Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cowboy, Sailor, Toastmaster

In April, my father-in-law, a World War II vet passed away.  The youngest vet of WWII turns 86 this year.  As I thought about this, a family friend kept coming to mind.  I felt a nagging urgency to visit him and record his story, so I went to his home, turned on the voice recorder, and started asking questions. 
John is a true cowboy: raised on a ranch in Butte, Montana, he broke wild horses, herded the cattle, even castrated the steers.  He still has a little bit of the Montana twang in his voice, but his voice is also gruff with age.  John is a classy, kind-hearted man.      My youngest son refers to John as "One of my living heroes" and my oldest son refers to John as "One of the coolest, old dudes I've ever known".

John is one of the youngest WWII veterans at 86 year old.  He was born May 7, 1927.  He also has a second birthday.  March 5, 1925.  He made up that birthday so he could enlist.  About that time, some of the Montana National guard were captured and killed in the Battle of Corregidor.  As a result there was an up swell of patriotism that helped him decide to become a Marine.  They were taking too long, so he went to the Navy office.  They took him that day.  It was 1943 and John was 16.  He was soon on a ship, fighting in WWII.

About a year later, during the D-Day invasion, he was on ship delivering ammunition to Omaha Beach.   “The ship got hung up on the riff raff near the beach” so off the ship and onto the beach he went.
I asked him what was going through his mind.  John gave me a puzzled look, then said  “Everybody is terrified. Ok.  I mean, I don’t remember there ever being any combat where I wasn’t scared.  And, uh, everyone is as scared as you are.  But, you have to channel this someplace.  So you channel it by doing your job.  I was a signalman, and my job was to not to worry about what I was going to do, but to send and receive the signals to the other ship that the captain directed as to what we were doing.  That was my only concern.  To get on that search light and send and receive those messages.” 

But now he was on Omaha beach without a channel for his fear.  An Army officer asked him if he could shoot a rifle.  “Yes”.  John was handed a rifle and told “you’re in the Army now”.  His only way off the beach was through France.  What was it like to march through France?, I asked.  “There was no marching through France, there was crawling through France…They gave up that territory very slowly.  It was like a cattle drive back on the ranch, making sure that no one came back around”.   Only this time the cattle were armed and trying to kill him.  He always reminds you that he "toured" France without a passport.

He had another "cowboy" experience when he was on a ship in the North Atlantic.  The ocean was rough and washing over the lower deck.  A warhead from a torpedo broke loose and was banging against the K-guns (used to fire depth charges).  There was 500 lbs of HBX explosives bouncing around.  “Your scared, so you channel your fear into creative activity”  He grabbed a rope and lassoed the warhead and he and his buddy pulled it in.

After France, he was on the USS Hunt off to the Philippines (August 1944).  There was a terrible Typhoon.  Their ship limped along and luckily had enough fuel to keep the bilge pumps running.  Three other ships weren't so lucky and sunk in the storm.  After a year in the pacific the war ended.

He went back to Montana and joined the rodeo riding bucking broncos.  While coming out of the chute, the horse bucked into a post, breaking his arm.  He rode another horse a short time later, breaking his arm again when he landed.  With his rodeo career on hold, he ended up bartending.  A couple of navy recruiters were regulars in the bar.  They saw his tattoos “Hey your a navy man”.  After some coaxing, they talked him into reinlisting (1946).

He moved to San Diego and went to sonar school during the day and San Diego High at night.  He had to finish High School since he was just a sophomore when he joined the Navy.

1947-8, After finishing his schooling, he was assigned to Operation Sandstone, a series of nuclear weapons testing at Enewetak Atoll.  Three tests took place and he was at 5, 7 and 9 miles from ground zero.  They got on the lee-side of the ship when the blast went off.  What was it like observing the nuclear blast?  “Probably a toss up of whether it was the most beautiful bunch of colors you ever saw or the most obscene bunch of colors you ever saw.   However you want to toss it.  It just scared the hell out of me.  I mean it scared me.  The whole horizon is nothing but purples, greens, yellows, reds, boiling, roiling water spouts.  Ugly and beautiful at the same time.  I was thankful I had a God when I looked at it.” 

He then went back to sonar school, learning a new system for mine detection.  One day, the office called him in and asked “Can you take these gentlemen and teach them to talk like submariners?”  He spent the next few months working with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gabel, preparing them for the movie “Run Silent, Run Deep”.

He later had a tour of “choice” duty in Key West Florida.  He ended up teaching future sonarmen and during this time he joined Toastmasters to improve his public speaking abilities.

1959 he went back to San Diego.  He was back on ship and for the next 10 years, he was only in 3 operations... 3 operations that is, that weren't black ops.  His comments: “The Cold War was exciting.  If you want to know what we were doing, read the book “Blind Man’s Bluff” and “Red November””.

Unfortunately I've had to cut the stories and details of what John could talk about.  John had about 3 decades of amazing experiences.  I talked with John for about an hour and a half.  I fit that into this brief recap.  There are many intimate details that don’t get fully captured by history books or other historical records.  You can’t ask a history book “So, what was it like?”.  It sent chills up my spine hearing him tell about it.  John certainly is a living hero, a cowboy, sailor, Toastmaster and one of the coolest old dudes I've ever met.