Two “Stowaways” Entertain Returning Troops
Date posted: May 15, 2019, 11:52 am
by Albert D. Ehrenfried
reprinted from University of Maine: Class of 1944 in World War II, 2001
This is a war story of sorts. It involves hundreds of war heroes coming home from Europe immediately after D-Day, the role of the US Coast Guard in operating fast passenger liners in an efficient shuttle service, and the yearning for shipboard entertainment as a fitting welcome for the troops and a way to fill the time of an Atlantic crossing.
It also involves two University of Maine classmates who held the highest of security clearances to perform critical electronics work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Radiation Laboratory, the leading Allied center for radar research.
The two, Al Ehrenfried and Harry Thomas, had been partners long before joining the staff at MIT. They had both enrolled in the class of 1944 at the University of Maine in Orono, both had elected the demanding engineering physics program as a major, under Professor Clarence E. Bennett, both had assisted in the physics labs to alleviate the manpower shortage, and both had chosen the accelerated program that had them graduate early in December of 1943.
Another common theme in their lives: they were both jazz musicians who joined together to lead “The Maine Bears,” the campus dance band that played the major college social events, broadcasted from Bangor radio stations, and opened dance halls in Dover-Foxcroft and other surrounding towns in the spring. When they both got appointments to “Rad Lab” at MIT, they moved together into the Phi Kappa Sigma house (Al’s fraternity) located on Beacon Street, directly across the Charles River from MIT.
Top-secret radar development work was demanding, but jazz continued to serve as a pleasant relief, and these two young men from Maine (Lewiston and Farmington) found themselves playing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best known musicians in the world, Al on string bass and Harry on trumpet and piano. Nighttime gigs were plentiful, and the two got to play at many Boston jazz venues, ranging from infamous Scollay Square, to downtown hotels and the many smoke-filled jazz clubs. They also met great musicians coming through town, including servicemen on shore leave, looking for a place to jam.
Aland Harry met one such group of US Coast Guardsmen from the USS Wakefield, a high-speed passenger liner converted to bring thousands of troops home from the European theater, where the war was winding down. Every couple of weeks, Wakefield musicians would hook up with Al and Harry, often at the Beacon Street fraternity house, sometimes with shipmates, and play jazz into the night. On one such occasion, the drummer, “Red” Frey, said it was too bad the group couldn’t stick together. And then he asked, in a moment of seeming insanity, why didn’t Harry and I come on board the Wakefield for a trip, and greatly augment the ship’s band! We were stunned by the proposal and let the matter drop.
By the time the Coast Guardsmen returned from their next voyage, Red’s nutty idea had taken shape: an elite “in group” had been organized on board ship, including high ranking non-coms (and perhaps even higher), and they had worked out a detailed plan for Harry and me to sail to Le Havre and back as members of the ship’s jazz band. The plan, they said, was foolproof, and the only question was how soon could we come on board. Harry and I were as nutty as they were. We arranged two-week vacations at the Lab and were set for Plan X on the next arrival of the huge, once luxury Wakefield.
It was a dark night, June 10, 1945, one month after V-E Day. The crew had arranged to have a string bass on board, and Harry was to play principally piano, so we had no instruments to bring. A distraction of the deck officer, normally located at the top of the gangplank, was arranged (or maybe he was in on the plan?). We came on board and were assigned bunks. Our support group was everywhere we turned: in the chow line, at bunk check, during duty hours and at leisure time in the evenings.
We rehearsed daily in the band room, where personnel of nearly all ranks came to listen; and we were featured entertainment for the ship’s crew out on deck about every day. At Le Havre, we didn’t risk going ashore, but we got to see the extensive damage and the sunken ships that marked this important debarkation port. The war was still on in the Pacific, and troops were slated for reassignment, little knowing that two atomic bombs would fall within two months and V-J Day would occur a month later, on September 2.
Troops were crowded on board the Wakefield, which was fitted to carry thousands and all their gear. The more spacious decks were filled every day, and every day, our jazz band held forth with tunes that drew thunderous applause. The plan had indeed gone like clockwork, that is until the captain of the Wakefield invited our band to give a private concert to the Army generals on board! Never had this prospect occurred to us; we were being sabotaged by our success. No way could we put the top Navy and Coast Guard brass in such an embarrassing position. The Army would almost certainly find out that they had been given special entertainment by two stowaways!
Two days before arriving in Boston, Harry, Red Frey and I were seized and put in the Wakefield brig, a noisy location in the bottom of the ship, next to the engines and the ship’s laundry. Upon arrival in Boston, Harry and I were turned over to the FBI, to an agent named Joe Smith(?). Boston papers carried small news items declaring us “the first stowaways out of Boston since the war began,” and accusing us of “secreting ourselves to obtain a free ride”. Hardly true; we had worked hard during our passage.
The FBI interrogated us, made a few checks and released us. They had looked into security issues and found that Harry and I held higher security clearances than anyone else on board ship. Joe Smith said he viewed our venture as “a lark,” and said it was the first time he had heard of “stowaways” performing public jazz concerts in front of an audience of hundreds. He had trouble concealing the smile on his face.
A couple of minor incidents followed. Back at Rad Lab, a new man showed up out of the blue, and was assigned to me. I’m sure he was a security agent. We got along fine and conversed on many subjects, and he promptly disappeared. A year later, I had joined the Army and had been assigned to do signal-corps research on the acoustic detection of nuclear detonations originating anywhere throughout the world. Security was tighter than usual because Sen. Joe McCarthy was rampaging about supposedly finding communists everywhere. I was called to the adjutant general’s office at Ft. Monmouth headquarters. I presumed I was being looked into, but quite the contrary. They said a couple of people in my program were under surveillance, and would I assist them in the investigation. I said, “Of course, but why did you select me?” They said my personnel file was thicker than any they had seen, and they knew more about me than anyone else on the base!
© A. D. Ehrenfried, June 28, 2000