In 1934, Willis "Bill" Johnson of LeRoy NY, and four college friends who had formed a band were hired to play on the ship Olympic ( sister ship to the Titanic ) on a trip from New York to Cherbourg, France. Bill kept a diary of their experiences on the ship and on a stay in Paris. The diary has been transcribed by Neal Smith.
Standing L. to R.
F. Clapp, R. Haynes, W. Johnson
Kneeling L. To R.
C. Dinsmore, J. Kahn

Getting to the Ship

On the third day out - to try to recall some of the high spots of this memorable trip. Writing on the Olympic is nearly as bad as writing on the B&O Railroad.

From February to June passed in expectation of an ocean voyage. Also apprehension that I would not make the trip although tenor sax players are scarce.

shipJune 1st to 6th - Preparation for said trip interspersed with a few final exams at the University of Rochester. Procuring a passport was great fun and involved much red tape. Everything had to be just so-except the character witness end of it. My witness had "known" me exactly 17 min 50 sec before he swore for me.

June 6th Immediately after finishing a psych quiz, the drummer- F. Clapp and I made ready to start for New York in our 1921 Nash. At 3 o'clock all was in readiness - or so we thought. However, after about two blocks we developed engine trouble. After much cranking and coughing, we got the car to a garage where the mechanic saw fit to install a new battery for $4.

This being done we set out in earnest - personally driven by Willis who decided after the first two miles to make a two stop journey to the city. The trip was uneventful until we passed thru Syracuse. Hitting the Cherry Valley road, on which there were no cars, we started to pick up speed. 43 miles per hour. The engine became over heated and fumes of burning oil filled the car. Soon adopted the expedient of coasting down hills. 55 down a two lane highway with the motor dead and brakes in bad condition is great sport on an unknown road at 10 PM. However, even this clever piece of work failed to keep the motor from overheating and twenty miles west of Albany a connecting rod burned thru. Schenectady was the nearest town, so I relinquished the wheel and Clapp drove the protesting crate into said town.

shipThere we stored the car in a garage - got a bite to eat and after a couple of hours of sleep we started out looking for second hand cars. Finally found one in the garage where we had spent the night. It was an old Velie, which at first glance seemed to be in horrible condition. The garage man offered to fix it up and trade us even, so we agreed.

Finally took the road again in our newly acquired conveyance, which looked much better then when we had first acquired it. Clapp took us safely thru Albany, but a few miles south of there we broke down again - the drive shaft let go at one end and fell to the road. After much confusion, thru which I slept, a mechanic was located who fixed us up temporarily. $6.

Warned against doing over 25 mph, we crawled uneventfully into Poughkeepsie. We went to Kahn's apartment to meet him and have lunch. Stayed in a hotel that night and slept soundly. In the morning we abandoned the car and took the train into New York.

At Grand Central we waited hours for Haynes and Dinsmore, who showed up at one o'clock. There to the steamship office where last minute arrangements were made. To the docks after a couple of bars. Also stocked up on cigarettes and a couple of pints just in case. At the docks, we looked over the ship. A mammoth piece of work- but like Niagara Falls- a bit below my expectations. What I expected I really don't know.

Life at Sea

The band travels 3rd Class which is down on E deck. The staterooms are not too cramped. The bunks are narrow but comfortable and each fellow has a double stateroom to himself.

Hung around on the pier until nearly dead and at last the time came to shove off. The band had to play during this supposedly thrilling skyline departure, but we were soon released and at liberty to take a glance at the rapidly receding shore line. The hugeness of New York at once became apparent. The office building section looked especially impressive. Stayed on deck so long I nearly missed dinner - and what a shame that would have been. A multiple course affair. Hard to order, but very easy to eat. Everything from soup to nuts and well cooked at that.

After this sumptous repast, we unpacked and went on deck to play. Very windy and we drew no crowd. After a cursory examination of Tourist Class, we went to bed with the determination to get up for a swim the next morning. The pool was open for Tourist from 6-8 AM.

June 9

Slept very soundly, but managed to get up and to the pool with Haynes. white starFirst experience with salt water swimming. Sea water is easy to swim in owing to the added bouyancy it gives one. It was also a revelation to me that the ocean is very salty - much more so than I had ever supposed.

Played again at 11 and had a magnificent lunch. Then to bed again until time to play at four - what a job! Dinner followed playing and then more playing. The weather outside was not conducive to dancing, so we moved inside to the lounge. Even then, no one danced. In third class, there were about three "danceable" women and about twice that number of men - excluding the Kent crew, which was on board, bound for England. A great bunch of gents who get up every morning at six - exercise most all day and go to bed at nine. Their day is also enlivened by a tutor who puts them in shape for exams in England. The tutor is the card of the bunch - a very smooth gent.

Went to bed.

June 10

Awoke and took another swim. On the preceding day, the bath steward had given us notice that no 3rd class passengers were allowed in the pool, but in the afternoon he took pains to come and look Haynes up and tell him that if we two would like to swim every morning we might do so. Not a bad gent on the whole.

club dance Went on deck after another great breakfast and was surprised to see white caps on the sea. They did not flash in the sun owing to the fact that there was no sun. The sky was dull and overcast and there was a chill mist.

Games of deck tennis and shuffleboard filled the morning hours and dinner was followed by a nap followed by supper. Boat life seems to alternate sleeping and eating. It is hard to say which is more enjoyable. To sit an hour and a half at a meal and eat continually is a new experience.

Played some more to a bunch of rather listless listeners - two couples of whom danced.

And so to bed.

June 11

Swam and went straight back to bed and so missed breakfast. Got up barely in time for lunch. Wandered around all afternoon talking to sailors whom I could hardly understand due to their cockney accent. Also played cards and lost 30 cents.

club membersDinner and more playing. A few "tourists" came along and livened things up a bit.

To bed.

June 12

Swam and slept thru breakfast again. Lazed away the day. Practiced in the morning and played after the cinema at night. They have five pictures on the way across which are very good. The sound apparatus is much better than one would expect in these situations. While we were playing a huge crowd came from Tourist Class - high as a kite- they passed around the drinks and made a crowd to play for, so an enjoyable time was taken.

June 13

Same routine. Gambled a bit in the afternoon and won 25 cents. Went up to Tourist to play in the night. Got $10 in tips. They have a lousy band in Tourist, so we were highly appreciated.

June 14

Last day on boat. Sighted a few ships during the day including an Australian sailing ship. Land came into view in the afternoon and looked pretty good. Had to pack in the evening - an awful nuisance. Played about a half an hour and went to bed thinking about the next day's trip to Paris.

Off to Paris

June 15

Got up at 6 and ate a hasty breakfast. Collected bags and took the tender into land. The land looked nothing like the States. The harbor is fortified on every side. Bluffs surronding the town are topped by forts. The town of about 40,000 is spread out all over the landscape and the buildings are old and low. harborThe rolling terrain on all sides was beautiful and picturesque. Green slopes topped by darker forests and here and there great bare cliffs. The weather, which had been decidedly drab, smiled upon our landing and the sun enhanced the already gorgeous landscape.

After a cursory examination of the station and the docks, we entrained for Paris. French railroads are to be preferred to the American variety in my humble estimation. As the second hand on the large clock ticked off 9:00, the surronding objects lost their stationary appearance and seemed to slide backwards ever so slowly. This is the only way I can describe the punctuality and smoothness of that start. (Compare to the B.& O.)

We five shared a third class compartment. Another good idea - these compartments. They give one a privacy not found on American trains and even the 3rd class are very comfortable. I could see little reason for traveling 1st class as we get there at the same time as our moneyed co-travelers.

What views for an artist whizzed by our windows. Old, old farmhouses - some even thatched. Hay being harvested in fields scarcely larger than a suburbanite's garden. Quaint old haywagons - and poppies! The fields were one mass of color - dazzling red poppies set off by a bright green background.

The towns thru which we passed were composed of incredibly old stone houses - narrow cobblestone streets and numerous outside markets. Bicycles everywhere. Once in a great while we would pass thru an enormous estate - stretching for acres whereon grazed Jersey cows and sleek looking horses. More often, the livestock appeared singly or in pairs standing peacefully under huge trees.

After eating the lunch thoughtfully provided by the ship, we took turns sleeping until we rolled into Paris with a stop that rivalled the start for smoothness and punctuality. A four hour run and pulling to halt on the exact scheduled second.

Pandemonium reigned in our compartment - but not for long. We soon staggered out into the station. French buzzing about me and carrying to my ears not the slightest connotation. I shall not say it was bewildering - it was not - at least after the first few minutes. I was the only one of the five who did not have an elementary knowledge of the tongue and my dependence on my companions was therefore complete.

Said companions started out with a view of finding a reasonable hotel. Found a very pleasant place right across from the station. We took two rooms on the sixth floor for 18 francs each - one franc being worth about 6.66 cents. About 45 cents apiece per day for a room in the heart of Paris was extremely reasonable. As soon as we were settled we started off looking at sights - Paris - the 3rd largest city in the world.

Americans in Paris

There we were in the middle of the city and nowhere was a building over eight stories to be seen. The streets in this section were very narrow. The shops were attractive and every few buildings a cafe invited us to partake of liquid refreshment. Before we had gone many blocks, we seated ourselves at one of Paris' justly famous sidewalk cafes to enjoy a beer or two. Dinsmore and Haynes tried out their American French on a couple of lasses seated in back of us. With a few gestures, they managed to make themselves understood. I piped up "sprechen sie Deutsch?" to one of them and imagine my embarrassment - "ja wohl." I soon decided that I could get much more out of the French conversation and lapsed into silence.

Soon we started back toward the hotel, but not before we interviewed an Englishman who offered to take us around the following night and show us the "sights" of Paris. Having been warned by all sorts of sources beforehand against the ilk of this individual, we decided the less we saw of him the better. After eating in a restaurant where we were unmercifully gyped, we set out to see what we could find in the way of entertainment.

Met up with a German and an Austrian. Combining their knowledge of English and my knowledge of German, we conveyed to each other our views of finding something to do. The German had the address of a place where we could have a drink or two and see a show, so we decided to go with him. As we had but 2.50 apiece, we knew that the worst that could happen to us would be a night in jail, so we set merrily off in a taxi. After a few blocks, we drew up in front of a building faced with some sort of white stone. Rang the bell and nothing happened so we walked in. A reception hall luxuriously carpeted met our gaze. A French maid met us and instructed us to go upstairs. At the head of the stairs, we were further directed into a room walled with chromium and mirrors. We sat down on stools and music was heard in the distance - the show had started. Discretion prompts me to trust my memory for that part of the experience and merely jot down - what a show !!

Suffice it to say - in about ten minutes the proprietress became interested in our financial state and we soon realized we had stumbled into the wrong building. So - somewhat abashed and minus most of our luchre - gone for one glass of champagne - we stumbled out again.

Thinking we had spent enough for the night, we started walking back. Having been brought up with the best of American conventions, I scarce know how to fittingly and delicately describe the number of prostitutes who attempted to pick us up. They were stationed about four to a block and we were accosted about twenty times in five blocks. Gave the boys some great practice in their French. I also learned the phrase which silences anyone trying to sell anything at all - "Nous n'avons pas d'argent" - or something to that effect. Enough of this sort of stuff - which might prove disgusting to anyone who has never witnessed the conditions. It was, however, more pathetic than revolting to me.

A glass of beer and to bed.

Arose next morning about noon. Were recommended to a very good - and cheap - restaurant. After a hearty repast, we set out to wander around the town.

Lazed away the whole afternoon. Went to the Opera where we made reservations for Kahn for that evening. Wandered back to the restaurant where we ate another big meal. We stood around wondering what to do. Finally took a chance on the Arc de Triomphe.

Took a taxi to the Champs Elysee.

champsAt the one end we left the taxi. In the distance the arch stood out against the darkening sky. It looked massive and somewhat impressive. The immediate surrondings, however, were impressive enough. One could easily believe the whole of Paris was congregated on the street. The street provided plenty of room for pedestrians and every square inch seemed to be in use. Here, as elsewhere, were sidewalk cafes and, being very thirsty, we tried to get a place to park. It was virtually impossible, so we sauntered along toward the Arc. Priced a few shows - 15 francs minimum.

The Arc was quite a structure. Very large and all that. In as much as its historical significance was unknown to me, I probably missed much of the thrill associated with the viewing of this masterpiece. Saw the grave of the French unknown soldier - the light that never fails. It was possible to walk over the grave, which was not discernible except for the light. Could not help contrasting it to the American unknown soldier's grave with its tomb and ever present guard. Sacre CouerIn about five minutes we had seen enough. Stepped out to the street to hail a taxi and witnessed tragedy as an American driven car struck a girl. Was impossible to say how badly she was hurt as she was bundled into a car. In the street, however, were a couple of ominous pools of blood.

Finally hailed a taxi and rode to a spot near the hotel. Walked a couple of blocks amid the now familiar "avec moi's". Climbed our several flights of stairs and so to bed - with the determination to go to church the next morning.

By some miracle (and a little assistance from Kahn), I rolled out of bed at the atrocious hour of 9 the next morning. Clapp, Dinsmore, Kahn and I took a taxi up to the Church of the Sacred Heart. We went up and up. The building seems to be built on a hill in the middle of the city as we could look far away over the town on three sides. The Eiffel Tower was visible in the distance. Like other days in Paris, this was almost hot and sultry. The sun shone down in a blinding glare. Strangely enough, there was the slightest suggestion of a mist on the horizon. From here, the true size of Paris began to impress itself on us. The tallest structures were smokestacks from a few industrial plants. The rest of the city stretched away at a uniform height.

The church in front of which we stood was truly beautiful. Light grey stone with the usual stained glass windows and also multiple spires. Were hailed in front by an old crone from whom we bought a few souvenirs and then passed inside.


A perfectly huge place. No pews - just chairs placed on the stone floor. Away at the front was a great stage effect in white with pedestals and candles. The priest stood in an elevated pulpit and was delivering himself of some very euphoneous French. At the conclusion of his speech, the great organ blasted out and filled the mammoth room with Bach (so I am told). In fact, the organ was the main cause of our going to church as one of the Eastman School of Music instructors had formerly played it. During the playing and the chanting, "things" were happening on the aforementioned stage. Very pretty and impressive. After the Bach, we all came to the conclusion that we had seen enough for one morning and strolled out of the church very nonchalantly ignoring the box for contributions at the entrance.

Paris Scene We set out to walk home. Nearly famished, we went to our restaurant and ate. As our finances were running low, we dispensed with the customary wine and saved six cents. Wine is all a Frenchman ever drinks with his meals. It is lousy stuff - very dry and puckering. The French coffee is even worse and tea and milk are simply not drunk at meals.

Sunday afternoon was spent writing cards and resting up for the big debauch we planned to enter into that night.

After supper all of us except Kahn started out to do the town. Our first port of call was the joint we had been in the first night in Paris. We barely got inside the door when the question of money came up again, Although we had money in our pockets, we had no intention of blowing it there and so we were ushered out again - this time with a string of invectives from the proprietress. That being that, we stood on the corner wondering what to do when someone had a great and classic inspiration - let's get drunk! Figuring, in my perverted way, that a stay in Paris, no matter how short, is not complete without a first class binge, I readily acquiesced. What would be a more fitting place to drink than the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. So the four of us piled in a taxi and rode. Montmartre seems to be the center of nightlife in Paris. Cafes, caberets and just plain dives. More questionable women and sharks looking for unwary tourists whom they can take into their favorite joint and fleece at leisure. Got some champagne which is dirt cheap in France (90 cents a fifth). After a couple of bottles, we started out again looking for excitement. Met a former Brooklyn prize fighter at the Moulin Rouge who used to deliver milk in Dinsmore's home town. After a bit of reminiscing, we told him we were looking for some cheap excitement and were recommended to the Palace of Mirrors. As our prizefighter had nothing to do for the rest of the evening, he offered to come with us. Thinking at first he might be another sharper, we demurred at first, but finally agreed among ourselves that he should accompany us. A taxi took us to the Palace which is one of the cheaper dives in Paris, but none-the-less interesting because of its lack of selectivity.

We stayed in the den as long as we could without spending over 10 francs. Then we left with our genial host who consented to a glass of champange with us. He also took us for a short walk and showed us one of the old original gates of Paris. It seems the ancient Parisians had walled their city in for fear of barbarians. After a couple of more bottles of champagne, we started for home - a bit slow in our reaction time perhaps - but with a light-hearted (and, it must be admitted, a light-headed feeling). However, as I probably will not take a bath (internal) in champagne again for many moons - it was worth it. Expenses for the evening were about 30 francs.

We started home en masse, but somewhere Dins and Clapp lost Haynes and little Willie. The latter two walked briskly and directly home. About an hour and a half later, the other two dragged their protesting carcasses up the long flights. They told a fantastic story about having been chased by a dozen gendarmes for the attempted theft of a bottle of wine. Luckily, it turned out to be a bottle of water when examined by the cops. They had also picked up a cake of soap. The only one I saw in Paris.

Next morning we awoke feeling like the top of the world. After lunch we took a walk. Kahn got into a piano store and turned loose a lot of American jazz. It ran wild in the place. Also a piece which has never been played there before or since -our own "Time and Tide."

Then continued a last minute rush for souvenirs by those of us who still had money. After supper we spent a quiet evening at home getting ready for the long train ride to the coast. Along about nine as we sat at the cafe near the hotel, along came a street vendor selling furs and tapestry. Two of the boys, H.and D., got hooked $2 for a couple of robes made of dogskin in China (of all places). Clapp got a dandy buy in a tapestry for $1. And so to bed.

Back to Cherbourg

We got up at the unholy hour of six and ate our first breakfast in Paris. After the repast, we were hugely thankful that we had not interrupted a morning's sleep at any other time to a "feast" of rolls, butter (French eat butter only at breakfast time) and some very vile tasting coffee. It cost as much as a real meal.

We loaded our stuff into a compartment and crawled in after it. The train ride back was largely a repetition of the ride to Paris except for the fact that this was a slightly slower train. Thru the towns we sped. At almost every station, construction was going on. Putting up new stations. At one of the stations, we stopped for a bite to eat. The most we could afford was a ham sandwich and a glass of beer. Once more on the train, we sped on toward Cherbourg. Who had to run for the train? For once it was not I but Clapp who almost got left.

We passed thru fields and hamlets scarce noting the beauties. Haynes got in a crap game with an old Frenchman. After forging ahead about 110 francs, he had a sudden reversal of luck and ended up losing about 20 francs. The Frenchman showing a bit of European temperament thruout.

train Just when the ride was becoming almost unbearable, we rolled into the station at Cherbourg - on the dot, of course.

On the way back we had been equally divided in opinion. Some of us thinking it best to sleep in the park - if we could find one - and the more conservative element advocating a loan of $10 to put us up in a hotel.

At the station, however, we were met by a representative of the White Star line and the "sleeping in the park" faction capitulated. So it was that we lugged our bags to to the steamship office in the village main street and then negotiated a loan of 150 francs which would purchase us a lodging plus a couple of meals at the Great Britain Hotel. This latter turned out to be a second rate hotel, but still the best that Cherbourg had to offer.

The proprietor was an agreeable Frenchman whose knowledge of English had been gained on the island. Having been shown to our room, we washed and sat down to some very good cooking. Without bothering to notice what we were eating, we devoured it and asked for more.

After supper we went around the town, picking up postcards and haggling with street merchants. Saw some very good hand tooled brass work, but as I had only 10 centimes it did me no good. After this we split up into groups - Clapp and Haynes going to the top of the bluff overlooking the town and the rest of us going to look around the back streets.

For a couple of hours we wandered around wondering at the quantity and strange forms of the bicycles - window shopping and in general "soaking up atmosphere." Finally got quite far afield. Down some little alley where the second stories of buildings projected so as to nearly form a roof over the street. The evening was marvelous, the scenery unique, but due to the fact that the gutters of the strets served as sewers the general effect was marred by not too pleasant an aroma. Cobblestone streets, by the way.

CherbourgHere, there, and everywhere sailors were to be seen and the people in general looked more "French" than any seen in Paris. Next time I go to France, I think I shall confine my activities to visiting villages. They are much more interesting.

Down the alley mentioned above we went and inquired for a wine shop. We were directed into a little hole in the wall, dark but clean. It looked like no shop I had ever seen before. Here, however we picked up a couple of bottles of wine at about 18 cents a quart. Good wine, as it later turned out. We made a deposit of 2 or 3 cents and then started back to the hotel. Like any small town, Cherbourg looked pretty dead after dark. That small town is perhaps a misnomer. Cherbourg boasts a population of 40,000. I'm sure I don't know where they all stay. Two and sometimes three story buildings may be seen and the town does cover quite an area, but it's still a puzzle to me.

On the way back, we were stopped by an exceedingly shabby individual who had a strange request to make. He was to give us a letter in the morning addressed to someone in the mid-west - his folks I think. He had come to France - missed the boat back by some misfortune and long ago used up his money. He had written home several times, but received no reply. He thought that if he wrote again and had us mail the letter in New York that he would have better luck. His story was delivered in good American interspersed with some very vigorous cuss words. We promised and the letter was subsequently mailed.

Back in our room, we tested the excellence of the wine and then our two companions blew in. Their story was that the view from the bluff was worth coming across for. In fact, the best thing they had seen in France. I'm sorry that I did not acccompany them.

So the five of us finished the wine and then went off to bed.

CherbourgThe Last Day in Cherbourg

Next morning Clapp and I started out to return the wine bottles. We wandered astray and were surprised at the number of alleys we found which resembled the one containing the wine shop.

On the outskirts of town we observed a peasant woman coming to town with a dog cart. A large two wheeled affair pulled by a team of dogs. The dogs were hitched to the cart underneath the axle and as they were good sized dogs, some idea of the size of the cart may be gained. The big wheels, the cobblestone streets, the unmannerliness and vigor of the dogs, the woman's apparel and excitability all combined to make this one of the sights not quickly forgotten.

Another old institution which the French didn't adopt from us - and thank heaven I can say vice versa - was noted in our morning stroll. We came to a three walled shed which was covered by a roof raised considerably from the shoulder high walls. My curiosity piqued, I looked over the walls and saw that the shed was built around a well. Surronding the well were half a dozen women occupied in doing the weekly wash. There wasn't a washing machine in the crowd. I didn't even see a wash board. Suddenly one of them looked up and spotting me began to laugh. An embarrassed Clapp was standing at some distance with a rather red face. Not wanting to further embarass him, we made a hasty departure.

It was sights like the two mentioned above that made my day in Cherbourg perhaps the most memorable of the whole trip.

There ended Bill Johnson's diary entries. Tragically, Bill was never to return to France. He and his fiancee were killed in an automobile accident outside Pembroke, NY on February 18, 1940.


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