Washing the Yanks
by EDGAR L. JONES
FROM a preliminary glance around Kwajalein, one would suppose that the bomb-blasted Pacific island had been turned over to the Dutch. Windmills stand atop abandoned Japanese pillboxes; they operate in multiple batteries along the shore; they whirl noisily among the tents and Quonset huts. Many times more plentiful on Kwajalein than trees, the windmills do not pump water, as a newcomer would surmise. Their vertical shafts run no further than the nearest barrel or empty gasoline can, whence cometh the familiar slurping sound of Monday morning in the family basement at home. These are clothes-washing windmills in the Rube Goldberg manner, with the tropical zephyrs doing the work that all soldiers and sailors hate most.
When a good washing wind hits an island as crowded as Kwajalein, so many scrap-built windmills go into action that the uninitiated hurriedly report the approach of enemy planes; at least that is what the old-timers on the island claim. Backed by a favorable breeze, the whirling windmill blades force a plunger to churn busily in a soapy tubful of muddy socks and oil-splattered coveralls. In two hours, a week’s washing is ready for rinsing and the replacement of buttons, if any man is that particular. The wind is laundryman for every weary serviceman who can stake a claim on some lightweight wood or metal for blades, a broomstick for a shaft, and a funnel for a plunger.
Although varying in size and efficiency of operation, the washmills are now common throughout American-held islands in the Central Pacific. Navy men claim that a Seabee built the first one; the Army vows that the honor goes to one of its Engineers. Among GI’s, who always have searched for a way to do bunk fatigue and their washing at the same time, the unknown inventor outranks Edison or Eli Whitney. To them, washing is a chore to be put off until the last sock is hopelessly dirty.
If American radio stations were to beam their soap operas overseas, they would reach an audience thoroughly receptive to any new schemes to make clothes-washing easy. Unless a serviceman is assigned to a large and modern warship or stationed in an area far removed from front-line operations, laundering is one of his worst problems. The mobile laundry units do an excellent job, but their services are limited to troops who stay in one place long enough to collect their clean clothes. Furthermore, the laundry units which do reach forward areas are needed badly by field hospitals to wash sheets, towels, blankets, and pajamas. Thus the bulk of the men overseas are left with their individual piles of dirty laundry, and after three years they are still looking for a washing method which does not involve scrubbing clothes by hand.
Supply officers continually must be on the watch for men who conveniently lose their dirty clothing in the hope of being issued a new and clean set. Happy is the soldier who chances on enemy stores of clothing. He can use the socks and handkerchiefs as long as he wants, then throw them away.
But if clothes must be washed, gasoline is considered to be the fastest-working cleaning agent. Even if one can “borrow” some 100-octane aviation gas, however, the semi-clean clothes are stiff and irritating to the skin. Also, casualties run high among those who like to smoke while washing. A well-established rule of warfare in North Africa was: “Never offer a light to a friend with clean clothes — he may explode.”
Having remembered from the dim days before washing machines that women used to boil their clothes to get them clean, many men have put their dirtiest laundry in a square tin, added water and soap, and then started a huge fire under and around their washing. By using gasoline for fuel, they do not have to wait long for their water to boil. The results are varied and always unexpected. Either the bottom of the tin melts away, dousing the fire, or the flames swirl furiously over the top of the tin, covering with soot whatever clothes are not already scorched. Even when the optimistic washerman keeps his fire under control, he is faced sooner or later with the realization that his clothes have become only one shade lighter and still have to be scrubbed.
THE easiest way to wash clothes aboard ship is to hang them over the side. That is what any old hand, with not so much as a twinge of conscience, will tell a young sailor at sea for the first time. Looking for the easiest way out of a tedious chore, the sailor ties a line to his shirt and pants and lets them dangle in the churning sea. Several hours later he pulls up his line, while an amused audience gathers round to watch his face. If he has anything left which vaguely resembles shirt and pants, said garments no longer have buttons or pockets, and what used to be Navy blue is now a sickly white.
After such a disheartening experience, the sailor goes back to washing clothes in the traditional Navy manner. The clothes are stretched out flat on a board and attacked with a stiff brush until, after half a dozen washings, they are paper-thin. A powerful soap powder, known for some long-forgotten reason as “squeegee,” is issued to men aboard Navy and Merchant Marine vessels. The belief prevails that if one puts clothes to soak in a pail full of squeegee and allows them fo stand in a corner of the foVsle long enough, the clothes will get clean by themselves. I have seen men let clothes soak in squeegee so long t hat a two-inch layer of mold formed on the top, and yet the clothes still had to be scrubbed by hand to get them clean. Try as they will, most servicemen still have not found a painless cure for their washday blues.
Occasionally a man who has had exceptionally bad luck at poker, or whose funds have been depleted by his propensity to roll sevens at wrong moments, will turn to washing as a means of recouping his lost spending money. To take in washing is a desperate measure, resorted to only when friends no longer are willing to advance small loans. From a strictly monetary standpoint, laundering is a fine profession. Any soldier will gladly pay twenty-five cents to have someone else wash his socks, just one pair of socks. Profitable as it may be, the laundryman closes out his business just as soon as he acquires a large enough stake to get back into the poker game.
The only man I ever met who voluntarily stayed in the clothes-washing business for more than two days was a young and enterprising seaman who came ashore on a newly won island while the supply system was still in a disorganized state. The seaman found himself a brand-new washing machine, complete with wringer, which was destined for a medical unit. In the three weeks before the medical search party found its missing appliance, the seaman had earned nearly three hundred dollars.
In the opinion of many grateful GI’s, at least the Distinguished Service Cross should be given to members of a chemical processing company stationed for many months in North Africa. A chemical processing company normally functions only in the event that the enemy resorts to gas. Equipped with chemicals and mixing vats, such an outfit impregnates clothing with a secret formula which makes ordinary uniforms gasproof. Its basic piece of apparatus is a huge washing machine, into which the clothes and chemicals are dumped for thorough mixing. After several months of idleness in North Africa, this particular chemical processing company mounted its washing machine on a truck and went on a laundering tour. It would stay with an artillery unit long enough to wash all the dirty clothes in sight and then move on to a tank corps. The traveling laundrymen were nearly as popular as a USO troupe.
The essence of every serviceman’s wish-thinking, exclusive of romantic desires, is to be near enough to civilization to have someone else do his washing. I once asked an Australian how it felt to be driven almost to the Suez Canal by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The Aussie shrugged and replied that at least they were then able to send their laundry into Alexandria once a week. Because soldiers are so reluctant to do their own washing, the laundering of uniforms has become a leading profession among Syrians, Polynesians, Italians, Sudanese, Eskimos, and any other civilians whose land has been traversed by Allied troops. The Arabs are perhaps the most persistent laundrymen. It was not unusual for an Arab to approach a group of soldiers in the middle of a battle and offer to do their washing for a cup of sugar or a handful of tea. On one occasion I saw an Arab brought in on a stretcher after he and his camel had wandered through a mine field. While a group of soldiers were standing around watching, the Arab regained consciousness, looked at the assembled men, and weakly said: “ Wash-eeng, Yank, do very good wash-eeng! ”
Ships stopping at the strategic Red Sea port of Aden are met first by the pilot’s launch, then by a Naval boarding party, thirdly by a tug and customs officials, and finally by a beturbaned gentleman who arrives at the anchorage in a native boat manned by three youthful oarsmen. To curious seamen leaning over the ship’s railing, a business card is passed up to introduce: Monsieur Rhat-Rhat, First Class Washerman. Discouraged by long months of doing their own washing, the seamen are very much interested in Mr. Rhat-Rhat’s proposition, especially when they are assured that the laundry will be returned the following morning. After bundles of dirty clothes are lowered to the little boat, the firstclass washerman relaxes in the stern under a striped awning and signals his crew to head for shore. Usually that is the last ever seen of Mr. Rhat-Rhat or the laundry. When we were at Aden it hadn’t rained for nearly two years, which may be Mr. Rhat-Rhat’s excuse for delayed service. The seamen’s only consolation lies in the fact that it is too hot in the Red Sea to wear clothes, even if they had them back.
Wherever servicemen have gone in this war, they have left behind innumerable bundles of laundry which they never had time to pick up. One hour before our ship was due to leave Alexandria for the invasion of Sicily, I was excited by the sight of our three senior officers standing anxiously at the head of the gangplank. I felt sure that we were to be visited by some high-ranking official, perhaps even an admiral. As the bosun cuttingly informed me, it was the laundryman, not an admiral, for whom the officers were waiting. We sailed without benefit of clean uniforms, and unless the ship has since revisited Alexandria, three more bundles of military laundry have joined the stockpile of abandoned washing. Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, for example, is still holding laundry for British officers who went into the desert in 1941, while throughout the Pacific islands there are countless natives who have forsaken their loincloths to wear the GI uniforms of men who thought they had time to get their washing done the easy way.
Only the men in the Air Transport Command seem able to cope with world-wide laundering conditions. Anyone who spent time at an ATC terminal has become accustomed to hearing a pilot or crewman ask a friend to pick up his laundry at the Y.M.C.A. in Calcutta, London, or Melbourne. To other, more earthbound servicemen, washing remains a problem which gives them very little time to sympathize with Americans on the home front who complain that their laundry service is not. what it used to be. The clothes-washing windmills are a boon to those men permanently stationed on windy islands, but the majority of the men overseas are still searching for a way to take the scrubbing out of washdays. Anyone with helpful ideas may write to the nearest APO number. The boys in the field will try any system once, providing it sounds easy.