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World War II remembered.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


With the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor coming up in a few months, I have been looking at some ancient documents.

These were letters I sent to my mother from various naval bases from 1942 to 1945.

World War II must seem almost as remote to the current generation as the Civil War was to me back then. That is something for me and my contemporaries to ponder.

I enlisted in the Navy on Feb. 1, 1942, just about 80 years after my father's cousin, Randall Mann, joined the 75,000 three-month volunteers that President Abraham Lincoln had called to Washington to protect the capital. (Mr. Mann later enlisted in a regular Massachusetts regiment and was killed at the Battle of Roanoke Island.)

These old letters that I was reading brought me back to another era. The 1940 Census pegged the population of the United States at about 160 million - about half of what it is now. My travels at that point had taken me no farther than Maine, New York City and Niagara Falls. The country was going through a rancorous debate about the war in Europe and I was hesitantly switching from isolationist to interventionist.

The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything, of course, and in a few weeks I was at Navy boot camp at Newport, R.I. I eventually became an officer and naval aviator, but I find my early letters particularly interesting. As a Seaman 2nd Class I was at the bottom of the heap, along with millions of other swabbies. I had entered a different world, one where we were daily drilled into exhaustion by no-nonsense Marine drill sergeants, where we underwent various physical and medical tests, including "short arm inspections" (don't ask), watched horrendous films on venereal disease and ate Navy chow, which we uniformly criticized but was actually pretty good.

Pay was $21 a month:

February 1942 - Dear folks - Just got back from chapel (compulsory). The Navy certainly does things in an efficient manner. For meals all the different companies (averaging 100-150 men) all the men are marched down to the drill hall by the company commander who lines them up in columns of four for inspection . . . the best looking of the companies always get the first orders to march up to the mess halls. The same today for religious service, the companies are all lined up and marched to the drill hall where the Catholics march to one side and the Protestants to the other ...

My letters reveal that, for all the drills and night watches, I was having an interesting time. The Navy was not prepared for the flood of enlistees after Dec. 7, 1941. Had I enlisted a year later, I probably would have been assigned to a particular ship or unit and gone to sea straightaway, but in early 1942 I was destined to be shipped around to 11 different bases and training classes - aviation radioman, radar operator, commando training and, finally, pilot training. Along the way I met scores of men from every state and all walks of life.

Except blacks. The 1942 Navy was even more segregated than the Army. People of color were consigned to duty in mess halls, laundries and similar low-level grades:

Feb. 21, 1943 -Yesterday I got my first demerits since boot camp when the lieutenant caught us rolling the "galloping dominoes". With ten dollars in green showing it was rather hard to explain that we were playing for the fun of it. We had to march for two hours as punishment. Next time we'll be more careful.

One letter tells how I single-handedly averted a brawl in a Jacksonville bar by making loud and scornful remarks about sailors and soldiers and causing the crowd to laugh. I don't remember that incident, but I guess it happened.

Nov. 27, 1942 - Still living in a tent and liking it. They have put adequate stoves in at last ...

When my 60-year-old mother wanted to visit me in Norfolk, I steered her off:

I doubt the advisability of thy coming to Norfolk. It is a crime-ridden, tumultuous, dirty lousy place and I doubt that you could even get a room ...

That "thy" may give you pause. My ancestors were Quakers and we used the plain speech in our house when I was growing up. So my letters are sprinkled with those old terms.

Life in the barracks was a memorable experience, raucous, ribald and raw. It makes me think of Rudyard Kipling's comment: "And if our behavior isn't all your fancy paints/Why, single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints."

I am glad that I had that experience as an enlisted man. When I became an aviator and officer, things changed. Better quarters, better food, better pay, more respect.

Anyway, it all led up to Aug. 14, 1945. Our heavy bomber was in the air, headed from our base in the Aleutians to bomb the Japanese base at Paramushiro when the radioman burst into the cockpit with the announcement, "The Japs have surrendered."

That was a moment to remember. The "hinge of fate" in Winston Churchill's phrase.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 15, 2011
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