... an up-close view of traveling in a destroyer escort ...
December 6, 1941: Cousin Ralph's ship had docked at Pearl Harbor in the latter part of November 1941. After all details of docking had been completed, Ralph prepared himself for his long awaited 30 day leave so he could return to his home in the Boston area to visit his family and friends.
Not only anxious to see his family, he also was anxious for his family to see his wife-to-be whom he was bringing home with him. Soon after arriving in his home town, preparations were underway for his upcoming marriage. Arrangements were quickly made for the marriage and reception to be held in the little church on Upham Street in Melrose which at that time was called the Hillcrest Church.
However, the day finally came and his family and many relatives began arriving at the church awaiting the big moment. There were aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law -- a goodly "gathering of the clan" as well as many friends. The date -- Saturday, December 6, 1941!
After the ceremony, all gathered in the social hall for the reception. As far as I can remember, the families made the arrangements for the wedding and the reception. Someone had the cake made, another made the punch. Also, an unknown someone spiked the punch! Two of the Aunts were of the Baptist persuasion and, of course, were strictly teetotalers! However, they seemed to return to the punch bowl quite often saying, "This is the best punch I have ever tasted!"
Soon the party broke up and everyone headed for their homes as the next day was Sunday and the good people would be attending church. Sunday afternoon a few of us gathered at another cousin's home so we could take pictures of the men in their tuxedos and the women in their formal dresses. That Sunday was December 7, 1941. While the pictures were being taken, the radio played softly in the background. Suddenly the program was interrupted with a "Special News Bulletin" announcing that Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was under attack by Japanese aircraft. There is no need to go into further detail. Anyone who heard this broadcast would remember it all the days of their lives. How dare anyone attack the United States! Of course, the picture taking ceased. In a few minutes everyone headed for their respective homes. I would presume that 100 percent of the population listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's address to the Congress and the people of the United States, after which he declared that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan.
As everyone found out, just about the entire Pacific fleet was destroyed by the Japanese sneak attack. Among them was cousin Ralph's destroyer which was in dry dock for needed repairs. Fortunately, cousin Ralph was in the U.S. However, many of his shipmates were killed during the attack.
Go home, Grandpa...
Many men, young and old, immediately enlisted either in the Army, Navy or any branch of the service that would take them. Among them was my father-in-law who had served in the Navy many years before. He went to the Boston Navy Recruiting Station and offered his services. At the time, he was probably in his 50s and the Recruiting Officer told him, "Grandpa, go home and let the young men do the fighting." He was very unhappy and disappointed that the Navy would not take him back. Eventually, he did get work at the Navy Yard in Charlestown, so he did his part during this time.
I was 22 years old, an old married man of nearly three years and no children. I had a good job with a major oil company in Revere, Mass. and a very nice four room apartment on the second floor of my in-law's house. Of course, like everyone else hearing the news on December 7, 1941, we were stunned. After filling out numerous papers, quite a number of times, for the Selective Service Board, I was deferred for a time.
On January 7, 1943 my son was born at Melrose Hospital. Six months later I boarded a train at Melrose Highlands to report for duty in the U.S. Navy. One of the men I worked with at the oil company was recalled into the Navy as he was a procurement officer. He told me, as well as others at work that as soon as we received our "Greetings" from the President, that if we wanted Naval Service to let him know immediately. Well, I let him know and he said he would be on the lookout for me and he did just that.
The day I went to Boston to be sworn in, this young man called me aside and asked if I would like to let my wife know where I would be going for training. Some were scheduled for Great Lakes Training Station and others for Newport (RI) Training Station. He took me into one of the offices in the Federal Building and allowed me to call home. I was able to tell my wife that I was going to Newport, R.I. So, off to boot camp I went -- an entirely new experience!
Looking back, boot camp wasn't too bad, but it certainly made me a different person. I put on weight as I was 5' 10" and weighed in at a heavy 119 lbs. I never felt better in my life, physically, that is. After six weeks of training, our company was selected for what was called "Regimental Guard." I was extremely happy that our company was not picked for KP duty! Anyway, I told my company commander that I was a good typist. Fortunately, he sent me to the Yeomen's office where I did messenger service for a week. I had a bicycle at my disposal for transportation! I made a trip or two each day delivering messages to other parts of the training station. In between times, I sat at a typewriter and wrote letters to my wife and family. When the week ended, one of the Yeoman asked if I would like to stay for an additional week. Of course, without hesitation, I agreed! Why not? Figured it was good duty while it lasted as training was just about to end.
Radio school in Kenmore Square ...
I found out while doing this very strenuous duty, that I would be leaving boot camp for radio school in Boston! In addition, I had a 14 day leave while waiting for the next class to begin. So I was able to spend two weeks with my wife and six-month-old son before going off to radio school. The school was in one of the hotels that the Navy had taken over in Kenmore Square. The name of the hotel slips my mind. There were radiomen in training as well as motor mechanics who were going to Wentworth Institute. The radio school was located in a building on Boylston St. between Washington and Tremont Sts. in Boston. Each morning, a class of about 30 students most of which were probably 17 to 19 years old (I was 24, one of the 'old men') would march from the hotel down the center of Commonwealth Avenue, across the Public Gardens and onto Boston Common. It was then time for a 'smoke call' for those of us who were addicted, I being one of them at the time! There was no more smoking for the rest of the day! From there we finished our march to the school.
In late December 1943, I caught a terrible cold which for some reason I was unable to shake. I had leave over News Year's Eve weekend and wound up very sick. My wife called our doctor and he came to the house and said that I had a good case of pneumonia. When it came time to return to the barracks, I was so sick that our doctor advised that I should not be moved. My wife called the barracks and informed them of the situation so I remained at home. Each day my wife called to give them a report on my condition. One day she did not think to call and the following day a Navy ambulance pulled up in front of the house and I was taken to the Chelsea Naval Hospital. The day I was transported to Chelsea was a Thursday and it was pouring rain! After arriving at the hospital, I was placed on the floor wrapped in a couple of heavy navy blankets, in a draft and with a high fever! I could only speak in a whisper and after about an hour I was finally taken to a quiet room.
...and the Chelsea Naval Hospital ...
Sure enough, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and ran a high fever for a week to 10 days. I spent the first part of January through the middle of March at the hospital before I was finally discharged. During those nearly three months, I did not see my wife. She had become ill and between her illness and taking care of a year old baby, she was unable to make the trip to Chelsea from Melrose where we lived. After arriving back at the barracks, I was awarded a seven-day leave to spend some time with my wife and son.
Upon returning to the barracks, I was informed that I was not to go to school the following day, but was to report to Chief Howard first thing in the morning. Chief Howard was a Chief printer with about 30 years of service. He had charge of the printing press that sat in one of the rooms at the hotel. I spied the press the first day I arrived at the hotel and informed Chief Howard that I had experience running that piece of equipment. I was promptly made pressman which meant I had no cleaning detail or guard duty ! I stayed at the hotel for about three weeks. When the Captain had company I did some work as a waiter, did a little printing when necessary and then was able to go home for the rest of the day; however, I had to be back at the barracks before midnight.
My radioman's class graduated and had been given new assignments. I joined another class and graduated in May 1944 as a qualified Radioman 3rd Class. I was eventually assigned to a destroyer escort, DE-765, Earle K. Olsen. I boarded a troop train at South Station and headed for Norfolk Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia where I waited for our assigned ship to make an appearance. After a couple of weeks, I was informed to pack my gear as we were to leave for 'somewhere'!! I managed to call my wife and told her I would be leaving Norfolk for some unknown place. There must have been at least 50 of us waiting for our names to be called. About half of the names were called (mine was not among them!) and those men were told they would be going to Pier 92 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All the others would be going to Fargo Barracks in South Boston!! What a thrill! I was going to be near home once more. Well, that same day, I was able to get a pass for overnight liberty. I remember arriving at Melrose Highlands railroad station and walking home which was only two blocks from the station. My wife, son, mother-in-law, father-in-law and a couple of the neighbors were sitting on the front steps with a very surprised look on their faces!
My first ride .. to Key West!
A few days later, DE-765 arrived at the Charlestown Navy Yard and I found my new home(?). The ship looked like a toy. I found out later it was 308 feet long with a 25 foot beam (that's 25 feet across from one side to the other). After all necessary repairs were made, the ship headed out into Boston Harbor to have the azimuth equipment checked. So the ship went around in circles for a couple of hours while checking the equipment. After this thrilling ride, we headed out into deep water toward the south.
Not having sea legs and this being my first real ride aboard a ship, my stomach was not too cooperative! While I was not actually sick, I certainly did not feel well! We sailed through Cape Cod Canal. It was a very smooth ride until we hit the open ocean again! After a short time, things settled down (my stomach, I mean) and I was called for duty in the radio room. Some experience for a former landlubber! We headed for Key West, Florida. In the early morning we passed Miami Beach just as the sun was coming up. It was a beautiful sight to see the sun shining upon all the buildings on the beach. We continued until we reached Key West where we took Sonar men from the Sonar school out for practice in listening for subs. This we did every day from early morning through late afternoon when we finally returned to port. We actually worked with the sub. When one was 'detected' a dye pouch was dropped in the water where the 'sub' was spotted. I was working in the CIC room on the phones in conjunction with those who, under actual battle conditions, would drop depth charges (ash cans) where the 'sub' had been spotted.
While in Key West, my buddy, an older man in the radio gang from Pittsburgh, and I contacted our wives. They both came down to Key West. There was only one room available at the time but with two double beds. So the four of us decided to share the room! My wife got a job on the Navy base as a clerk. That helped her to keep busy during the day. I got liberty every other night and was able to see her quite often. After about a month or so, we received orders to pull out of Key West for points unknown, at least to the crew. My wife stayed at her job for a short time and later left to be with our son in Melrose. My wife's mother was taking care of our son while my wife was in Key West.
We headed for New York where we became part of a North Atlantic Convoy as our ship was a destroyer escort. In the very early morning hours following our arrival in New York, we weighed anchor. As it became light I went up on deck and saw that the ocean was covered with cargo ships, tankers, and troop ships, just as far as the eye could see. It was an amazing sight. Close check was kept on all the ships by a radarman in the CIC to make sure that each ship remained in its proper position in the convoy. Ten days later we pulled into Plymouth, England.
Picking up the survivors ...
During one of our trips to Great Britian, we escorted about 100 oil tankers most of which carried aviation fuel. In addition, there was a French Aircraft Carrier that had just been overhauled in one of the Navy Yards in the U.S. She was headed back to France, but was in our convoy. There were also a number of troop ships with us.
About 4 o'clock in the morning the General Quarters alarm went off. I was in my bunk sound asleep and, of course, awoke with a start. Everyone was scrambling to get to their general quarters station. Mine was on the flying bridge as a lookout. I hurried as quickly as I could to my station and much to my surprise there were two foot search lights playing over the water! I soon was informed that the French Aircraft Carrier had somehow lost her steerage, turned in a circle and rammed into one of the troop ships putting a large gaping hole in both the troop ship and the aircraft carrier.
We were informed that some of the troops were in the water. How many we did not know. As soon as it became daylight we noticed hundreds of mail bags and duffle bags floating in the water. Because we were one of the rescue ships, we remained behind looking for survivors. The rest of the convoy continued to their destination. Our ship was able to rescue only two men and the other ship rescued 11. We found out later that about 139 men were lost due to this collision. I won't go into details about the attempted rescue of others. The crew was not too happy about some of the details.
We were ordered to escort the troop ship and the aircraft carrier that collided to the Azores Island. We escorted the two ships into port at the Punta del Garda, San Miguel harbor. Our ship could only stay in port 24 hours because the island was not at war and was neutral. Otherwise we would have been interned in a neutral country for the duration of the war. Everyone on board was given two hours ashore and were cautioned to return on time. Some of the men (most of them were just overgrown boys) returned to the ship drunk. Others, after heavy drinking on shore, returned to the ship and stood on deck in the hot blazing sun. Many of them dropped over from too much drink and the intense heat! One of the men was carried aboard dead drunk. His shipmates put him in the shower and ran cold water over him for about 25 to 30 minutes trying to sober him up, but to no avail. They finally put him in his bunk to sleep it off and the next day he was back on duty!!
At 3 a.m. the following morning we headed out to sea once more. How we ever made it safely out of port is still a mystery to me! I think I and a couple of others were the only sober ones aboard! So many were intoxicated from the Captain right down to the lowly seaman! Anyway, we got out safely and continued on our way to England.
All in all I made six trips on North Atlantic Convoy Duty which included twice to Plymouth, England, once to Southhampton, England and three trips to Cardiff, Wales. On our trip to Southhampton in September of 1944, we sailed past the Omaha and Utah Beachheads where the June 6, 1944 invasion of France commenced. The sunken ships from this invasion had been cleaned away. There was not a one to be seen. All was peaceful and quiet. The scenery was absolutely beautiful.
Stuck in Cardiff mud
The first time we arrived at Cardiff, Wales, the ship went into port during the night hours and on a high tide. In the morning when I went out on deck, I noticed that we were inside locks. I looked on the side of the lock and noticed a high tide marking of 45 feet!! The tide was low at the time and was so far out it could hardly be seen with the naked eye. One ship tried to enter port on an outgoing tide and was caught in the mud, laying on its side! It had to wait for the next high tide before it could proceed into port.
On our final trip in May of 1945, we left Cardiff, Wales to head back to the States. Because of the extremely high tides in Cardiff as mentioned above, we left on the high tide during the night. On awakening the next morning, I found that we were sailing in circles waiting for the tides to change. We had received new orders to head back into port. Later that day we found out that Germany had finally surrendered. So I spent VE-Day in Cardiff. The weather was warm and beautiful. Everyone was in a happy mood. Small children stood in the streets with their mouths wide open and their eyes wide open as well. They had never seen lights on outside their homes. There was a lot of dancing in the streets as well as many bonfires burning in the streets. Needless to say, everyone was happy that the war was finally over. The British could begin living like human beings once more. We were there for about five days and then returned to the states.
In August of 1945 I was transferred to Fargo Barracks in South Boston. When the time came to leave Fargo Barracks, I was on a one man draft with orders to report to the Norfolk Naval Training Station. There was no definite time shown on my papers as to when to report. I left South Station for New York and as I arrived at Grand Central Station, I could see people celebrating! Come to find out, Japan had surrendered while I was travelling from Boston to New York. I was scheduled to board a train at Pennsylvania Station for Norfolk, VA at 11:00 p.m. that same night. However, there were big doings in Times Square! I decided to join in the fun. I never saw so many people in all my life! I heard later that over one million people were roaming over Times Square. What a mob! If you had fallen over dead, you would never have hit the ground as the crowd was jammed together like the proverbial sardine!!
I left in time to catch my train and headed for Virginia arriving the next morning. When I reported in, the Chief asked me what I was doing there! I told him that I was there because I wanted to get out of the Navy as soon as possible!! He just shook his head. He thought I was nuts!
War's over, going to the Galapagos...
After a few days in Norfolk, VA, I was transferred to a ship called "Indian Isle" and headed for Coco Solo Air Station on the east coast of the Panama Canal Zone. From there, several of us were flown to the Galapagos Archipelago landing at South Seymour Island where there was an Army contigent as well as a Navy base. I had real "tough duty" there! I was on radio watch from 12 midnight until six in the morning then off for four days! We always had extra rations because of night duty -- all the eggs we wanted, plenty of fresh creamery butter from Argentina and, of course, all the bread and coffee we wanted! For a very short time we copied news bulletins being sent over the air from Panama so the boys could keep up with the news. That finally ended and we got our news from the Army Base, so we had very little to do in the radio room.
There was little to do when off duty as South Seymour Island consisted of volcanic dust, rocks and six foot iguanas! There were no trees and we never had rain in the five or six months I was there. The Japanese tuna fishing fleet had stocked the island with goats, using them for fresh meat when they fished around the island before the war. Each night everyone would line up at the 'theater' to see a movie (cost 15 cents). There was a bar where beer was sold, but being a teetotaler myself, I never touched the stuff! Some of the guys fed the beer to one of the friendly goats and the poor thing would stagger off drunk just about every night! Around the first part of December 1945, I was eligible for discharge as I had sufficient points. The plane that was to carry us to Panama was taken over by a fishing boat crew out of San Diego, Calif. after their ship sunk off the coast of one of the islands. Needless to say, those eligible for return to the States were held up for about a week.
Finally the day came when we were advised to pack our gear and head for the Army base to board an Army plane that would take us to Panama. We made a stop in Quito, Ecuador for fuel and later landed on the west coast of Panama where we were dumped off! Our orders read that we (me and two others) were to report to the Air Station in Coco Solo which was on the east side of Panama! No transportation was provided. We saw a station wagon with Coco Solo Air Station painted on the side and with two sailors inside. We tried to ask if they were going across to the east coast, but they were quite a bit under the weather and did not pay attention to our question. However, that night we went to the USO to sleep (cost 25¢) and lo and behold these same sailors had put up for the night at the USO as well.
They finally decided we could ride across with them. The two sailors were supposed to have returned to Coco Solo Air Station the previous day, but they said that part of the highway across Panama had been washed away by heavy rains and they were unable to return. That was a good excuse for them to whoop it up that evening. Good thing they did as I might still be waiting for a ride!! Actually, the highway had been closed by mud slides due to heavy rain, but had been open in plenty of time for those sailors to return to the east coast!
Home, at last!
We finally arrived at the air station and a few days later I was aboard an old destroyer that was headed for the scrap heap in either New York or Philadelphia. It was December and it was extremely cold when we arrived in New York. I was transferred to Navy Pier 92 where I obtained a new pea jacket. ( I had left my old pea jacket at home because when I headed for Panama in September of 1945 I was told to get rid of it. I wouldn't be needing a pea jacket where I was going.) I left Pier 92 and headed to Boston and Fargo Barracks again to await my discharge. So after two and a half years, I was headed back to Melrose to my wife and son who was now three years old. When I left Fargo Barracks with all my very important papers in hand, I was handed two 10 cent pieces for fare on the El and bus to Melrose!!
I arrived home on December 16, 1945. It took me about five minutes to get back into my civilian clothes which felt strange after having worn navy uniforms for so long.
So there you have some of the events of my stay in the Navy. Although at the time I found it difficult to leave my family, looking back it was quite an experience.
November 9, 1998