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Homeward Bound
Written February 14, 2016


The “ark” of which I speak was in reality the USS General W.P. Richardson, a World War II troop ship.

Aboard that vessel in 1945, returning from India via the Suez Canal, was my father Vernon M. Thomas.  I've described his wartime service in an earlier article on this website.

Gordon Ghareeb found my article and e-mailed me.  His father also served in World War II, in his case on the cruiser Boise in the Pacific.

And Gordon knew about the Richardson.  He first encountered the ship in 1958 in Long Beach, although by then she had been decommissioned and renamed the Leilani.  Between 1962 and 1970 he visited her many times in Los Angeles when she was the President Roosevelt.  Later she became the Emerald Seas (below), sailing out of Miami on three- or four-day cruises.

“Are you aware,” Gordon asked, “that this ship lasted till 2005 with various owners and reconstructions?  Really quite a historic vessel.  And 61 years of service is a ripe old age for a passenger ship.”  He’s working on a book about her.  We’ve exchanged pictures and memories.

That prompted me to create another article — this one — about my father’s return.

Many of the pictures in this article come from a photo album that Vernon put together after the war.  They're identified by red borders in this article.

The remaining pictures come from other sources.  Those identified by blue borders are intended to illustrate his troop ship's surroundings but actually are distant views of another vessel.

I’ve also discovered an oral history from Signe Skott Cooper (1921-2013).

Signe was an Army nurse born in Clinton County, Iowa, later moving to Middleton, Wisconsin.  She served in the same region of India as Vernon (though I have no reason to think they ever met), and she was on the same voyage home.

After the war, she taught nursing at the University of Wisconsin for over 60 years.

So what were Vernon Thomas and Signe Skott doing in India, of all places?  Wasn't World War II fought elsewhere?  Our forces pushed back the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific.  Why was there also a “China-Burma-India Theater”?

Well, the Allies faced the Japanese in China as well, a nation that Japan had invaded more than four years before Pearl Harbor.  China’s resistance was led by Chiang Kai-shek.  The United States and Britain and other countries were helping China, but aid supplies had to take a circuitous route through India and/or Burma.

India had its own problems.  Not only was it also threatened by the Japanese, but Mahatma Gandhi (right) and others had been trying for decades to win India's independence from Britain.

The Americans didn’t completely understand the complex situation.  “Most of the time,” said Signe, “we didn’t know what was going on.  We didn’t know until afterwards, for instance, that a lot of the Army supplies and materiel that we were sending to China, Chiang Kai-shek was saving for his own.  ...We were training Indian troops.  Gandhi was trying to persuade the Indians not to fight, which was kind of subversive, so to speak.  ...We were aware that we were fighting the Japanese, but it was almost that everybody else was fighting each other.  And some of that you didn’t really know until afterwards.”

The Americans arrived on India’s west coast and rode the rails east to the tea-growing province of Assam, where Signe was assigned to the 20th General Hospital.  The buildings below were the nurses’ quarters.

Soldiers working on the Ledo Road in the Burmese jungle often contracted scrub typhus from mites.  Signe spent some time in a typhus ward such as the air-conditioned one below.  “This hospital was the largest Army hospital overseas,” she recalled.  “It was 2,000 beds, and half of the patients were Chinese.”

“In the Army, you were either well or sick.  I mean, there was nothing in between.  So, therefore, I would have several wards, because the patients really weren’t all that sick.”

Vernon would have understood, as he himself had been one of those not-very-sick patients.  Earlier, in Calcutta, he’d been hospitalized for three nights with the sniffles.

In Assam, he was sent to Chabua.  (Chah = tea, bua = plantation.)  An air base had been built nearby to transport supplies to China “over the Hump,” the Himalayan Mountains.

Below is what the airfield looked like when American pilots were flying out of it.  It’s still in use today; the Indian Air Force has Sukhoi-30 jet fighters based at Chabua.

In civilian life Vernon was a middle-aged office manager.  He wasn’t cut out to be a pilot or an infantryman.  Therefore, the Army put him behind a desk in the payroll department.

The banner on the building below, “Save For That Rainy Day,” encouraged soldiers to give some of their pay back to the war effort by investing in war bonds.

On sunny days, the men in the office would take their breaks outside, and Vernon would take a few pictures.

The photo on the left is labeled “William N. Tuttle reading in the front yard.”  Bill is perusing the May 1945 issue of Esquire.

How do I know?  I found the cover on the Internet.

The artwork is somewhat odd.  I interpret it like this:  Because so many men have joined the armed forces, leaving a manpower shortage, a platinum blonde has been persuaded to take up the slack by directing traffic.  She has put aside her woman’s work and neglected her babies.  Unfortunately, she's not a very good traffic cop.  The situation, like the traffic signal, is unraveling.

When the war ended in 1945, Americans wanted to “bring the boys home” as soon as possible.  Once again the Army transported Vernon and Signe and 5,000 others all the way across India.  They were scheduled to meet the General W.P. Richardson at the port of Karachi.

I illustrate that portion of the story in Part Two of this article, which includes many photos taken en route.

You're invited to visit other related articles on this website.  In addition to the central story, A Methodist Accountant in India, they include: 

On the Homefront
As Vernon prepares to head overseas, his wife writes to her mother.

B.R. Isaiah
On India's religions, the changes brought by Christianity, and a church that our family built.

Dearest Ann
Excerpts from Vernon's letters from Calcutta in 1944, including examples of V-Mail.

Flying the Hump
An air crew's map of the route from Chabua to Kunming.

India 1945
Color photos.

Also see an article about Memorial Bricks.



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