After our harrowing flight from Chengdu in late 1944, my family spent four nights in Kunming under a moon waxing to full. Japanese warplanes attacked the city several times, sending us to bomb shelters. We left Kunming on the fifth evening aboard a Hump airlift plane returning to its home base in India.
We flew the “low Hump” route, nine hundred miles, to an airbase outside Kolkata (Calcutta). The previous May a joint Allied operation had forced the Japanese to abandon an air base in central Myanmar (Burma). Until then, airlift pilots had crossed the higher, more dangerous terrain with mountains reaching 20,000 feet elevation.
My father, an adventurous soul, had anticipated looking down on the Himalayas—something exceedingly rare in those days. Unfortunately, he was caring for airsick me and was unable to do so.
My illness turned out to be more than just motion sickness. I’d contracted a liver infection and by the time we reached Kolkata I’d become jaundiced. With Mom suffering a bout of sinusitis and my sister unwell too, the work of family care and arranging travel fell to Dad. Everyone had improved ten days later as we began the fifty-two-hour train trip across India to Mumbai (Bombay).
The city was jammed with western missionary families awaiting transport home. Although opportunities sometimes arose—one medical missionary boarded a troop vessel as ship’s doctor—nothing was available for families.
My earliest memory is from our time in Mumbai. I’m standing on a covered veranda, protected from the slight drizzle. I look down the wide steps to a pool of seawater. It’s my third birthday and I’m sad because I’m sick again and can’t go in the water with my sister. In a second, more dream-like recollection, I’m underwater, gliding along with my eyes open. Everything looks fuzzy. But I’m held firmly and feel safe.
These memories are from visits to the public baths near our lodging in Mumbai. We stayed at a beachfront boarding hotel where friends from Chengdu were staying. Cheaper alternatives existed outside the city but lacked electricity or running water. Our first-floor rental flat had ocean breezes and direct access to the beach. When other Chengdu missionary families arrived, we gained playmates.
During the six months we awaited transport home, my family began daily visits to the baths to break the boredom. Mr. Golwalla, the owner, gave my sister and me swim lessons and sometimes took us for an underwater swim. My parents, fearful of deep water, took lessons also—”in case we have to swim home,” Dad joked in writing to his mother. From our front window, my sister and I could watch the many ships going in and out of the harbor. With fighting along the India–Myanmar border and the ongoing Hump airlift, Mumbai became an important Allied port.
As we waited, the relative comfort of February turned quickly to steamy “summer” and, in June, to monsoons. Dad often inquired about ships at American Express’s travel office, but no one knew when a ship might come. The waiting missionaries must have been cheered by Germany’s surrender in May, even as war in the Pacific continued unabated.
On July 1, 1945, the M.S. Gripsholm entered Mumbai’s crowded harbor, maneuvering through the many warships. Built for the Swedish American Line in 1924, she was the first diesel-powered ocean liner to ply the Atlantic.
Several years earlier the US government had chartered the Gripsholm so the International Red Cross could exchange foreign nationals stranded by the war. Even as a World War II mercy ship, she sailed under the Swedish flag with a Swedish crew.
The ship was repainted entirely white with “GRIPSHOLM” in huge black letters along port and starboard sides. At night she traveled with decks flooded with lights so warships and submarines would recognize her and hold their fire. Between 1942–1946, she made twelve round trips to neutral ports, exchanging German and Japanese nationals (sometimes POWs) for US and Canadian citizens. In all, she repatriated 27,000 people, including my family.
Although I know we embarked on this Gripsholm voyage, I have only vague memories of the trip. My parents offered few details of that month aboard the ship. Except where noted, what follows draws largely from the writings of Canadian missionary Moir A.J. Waters, also on that voyage. I found an excerpt from his memoir on a website commemorating the Gripsholm.
On July 3, 1945, missionaries and children began boarding the ship. Those waiting in Mumbai boarded first, then people arriving from other India postings—700 people total. After dinner on July 5, the Gripsholm made her way out to sea and our voyage to America began.
Although we had a certain amount of comfort, this was no cruise. The Red Cross had its own procedures to attend to, including a daily lifeboat drill. Our ship never left or entered a port after dark, and no passenger could disembark at any port where the ship docked. The world was still dangerous despite the European truce.
Sailing under the auspices of the International Red Cross usually guaranteed safe passage. But the Japanese government refused this courtesy for our voyage since no exchange of Japanese nationals took place. Crossing 1,650 miles of the Arabian Sea to the port of Aden, Yemen, we sailed under threat of a Japanese submarine attack. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
Soon after leaving Aden we entered the Red Sea and calmer waters. Perhaps it was in this stretch with less chance of seasickness that I broke my collar bone. I vaguely remember narrow passageways and being reprimanded for running. I also remember steep stairwells, and on one set of stairs I fell. Dad arranged a tight sling that kept my arm immobile until the hairline fracture healed.
After transiting the Suez Canal, we entered the Mediterranean and crossed to Piraeus, Greece, near Athens, anchoring near a bombed-out bridge. Small tenders came alongside and 300 Greek Americans boarded, all naturalized U.S. citizens. Rescuing them had been this voyage’s original purpose, before the ship was redirected to Mumbai to rescue the stranded missionaries.
Traversing the Mediterranean Sea was not without danger. The Gripsholm was the first passenger ship to pass through after the war’s end in Europe. We sailed with the ever-present possibility of encountering unexploded floating mines.
Three weeks into the voyage, we reached Gibraltar where the ship stopped to clear papers. Then we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the rough seas and colder sailing of the Atlantic Ocean. With the more monotonous routine, we counted the days until our arrival in ‘Merica, as my sister called it.
On August 1 the Red Cross lined everyone up to take temperatures, a sign the journey was near an end. The next day, passengers crowded the decks as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor. A fireboat escort welcomed us like it did returning troop ships: sirens, dancing girls, and towering columns of water from water hoses.
Feeling overwhelmed by all this hubbub, I stayed close to my sister, holding her hand. The Gripsholm tied up at Pier P on the New Jersey side. My mother stepped toward the gangplank, carrying my brother, now one year old. My father hoisted me to his shoulder and took my sister’s hand as we followed. After eight months of travel, we were finally home.