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Singing Below Decks for the Crew of the Willy Travis

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

USS Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941.James Longhi at a microphone at a conference about the history of the National Maritime Union in 1986.
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Listen to Jim Longhi

Then there came a terrible moment when we were carrying 3,000 troops on a C-3.

And it's impossible to understand. The boys could not come up on deck, because there's no room on a C-3. And we all knew where we were headed. We were going into the second front. We didn't know whee it was going to be. And we didn't know when but they took us up to Belfast and D-Day, we're told now, was supposed to have happened four weeks before in June, but the weather was bad. We didn't know that. So there we are. We’re trapped with these 3,000 guys in Belfast.

Nothing to do. But on the way across, it was rough, and the U-boats, the noise, constantly. It's terrible when you heard the depth charges of the destroyers, boom. Boom. And the 3,000 guys down there—trapped. Nothing to do. I used to sleep on the top deck, if anything happens, I'd a least try to get near a life raft or something.

Cisco—cool Cisco always used to take a shower when we were under attack. He was the ship's chairman. He had to set the tone, man, keep it cool. He would go down and take a shower. Hysterical. Totally hysterical. I mean that was really hysteria.

I used to tell him, "Gil," [I used to call him "Gil."] You're hysterical taking a shower. He says, "Ah, come on, you're a chicken W.O.P. Go. Sleep on the top deck."

But I couldn't because Woody would pick up his guitar and he would say, "All right, let's go."

"Let's go where?"

By this time Woody had taught me how to play the guitar. We had a wonderful trio. And I had learned how to sing, like a folk—like Woody, and make good music.

And Woody says, "We're going to play."

"Where?"

"Below, down below with the 3,000 guys."

I say, "You're crazy—the U-Boats—boom, boom."

He says, "I'm going."

And Cisco, of course, having dressed, would follow him.

And I learned to be a hero. Woody taught me, the NMU taught me what it is. To say, "Okay. I'm going down below. We get hit. No way out."

And there down below—we are—Woody standing in the middle, flanked by Cisco and me. You couldn't get 3,000 guys into the main hold we had there, but there must have 1500 guys down there whooping and hollering, hanging from the bunks, 5-high, the stacked bunks—ALL listening to this crazy marvelous Woody Guthrie. And Woody's singing: "And when—we march—into Berlin, And when we march into Berlin, bin de la bin bum bum."

And the guys singing and screaming.

And all of a sudden Woody says, "Stop. Where's all the black guys?" There were no black guys in the audience.

"Where are they?"

Dead silence. The Major, the Colonel. Dead Silence. And in the distance you could hear voices. We had about 100 blacks, from Georgia, a poor county in Georgia, I forget what it was. And they're in a lavatory, where the acoustics is great.

And they're singing: "No - o - o - o. No - o - o - o. And every - and every…"

And Woody says, "See you guys." And he walks off, leaving these 1500 guys.

And they're screaming: "No! Don't go away. Don't go away."

Woody says, "Follow me, guys."

And we go into this lavatory. And they're got a lay preacher And he's doing his thing.

And they say, "What are you guys doing here? You're not supposed to be with the blacks."

And we say, "Bullshit."

And we're singing in there. Finally the Colonel comes.

And he says, "You can't have this." And he explains what the law is in the Army.

And Woody says, "No, we're not going to play for you guys, unless we all, these black guys come and sit with you, side by side."

The Colonel says, "No. I'd love to do it." He's a Southern guy. "I'm with you. But I can't do this—to the law."

And Woody says "See if you can find. . ."

I'm the lawyer, see. So I find a solution. "Well these brothers are going to be—performing with us. They're gonna be sitting there, but they're going to be singing with us, so they will be…

So the Colonel says, "Great."

We went back. There were 1500 guys, plus 100, so there are 1600 guys, black and white, for the first time, all mixed together. Needless to say, in about 10 or 15 minutes Woody had everybody singing—and dancing—guys dancing with each other, black and white, all together.

And the Colonel all he said was, "I'll be damned." That's all he could say.

And that was one of the breakthroughs.