This autobiographical story comes from Margaret Essebaggers Dopirak and describes her family's nerve-wracking trip back from India (where her father was a missionary) to the United States after World War II had broken out. The photo above is of her family with her mother's brother and his wife, after their safe arrival back in the U.S. (Back row: Homer Shafer; Second row: Jannette Shafer, Ted Essebaggers; Third row: Helen Shafer Essebaggers with Teddy Essebaggers on her lap; Front row: Margie Essebaggers, Dorothea Essebaggers.)
The Brazil - 1942
"Daddy, who dug the hole for the ocean?" I asked, as I sat perched on the ship's railing securely encircled by my father's arms. We were looking out over the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean on board the troopship Brazil. I was 5 years old and had lived in India all of my young life. The largest body of water I had ever seen was a talaab - a hand-dug lake which caught the rain water during the monsoons and served as the water supply for the local villagers. My father chuckled and explained that God, not people, made the ocean - and that our ship would take us on a long journey across it to our homeland of America.
Only a month before, my mother, sister Dorothea, brother Teddy and I had been vacationing in the hills of Kodai, South India. I wasn't aware of it then, but there was a World War going on. The Japanese were threatening to invade India as the British retreated. It was not a very safe place to be. Mother had received a telegram from my father which urgently instructed her to pack up our belongings and travel the 1100 miles back to Raipur, the mission station on the plains.
It was a horrendously hot and humid time of year to travel - May being the hottest month of the year, with daily temperatures climbing into the 100's. My mother didn't take well to the tropical climate and suffered from the heat, sweating profusely. Dorothea was nine and, being the oldest, was assigned to look after me. This enabled our mother to devote her attention to one year old Teddy, who had just learned to walk and consequently bore close watching. Travel by train was tedious, sooty, and somewhat dangerous - the open windows inviting hot little heads to lean out into the wind rushing by. The trip took longer than the usual three days. Instead of traveling along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal, where two air attacks had recently occurred, our train was rerouted via Nagpur, an inland rail junction. This brought us safely into Raipur from the west, but added a day to our already long and tiresome journey. What a hapy feeling it was to see our father waving to us on the station platform as the train screeched and hissed to a stop!
My parents had been given a choice by the Mission Board to either stay in India or to take their chances making a trans-Atlantic voyage to the United States while a war was going on. They decided to take their chances. They had been in India for seven years - since 1935 - and their furlough was due. A furlough, which was earned after seven years of foreign service, was equivalent to an eighteen month vacation.
The ship we were able to secure passage on was one which had just brought American soldiers to India, and which would now return to the United States and take passengers to New York. Under the blisteringly hot Indian sun, the ship with its one thousand passengers - or refugees, if you will - set sail in late May. The Brazil was a military troopship, but at one time had been one of the most luxurious passenger liners to leave a United States port. It had been converted into a troopship by stripping it of all its frills and luxury, gutting the cabins and retrofitting them with military-style furnishings. [Note: The picture below shows the SS Brazil in her days as a luxury liner, before she was converted to military service.]
Our accommodations on the Brazil were adequate, but not comfortable, and far from luxurious. Our family shared a cabin with another family who were strangers to us. Four tiers of canvas bunks lined two walls, a wash basin jutted out from the wall near the entry door. On the other side of the sink was a tiny toilet room. A single light bulb hung in the middle of the room. There was no porthole. It was dark most of the time. At night, when the ship was in total darkness for security purposes, we used our flashlights to find the way to our bunks.
My mother was seasick much of the time, and when she wasn't, she had laundry to wash out in the little basin. Clotheslines were strung the length of the cabin, wet clothes and diapers draped over them, adding moisture to the already humid, dark air we breathed. It wasn't a pleasant place to be, and I didn't spend any more time in the cabin than I had to, and that only for sleeping.
There were some other kids around my age to play with, but most of the children were older. The deck at the bow of the ship was our playground. Deck chairs stacked in piles, chains & huge ropes wrapped around iron pinnings, and hatchdoors jutting up from the deck provided places for us to hide. We sat in the shade under the lifeboats, which were suspended close to the railings, to get out of the sweltering sun. The rolling of the ship didn't deter us from playing jacks and looking at picture books. We played Hide and Go Seek, Red Rover, and Capture the Flag. For me, the ocean voyage was an adventure, and we children were, for the most part, oblivious to the dangers that wartime presented.
I had a sense of what war was, but only from things I had overheard the grownups talking about. I knew it was a bad thing, and that we should be afraid if airplanes flew overhead. On one occasion, two or three airplanes flew quite close to the ship - close enough so we could see the pilots waving to us. "Hey, look, those are our boys!" People on the ship cheered and waved back, and I knew those airplanes were nothing to be afraid of. It was all very exciting, and everyone seemed happy and relaxed for a while following that event.
Every night, after the evening meal, I accompanied my family up onto the deck to congregate with the other passengers for a hymn sing and prayer service. "Nearer My God to Thee" was one of my favorites, and whenever I hear it or sing it today, it brings back memories of those nights on board ship. The service always ended with the fervent singing of "The Star Spangled Banner." Not fully appreciating the meaning or significance of the song at that time, I recall associating it with the star-studded night sky.
We thought we had lost Teddy overboard one evening. Mother was seasick and remained in the cabin after the evening meal. My father was in charge of us kids. During the prayer service, Teddy toddled off, and by the time my father noticed he wasn't with our family, he was nowhere to be found. Word spread that a child was missing, and everyone dispersed to search the deck. I stayed close to my father as he frantically looked in the nooks and crannies that a baby might crawl in to. I heard someone say, "He might have fallen overboard!" I recall feeling great anxiety that this might have happened, and that meant that I would never see my cute little brother ever again. It was a terrible, sad feeling. But then, a cry went out - "Here he is!" There he was - sitting under one of those suspended lifeboats, about six feet from an open railing - and from sure death, had the seas been rough and caused the ship to roll. Everyone was jubilant over little Teddy's recovery. That night when my father was saying my bedtime prayers with me, I added a "thank you" for finding my little brother.
And so the days and nights passed during our six weeks' voyage. The ship made two stops along the way: first, in Capetown, South Africa, as we left the Indian Ocean and entered the south Atlantic; and second, in Bermuda, where we picked up crew members of boats that had been torpedoed. They had just been through the terrifying experience of staying alive and afloat in the ocean until rescued. Our ship did not have extra life jackets for these newest passengers. They approached my father, as well as others, with offers to buy their life jackets. But my father did not sell them, knowing that we were in submarine-infested waters and that his family might still need life jackets.
There was an air of excitement - but also anxiety - on board as we approached the end of our journey. Excitement, because we would be in New York the following day, and anxiety, because we still might encounter enemy submarines, as had the sailors we picked up. That night and over the next day, I heard strange sounds coming from under the ship. "Daddy, are the submarines under our ship?" I asked him in terror, imagining a huge monster under the ship. "No, honey. As long as we hear those noises, we know our ship is safe." He went on to explain that the noise was our ship firing depth charges, and that it was a way to protect the ship from being torpedoed. I didn't really understand what all those words meant, but I could tell that my father wasn't too worried right then.
Early the next morning my parents awakened us and took us up on the deck, where crowds were already gathered at the railing. People were cheering and waving. I wondered what they were cheering about. We found a place at the railing, and that's when we saw the Statue of Liberty come into view. My father started singing the Doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow...," in a jubilant voice and everyone joined in. As I looked up at my mother and the other people around us, I saw that she and others had tears streaming down their cheeks. I was perplexed and wanted to know why people were crying. "Sometimes we cry because we're happy, Margie dear," Mother said, wiping away a tear with a handkerchief she always carried. "We're happy and thankful that God brought us home safely." I was happy, too.
1. The resource for many of the details described herein was my father's autobiography: Theodore Essebaggers 1902-1995.
2. Troopships used during World War II included passenger liners, Liberty and Victory ships, and foreign ships taken over by the U.S.A. Beginning in June, 1941, the U.S. took over various flag ships which were in U.S. ports for use as troopships and cargo ships.