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Sailor Stories, Sailor Songs

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“You’re gonna see my mother.”

Jim Longhi, recorded in 1985 at a meeting of the Marine Workers Historical Association.

USS Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941.This photo of Longhi (left), with Cisco Houston (center), and Woody Guthrie was taken in a mountain village in Sicily with the mother of "Mike Sala" (aka Michael Salerno). Photo from www.ciscohouston.com.
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Listen to Jim Longhi

First, let me first say that the NMU was my mother. Everything I am—I owe to the NMU, including my wife. The National Maritime Union gave me my philosophy, strengthened my understanding that my socialist father tried to give me. What the National Maritime Union gave me was something else—a friendship with a great guy, you all know him Woody Guthrie and the tradition that he left for America. The other day opening up a big dictionary. There’s pictures of Leonardo da Vinci and Franklin Roosevelt, and on another page there’s a picture of Woody Guthrie. I couldn’t believe it, my Woody.

Woody and I our first trip, he came on aboard carrying two guitars. Like this under here a violin, under here a mandolin. He had a harmonica. He had a Jew’s harp. He had a bottle of rum and a bunch of books, about 12 books, Karl Marx this that and the other thing. And the first 6-pack I ever saw in my life. Six cans of beer. In those days we didn’t have six-packs. They were new.

And there we were on the ship called the Willy Travis. How did we get on the Willy Travis? Because liars like Joe Stack, the dispatchers, he was in charge of the port. And other dispatchers that we had there would lie to us.

They’d say. “All right we need three guys in the stewards department. This beautiful ship. She’s just going down to Cuba. Short run—you’ll be back here in ten days. No problems. No submarines. We got a blonde in every lifeboat. All right—guaranteed.”

The son of a bitch he knew we were going to Murmansk.

I give you flashes. I can’t talk too long. Cisco [Houston], Woody, and I always shipped out together. There was this crazy Italian communist, Mike Sala, he ran L’Unita del Popolo, an Italian left-wing newspaper. Mike, when he said goodbye to us, crying, he said, “You’re gonna see my mother.”

What are you talking about—‘We’re going to see your momma’? We’re going to Cuba.”

“No-o-o-o! You’re gonna see my mother.”

“Your mother’s in Sicily, Mike.”

You’re gonna see my mother.”

The Allies had not invaded Italy.

“You’re gonna see my mother.”

“Your mother’s in Sicily in the mountains.”

“You’re gonna see her.”

We started the trip loading up on the dynamite pier off Jersey City.

What the hell do I know about heroism. Woody was crazy. He was a hero.

They’d been with the fruit growers union. They’d been with the Okies. They’d had their heads busted. I’d never been through that.

You should have seen that dynamite—3,000 tons of dynamite

And then they overlaid that with high-test gasoline.

They had—when we go up for boat drill. You gotta put on your life jacket.

And then Woody wouldn’t put on his life jacket. And the captain is giving him hell.

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

“Well you then you gotta put on your life jacket.”

“No sir. I prefer a parachute.”

All right we get on this ship, and in two hours were at the front. Two hours! You get past Coney Island and the first thing I saw was a sunken ship off Fire Island. There were two of them. Two freighters come out of New York harbor.

The Nazis were waiting for us with the subs. Off New York City. Even though the lights were off, they called them “brown outs”—we were silhouetted. A shooting gallery. Anyhow we got past that, and we lost a few ships crossing the ocean. That was the first time I saw a red flare. I didn’t know what the hell it meant. And Cisco, who’s an old-time seamen, he explains.

Talk about heroes—Cisco was blind and nobody knew it, legally blind. He could not see a foot in front of him without his glasses. I don’t know if any of the guys ever knew this about Cisco. Cisco Houston who later on became a famous folk singer.

Cisco and his brother. Cisco’s brother, “Slim” was also blind. They couldn’t get into the army, obviously. They came into the NMU to fight Hitler. Slim died. Trapped. He was in “the black gang” [he worked in the engine room] and he couldn’t find his way out, when his ship got hit. And Cisco died when he was 40 years old—from something else. And Woody died—from something else… It’s tough coming here.

We finally make Gibraltar on this crazy ship. If something bumps into us, we’re going to blow up. And finally in Gibraltar. We’re stalled there for two weeks. We’re waiting for something—we don’t know. And the young radio kid, young Italian kid, Sparks, we got him drunk one night. With the cheap rum we bought there. And he had to go on duty at 12 o’clock, midnight. And he come back and he was in tears. He says, “I’m going crazy. I’ve never been drunk in my life. All I keep hearing on the goddamned thing is: “Whiskey. Whiskey. Whiskey.” That’s all I heard.

Tell the captain. That was the code word for the invasion of Sicily.

Now Mike Sala: “You’re going to see my mother.” How in the world? How the hell did he know. We go and we get to Palemo. boom, bang, boom. While we’re unloading, the Nazis are trying to hit us.

And luckily, we don’t get hit. FDR Junior had a destroyer, next to us, a light destroyer, his was hit, blown up, right next to us. We weren’t touched.

Finally we discharge—without getting hit. While—it took about two weeks to discharge. We go looking for Mike’s mother.

We have to go back behind the German lines. Because how can you go back to Mike Sala and say you were in Palermo and you didn’t see his mother. You’d be dead anyway. So the hell with it.

We go back behind the German lines. We’ve got a young 16-year-old guerrilla kid, who was working with the communists, with the partisans. He took us. He gave us guns, Berettas, little tiny things. And sent a runner ahead, to the little town, 3,000 people, to say that Mike’s friend, her son’s friend, was coming to embrace her. And we got through. We finally come to this little town. It’s a long cobble-stoned street. And there’s this little lady, about four feet, there and she’s surrounded by the town. And we marched, the three of us—Cisco, Woody and me. And we embraced. And she called me, “My son. My son.”

Somehow we got back to the ship. And left that night, and by the light of the moon. It was 2 o’clock. And the poor soldiers we were carrying. It was hot. And we said: “Don’t sleep on the hatch covers. We get hit, you got trouble.” And we got hit.

And we lost a few guys—soldiers. Cisco, Woody, and I weren’t hit. We were all right.

Our ship, all right, the Willy B. was gone.