The Ship’s journey was frightening, but the reward great …
We embarked on March 12, 1947 at Palermo, arriving from our town of Salemi. The sun shone brightly as we boarded ship. Mother’s three sisters and their two husbands, rented a rowboat to be nearer the ship and us. We struggled to prolong the last moments together. No one expected, ever, to see each other again.
The initial part of the voyage, across the Mediterranean, was smooth and pleasurable. The sea was calm and the sky sunny. We five, parents and three children, enjoyed walking the deck.
The SS Marine Shark was a troop transport ship built for the war. Its design maximized passenger load, not passenger comfort. Sleeping quarters consisted of rows of bunks two high. Each bunk was a metal rectangle with a net made from springs of galvanized steel. This frame was covered by a thin futon-like mattress and hung from a bulkhead [wall] with one length hinged against the bulkhead and the farther two corners held up by chains linked to points higher on the bulkhead. The space below the lower bunk was used for storage. Male and female passengers bunked in separate quarters.
The food on board introduced American cuisine to us and the experience was disappointing. The flavors compared poorly to our accustomed fare. Fortunately, we brought some provisions, a small cache of bread, cheese, and fruit. This private food supply lasted a few days.
On the third day we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and soon the sea changed character. It became increasingly rough and the waves eventually grew to the size of mountains. The calm cruise morphed into a roller coaster ride.
The mountains of water shifted constantly, tossing the ship at will and with such violence that we feared the ship might break apart. Most of the lifeboats broke free during this tossing and many of the pumps that purged water stopped working. The ship was at risk of failing.
After days of heavy seas, with damage to the ship mounting and the storm’s end not in sight, the captain surrendered hope. He assembled all passengers in the cafeteria and made an announcement. The trip was nearing its end; imminently, the ship would sink. He urged all to wear lifejackets continuously; everyone was to be responsible for himself. The captain had the ship’s radio operator send a distress signal to all who could hear. The Marine Shark was about to sink.
Our hometown paper printed that news. Mother’s sister Angela ran into a friend in town who, flippantly, told her of our ship’s demise. She became upset and angry, reminded him that her sister was on board, and berated him for his callous attitude.
Yet our ship survived, even if the storm had reduced appreciably the ship’s forward progress. Our scheduled ocean transit was to take twelve days but instead took sixteen. The heavy seas lasted about seven of those days.
As we approached North America the seas finally quieted. The passengers were relieved and began to anticipate landing in New York. On March 26 our ship approached Nantucket and passengers dressed for disembarking. But high winds in New York harbor delayed the ship’s entrance.
In the early hours of March 27, well before sunrise, word spread that land was visible. Passengers scrambled on deck as our ship approached New York harbor. That early pre-dawn we marveled at the brightly lit Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty.
The joy filling the ship was palpable and that joy now had two roots. The original excitement of coming to America was joined by the relief of still being alive. Soon we would again be standing on dry land. A new life was about to begin.