My trip from San Francisco to New York, on route to United Kingdom with RAAF 1943



My trip from San Francisco to New York, on route to United Kingdom with RAAF 1943


Detailed description of journey by train across the United States with comments about America and descriptions of many towns and cities passed through. Comments on some of his and his companions' activities. Makes several comparisons with Australia.



Six page typewritten document


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[underlined] WITH R.A.A.F. 1943 [/underlined]

[underlined] AUS 426442. SGT H.E. SHAKSPEARE. [/underlined]

One of the first United States cities we reached the first big city was San Francisco. As we approached the city the sun was setting. It was a glorious sunset, the colors [sic] running in broad stripes, like futuristic daubs from a painter's brush, and varying in color from lilac, rust and maroon near the horizon to pale greens and blues and ochres, vivid yellows and oranges higher up, and shell pink merging into crimson where the last flickering rays of the sun caught the cumulus clouds above the horizon.

We didn't see the San Francisco skyline that night, because darkness fell quickly, but we did see thousand [sic] of pinpoints of light on the rising slopes behind the waterfront, and we did get a glimpse of the two great bridges for which the city is famous – the Golden Gate Bridge – the two great supporting columns of which are known as the Golden Gate – and the Oakland Bridge, the biggest in the world. The Golden Gate Bridge is 2 1/2 miles long and the Oakland Bridge, which links the two sides of the harbor, [sic] and Treasure Island, is seven or eight miles long. No leave in San Francisco, although we stopped there overnight, but next morning we saw a lot of the harbor (which is normally [missing letter]hrouded by mist, and was to some extent that morning.) We embarked on [missing word] ferry which took us on a 45-minute trip across the harbor to Oakland. On that trip we saw miles and miles of docks, which for layout and facilities generally were superior to anything in Australia; we saw Treasure Island in more detail; Alcatraz, the famous prison island known as “The Rock”, from which escape is said to be impossible; we saw our first skyscrapers, two or three huge buildings of what seemed to be 20 or 30 stories [sic]. Then we went ashore again, and straight on to a train. In next to no time the chaps had got busy with chalk, and the outside of each Pullman car carried such inscriptions as "Australia to Berlin," "If you're a peach, you're welcome here," and drawings of boomerangs and kookaburras, and tankards of foaming beer. The chaps were in a particularly good humour at finding sleeping cars awaiting them, and their spirits were still further improved when our first meal on the train came along. It was served, as all the meals on the train have been served, to us in our compartments, and still steaming hot when we received it. The food was first class – well-cooked, appetisin[missing letter] and varied, and the standard did not fall off during the entire trip. Occasionally with a meal, as on the first day, we were issued with a stick of candy, or a packet of cigarettes, or something of the kind, contributed, we understand, by unions and other organizations, in contrast to our Australian Comforts Fund system.

Our train pulled out from Oakland on Sunday, May 23rd, 1943[, with American girl stenographers leaning out of their office windows, waving goodbye, and before long we passed through a negro colony of old ramshackle, timber-frame houses, most of them two or three-stories [sic] high. We saw a number of cheerful, grinning negros, but the general impression of the colony was of squalor beside which [inserted] [[symbol] [/inserted] the worst slums in Australia would look like model housing schemes [inserted] [symbol]] [/inserted]. Individually, however, the negros are polite, willing and extremely happy, as our particular car porter, a carbon copy of Stepin Fetchit, has proved.

The next township we came to was one of the prettiest of the whole trip – a charming, sleepy little place called Sacramento, with delightful modern two and three storeyed timber frame homes, painted to merge into the green background of trees and shrubs which grew all

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around them. Lawn ran beneath the trees from house to house, and ther[missing letter] were no fences. When you see a place like this it makes you think how much prettier Australian cities would look without the fences around every suburban block. We all wanted to stop at Sacramento, but we rolled on across the fertile plains of California (climate similar to that of South Australia) on which almost anything grows – tomatoes, apricots, peaches, plums, olives, dates, and every kind of vegetable. There were scores of market gardens on the undulating plains.

Towards nightfall we were running through purple sage, and [inserted symbol] then we passed Winnemucca, and just as darkness fell we entered the [inserted symbol] Feather River Canyon, one of the loveliest pieces of scenery in California. We awoke the next morning, May 24th, 1943, to the beauty of [inserted symbol] Nevada mountains – the Sierra Nevada. Magazines were forgotten, and we spent the entire day looking out of the window. We travelled across[missing letter] the prairies, four or five thousand feet above sea level, and within a few miles of us on either side, were imposing, clearcut mountains, a most denuded of vegetation, for Nevada gets very little rainfall. The country was sparsely populated, but here and there were tiny homestead at the foot of the mountain slopes – mountain slopes from which the Blackfoot Indians rode down at dusk or at dawn in the days of early settlement, and the covered wagons gathered into their hollow circles. This was the country of Billy the Kid, cattle rustlers blazing six-shooters, and saloons. The mountains of Nevada are not something tiny like the Adelaide Hills but huge, majestic, towering peaks, rising to 9,000 and 10,000 feet, and nearly all snow-capped, their summits glistening white in the morning sun.

Then we came to Elko, a tiny little town which seemed to be inhabited by mixed breeds and whites, and here we had a short march, for exercise. Back into the train again and on past big cattle ranche[missing letter] into Utah, but still the mountains on either side. More vegetation on the mountains in Utah, but the peaks still blanketed in snow, and the mountains converging on us on either side. The second night came, and with it another magnificent sunset. This time the sky was mainly pale pink, lilac and crimson, and, with floodwater lying on the left of the line acting as a mirror for the sky and mountain peaks, there were some indescribably beautiful views.

In the afternoon of this second day we passed through Salt Lake City, travelling for miles before reaching it across a great dese[missing letters] of salt, the bed of a dried out lake, from which the city takes its name. Salt Lake City, is, I believe, a Mormon city, but we didn't see [inserted] into [/inserted] much of it.

On the third morning, Tuesday, May 25th, we crossed into Colorado, taking the scenic route after leaving a town called Grand Junctio[missing letter] Then, for probably 100 miles, we wended our way along the banks of the Colorado River through the Glenwood Canyon, which is undoubtedly the most glorious scenery we have seen. We were right down at the bottom of the Canyon, the track running within feet of the river on one side, and a magnificent motor road skirting the other bank. On either side the towering cliffs rose for 1500 feet or more. The river was flowing fast, with frequent rapids which lashed the water into a white fury, and great cliffs on either side were wooded with pines and firs and spruces. They rose in towering columns, with here and there an unusual rock strata which was reminiscent of pictures of the Colliseum [sic]. At every curve or bend in the line a new glistening peak would come into view, and then perhaps a brick red mountain, studded with bottle-green fir trees, the snow piled thick among the firs.

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America is a glorious country. There is no doubt about that. The homes just seem to have sprouted in among the trees, and are usually painted green and white. In the Glenwood Canyon we saw one particularly beautiful home. In front of it, sloping down to the Colorado River was about an acre of lawn, and behind the lawn was a beautiful little two storeyed home, painted green and white. This was the most beautiful stretch of scenery we saw on the entire route. Mountain peak after mountain peak, many of the larger ones snow-covered in endless succession. They formed a great chain on either side, and in between them was the raging water, snarling over the boulders, and forming almost continuous rapids.

Just before midday that day we saw our first sheep in America. They were grazing in lush alfalfa (lucerne in Australia) on the banks of the Colorado, with the thickly timbered mountains, still snow-capped, as a background.

Our train was climbing all the time now into the Rockies, and on the mountain slopes running right down to the train track were fields of taraxacum, small bright yellow weeds, the American counter-part of the Australian dandelion. In their profusion, however, they transformed the mountain slopes into a replica of Wordsworth's field of golden daffodils.

At this stage, about 11 a.m. or midday on Tuesday, May 25th, 1943, we were eight or nine thousand feet above sea level, and getting near the summit. About this time we passed through Red Cliff, another quaint little shanty town in a valley, with what appeared to be a mixed population. We were now getting near the snow level. There were snow-covered peaks above us still, but a few miles away on either side, and actually below us, were other peaks carrying snow. The air was bracing. It was a pleasure just to breathe it in. At 2:30 p.m. we reached the summit – 10,240 feet above sea level. Two huge locomotives each 15 feet high had hauled us to that height, and we left one of them behind at the summit, travelling fast down the slopes on the other side past snow fences erected to keep the snow from blocking the line. Then we rolled through Malta, another little shanty town, and at 4 p.m. we came to Salida, a little Midwest place something like an isolated suburb of an Australian capital gone completely American – a miniature King's Cross, with a five and ten cent store (Woolworth's), neon signs, and all the glitter and some of the glamour of the bigger American cities. A colourful little place, and it had a few pretty girls who evoked the long whistle of approbation which our fellows invariably turn on when anything with a figure and a skirt on goes by.

The warm summer sunshine was melting the snow on the mountains and on the eastern side of the Rockies tiny fast-flowing streams were [letters inserted] finding their way down the mountain slopes. Trout fishing is particularly good in this region according to our few American informants on the train, and from the train we could see anglers casting their flies. [inserted three words]

At Salida we took our second exercise march and the local population turned out in force to see us. Little negro boys ran alongside us as we marched, picking up the nickels and Australian pennies that the boys tossed to them. It was nice to stretch our legs and drink in the bracing mountain air nearly 7,000 feet up.

Then on we went again, with here and there a herd of mountain goats, and an isolated cabin or two. At this stage we had been travelling for nearly two days through scenery which for quantity and quality eclipsed anything which most of us had seen in Australia.

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Just before Pueblo, which we reached at tea-time, we passed through the Royal Gorge Canyon, and here again towering cliffs rose almost vertically on either side of us. The railroad on which we travelled was built on a concrete foundation, and seemed in places to over-hang the water – the water in this case being the Arkansas River. If we had had fishing rods with us we could have done some trout fishing of our own in the stream. As we ran through the Canyon we passed unde[missing letter] the world's highest bridge – everything is superlative in the United States – the Royal Gorge Amusement Bridge, which spans the canyon, and is 1700 feet long and 1052 above the canyon.

At Pueblo the women of the town brought "cookies" (a broad descriptive term apparently covering all sorts of small cakes and biscuits), and piles of magazines down to the train. We read them until the daylight faded about 9 p.m. and it was time to go to bed. We had now been through four States – California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, and had started our journey across Kansas to Kansas City on the border of Missouri.

We awoke on Wednesday, May 26th, 1943, just before we reache[missing letter] Council Grove – just another delightful little country town – and then the railroad wound along between undulating fields, the line itself bordered by wild irises and a pretty little white wildflower, the name of which we did not know. Two more pretty little towns – they are all pretty – Lyndon (population 750 people) and Ottawa (population 10,000) Ottawa being something like Sacramento in miniature, and not to be confused with the Canadian Ottawa. The lack of fences made it look as if the houses had grown of their own accord in among the cottonwood and beech and elm trees. From there we went on to Osawatomie (population 4,000) and here a crowd of negro boys and girls ranging in age from about three to about eight years, posed for their photographs to be taken and then scrambled for Australian pennies and American nickels and dimes, and oranges and apples, and anything else we had to give them. Bare-footed and clad in faded blue jeans or their elder brother[missing letter] long pants rolled up to the knees, their fruit-crammed pockets made grotesque shapes of their skinny little bodies.

On to Paola (3,500 people) – just as pretty as most of the other towns – and then on to Kansas City the second big city we have struck since San Francisco. Kansas City and the great Missouri River we were all waiting for them with keen anticipation – especially as we had an hour there, and were going to take our exercise marching through the city.

And so, at length, we came to Kansas City – bigger than Salt Lake City or Adelaide or Brisbane or Perth with a population of 425,000 and a magnificent railway station fringed with parks and concrete highways. However, as with most of the cities we have seen, the railway station was on the outskirts of the town, and our short march did not take us through the main streets. We passed a number of four and five storey buildings though, and got a big hand from the Kansas City girls. Kansas City has about half a dozen or eight big skyscrapers and is on the border of the State of Missouri, and lies on the Missouri River. As we marched through the streets we all whistled "Waltzing Matilda" and carried out the usual custom of tossing pennies and halfpennies with kangaroos on the backs of them to the negro boys and girls. At Kansas City, as at all the other places, we were staggered by the number of automobiles. Even in the negro quarter near Oakland there had seemed to be motor cars to burn, each ramshackle little home having two or three cars. The Americans seem to drive their cars to work, and

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there were huge car parks outside every factory building. They get four times the Australian petrol ration. We stopped for about three quarters of an hour at Kansas City, and then rolled east again, crossing almost immediately over the Missouri. Kansas City we will remember as the city of bridges. There were bridges everywhere – four huge bridges over the river crammed into a river frontage of 200 or 300 yards and each bridge bigger than Prince's Bridge, Melbourne. The bigg[missing letters] cities have few level crossings, avoiding them by the use of subways an[missing letter] overways. The Missouri is a fine big river, as broad, if not broader [inserted words] than our Murray.

During the trip the officers on the train had financed a canteen and made arrangements for us to pick up supplied en route, and we eventually got them at Kansas City – such things as chocolates, razor blades, matches and cigarettes. For tens of miles then we passed through glorious, fertile country, with everywhere green crops, green grass, green trees. All America has seemed green to us. About the only things in the country which are not green are the Americans themselves. They know all the answers. Incidentally, they seem to be tipping Roosevelt strongly for another term as President. Except for one or two States, all the country here seems to be as good and as prosperous as the best in the Commonwealth.

St. Joseph, a typical American small city, was the next place we passed, and just at bedtime we reached Des Moines, almost due north of Kansas City. Travelling this way we missed St. Louis, and did not see a great deal of Missouri. Des Moines is the capital of Iowa, and although we had only fleeting glimpses of the homes on either side of the track, we could see the white circle of lights on the top of one of the skyscrapers, indicating that the city was the capital of the State. Then we went to bed, a little disappointed that we would be crossing the Mississippi while we were asleep. When we awoke on Thursday, May 27th, 1943, we were running through rich country in the State of Illinois and soon crossed the Rock River and came to a place called Sycamore. About midday, after travelling for miles through huge railway yards, we came to a stop on the outskirts of Chicago, so far out in fact that we couldn't see the skyscrapers which the city must have. It is an industrial city of the first magnitude, twice or three times the size of Melbourne. We passed hundreds of warehouses, many of them delapidated [sic], ugly buildings, and in the same quarter we passed through another negro colony, by comparision [sic] with which even the Oakland negro colony was a model suburb. The Americans may find, in the next generation or two that they have a huge slum clearance problem on their hands. At Chicago, for the first time, there seemed to be a preponderance of brick and stone buildings. Nearly all the homes in the other cities ha[missing letter] been of timber-frame construction. We took our exercise march through some better-class negro homes, and we passed a school for negro childre[missing letter] It was their lunch-hour and they came running out on to the road, completely disregarding their teachers, and scrambled for small coins, fighting so tenaciously for the money that at times half a dozen of them were on the ground at the same time. Nearly all roads in and out of Chicago are of concrete, banked on the bends, and we saw many huge motor trailers, and some of their street cars.

Leaving Chicago and its chimney stacks and big industry behind we skirted Lake Michigan, a huge expanse of water about 300 miles long and 60 wide, and swept on into Indiana, picking up water as we went from troughs between the rails. We were travelling right across the north of Indiana, near the State of Michigan, and South Bend,

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another well developed little city, perhaps, 50,000 people was next on the line. America seems to have a lot of cities with populations from 20,000 to 100,000 bridging the gap between their big cities and their country towns. Seeing them makes you realise that Australia could do with more of them.

We all got a most pleasant surprise at Toledo. The maps we had did not show it to be a city of very great size, but when we pulled into the station about 5 p.m. we saw quite a lot of the central railway station there, and could see the outlines of two or three skyscrapers. There was quite a bit of fun on the railway station. The private ownership of railways in this country has resulted in what appears to be considerable duplication. America has 37 per cent of the world's rail-road mileage according to magazine advertisements, and from what we have seen the States must have at least 50 per cent of the world's rolling stock. Anyway, their railway stations have concrete platforms at ground level, with walk-down steps from the trains. At Toledo there were a dozen or so parallel platforms, and sleek stream-lined trains – crack railroad fliers owned by half a dozen different companies – were standing in them, carrying mostly civilian passengers with a sprinkling of service men and women. Beautiful girls, a lot of them were, and although they were separated by 15 or 20 yards our chaps quickly settled down to making friends. [inserted] letters [/inserted] One incident was particularly amusing. Three or four very pretty girls, waiting for their tea in the dining car of one of the sleak expresses nearby beckoned some of our chaps to come over, and a most interesting dialogue in sign language took place because we couldn't leave the train. The girls exhibited all sorts of inducements, including a bottle of whiskey, a packet of cigarettes, and their knives and forks, as much as to say "come over to dinner." [inserted letters] Perhaps it was just as well that their train pulled out at that stage. We pulled out ourselves a little later, giving the thumbs up sign and the two-finger V for Victory signal to all and sundry, and then we were on our way to Cleveland, running round the fringe of Lake Erie, and at one stage crossing a great bridge with broad expanses of water stretching to the horizon on either side. We have seen literally scores of big bridges on our trip.

Toledo and Cleveland are both in Ohio. It was after dark when we reached Cleveland after running through country very similar to that of Tasmania – rich and fertile, and split up into small holdings of 50 or 60 acres, worth about 125 dollars an acre. It has been a real pleasure to see neon signs again in some of the cities at night. At Cleveland we saw a magnificent building with a steeple summit, towering 300 or 400 feet up. Then we were rolling on across the north of Pennsylvania towards New York State. What happens from there we don't know but the rest of the trip will be a subject for later letters. We've all loved the United States so far, but the Yanks can have it. Australia will do us.

[inserted] HARRY SHAKSPEARE RAAF SQUADRON 460 MAY 1943 [/inserted]



Sergeant H E Shakespeare, “My trip from San Francisco to New York, on route to United Kingdom with RAAF 1943,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2024,

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