BY ANNIE CRENSHAW
John Ackerman has traveled quite a distance in his 94 years – from New York to Michigan, and from there to Virginia. He spent a few years in North Carolina, and finally settled in Greenville, Alabama.
And then there were the 31,000+ miles he traveled back and forth across the northern coast of Africa and southwestern Asia in 1945-1946.
From Camp Wheeler in Georgia, John was sent to Fort Ord, a U.S. Army post on the Monterey Bay in California. After several weeks on the west coast in the fall of 1945, he was sent back across the country to Camp Shanks, New York.
From New York, John shipped out for service in Iran on October 17, 1945, assigned to the 661st Port Battalion.
During World War II, the U.S. Army assigned thousands of soldiers to “port battalions” to guard seaports and move materials on and off supply ships.
John’s military service included exotic locations from Casablanca to Cairo. He saw Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Liberia, Algeria and Senegal.
The town names are musically resonant. “Khorramshahr” is one.
It’s a port city in southwestern Iran, 45 miles from the Persian Gulf.
The city was a prosperous trading center already in existence at the time of Alexander the Great. It was once part of the Ottoman and Persian Empires.
“At Khorramshahr, the people lived like they were still in the time of Jesus,” John recalls. “Nothing had changed – mud-walled houses, donkeys, narrow dusty streets.”
“There were only two streets that our military men were allowed to visit. One had the bars and night places. The other had little shops.”
He bought intricately-designed silver jewelry from one of those shops. A typical piece has tiny arabesque scenes hand-painted on small ceramic medallions, linked by braided and woven silver wires. The ancient Persian craftsmanship is breath-taking.
“They were selling things like this to all of us soldiers,” says John.
“And, they also were selling us ‘Socony.’ We called it that because that drink was the red color of gasoline back home. It had a much higher alcohol content than our soldiers were used to. The boys mixed it with vodka stronger than we had ever had, too. It made a really strong drink!”
Socony was an acronym for the Standard Oil Company of New York. The fuel brand was popular decades ago. With business mergers, Socony eventually became “Mobilgas.” Does the red flying pegasus logo seem familiar?
John Ackerman describes leaving the ancient Persian town of Khorramshahr in Iran:
“On December 30, we closed the Persian Gulf Command. We loaded the ship, and we left EVERYTHING behind. We left food in the refrigerators and cupboards, and supplies all over the place. Gave some to the local people. But lots of stuff, we just walked out the door and left it.”
“On that last day, we drove out to our ship, and we just left the trucks on the dock with the keys in the ignition and gasoline in the tanks. Funny to think of, isn’t it?”
“Our command went by ship to the Suez in Egypt. We left Iran on New Year’s Eve 1945. We were in the middle of the Persian Gulf, and the ship’s officers and crew began shooting off guns for New Year’s Eve. Our company’s men had been sound asleep, and it scared us to death! We thought we were being attacked!”
From the Suez, John and his unit went to Camp Huckstep in Cairo by train.
“Every place was different,” he says. “Cairo was cosmopolitan. The hotel had a ballroom with Italian marble floors, and a French orchestra that played in tails, with people dining and dancing in full evening-dress.”
“There wasn’t really any work for us to do in Cairo. We went to town, went to the markets, saw the pyramids, and read books.”
“From Cairo, we went to Alexandria, traveling on little Egyptian trains. The engines and cars were small, and the train ran on narrow-gauge tracks, not like railways here in the USA.”
“Then we went to by ship to Casablanca. We reached there on February 13, 1945.”
Casablanca is the main port on the northwest coast of Morocco, famous to many of us as the title of the 1942 Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman movie.
The city was an essential key harbor during World War II. In January 1943, it was the site of the Casablanca Conference, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met to plan the Allied European strategy for the next phase of World War II.
Casablanca has been the site of a huge U.S. airbase. It was the transport hub for all U.S. aircraft for the European Theater of Operations during World War II.
Today, Casablanca is one of the biggest and most significant metropolitan areas in Africa, and has the largest and busiest harbor in Morocco.
We’ll continue the story of a New York boy’s travels in the next installment of “Honoring Our Military Veterans.”