American Ending to a French Tragedy

by Walter “Bud” Stuhldreher

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Trouble on board

Islam requirements were demanded by the French Chaplin the first day at sea.  Accordingly the helicopter landing deck area was reserved for the Muslim patients for their prayer services which occur several times a day.  The Muslims would face the east, remove their slippers and kneel down.  Prayer would then start with the recorded cry ‘La ilaha illa-liauhu, Muhammad rasul aliahi’.  (There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.)  Prayers would then last about 20 minutes.

Although dumbfounded by this strange request, Captain Clark acquiesced, however, he refused to require the smoking lamp be out throughout the ship during the several daily services.  But peace with these fussy patients was hard to come by.  After the first service the Muslim patients complained bitterly.  Apparently the working sailors had gawked at the kneeling patients, chanting prayers loudly in a foreign language.   The helicopter landing deck might not be a mosque, but it was a sacred place six times a day, and such rude behavior by the Americans would not be tolerated!  So the sailors were instructed to stay away from that area but, if their duties required them to be there, they had to keep their eyes averted.

While the medics had treated many nationalities in the Allied Forces in Korea, including the intractable Turks, and also enemy troops, many infected with lice, the French Foreign Legionnaires were setting new records in behaving badly.  Although defeated, they had survived the terrible fighting and were now living in undreamed-of comfort.  They were being attended by pretty young women while lying in comfortable beds in air-conditioned wards.  You would think they’d be happy but you would be wrong.  With little education few could write but all could curse.  The word “thanks” apparently wasn’t one of the few English words they knew. 

Their number one complaint, expressed loudly and often, was the loss of their daily wine ration.  Forget that it was issued to make them over-look their substandard living condition – they were now living in better conditions than they had in their entire lives!  No, by god, they were entitled to their wine and where was it?  Not aboard a U.S. Navy ship, that’s for sure!  So they were out of luck, but they never quit bitching about their lack of wine. 

Since the deployment had been made so fast, the food served didn’t match their normal diet.  The hot dogs and baked beans, etc., were replaced by fish and rice.  Baked potatoes, not mashed, were OK also.  But bitching over the food was a constant.  Truth to tell, the French wore out their welcome long before reaching Algeria and France

A bigger problem was the Legionnaires from Senegal, the westernmost country in Africa.  Volunteers from the six main tribal groups, the Senegalese Legionnaires were huge fellows with ebony skin and white teeth filed to sharp points.  Scary patients, indeed.  But their worst trait was grabbing the nurses every time they went by, fondling them, touching them in inappropriate places. It got so bad that Captain O. Henry Alexander, MC, USN, officer in command of the U.S.N.H., ordered that no nurse enter Ward D , the lowest ward in the ship, unless escorted by an armed guard. 

The Suez Canal Debacle      

Space constraints don’t permit the full sorry story, suffice to say the Haven screwed-up big time and almost shut down the whole canal.  (Caused by heading the wrong way into a bunch of huge cargo ships that were impossible to stop, even slowly.)  The British, due to turn over the canal to Egypt in two years but still operating the canal at the time, hurriedly rushed out an Egyptian pilot to assume command and stop the carnage.  He was in such a hurry he arrived in his underwear carrying a bottle of booze for support!

With the Haven safely anchored off to one side, the Brits refused passage and ordered her out. This meant the Haven would have to take the long way to the    Mediterranean Ocean, steaming around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope.  This would add another 4,000 miles and several days to their journey.  While the British were livid, they finally noted the crew had never attempted passage through the canal before and were ignorant of its rules.  Further, the y were impressed with its mission, one of mercy and compassion.  They relented and, with the ship firmly under British control, the Haven proceeded through.  (The crew on the bridge swears the Brit responsible for radioing proper instructions to the Haven, sleeping off one too many Horse’s Necks. [brandy and ginger ale,] a British favorite throughout the world, failed to instruct properly.  The Brits never admitted this, possibly afraid of being implicated in the mess.)

Oran, Algeria

On October 2, early in the morning, the Haven arrived at Mers El Kebir, the closest port to Sidi-bel-Abbes, headquarters of the French Foreign Legion.  The 420 enlisted Legionnaires either walked down the gangway or were carried in litters to the waiting ambulances.  Eager to lay claim to their long-absent wine ration!  The horny crew took advantage of the port and starboard liberty parties and, after 22 days at sea, found the only whorehouse in the dirty little town and returned with exotic venereal diseases, some which defeated the doctors who were experienced with Asian STDs.  But, after months of no mail, the 12 sacks of mail saved the day!  

Marseilles, France

On October 4 the Haven arrived for a four-day stay and was greeted by a military band.  Unfortunately their melodies included “Sherman’s March Through Georgia” and the rebels had to be restrained.  The whole ship, especially the medical people and the commissary men, breathed a sigh of relief as the last patient was carried off at 1105, ending their care of the 421 French Army, Navy and Foreign Legionnaires patients embarked at Saigon.  It had been a difficult trip with an onerous bunch of patients, few of whom thanked anyone as they left the ship.

The crew was certain Marseilles was well stocked with beautiful Mademoiselles and French wine.  Well, half-right wasn’t all that bad.  It truly was a sorry excuse of a town.  The crew was glad to see it over the fantail as they left, but scared, as the local newspaper had mistakenly reported their next destination as Saigon.  They were mightily relieved to see the Rock of Gibraltar on their starboard side since they now knew their destination really was Long Beach.

Long Beach, California

On November 1 they arrived, after 60 days, two canals and almost 30,000 nautical miles of an un-heard grueling trip to the Long Beach Municipal Pier marked by a lack of the Navy’s appreciation.  Not a single naval official greeted them!  Not even a Navy band but the Long Beach Junior High School Band and relatives, friends and well-wishers were there.  Without a doubt, it was the only Navy ship to return from an around-the-world cruise that year, yet the shore establishment didn’t even bother to send a single representative!  

Mail and relatives were received on board, followed by a mass migration to the Navy Receiving Station by a sizeable percentage of the crew, with either discharge or transfer to another ship their immediate future. 


Several years later Ruehlin was visiting Captain Clark (Ret) in New England and asked him if he thought the unreported mess in the Suez Canal had affected his chances for promotion.  He thought it over and replied probably not.  But he went on to say it was interesting that not a single officer involved left the Navy at a higher rank.  The CO, XO, Navigator, OOD, JOOD – all were separated at their rank at the time.

I don’t know about you readers but, fifty years later, I want to say, in the time-honored brief Navy fashion, a heartfelt “Well Done!”.

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