In boot camp I was the best swimmer in our company. When they were trying to teach non-swimmers how to swim, it was my job to fish them out when they drowned and pump them out. Then they would throw them back in again. I often wondered why the training station didn't have rated sailors to do that job and have often wondered who did it after I left. Another curve they threw at us was when they asked the company if there was anyone wanting to earn $2.00 canteen chits. They said to report to the gym, so we all raced down there to get in on the easy money. They lined us up according to height. I was on one end and they picked me. I didn't know we were going to box. I had never boxed before, but I won my first bout by ducking while my opponent swung wildly at me. I hit him with my right on his left side and won by a KO. Some sailor from Salina, KS, a Golden Glove Champ, took me under his wing and taught me how to box. I won two medals and a Gold Belt. They considered me a championship boxer and every ship in San Diego Harbor tried to recruit me. But, I really had joined the Navy to be a naval aviator. I came from a county where there were several barnstormers. I used to help them clean planes just to get a ride. It was then I made my decision to be an aviator.
I came aboard the USS West Virginia on November 18, 1938, hoping that nobody would know about my boxing abilities; but the ship's cook transferred at the same time and let the cat out of the bag. They descended on me like I was a celebrity, but I told them I didn't know how to box. They made my life so miserable, that I finally joined the boxing team and everything turned around. I requested the Radio Division as that was my ticket to get into aviation. When I finally got into the Radio Division, I quit boxing and there wasn't anything they could do about it. Eventually, I ended up in the aviation group as an aviation radioman, and my first catapult was in a Rag Two Wing Soc that could barely fly. We then got the OS2U which were beautiful but couldn't stand the rough water. I had three dunkings in rough water. The first time I got wet, the water was ice cold. When I got aboard the ship they took us down to the infirmary and the doctor gave the pilot a shot of whiskey. He poured me one and I was about to drink it when he took it out of my hand and said, "Kid you are too young to drink." Two other times I was left in the water to salvage the plane.
On the morning of December 7, I had on a clean pair of whites and was waiting for a boat to take me to Catholic services when the Fire and Rescue sounded. We were not Ship's Company and generally did not make those drills, but this day we thoughtwe would surprise our officer left on duty. We raced up to the starboard side of the ship at the bow, which in layman's terms is the right side of the ship, facing towards land which was Ford's Island. We couldn't figure out what was going on, then we felt a large explosion at the bow of the ship. We hadn't seen any planes flying around so we all thought it was an explosion in the paint locker. The officer in charge said to return to our quarters. As we descended to the first deck, we were jolted again and again. We then figured out what was going on and raced toward the stern where my battle station was, #3 aircraft on #3 turret. We buttoned down the portholes as we were going back toward the stern. As I got back on deck, my battle station had been blown off and #3 turret and was laying upside down on the edge of the ship. I went down below thinking I could help to weather-tight the ship, but it was bad down there. The oil had started to seep in and it was quite slippery. The doors were warped and you couldn't close them. I don't know if it was the XO or the captain who gave the word, "Everyone has liberty, get off the ship." The big door had been slammed down over the area where I was at and only the schunion was open. Everyone was jumping up and getting out except me. At 5'5" I was not able to jump very high. I tried to balance on the chain that they used for a hand rail, then jump, but every time I did, someone would knock me out of the way. After many attempts, I finally got up and someone grabbed my ankles and literally threw me through the hole. He didn't lift me, he threw me clear through the hole. I was so glad to be topside, that I never looked back. I wish now that I had so I would know who saved my life.
The air was so hot from the exploding Arizona and the red hot pieces of metal flying through the air, that I made a bee-line to the bow of the ship. On the other side of the ship, oil on the water was on fire. I was ready to jump when I saw four sailors just standing on the armor plating, but scared to jump. I knew they were new from the whiteness of their uniforms so my first question was, "Can you guys swim." They all said yes. I told them that they better jump as this side would be on fire before long. Finally, I made the decision for them and pushed them in. I swam behind them to see that they would get to shore. We all made it okay. However, my feet were cut to ribbons by the coral.
The Japanese planes were strafing the ships. The planes looked like German Stukas, but they were so low you could see the pilot and gunner. I and another sailor were hiding behind a bunker that the officers were using for a golf driving tee. I was so mad I got up and started throwing rocks at them. If I hadn't thrown my arm out playing junior baseball, I could have hit one easily as they were so low and so close.
During a lull in the strafing, I ran over to the officer's BOQ. The officers' wives were tending the wounded. Some pretty lady asked me what my name was and she said, "Joe you are a mess, go upstairs and find you some clothes." I can't remember what I did for shoes but I must have found some sneakers. I got a shirt and pants and used a tie for a belt. I gathered together a few sailors from our division. I was the highest ranked sailor there, so they following me. I decided to go to the hangar on the other side of the field. We found the rest of our crew there. I was never scared during the bombing, except when I didn't think I was going to get out of that hole.
That night at dusk four fighter planes from one of the carriers was low on fuel and had to land at Ford Island. There was no communication. They flew in and everyone fired at them thinking it was Japanese. It looked like July 4. The planes got through and were able to land without any casualties. I was scared because I thought the Japanese were coming and I didn't have a weapon.
The next morning my pilot and I were the first ones out on patrol to scout for the Japanese fleet. We got a candy bar and coffee; in fact, we were probably the only ones to get anything to eat. They used water out of the swimming pool to make coffee and for drinking before they got the kitchen going.
I stayed in the squadron formed from all the units of battleships. Finally I was sent back to the States to start my flight training in November of 1942. I graduated from the Naval Air Training Center at Corpus Christi on September 18, 1943, and went through a special training for twin engine aircraft. I was first sent to a scouting squadron flying OS2U and SBD VS38, and finally to Boca Chica, FL, to check out in the Vega Ventura PV1, a very fast and dangerous aircraft. I was sent to North Africa, Port Lauytey, French Morocco, and spent most of my time in Naples, Italy at an Army P-38 Group before serving in Corsica with a British Group flying Spit Fires. Their tower and phraseology was difficult to understand (clear to life, ole fellow or clear to pancake and some others that I can't remember). The invasion of Southern France and when it did happen it was brief. The Germans moved out in a hurry. I didn't even get to drop a 500# bomb. They landed us on the beach at San Tropex and it was amazing how fast they were able to put down those iron mats to make a runway on the beach. They made it specially for our bomber group; they thought they would use us again but the Germans moved out so fast they couldn't send us in that far inland, so they decided to send us to Scotland to make runs on the German ships in Norway. Half of the squadron went to Paris and I was left behind at Marseilles. It wasn't long before the war ended. They sent me back to Quonset Point, RI, to pick up a Ventura PV1 to be given to the French. It was quite a trip. I flew from Quonset Point to West Palm Beach, then to Puerto Rico overnight, then to Jamaica, to Morrison Field which is in the interior of the county of Venezuela. The only way to get to this place is by aircraft or by boat. We crossed the Equator over Brazil on the way to Belem Brazil. I made Polliwog Shellback.
We almost missed our refueling island, a small island called Ascension Island between Belam and the West Coast of Africa. I was going to stay in the Navy, but all the mechanics got out and it was very hard to keep an aircraft flying.
I went to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, later known as the Federal Aviation Agency, as an air traffic controller. I got a rating of GS-13 and retired in December of 1974. One nice thing was that all my Navy time counted on my retirement. I flew in the Reserve until I got too old. I used to own a little plane that was very easy to fly, but dangerous as it didn't have any pedals for rudder control, you flew it like you were driving a car. I finally sold it because my wife couldn't drive or fly and we transferred from Stockton, Calif., back here to Wichita, Kansas. I sure do miss flying.
Reprinted with Permission from Turner Publishing
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