My Daddy Was A Sailor – Chapter 4

I have been needing to write about my daddy’s military history. Here goes… I don’t know exactly how old dad was when he enlisted in the Navy during WWII, I just know he wasn’t 18 yet. His mother had to go down with him to the recruiting office and sign the papers allowing him to join up.

Dad must have joined with a friend, because there are photos of him with another fellow who looks the same age and such. Perhaps they just met at the boot camp and became friends there. I don’t know his name, but I’d be interested to find out more about him.

My dad told me that his best friend in the Navy was the most highly decorated gunner in the Navy in WWII. That should make him easy to track down (if I ever have time). So, there’s a picture of him on my web site with dad in his uniform. The first one, mentioned above, is him and his buddy. The other photo, and I think I’ve mentioned this one before also, shows dad in his uniform with “Snowball” (his dog, or his mother’s dog) standing between his folk’s house and the one next door, with his surfboard on the ground next to him.

So, what was it like to head off to war at the age when most of us graduated High School? My daddy never graduated from High School. I’m assuming at some point or other they gave him his “equivalency” or whatever. He did become an officer in the Air Corps later on. But that’s getting a bit ahead of this story.

Dad went off to fight in the South Pacific. He became a radio operator on a Catalina Flying Boat (PBY). I’m not sure exactly why they made some fellows into radio operators, rather than gunners or whatever else. I know there were some form of aptitude tests, but I think the most important requirement for radio operators was they be relatively small, similar in size requirements for pilots in those days. My daddy was about 5’8″ tall, but only about 135 lbs, all muscle it seems at that time. The cockpit on most aircraft was cramped, if not downright crowded with flight controls, instruments and so on. The radio compartment must have been similar.

They flew their required number of missions, which I believe was 25, and they were shot down on their last mission. Dad was the only person hurt, they crash landed in the water. But, since a PBY is designed to land in the water, it was likely just a bit of a “harder” landing than usual. His injury: He hit his head on his radio. He had a big bump on his forehead, and they put him in the hospital, and he said the Doctors made a big fuss over it (and him!). He did get a purple heart for that.

About the rest of the war, he would only talk about places: Pago Pago (pronounced “Pango Pango”) in Samoa, or is that Fiji? The Philippines, Bougainville, etc… They got to go to some of the most exotic places, they lived life to its fullest I gather. Partying was a way of life for all the young fellows in the military at that time. Especially those who were “on the front” or likely to be killed at any time. While not as statistically dangerous as being a marine landing on a beach, I’m sure that being in a PBY had its hazards. They were shot down after all. Anytime you saw a Japanese Zero, it was probably not a very happy thing to see. About the only comparison I have is living in Colorado and seeing a tornado. It’s something that when you see it, though it may be quite awesome in appearance, you think to yourself that you could have done without seeing it. It’s bloody scary!

Anyhow, my daddy was still pretty much a boy when he went off to war, like so many, but he definitely came back a man with visions and dreams of his future. He had learned to fly, he said they taught everyone to fly in the PBY, and his position right behind the cockpit was likely a good spot to jump in and try flying periodically. He was that kind of fellow, he’d ask to do things he wasn’t supposed to do, for the sheer experience of it, or to see if it suited him. Those PBY’s went on very long flights, and I’m sure boredom was a major factor in his deciding to try out the flying, and he probably decided he liked it right then and there.

After WWII was over, my daddy had to pass some time before he could re-enlist, this time into the Army Air Corps, so that he could become a pilot. I only have his discharge paperwork, not his enlistment papers. But, maybe his enlistement date is in the paperwork I have? I know that he must have re-enlisted into the Army Air Corps sometime around 1949. Up until that time, they were probably still letting folks go who were WWII veterans. Many were released as soon as the war ended, as was my daddy from the Navy.

There are many gaps in my knowledge of what my daddy did between those periods when he was not in the military. I know that he became a barnstormer for awhile. There is a picture of him in my online scrapbook that shows him with a plane. The plane is a Piper Cub? I think I wrote on the page that at first I thought it was a Steerman, but a Steerman is a biplane. The plane shown is relatively small, single engine, single wing, over-wing design. I think that’s a Cub, but I’ll have to see if I can get somebody to ID it. It would have made a decent Barnstorming plane, strong engine, plenty of lift, able to fly at slow speeds, maneuverable, etc… Not quite as good as a modern aerobatics plane, not quite as sturdy as a biplane in terms of being maneuverable, but probably decent.

I’m not sure if he didn’t have more than one plane. He may have had several. After WWII he said, he could have bought a P-51 for $50! During my lifetime I never knew my daddy to have his own plane, just boats. That’s the primary reason why I think of my daddy as a sailor. As I said before, it seemed to me that he was always more comfortable on a sailboat than in a plane, but he handled both well. Even though he never graduated High School, my daddy was a good student. He studied hard, always! He prided himself on knowing lots of facts and figures, he studied the manuals on all the planes he flew. He studied lots about sailing too, the theory of how sails work on a sailboat and so forth. He studied navigation too, and he taught Celestial Navigation. He was trying to teach me when he and my mother got divorced.

I tried to learn it years later, I was never any good at it, though I only tried a couple times really. It is a lost art it seems. We live in a GPS world now. Folks would not know how to use a Sextant if it hit them. Most folks don’t even know what it is anymore. Sad…

My daddy’s sextant was stolen the other day from my mother’s house. That was a sad thing too. I had recently taken it out of its case and cleaned it up. I polished the case too. It was a “working” sextant, not a toy, or model for show. I found out while filling out the burglary report what “working” sextants cost. About 10 times as much as a toy! They have to be certified by the U.S. Naval Observatory you see, and that is quite a process.

Anyhow, there was some time between the war and the time where my daddy re-upped and entered the US Army Air Corps to become a pilot. Dad graduated from Cadet School, and became a full-fledged pilot. He was a fighter pilot. When Korea started, he had already two tours of active combat duty in the South Pacific during WWII, so they made him an instructor. He trained fighter pilots to fight in Korea. When the Air Force was formed, split off, what have you, in 1950, my daddy was given his Air Force wings that very month. His Air Force Aviator’s Certificate thus says that he became an Air Force pilot in (July?) 1950, and had 2,000 hours flying time under his belt.

I had always known that my daddy was in two branches of the service, but when I went through that paperwork and found out he had been in three branches of the military I was blown away! It figures, I mean it makes sense, but that’s a pretty rare accomplishment I think. Not many others have done that. My daddy was a “driven” type person. Definitely type “A” and he had the “take charge” attitude. Funny, because I am definitely _not_! As I said though, he found out during WWII what it was he wanted to do, and he did it. That time in America, the world I guess, we raised up a whole generation of individuals who were taught to be leaders, to take charge. It suited my daddy well, because that was his personality type.

Tom Brokaw mentions that in his book _The Greatest Generation_ as well. He talks about the fact that America was so successful after the war because we had raised all these “Can do” types during the war. We had taught them to be leaders, and to be aggressive. Is it any wonder then that they came back after the war and did amazing things? The jet age was coming, and I’m sure my daddy saw that, and wanted to fly jets. Though he wasn’t quite in the same cut of cloth as a flyer named Chuck Yeager, he still became a good pilot and loved to test his skills any way he could.

There are a couple funny stories my daddy told about while he was in the military. The first probably happened to him while he was in boot camp, or soon thereafter, while he was waiting to be shipped overseas. He pulled duty as Shore Patrol (SP) and one day they gave him the less than honorable task of going to tell a farmer that his daughter had an STD. How did they know the farmer’s daughter had an STD? Well, think about it. Some sailors must have come back after leave and visited the infirmary for, well, you get the picture.

So, my daddy and his partner head down this dirt road in Missouri to this farmer’s place. They are in uniform, with sidearms and all, since they are on SP duty. It’s during the day don’t you know since they wouldn’t do this kind of thing at night. They walk up and knock on the door, and the farmer opens the door and sticks a shotgun in their face! Oh boy – are you gonna tell this fellow that his daughter has the clap under those circumstances? He said they beat it the heck outta there and yelled it to the farmer as they were running for their jeep!

Another incident takes place either near the end of the war, or after the war was over. My dad and his buddy, the one who was the most highly decorated gunner in the war, they are on their way either to leave, or back from leave. They hitched a ride in a bomber. This bomber had a belly turret and they found this big switch that says “Release Turret.” Naturally, being a couple curious, barely out of their teens, young men, they decide to push the button and see what happens. Whoosh! The belly turret falls out of the plane and splashes into the ocean, about 3,000 feet below! Whoops! Did they get in trouble for that? You bet! Was it fun though? It’s just something that bored kids do all the time (I pulled many episodes as a kid too), only this one cost Uncle Sam the replacement for the turret, and they probably had it docked from their pay.

I don’t know exactly when this happened but my dad was in training and was watching this film one day about sea rescues. There was an aircraft carrier sunk by Kamikaze action, and they were showing the rescue operation. All of a sudden my dad sees his buddy Bruce Meyers being rescued, swimming up to the rescue boat and getting out of the water. He jumps up and shouts “My God, that’s MEYERS!” Everyone must have looked a little funny at him for that, but it was his buddy from childhood.

The final episode I will cover from dad’s military career is a story that Bruce related at my daddy’s funeral. After my daddy came back to California, around 1955, he met up with my mother again. They had both been married. Dad, as I said, had three small children with this gal from Missouri. But, he was back in California again about this time, having been divorced from his first wife. My mother was divorced by this time too. They met up and my dad said “Hey – why not marry me?” They got married, and my dad started “commuting” home to California on weekends from his duty station in Texas. Mom actually went down there and lived with him for awhile in Texas, but she said it was too miserable down there. She’s a California girl – only – it seems.

So, dad started commuting home on weekends from Texas. They’d let him fly anything he wanted. Bruce said that one weekend he flew home in a B-25 bomber! He came and got Bruce and said “Hey, you wanna go flying?” Bruce was not one to pass up an opportunity like that, so off they went. My daddy, being the technical type fellow that he was, had studied the manual on the aircraft thoroughly, and found that it could do two and a half barrel rolls without tearing the wings off, so there he is, going one way, and then back the other way, all the time Bruce said he had his head out the window puking his guts out! Some fun, eh?

I was so comforted when I heard that story at the funeral. I had never known my dad when he was still young and “crazy.” When I was born, I think I said before, he was already in his mid-thirties, and probably a bit closer to 40 before I ever really even have memories of him. He always seemed so stodgy and “matter of fact” when I was growing up that I never suspected he was a bit wild as a younger man. Hearing that story about him from Bruce gave me insight into his personality that I’d never had before. It was a whole new dimension of him that I had never known about. It’s one of those things that are so important to hear in life though, I wish we all could take the time to know our parents.

It seems to me that answering the question of who your parents were gives you insight into one of the fundamental questions in life: “Where did I come from?” I think that and “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” are the three most basic questions that any of us have in our lives. I think that all of us have those same questions too. Today’s society seems to pursue pleasure so vehemently that they appear to have forgotten those questions, but I assure you that kids today still need the same answers, whether they know the questions or not!

If we look at life as a quest to search out those answers, then I think that by the end we are much better off and prepared to deal with what comes next. One aspect of war I’ve not dealt with here is the fact that many young men become believers in combat. The saying: “There are no athiests in foxholes.” is quite true. Many men, who would ordinarily never go near a church (like my daddy) probably had conversion experiences on the battlefield. Many talk about it. Some don’t. It’s another of those things that Tom Brokaw mentioned in his book _The Greatest Generation_ but today we don’t like to talk about it. It’s not “popular” anymore, what with all the ACLU going after the separation of church and state. They’d have you think that God doesn’t make a difference in a battle.

During WWII, this nation prayed. That’s one thread that is woven through many accounts of what happened during the war. We prayed for victory, for salvation, for a short war, for safety, for our loved ones. We prayed and wept when victory came too. We gave glory to God. After all most folks felt, we had really been fighting a form of evil all along. Facism is evil, in its “exclusivity” and inherent racial prejudice. Perhaps that’s what we fought against all along?

I would argue that those same forces we fought in WWII are alive and thriving even today. We are still fighting them, and probably always will be, until Jesus comes back. I missed my chance to do any of the fighting as a soldier. I washed out of college my first go around, having majored in drugs and partying. Like I said, I did not wind up being much like my father, not in that way at least. I wouldn’t say it was his fault, but I got started drinking and using drugs right about the time he and my mother separated. Life is strange isn’t it? Up to that time in my life all I wanted to do was to go to West Point to become an officer in the Army. I wanted to be a tanker, like George Patton, or Erwin Rommel. Those were my idols as a kid.

When I started doing drugs and drinking all the time, those dreams went away. They simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. I honestly cannot tell you what happened, or why that is, I can only speculate that drugs are evil and separate you from things that are really important in life. From the moment I first started smoking pot, the only thing I wanted was to smoke more dope. It consumed me. The Chinese Proverb: “Man took drink. Drink took drink. Drink took man.” was certainly true in my case. Today I’ve been clean and sober nearly 27 years, but I still have many unanswered questions about how I woke up one day in a hospital with my life stolen.

As I said, I don’t blame my daddy for any of it. In some ways though, I wish he could have been there and helped me through that part of my life without losing so much of it to drugs. My best friend in High School was a year behind me in school. When I went off to college, he stayed behind for his Senior year in HS. He went to Disneyland one night with a friend of ours and dropped acid. He had a bad trip, and his brain was ruined. Today, nearly 32 years later, he’s still a homeless person on the streets of Los Angeles where I grew up. He was my best friend… there for the grace of God go I. There are many others from my HS that are already dead, consumed, ravaged by alcohol and drugs. Is that another war we are fighting?

But, I said this story was about my daddy, and not me. Inevitably though, some of me has to come through in these pages. My daddy is what he was for me. He lives only in my memories now, and those vague recollections are trying to weave themselves together into a story of a strong man who loved life and lived it to its fullest. A man who loved many women, drank hard, played hard, studied hard, and most of all tried to pass on his passion and determination about life to his children.

I think the next chapter will cover the famous “Thanksgiving trip” we took one year on our Ericson. You’ll get a kick out of that!


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