In honor of Memorial Day I thought I’d share some of the stories my Dad told me about his time serving in WWII. Dad was about 20 years old when he signed up with the US Coast Guard. I asked him why he chose the Guard, and he told me that he liked eating off of tables better than in trenches. When I asked why the Guard and not the Navy, he said the Guard offered him more growth and the position he wanted (which was Radio Man).
After training in Atlantic City, he boarded his ship (the USCGC Taney) which was in the South Pacific (you can read about the Taney here). But most of his stories were about the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In the North Atlantic, up near Greenland, he told me it was so cold that the sweat would freeze on you in seconds. He said he was lucky, as his bunk was near enough to the radio shack so that he could run between the two in just a tee shirt.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as nice for others on the ship, especially those that had to “chop ice off of the bow” in order to keep the ship from becoming top-heavy and sinking. It was during one of these times that Dad learned about “Man Overboard” in the North Atlantic. One of the crew clearing the ice was swept over the side, which sounded the alarm and action to recover. This is when the Captain issued orders to belay the attempt, stating that he was “dead ten seconds after he hit the water” and to continue on course. War can be harsh, and so can the elements.
Dad also told me about sea sickness. He said it could get pretty rough out there (a Cutter isn’t a large ship), but that they had one guy whose symptoms were deemed to be psychosomatic. As Dad explained it to me, the ships engines would start about a half-hour before leaving dock. And, as this crew member was laying in his bunk, another member of the crew came by (the typical “wise guy”), looked out the portal and said “Well, we’re off”, which caused mr. seasick to bolt from his bunk running to the head – even though they were still docked. That’s how bad it was. Dad said this guy was finally moved off the ship after he’d lost almost 100 pounds.
Dad also told me about courage under fire. It was during one of these times that three men abandoned their posts out of fear. They were supposed to be passing ammunition, but instead lost their nerve. As Dad told me “The next day the Old Man had them transferred to the Marines – the front lines” Dad said that, the way the Old Man saw it, if they tried to run away there the Marines would shoot them. The Captain of the Taney had no respect for those that didn’t function as part of the team and made sure these men would never put anyone else’s life at risk again.
The last story here is about kamikazes – they weren’t just in the Pacific. While in the Mediterranean, Dad witnessed both German kamikaze attacks as well as aerial bombings of ships. But the one that bothered him the most was about an ammo ship. During a convoy a German “spotter” plane was seen in the distance. Believing that the identity of the ships in the convoy had not been detected, and that troop ships weren’t generally targeted (only munitions and supplies), the Commander of the convoy ordered that troops be transferred onto the munitions ship as a decoy. So, over the night, across lines strung between ships, men were transferred to the munitions ship.
Unfortunately the Commander was wrong and the following day the Germans sent bombers and destroyed the munitions ship and all on board. In later years I went to Wikipedia to see if I could find any information about this, and came up with the SS Paul Hamilton. You can read about it here.
Dad never really spoke about the war, unless asked. He did suffer an injury when he fell a couple of decks and smashed his shoulder, which needed to be reconstructed. And when he told me about having his tonsils out (in a barber chair, strapped down). But he was one of the lucky ones, one who survived. He and Mom were married two days before D-Day (so much for the honeymoon) and my Sister was born two days after the Japanese surrendered.
Like so many others, he fought in what he hoped would be the final war for world peace. He fought to preserve American values, to protect his family and those he cared about. Thank you for your service Dad, and thank you to all that sacrificed so that we could reap the benefits of your efforts. I will always be grateful and will never forget.