Mutiny on the HMS Strathnaver

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The name of the ship was the Strathnaver and before being conscripted for war service as a troop transport, she had sailed the Indian oceans as a passenger liner. Now she was commanded by British naval officers and staffed by an Indian crew. Cabins above deck were reserved for officers. The rest of the ship was jammed with Yanks being transported to an unnamed secret destination. The 115th AAA Battalion, assigned to the galley area far below deck, was allowed up for air for one hour a day. The rest of the time was spent crouched on the floor of the galley, sitting on hammocks that were unfurled at night to serve as sleeping quarters. The mesh nets were hooked to supports that enabled five or six hammocks to be stacked from floor to ceiling - one man per hammock. If the soldier in the net above was heavy, some part of his anatomy was bound to rest on the man below. I scurried for the hammock on top.

A row of long tables served as eating space when the hammocks above it were not in use. The food was quite interesting. I had never seen anything quite like it before. The usual repast of frankfurters had an olive green color to match our uniforms. I don’t think they were really moldy, they just looked and tasted as if they were. A bucket full of them was placed on each table to be divided among about a dozen GIs. There was a canteen on board where soldiers could buy a coke or American candy bars. That source of nourishment ran dry after about two days at sea. Crates of wholesome food could be seen through the locked gates of the storeroom near the galley. But that was “off limits” and reserved for the officers. Enlisted men who could afford it turned to the black market run by the cook. A baked potato would go for only a quarter but an apple pie cost as much as five dollars.

Our First Sergeant, it turned out, was not cut out to be a sailor. After a day of bobbing in stormy seas he turned a sickly green to match the frankfurters. He lay on the floor moaning and leaning his head into a bucket before him. Every time the ship heaved, so did he. I am not one to bear a grudge; it’s true that I hated him for his mean and vicious tricks but it nearly (but not quite) broke my heart to watch his agony. So, out of my spirit of loving kindness, I offered to get him some more frankfurters, or maybe even a plate of nice greasy pork chops. Each time I mentioned food he seemed to retch some more. So I kept mentioning different delicacies, like baked reptiles or Chinese fried dog, to see if I could find one that might tempt him. No luck. After a while, as I was nearly running out of my list of exotic edibles, he slowly raised his head and snarled, “You little (expletive), I swear I’m going to kill you!” No matter how hard you try, there is just no pleasing some people.

During our hour-long daily march on deck we could peer into the officer’s mess. Since “rank has its privileges,” the British naval officers and U.S. commanders of the American units on board were dining on fresh fruit, salmon, and steaks. This crass discrimination soon gave rise to rumbling in the ranks. The discontent about the food began to spread. We had on board members of the 101st Airborne Division, known as some of the toughest men in the army. They were used to real American food, not British cooking, and they were men of action. One late afternoon, the 101st took flight and landed in the galley. As one of the ship’s half-naked Indian crew members was carrying a crate of oranges on his shoulder up the ladder, a paratrooper was waiting at the top. “I’ll take that,” said the husky soldier, pushing the Indian down the steps with his paratrooper boot. That was the signal. Paratroopers swooped down like the screaming eagles on their insignia. The doors to the storerooms were broken open. Crates of oranges and apples were lifted wholesale and hauled away. Within minutes, everything edible had disappeared. The mutiny on the Strathnaver was over without firing a shot.

As a Harvard lawyer, I of course knew that mutiny was a crime and that pirates and their accomplices usually walked the plank. In fact, the British and American officers didn’t know how to react. They were responsible for the food and for an accounting of what happened to it. An investigation would reveal the abuses to which the enlisted men were subjected daily. Hanging Americans from the yardarm might make a bad impression. So they decided that it would be best if they absorbed the cost and remained silent. One might conclude that justice triumphed or that justice did not triumph, depending upon the eye of the beholder. That’s what makes the legal profession so fascinating. My own view was, and is, that the rule of law must be upheld. My only complaint was that I found it quite difficult to sleep in my hammock which was filled with apples and oranges of mysterious origin.

Our ship was part of a convoy of many ships being escorted across the Atlantic. We were being tracked and followed by German submarines. Naval escort vessels kept circling our ships as we zigzagged slowly across the vast sea. Each night, guards were posted all over each ship to keep an eye out for German periscopes or lights. Guard duty usually lasted four hours. The old guard was then replaced by fresh soldiers covering the same vantage point. By the time we sailed, I had been promoted to corporal and my elevated rank imposed certain duties that I was able to avoid as a private. When my turn came as Corporal of the Guard to post the new sentinels, the corporal who had posted the prior guards accompanied me to be sure that each of his men would be properly replaced. As every good soldier knows, leaving your post without being relieved is punishable by death. Well, I may have mentioned before that I have a very bad sense of direction; on a ship it’s even worse. I didn’t know my starboard from my port or that in the navy, the head was a toilet. They didn’t teach me that at Harvard. It was a stormy night and my men had been placed in every nook and cranny of the rolling ship. I posted 24 men but when I returned with the new replacements all I could locate were about 15. For all I know, the missing guards may still be waiting for me impatiently on the Strathnaver. I guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a sailor.