The Panama Canal had long disappeared. The wackiest ship in the Navy had no land in sight when Ellsworth Gregor Buechel of Pittsburgh sat down for a haircut at sea. He didn’t call the vessel he was on by its rightful name, the APL-14. He called it “The Ritz Carlton”: A football-field long, unpowered ship, four decks high, towed by an escort.
Buechel had been on the Ritz since New Orleans in June. Now, it was August 1944, and the Ritz was headed for Hawaii, where it would be painted — “a five-tone camouflage job” – and outfitted with a library, post office, two-chair barber shop and even a ping-pong table. It was to be a “hotel ship.”
After the U.S. took Okinawa early in 1945, the Ritz stood to be where U.S. soldiers waiting to invade Japan could get a warm shower, hot meal and a clean bunk. Long before that, the Ritz left Buechel with a war story.
“I knew your Dad before he got a barber chair,” Buechel began. “He asked if anyone wanted a haircut, and I volunteered. So, I sat on a rubbish can and got my hair cut. The ship was rocking pretty good.
“The hair was falling. The ship rocked, and your Dad clipped the top of my ear. Blood was all over my T-shirt. I looked like I got shot.”
Buechel told how Dad looked up at the waiting customers.
“Your Dad said, ‘next.’ We laughed about it, but most of the guys said, ‘we will wait until you get a barber chair.’”
Dad had been on other ships during World War II. It turned out the APL-14, “the first vessel of the Hotel Fleet,” as Lt. Commander H.E. Reice christened it, was good duty.
Dad had his share of impish, shipboard stories that make good interludes to the battle scenes in war movies. He told of hiding a Coca-Cola bottle of whiskey behind his barber towels during inspection. The hooch added a little kick when he and few of the boys hooked up with their pal, a cook, later that night. The cook seared some steaks. They had a nice meal and played cards.
Dad had been gone a few years when I contacted some of his Ritz Carlton shipmates. That was more than 20 years ago. They’re gone now, too. I wish I had been able to turn the letters and conversations into something for them, but even on Memorial Day, I imagine it’s the rough-and-tumble stories war stories that people conjure. Down time in war makes for bad movies, but not necessarily bad history.
The Internet was a little creaky in ’97. Thanks to Reice, I had all the names and prewar addresses of the crew aboard the Ritz. One of the men to whom I spoke told me that Reice “wasn’t a Navy man” and got his command because Reice was pals with Adm. Chester Nimitz. Regardless, Reice was buttoned down on muster rolls — and he could write.
Dad traveled light, but one of the few things that followed him after the war was the typewritten gem Reice had given each crew member. In 12 pages, Reice takes readers from a shipyard on the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tenn., through a typhoon. It’s a good read, even though the Ritz was no battleship.
“We had a full laundry, medical doctor, dentist’s office and equipment,” Frank EIsenreich of Pittsburgh recalled about the Ritz Carlton in 1997. “We had a full bakery and three breakfasts, lunches and dinners for each shift and also a complete ice cream machine, free for all.”
“Can you imagine a million wooden ice cream spoons,” Reice wrote in his homage, telling how the crew had loaded supplies at Pearl Harbor in September 1944. “We stowed them somewhere, plus nearly as many paper dishes.”
Reice, who died in 1967 in California at age 66, had a sense of humor and a nice touch on the Remington as he told about the weeks’ long haul from Panama to Hawaii.
“Outstanding events on this leg were drills and more drills, the beautiful sunsets and the medical department’s first chance to work on a casualty — a frigget (SIC) bird that collided with a stay and landed on deck with an injured wing.
“The pharmacist’s mates had a field day; they broke out sulfa drugs, splints, and it looked for a while like the poor bird would not have a chance, but the boys knew their stuff and after a week’s convalescence, during which it was put on a diet of salmon, it took off and after doing a wing over to show its appreciation, headed out over the horizon to be seen no more.”
Undoubtedly it was Reice’s recount of the Ritz that made me want to know more. Buechel’s story was the jewel about Dad. Some talked of playing cards with him. Chester Dykiel of Anitoch, Ill., said, “He was the only barber we had aboard ship, so we were lucky he was good.”
The U.S. Navy was staging ships at Okinawa for a November attack on Japan, before the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. After the bombings, Typhoon Louise blasted Buckner Bay. Winds of 150 miles an hour caused ships to drag anchor and collide with each other.
“The wind was so strong you had to hold your hand over your nose so that you could breathe,” Leland Coles of Ogden, Utah, recalled.
The Ritz Carlton story ended with what one historian called “the most furious and lethal storm ever encountered by the United States Navy.”
The eight shipmates I reached seemed to relish their largely uneventful service. Dykiel became a middle manager of the data processing department at the U.S. Treasury and retired after 34 years. He wrote that the APL crew had a camaraderie. It was on that ship that he learned to “adjust and cope with different personalities.”
He also reflected that, “I had seen some places — the Panama Canal, Hawaii, Carolinas, Philippine Islands and Okinawa — which would not be accessible at my young age then. This, I feel, gave me a start to my limited educational experience.”
Dykiel’s portrait of a crew where “everyone pitched in” came through in the letters, phone calls and audiotapes I received from the group. You had to like these guys.
James Williamson of Waurika, Okla., died at age 87 in 2009. His talk of post-typhoon life told how “we lived on the beach, played football and did our usual work … until the ship was decommissioned.”
Williamson exceeded Dykiel’s “limited educational experience.” He attended two universities, graduated cum laude with degrees in chemistry and physics, then worked in pharmaceutical sales and research for 37 years.
The Williamsons’ retirement consisted of his wife opening a small retail store and Williamson working 100 head of Black Angus cattle on their 600-acre ranch. “We didn’t intend to get quite as busy,” he concluded, “but we wanted to do something and not sit down and start rocking”