Boredom and pranks in the midst of war

Comments by William Walters

I heard a saying once that’s very true: “War is a vast space of boredom interrupted by short spans of utter fear.”

During the war in the Pacific we sometimes spent extended periods on our ships waiting. Whenever military leaders planned invasion of an island, they devised a battle plan to organize a bevy of all kinds of troops—tanks, artillery, etc.—from all sorts of military units stationed in different locations. Your ship could circle around in the ocean for months while waiting to meet up with many other troops. If you were the first ones in position, you lingered the longest while the others collected around you. And if your ship wasn’t very large, there might be no room in which to exercise and at least focus on keeping fit and staying out of trouble.

We soldiers amused ourselves in destructive ways when we were bored out on the ocean. For example, the military issued us life preserver belts that you activated by discharging small bottles of compressed air mounted on the belts. Once someone realized that these little bottles resembled tiny torpedoes if shot off in the water, we had a great time blasting them away until none were left for our life-preserver belts. We weren’t too smart.

If we were out at sea for extended periods, we might not get to wash our clothes for months at a time. You can imagine how bad that made us smell. On the ships we took cold showers using soap that worked in salt water, but there were no provisions for laundry. One time, on a ship I was on, someone dreamed up the idea of stringing our clothes on ropes that could drag along in the water to clean our shirts, pants, and underwear with the action of the ocean. Soon a whole raft of clothing trailed alongside and behind us, until the captain came out, looked overboard, and yelled, “What the hell are you doing! What do you think this is, a Chinese junk?” He made us pull in the ropes, maybe because the drag created by hundreds of soldiers rinsing their uniforms and underwear had slowed the progress of our ship, but then again, he could have upped the power to the engines if there was much drag. More likely, he was concerned with the appearance of the thing, his ship trailing hundreds of items of men’s underwear.