World War II

A sailor's tale, as told by WWII buddies

... life aboard a sub-chasing carrier

by Eleanor Jenkins

My daughter was born on my brother's birthday. If she had been a boy she would have been David Charles. I didn't like the name Charlotte so she became Karen and as a grown up moved from Pennsylvania to Melrose,  with fond memories of her uncle who was also her godfather. He was a Navy hero.

I had just one brother, six years older and was my idol. He was good looking, smart, played the piano and organ very well and was always there for me growing up. When I was to be married, he played the organ for my wedding. When my first daughter was born, it would be only natural that Charles would be her godfather especially since she was born on his 36th birthday. So Karen, our Melrose resident, wanted to learn more about her uncle's adventures during the war.

I knew that it was after my brother's 19th birthday when he went down to enlist in the Navy. I couldn't remember where he went to boot camp. My recollections were rather spotty, but somewhere along the line very early in his Navy career, he was aboard a ship in the New York harbor and the Normandy which had been in a fire, as I recall was in the next berth. Somewhere along the line he went to radio school and then on to become an air radio man. He was in Oregon aboard the WSS Card in December 1943 and on the ill-fated Block Island Aircraft Carrier which was later sunk on May 28, 1944 by a torpedo from a German submarine. Knowing these facts, Karen's husband began a search. He found a website for the Aircraft Carrier Block island and told me about it. Since Karen and Steve had about that time also visited the Block Island off the coast in Connecticut, it became doubly interesting to Steve.

Last summer, I went to that website and found my Charles Wilson Foster's name listed and became curious and wondered if anyone had remembered him. The Block Island has an alumni association and a newsletter. I contacted the editor of 'Chips' and he sent the word out asking if anyone had known my brother. The responses have been rewarding.

The editor of Chips responded to my query and said that he had forwarded my request to members of the organization to see if anyone remembered Charlie.

Well the response was overwhelming. First of all I had a phone call from Mexico. A fellow shipmate had just moved there when he got the message from 'Chips' and felt he had to call. He said he remembered him well and that he was always wanting to quit smoking. That brought a chuckle to me as I remembered having a bet with him after he was home for good that I would give up chocolates if he quit smoking.

Then there was a letter with a picture of the crew and there was my brother on the front row. Another gentleman from Texas, a gunner pilot, who remembered the plane crash when my brother rescued the pilot and saved his life. He had all of the details of the crash as if he was copying them from a news report.

Finally an email from another crewman, like my brother, was a crewman on a TBF. He had spent many hours and days with my brother and I want to share some of his recollections with you. It has been so exciting to hear from these men who still have sharp memories of those times so long ago.

One of the most interesting responses came from a man who I had remembered my brother telling me about. His name was David and this is what he told me. "Your request about Charles, with whom I once served, was forwarded to me by Bill MacInnes and finally reached me at my home in Connecticut via Palm City, Florida.  

"I am delighted to help you but very sorry to learn that Charlie passed on in 1968 at such an early age. Charlie, to VC-55 members, was a really nice sailor and good human being, friendly, good looking, well spoken, a mixer that was well liked by all members. He was always jolly and polite in nature.

"Charlie and I had a special relationship that I don't think he had with others. He would frequently practice playing the piano when we had idle time, which was often when we were based ashore. Our shipboard cruises normally lasted about six weeks and then we would move ashore for a few weeks. One place we usually went to was Fentress Field, a new outlying naval air facility for just such submarine hunters as us.  An unfinished recreation building had a piano that Charlie would use for practice and he would always invite me to join him because he knew how much I loved music and admired anyone who could play.  (Some people can play and others cannot; it seems that our brains were wired differently or we had the wrong genes).   

"Charlie would play popular show tunes of those days, such as, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"  and "Begin the Beguine", etc. It was a lonely place and no entertainment, deep out in the sticks, halfway between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. A little country store outside the gate. No transportation and nobody had a car those days. Pilots practiced flying, such as carrier landings (the most inportant aspect) and navigation. They seldom needed their crew members. I was very happy I had Charlie and the piano.  

"The radiomen could practice receiving Morse code and sending Morse code by radio and light blinker. Other than that, we could eat, play cards and sleep, as we waited for the next cruise to come. Not very good eating because there was a Navy food shortage in the command at the time, which we did not know about, but probably accounted for so much SOS (a term I think I coined, but seemed to become universal), which consisted of a meat-tomato gravy on toast. I mention some of this so you can get an idea of what our life was like ashore.  

"Aboard ship our crewspace was very limited. Bunking was on the lowest deck, two decks below the mess deck which was below the aircraft hanger deck, which was below the flight deck. Bunks were three high with just enough space between bunks that a fat kid could get in and out of. A very thin mattress, two mattress covers, a small pillow and dimly lighted. Space for about 30 enlisted crew members, everyone except chief petty officers. Laundry once a week. Sometimes showers were limited to salt water only. Food was fairly good, especially for night flying crews, steak or pork chop and eggs.  

"Our crew member ready room was just under the flight deck, near the outer area, just enough seats for 25 or so people and a small locker overhead. There was a ship's store on the mess deck that had toiletry items, ice cream and cigarettes. Most everyone smoked at that time.  

"We were all very proud of Charlie after his rescue of his pilot, Lt. T. John Pearce from the crash of  the TBM as he took a wave-off while trying to land. I remember seeing Charlie on the wing and releasing the safety belt of John and inflating his yellow rubber "Mae West" lifejacket. The crash was off the left side of the ship, because that's the normal turn in a wave-off, and next to our crews' ready room. We rushed out to the catwalk and looked down at the plane as Charlie did the heroic act of saving John. John had been very badly wounded in the face. He did survive well and his face was nearly normal after a few weeks in the Naval Hospital. I am quite sure that the crash was on the Block Island. We also made cruises on carriers Card and Bogue.

"The aircraft we flew was designated TBM which was a version of the Grumman TBF that was built in Bridgeport, Connecticut, by United Aircraft, called United Technologies today. The crew was a pilot, radioman, and ordinance man called a gunner but most planes had  no gun turret. My pilot was the great Lt. Jack Littlefield who had only two waveoffs during all the cruises and neither was his fault. Other pilots would line the catwalk when we were in the air to observe his perfect landings.

"After VE day and the squadron was decommissioned, I had contact with only one soul until I came across the Block Island Association about two years ago."

I had a phone call from a shipmate living in Mexico. He chatted for several minutes recalling his time with “Charlie”. He promised me a picture once he is unpacked. I received the pictures this spring.

July 3, 2009

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