"Exchange Ship" by Max Hill: View pages

The Indian Ocean finally ran out of water for us to cross. We were so far south of the equator it was early spring, not summer. Lightweight suits were comfortable again. Just after dawn on the morning of July 23, a Portuguese pilot came aboard to guide us into Lourenco Marques harbor, where we were to be transferred to the Gripsholm for the rest of our journey home. The Gripsholm, which had brought the Japanese who were to be exchanged for us, was already there.

The actual exchange of passengers was a simple thing. We had thought it would be complicated with the neutral governments-Switzerland for the United States and Spain for Japan-having representatives at desks who would check off name against name. Instead, the passengers merely walked down the gangplank of the Asama and up that of the Gripsholm.

Ambassador Joseph Clark Grew and Admiral Nomura already had been exchanged. Most of the Americans and the Japanese didn’t see each other. We were to pass on opposite sides of the flatcars the Negroes had laboriously pushed into place on the tracks. But Grew and Nomura almost brushed shoulders. They nodded with severe formality.

“I received a message later saying Admiral Nomura wished to talk with me.” Ambassador Grew said, “I didn’t respond. I had nothing to say to him.”

After the ceremony of exchanging the ranking diplomats had been observed, the rest of us stepped on the free soil of Portugal for the first time. I went up the gangplank, dropped my luggage on the deck of the Gripsholm, and returned to the wharf. For the first time in two years I didn’t have to think about a Japanese policeman snooping at my heels. It was a good feeling.

No meal will ever taste better than the cold buffet lunch served us at noon on the Gripsholm. We wouldn’t have been hard to please, but the stewards spruced themselves up in starched white coats and put on a parade. There were big plates of white bread, soft and tasty, not gray and tough; bowls heaped with fresh butter; tender and rare roast beef; chunks of cheese and bottles of beer, and ham from pigs that hadn’t been fattened on fish; mounds of potato salad glistening with oil and mayonnaise.

You have seen audiences in theaters rise and with spontaneous enthusiasm cheer and applaud a fine performance by an actor or a singer. Those stewards, with their platters and trays, received that sort of welcome as with accurate toes they pushed open the swinging doors which shut off the kitchen and deposited the tempting array of foods before us on tables.

After packing away my share, I left the ship and walked down the wharf past sweating Negroes working with cargo for freighters and went on into the town.

The Japanese had a two-day start on us in buying clothing and food and books. I tried to find a dictionary, and finally located the last one in Lorenco Marques at an obscure shop on the waterfront. You may wonder why the Japanese would strip the town of dictionaries. It is because none of the conquered peoples of Asia understand Japanese, and the only language in which they can issue their commands is English.

The Japanese from the Gripsholm were everywhere, scampering around the town in their new American clothes and American shoes and wearing out the leather they can’t replace when they get home: but if I know them, they had at least a ton of unattached soles packed away in their luggage. They flattened their pocketbooks and every time they returned to their ships they were loaded down with packages, and many had a half-naked Negro boy trotting behind with additional supplies.

But that was nothing compared to what the Japanese brought with them from the United States. They had sewing machines, metal filing cabinets, typewriters, cameras, electric refrigerators, and phonographs.
“They wouldn’t even let me bring my own machine from my home.” Ernest Vest said. He had been the Singer representative in Yokohoma for many years.
“I tried for two years to buy a metal filing cabinet for the office in Tokyo, “I said.
“Only reporters brought their typewriters along,” Joe Dynan added. “They were on the prohibited list. And try and get a camera with a good lens out of Japan!”

Ton after ton of possessions which would make their Japanese owners the envy of all of Japan was shifted from the Gripsholm into the holds of the Asama.

The Asama was far out in the Indian Ocean, a day’s voyage ahead of us, before the Gripsholm sailed on July 29 for Rio de Janeiro, almost two weeks away across the South Atlantic Ocean. The harbor and Delagoa Bay were still crowded with freighters and tankers of the United Nations, some newly arrived, and others which had been waiting for a week for us to get out of the way.

The old intimacy of the Asama was gone. We had been lifted out of the hardships of our equivalent of a back-woods village at sea into a floating hotel where we could have movies, entertainments, dances, bars, magazines and newspapers only two months old, swimming pools and above all, freedom of speech.

On the Asama, I think I saw every passenger at least once a day somewhere on the ship. There were few places for us to go, and not many decks. In the past the Asama had a utilitarian purpose besides serving as a passenger liner. She was honey-combed with huge vaults in which silk was stored for fast transit to the United States. These vaults were waste space on our voyage, except for a few corners piled with delicacies from looted cities for the delight of the returning Japanese. None of it, of course, had been served to us, though the Japanese on the Gripsholm had been given the same food that we had been served on our first meal aboard.

A typical meal for the steerage passengers on the Asama was the breakfast we had on the first morning. And that wasn’t too bad compared to the food in prison. We began with oatmeal, but something was wrong with it.
“Try salt,” I was advised.
I did. It wasn’t much better.
Then, from across the table, a man gasped:
“Look at the dead worms!”
Sure enough, it was filled with grubs, white and still. I pushed the dish aside; never again touched oatmeal or corn-meal mush. Something is lacking in the taste of all Japanese products made from grains. One explanation I have heard is that in making flour they mix a large quantity of other ingredients to conserve their meager supplies-such things as fish meal and potatoes.

Of course conservation of everything in Japan goes to an extent that we in America, even now, would consider fantastic. Literally nothing is wasted, and even before the war Japan had begun to grab what she could of whatever she needs from any source.

Most of the mission property had been taken over before the war, including the million-dollar St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo, which was built and equipped with modern apparatus by the Episcopal Church. I was taken there in June, 1942, for cholera and typhoid shots, and it was on its way toward becoming as dirty and ill-tended as the prison hospital I have described. The Japanese have no drugs and medicines for civilian use, even such things as ether and iodine and adhesive tape and bandages.

The several hundred hospitals and otherwise unobtainable equipment and medical supplies were one of the richest prizes seized by the Japanese. They found new stocks of radium and drugs and X-ray equipment and microscopes and kit after kit of the finest American surgical instruments. They carted it all off for the Japanese army and left the patients to shift for themselves, and, in many cases, lie helpless on the floors because the authorities wanted the beds in which they had been confined.

Eighteen thousand miles of travel, three continents and four oceans were behind us early the morning of August 25, when we arrived in the Lower Bay off New York. The fourth continent, North America, was so close we would be able to see the shore lights in a short time. We had crossed the equator twice. It was summer when we left Yokohama. Then we drooped in the heat of the tropics. After that we enjoyed the mild weather of Lourenco Marques, followed by cold around the Cape of Good Hope. It was spring in Rio, and the equator off South America was just as hot as it had been at Singapore. Now it was summer again. The only season we missed somewhere along the route was autumn.

Ambassador Grew said that among the traditional rites observed by his family was one which he thought would be helpful to the adults before him, since they had been long absent from the United States, and to the children who in a few days would set foot on American soil for the first time.

Each time he sailed into New York harbor after a term of duty in a foreign land and first saw the Statue of Liberty, he said, he repeated:

    “Breathes there the man, with souls so dead,
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
    As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
    From wandering on a foreign strand?”

I got out my typewriter and set it up on a near-by table. I went to work. The story I wrote then, on the spot, for the Associated Press follows:

“New York harbor, Aug. 25 (AP)—Thirteen Coast Guardsmen boarded the M.S.Gripsholm at 4a.m. Tuesday, and were welcomed by a small but happy group of repatriates who had remained up throughout the night for their first glimpse of the lights of New York harbor.

More than 1500 men, women, and children were aboard the Swedish exchange liner, all from Japan or Japanese-occupied territory in the Far East.

Stout curly-headed Emil Gassie, who was on the gunboat Panay, which was bombed off Nanking some years ago by the Japanese, was among those who warmly returned the handclasps of the coastguardsmen who boarded the Gripsholm.

Mrs. Herman Scholtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and Bangkok, Thailand, awakened by the noise, hurriedly slipped on the evening gown she had taken off a few hours earlier and started toward the promenade deck. A coastguardsman watched the stairway. She paused, and dabbed at the tears in her eyes when she saw the eagle on his cap.
“Are you---are you an American?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “We came on to take care of you from here on in.”

Off the port side of the Gripsholm, which started moving slowly toward the Narrows after the coastguardsmen boarded her, the red and white lights of a pat... ((patrol? 6 characters)) blinked a bright message. It was not yet dawn. The sky was still black.

Soon the deck was thronged with early risers, one of whom approached a guard with the remark:
“Boy! Am I glad to see you!”
The coast guardsman grinned.
“I don’t doubt it” he said.

Children who had never seen the United States joined the impatient group pacing the deck. Then, out of the night, the dim yellow lights of Staten Island provided a welcome sight for the tired voyagers—they were safe at last in the greatest harbor of their homeland.

Nuns in severe habits mingled with women still in nightgowns and pajamas covered only by coats, and others wrapped in blankets for warmth against the chill of the harbor night, even though it was August. Always the rail was lined with eager men and women and children talking about the lights they saw—the lights of America, the land to which they had been returning since June 17.

A Presbyterian pastor, one of the most devout on board came up to my table and watched me write. Finally he said: “Pardon me, but don’t forget to say how damn good those boys in uniform looked to us.” He was one of the men who had been tortured by Japanese gendarmes, beaten and bullied in a desperate effort to make him confess to a crime of which he was not guilty—espionage.

Without delay, the Gripsholm kept to her slow course toward Quarantine, with a low orange moon almost down to the horizon on the port side. Some of the women laughed: others cried. Men did impromptu little jigs. They were carefree and really happy for the first time in many long months. Fathers lifted their sons and daughters up so they could peer over the rail and see—dimly, to be sure, in the first light of the dawn—the America they had been told about but had never visited.

A score or more of passengers didn’t depend upon the stewards for food. They had taken sandwiches and hot coffee in thermos bottles to their cabins with them the night before.

Four motorboats which bounced along, throwing up a white spray, joined us for the rest of the way up the harbor, two on each side.”

It was long after sunrise before we saw the Statue of Liberty, big and bold and impressive. We were home and we had a job to do.
Breaths there the man with soul so dead—