved from the South to work there during the war.

He went on to obtained a fellowship from the Ford Foundation at John Hopkins University, which enabled him to research developing countries, and he became especially interested in the Middle East despite finding Arabic ‘a hellish language to learn.’ This led him to study land reform in Iraq for three years, before working as the head of the economic unit for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) in the Middle East. The latter role entailed ‘visits to some of the main refugee camps, trying to organise reparations for people who had lost land to Israel, and relocate people where they could do agriculture etc.’ His work also saw him travel through Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Iraq which made him especially sad to observe the situation unfolding in that region during 2015.

Warren spent a further period teaching in Texas, where ‘you had to be careful talking to students about migrant labour and not criticise the official position. There followed a period at Harvard where he had a fellowship in labour economics and law relationships. By that time (1960s) with his first wife, an Englishwoman he had a young daughter and son. With support from Harvard he went on to study land reform in India, although this was largely thwarted by war between India and Pakistan.

Instead he ended up doing a lot of work for the US Diplomatic Service, particularly helping to organise aid shipments to India. In India he worked alongside the influential economic thinker E. F. Schumacher and this eventually brought him to Britain, where he later remarried.

In the 1980s he had a change of tack when his son was looking to expand his London based furniture business away from the capital. Warren ended up establishing an outlet in Newcastle upon Tyne so as to take advantage of the enterprise zones being set up by the then Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. This eventually led him to retire to the North East, where at 91 he continues to be active with the Northern Refugee Service and can often be seen around the village where he lives with his faithful dog Noah. Warren remains proud of his naval service, despite by his own admission being something of a naval misfit. He particularly relished the opportunity it afforded him to go on and lead his own life, and as his mother had advised ‘react to it humanely.’

ARTICLE WRITTEN BY AUTHOR, JAMES GOULTY

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