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Bo's Stories, Page 18

THE FAMILY OF BESSIE EDNA BROWN & THOMAS MONNIE WOODS

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“The U.S. Navy Destroyer Base

San Diego, California

 

I got home from Lakehurst around March 19 and set about putting in a cotton crop with my brother Ray.  Three months later on June 25, 1950, the communist troops of North Korea attacked South Korea.  This aggression was outlawed under the United Nations charter and member nations began rushing aid to South Korea.  The United States called up all of their military reserves.

 

It looked as if our crop was a bust, and I was not happy farming anyway.  Ray agreed to harvest what crop there was by himself and, on August 21, I went to Marshall and re-enlisted in the Navy. My sister Nell’s husband, Edward Austin had already gone to San Diego in the Navy Ready Reserve call-up.  I was processed in Dallas the following day, and caught the night train to San Diego.

 

I arrived in San Diego with thousands of reservists who had been called up.  The Navy had buses meeting all of the incoming trains to haul the men to the appropriate base.  Most of us had orders to the Destroyer Base, and I arrived there about 2100 (9:00 P.M.) on August 24, 1950.  The Chief Master-At-Arms billeted me in a transit barracks.  I had brought my sea bag of clothes with me and hung it on my bunk and went to bed.

 

On arising in the morning, I felt really bad.  My stomach was cramping a little but I thought maybe that I just needed a good breakfast.  I went outside and asked directions to the mess hall, which was down the street and around the corner.  When I turned the corner there was a line, 4 men wide about a block long waiting to get into the mess hall.  I got in line.

 

I was used to lines.  In the Navy you stand in line for everything.  In most cases, although not for chow, the lines are in alphabetical order.  That means that I was near to last almost always.  There were a couple of guys behind me in nearly every line I stood in.  Their names were usually Young and Zimmer or Zimmerman.    If an old “Salt” wanted to put a young sailor down, he would tell him, “I’ve stood in more pay lines than you have chow lines, or I’ve worn out more sea bags than you have socks”.

 

On this morning, as I stood in line I began to cramp worse and a guy next to me said, “You need to go to ‘Sick Call’”.  I decided he was right and he told me how to find the Dispensary, and I left.  I got there and the door was locked, so I sat down on the steps and leaned up against the door.  A few minutes later a Hospital Corpsman opened the door from the inside and I literally fell into the Sickbay (clinic).

 

The Corpsman got me in and had me lie on a gurney and a little while later a doctor came in and examined me.  I was feverish and cramping.   He gave me a rectal exam (called a “finger wave” in the Navy), and told me that I had acute appendicitis.  A few minutes later I was in an ambulance, with the siren on, headed for the Balboa Naval Hospital a few miles away.

 

An hour later I was in bed on a huge ward (I think 50 beds, 25 down each side) when a Navy Surgeon (rank of Commander) came and examined me.  By then I was feeling better and he said that it appeared my attack was over for the moment and I might not have another for months.  But, he said, “You might be at sea on a ship without a doctor next time, so I will schedule you for surgery tomorrow morning and get that appendix out”.  And, he did.

 

They took me in and gave me a spinal anesthesia and removed my appendix.  It was the practice then in the Naval hospital to keep patients heavily sedated for the first two days.  They used morphine injections, so my first two days just slid by unnoticed by me.  Late the next day after surgery the morphine stopped.

 

Morning call was at 0800 (8:00 A.M.).  The doctors and ward nurses made rounds on the ward.  All people able to stand had to stand by the foot of their bed for this inspection.  The doctor would look at the patient’s chart (kept hanging on the foot of the bed) and the patient, then move on to the next one, until all were checked.

 

On the third day I was feeling much better and had made friends with the guy in the bed next to me.  I don’t remember his name (I’ll call him Watts), but he was an Electrician First Class off a ship.  He had been stabbed in the back, but not seriously wounded and he was ambulatory as I was.  On our breakfast tray was a small carton (about 1/2 pint) in which they wished for each man to give them a stool specimen.  Also on the tray were some of the sorriest, runniest, scrambled eggs that you can imagine.  I wished it had been my idea, but it was Watts’ to put our eggs into the specimen carton.  That we did, and never heard a word from anyone about it!

 

That same morning the Chief Nurse, a Lieutenant Commander, came in to tell me that they had tried repeatedly to have my command send my sea bag to the hospital, but they couldn’t find any record of me.  So, there I was with only the suit of dungarees that I had on when I came in.  Watts and I were about the same size, so he let me wear some of his clothes.

 

On the fourth day Watts and I had to go the several blocks to the mess hall for our meals.  That was difficult for me.  I still had a bandage over my incision and my stitches were still in.  I had trouble standing up straight, but made it to chow, if somewhat slowly.  But the more exercise I got the better I felt.  I was deemed well enough for a working party the afternoon of the following day and had to report to the Master-at-Arms (they have them everywhere in the Navy).  He had the poor sense to assign me, over my objections, to a garbage hauling detail.

 

It was pure agony for me to climb on and off a truck and to handle the garbage cans, but I made it.  I vowed revenge if I ever had a chance to exact it from that Master-at-Arms.  Believe it or not, I actually did cross paths with this guy about three years later and had it within my power to bring him to his knees.  I am glad to say that my Mama came to mind and I knew she would not approve and I let the opportunity pass.  The guy never even recognized me, but I would have known him anyplace.

 

When I returned to the ward, it was obvious that my afternoon had been rough.  The Chief Nurse asked what I had been doing and I told her.  After that she would not allow them to put me on working parties and I stayed on the ward and did a little janitor work.  Watts, by virtue of his rank, was exempt from working parties, so he and I spent a lot of time together.  He let me wear one of his Undress Blue uniforms with his First Class stripes and soon the word got around that I too was a First Class Petty Officer and they left me alone entirely until I returned to duty.  Rank has its privileges (known as RHIP) and I had a taste of it and I liked it.  I determined then and there to work hard for promotions.

 

When I went to get my stitches out, I discovered that my incision was a long one, extending from my right hipbone to my mid-line.  The surgeon had taken stitches, and then put on a row of stainless steel clamps.  The clamps were pinching me and once they were removed, I felt like a new man.

While I was still in bed in the hospital, my brother-in-law Edward Austin had tried to find me.  His ship was the Destroyer Escort U.S.S. Wiseman, nicknamed the U.S.S. Kilowatt because of its function, which was to provide power to shore facilities.  It had large generators and could generate enough power for a small town.  The Wiseman was tied up at the Destroyer Base.  Edward had found my bunk and my sea bag, but nobody knew anything about me.

 

Finally he decided that maybe something happened to me and he called the hospital and found out I was there and they transferred the call to my ward.  There were only two phones on the ward.  They could be plugged in between the beds anywhere on the ward and were frequently moved.  My neighbor on one side was a frequent user of the phone (calling his bookie to bet on the horse races) and one of the phones was between our beds.

 

I was lying there about half-asleep when the phone rang.  He started to reach for it when I said, “It’s for me”.  Where that came from I will never know.  That was the strangest thing.  I had not had one thought of anyone calling me up until that instant.  ESP, I guess.  I picked the phone up, and there was Edward on the other end.  We talked and then later he came by for a visit.

 

Watts and I had a great time for our last few days in the hospital.  We went outside and walked around.  The weather was beautiful, as it usually is in San Diego, and the grounds were well kept and beautiful.  We went to the movies at night and enjoyed our leisure.

 

When I returned to the Destroyer Base, I was shocked. Thousands and thousands of men had reported to active duty and the facilities were stretched to the limit.  I checked in with the Master-at-Arms and was billeted in a barracks across the main highway.  The barracks buildings over there had been vacant since 1944.  To provide access, a long wooden pedestrian bridge spanned the highway.

 

I guess it was a mile walk from where I found my sea bag, still hanging on the bunk in the transit barracks, to my new barracks.  That was a tough jaunt carrying my gear, but I made it.  They called these old decrepit barracks on the hill “Splinter City”.  They were well named.  Some windows were broken out and the heads were in disrepair, but it was plenty good enough.

 

As the WW II veterans, from the reserve call-up, were processed, they were given jobs to do, in whatever their profession was.  That meant most of the day-to-day activities were now managed by these reservists.  Many of these guys did not even know they were in the reserves until they got a letter ordering them to report to active duty.

 

None of them knew what an Airman was.  The Airman rank was a new program, begun after the war, and here I showed up with that rank.  They didn’t know what to do with me, so mainly they just left me alone.  I managed to get my Service Jacket (records) activated and I got paid.  I also took out an allotment for Mama.  After that, I roamed around, explored the base, shot a lot of pool and did a lot of nothing while awaiting my orders to duty.  I missed out on a lot of working parties, but I didn’t mind.  My side healed up nicely.

 

When I filled out my “desired duty” form, I put my first, second, and third choices as Aircraft Carrier because I was certain that is where I would be going.  Imagine my surprise when my orders came through for VR-21 (“V” means heavier than air, and “R” means transport) at Naval Air Station, Barbers Point, T.H. (Territory of Hawaii).

 

My orders directed me to proceed by first class railcar to San Francisco, California, and to report to the Commander, Naval Station, Treasure Island California to await air transportation on a triple A Military Air priority to Honolulu.  A railroad ticket to San Francisco was attached to my orders.  I left the next evening and shared a sleeping compartment (the only time I ever had a “room” on a train) with another guy on the ride north.

 

U.S. Naval Station

Treasure Island, California

 

Treasure Island was reached by exiting the bridge between San Francisco and Oakland onto Yerba Buena Island, sometimes called  “Goat” Island.  This island supports the bridge about midway across.  From Yerba Buena you can drive onto Treasure Island which is a flat 400-acre, man-made, tidal island.  When I was there in 1950 the “Bay Bridge” was the longest bridge (8 miles) in the world that spanned navigable waters.  One could see grim Alcatraz Island across the bay about eight miles away.

 

I reported in on arrival to Treasure Island, commonly called TI, and was assigned to a transit barracks (this is a Navy term referring to a place where sailors in transit are billeted) with a Chief Boatswain’s Mate as the Master-at-Arms.  The barracks buildings were set back from the street, facing the street.  I can see them now in my mind and the vision does not make me homesick.

 

Between the barracks and the street, squares had been painted on the asphalt.  Each square had a number from 1 through 120,  to represent the number of men assigned to that barracks.  The squares were arranged in ranks.  Each man had a billet number, and every morning at 0700, and every afternoon at 1300 (1:00 P.M.), he must be standing on his number.  Or else he was in big trouble with the Chief.

 

Every morning and every afternoon, those needing workers were there to take however many men they needed.  For best utilization of manpower, those in professions with needed skills were first told to remain in ranks, leaving the unskilled to do whatever was needed.  For example; Yeomen (Office Clerks, Secretaries) were usually reserved to do office work, Hospital Corpsmen were sent to give shots, etc.

 

This system was almost my downfall.  I had been there only a day or two (not long enough for the “Bosun” to recognize me) when I was standing on my number in the rear rank.  My back was to the sidewalk and within a foot or two of it.  I sensed someone coming down the walk and glanced around just for an instant and recognized the kid who grew up just across the field from us.  It was my boyhood friend, and neighbor, Gene Kelly.

 

I stopped him and we were talking when I became aware our ranks had thinned out, and I knew I had missed my call for a working party.  I quickly decided the best thing to do was keep my mouth shut until I was found out.  About that time, the “Bosun” spoke to the man nearest him and said, “March these Corpsmen over to the dispensary, they’re going to be giving shots this afternoon”.  Uh Oh, I thought.  What am I going to do now?  I fell in as the last man in the rank and off we marched.

 

I didn’t even know where the dispensary was, but we marched down a street and turned a corner, out of sight of the barracks, and the next building we went past; they went “that-a-way” and I went “this-a-way”.  Nobody knew anybody, so they never missed me.  Gene had told me he had been shooting a lot of pool, so I found the pool hall and there he was.

 

Gene and I spent about a week or two there just goofing off and shooting pool and talking about back home.  I enjoyed it a lot.  Gene and I spent quite a bit of time playing together and running together when we were kids.  We were never as close as some of the other boys, but I liked Gene a lot.  The fun and games came to an end when my transportation was finally arranged.

 

With a triple “A” air priority, I was sure that I would be flying out to Hawaii.  What I did not realize was the tremendous numbers of people that were headed west.  Not only for Hawaii, but for Japan, Formosa, the Philippines and other places where staffs had to be beefed up to handle the massive mobilization that was taking place for the Korean War.  To fly, one needed at least a 4A or 5A air priority.

 

When I got my travel orders, I was directed to report to Pier 17, San Francisco, Shipyard and board the USNS Sergeant Mower for Pearl Harbor.  And that’s what I did.  I went aboard the Sgt. Mower, which was a merchant ship….a freighter….that had just been pressed into Naval service.  She was 142’ long, painted black and red, and she was scroungy.  The ship had a Merchant Marine crew, and every available inch of living space forward and below was filled with men.   The upper decks aft were filled with officers, military dependent women and children.

 

There were no prisoners on board, so some of us were billeted in the brig.  I can truthfully say that I once spent 5 days in the brig while I was in the Navy; although, I was not a prisoner. This was the forward most of the living quarters and was down two decks, the roughest ride on the ship.  My bunk lay against the curvature of the prow.  The bulkhead (wall) by my bunk, was the skin of the ship and was the temperature of the sea water.  Every time the ship pitched and rolled, I would be thrown, first against the bulkhead and then almost out of my bunk.  The bunks were stacked four high.  I was in the third, which was nice, because the bunks were very close together, and the top bunk kept me from rolling out of mine.

 

We sailed out of San Francisco Bay, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, about mid-afternoon on a cold dreary day, about the middle of October.  It was overcast, chilly and very windy.  The water was very rough and the ship was pitching and wallowing in the waves.  Not the ideal start for a farm boy on his first cruise.  I decided to go anyway (like I had a choice).

 

I handled the rough seas pretty well through the afternoon.  The old salts had told me that, if possible, I should go ahead and take all of my meals, even if I was feeling a little squeamish.  With that advice, I went below for evening chow.  I went in and got a tray and started through the line.

 

When I got to the entree, the mess-cook threw a serving of sauerkraut and wieners on my tray.  He shouldn’t have done it.  I never slowed down, just dropped my tray on a table and went topside (up on an open deck).  The fresh air and salt breeze perked me up and I felt better.  When I went below, the smell of vomit was over-powering and I got deathly seasick.  After losing everything in my system I crawled into my bunk to die, but I didn’t and was not sick again on this five-day cruise.

 

It was a rough night, with the pitching and rolling and I didn’t get much sleep until near morning when things settled down.  I got up and went up on deck and found there had been a change in the weather.  The seas were calm, the wind was light and the sun was shining.  It was a wonderful day, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

The rest of the trip I spent all of my waking hours on deck.   I stood at the rail and watched the fish jump (I can’t remember what kind of fish these were, but they were with us almost constantly and seemed to be following along with us and jumping into the air).   Or I reclined on a hatch cover and enjoyed the warm sun and salt air.

 

The few merchant marines in the deck crew spent their days putting a coat of navy-gray paint on the ship.  Why they didn’t put all of the sailors to work, I will never know, but we could have painted the entire ship twice in five days, if we’d had the paint and brushes.  I suppose the reason was, there were no Navy officers or senior enlisted men on board to take charge and get us organized.   The Merchant Marine officers really had no jurisdiction over us either.

 

One morning I was standing at the rail talking to a couple of other sailors.  There was a large cargo boom laying down and secured horizontally on each side of the ship.  There was a merchant seaman astride of one of the booms about ten feet off the deck and almost over us.  He had a gallon bucket of paint hanging from a hook on a strap around the boom and he was painting the boom and sliding backward as he painted.  Although I didn’t see him, one of the sailors said the seaman reached down, picked the bucket of paint up and painted a space and then reached to drop the bail of the bucket back onto the hook.  He missed and the bucket fell and landed flat on the bottom about three feet behind me.  When the bucket hit, a geyser of paint flew into the air and covered the back of my legs below the knees with battleship gray paint.  I had to throw the dungarees away.

 

I ate sparingly on this voyage.  The only thing I remember about the food was, that it was very poor and that there was no bread served at any of the meals.   We never learned what the foul up was, but somehow they had failed to properly provision the ship….for us.  I’m sure the poor provisions applied only to the peons forward, because once I got a glimpse of the dining room aft where the military dependents took their meals.  It was all white linens and silver with stewards attending the passengers, much as on a cruise ship.

 

The hatches between the dependents and us were secured, so there was no way we could mingle with them.  It was almost like we were on a different ship, but I wasn’t envious, just curious.

 

On the morning of the sixth day, when I went on deck, I could dimly see land in the distance.  Slowly the islands grew and before noon we put in to Pearl Harbor and dis-embarked.  It was good to be back on terra firma.  After lunch in the Pearl Harbor Navy Base mess hall, we were loaded onto what appeared to be cattle trucks and hauled to our new duty station.

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