|The orders to report to
Fort Pierce with a delay en route are very vivid. With a new ‘tailor made’
uniform, new stripes, new insignia and new ribbons, I was transformed into
a ‘salty’ veteran on his way home for a leave.
Frank Sinatra, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Betty Grable, Benny Goodman, Harry James and other fine entertainers were still popular on the home front. Mother, anticipating the end of the war, bought a much larger home and took over Uncle Barney's tobacco shop. Uncle Barney was stationed in Las Vegas as an M.P. Sister Emily was a member of the WAACS stationed at the War Department in Washington. Sister Helen was engaged to a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne. Sister Florence worked with Helen at a defense plant assembling C47s. Florence's husband Thad, would soon be wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Kid sister Lucille was now eye level instead of shoulder level. Her future husband would also see action in the Battle of the Bulge. Brother Stan was with his fighter squadron in County Kent, England. The 53rd was flying bomber escort and giving the Germans hell on the roads and along the railroads. Butter, sugar, coffee, meat, gasoline, nylons, tires, cigarettes, and many other items were all rationed. No one seemed to mind too much and I heard very few complaints. People were glad that some items were available and often traded ration stamps. Most people seemed to realize that these items were needed elsewhere and complaining was not patriotic.
The streets were strangely quiet as I walked to the bus stop. Almost every window had a small banner with a blue star for a person in the service. Here and there the blue star would be replaced by a gold star, which meant that a serviceman was not ever coming back. More than once I stopped in disbelief. I knew all these people. Some were old men of 30, married with children. Many were dear friends.
On impulse, I stopped to visit ‘Mom and Pop,’ the parents of Fritz and Eddy, to ask about the boys. The two blue stars were displayed in the window. I wondered where they were sent. ‘Mom’ let me in to what was once a house of bedlam. This time things were quiet and dim. The plot was ticking abnormally loud. ‘Pop’ was sitting in his old overstuffed chair that I remembered so well. He did not get up to greet me. As we shook hands, his hand was limp as a towel. I learned he had just bought two gold stars to replace the blue stars now hanging in the window. I was stunned. Fritz was killed in the South Pacific and Eddy died somewhere in France. The telegrams came a couple of days apart. He stared at me for a long time. His eyes seemed to be asking ‘Why are you here and not my boys?’ My visit became very awkward. ‘Pop’ hardly bothered to make conversation. When I started to leave, it was ‘Mom’ who walked me to the door. She gave me a kiss on my cheek and asked me not be angry with ‘Pop.’ Neither of them knew how to cope with this news. I walked on with mixed feelings of gloom, frustration and anger.
The city transit bus arrived and delivered me later that day to my girlfriend's home. While Lorry and I had no formal arrangement and the competition for her attention was fierce, I had hoped to pursue her aggressively after the war. It appeared that some G.I. from the Cavalry no less, had moved in. Worse yet, he had told her that he loved his horse so much that he even slept with him. I did not have the heart to tell her that the Army ate its last horse about fifteen years ago. The final lance in my heart was when she asked me to be the bartender at the wedding. I just could not cope. I did not see her again for about a dozen years. In the meantime, we had won the war, I finished my high school, I went to college, picked up a couple of Doctor's degrees and returned to Buffalo, just in time to see her marriage break up. Lorry did not look any worse for the wear and tear. She still had that wiggle when she walked that always caught my eye. Her bosom seemed a little wider and fuller. All in all, there was a definite improvement. A gift of time and patience. We began where we left off so many years ago. Today, thirty-five years later, she just handed me a cup of coffee and I still notice the way she walks. I suspect she has forgotten about the live-in colored nanny and the daily golf game that I promised we would enjoy, although she does refer to me as ‘you all,’ whenever she cleans house.
Our local neighborhood, like the rest of Buffalo, had an enormous amount of taverns. Buffalonians didn't drink that much, but the taverns served as meeting houses for friends, clubs, and societies. Instead of the twenty or thirty patrons each use to host, now they contained only four or five. These patrons were essential to the war effort, medical rejects, or past the draft age. A man in uniform on leave was always the guest of honor and could not spend any money. Sooner or later the patrons would express regret that they were not in uniform, as if apologizing. They could not accept the fact that they were just as helpful to the war effort where they were.
I stayed at home as much as possible with the remains of my family, hiding and hoarding the memories I would take back with me to the service. The radio, phonograph, and piano all got a workout. The entire family joining in to sing together was always a lot of fun and we sang together often. It only took one to start the concert. The U.S.A. discovered the tragic Billy Holiday and ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ was very popular and heard everywhere. It was a song for the times: melancholy, filled with want and longing, hopeful and sad, full of promises. I hear it now occasionally and I drift quickly to those yesteryears.
My delay en route ended too quickly. The recruiting officers in Buffalo had my orders in an envelope with a railroad ticket to Fort Pierce, Florida. I don’t know who arranged my passage, but it was great. I was put aboard a Pullman with a porter to make my bed morning and night. There was a dining car for my use and a superb club car. Everything that I ate aboard tasted wonderful.
Fort Pierce had changed. Every conceivable space had a tent on it. No more empty fields or jungle, only thousands upon thousands of soldiers learning how to make amphibious landings. I did not know at the time that one of these GIs would marry my sister Emily and become my brother-in-law. The Scout and Raider camp was still at the far end of the island with its tents as close to the ocean as they could be placed. The camp had more tents also, and seemed to be occupied. The Scouts and Raiders must be growing. I had always believed there were only about one hundred of us. A mess hall had been built to my delight, which meant no more sand flies in my scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes. The air was filled with flying bugs with four wings. These, I was told were dragonflies imported to eat the sand flies. Eat hardy!
The Scout and Raider crews that were receiving training when I left for Europe were long gone. They were scattered all over the Pacific Theater helping to take back from the enemy one island after another. Like small packs of wolves, they would harass the herd at all times from many directions. Most, if not all, would return alive. I wondered where I would be sent, and would our European group still be kept together as a unit? The Navy with its long arm would soon place me in an undreamed of location, the very back yard of the Japanese empire, to their surprise and to my peril.
One by one, as the Scouts and Raiders returned from their leave, they were put up in any tent that had a vacancy. No more small crews of five or six. The units we now joined were called ‘Special Roger,’ ‘Roger One,’ and ‘Roger Two.’ They all had similar training to ours but not nearly so intense. No one knew what they trained for. The emphasis was on work with radio and weather observation. The Scouts and Raiders were not part of this training as we were already well prepared.
Ensign Tripson and Ensign Herrick were gone, as well as Shorty Buchanon and Kaylor. Lloyd Dronnett was part of ship’s company, as well as Ponds. While the Roger groups were finishing their training, we were assigned to train the 6th Ranger Battalion stationed in the camp next to ours. These troops were the elite of all elite’s. All were in superb physical condition and serious about learning their craft. The Scouts and Raiders trained them in knife fighting and hand to hand combat, and especially rubber boat handling. Thus, our days turned into nights as we paddled through swamps, crawled on our stomachs and ambushed one another. As they grew proficient, it became harder and harder to detect them. Often one had to step or trip over one to locate them. Their training did not stop after hours. One had to be continually alert, or find a knife at his throat.
Later, I believe this unit made a landing and a forced march to rescue American prisoners of war that the Japanese were about to slaughter, should they be forced to retreat. They accomplished their mission and saved the American prisoners. I was pleased but not surprised. They were the best this country had, as were the Rangers that perished almost to the last man in Salerno. Dedication like this is not found in a conscript, only in a volunteer. The volunteer wants to be where he is, and be successful at what he's learning. We made many friends and respected each other.
To sharpen our demolition skills, the Scouts and Raiders took additional training with explosives on North Island. We learned about some newer timed fuses and were left to ourselves with a few tons of TNT, tetrytol, and Composition C2. We demolished all concrete obstacles and pillboxes until the island was cleared. Finally, we resorted to making hand grenades and fishing with them. The fuses became shorter and shorter. When one block of TNT exploded before it hit the ground, it was time to quit. We piled all the explosives we had left in one pile and cracked a window two miles away. Of course we blamed it on the underwater demolition team and maintained our pure innocent reputation.
With our baggage on trucks, we boarded buses for the Fort Pierce railroad station. Our orders were to travel by train to San Pedro, California. We would never see Fort Pierce as it was ever again. This time the trip was not pleasant. The soot from the coal-burning engine filled our compartment. For four days and nights we traveled west toward the Pacific. We soon read everything there was to read, ate everything there was to eat, and slept until we could not sleep. We arrived exhausted and black with soot. The need for a shower was desperate. San Pedro was a very large naval base with many two-story buildings. There must have been a lot of new recruits on the base, because everything was spotless. After eating and sleeping in dirt for so long, a white sheet was luxurious. I simply stared at it for a' while.
We had ten days or so of waiting, with time allowed for a weekend pass. Bob Hope entertained us one night at the base. I still keep running into him all over the world. I don't know one person that does not consider him a treasure. He made us laugh when the world was crying.
Los Angeles, and Hollywood its suburb, were the nearest towns for the Navy to visit. I found nothing in Los Angeles to interest me, mainly because I did not know what it contained of interest. All servicemen seemed to be wandering aimlessly about Perishing Park in the downtown area. Being a weekend, most of the stores were closed. Having very little money, I avoided the stores that were open. I slept in an USO hostel that night and managed to wangle a free pass to a live show called ‘Ken Murray's Blackouts.’ It was held in a Hollywood theater on a Sunday afternoon. I did not understand the humor, nor could I see why people were shouting to each other across the stage. My first liberty on the West Coast and my first live show were a disappointment, and I left early for the sanctuary of the naval base.
We saluted the flag and the Officer of the Day as we boarded the transport a few days later. Our quarters, to our luck, were just off the main deck. Later, passing near and over the equator, this would prove to be a blessing. With the hatch in the open position, our own our own speed provided a constant breeze that kept our quarters cool. Our quarters simply meant our place to sleep. There was not room for anything else. The bunks were in stacks of six, and mine was third from the bottom, but not by accident, I might add. Our past experiences taught us that this was the spot the quickest and easiest to evacuate if the need arose. Our destroyer escorts left us to ourselves within twenty-four hours. Our ship although quite large, was fast. Our skipper still kept zigzagging in what appeared to be half circles as we made our way west, southwest toward the continent of Australia. The days were balmy and the ship felt good. Standing on the fantail I could feel the steady throbbing of the ship's engine like a beating heart. Perhaps that's why seamen feel their ship is alive with a soul all of its own. I know I felt a kinship.
We crossed the International Date Line and, as crossing the equator, there was much revelry initiating the Pollywogs to the membership of Neptune’s Shellbacks. King Neptune was, of course, present to oversee the hazing. All in all, it was great fun and things never got out of hand. You are an ‘old salt’ in our Navy when you cross the equator.