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A long voyage home

Operation Torch planners next had to find a ship with a draft shallow enough to run the muddy 17-foot-deep channel. A check of available transports failed to turn up a single candidate ; then someone remembered the Contessa, an old 5,500-ton Honduran banana boat belonging to the Standard Fruit Lines. They located her in the mid-Atlantic and diverted her from New York to the invasion-staging area at Newport News, Va.

Although under contract to the U.S. Maritime Commission, the British-built ship flew the Honduran flag. When war broke out, she had been drafted to ply the stormy and dangerous North Atlantic route. The call to report to Newport News found the Contessa completing her twelfth crossing. She changed course and reached Newport News on Friday afternoon, Oct. 23, just as Gen George Patton's invasion convoy prepared to sail.

Following its usual custom, the fruit company paid off the crew - and the men promptly scattered for a well-deserved rest. It was not until the Contessa, with only a skeleton crew aboard, limped into dry dock that her captain learned that they were due out Monday morning for an undisclosed destination. He immediately issued stand-by orders but most of his crew had already departed. Wires were sent to those who left addresses, but most of the men could not be reached.

Meanwhile, shipyard workers swarmed aboard and found the old ship salt caked, rust stained and flooded with water pouring in through her leaky seams. Since there was time for only the most essential repairs, they pumped out her holds and tightened her leaky plates and loose rivets.

She came out of dry-dock on Sunday morning, Oct. 25, and that night, in the midst of a drenching rain and sleet storm, bombs and steel drums filled with hight-test gasoline were loaded on board. A Navy gun crew came aboard to man her guns.

By Monday morning she was loaded and, except for the problem of an incomplete crew, ready to sail. The Navy solved that by approaching authorities at the Norfolk City Jail and offering freedomp to inmates who would sign on. Eighteen men, who were serving time for minor offenses, volunteered and were released for duty.

Since the convoy had already departed, her captain volunteered to sail unescorted across the U-boat-infested Atlantic. The Contessa could not carry any papers or charts that, in the event they fell into enemy hands, might endanger Operation Torch. This meant that all instructions would have to be memorized.

That assignment fell to Lt Albert V. Leslie, a reserve officer and veteran seaman who had been assigned to command the Navy gun crew. Only he would know the destination.

As Lieutenant Leslie later wrote, "I accumulated the necessary intelligence data to carry out my mission. This involved going over the sortie plans, communication plans and intelligence data concerning the navigation of the Sebou."