Ghost Marina on the Mississippi

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Chapter 2 – From Halifax NS to Knoxville TN – May 1944

Seaman Raymond Clifford of the U.S. Navy had been assigned to a converted cruise ship which had been crisscrossing the Atlantic transporting U.S. and Canadian troops to and from England. At 6:00 AM the ship had just docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, now devoid of passengers, except for a few injured military personnel returning to North America for recuperation. Ray had just finished securing some lines and was looking forward to grabbing breakfast when a bosun came up to him and told him to report immediately to the bridge. This was of some concern to Ray as no one got called to the bridge unless it was a serious matter. Ray’s first thought was that there was a problem with his wife who was eight months pregnant. Ray hurried nimbly up the steps to the bridge and when he arrived he was greeted by a surly Petty Officer who asked him who he was and what his business was there.

“Seaman Clifford, I’ve been told to report to the bridge sir,” Ray replied with some trepidation. The Petty Officer was about to say something crass but was interrupted by the Captain of the vessel.

“Ah yes, Clifford, follow me,” the Captain said warmly and began walking to a small office area at the rear of the bridge. Ray dutifully followed, under the disdainful eye of the Petty Officer, “come in lad, shut the door.” Ray did as he was told and when the Captain sat down at a small desk that was in the room, Ray remained at attention. The Captain gave Ray a quick visual once-over noting the seaman’s weather-beaten face that highlighted his ice-blue eyes.

“At ease lad, at ease, take your hat off.” The Captain said and
Ray removed his hat to reveal a thatch of dark hair as the Captain began to fill a Meerschaum pipe with tobacco from an oilskin pouch, “young man, it appears you have some very special skills that are required by a certain individual on a very top-secret project that has the propensity to change the course of the war.” At first, Ray thought the captain was making fun of him for some reason and began to get even more perturbed about his situation. The Captain struck a match, waited for the sulfur to burn off, then gently waved the flame over the tobacco as he took a couple of sucks on his pipe and waved the match to extinguish the flame before placing it into an ash-tray that was well beyond full. Meanwhile, although relieved it wasn’t a complication with his wife’s pregnancy, Ray was left wondering what possible skills he could have that would be required on a top-secret project.

“Now, I don’t have any details, need to know basis you understand,” the Captain continued, “but you are to immediately pack your kit and you will be met by MPs at the gangplank.” The Captain then stood up, shook Ray’s hand, wished him good luck then dismissed him. A surprised Ray just stood there, not sure whether he had unknowingly breached security and was being taken away, or what? This was all too sudden.

“Am I in trouble sir?” A nervous Ray asked the Captain.

“Absolutely not lad.” The Captain replied, still puffing on his pipe, “really, I know nothing more than I have told you, I don’t even know where the MPs are taking you and it is not my business to ask.” Then with a kind smile the wizened old Captain added, “don’t worry lad, I’m sure whatever it is, it will be better than avoiding bombs and torpedoes in the Atlantic. Now off you go, don’t keep the MPs waiting, from my experience, they tend to get antsy.”

Ray quickly returned to his cabin and began packing his gear into his Navy issued duffle-bag. Fortunately, there was nobody else in the area, so he wasn’t exposed to any difficult questions regarding where he was going. Fifteen minutes later he was walking down the gangplank where a military police jeep was parked with two burly MPs sitting inside. The MP on the driver’s side climbed out of the jeep.

“Clifford?” the MP said. Ray nodded, “Id. please,” the MP added. Ray produced his identity card; the MP nodded his head and returned the card to Ray before telling him to get into the back of the jeep. As soon as Ray was sitting down the jeep roared off, he wanted to ask them where they were going but between the noise of the jeep and the sullen looks of the two men he decided to say nothing. But it was only approximately thirty minutes before they were pulling up at the gates of RCAF Station Dartmouth. The driver pulled out some documents, which the Canadian guard read briefly before pulling up the red and white security barrier. The jeep sped through the gate and headed directly to the airfield where there was a U.S. Military Cessna Bobcat waiting.

The jeep stopped beside the open door of the plane where an Army officer was standing. Nothing was said but Ray assumed that this was where he got out of the jeep. Gathering his things, he climbed out and thanked the two MPs for the ride and was about to say it had been nice talking to you but thought better of it. No sooner was Ray out of the jeep it sped away once more and he thought to himself that if he was ever asked he would never be able to recognize those two men again.

“Clifford?” The smiling officer asked, looking over the tall, slim young man that had just arrived.

“Sir.” Ray replied as he fumbled in his pockets for his identification card.

“No need,” the man said, “Flight Officer Daniels, at your service. I will be your pilot to-day, come aboard.” The pilot then assisted Ray onto the plane and directed him to his seat.

“Have you had breakfast?” The man asked.

“No, I haven’t, it’s all been a bit of a rush.” Ray replied, realising now he was very hungry.

“Worry not, there’s a flask of coffee there, some bacon sandwiches and a couple of muffins I just procured for you from the kitchen,” the pilot explained before continuing, “now, buckle up, we have about a four-hour flight before we touch down. There is a toilet aft if you are desperate, but we will be able to get out and stretch our legs when we refuel. Any questions?”

“Yes, where to?” Ray nervously asked, not only because he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on but mainly because he had never been on a plane before.

“All in good time,” Daniels replied, “but we will have to land to refuel before we arrive at your destination and hopefully we can arrange for some lunch to be brought to us. So, eat your breakfast, relax and enjoy the scenery, the weather is expected to be clear all the way.”

Which is what Ray did, he ate his breakfast, relaxed and enjoyed the view from the plane. Ray had not really traveled much in the U.S. prior to joining the navy but during this flight he had an excellent view of the north-east coast and the New York city skyline was a breath-taking sight as they flew to their fuel stop at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. They did indeed get out of the plane while it was being refuelled and he made a quick rest-stop. On their return to the plane, there were more sandwiches, some fruit, a couple of Cokes each and another flask of coffee. Ray boarded the plane while the pilot did a few checks and verified the fuel situation. Satisfied that all was well, the smiling pilot boarded the plane, received clearance and they were airborne once more.

Once they were in the air, Ray tucked into some of the food that had been delivered to them and after a quick cup of coffee he settled back and before he knew it he was asleep. It was the touch of the wheels on the tarmac that awoke him, despite the gentle landing made by his pilot. As the plane was taxiing Ray saw a sign on one of the buildings that read, ‘McGhee Tyson Airport’ but it still didn’t help him as to his whereabouts. Finally, the plane rolled to a stop and once the whirr of the engines ceased and all was quiet, Daniels came through to the passenger area.

“Welcome to Knoxville,” Daniels said.

“Knoxville?” Ray said in total surprise, “what the hell am I doing here?” Daniels merely smiled.

“I have no idea, my job was to get you here, but I’ll tell you something, someone with clout is behind this. All the red-tape was cut to get you here, whatever it is you will be doing, bon chance.” Daniels said and held out his hand to shake. Ray dutifully obliged but was now more confused than ever.

Ray disembarked the plane with his kit-bag expecting to be met by more MPs but this time it was a regular taxi. Standing beside the car was a scruffy looking driver with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The man held open the rear passenger door and almost imperceptibly beckoned Ray in. Ray did as was indicated and settled down, holding onto his kit-bag as though it was a security blanket. The driver then got into the car and immediately, dispensed with his cigarette and morphed into a totally new persona.

“O.K., there are some civilian clothes on the back-seat you need to change into them, and I mean everything, even your underpants and socks,” the driver said with some authority as he turned to look at him. Ray looked first at the driver then looked to his left and saw some neatly folded, expensive-looking clothes beside him. “Take-off your dog-tags, place any identification papers into this bag,” the driver handed him a paper bag, which Ray slowly took.

“From now on, you are simply Ray Clifford, a rich playboy type, and here is some new id.” The driver handed him an identification card, a driver’s license with an address in St. Louis and a few other documents that Ray wasn’t given a chance to read. “You are booked into a hotel in Knoxville where I’m going to drop you off. Later, someone is going to call on you to tell you your next steps. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your room or call for room service until after the visit, here’s a few dollars for tips and such, be generous, you’re a rich playboy.” The driver handed Ray a bunch of money, which at first glance amounted to quite a tidy sum, then the driver turned back around. For a moment Ray was too stunned to move and remained immobile, but then the driver quickly glanced back.

“You’re not changed yet?” The driver whispered through clenched teeth. “Come on, we haven’t got all day.”

“You want me to change here?” Ray asked incredulously.

“Unless you want to get naked on the runway, yes here.” The driver replied. “You’ll be leaving your kit-bag in the car, there will be plenty of clothes in your hotel room. I’ll be putting your bag in the trunk so if there are any personal mementos you want to keep with you, take them out now. Photographs or anything like that you can retain but absolutely nothing that will indicate you are in the navy.”

It took Ray about five minutes to get out of his naval clothes and into the new ones that had been selected for him. Some of his moves to dress were bordering on contortionism in the small space on the rear seat of the taxi. A further five minutes were spent retrieving some artifacts from his bag, including his shaving gear and personal hygiene stuff. Photographs of his wife, Gloria, he kept in his wallet which he saw no reason to give up. Once Ray had finished rummaging around, the driver got out of the car, went to the opposite side of the taxi that Ray was seated in, opened the door and hauled out the kit-bag and placed it in the trunk.

They passed through security at the airport gates and the driver began to provide Ray with further instructions.

“When we arrive at the hotel, go straight to room 1511, here’s the key.” The driver said and passed a hotel key to Ray. “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t stop to read newspapers or admire the architecture just go straight to your room. You got that?”

“Got it,” Ray said subserviently.

“In an hour or so there will be a knock on your room door, it will be the man, and he will bring you up to speed. Meanwhile, no phone calls and don’t leave the room, as I have already mentioned, you can get room service after the man has left.” The driver explained as he was pulling up outside the Andrew Johnson Hotel in downtown Knoxville.

“Good luck kid.” The driver said and made a flick of his head to indicate to Ray he should leave the vehicle. No sooner had Ray shut the car door the driver sped away leaving him standing in the middle of a town he was unfamiliar with, outside an expensive hotel, in brand new clothes with a wad of money. Ray looked up at the building, which was the tallest in Knoxville, and he thought to himself, ‘is this a big prank, what the hell is going on here?’

Ray discretely, albeit self-consciously, entered the lobby of the hotel and fortunately saw the bank of elevators directly ahead of him so he didn’t have to look conspicuous searching for them. He tried to walk confidently towards the elevators and pressed the ‘up’ button. It was only a few seconds before the doors slid open to reveal an empty elevator, much to his relief. Ray pressed the button for the fifteenth floor and stepped back as the doors closed with an almost imperceptible swishing sound. A few seconds later the doors opened, and he stepped out of the elevator on the fifteenth floor. There was a sign on the wall indicating the direction of the room numbers and he turned left to go to room 1511. Ray’s room was approximately halfway down the hallway, he used the key he had been given to unlock the door and he entered a beautifully decorated room that he thought must be costing a fortune. After a brief inspection, looking at his new wardrobe of clothes and checking out the comfort level of the bed, he laid back to wait.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long before there was a knock on the door. Ray opened the door to reveal a man in a trilby hat and a light brown mackintosh. He was a large man, maybe a little overweight but nevertheless an imposing figure with a stubble of hair on his top lip that couldn’t really be classified as a mustache. The man strode purposely into the room as Ray closed the door behind him.

“Clifford?” The man asked brusquely.

“Yes sir.” Ray replied as he stood to attention.

“At ease, relax and close the blinds please,” the man ordered and waited for Ray to do as he was told.

“From here on in until further notice you are a civilian. For all intent and purposes, you have never been in the navy. Is that understood?” The man reiterated what had been told to him by the taxi driver. “For the next two months you and another selected sailor will have the cushiest job in the entire U.S. Navy and if everything goes to plan you will not be sent to a war theatre for the remainder of the war. That should please your wife, I understand she is expecting is that correct?”

“Yes si-.” Ray was about to fall into his naval nomenclature when he stopped himself. “Yes, that’s correct, the baby is due in June,” Ray replied nervously, albeit relieved.

“Well, I expect your first little expedition will be completed by then and we can arrange some leave for you to be with your wife and new baby.” The man replied with some empathy.

“That would be terrific sir, sorry I mean…,” Ray’s voice trailed off, not sure what to call the man so he changed the subject somewhat, “but what expedition will that be exactly?” Ray asked.

“Take a seat, let me explain.” The man told him and then indeed went on to explain, at a very high level, about the project, without divulging any real information. He finished up by telling Ray what he was expected to do. “So, we will provide you with a cabin cruiser to transport some goods that must be delivered to a location in St. Louis. Once you are in St. Louis you will then be provided with a car while one of my men will retrieve the goods from the boat and secrete it in your vehicle. You will then be given instructions as to where to deliver the goods at their final destination. You will also be given a radio that is set to a secure frequency and should only be used when you arrive at dock 13 in St. Louis or in the event of an emergency. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Ray replied, still a little confused.

“You will be given ample cash for food, fuel, docking fees and sundries,” the man explained before continuing, “and it is important that you act like a couple of tourists. A couple of friends enjoying a boat trip but under no circumstances, I mean none, do you allow anyone on the boat while that package is on board. The same rule applies when you transfer to the car, nobody should get near that car or the package. That means no hitch-hikers or women of the night. Understood?”

“Understood,” Ray replied curtly.

“Good, that’s it then,” the man said and with that, he stood up. “I’m just going to meet with your shipmate, his name is Tony Lawless and once I have spoken to him I will send him to your room, so you can both get acquainted. The same taxi driver who dropped you off this evening will be waiting for you both, outside at 08:00 hours. I suggest you call room service for your meals this evening and in the morning. The fewer people who see you the better. You may call your wife but offer her no details, is that understood?”

“Yes, but why me?” Ray asked.

“You have experience on the rivers, you know how to negotiate around the tug-boats and the hazards in the river do you not?” The man asked.

“I do.” Ray merely replied.

“And we wanted military personnel to carry out this task,” the man explained, then added, “and you will be the one in charge.” By now, the man was standing by the door when he said this and was about to leave but he came back into the room and placed a strong hand on Ray’s shoulder. “What you are doing here son has the propensity to shorten the war and one day you and your family will know just how important this contribution to the war effort really is. Any questions?” The man said it in a way that negated any further discussion and after a couple of seconds he shook Ray’s hand and said, “good luck!” Then he left the room leaving a bewildered Ray to await another knock on the door that would herald the arrival of his new shipmate.

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