In My Father’s Footsteps: The Navy Years

The following stories are excerpts from my father’s journal, his life story, which I am copying into blog form, under the title, In My Father’s Footsteps.

My father served in US Navy at the end of World War II on the USS Vella Gulf. He visited exotic places such as Hawaii, Japan, Guam, and the Philippines, and I didn’t know the extent of his adventures until I came across a box of typed pages in my mom’s storage room nearly five years ago.

My dad died in Sept. 2008, but his memory lives on through his stories. And after reading his stories about his time in the Navy, I have a deeper appreciation for those who have served in the military, and what was sacrificed so we could be free.

The atom bombs had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan sued for peace. Later, I wondered about our choice of Nagasaki, which was something like 90-95 percent Catholic I find it hard to believe; is it possible that hatred of the Catholic church could poison a decision of such magnitude?

We anchored off the coast of Japan–was it the end of April,1945? –and everyone hit the sack.  There wasn’t anything else to do! Next morning everybody was talking about how we rode out a typhoon.

I missed it; slept right through it.

But our curiosity carried us topside to the flight deck gangway. The day was one color; dark, low-lying banks of clouds. Black seas with a little more roll than usual. And the distant land mass repeated the overall impression of foreboding.

The only apparent life ashore was several figures in flowing white attire. Later somebody told me it was a sign of mourning in Japan.

While my shipmates and I slept through the typhoon, the fury made landfall and carried the unsuspecting into eternity.

Once in a while, it seemed, the white robes appeared to pause in their dreamlike pursuits, gaze silently out to sea. To seek comfort perhaps?

Or maybe it was to pray that the salt spray cleans their loss, their sudden grief.

When we finally got clearance to enter the harbor, we did it with painful care. It reminded me of when we slowly made our way up the majestic Columbia River to Portland, Oregon right after the shakedown.

I swear there was no more than a few feet on either side of the bank. My memory’s dim, but I think power cables inched us along.

Now, entering Tokyo Bay, it seemed unreal we should be doing so, peacefully. We passed a famous Japanese battleship, the pride of the fleet, sitting on the bottom.

The USS Arizona was avenged.

Before they set us ashore for liberty in Yokohama, they told us we had to have an officer with a sidearm, peace hadn’t been signed. But at the small boat dock, all’s I saw were enlisted men and a smattering of commissioned officers and they seemed to be in charge of the dock.

So, I and a buddy took off by ourselves. The following are mainly observations; not necessarily in order. Cause I’m not sure when, only that. My first impression was dozens upon desolate dozens of flattened city blocks.

And the sickening sweet, almost suffocating smell of countless bodies beneath the bombed-out rubble. And maybe ruined sewage systems; putrid decaying flesh, alone, couldn’t smell that bad. An occasional lone plane droned high overhead, triggering Pavlovian panic and frantic stabbing toward the sound, “B-29! B-29!”

I’ll never forget boarding the little old-fashioned trolley-most of the citizens were women and old men-pretty much all dressed, it seemed to me, in the same type of uniform, same drab color. They wouldn’t take our money. Without exception, everyone bowed politely, the beautiful Japanese custom, when we came into speaking range.

What a surprise when I took my hand down the pole that ran down the length of the car, the one you hang onto. Surprise! My palm was black with sooty dust. Japanese, small in stature, didn’t aspire to those heights!

We stopped at a little shop that also had postage stamps. The only clerk in that shop, housed in a small building, was Caucasian. She gave us some yen we used for change. I bought a tiny carved elephant ornament. I don’t know human nature, but I do believe the look she gave me with my change could be interpreted:

“Hmmnh … the last of the big-time spenders! Sayonara!”

Which reminds me. At one point, two or three Japanese teenagers followed us, taunting insults. They would keep their distance, stopping when we stopped, and then stand there and jeer something in the mother tongue.

And of course, in the true spirit of the international code, the first thing they learned from the GI’s careening around in their Jeeps was to flip us the bird and then run away, hysterical.

I felt like I’d never left home!

At one point, we found ourselves atop a windswept hill in Yokohama. A small cottage was the focal; apparently the man and wife thought we were coming their way, and came out to meet us. I believe a teenage daughter held back about 12 paces. They bowed politely, of course, hoping to put them at ease and no one to interpret; we showed good intentions with generous handfuls of Camel cigarettes.

Message received, we took our leave.

One phase of the Navy not touched on: the opportunity came to move up to the ship’s photo lab with Jack Evans from Spokane. I jumped at photography; it’s fascination was just short of fanaticism. It was a good life. Cooks sent up yummy stuff like veal steak; we never cooked anything, except in butter! And another fringe benefit; I learned to process film and print pictures.

Once I got the hang of it, I blew up our family portrait (minus Molly), an 8 x 10 to something like 11 x 14. I think I ended up with enough of these to paper the bathroom!

Jack Evans also taught me how to use different types of cameras, including the K-20, a handheld aerial camera. The closest I came to a news photo. I was on the flight deck near the bridge superstructure, when this F4U came in too high … or the water may have been choppy.

The inverted gull-wing fighter, preferred by many of our Marine pilots, actually had landing gear not built for setting down smoothly on a rolling flight deck. Too static?

Just as the plane touched down, the sea suddenly rose to meet it. I squeezed the shutter of the K-20 … or maybe the speed graphic … just as the left wheel buckled, fire shooting out with the escaping fluid. I shot the camera again, ending up with a two-photo series of the accident.

I had the duty the morning of the fatal accident. Pilot misread the flight officer’s signal to elevate the flaps two degrees.  Seven degrees simply threw the doomed plane into the sea. The pilot’s body was never recovered.

The picture of the funeral service was a perfect variation of the Missing Flyer Formation. Purely by accident, of course. But the fact that our skipper was late, left an empty chair in the front row.

The expressions of grief, subdued sorrow among the remaining members of the pilot’s squadron made the empty chair the focal point of that moment of silence.

One day in San Diego, shortly before we would begin our cruise up the coast for decommissioning, I had a ball with a K-20, boxes of Kodacolor film spools at my side. I spent all day shooting planes coming in for landings and taking off. It was a good experience, keeping those beautiful birds inside the frame, coming and going.

I never got to see the results; it was something like six weeks back and forth to Eastman labs. But I can imagine they set the tone for the day.

I promised I would get back to you about almost buying the Deep Six at Waikiki. It was a piece that followed my adventures in qualifying for sea duty in boot camp at Farragut, Idaho.

My buddy and I wore swimming trunks under our uniforms, and wandered wonderingly through the breath-taking lobby of the Royal Hawaiian hotel. In 1945, this beautiful red sculpture was the top-of-the-mark of the South Pacific.

Imposing majesty describes it pretty well. We were the only two in the lobby, and our heel-clicks echoed, “intruders!” down from the high-flying ceilings. 

Maybe it was the soothing silence of the quiet A.M. that felt good. But more than likely, it was because we weren’t tossed out, persona non grata, on our Navy Blue Butts!

“I guess I’ll get my feet wet,” I said standing and brushing sand. I was being accurate.

“Go ahead, I’ll sun awhile.”

Explanation. I must tell you, dear reader, for background. Fire Control is not manning the hoses.  It is aiming and firing the big guns! The Navy seeks to determine personnel best qualified to do this, through testing.

Which of these lines is parallel? Which of these lines intersects? Which of these two lines curve away? Which of these lines is longer? Which of these lines is thinner? If you stare at line A, does Line B appear to merge or move away?

I honestly thought, all those years before my Company Commander, a Chief Petty Officer named Steve Stracchia, formerly a coach in the Chicago school system taught me the difference between a granny and a square knot, that I knew the meaning of the shortest distance! 

I didn’t; not by the wildest stretch.

I slowly walked out into the silent surf-hardly a ripple-in an, imperceptible to me, widening line. Like I had good sense.

When the water rose above my belt line, I turned and started back in a straight line. 

Oopserblub!

Who moved the bottom of the ocean?

A small voice, panic, I think, kicked-in my best Dog Paddle; I rediscovered air. Another tentative feel for the bottom; all water. Then i spotted a small Hawaiian boy–must  have been 9 or so–swimming toward me, straight out from the faraway beach.

“Hey!” I hollered. “Where’s the bottom?”

Without interrupting his strong methodical strokes, he pointed straight down. And nonchalantly pursued his Olympic swim to — I don’t know, make a monkey out of a non-swimmer we all know and love …

After that, a lifetime to compose an oath never to so much as venture levity on the subject of swimming in unsupervised oceans … specifically the Pacific!

As my account attests, I made it; 25 years later, I also made it through a drunk-up-the-bucket head-on collision. The accident was bloodier–and I vaguely remember an out-of-body experience, but the result would have been the same. 

So much for close calls. I’d like to leave swimming behind, too. But one more experience was when we were in Guam. It doesn’t involve me; just silly things a guy will do for attention.

A big Polish kid, a deck hand-and I say it with all the respect a guy that chases false echoes all over a radar screen can muster for men who do the hard work-just off the fantail in his dungarees on a dare…for 20 buck actually. But was it worth it? Getting called up before the captain, having it on your permanent record. Unless you go for a Hollywood stunt stint, how would this sound?

“Jun 15, 1945 — Seaman First Class Harvey Youngblood. Captain’s Mast. Charge: Jumped into the waters off Guam from the ship’s fantail, against all regulations and rules of common sense. For a lousy 20 dollars. Disposition: 30 days restricted duty and loss of credibility and bathing privileges.”

Signed (Captain)

Vella Gulf”

Remember back when, I was talking about our Radar gang studying shipboard units on the old World War I 4-stacker destroyer, The USS Moosehead? The only time in the Navy we rigged our canvas hammocks, and actually slept in them!

Took me back to E Avenue, of course, and the homemade hammock Mr. Hess fashioned from baling wire and barrel staves.  Except the Navy type had no hesitancy about showing you the flip side!

A week or two really isn’t enough time to get acquainted with a ship; but she had her moments. Porpoise, related to the dolphin-one step down would be my guess-swam beside us like patient sheep dogs. I think I know attitudes; in reality, I imagine attitudes. But if I could read the Porpoise that attached themselves to our outfit, they seemed to be saying, “We know you don’t think we know. We know you don’t think you need us. But apart from being refugees from Sea World, we are in our element. And we will show you the way back to San Diego. Trust us.”

I must admit, Porpoise create greater phosphorescence accidentally, than man-made fountains do on purpose! The phenomenon was awesome! And while the huge swimmers weren’t silhouette, they cut through the water like swift shadows, swirling the eerie bubbles.

Other little animals, sea lions, occasionally made infrequent appearances near the dock; the little guy with the push-broom mustache and Eddie Cantor eyes, was a real character. He’d lay there, swimming on his back, and stare at us, unflinching, like sailors were something in a zoo, and was afraid he’d miss something if he looked away.

This little guy was so covered with oil, he resembled an Alaskan disaster.

But back on board, and out to sea: The waters had gotten choppy, and destroyers, being the smallest first line fighting ships, really bob like tin cans.  So a few of us went topside after evening chow and the up-and-down and round-and-round motion is easier to take when you’ve got the open sky to take a fix on. 

Three or four of us were strung out along the railing; none of us saying a whole helluva lot. Rather, we were listening to what the sea was saying to the Lamb Stew, which we were looking to settle peacefully.

Now, I’ve got nothing against Lamb Stew, but most of my shipmates can’t say the same.  Or prefer not to. I’m afraid they want to vote with the majority, who claim they hate Lamb Stew!

They insist it’s BAAaaaad. 

I like it. I doubt I would ever get enough of it.

And now, standing here beside me was Jonathan Booker; the tall guy who looks like Nat King Cole, and our connection to M.I.T.  I said something to him, noncommittal, and his eyes told the whole story. Picture a nice guy with a Master’s degree, wearing a white sailor’s cap, squared at two fingers, of course, and you’d see the same thing I saw:

An egghead in a sailor cap. You couldn’t miss him. Eyes at half-mast and down at the mouth. I wasn’t just communicating, so I simply observed, fascinated. 

Is that a gyro, maritime folks use in navigation? I think Seaman Booker was trying to create a mathematical equation using peristalsis–his internal move-alongs–and the up-and-down pitch and roll of the heaving sea.

When the USS Moosehead reared up, Jonathan just reached over to the railing and claimed the motion with an index finger until his inner ear lined up with steady-as-she-goes.

And he was comical. Methodical. 

Jonathan slowly removed his white hat, folded it carefully and tucked it into his waist. In the same, slow, purposeful, metered motion, he removed his tie from the middy collar, and placed it carefully at his feet. It was ritual. 

Continuing in deliberate slow motion, Jonathan pulled the jumper over his head; nothing said. The mood was unhurried patience as he bent to place his blouse on the pile at his feet.

Then, leaning as far over the railing as common sense and safe procedure permitted, it came up for a vote.

Bleeaaaahh!

And man and seas were one once again.

I think they waited until we made port before Jon Booker and another fella went over the side to wash down the Lamb Stew, and anything else that came up.  By the way, through all the upheaval, my black buddy’s white T-shirt stayed spotless. For although we were landlovers, we did not know better than to spit into the wind!

In My Father’s Footsteps

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